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In Media Resistant:
Tony Conrad (19402016)   


Yusef Sayed

 

Not long after Tony Conrad’s death in April 2016, a series of five videos appeared on YouTube. (1) Filmed and uploaded by Richard Wicka, these direct-to-camera, question-and-answer sessions recorded privately in 2005 feature Conrad recalling early memories, reflecting on past encounters and even anticipating the persistence of the videos beyond the end of his life:

  1. ‘Tony Conrad unedited pt 1 of 5’.

  So, you motherfuckers, you’re out there watching me. And I’m dead. So, what do you think? How is it? Cause I feel fine and you’re sitting on your asses watching me on video after I’m gone. Do I feel comfortable about this relationship to you? No. Why should I feel comfortable about it? (2)   2. For Conrad’s discussion of ‘coming to terms with your own death’, see ‘Tony Conrad unedited pt 4’.

Conrad makes an archaeological dig toward the earliest recorded audiovisions: referring to May Irwin, star of Thomas Edison’s silent film The Kiss (1896) and the scandal it caused, while considering what groundswells are being brought about in the present culture by new technologies. As with so many of Conrad’s undertakings, the videos appear to have been noticed initially by relatively few. Watching these videos we are provoked into a contemplation of the shifting relationship between the past and the present, the self and the other, through developing media. Media, history, power and community: these are key terms in Conrad’s work.

   

   

The posthumous uploads do not seem to have been contrived simply as a ‘boo’ from the beyond. They were a continuation of Wicka’s ongoing project of documenting individual life stories. (3) Yet Conrad’s own concern with the history and future of media no doubt provoked a deep consideration as to how the text-image-sound constellations of contemporary, online media would subsume the fact of his death – the videos were made shortly after he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. (4) The funny, moving and self-reflexive qualities of the five encounters, and their emergence online within seven days of Conrad’s passing, were in keeping with a decades-long, head-on engagement with media. They might also be included within the number of Conrad’s own works that utilise the mode of audience address, exemplified in the video In Line (1986).

 

3. See the Five Minute Video Series, shot in the same style as the interviews with Conrad.

4. In using the term ‘contemporary media’ here, it is worth pointing out that YouTube was launched in the same year as Wicka’s videos were recorded.


The mise en scène of Wicka’s videos, with Conrad seated against a curtained backdrop and talking straight at the camera/viewer (though coaxed by Wicka’s questioning), is strangely reminiscent of the initiation videos of the millenarian cult Heaven’s Gate. While no doubt unintended, the similarity is apt here, not only because that group’s leader, Marshall Applewhite, also recorded video messages presaging the conditions of his afterlife – albeit before the notorious mass suicide of the cult’s members – but, more specifically, because another consistent focus of Conrad’s wide-ranging work is the nature of control. (5)

 

 

5. For an example of the Heaven’s Gate initiation videos, see ‘Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth (Before it is Recycled)’, The writer Branden W Joseph has already identified control as a central concern of Conrad’s, although his excellent book Beyond the Dream Syndicate covers only the period up to The Flicker.

 

 

 


Conrad probed and adapted the methodologies of hypnosis, persuasion and other forms of influence as a means of upending different strategies of control and affording breakthroughs; whether at the micro level, such as a modulated sense of personal autonomy, even a shift in artistic taste; or at the macro level, by institutional critique and art-historical revisionism. The terms by which the individual, community or culture at large might cut against the conditioning effects of the media or other systems was a recurring characteristic of such a seemingly disparate catalogue of work. So it seems only fitting that Wicka’s videos should present us with a Tony Conrad very much alive and speaking about his own life and death at a time when obituarists were sitting down to cap off his life story and work history.

*

Conrad’s longheld interest in media, power and personal autonomy were articulated through an array of media; foremost music, film and video but also teaching, writing and community engagement – the latter in New York city and Buffalo, in particular. Conrad utilised these media to an astonishing extent during his lifetime, clearly stating the grounds of his operations, including them in the format of essays and combined performances and talks, while somehow remaining largely inscrutable; by accounts generous with collaborators, students and friends, yet ever resistant to the co-option of identity by technological or authoritarian imperatives, deeply knowledgeable as he was of the role of media in shaping societal commonplaces and individual behaviour. This trait of resistance may even account for the relatively scant reference to Conrad in the culture of film and music beyond his first film The Flicker (1966), and his recorded collaboration with German band Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973).

