Tony Conrad was at the same time many things and nothing at all. The artist, who died in April 2016, was, at different moments, an underground filmmaker, a musician, a video artist, a performance artist, a public television host, and a teacher. But within those distinct practices, traditional definitions fell short. His films were like music, and his music could be like films; a class he was teaching could easily dissolve into a video shoot, while the act of filming often turned into a performance or a lesson. The act of creation, it often seemed, was more important than the end result.
But this prodigious and often mischievous form of working made Conrad’s career hard to define, and has since pushed him to the margins of different histories in which he is an integral, if not central, player. Is he a filmmaker or a musician or something else entirely? Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, a new documentary directed by Tyler Hubby about the artist that opens at Anthology Film Archives in New York today, attempts to untangle the many paths Conrad followed, the many projects he was involved in, and many more that he left behind. There are many people who are already familiar with Conrad’s work who will find things in the film they never knew existed, whole periods of productivity that have rarely been discussed, and it becomes clear that there is even more sitting around in boxes and in filing cabinets waiting to be discovered. So instead of shrinking down Conrad’s life into something that is digestible and easy to understand, the film celebrates its wild looseness and leaves the access points wide open for anyone to enter.
As an undergraduate math student at Harvard, the lanky and bespectacled Conrad encountered the composer La Monte Young, a controversial figure who would change his life. When Conrad started traveling to New York, he would arrive at Young’s doorstep unannounced, and quickly began to integrate himself within the world of experimental music that was emerging downtown, with Young as its (later debated) center. As an eventual member of the Theatre of Eternal Music, along with Young, Marian Zazeela, John Cale, and Angus MacLise, Conrad had his hands in the creation of what became minimal music, via the long, repetitive drones they were producing as a group. But he never followed in the footsteps of people like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, who moved from smaller downtown venues to the dusty concert halls uptown, pursuing, no doubt, any available funding. “I wanted to end composing,” Conrad says in the film, only joking a little. “Get rid of it. I wanted it to die out.”
Part of this attitude might stem from the way the music Conrad made during that period has, for the most part, never been heard. Young, who over the years increasingly presented himself as a messianic figure of the underground, guarded all the tapes of their collaborations, and refused to let them out of his sight. Conrad made various attempts over the years to convince Young to release the recordings, even picketing appearances the bearded composer made, but was never successful. Years later, some of the tapes mysteriously leaked, and the musician Jim O’Rourke, a friend and collaborator, notified Conrad. With the help of the experimental label Table of the Elements (and after consulting a lawyer), they released Inside the Dream Syndicate, Vol. I: Day of Niagara (2000). It remains some of the only evidence of what the group was doing during that period.
The experience with Young, it seems, might have pushed Conrad into making films. But to even say he was making films is an insult to the actual work. The Flicker (1966), Conrad’s first and most famous work in the medium, is more of an experience than anything else, and altered the way many artists looked at the possibilities of moving images through its intense assault of strobing light. What Conrad was more interested in was what he jokingly refers to as “not making films.” He began different experiments: instead of running the film through a camera, he started to pickle it; using cheap house paint, he created a series of blank images that would start to change color over time, creating the longest durational “film” in history; a prison comedy starring men in drag — including Tony Oursler and Mike Kelley — was begun and then, when money ran out, Conrad kept the prison set, located in a loft in Buffalo, New York, for a few decades, eventually using it as part of an installation.
Teaching was in many ways the perfect situation for Conrad. First at Antioch College in Ohio and later at the University of Buffalo, it was a foundation that could serve as a lab for experimentation and a questioning of the art of education. Often, it turned into performances — in the film, Conrad is shown giving cookies to his students who didn’t bring food to class against the school’s policies — and later actual projects, with the hierarchical structure of student-teacher broken down. While in Buffalo, in addition to the unfinished prison film, Conrad brought his students out into the street and made participatory documentaries, engaging with local residents and giving them the opportunity to have a voice. He even created a live public access show with children that offered them help with their homework. It was all in the service of expanding the possibilities of creative work — what it can mean, how it can function, and who it can serve.
Conrad never stopped creating, and in some ways this film is his final big project — he was interviewed extensively for it before his death. The documentary details the past and shaping its narrative while, because of the amount of work that we still don’t know about or that has been kept from the public, leaving it open for revaluation: a continuous, open-ended, and perpetually unfinished artist life.
Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present is playing through April 6 at Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue, Lower East Side, Manhattan).