Tony Conrad: On the Threshold

George Clark

Reviews / 13.10.2008
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On Saturday 14 June 2008, the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London was filled with intense, pulsating sounds, coming from an amplified motor and a drill boring holes into a roll of 16mm film. The performers generating the noise were hidden behind vast curtains that hung from the ceiling on either side of the hall's central bridge, casting 20-foot-high shadows onto the billowing fabric. After half an hour the industrial drone gave way to the sound of two violins, a contrabass and a cello playing sustained tones. The towering shadows were later joined by projections of the previously drilled film (Bored Film, 2008) as the sustained drone of one musician gave way to the harsher attacks of their accompanist.

Tony Conrad, Unprojectable: Tony Conrad, Projection and Perspective, 2008. Pictured: Tony Conrad. Photograph Sheila Burnett © 2008 Tate Specially commissioned for the Turbine Hall, Tony Conrad's Unprojectable: Projection and Perspective (2008) was an overpowering meta-cinematic event, combining music, performance, film and light projection. It formed a suitable focus point for a weekend devoted to the US artist, musician, filmmaker and teacher Tony Conrad. Conrad was a central figure in New York's avant-garde community in the 1960s, traversing the fields of music, art and film. A principal member of the influential Theatre of Eternal Music (also known as the Dream Syndicate), he played alongside La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, John Cale and Angus MacLise, the latter two future members of The Velvet Underground. In parallel to these musical performances Conrad collaborated with anti-art activist Henry Flynt and underground pioneer and filmmaker Jack Smith, while also making his own perceptually challenging films. In the 1970s he turned to video and made similarly eclectic collaborations with such artists as Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler.

After a long absence from performing and recording, in 1997 Conrad made a remarkable return to music with the release of the epic Early Minimalism project, which explored the history of Minimalist music and addressed his own involvement with the Theatre of Eternal Music, while new collaborations with musicians such as Jim O'Rourke and the re-release of an influential recording session with Krautrock pioneers Faust suggested also a re-emergence of his own practice. Building on this renewed interest in his work - on the commercial circuit as well - Tate Modern organised a weekend to explore his multi-disciplinary output, and Conrad was present throughout, offering commentary that was as much explanatory as self-critical: rather than a retrospective the weekend functioned as a self-authored presentation highlighting key facets of his forty-year career.

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The Flicker, Tony Conrad's first and most iconic film - which opened the events at Tate Modern - sets out his interrogation of the components of perception, control and spectatorship. Made between 1965 and 1966 in 16mm and consisting solely of black and white frames, The Flicker examines a crucial component of film: the alternation of light and darkness. Regarded as a key early work of Structural film, it crystallised a turning point in avant-garde film and its material investigation was quickly taken on by others in the field. As 'a film with no images'1, a precedent can be found outside of cinema in Brion Gysin's Dream Machines (c.1960). These light contraptions, constructed from cut-out cones revolving around a central light, created near hallucinogenic effects in the viewer; they were part of Gysin attempt - and William Burroughs's, who would later use them - to create alternative consciousnesses and break with the mechanisms of control Gysin and Burroughs saw inherent in dominant culture. The Flicker, and Conrad's subsequent work, similarly explored conditions of spectatorship, production and exhibition of film in order to reveal the suppressed, liberatory potential in the medium. As Jonas Mekas noted at the time, 'A new cinema needs new eyes to see it'.2 In the same way that Cage questioned what is regarded as music, The Flickerquestioned, by stripping film down to its material components, what can be regarded as a film, as cinema, as image.

The Flicker's powerful formal rigour, complex stereo soundtrack and intricate structure of varying rates of flickering images (helped no doubt by Conrad's education in mathematics) still commands a impressive hold over the viewer. Branden W. Joseph writes in his new study of Conrad, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage (Zone Books, 2008), that it 'was The Flicker's challenge to its medium that led Gilles Deleuze, in a short but insightful passage from Cinema 2[1985] to note its role in inaugurating a "third epoch" of cinema: a "cinema of expansion without camera, and also without screen or film stock"'.3 Conrad, through his numerous expanded cinema pieces in the years that followed, played a pivotal role in the development of such a cinema. And though he is mostly known as a filmmaker and musician, as an early member of the influential Department of Media Studies at the State University of New York in Buffalo, Conrad extended his material investigations into electronic media. Tate's Saturday programme was dedicated to his less well-known video work: ranging from his early destructive investigations of the mechanics of video, as in Concord Ultimatum (1977), to later irreverent videos displaying Conrad's confidence as a performer, satirising and appropriating the aesthetics and codes of television (In Line, 1986, and No Europe, 1990).

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The Tate weekend coincided with the launch of Branden Joseph's expansive and digressive study of Conrad and art in the 1960s, Beyond the Dream Syndicate. (Conrad and Joseph were in conversation at Tate Modern on the last day of the weekend.) Described, after Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as a 'minor history', it explores Conrad's work and the various cultural milieux in which he moved, and proposes provocative revisions of the way the history of music, Minimalism, Conceptual art and experimental filmmaking are constructed and understood.

'A minor history', Joseph states in the book, 'opens categories to their outside, onto a field of historical contingencies and events that is never homogeneous and that is always political'.4 The expansive form of the book functions as both a critique of traditional hermetic monographs (such as Joseph's own Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde, MIT Press, 2007) and allows Joseph to dissect hierarchies of authorship and spectatorship, which are themselves central elements in Conrad's work.