   

Though Conrad’s work has been referred to in the context of minimalist composition and structural film, it is often overlooked just how his art rubs against expectations within these critically assembled genres. Moreover, commentaries on Conrad often misinterpret the concerns that animate such physically affective audiovisions, and underacknowledge how consistently political Conrad’s work is, conveying an unabashed activist spirit. (6) Sometimes this was manifested in the most obvious public fashion, as with his public protests alongside Henry Flynt against what they perceived to be programmes of ‘cultural imperialism’ within prominent art institutions in the 1960s. Sites included Lincoln Center for Performing Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with specific antagonism towards Karlheinz Stockhausen when the composer was visiting the States. (7)

Through academic research into the simultaneous developments within the orchestra and military regimentation in eighteenth-century France under the reign of Louis XIV, investigated in his long-term project on the work of court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, Conrad sought other, less obvious routes of resistance such as modified tuning of the violin and style of performance. (8) Conrad’s responses to historical junctures and present cultural phenomena alike, shaped the development of his compositions, films and writing. These aimed to reframe the past and mobilise grassroots media practices, so as to uncover the potential for non-normative experiences, an expanded awarenesss of compositional effects and to encourage anti-authoritarian social organisation. (9)

A throughline which runs adjacent to Conrad’s interest in authority is his attention to psychological manipulation, and the interior experience of shifting one’s perspective. Whether by way of linguistic content, sonic or graphic animation, Conrad was fascinated by the phenomenological and psychological effects of sociocultural structures, and the media technologies that might operate within these structures. (10)

 

6. ‘Even his early “iconic” works are, in a way, Trojan horses. The minimal music, long drones, experimental film – he was already, from the beginning, fucking with those definitions from within. And the Yellow Movies, which came a few years later, were also a biting critique of minimalism and structural cinema – when he’s often thought of as a champion or master of those styles. And the minimal music was already an architectural attack of music structure. It wasn’t just about zoning out and going to slumberland and listening to it.’ Andrew Lampert and Jay Sanders, ‘Tick ...Tick ...Tick ...Tony Time’ in Michael Cohen (ed.), Tony Conrad: Doing the City/Urban Community Interventions (New York: 80WSE Press, 2013), p. 12.

7. Describing Flynt’s justifications for these actions, Branden W Joseph writes: ‘The reason put forth for protesting Stockhausen, however, was quite specific: his ability to produce legitimating concepts (“invent ‘scientific’ Laws”) that perpetuate Western music’s pretension to advancement and supremacy’. Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2008), p. 199. Conrad: ‘I'm not going to go into that message right now; it's enough to say it was about cultural imperialism, and would have been clearly understood today by anyone interested in post-colonialism, but was about 25 years ahead of its time’; interview with Brian Duguid, EST Magazine, June 1996.

8. An audio extract from this multimedia project, Inducting Lully, can be heard online here. This track was originally released by Table of the Elements in 2006.

9. Speaking with Jay Sanders in 2005, Conrad admitted: ‘It was completely beyond any realistic expectation for me and Jack Smith and Henry Flynt to picket Stockhausen on the basis that European culture was a kind of neo-Nazi infiltration of the institutional music environment in the United States, and to think that our symbolic action would convince people that they should stop composing and start doing something else’. Bomb, no. 92 (Summer 2005).

10. See Conrad’s essay ‘Let’s Understanda Our Own Propaganda’.


The 1977 video Concord Ultimatum is an early example of Conrad’s direct-to-camera approach to media. Shot over one night in the Concord Hotel, the filmmaker addresses the technological apparatus recording him in an attempt to gain an insight into its intentions, imbuing it with a sovereignty that is acknowledged and negotiated with. He later wrote: ‘Using the camera itself as a surrogate for the audience, I shot Concord Ultimatum on video, threatening the camera lest it not act correctly and generate the right images’. (11)

*

Conrad was attuned to the uneasy frequencies of America, scrutinising its networks and its signals, the waves of protest and counter-protest. From the 1960s onwards he involved himself in the activities of downtown New York as a way of articulating his social and artistic concerns. In the case of the long duration music group the Theatre of Eternal Music – with which he was involved along with John Cale, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela – Conrad was quite literally tuned to the city: at times the players’ intonation was organised around a 120-cycle aquarium motor hum, in tune with the 60 Hz power feed of NYC. (12) The group sought to dissolve the hierarchy of composer and audience, allowing the two to commune in the experience of sustained listening. In addition, Conrad was closely involved with Jack Smith and the Fluxus artists, the members of the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol’s superstars – a melting pot of provocative media- and mind-expanding performers who overturned expectations as far as artistic tradition and normative gender were concerned. Across the following years, Conrad would continue to jam signals, change the tonic, boost the contrast wherever his own practices directed him – with a view to renegotiating the terms on which the individual, media and society might intersect.

