Loose Ends: An Interview with Tony Conrad
It is difficult to overstate Tony Conrad’s mark on the music and moving-image avant-gardes of the past 50 years. From minimalist music compositions and performances with the Theater of Eternal Music, including collaborators La Monte Young, John Cale, and Marian Zazeela, to landmark avant-garde films like The Flicker (66) and The Straight and Narrow (70), to performances of cooked or electrified film that transform the theater into an image-making laboratory, to community-based video projects like Studio of the Streets (90–93), Conrad has examined—sometimes peripatetically, sometimes irreverently, and sometimes dead seriously—the way media, in its multiple manifestations, shapes experience, perception, and possibilities for social formation. Alongside “Doing the City: Urban Community Interventions” on view at New York University’s 80WSE gallery, Conrad is presenting two programs of rare and unseen films and videos at Anthology Film Archives (one yesterday, another tonight). Anthology will also feature a selection of Conrad’s early films as part of its Essential Cinema series.
I understand that a lot of the work you’ll be showing at Anthology hasn’t yet been seen and that there’s quite a lot of it. What is the organizing logic of the “New, but Old” program, which will screen Thursday?
I’m not sure I could have designed things to be this way—that is, in such a way that I start engaging in an activity that’s intended to be productive in art world terms, but only after some kind of an interlude of decades. And yet that seems to be something that has surfaced in a lot of the activity that has attracted attention in my career as a gallery artist, beginning with the “Yellow Movies,” which were the residue of an interventionist project that I started in 1972 or ’73, and then continuing with a recent show of what I called “experimental audio tools,” which comprised an assemblage of different ideas and realizations over a period of decades, thereby tracing a score of interactions over a long period of time.
I think part of the paradox has to do with the relatively sidelined conditions of independent media perhaps by comparison with the art world logic of economics. Simply put, I didn’t have the financial or technical resources that would have allowed me to complete those projects at the time. And then things changed both technically and economically for me because the art world has a viable economic backbone. If I was able to actually sell one piece of work, I could do another. The contrast between that and the situation in the independent media world is stark because in the independent media world, if you start a piece, you just have to plan how far you’re going to go into debt; What is it going to cost you in terms of time and money to do this?
I didn’t mention love, because there’s a lot that’s positive on the love side and on the idea side, and for me that has always been the function in the balance that made things work. So, okay, let’s shoot now and we see what happens later. Sometimes that logic or that philosophy adheres itself to a little, tiny project and sometimes it adheres itself to a big project. In the case of gluing a mirror onto a long wire and bowing the wire and seeing what happens to the image in the mirror [Indirect Measurement], that was a small idea linked to a lot of other ideas in a big way. But a small idea didn’t take too long to do, maybe a day or so. But then what? Well, then I salted away. [Laughs.] And I had, by 2011, a whole panoply of different fragments stashed away that I realized abruptly were immensely amenable to the technological processes accessible to me in 2011-12, just simply in terms of editing, of transferring work, and then also the options for display that might be available in terms of installation as opposed to theatrical showing and all kinds of changes that have taken place. So, this show is the result of a festive technological resurgence in which I grabbed hold of a lot of loose ends and braided them together, resulting in about a dozen short and curious pieces. Some of them are coherently related to others, but all in all, I have to say there’s a kind of remarkable disparity among all of them. Some of them were actually completed a little earlier and never really had much in the way of a showing. Some of them were completed in 2011—even this year.
