I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Legendary minimalist composer, experimental filmmaker, and video artist Tony Conrad was at the center of the most interesting and aggressive avant-garde art activity in New York in the early 1960s. His initial forays into music—the “Theater of Eternal Music,” with La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, John Cale and others—and film (The Flicker) claimed new territory for both art forms, staking a site for active participation within the very bodies and senses of his viewers. Over the last four decades, he has continued to provoke his audiences in whatever medium he employs. At every point operating with the awareness that art is an enterprise, and as such, has all the power relationships and trappings of any social transaction, Conrad exercises those dynamics in radical, often disruptive ways.
I first became aware of Conrad’s work in the mid-’90s, when his recordings began appearing on CD, though it was always clear he was not “just” a composer. His liner notes for “Four Violins” (composed 1964, recorded and released on Table of the Elements, 1997) introduced me to his complex thinking around that music but also to his fundamental engagement with cultural presentation in general. Much of Conrad’s non-musical work has remained unknown to contemporary audiences, but that situation is quickly improving. This fall, he will exhibit his Yellow Movies and film objects in the Lyon Biennale, and last month New Yorkers were privileged to see a dense week-long series of screenings and performances at The Kitchen and Anthology Film Archives drawn from all aspects of his career, organized by Andrew Lampert and Jim O’Rourke, two colleagues who have long artistic histories with Conrad and his work. I would like to thank them both for pulling me into Conrad’s orbit last year.
Jay Sanders I’d like to start by asking you about a specific composition, Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain, which I’m particularly excited to see performed at The Kitchen during your upcoming retrospective. That piece, originally presented in 1972, is composed of a live string performance and features multiple film projections. Would you talk about working in those two mediums—not necessarily the crosscurrents between them—but as a way to introduce and describe your work from that period?
Tony Conrad The most exciting thing today about late ’60s–early ’70s work is how it can be seen in a new light in 2005. Of course cultural work responds to the immediate environment around it at the time, but at a later point it can also function to redefine other work of its own time and to offer a different set of perspectives on what’s happening today. In 1972, Ten Years, which has a kind of new age-y title, wasn’t so much new age-y as it was driven by an effort to reclaim a spiritual territory for New York that came out of America (the West) rather than from the East. It was to acknowledge that there’s a space for contemplation, for the subjectivity of long durations and perceptually driven work within a Western framework. But in order to see how that fits into the design of the film, I have to explain a little bit about what the film really is and does.
My first premise was that it might somehow be possible to subvert or extend the use of ultra-minimal images in a way that would emphasize the emergent complexity they make possible, rather than the images themselves. When I started to work on this film, I decided to restrict the content to a simple pattern of vertical black and white stripes, as I had in an earlier film called Straight and Narrow. And by changing the pattern to its negative every three frames, an ambiguous sense of motion could be realized, following the principles of animation. Depending on the direction that your eye starts to track the changes or movement from the positive to the negative pattern, you will see movement to either the left or the right. That kind of ambiguity interested me because it focused the process of viewing internally, and foregrounded what hypnotists call ideosensory information—that is, the qualities of sensation as experienced within the body of the individual. That kind of information is powerfully inducing to meditative and reflective states.
The completed performance involves multiple projections of the looped stripe patterns. Talk about widescreen—with four screens you can stretch an image out pretty colossally. Over the course of the performance, which is a projectionist’s performance, the images are moved slowly so that they coalesce and overlap and interact in various ways. They do this in a kind of chaotic fashion so that at points, the qualities of space, light, motion, and color that emerge are quite unexpected. In that sense, the film offers the kind of reflective environment that a painting might, except that the audience is of course constrained by the temporal aspects of a performance. I also incorporated music that depended on somewhat analogous principles.
JS You’ve spoken before about calibrating a situation that triggers subjective perceptual effects. In referring to your first film, The Flicker, you used the term “experiential excess,” which was intriguing to me. In terms of flicker effect—you clarify that we’re not looking at an “abstract” film or a “blank” film, but what you’re doing is generating and investigating effects—in this specific case, how one’s eyes and brain deal with a rapid strobe effect produced by patterns of alternating black and clear film frames. In an early interview you did with Jonas Mekas in the ’60s, you talked about wanting to make a film that simulates what things look like with one’s eyes closed. Would this be analogous to some of the microtonal music work that you do? There you also set up a situation that allows a free experience of perceptual phenomena.
