A pioneering filmmaker, artist, activist, educator and musician, Tony Conrad’s recent survey exhibition at 80WSE – ‘Doing the City: Urban Community Interventions’, his first institutional show in more than 20 years – was based on work originally made in analogue formats that has been revivified through digital technology. Throughout the exhibition, Conrad’s work demonstrated how information is tied to the structures of various media, whether it is film or audio, a constructed space or simply talking to people on the street.
Much of ‘Doing the City’ comprised video projected onto the walls of the gallery, with the exception of a mock construction site installed in the NYU-affiliated gallery’s shopfront windows. Gravel piles, leaning planes of drywall, detour signs and a wheelbarrow spilt around the front room that introduced Conrad’s forthright and democratic series ‘Studio of the Streets’ (1990–93). The gallery’s other windows appeared empty, but contained the 1968 audio installation Bryant Park Moratorium Rally. The rest of the exhibition blended a raucous, jubilant array of sounds that coiled through 80WSE’s halls. Echoes of sirens, passing cars and construction washed around corners of the space, which seemed to contain a boisterous city within its walls. Beyond the mounted works, the exhibition also included an extensive schedule of music performances by Conrad and events discussing his career.
In Loose Connection (1972/2011), a Super-8 film converted to HD, 42nd Street is animated and contorted as it’s captured from a rotating camera mount that seemingly looks out from the filmmaker’s abdomen. Occasionally, it cuts to a dark, howling void before sounds of thunderous winds and speeding subway trains give way to floods of blinding white light. These flickers of light, interspersed with images of street life, with its bustling citizens and ’70s Coca-Cola adverts, create the feeling of a world relentlessly rushing in. In tandem, the black and white flashes tease the viewer’s desire to comprehend the elusive, constantly vanishing imagery. Like an information gate, Conrad’s wild shutter functions as the controlling factor between producing regulated, decipherable images on film or, alternatively, exposing the filmstrip to extreme degrees of light and stripping the potential for a methodical representation of the world around him.
On one evening during the exhibition, Conrad performed Chant (1961) for the first time in 50 years. The piece marks the early formation of drone music. Microphones and speakers are positioned throughout the room and, as the musicians play live for the audience, their sounds are recorded onto tape and retransmitted into the space with alterations in pitch and frequency by the artist. These recycled sounds echo back into the closed recording loop, reintroduced into the room until Conrad decides their use has been expended. If sound waves are like heat particles, Conrad is Maxwell’s demon. Similar to the hypothetical figure in thermodynamics that separates hot molecules from cold, the artist moderates between initial recordings and recorded feedback to produce a tonal space of clarity and order. Unintended noises are not spared involvement, as even sneezes or the clashes of dropped instruments are incorporated back into Conrad’s recording tape reels. For the audience, sound takes on a material presence as its varying vibrations are felt through one’s bodily organs and heard darting against walls.
The artist’s work with sound and experimental film explores the physical presence of the media and how their structures convey stimuli as information. ‘Studio of the Streets’, a collection of interviews with locals outside the city hall of Buffalo, in upstate New York, was broadcast on public television, ostensibly as a project for community activism. Conrad produced the work along with Cathleen Steffan, Ann Szyjka and other members of the Buffalo film community. The documentary-style videos show an array of individuals: a woman flatly and defensively states how she did not choose to be white; a man questions how George Bush could possibly be elected after Ronald Reagan; a driver fixing his car advises: ‘Do your own work – don’t leave it for someone else.’ At one point, Conrad candidly discusses sexual experience with two young girls. Throughout all of this, one sees individuals choose how to spontaneously structure a deliberately unguided conversation. One man asks, ‘What’s the topic of the day?’ before Conrad turns the microphone back on the individual to decide. Wall texts at 80WSE read ‘Everyone looks SO GOOD on TV, look at how we zoom in’, ‘Everyone has GOOD things to say, hear how easy it is.’ The words engage the gallery audience as an extension of the participants shown on the street, and project a tone that straddles activist encouragement and subjectivizing manipulation.
The presence of digital media in the exhibition felt at once everywhere and nowhere. The works exhibited came to light only through being converted to digital formats, but Conrad’s work makes an impact that feels true to its analogue origins. In contrast to their initial reliance on apparatus and bulky machinery, the audio and video of ‘Doing the City’ explored the structures of image making and human interaction in a way that parallels the digital liquidity of today. If there’s more in Conrad’s archive that needs salvaging, one may hope that the light exposed in his films continues its leak over to the digital medium.