There’s a great amount of variety. My short piece about Skanty Claus, for example, is a parody; I wore a wig and presented myself as Mrs. Claus, who had to stay at home while Santa went out and played havoc all over the world with everybody’s wife. That was basically the theme—she’s sitting home, knitting, and jealous and furious that he’s off all over the place while she has to stay home. And it’s really funny. I sent it to a few friends at the time, but, I mean, what is this? Is this deep? No, this isn’t deep, it’s fun. The distance between that and the piece with the little mirror on the wire is as wide as you can get, but the reason that I’m happy to be showing this collection of loose ends, as it were, at Anthology, is that there’s an audience there that I think can stretch from one end of that spectrum to the other. They’ve been attuned to visual sensibilities and conceptual sensibilities as well as to fun. And when I look back over my involvement with independent media, I see that it began with fun. My work with Jack Smith—who, while he was very serious, saw his work as fun, and wanted to be fun, and that was called “underground film.” And then there was a conceptual period, in which I participated very strongly, which was called “structural film.” And then there was a period after that, which was an increasingly concentrated engagement with formal parameters, which resulted in extremes such as cooked movies and electrocuted films and so forth. After that I turned to issues of power and authority and finally questions about how to really affect and change things in my community. So, it’s not new to see things sort of wander back and forth; there are values everywhere.
Can you describe some of the works you’ll be showing?
I’m going to show a piece called Palace of Error, which was recorded in 1982 on 16mm film and which was a representation of a theory group in which I participated that was dedicated to applying art rules to theory. That is, to inventing a critical discourse that may have had some relationship to what went before, but which was completely new. There’s a piece called The Directors, a ten-minute piece from 1991, in which one person is using a Super 8 camera to take pictures of shoes and is being directed by another person, who in turn is being directed by a second director, who in turn is being directed by me. And the interplay among all of these is then the subject of this work. There’s Skanty Claus, there’s An Essay on Fear, which is a three-and-a-half minute piece in which I look ironically at the conditions of fear as an unacceptable premise, you might say. Then there’s an experimental rendition of a folk song that I invented on the spot— I’ve Never Been, it’s called, and it continues in the song “I’ve Never Been in Love Like This Before.” I sing and play the guitar as the image spins around and around and around. There’s a piece that I shot in Santa Fe with Steina Vasulka, an experimental piece in which she and I bow on a string that’s connected to parameters of visual image processing that the Vasulkas have configured in Santa Fe, and which causes the image to undergo extremely radical transformations. A short piece called Good Day, Bad Day, which pans up and down through a window in which the sky above looks beautiful but the world below looks rainy and murky and dark. There’s a short piece called A Handful of Earth in a Box, which I shot off the cuff in Vienna, which is a visit to the graves of all of the great Viennese composers who are all buried within 100 feet of one another in the Vienna Central Cemetery. Then there’s documentation of a trio for locomotive horns that I performed in the Gare du Nord—the north station in Paris—in 2008.There’s a piece with Joe Gibbons called Literature and Revolution in which he mimics Trotsky as a revolutionary; that’s a farce. And then there’s a visit to Putin’s gas station. It’s called Putin’s Gas Station, and this is a short piece that I recorded in 2003, the day after President Putin of Russia opened the Lukoil station at 24th Street and 10th Avenue, which was such an astonishing thing to have happen that I could hardly believe it. [Laughs.] I don’t think the president of Russia ever opened a gas station in New York before.
Writing is the Surface of Skin
In the first program at Anthology, “Broadcast & Cable-Access Work,” you’ll be showing work that seems more connected to the NYU exhibition, which is more explicitly political.
Perhaps social more than political, if there’s a distinction. It represents a kind of evolution of a socially interventionist thought. The earliest piece is simply passive; it’s the audio piece of the Bryant Park Moratorium, which I recorded in 1969 during one of the more active times of opposition to the Vietnam War. And there was a big rally in Bryant Park, which was located diagonally across the intersection from the loft that I lived in with my family on 42nd Street during those years. I audio-taped one channel out the window and I audio-taped a second channel at the same time from the TV set. There wasn’t any way for me to record video at that time, and it would have been extravagant to shoot film. It would be nice to have the video, but it’s really not the point. The interesting disparity between the channels has to do with the difficulties with making out what’s going on in the real recording out the window, as opposed to the signal coming from the television, which arrives in the house earlier than the sound waves reach the window outside. So, there’s something about this piece that’s structurally fascinating, if I can use that term, or formally fascinating, or technically fascinating, or conceptually fascinating, or critically fascinating. And then there’s the whole matter of the opposition to the war and how fascinating it is to discover from time to time the voices of celebrities that we still know or celebrities that we don’t still know, and to sense their political engagement in this process when, after all, we still see these kinds of tensions within our society today. It’s hard to remember how focused these things were. Given what I might call an artistic excuse for going to this space, it’s fascinating to find the full texture of opposition to the war and of the fabric of citizen dissent at that time.