TC Much of that work could be thought of as carrying over from one medium to another, or let’s say that there wasn’t a medium-specificity, or even a cultural site specificity about the work. I had wished to address an interiority on the part of the viewer that on one hand had its analogues in visual perception, that is, the kind of environment that we live in where you might say our eyes are calculating our environment, and on the other hand, the kind of environment we live in in which our ears are doing the calculating. And of course how our brain calculates that; the ways we think, recirculating ideas within ourselves. In that sense, a lot of this work flowed from my early contact with a conceptual orientation to art processes, that certainly went back to my long conversations with Henry Flynt in the late ’50s, and our contact with the Fluxus movement in the early ’60s.
So by the mid ’60s and early ’70s, as already with the music that I had been involved with in 1963 to 1965 with La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, John Cale, and others, there was an effort underway to look beyond “concept” as a working cultural principle and to turn to a contextual siting of the subject within a culturally active locus, and in that way to allow for a situation in which the viewer, the audience, the recipient, the whatever you want to call it, the person who’s there, is actually in important respects manufacturing the culture as the event proceeds, as the context sustains. In the case of music, the performers can manipulate the acoustic context in a plastic way, and the listeners have options of finding the details and the constructs within that plastic environment that they can use to rework their own understanding and perception along cultural and social lines. I’m not talking about simply an interpretive reception, but an active engagement used at its moment of reception. At that time it seemed to me that perceptual engagement was absolutely necessary. Op art, which was just then appearing, also had its foundation in paradoxical or perceptual illusions of one sort or another. However, Op art didn’t aspire to displace itself from the platform of its own materiality and to move into a receptive space that addressed larger issues like the control of the experience and the control of cultural formation and reformation by the viewer.
JS In all your work that we’re talking about, there seems to be a concern to activate the social and institutional relationship between an audience, a performer, a composition, a performance in a live experiential space, as the performance is happening. And the utilization of more sensory-driven phenomena leads you to work through complex systematic, mathematical, chemical possibilities that are of interest to you. The live result of all of this happening at the same time is a kind of pervasive, very dizzying, overwhelming effect, both visually and sensorially, and then in more subtle ways. The roles and their relationships feel unhinged too, something that Op art doesn’t touch on at all.
TC Back in 1972, I felt remiss in not more directly addressing social and political issues in my films, but doing so simply wasn’t the way I was set to contribute to the cultural picture. I mean, during that period huge things were going on. The hippie movement, which everybody looks down on now, at the time was a really heady and potentially achievable utopian dream, simultaneous with the hell of war in Vietnam. As I was reminded recently because of Martin Luther King’s birthday, I hitchhiked down from New York to hear MLK speak, stood at the foot of the Memorial steps spellbound amid a crowd of a quarter-million to hear him; I picketed Madame Nhu when she came to the UN very early on—we were questioning the validity of the U.S. “advisors” in Vietnam at that time, and I followed the building wave of opposition to the war by participating in marches and the moratoriums. But the focused interventions that I was creating in the cultural arena seemed to me to be the things that I could do to make a direct personal impact. Later on this led me to feel that maybe “cultural intervention,” challenging the fundamental presuppositions within the system itself, could be a term that characterized overall the kind of activities that I was attempting and achieving.
JS It’s amazing to see how far things are pushed with your work from that period—in the Yellow Movies from ’73, which are films that can basically go on forever but utilize no projectors and no film, and also the film objects that you made around that time, where film itself is treated and transformed chemically, and is often fully unprojectable. I know you gave a recent talk at the Guggenheim and you called some of that work “pathological.” Citing this work specifically, could you elaborate on some of those projects?
TC Well, if you take a roll of film and instead of making pictures on it, you process it by pickling it in vinegar and putting it in a jar and presenting it for people to look at that way, projected through the lens of the fluid around it, this is so distorted and such a monstrous disfigurement of the normal way in which you are “supposed to use” film, that it is a kind of pathology; it’s a sickness in the sense of a virus being inserted in the system. I think wellness and change are measured by comparison to potential for extremes of illness or death. I was trying to kill film. I wanted to let it lay over and die.
JS I remember when I first discovered Jonas Mekas’s review of your “screening” of the Yellow Movies at Millennium, I was totally fascinated. They were presented as “20 New Movies” and what viewers saw were paper “screens” painted with housepaint, that would, theoretically, “yellow” at a very very slow rate. People might think of a film like Andy Warhol’s Empire as some sort of endgame to structuralist cinema, but the Yellow Movies are so much more radical, and push things beyond a breaking point that I don’t think is much approached by other work from that time.
