New York

The First Amendment Network, Studio of the Streets, 1991–93, still from a cable access TV show on public television, Buffalo, NY. From “Tony Conrad: Urban Community Inventions,” 2012.

The First Amendment Network, Studio of the Streets, 1991–93, still from a cable access TV show on public television, Buffalo, NY. From “Tony Conrad: Urban Community Inventions,” 2012.

Tony Conrad

80WSE Gallery, NYU Steinhardt School

The First Amendment Network, Studio of the Streets, 1991–93, still from a cable access TV show on public television, Buffalo, NY. From “Tony Conrad: Urban Community Inventions,” 2012.

Tony Conrad has made his way through the past half century of cultural shifts by puncturing paradigms to let out some of the hot air. While his major contributions to movements from minimal music to structural film to media studies are only growing in recognition, it was no surprise that this exhibition, organized by Michael Cohen along with the artist, forestalled nostalgic retrospection. Viewers were greeted with a window display ostensibly referencing New York University’s controversial expansion plan, with blinking caution barriers and a wheelbarrow of cement mix—signals of a work in progress. The rest of “Doing the City,” which was billed as a survey show, was more a constellation of lesser-known ventures grouped around the theme of community and public space.

“Community,” as Conrad explained during one of the show’s affiliated screenings at Anthology Film Archives, can be understood as an interpersonal feedback loop—a group’s transmission of an image of itself back to itself. In Buffalo in 1991, Conrad discovered cable access as an available means by which to engage this circuit, and he administered shows ranging from a live, kid-to-kid Homework Helpline, 1993–94, to Studio of the Streets, 1991–93, in which Conrad and colleagues (working under the name The First Amendment Network) would ask those who happened to be outside Buffalo City Hall to exercise their constitutional right to speak their minds. Several episodes from the latter were projected throughout multiple galleries here, such that the space echoed with discussions of unemployment, racism, and the need for bottom-up political change. These shows originally broadcast the populace’s voice back to itself—the channel’s main audience was the lower-income population in Buffalo—and one concrete success of Studio of the Streets was that it convinced the city to make a TV station with filming and editing equipment available to its public, for the purpose of creating cable-access material. Though seeing this footage installed in Conrad’s survey may have tempted comparisons to the “social turn” of 1990s art production, these programs were not made with the primary intention of bringing local politics into an art context. Their inclusion here speaks more to Conrad’s disregard for any art/life divide—an irreverent attitude toward formal boundaries that has kept him moving among venues from cinema to sidewalk, the art gallery being only his most recent foray.

The rest of the show related to a period in the 1970s when Conrad lived in Times Square. His personal experience of carving out a domestic existence in this uninviting territory was presented on almost equal footing with the projects he worked on during that time via anecdotal, autobiographical wall texts and the display of two chunks of asbestos, standing in for toxic flakes that flew into his family’s Forty-Second Street window. Waterworks, 1972/2012, consisted of recently edited footage of a mock hippie solstice ritual staged by Conrad and his then wife, Beverly Grant, in the narrow pedestrian triangle between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. While a nearby open water main gushes up like a fountain in the center of Times Square, the performance troupe prances over exhaust grates to the sound of conch shells and bongos, seemingly impervious to the amplified signage and tourists surrounding them. The piece has a sardonic effect similar to Jack Smith’s defiant masquerades, as a performative, lived resistance to the towering dominance of commerce and its attendant normative imperatives.

Around the same time, Conrad made Loose Connection, 1972/2011, on a family errand to the grocery store, using a contraption he’d designed to make a Super 8 camera rotate intermittently and take a few frames at each pause. This was meant to supplant the cameraperson’s orientation with a mechanically regulated one, introducing a “space shutter” to the filmic equation. The result is a flickering, kaleidoscopic portrait of ’70s midtown. But there is a disjuncture between the blurred images, which had been slowed down in their translation to a 16-mm print, and the real-time audio accompanying them; any wistfulness evoked by the visual traces of a bygone era is pierced with the familiar sounds of honking traffic and Conrad’s matter-of-fact explanation to inquisitive passersby that “this is an experiment.”

Annie Ochmanek