As the book's subtitle indicates, the core of the discussion examines the divergent paths that Conrad and others, such as La Monte Young, Henry Flynt, Robert Morris and Jack Smith, engaged with in an attempt to find a direction and response to the possibilities opened up by John Cage's work. As Joseph summarises, the 'situation in which the arts were approachable after Cage was no longer evidently and unquestionably that of "objects" (even if musical performances) within a discipline or institution, but of specific techniques enacted within a field or realm of power effects'.5 The book persuasively argues that Cage's work and his challenge to traditional configurations of power and authorship marked a whole generation, forcing them to find a new position with regard to their work, its exhibition and audience.

In rooting the discussion in Cage, Joseph is able to discuss in parallel a whole range of artists and movements from the emergent spheres of Minimalism - both in music and art - as well as performance art and happenings, Fluxus and Conceptual art and also underground film and the later development of Structural film. In narrowing the focus to culture in the 1960s, and predominately in New York, the book explores the fertile period that underpinned the development of many of the current tenants of contemporary art. As suggested by this intense period of dialogue between musicians, artists and filmmakers, fascinatingly criss-crossed by Conrad, the book presents a cultural scene that hadn't yet been divided by medium or canonical histories.

Conrad's own critique of authorship is thoroughly discussed in the first few chapters of the book, with particular reference to his work with La Monte Young and the different positions Conrad and Young have taken with regard to the legacy and recordings of the Theatre of Eternal Music. The group focused on alternative tuning systems, and in particular sustained tones or drones. Their music, in both rehearsal and performance, revolved around the minutiae of harmonics, in an attempt to counteract the dominance of the twelve-tone Western scale and to abandon, as Joseph states, 'the era of scores (even indeterminate ones) for one of more direct acoustical manipulations'.6 Conrad's response to first seeing Young play candidly reveals the potential he saw in this area of work: 'There's the composer! He's sitting out there in the middle of the sound.'7 That the composer was within the sound, inhabiting the sound rather than being outside of it, was a key characteristic of the Theatre of Eternal Music. The group shifted the emphasis from the structure of a sole composer, and its inherent hierarchies, to the sound itself, which could only be created and manipulated by being part of it.

A fascination with underlying systems of control and mediation permeates Conrad's work and grounds them in a rigorous materialism. Importantly, the sustained tones and performances of the Theatre of Eternal Music, although influenced by Eastern mysticism and especially Indian traditional music, were amplified performances. Rather than seeking an eternal music outside of the restrictions of harmony, they sought to reveal and tune to the electrical current and frequencies which underpinned their amplification - that is, the electrical frequencies of the National Grid. The industrial elements of the Turbine Hall performance, which became important features of Conrad's performance at Tate Modern, can similarly be understood as a continuation of Conrad's attempt to tune to industrial frequencies, in this case the hum of the power station's remaining generator, the electrical buzz of its strip lighting and the whirr of its air conditioning.

The revelation of hidden or internal frequencies, drawing from Cage's questioning of silence, exposes the tonal control and conditioning that, without being noticed, permeates society and everyday experience. The monumental and dominating scale and volume of the Turbine Hall performance relates to a strong current in Conrad's work that, in revealing the underlying systems of control, verges on what Jean-Claude Lebensztejn called the 'fascistic manipulation' of the spectator. In contrast, in the 'anti-fascistic exposition of fascism', as Lebensztejn elaborates, 'the margin is perhaps narrow, fluid, and impure. To play with the thresholds of perception is to play with fire, from whichever side one takes'.8 The exhilaration of Conrad's work often comes from its extremity, but as with many artists who have made work for the Turbine Hall, the scale demanded by the space can lead to overstatement and lack of subtlety. Conrad's achievement here, as he acknowledged in a panel discussion at Tate the following day, sits on the knife edge that Lebensztejn identified, and perhaps is something of a divisive point in his career. As his reputation has grown, the scale of his performances has shifted into a territory that he has yet to fully come to grips with. The power of cultural institutions, the mechanism through which authority is configured and history constructed in an art context, has been central to Conrad's return to performance and the art sector, but the artist is also in danger of losing his criticality, which derives in part from the breadth of his activity, as he moves into this totemic register.

Conrad's many other expanded cinema performances, which operate on a markedly different scale, were unfortunately absent from the weekend programme. Works such as7360 Sukiyaki (1973), which involves the projection of lightly fried film, direct from the frying pan, onto a screen from across the room, and Bowed Film (1974), which can only be seen and heard by its performer, are intimate and playful materialist deconstructions. But, as Joseph's book and the series of events at Tate Modern demonstrate, Conrad's body of work is perhaps most fruitfully approached as a series of fragments, intersections and collaborations, rather than as a totality - which reflects, also, the wide range of influence of his distinct and idiosyncratic practice.

- George Clark

Footnotes
  1. Quoted from Tony Conrad, 'Points of Departure', Interview with Mark Webber, 2008.

  2. Branden W. Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage, Cambridge: Zone Books, 2008, p.304. From Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p.205.

  3. Ibid., p.304. From Jonas Mekas, 'On the Expanding Eye' (6 February 1964), in Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema 1959-1971, New York: Macmillan, 1972, pp.119-20.

  4. Ibid., p.52.

  5. Ibid., p.85.

  6. Ibid., p.85.

  7. Ibid., p.206. From a 1995 interview with Joseph.

  8. Ibid., p.298. Quoted from Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, Écrits sur l'art récent: Brice Marden, Malcolm Morley, Paul Sharits, Paris: Éditions Aldines, 1995, p.153, translated by B. Joseph.