No Context: Tony Conrad at Performa
by Zach Baron
Greene Naftali Gallery
Tuesday, October 30th
It is at times very easy and at times very hard to reconcile Tony Conrad, the 21-year-old composition student from Concord, New Hampshire with Tony Conrad, the 67-year-old professor at the University at Buffalo. The first: early violin minimalist, member of the Theatre of Eternal Music along with John Cale, Angus MacLise, La Monte Young, and Marian Zazeela; video- and film-art pioneer, beginning with The Flicker, in 1966; Heinrich Biber obsessive; Harvard graduate, A.B. Mathematics, 1962. The second: a cultural institution, longtime teacher, writer, and mentor to any number of students, the kind of guy who lends legitimacy to museums and concerts and record labels, just by showing up. They are in many respects remarkably similar men: fixated on repetition, even boredom; quirky, outsider types who are respected for their undeniable accomplishments even as they’re quietly shunted off to the edge; vigorously intellectual, but also pranksters, funny guys.
But if Tony Conrad, the 21-year-old, had an audience that even he mostly assumed resided in the future—his work, he once said, “was a total displacement of the composer's role, from progenitor of the sound to groundskeeper at its gravesite”—that future has now arrived, has become the past even. And with his primary musical legacy (hundreds of recordings made with the Dream Syndicate, since held captive by his former friend, LaMonte Young) tantalizingly out of reach, much of his reputation resides only in the memory of whoever might care to recall it. Sometimes it seems as if Conrad could just disappear—as he knows and has observed, “History is like music—completely in the present.”
No surprise then that what you heard in conversation before the premiere of Window Enactment, a piece commissioned for and performed as part of PERFORMA 07, the New York-based visual art performance biennial, was mostly “oh, why are you here?” You could have asked Alan Licht this question, or Cory Arcangel, or Matt Cerletty, or that guy with the long braided beard and hat from the No Neck Blues Band; Conrad’s constituencies are so far-flung—former Buffalo students, video-art geeks, arch composers, etc—that they don’t generally remember that one another even exist.
And add then to these Conrad’s performance-art sideline, which takes the conceptual rigor that underlies the pleasures of pieces like Four Violins or The Flicker, and foregrounds it, makes it into the thorny conceptual problem that older Conrad concepts like “active listening” in fact allowed you to dodge, since the pieces themselves were so enticing. Window Enactment is just the sort of formalist experiment Conrad has often written about, but to my knowledge, rarely tried.
Window Enactment: in the corner of the Greene Naftali gallery in Chelsea, a corner is walled off with white-painted construction. Rum-swilling patrons are signaled to attention by the lights going out, then fan out around the notional wall in which a window is inset. A door in the assemblage briefly opens and closes; behind it, red and white lights start flickering, and eventually silhouettes come into view. Over the next hour and a half seen and unseen violins play; what sounds like the “Godzilla” theme thumps at half-speed; and five often-nude actors (two women, three men, Conrad among them) act out domestic scenes such as talking on a cellphone, making a bed, simulating sex, trying on clothes, dining at a table, reading a book, and looking pensively out of the window. The audience, meanwhile, struggles just to peer in: the window is small, and much of the action takes place way behind it, in the rear corner of a room into which we can only barely see.
First frustration sets in, then resignation, then boredom, all three by design. Undoubtedly, Conrad’s sending up voyeurism—the scrambling around the room for a view through the window, the eventual domestic tedium of what the nude people are doing within, etc. There’s also an homage here to Edward Hopper’s 1932 painting “Room in New York.” A longtime favorite of Conrad’s, he once described it like so: “Here there is the window frame we are peering through, the stark whites and yellows spotlighting the figures that draw our attention in, while letting us forget that our eye has been caught in the position of a peeping tom: the torsion of the figures away from each other implies their imagined relationship to the voyeur. Only this much, and already we are inside the story, lost in the confusion of the picture.” This would be a fair depiction of Window Enactment as well, though it doesn’t get at the sheer stultifying repetition and boredom that eventually takes over outside the borders of the frame.
Boredom’s a technique too, of course. A devotee of the trance theory of the hypnotherapist Milton Erickson, who believed that the path to a direct relationship with the subconscious was to trick or puzzle a person’s active, conscious modes of attention, Conrad also shares his belief in the techniques that yield such a state: boredom, distraction, confusion, and interruption. (About boredom, Conrad wrote: “Boredom is, as [formalist media works] demonstrate, in fact productive of a renewed orientation toward those fundamental (ideological?) actuators, expectation and the value of passing time.” Which is to say, I think, out of tedium comes revelation, or a different kind of communication anyway.) Which is all very boring, in the context of a Tuesday night in New York.
Conrad tells a story about how one of his heroes, the electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, once came to see the Theater of Eternal Music play. “At that time we were frequently using a large gong that Robert Morris had made for La Monte,” recalls Conrad. “Immediately there was a great change in Stockhausen's music—which had been stalled in its serialist tracks. He started using ‘improvisation,’ and even wrote a piece for gong. What a dweeb.” Such was the power and camouflage of Conrad’s early projects that one taste could lead the great Stockhausen to the lowly gong. There are many ways to distract a man, not all of them dull.