TC Today it’s hard to imagine how powerful an impact “radical work” was expected to exert in those days. There was still a sense, that maybe came out of the corporate culture of the ’50s, that people who did “advanced” or “new work” were “making progress,” “getting somewhere.” We’ve lost a little of that now, in part because there are a lot of things happening today that aren’t “new.” On the other hand, the idea of a fundamental opposition to “newness” itself was also in the air. Certainly that idea hit forcibly with writings coming out of French culture, like Barthes’s essay “The Death of the Author,” or even earlier with Henry Flynt’s critiques of newness and cultural values in general. So when a superficial idea was put forward that “new” things were being done in film, simply by extending the formal elements of the medium, it seemed to me the time had come to just skip right ahead and carry the whole formalist premise out toward an endgame, where the necessary logical extreme that had already occurred in painting and in performance and so forth years earlier could be exercised in film.
JS As you’ve been preparing for next month’s retrospective program at Anthology Film Archives and The Kitchen, what has been on your mind in looking at and readying the spectrum of work you’ll be presenting?
TC I’ve had to reflect upon the differences between private and public culture, in the sense that over the decades so much of the material I’ll show has been imperiled one way or another. In the case of the films, the failing industry has put film labs in a position where they’ve needed to get rid of huge stocks of dormant material that have been left in their vaults. So massive repositories of culturally interesting information preserved on film have been tossed in the trash; it’s a problem that many independent filmmakers have been faced with. Film has never, until recently at least, had a gallery value that’s put a premium on preservation of independent artists’ work. Anthology Film Archives, an institution that is itself precariously supported, is one of the few alert organizations that has jumped in to try to reclaim some of this endangered heritage. That two of my films’ masters turned up in material that Anthology recovered from the basement of a failing film lab, while sifting through hundreds or thousands of other films, is testimony to their perceptiveness in looking at the value of what many people feel is a transitory material.
Another armature of the same problem for me has been that I am my own archive. I feel lucky to live in a city like Buffalo, where a square foot of space doesn’t cost a significant amount every month. The rents that many people are facing today makes it comparatively difficult to hold onto things. So I’ve been looking through my accumulation, a kind of concretion of art material, and there’s an archaeological pleasure that goes along with that. Digging through strata of life. After all, a lifeline and a historical timeline and a geological timeline are, when it comes down to it, the same thing.
JS This problem of “value” with film work—it seems like on a weekly basis, Anthology is still pulling discarded films out of dumpsters, or a collection deassessions all its film and Anthology is the only place that’s willing to take it on.
TC There’s another piece of this pie. Take The Flicker, for example. The involvement of Anthology in bringing that film back to life after the original was destroyed by a lab recalls the fact that Jonas Mekas, who founded Anthology, was also the person who originally came to my door with rolls of film back in the 1960s and gave me the material that I needed to actually make that film. Forty years later, the same person is bailing out the same project in an equally important way. Jonas is just an astonishing figure in the loops of history that form around this whole snarl of events.
JS Looking back at Mekas’s 1973 review of the Yellow Movies, he calls it “one of the high achievements of the art of cinema” and your best work to date. But I know the reality at the time was that it was a single “screening” shown to a very small audience. I’m interested in the “traction,” a word you’ve used, of work like this, both then, and how it finds its time now. That work is still being made in a sense, those movies are still “on,” and maybe there’s a sense that time has caught up to them—or maybe there’s a way they can be thought about now that wasn’t available, and didn’t allow for their traction at the time they were made.
TC Yeah. This morning I was listening to C-Span 2 and an author was critiquing Halliburton for its way of handling contracts. Do you think Halliburton is going to listen? No. You can critique the way that people make money or achieve power. Do you think they’ll listen?
In the same way, there’s a kind of impotence that goes with any minority view. People who are invested in an institutional program find it very difficult to accept a telling critique. So the symbolic aims of the interventions I had dedicated myself to until around 1980 turned out not to be practicable. It was manifestly unrealistic to think that walking around in a circle with 10 people would stop the Vietnam War. 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. And to think that by reassigning the values of filmmaking—revising the paradigm so that the filmmaker, not Kodak, manufactures the emulsion and thereby achieves a certain duration of interaction with their viewer, perhaps even one that might surpass the viewers’ patience or longevity—to think that this is going to actually convert people to a different way of thinking and acting and working? It’s just not gonna happen.
JS Right, but I do think even if these interventions weren’t fully “effective” in that sense of provoking a direct response, they do have a real resonance with some of the more interesting art activities going on right now. I think they offer something important at the present.
