No one ignored technology’s prescriptive limits better than Tony Conrad. In his six-decade long career as a composer, filmmaker, installation artist, activist and teacher, Conrad agitated countless aesthetic, sensory and perceptual regimes. In Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective at the ICA, Philadelphia, Conrad’s scamp-like approach to mainstream media’s surveillance tactics, the art world’s cultural hubris and academia’s authoritarian push towards professionalization are magnificently displayed. No medium of expression passed Conrad by without becoming a site of aesthetic intervention and epistemological questioning: ‘Hold the sound’, Conrad asks his audience, and discover ‘what kind of things there are in there’.
After studying mathematics at Harvard in the late 1950s, early 1960s, Tony Conrad moved to New York City where he shared an apartment with John Cale, ate $0.12 chicken, worked temp jobs and jammed with Marian Zazeela, La Monte Young and others as the Theatre of Eternal Music, an improvisational group that made densely-layered drone music using mathematical constraints and verbal instruction rather than musical notation. While the scores themselves are still mostly unheard (due to a legal battle with Young, who has refused to release the tapes), on view are the terse instructions for the experiments: ‘to perform this piece,’ one reads, ‘do not perform this piece’. Alongside these sit a panoply of Conrad’s ‘Invented Acoustical Tools’ (1966-2012), cobbled together sculpture-hybrids built to produce sounds, among them a perforated drum head, a ball-paddle tied to a tuning key and a faux Tibetan horn.
H (1965), a composition Conrad made while working as an entry-level programmer at LIFE magazine is also shown. What he would later call ‘a minimalist print work in a format analogous to film’, this work consists of the letter ‘H’ printed continuously across 60 pages of continuous IBM computer paper. Readings multiply: as an unending drone composition or an example of early concrete poetry, an exercise in ‘computer art’, and as a film (the grid of H’s resemble rolls of film). Deploying the shortest, most passive unit of language – a breath – H quietly draws our attention to the chains of signification that link the performative closure of any act – here the depression of a single key – with its documentation.
Like his music, Conrad’s films use the long durée to test our ability to see the otherwise imperceptible. Hung on the walls surrounding H are four iterations of Yellow Movies (1972-73). Faced with the fact that no projector or film could run for as long as a life is lived, Conrad painted movie-screen shapes onto large panels of photographic backdrop paper and filled the frames with cheap house-paint that would gradually yellow over time; paint is the ‘movie’s’ light recording medium. Its action? A life-long fade to yellow. This stark experiment led Conrad to explore film’s extreme material limits by splicing cinema with cuisine: he pickled film to preserve it (Selections from Pickled 3M-150 (1974)), deep-fried it (Deep Fried 7302 (1973)) and roasted it to ‘expose’ it (Roast Kalvar )(1974)). These film-objects sit inside corroded mason jars and other rusty containers, and appear alongside Conrad’s tremendous Yellow Movies, still playing, as if for time itself.
Later in his career, Conrad brought his gumption for breaking with institutional proprietaries and pedigree to his own community of Buffalo, NY. What began as a ‘jail movie’ shot with Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler in the 1980s, the unfinished WiP (2013) – read both as ‘Women in Prison’ and ‘Work in Progress’ – is now a full-scale installation, complete with jail cells, glass ‘paintings’, and a ‘canvas’ projection that shows the grimy penal spaces suffered by women convicts. In another room are various non-art works Conrad made for public-access television. In Homework Helpline (1994-95), Conrad cheerfully takes calls from Buffalo youth who need help with homework and has other students help them out. It makes sense that Conrad would repurpose the boob tube to be used as a community chalkboard. Here, as elsewhere, Conrad will be remembered for brazenly rewiring the prudish mechanisms of our technologies, using any supposed limitation as an invitation to alter its very state.
Main Image: Tony Conrad performing Bowed Film, 1974. Courtesy: The Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia