PRINT September 2016


Tony Conrad

The First Amendment Network, Studio of the Streets, 1990–93, still from a public-access cable TV show on public television, Buffalo. Right: Tony Conrad. © Tony Conrad Estate.

PICKLING, HAMMERING, electrocuting, cooking—Tony Conrad’s impish assault on the physical substrate and ideological underpinnings of the “seventh art” has been a key influence on me ever since I started making cameraless and direct films in 2003. Conrad embodied the prankster, the comic, the do-it-yourself ethos. His work was messy, it was funny, it was organic; it embraced the everyday and flaunted its economy of means. At times, it was violent. In live performances, he hammered or electrocuted film onstage, then processed it and played it back. If the movies endlessly depict violence, Conrad’s cinema—his “action films”—makes that violence literal.

Conrad was one of my art heroes. The more I got to know his work, watch him perform and give lectures, and see his exhibitions, the deeper my understanding of the breadth and coherence of his practice over its many decades became. Even his work on community-activist public-access cable television shows such as the Buffalo-based 8mm News Collective’s Studio of the Streets (1990–93)—in which Conrad can be seen, like a beanpole version of Michael Moore, talking to people in the street—or his own Homework Helpline for kids (1993–94) exudes the same ethos one sees in his “Yellow Movies,” 1972–73, his “food films” (e.g., Curried 7302 and 7302 Creole, both 1973), and his brilliant Bowed Film, 1974.

I met Conrad a number of times, and I was always humbled in his presence.

I’ll never forget the night he performed Bowed Film at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in April 2005. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in tube socks and a dirty white shirt with a 16-mm film strip looped around his head, amplified by clip mics, and anchored to the floor, he proceeded to play the film with a violin bow—the noise reverberating throughout the space and permeating the bodies in the crowd the way explosions, gunshots, car crashes, and sirens do in any action film in the theater.

After I wrote about Conrad’s “Yellow Movies” for the Los Angeles Times in 2013 and had been e-mailing him about a possible collaboration, he replied, saying he was glad to see how I had made something entirely my own with direct film. I wish I still had that e-mail, but it got lost with a hundred other things in a computer crash.

I once made a list of “future film memories”—films I had yet to see but had heard Conrad describe with the aid of photos: Chief among them were Film Electrocution, 2007, a work in which he “exposed” film stock by electrocuting it before his audience just prior to the screening, and my favorite, 7360 Sukiyaki, 1973, a performance in which the food had to be cooked immediately before being projected (i.e., thrown at the screen). Now those future memories must forever be deferred. In the meantime, may the “Yellow Movies” yellow all the more in the coming years and may the pickled films stay preserved as indexes of your lasting legacy and the long durée of your profound contributions to art, to film, to the world. Rest in peace, Tony Conrad.

Jennifer West is an artist based in Los Angeles.