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In Writing

Tony Conrad 1940–2016: Breaking The Frame

April 2016

Alan Licht surveys the late composer and artist Tony Conrad’s film work, which ranged from structuralist classics to public access TV

It seems virtually unthinkable now to merely label Tony Conrad a film maker, but in the 1970s and 80s, with none of the music he made in the 1960s alongside La Monte Young and John Cale released, and Outside The Dream Syndicate, his 1973 collaboration with Faust long out of print (and barely available even when first issued), he was primarily known for his experimental movies. His first film – initiated after Jonas Mekas gave him some rolls of 16mm film and pronounced him a film maker – remains his most famous: The Flicker (1966) is considered a landmark of structuralist film then and now. Apart from a preliminary warning that it might induce epileptic seizures and its hand-drawn title card, the film’s 30 minutes consist solely of alternating black and white frames that produce a relentless stroboscopic effect. The resulting optical illusions that the viewer experiences, in tandem with a churning electronic stereo soundtrack by Conrad, make it feel more like an environment than a movie. It wasn’t the first film to use this kind of flicker technique – Peter Kubelka’s seven minute Arnulf Rainer (1958–60) preceeded it, but there the effect is deployed in fits and starts with accompanying white noise and silences, rather than the continuous, sustained mode of Conrad’s film.

Tony and his then wife Beverly Grant Conrad subsequently calibrated a flicker to “The Ides Of March” from Cale and Terry Riley’s Church Of Anthrax album for the 1970 film Straight & Narrow (which received a screening at the 1972 Munich Olympics!), and created a four-projector flicker film Four Square in 1971. Aiming to one-up Andy Warhol’s 24-hour film **** (aka Four Stars, 1967) and other epic duration experiments of the time, Conrad instigated Yellow Movies (1972–73), a series of 20 graphic works where he painted a black frame on large sheets of paper to suggest both a film frame and a screen, then filled in the blank space with cheap house paint that would presumably yellow over time, thus creating a supremely long and slow ‘movie’. Only displayed for a single evening at Millenium Film Workshop upon its inception (and impishly advertised as a premiere of new films), it has been rediscovered and celebrated in the last decade, including an acquisition by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Also exhumed from Conrad’s archives in recent years are 1973’s Loose Connection and Waterworks, documenting a family excursion to buy groceries near Times Square with a rotating camera and an added flicker in the former, and a hippy-esque get-together in Bryant Park in the latter.

As the 70s progressed he subjected film stock to all manner of radical processes, taking a hammer to a film strip in 4-X Attack, as well as literally cooking film in Curried 7302 and 7360 Sukiyaki (all 1973) and stuffing it in a jar filled with vinegar for a 1974 series of ‘pickled films’. Conrad turned increasingly to video by the late 70s, coinciding with his employment as an instructor at SUNY Buffalo’s Department of Media Study from 1976 on, which provided him with equipment. He shot (and usually appeared in) dozens of videos in the following decades, mostly short and generally humorous, manifesting the kookier aspects of his personality (still another side of Conrad could be found in his work on over 200 episodes of Studio Of The Streets, a weekly community issues-oriented public access TV program in Buffalo from the early 90s). The videos were never put into distribution: they were seldom seen unless Conrad himself made them available for exhibition. 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.

When I first interviewed Tony in 1989, inquiring about the gap between the album with Faust and his renewed musical activites (at that point, the inaugural performances of his Early Minimalism pieces), he stressed, “I never left my interest in music behind,” and went on to mention his mammoth but largely unheard piano project Music And The Mind Of The World (1976–83) as well as a discouraging concert he gave in the mid-80s in his own temporary loft in New York City that no one came to. His profile in the music scene changed decisively a few years later when Outside The Dream Syndicate and Early Minimalism appeared on CD. But sound gave him a way into film making – literally, as his earliest involvement in film was assembling the soundtrack for Jack Smith’s notorious Flaming Creatures (1963), but also, as he recalled to Brian Duguid in 1996 in EST magazine, “my principal motivation [in The Flicker] was to explore the possibilities for harmonic expression using a sensory mode other than sound… I was interested to see whether there might be combination-frequency effects that would occur with flicker, analogous to the combination-tone effects that are responsible for consonance in musical sound.” To some degree this was related to the explorations of static forms and extreme repetition in the Dream Syndicate/Theatre Of Eternal Music, although he admitted to Duguid that “The Flicker did not convincingly demonstrate the existence of any harmonic flicker structures”. He conjoined film with music performance early on: in a 1972 performance at The Kitchen in New York called Ten Years Alive On The Infinite Plain his trio with Rhys Chatham and Laurie Spiegel played as multiple film-to-video projections of black and white vertical stripes were gradually moved to overlap with each other, and in the performative piece Bowed Film (1974) he attached contact mics to a long loop of film that wrapped around his head, ‘playing’ it with a violin bow in the classic Cage/Tudor noise tradition.

Tony is best remembered as an artist who worked across a variety of media and inhabited many different zones, but his standing in the film world should not be underestimated: some years ago, when Will Oldham and I paired Coming Attractions (1970), a feature length effort by Tony and Beverly, with Martin Scorsese’s American Boy for a screening at Tonic, an acquaintance who worked in Scorsese’s office reported to him. “Did you say Tony Conrad? I love Tony Conrad!” Scorsese exclaimed. “Kids are showing my movies with Tony Conrad’s? That’s great.”

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