In 2008 I encountered Conrad twice, only a few weeks apart: first above ground in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, unleashing earth-trembling noises using vinyl records, phonograph tonearms and a power drill, as well as flickering visuals, in one of London’s prestigious art galleries; then beneath the streets of Tokyo performing in a musical duo for around 200 people in an underground club. Almost uniquely, Conrad was able to move between these cultural strata, working with music, film and other visual art forms while finding surprising new pathways to reconnect them all.

 

11. Tony Conrad, ‘Retrospect I’, in Woody Vasulka & Peter Weibel (eds), Buffalo Heads (Cambridge, Massachussetts: MIT Press, 2008), p. 548.  

 

 

 

12. See La Monte Young, ‘Notes on the Theatre of Eternal Music and The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys’, 2000.

 

 

 

 

 

 


It is with reference to these guiding concerns of Conrad’s that his defining work to date, The Flicker, ought to be more widely recognised. The filmmaker was keen at the time of its production not only to transpose harmonic theories to visual patterns, almost an attempt at ‘seen music’; but also to investigate the effects that these might have on the brain – part of a wider investigation into stroboscopic effects, hallucination and other perceptual phenomena; as well as in the possibilities of using the work as a matte for narrative films, foremost those of his friend Jack Smith. Conrad later exhibited a ‘Flicker matte’ as a separate visual artwork. The Flicker, composed entirely of black and white frames, reveals itself on closer scrutiny to be not so black and white at all. Typically referred to as a minimalist film, its conceptual valence and visceral effect could not be more maximal. (13) It is intriguing to discover, in tracing this interest in psychological affect, visual form and power from Conrad’s earliest work that, during the Second World War, Conrad’s father was a colleague of the noted dazzle camofleur Everett Warner, whose military designs used deceptive black and white patterns. (14)

 

 

 

13. ‘The Flicker arose out of a much wider and more diverse investigation into techniques of perceptual and neurophysiological stimulation – techniques including film and tape loops, broadcast television and other deployments of cathode-ray-tube technology, telephone transmission, ultrasound, gestalt psychology, photo-signal alternators, and pharmaceutical hallucinogens’. BJoseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate, p. 301.

14. See Roy R Behren’s, ‘Everett Warner (1877–1963): Ship Camouflage Artist’, 2009.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Conrad’s intensive work with a multitude of media formats also reminds us that assumed medium specificities might just be illusory. The labour-intensive Film Feedback (1974) manages to create the effect of a video loop using only the apparatus of film development and projection. The Yellow Movies (1972-73), shown for one night at the Millennium Film Workshop in 1973, were installed like paintings but were intended as movie screens on which the show never stops – they have more recently been exhibited in art galleries in the US and Europe, the emulsion used to paint the screens’ ever changing hue with exposure to light. Using only black and white lines, printed onto the film strip according to patterns following that of Benham’s top, in Straight and Narrow (with Beverley Grant Conrad, 1970) Conrad prompted colour perceptions in the viewer. Similarly, Conrad found new potential in apparently exhausted materials: taking a hammer to a roll of outdated, brittle celluloid and re-assembling the shards for 4-X Attack (1973); subjecting the same product to shock for Electrocuted 4-X (1974). And putting a new slant on film preservation in the Pickled Film series (for example, Pickled 3M-150, 1974). Curried 7302 (1973) afforded a novel method for Conrad to continue to exist as a working artist while undertaking domestic duties during his son’s first years. Substituting celluloid for onion in a home cooking recipe for curry, then screening the resulting ‘dish’, Conrad interrupted the standard procedures of house husband, filmmaker and projector at one and the same time.

*

Conrad was well aware of the speed at which media might entrench themselves and reiterated the necessity of creating feedback as an act of political will. One ear-opening manifestation of the immediacy of the media is the audio recording Bryant Park Moratorium Rally. Documenting a 1969 public gathering in New York in opposition to US involvement in Vietnam, and featuring such celebrity guest speakers as Woody Allen, Conrad set up two microphones in his apartment. One microphone was hung outside the apartment window to capture the noise down the street where the protest was occurring in real time, while another mic was placed by the television. The resulting two-channel mix confirms the near-instantaneous flow of the televisual signal, with the reportage of the rally and the passionate imploring of the platform speakers reaching the tape reel before the sounds from the street below. The recording was first released online over thirty years later, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

   