Then there’s a number of screens that show segments from a program, a public access cable television program called Studio of the Streets that I shot in Buffalo in the early Nineties. That was a regular weekly show that ran from the end of 1990 through 1993. That began as a demonstration, as a public intervention by a group of media makers who were interested in stumping for the city to request a public access studio. And, shortly, some of us realized that the real substance of this was that we were actually making community media in real time, so to speak, rather than putting it off to the future. We were doing what we wanted to do right then and there by giving people time on the cable system to voice their own thoughts and ideas, and we were simply packaging it.
This was at a point when I had moved in the direction of a conception of myself more as an “animator,” rather than an artist or director. By animator I mean a person who “animates” the activities or productive work of another person rather than egoistically foregrounding his own work and presence in a particular social situation. The idea of becoming an animator rather than an artist or director, for me, rose out of the critical environment in the Seventies that had to do with issues of identity politics. I increasingly understood that being a white, American, middle-class, male, heterosexual, etc., positioned me in a way that identified me, automatically and without critical review, as “part of the problem rather than part of the answer” and it might be appropriate for me to devote my attention to the concerns of adequate representation among subaltern people. One way to do that was to shift my creative energy away from the particular idiosyncratic matters that might have been of concern to me from time to time, like whether a string vibrates with light, or what Mrs. Santa Claus is doing when Santa is out delivering presents, and turn my inventive capabilities in a different direction. And that turned out to be a very productive and exciting thing to do, simply because the things to invent, like the styles of shooting and presentation, the things to structure, like the organization of crews and talent, and so forth—all of these things were exciting, adventurous, and very productive. It turned out, in the end, that the program I worked on in collective arrangement with a couple of other stalwarts, including Cathy Steffan, was really popular in Buffalo, especially in places where people hung out to watch TV in the evening, like bars and certain restaurants. It got to the point that I would be recognized at convenience stores and so forth, all over the city: “Oh, you’re the guy from City Hall, aren’t you?”
But there were earlier, larger film projects I had been involved in, Waterworks and Loose Connection. The key one for me is Loose Connection, and it had to do with the idea that a conceptual revisitation of the idea of documentary was overdue at that point. I wanted to engage with public space, but to do so in a way that would apply the terms of film to the interactions between the space of the viewer and the space of the actual originating event, what they call a “pre-cinematic situation.” In order to do that, I devised a gizmo that would shoot a few frames in each of the twelve directions of the clock; so the camera would point toward one o’clock, so to speak, and shoot a few frames, then turn and shoot in the direction of two o’clock and so forth, so there was no preferred direction. This meant that the viewing experience cancels the selectivity of directionality that you usually experience in cinematography, and the space becomes completely disorienting. There are other things about the process of making that film that were also disorienting and in which the connections become loosened [laughs], hence the title. The substance of the piece was basically a domestic event, namely a family walk to the supermarket and back. Not incidentally, our house was on 42nd Street at 6th Avenue and the supermarket was on 9th Avenue around 44th Street, so this was a walk through some very interesting turf.
It seems that your move to video, which is often considered a more democratic medium than film, played an important role in this more socially aware work. Was that a conscious decision?
There are a couple of very important points of economic and technological crossover, which have affected my ability and in general, people’s ability to represent their lives. The first has to do with the fact that early video was cheap to shoot, as always, but the equipment was quite expensive. Basically, a crappy black and white, reel-to-reel recorder weighed so much that you really had to be a pretty hefty adult male to cart this crap around. That equipment cost about the same as a modest car; a couple thousand bucks could get you a darn good car or a Portapak. So, for a lot of us, that meant film was more important to use. Film cameras were ubiquitous and although film cameras can be expensive, there was what amounted to a prosumer market in film equipment such as Super 8 sound cameras that made it possible to shoot film for much less of an initial investment than with video. On the other hand, film was expensive to buy and to process, and even then perhaps expensive also to copy and distribute. Video was also prohibitively complex to edit and copy and distribute adequately. So a lot of the early artist videos that are now disparagingly characterized as long and boring were made long and boring simply because nobody had access to editing equipment. You shot it, you played it, that’s it.
