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PRINT September 2016

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Tony Conrad

Tony Conrad making field recordings, Atlanta, 1965. Photo: Frederick Eberstadt.

I REMEMBER VISITING Tony Conrad one morning in his hotel room in Rotterdam, where I’d traveled to see his performance of 7360 Sukiyaki, 1973, alongside a screening of his more canonical structural films and a concert of amplified drone violin. Anyone who knew Conrad can recall how he occupied his spaces, with a proliferation of instruments and/or equipment of various vintages, in variable conditions of repair, each one related to an ongoing project in some state of completion or incompletion. Although he could not have been in his hotel room for more than twenty-four hours by that point, his gear already covered every available surface. In the midst of unpacking, he’d found a short in the cable to his violin, which he proceeded to patch with the foil cover of a packet of marmalade from the hotel restaurant. I was likely the only audience member to know the culprit when the instrument’s signal briefly cut in and out during the performance.

This is only one of innumerable memories from the time that I knew Conrad. Others would include hearing the first results of his musicological research into Jean-Jacques Rousseau over drinks at the old International Bar on First Avenue, the hysterics of watching bad late-night British television quizzes after his triumphant performance in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, an introspective moment at a Lower East Side café where he shared recollections about his early collaborations with La Monte Young (reminiscences that began after Conrad had intended to leave, forgetting the bicycle helmet already strapped to his head), a journey from Buffalo across the Canadian border to a Chinese restaurant for soup made with vodka (lots of vodka!), and a remarkable concert at the minuscule venue Under Acme, where he seemed to be playing the sound of the amplification echoing off the back wall of the room. Yet somehow the image of that Rotterdam hotel room, scattered with a profusion of materials, seems emblematic not only of Conrad’s personal presence but of his artistic process: expansive but interconnected, with earlier projects brought forward into the present, sometimes seemingly on the brink of collapse (although nothing a little aluminum foil couldn’t pull together).

When I first met Conrad, in 1995, he seemed to manifest numerous distinct cultural personae: filmmaker, musician, composer, performance and video artist, educator, community activist, and more. Although his projects in various media were intimately connected—his most famous film, The Flicker, 1966, being among other things an attempt to replicate in light the harmonic interactions pioneered by the minimal musical ensemble the Theatre of Eternal Music—he seemed hesitant to discuss the different strands of his practice together. It was almost as though his having emerged artistically during the waning moments of high modernism had prevented him from recognizing the extent to which his work had undermined that very paradigm. From film as music (The Flicker) to painting as film (“Yellow Movies,” 1972–73), film as sculpture (the three-dimensional exposure timing sheet for The Flicker), or sculpture as viewing machine (his recent glass hangings), Conrad’s cross-disciplinary endeavors generated an intricately interconnected and still not fully assimilated oeuvre.

Far from content to remain within the minimal style he helped pioneer, Conrad was unafraid to take off in different directions, to try new things, even to “fail” in public. His characteristic comment about a project that hadn’t garnered the expected response was, “Very interesting.” Equally impressive, he was completely content to succeed in the least prominent and least prestigious of venues. A meditation on death and 78-rpm records performed at a John Fahey memorial concert at the club Tonic could easily have been developed for Performa. A series of seminars on harmonic theory presented at the scrappy Paris London West Nile space in Williamsburg in 2008 rivaled Anton Vidokle’s more prominent “Night School” presentations concurrently taking place at the New Museum. Such was Conrad’s heretical manner of negotiating the cultural landscape, one that I attempted to analyze as “minor” (not in quality, but in the sense that Deleuze and Guattari characterize the literature of Franz Kafka) and that continues to distinguish his legacy even as his work has entered venerable museum collections throughout the world.

Undoubtedly, some of Conrad’s fearlessness can be attributed to a secure academic position in the Department of Media Study at the State University of New York in Buffalo, where he initially worked alongside such celebrated peers as Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, and Woody and Steina Vasulka. During my last visit with Conrad, however, I got the impression that his attitude also had something to do with Buffalo itself, with the way the city—which has largely shared the fate of such Rust Belt municipalities as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit—implicitly poses a set of priorities different from those of the more high-flying capitals of the international art and music worlds, of which he was also a part. It was only then that I felt I finally understood Conrad’s fierce attachment to the project Studio of the Streets, 1990–93, in which he stood on the steps of Buffalo City Hall and interviewed any passersby willing to speak to him for public-access television. Always keen to include the resulting videos in retrospective assessments of his career, Conrad saw them, perhaps, as showcasing an awareness of, and alliance with, a wider and more democratic public than the art establishment generally allows. (Conrad was acutely interested in radical democratic theory, citing political theorist Chantal Mouffe as early as 1992.) Conrad did not naively or romantically prefer this public to his various artistic and musical audiences, but he seems never to have let it out of his sights, either. He always proved alert to the fact that there was an outside: to every medium or genre, to every artistic or political orthodoxy, to every delineated public or audience, to every institutional framework, and even to his own tastes and subject position. “You can call it taste,” he once said to me, “but some people would go so far as to call it aesthetics, or what beauty is, or ‘what is ecstatic and exquisite in one’s life.’ Maybe it’s the same as falling in love, but, I mean, whatever it is . . . it’s like if you have an experience and then your attitudes shift so that you have the same experience in a way which is one hundred and eighty degrees different.” Art, music, and film were only some of the routes toward such epiphanies, as Conrad liked to call them.

Conrad’s creative and intellectual associations always turned into personal ones. There was, in that sense, no separation between his art and his life. Only a couple of weeks after I first met him, he called to ask if he and his girlfriend could crash on the floor of the New York apartment I shared with Felicity Scott. The place they had arranged had fallen through, they had sleeping bags, and, well, I had just stayed at his place in Buffalo to conduct those interviews. . . . Needless to say, there was no question that the person responsible for naming the Velvet Underground could stay on my floor. Early the next morning, a walk through the East Village became a tour of addresses where colleagues such as Jack Smith had lived in decades past. Conrad always carried his history with him like that. It was a vast collection of affiliations and interconnections, every bit as profuse and heterogeneous as the material that filled his living quarters. Yet it wasn’t exactly “history,” if by that one means experiences relegated to the past. Conrad kept those associations alive and made them part of an ever-unfolding network that extended to more individuals every year. Although by definition a network has no center, it is nonetheless the case that certain nodes open onto more connections than others. Were it possible for a network to develop a hole, there would be one now in the place formerly occupied by Conrad.

Branden W. Joseph is Frank Gallipoli Professor of modern and contemporary art at Columbia University.