Much of Conrad’s work can be seen as an encouragement to individual animation, an expression of a desire to control the terms of one’s emotional and intellectual experience as far as possible. Addressing the relationships of control between the artist, the exhibitor and the audience, composer and listener, teacher and student, and citizen and government, Conrad found inventive strategies of interruption. With musical compositions such as Four Violins (1964), Conrad rebuked the Western harmonic tradition as a whole and, with powerful effect, posited an alternate system of intonation both sonically arresting and devoid of such mystical flimflam as the notion of the ‘harmony of the spheres’, which (as he saw it) actually helped to underwrite elitist social arrangements in nominally democratic states from the time of Pythagoras. (15) 

One of Conrad’s late appearances, in the framework of his teaching role, was to be filmed reading out student assessments of his tutelage at SUNY Buffalo. Circulated across social media under the heading ‘Tony Conrad reads his Rate My Professor reviews, how many viewers knew that the professor had already skewered the time-consuming job of marking class assignments in his video Grading Tips for Teachers (2003)? (16)

 

15. ‘For example, Tony railed against what he saw as the tyranny of the Pythagorean worldview, whereby the proportions found in the intervals were elevated to a cosmic hierarchy, a divinely endowed “harmony of the spheres”, fixed for all time. While tuning systems have changed over the centuries, this philosophy has a long trajectory in Western classical music’. Mario Diaz de Leon, ‘Tony Conrad 1940–2016: Systems of Oppression’, The Wire (April 2016),

16. ‘UB Professors Read Their “Rate My Professor” Reviews’.

 

 

 

 


Meeting, unintimidated, the anonymity of the bilious comment feeds and user reviews of websites, the video again reflects a continuance of Conrad’s methodology, by which both established and nascent paradigms – especially those that involve media – can be subjected to critical intervention. An essay devoted to this issue was published by Conrad in 2004. ‘Process Communications and the Construction of Advocacy’ concerns the community-emboldening potential of controlling one’s self-representation, describing methods similar to the ‘pacing and leading’ used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming. (17) This concern is evident in Studio of the Streets (1991–1993), the cable access programme Conrad made in Buffalo in collaboration with Cathy Steffan. Interviewing members of the public outside the city’s town hall, the filmmakers were hopeful about stimulating public discourse and addressing social concerns.

 

 

 

 

17. See here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


*

Suspicious of the tendency of media to shape thoughts and feelings, and to guide action, Conrad spent his working life rooting out the pernicious ways in which the spectacle permeates a given social context. This rather typical posture of being against control, antagonistic towards authoritative structures and petrified art-historical narratives is coincident with a continual interest in changing one’s mind. As such, there is a provocative question that shapes much of Conrad’s work: whether the event of a change of mind is an effect of a coercive external influence or the drafting, by the subject, of sensory and intellectual stimuli into a process of uncovering previously unforeseen experiences for oneself. Can lines even be drawn between the two? Conrad certainly promoted the change of mind as far as personal taste was concerned:

   

  It had always, since my earliest encounters with contemporary art, been my experience that the greatest pleasures and the most profound surprises that came from art were those that flowed from a wholesale change of outlook. Finding that the thing one most despised became revalued as the most cherished, that the thing least understood became transparent, that the thing most easily enjoyed was revealed as maudlin, that the thing most fervently believed was upended – these were the most exhilarating moments that cultural engagements could provide. (18)  

 

 

18. Tony Conrad, ‘Retrospect II’ in Buffalo Heads, p. 554.


This sense of individual epiphany can be compared with the investigations of Conrad’s little-known army project, Beholden to Victory (1980–2007). It features artists Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler, and employed strict ideas for angles of shooting (from high and low) as well as for spectator roleplay, dividing the audience into ‘army officers’ and ‘civilians’ to examine the effects this might have – a ‘Stanford Cinema Experiment’ or ‘Cine-Milgram Experiment’, if you will. And with the video In Line, Conrad is seen talking to the viewer and attempting to gain dominance over their thoughts through the use of prompts and simple props.

 

   

In a short article on Conrad for The Wire, Alan Licht remarks: ‘It is ironic that a great deal of the interest surrounding Conrad’s music lies in its rescue from obscurity (and his own stance that in some cases it had been suppressed by others), yet he granted only limited access to much of his work in other media’. (19) This is a point worth considering in more depth. There is an often thrilling sense, when immersed in Conrad’s audiovisual work, of exquisite gamesmanship; that Conrad is finding for himself and us ways we might get around the strict sequences laid out by others. (20) For example:

1.    The suppression of the recordings of the Theatre of Eternal Music by his former collaborator La Monte Young (referred to by Licht) led Conrad to recompose music from the period and find a visual analogue in the form of a shadow projection when playing that music in a live setting – a counterpoint, too, to Conrad’s usual brightly coloured attire.