TC What’s happened in recent times is that a whole generation of artists has had its utopia cut off in a fairly vivid way, by losing the left, the future, the ecological truth around them; and they’ve begun to understand that a priority for artists along all different ways of thinking and approaches is to structure and situate micro-utopias within their presentations, and to break down some of the accepted institutional assignments of status, like service or viewership. So not only are you a viewer and I’m an artist, but maybe I’m situationally there to serve or to seduce. And you’re not just there to be the passive or marginally active consumer of my shit, but to engage with me in a situation that radically reassigns values. With that in mind, people today can look back at artists in the past who have explored this kind of social intervention, and who may have found their work illegible within their own cultural circumstances at the moment, and that kind of work may resonate much more directly today and actually seem friendly.
JS It makes me think of some of your really subversive film performances like Bowed Film, Sukiyaki Film—that to me borrow a little bit from Fluxus performance strategy, but inscribed as “films” they really throw everything out of whack. In Bowed Film we’re watching you perform a movie for yourself, and in Sukiyaki Film we see food being hurled at the screen by the film’s director. The aesthetic situation and the site of engagement in something that we normally know how to do (going to a movie) becomes really problematized.
TC Sukiyaki is exactly the work that comes to mind in connection with the kind of reassessment I was just describing. For the Sukiyaki performance I had decided that the film should be prepared immediately before viewing, so I used sukiyaki, a dish that’s prepared at the table, as a paradigm. The film is literally “pro-jected” onto the screen with shreds of egg and meat and vegetables and so forth. It’s a great performance because it’s amusing, and the audiences when I performed it in the early ’70s took it as a kind of grand joke. But there’s a deeper principle, a crossover between service and form and the way that one can—and I explored other ways, by the way—present film that’s prepared immediately. In general, film is a very trying medium in that respect because of the need to shoot it and develop and project it and so forth. I did one project called Film Feedback that attempted to condense and overlap all these processes and put them all in a mixed present tense. The residue is a film, but the original site of production was more like a performance. It was deliberately making film do something that it doesn’t do, that maybe video does. Because video, of course, immediately short-circuits the whole problem.
JS The immediacy of “it’s done,” right when it’s filmed.
TC Yeah, you don’t even get to cook the video in order to present it. You just plug it in and it’s done. So the advantage of film is that it allows for this gap, or distance, in the same way that, as David Salle used to say, “distance equals control.”
But then there’s another way to intervene, and that is to deny the same terms that you’re putting forward in another case. When in Bowed Film I wrap the film around my head and ears, looking at the film as a physical object from that position only, and bowing on it rather than jiggling it through a projector gate, I am denying the audience any access to the work. They can watch me looking at the film, if they want to. And this problematizes the condition of film presentation in a completely different, even opposite way than Sukiyaki Film.
I had a similar kind of doubling of intervention modalities that happened in my work in the early ’80s. I had decided to explore the relation between audience and work, and between maker and work, in a different way, using ideas about authority and punishment and power relationships. I made a film that used the military as its premise, depending on the idea that people might expect a type of “war” film. But this was really a set of vignettes involving soldiers and officers, establishing a kind of hierarchy that was then echoed in the relation between the subjects and the camera, the camera and the director, the viewers and the film, and so forth, and I attempted to explore this with the idea in mind to dignify the role of the underdog. And the underdog, of course, is not the audience; it’s not the officer, it’s the “soldier” role, and the film itself. When I showed it, as Hail the Fallen, the audience actually did take on the disapproving role of “officers;” they of course hated the film, because it didn’t dignify them.
So I thought, Okay, fuck you guys, and I made a video called In Line that deliberately takes over the audience, that takes advantage of the viewers in every possible way—at least I constructed it that way. Instead of respecting and dignifying them, In Line obliquely insults the viewers, threatens to put them to sleep, tries to control them, makes them understand that their minds are in the palm of my hand … like I’m on screen saying, “I’m going to make you think about this, I’m going to make you think about that,” and then I do make them think about it, and so forth. And putting the viewers in this masochistic position, to my astonishment, made them completely happy.
JS I’m interested in this use of humor, especially in some of the recent video works. I remember when you did that screening at Ocularis in Brooklyn a year or two ago—the last few videos were totally hilarious. But it seemed that the humor was used in a specific way, was a tool.
