Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present
Directed by Tyler Hubby
March 31 – April 6, 2017
Anthology Film Archives, New York
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, MAR. 2017
Who was Tony Conrad? What kind of artist was he, anyway?
He was a polymath who innovated in performance, social practice, avant-garde music, set production, filmmaking, painting, teaching. He was a true genius with zero fucks to give. Or, more politely, as MOCA Director Philippe Vergne says in the film, “He was experimental with what an artist can be,” and with what it even means to be an artist at all. Like some kind of conceptualist Zelig, he was present at every important moment of countercultural fine art, almost without ever leaving Buffalo, for five decades; from basically co-founding the Velvet Underground, to early films made with Jack Smith, and later with Tony Oursler and Mike Kelley, to directly inspiring future luminaries from Moby to The Yes Men. The narrative arc of the film is so perfect it could almost be a spoof, and indeed it is often deeply hilarious. It can’t be helped.
Director Tyler Hubby has made a canonical work of cinema that not only chronicles but embodies in its very form, scope, and aesthetic Conrad’s own style and personality -- smart, funny, gruff, twinkling. “I wanted to step out of the way,” says Hubby, “to show people the context and the set-up and just let it roll, let Tony’s voice run the show. Artists are telling me they are inspired by it, which is the greatest compliment I could hope for.” It’s educational but not didactic, offering experience not dogma, and inviting its audiences, like Conrad’s audiences before, to make their own meaning. “He had this amazing generosity of spirit,” continues Hubby. “He was genuinely interested in what other people were doing and thinking. It as a very democratic art experience, and it was never about becoming famous. He died last year and of course I’m sad he never got to see the finished film -- but,” says Tyler, gently laughing, “I think he might have hated being put on this pedestal!”
Before Conrad was the radical filmmaker and visual artist that Hubby was somewhat familiar with, he was first a radical composer, a veritable godfather in the conceptual minimalist music scene -- a fact that Hubby, like pretty much everyone, didn’t put together as being the same person until much later. But Conrad had been collaborating with such music icons as Henry Flynt, Jack Smith, and, with the “drone ensemble” Theatre of Eternal Music (1963-65), along with La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and John Cale. In a bizarre twist, Young kept those tapes for years despite Conrad’s repeated pleas, and there’s this amazing moment in the film when Conrad protests an appearance by Young, out alone with one picket sign, decrying the archival hostage-taking. Anyway Conrad got the tapes from someone else later on, and published them himself in 1994, sending crate diggers into a proper frenzy. Hubby and others in the film make the point that it’s almost like there were conspiracies to write him out of both art history and music history. He’s never mentioned in either canon, perhaps because he’s just too hard to categorize, and it’s only now that the zeitgeist of multi-pronged practice is sufficiently au courant, that there’s a context for what he did. But in his time it was confusing to the gatekeepers. He didn’t care.
Right after those music days, in 1966 Conrad made “The Flicker,” an abstract film of generative pattern and light; the kind of thing that is a bit seizure-inducing, taking over your brain like the binary code in Snow Crash, and in which color and shapes formulate themselves, and can create imagery, like hallucinations, even with your eyes closed. In 1973 “The Yellow Movies” addressed duration as an element of composition, not unlike the sonic drones of his sounds. He wanted a film that could document itself coming into being, and he ideated painting on the emulsion and letting it develop over time, as it will. This mirrors the human lifespan as well as regular archival decay, making the film a living performative thing that is and is also not a painting. Perhaps his best-known work is the not-quite-resolved film “Women in Jail” which began in 1982 and sort of finished in 2013 after a 30-year hiatus that reunited the original cast -- all except the late Mike Kelley.
And indeed, duration, absence, presence, and return are recurring themes in Conrad’s story. This movie took 22 years to make, with Hubby following Conrad’s progress through live performances and intimate projects, interviews and happenstance as they unfolded over decades and continents, with an endless devotion to just showing up that Conrad would most certainly have appreciated. WM
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.
She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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