2.    Sceptical of the dead end towards which he saw the structuralist filmmakers in Europe and the US heading in the 1970s, the ‘food films’ and Yellow Movies were, among other things, a means by which Conrad sought to push the medium to its limits of duration and apparatus-less-ness. Describing his intention to ‘play out an endgame in the (then doggedly ongoing) progressive exploration of the formal boundaries of cinema’, (21) Conrad was mindful of what he felt to be years and creative lives wasted by subtle extension and modification of momentary trends in the art world.

But in tandem with this liberating principle, there is indeed an unavoidable sense that Conrad wants to achieve a kind of hermeticism for his work, resistant as he seemed to any potential for additional commentary or augmentation that was not already built into his own initiative. Early written compositions demonstrate a similar circularity. His Bowed Film (1974) mixes musical performance and film projection in a way that restricted the experience of the images on the film strip to a single individual: Conrad himself. And Conrad’s films were rarely screened without his own presence and accompanying reminiscences.

 

19. Alan Licht, ‘Tony Conrad 1940–2016: Breaking The Frame’, The Wire, April 2016.

20. Conrad was a graduate in mathematics; both his collaborative work in the Theatre of Eternal Music and his solo musical compositions reflect an advanced knowledge of number ratios.

 

 

 

 

21. Tony Conrad, email to Experimental Film Discussion List, March 2001. For further context on the development of Conrad’s ‘food films’, see Branden W. Joseph, The Roh and the Cooked (Berlin: August Verlag, 2012).

 

 


   

This perception is doubled when one considers Conrad’s desire to adopt the voice of the critic within his own work:

   

  I began to wonder, with greater focus, what or who was running the cultural game – was it the economics of culture institutions, or was it the artists, or the critics, or the theorists whose disciplines (such as philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, Marxism, etc.) supported the critics? As I had already been striving to empty out the works and their institutional inertia, I felt that perhaps a different function of the work might be effective, if the work could co-opt the voice of the critic or theorist. (22)  

 

 

22. Tony Conrad, ‘Retrospect I’, in Buffalo Heads, p. 548.


To resist the expropriation of his work, to take on the voice of the critic, to barricade what he perceived to be blind alleyways down which peers were heading, might suggest a paranoid and controlling sensibility; at the same time, Conrad was unquestionably breaking boundaries and achieving dazzling, rich results in the art that he created. This indicated a clear desire to avoid others dictating the rules of play, while maintaining an enthusiasm for sharing, with his usual joviality, his insights.

It seems reasonable, then, to consider Conrad’s ‘endgame’ works, and tendency to return to previous projects within new social and technological contexts, as an indication of a preference for being part of a culture that thrives and changes, that promotes individual creativity, as opposed to one that solidifies into a repertoire of uninspiring attractions, bland copyists and dull, theoretical baggage. Pressing beyond the activities of those postmodernists and deconstructionists of the 1970s and ‘80s who happily dissolved the past, the author, meaning and value, Conrad sought to reframe those confluences of events and figures that define key historical moments, in order to imagine what other routes might have been taken. This return to the past in order to reconceive the present therefore reflects not a cynically gleeful destruction of tradition – in terms of artistic form or social organisation – but an encouragement to historical understanding as a way of opening new avenues of experience and communion.

*

As Marshall McLuhan and Guy Debord foresaw, contemporary experience has become ever more mediated since the 1960s. From his earliest experiences making film and music, Conrad remained cognisant of relationships of control, and where the potential lay for each artist or spectator to interrupt the program in ways that not only had a transformative physiological and intellectual effect, but also short-circuited the mechanisms that manufacturers, broadcasters and authors in their different ways sought – either intentionally, or as the unintended result of being embroiled in a larger, vampiric network of transmission and transaction – to impose on the individual.

Tony Conrad was, for almost six decades, involved in media, in its immediate forms, as well as remaining attentive to its archival and historical representations. Almost hidden in plain sight – despite his boldly colourful dress – Conrad was excited to see real paradigm shifts. He played them out as if they were still possible, in a culture that is, by and large, happy to stay tuned to the same waveband. He has even beaten this writer to the punch, ventriloquising so incisively the external critical voice, dissolving the limiting intentions of the biographer, the auteurist, and the obituarist. Conrad throws us back on ourselves and the categories we so enthusiastically seek to impose, so that we might just find a more surprising and illuminating way forward. As he says to the camera at the Concord Hotel: ‘All I expect is imagination’.

   


© Yusef Sayed and LOLA, 2016.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.


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