TC Yeah. Well there’s something really funny right from the beginning in leaving the pictures out of a film, like in The Flicker, or in taking the film and putting it in a jar instead of on the screen. As an artist I need to find my own work simply entertaining, as well as everything else; otherwise I feel completely dissatisfied. I love the humor in the music performances I do, the ways that it trips me up and slips around unexpectedly and leaves me with paradoxes at every turn, in changing when it’s not changing and not changing when it does change. So I always thrive on some kind of humor, whether it’s a subtle or more blatant irony, or a different kind of basis for whatever you call humor.
But there’s also a way that if you make something funny, it can give the audience a crutch; they can escape from any other kind of meaning that you might have intended. So I’ve found that artists who make their work purposefully not funny sometimes get more traction than I would if I’ve made something that’s patently ludicrous. And somehow I don’t care. I know that humor offers the viewer a way out, but I’m just not the kind of person who’s that vicious, to not allow for people to have something that they can take delight in. I want to be respected when I’m a viewer. That’s a problem with the commercial environment we live in—it’s demeaning, it’s degrading, it’s literally insulting.
JS Which is something you do highlight in In Line where you are literally insulting an audience.
TC Yeah. And it surprises me that people like that. At the same time, bringing it out and foregrounding that in itself is an important thing to do, I think, because it reveals how profoundly the sadomasochistic relationship pervades the cultural site. (laughter)
JS We’ve talked a lot about reinvestigating earlier work. What are you working on now?
TC I love doing those short videos like we were just talking about. For instance, I recently shot a tape with Joe Gibbons called The Producer that again has that mix of fun and conceptual density that I really enjoy. As for work that I think might have the capacity to really turn things in a different direction, most of what I’m doing now is directed toward music and music theory. There’s a new piece that I hope to premiere in Buffalo later this year that’s one aspect of this. It’s a composed work that will in effect go back into the Western tradition in music. I think many people who are interested in music feel like the Western tradition kind of exhausted itself. Or that it’s just a bunch of junk we ought to get rid of and go on and do something different. A lot of people of my generation turned to the opening archives of the world, to Orientalism or African drumming techniques, for example, to try to resuscitate a tradition in music that seemed to be on its last legs. I on the other hand have come to think that there needs to be a way to look candidly at the Western tradition an figure out, with a little more subtlety, what it really represents, how it works, what it was doing, and where it could have gone differently. So I’ve involved myself quite a lot in recent years in a historical investigation that has led me to feel that the forms of Western music are much more influenced, determined, or interactive with the patterns of governance and structures of social convention and authority than we recognized before. An example would be the way in which the founding of the modern bureaucratic state under Louis XIV exactly paralleled inauguration of discipline and regimentation as the cardinal principles of the modern string-dominated orchestra, under Lully, who was one of the very few people really close to Louis XIV. So I’ve been intrigued by the idea of compositionally returning to a certain juncture, in this case maybe the time around the mid–1700s, and looking at the resources that were there, trying to say, Well, if we didn’t have to acknowledge the circumstances that impelled music in a certain direction for social reasons at that time, what other options might there have been, options that could convey a radical potential for expanding the vocabulary of activity in music today?
TC Well, I’m sort of looking at that as a problem, and to do that in a way that’s very different is really an interesting challenge.
JS It reminds me … I wasn’t going to bring any of this up because so much has been made of it, but I’ve always found your “Early Minimalism” project a really ingenious compositional undertaking. The problematic situation of not having access to the tapes of your early Theater of Eternal Music work with La Monte Young et. al. forced a very unique compositional solution and manner of engaging your own artistic history. In this case a sort of “recomposing” and extending of the sound images of the past—as composition. Maybe that’s a little different than the new work you’re talking about but—
TC No, it’s very related and the new work grows out of that.
JS And in a sense, all your work reformulates the conventions of presentation in some way. Earlier you mentioned “inserting viruses” as an artmaking practice. I like this image of an artist-parasite. Here we’re finding some of the worm-holes from the last 40 years and there’s a radical elegance to their structure that some hindsight may bring into focus.
TC One of the things that lifts some of the fog over my own past for me is that in this process that you asked me about earlier, of going through and organizing my work, I start to see in clear outlines old stories that I began, lived through, and concluded at a certain point, and maybe set aside, but that now seem to have a certain resonance with today’s cultural environment. And that’s incredibly encouraging for an old dog like me.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews Edward Dimendberg and Allan Sekula, Luc Tuymans and Kerry James Marshall, Nell McClister and Paul Chan, Sue de Beer and Nancy A. Barton, Heather McHugh, Susan Wheeler, Miranda July and Rachel Kushner, William Wegman and George Steel, Tony Conrad and Jay Sanders, and Carolyn Cantor.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee