Filmmaker, composer and musician Tony Conrad, now in his 70s, has impeccable avant-garde credentials. In the 1960s he was a collaborator with John Cale, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Angus MacLise and others in the Theater of Eternal Music (sometimes called The Dream Syndicate), whose drone music anticipated both minimal music and noise rock. He created the soundtrack for Jack Smith’s infamous 1963 film, Flaming Creatures. Conrad’s movie The Flicker (1965- 66), its alternating sequences of all black and clear frames laying bare the mechanics of conventional moving pictures and directly engaging the physiology of the viewer, is a seminal work of Structuralist film. His interest in creating roles for himself not as a producer of art but as one who facilitates the productions of others presages the current art movement known as relational esthetics.
At the same time, Conrad’s aversion to avant-gardist heroics as well as his multivalent body of work have con- spired to make him less well known than he should be. “Doing the City: Urban Community Interventions,” the first institutional show of Conrad’s work in 22 years, served as a corrective. Comprising sound, video and film works and presented in conjunction with screenings at Anthology Film Archives and live musical performances, the exhibition made a strong case for the consistency of Conrad’s interests and methodologies.
As its title suggests, the show’s key theme was the question of what constitutes community, and what art that engages with or involves itself in communities might look like. Three of the works in the show were made during a period when Conrad, his wife Beverly and their young son Ted were living in a loft off Bryant Park near Times Square. Bryant Park Moratorium, a sound piece, is a recording of an antiwar demonstration that took place in October 1969. The soundtrack consists of the noise of the rally coming in through an open window and the same sounds broadcast by local news stations as heard over Conrad’s television set. The latter paradoxically arrive earlier, result- ing in an aural flicker.
On the other side of the spectrum is Loose Connection (1973), in which a rotating camera of Conrad’s own invention is taken for a test run on a family walk to buy groceries. Mounted on a rolling cart, the camera stops spinning every few seconds and snaps a still picture, capturing light-shot images of traffic, roadwork, ladies in flowered dresses, men with bag lunches, chain-link fences and shopwindows. It’s the visual equivalent of a drone: uneventful but full of incident.
These works are joined by documentation of a 1973 summer solstice hippie be-in/dance circle staged by Conrad and his friends under the arcing spray of water from an opened water main. From later in Conrad’s career are com- pilations of his “Studio in the Streets” interviews (1990-94) for public access television, conducted by Conrad and his collaborators, artists Cathleen Steffan and Ann Szyjka, from the steps of City Hall in Buffalo (at whose university he has taught since 1976). In them, city workers, brides, school kids and ordinary passersby talk about what’s most on their mind. Like the rest of the pieces in the show, and Conrad’s oeuvre as a whole, the project is both unaffected and important.
Photo: Tony Conrad: Loose Connection, 1972/2012, Super 8 transferred to 16mm/HD video, approx. 55 minutes, with Beverly Grant Conrad and Ted Conrad; at 80WSE.