What Modern Film Can Learn from Avant-Garde Pioneer Tony Conrad

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Experimental artist Tony Conrad is known for his innovative works in performance art, music, video, and fine art as well as his contribution to arts education as a longtime media professor at The University of Buffalo. A former Harvard math student himself, Conrad is widely considered to be a pioneer of minimalism, media criticism, drone pop, and noise music thanks to his lifelong dedication to deconstruction, abstraction, and self-empowerment.

Conrad got into filmmaking during his years spent foraging through the gritty landscape of a pre-Giuliani New York City, where he influenced The Velvet Underground (as a member of the band’s first incarnation with Jon Cale), Andy Warhol (whom he referred to as copycat for his long-form film Empire), and German counterculture. His first film, The Flicker (1966) was revolutionary for structural filmmaking, subverting the concept of traditional narrative by using only five black and white frames to produce stroboscopic effects (it was reported that the film induced headaches or vomiting for some audience members during its 30-minute duration).  Later, Conrad’s interest in the psychoactive consequences of repetition and his ongoing affinity for minimalism lead to the collaborative LP, Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973), with German band Faust. The ground-breaking album, which featured Conrad’s violin over hour-long deep base notes, continued to underscore the avant-garde artist’s proclivity for deconstruction.

Director Tyler Hubby has taken on the tall order of chronicling Tony Conrad’s epic career with part artistic portrait/part documentary, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, which is slated to screen Thursday, March 16 at the Ace Theatre in conjunction with The Broad Museum. The screening will be followed by a video and music homage to Conrad by artist Tony Oursler and Kim Gordon along with talk moderated by Henry Rollins. Conrad’s work has had a dramatic impact on many other influential artists like Oursler himself, Mike Kelley and Robert Longo— all three of whom are part of the The Broad Collection, with Oursler currently on view.

We got the opportunity to chat with Hubby, who himself has edited over 30 documentaries and directed short films centering around progressive subjects like fetishism, bodily mutilation, and mental illness.

Tony Conrad in ‘Completely in the Present’

 

cinemathread: How did you first meet Tony Conrad? How did Completely in the Present come to fruition?

Tyler Hubby: I met Tony in 1994 shortly after hearing the record he made with Faust called Outside the Dream Syndicate. I knew of him as a filmmaker because I had seen The Flicker (1966) but was confused (as we all were at the time) about him having been involved in a legendary Krautrock obscurity. When that record was reissued on CD by Table of the Elements in 1993, a short tour was put together to support it and as the official videographer, I met Tony on the first day.  I was filming him with my Sony Hi-8 camera and he said to me, “I have that same camera!”  Over the years we continued to film performances and interviews and I put together seven short films about Tony that were to be released on DVD with a random shuffle option, but production was halted for various indie rock reasons and it didn’t happen.  I had all this unreleased material and in 2010 suggested to him that we make a single film out of it.

 

CT: Tony was an astute observer of the media. He also pointed out the challenges of documentary filmmaking within the context of Hollywood’s love for narratives. Was it challenging to gain his trust when you first started this project?

TH: His awareness of the apparatus of media production was both an asset and a challenge. He knew how to control his persona and present himself, which made him a joy to shoot in that he needed little direction and would often tell me where he would prefer the camera. On the other hand, he could be wary of what was being filmed and sometimes would simply stop participating. His understanding of the power relationship between the photographer and the subject was complex and fluid as he knew both could have dominance depending on the context. Typically we assume the one holding the camera is holding the power but the one in front of the camera can often have even more.  He has also had, I think it would be fair to say, an antagonistic relationship to narrative. Although he often resisted or confronted narrative forms in his own work he recognized its efficiency in its ability to communicate an idea.

Typically we assume the one holding the camera is holding the power but the one in front of the camera can often have even more.

CT: Can you speak about how you decided to choose which of Tony’s projects to highlight? What thematic thread stood out to you the most throughout his colorful career?

TH: What really determined which works to include was a strong political subtext in the work itself. There are many themes of resistance and self-empowerment in the works. Even a work like The Flicker, which may seem at first blush to be an abstract or theoretical film, is actually a sensory trigger that allows the viewer to create their own imagery, their own cinema, and break from the reliance on narrative figuration. This idea of empowerment can be seen in his public access television interventions and even Tony’s music is also about collective co-creation with the listener. The removal of the artist or composer from the work was a central theme.

 

CT: Was it a challenge to represent his audio/visual style through the scope of your own perspective as a filmmaker? How were you able to marry the two?

TH: I wanted to allow lots of screen time for his works and to keep the commentary to a minimum. The best way to understand his work is simply to experience it.  I also knew I had to keep the film stylistically minimal. I didn’t want my directorial hand to upstage Tony or his work. Where I was able to assert my voice was in the edit where I could really push a droll sensibility which I can’t seem to get away from. Although there are two specific sequences where I created visuals for the music, I wanted to keep them abstract and trance-like so that they could function more as a subtext for the music and not a distraction.

 

CT: Tony seems to be an intensely multi-dimensional person. What was it like to try and capture certain sides of him during the interview process?

TH: The interviews were fairly straightforward and I prepared a lot for each one usually with a focus on a certain body of work or time period. Of course, Tony was known for being a contrarian and would often just change the subject and talk about what was interesting to him at that moment. Sometimes I would re-direct and sometimes I just let him roll because he would take things into new territory. When we were shooting outside, it was a whole different experience. As much as I prepared, I was also prepared to chuck everything and just go with what Tony wanted to do. I have compared it to wildlife photography, where you stalk your subject and see how they interact with the environment. Two of my favorite scenes were total accidents: when we were invited into the Good Wife soundstage, and the final scene where Tony conducts the traffic of New York.  I could have never planned those things and they’re magic.

Tony Conrad, photo by Fredrick Eberstadt

 

CT: How has Tony’s work, along with the process of chronicling his life, influenced your own perspective as a creative?

TH: I think Tony’s constant resistance to received ideas and total openness to experimentation have guided me greatly in my own pursuits. Tony was one to trust his instinct and not fear failure. He said to a friend of mine about a show they were going to perform, ‘Well, it’ll work…or it won’t,’ and he meant it.  He was OK with something not working because he knew that the next thing might be great. Much like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies when I would hit a creative block or was unsure of an exhibition decision, I would ask myself, what would Tony do? Not that I would emulate his response, but that I would use his voice in my head to find my own path. Tony’s music has been the soundtrack for most of my adult life and it always frustrated me that more people weren’t aware of it. All these years of documenting him have finally fit together into this film. Some people have called it a warm or loving portrait, but if you knew Tony and his work, you loved him.

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