Over time, the cost of video equipment came down drastically and at a certain point became competitive with the cost of film. By the late Seventies, I had access to video equipment through my university here in Buffalo, which was a privileged condition, and helped a lot. And then this got better and better as time went on. That didn’t mean, by the way, that the picture quality was well-served by moving into video, necessarily. To get good, high-quality video, you still had to pay through the nose. And you could still shoot good, high-quality film on sixteen for a pretty reasonable amount, as I did with Waterworks and Loose Connection. But the reason that I wasn’t able to do anything with that material is because the costs of making prints, and particularly sound-optical prints, was prohibitive. I could not make an hour-and-a-quarter-long, color, wedded, optical, 16mm print of a film—I just couldn’t afford it. So that’s one crossover point, the point where you begin to see video as actually competitive with film only on the basis that the cost of video equipment and the quality of video equipment had risen enough to put them side-by-side. But as I say, there remained a discrepancy in terms of the quality of image and so forth.
I’m now working on a project that I started in 1981 called Jail, which I shot in my studio here in Buffalo on 16mm. I shot four hours of black and white film, but when I looked at it, I realized I don’t like the quality of this material. I just don’t like the pictorial quality enough to put this together and release it on film. I need to shoot a lot of color, and I can’t afford it. I couldn’t afford to shoot, and I couldn’t afford to process, print, and release a long, color film, so I waited. Eventually another crossover point came when the quality of video imagery began to be competitive with the quality of 16mm film imagery. During the course of the last ten years, finally, the situation was that for a reasonable amount of money I could shoot color video in HD that would be of quality comparable to the quality of my earlier 16mm black and white material. So, hot dog! I realized now I can finish my film, and it just so happened that thirty years had passed, interim. I’m now in the process of getting in touch with the people who participated earlier to try and get as many as I can to come back and do part two of this film. And here again, as in some of these earlier works, the time discrepancy begins to be a marker of such prominence in the work, that it’s almost a defining factor. There had been other elements of Jail as a project that had appeared to me earlier to be the Big Kahuna, like uses of language, power relations, etc. And I spent a lot of time developing those ideas conceptually and implementing them in various ways. But they pale in significance by comparison with the discrepancies between the color from 2012 and the black and white from 1972.
The other thing that’s happened in the meantime is there have been cultural sea changes in people’s understanding of what image presentation possibilities there are. Among the new formats that are attractive to people for presentation, I might mention—and I think this is again a list that’s expanding every day—YouTube, gallery and museum installation, social media swaps, and also private exchanges of DVDs. None of these things were really on the horizon in 1982.
In your work there’s often an effort to conjure things that aren’t necessarily there, the way Straight and Narrow makes color sensation and patterns out of black and white, or, in other works, creating social or political possibilities, spaces for things to appear.
I’ve always been fascinated by a certain discrepancy that exists between two kinds of receptivity. On the one hand, given a cultural object, whether it’s a film or music or whatever it is, you can do with it what you want. As an individual, you can sit there and disagree with the premises of film, like, “No, Billy the Kid didn’t get shot. He lived on, I know he did! I know he did. Shane did come back.” So, narratively and otherwise, you can read things in different ways. But at the same time there are certain things that actually engage directly with your perceptual processes and force themselves on you. These include such things as secondary sexual characteristics, like, our eyes naturally follow lines—the secondary sexual characteristics of a figure. Your eyes just do that. You look at people’s eyes. Or in the case of Flicker or certain musical effects, things happen in your ear or eye or brain, which are not exactly something you choose to have happen, but happen as products of the transitivity of the material. The contestation between these modes of receptivity has always intrigued and fascinated me.
Many thanks to Melissa Larson for her assistance in preparing this interview.