March 22, 2017
Aggregate and Differentiate: A Conversation with Tony Conrad
by Steve Polta
April 5, 2009
Caffe Sapore, San Francisco
Editor’s Note: This interview with filmmaker and musician Tony Conrad was conducted by Cinematheque Artistic Director Steve Polta on the final day of a three-program series of talks, performances and films—Tony Conrad: Flickering Jewel—presented by San Francisco Cinematheque in April 2009 at the San Francisco Art Institute, in partnership with the San Francisco Art Institute and 23 Five’s Activating the Medium festival. All photographs were taken by former 23Five Executive Director Randy Yau during Conrad’s music performance on April 4, 2009, and are shared with his kind permission.
Tony: Well, first of all I’d like to say that we’re talking in the wake of a couple of really wonderful events. I feel honored by the opportunity to do a show here that yesterday included our music performance, and the day before included a talk, and I felt that these things have gone very, very well. There’s a very receptive audience with an enormous amount of understanding of what I would hope to challenge them with. And they just go right along.
Steve: You get the sense that they’re right there with you. So do you think they’re not challenged?
Tony: I think that I have to try to make my work uglier and worse. Maybe next time, so that it will be a little more exciting. I mean, it’s exciting as it is but I would like it to be—
Steve: Something more than just gratifying?
Tony: Exactly. I mean, it’s fun to be gratifying. It’s gratifying to me and to them. But it makes me nervous.
Steve: Why is that?
Tony: It just does. Maybe you’ll figure it out, and maybe I’ll figure it out as we talk.
Steve: OK. Well, what I’m really interested in is trying to tie together a lot of the things in your work, and it may have to do with gratification, maybe not. But I’m personally interested in this and I’ve been following your work and your writing for a long time, and I’m really interested in this idea that I actually quoted in the Cinematheque Calendar about wasting time and about duration. [“Time, time, time. Life should be abundant enough for each person to feel what it is to have their greatest pleasure in wasting time.”]
And I feel like in this notion, and in your talk Friday night, you are suggesting ways in which your work challenges power structures. You have an interest in that. I’ve always been interested in this idea of wasting time as a sort of challenge to power, to the forces of control, commodification, capital and all that. And I’ve always been interested in questions of how does time pass?
I’ve always felt so kind of controlled by having these time frames that we live in, these durations … I remember watching television as a kid, or going to work, or having to sleep a certain length of time or something, and it seems like time is this commodified thing that it seems like being able to use it up or waste it or give it away is about the best it can get, you know what I mean?
Tony: I do, and I think that what you’re getting to here is a territory that falls in between individual artist activity on the one hand and larger social conditions on the other. And in that regard, artist’s work, in some sense, can kind of play a symbolic role—one might say showing or displaying a particular course of action or an understanding of the larger picture. But at the same time there’s a kind of opportunity to intervene in social patterns and to change social conditions. [But] that’s not really easy for artists to fulfill. So a lot of political artists, I think, make formal statements about social conditions, but they may not be in the street picketing; and a lot of people who picket don’t necessarily create social change.
In fact the mechanisms for social change are worthy of a whole study in and of themselves, and I don’t think that artists should distance themselves from social understanding just because their role needs to be symbolic in relation to that. Because there are reasons for artists to simply speak to other artists about these things. One of the reasons to do that has to do with preaching to the choir.
Steve: I was going to ask you about that actually.
Tony: Preaching to the choir is simply a matter of recirculating the understandings and self-identity of the group, to itself. And that is the mechanism that comprises the group. So group identity is its recognition of its identity. And that sounds like there’s a language-level jump in there somewhere—and I suspect there is—but that language-level jump allows us to insert symbolic language as a function of identity.
So as far as duration and time, spending time and so forth, I mean, we feel as far as that is concerned as a topic, I think that we’re encouraged often to think of time with a capital T … As some kind of philosophical issue that we need to deal with as a quantity, you see, because we learn the language that goes with time, and then we try to figure out.
We ask, “What is it?” But there’s another vantage point on this whole matter of duration and so forth that interests me a good deal more and that has to do with the fact that we’re enmeshed in a world of jobs and that everybody today is measuring their lives by how much time they can sell. And that means how they can sell their labor in the condition of the economic system.
So when I’m teaching and I talk to students about jobs and so forth, one of the things I feel impelled to remind them is that this is something new, relatively speaking: that people didn’t always sell their labor, or their time; that this is something that only arose several hundred years ago. And that doesn’t mean people didn’t work for other people earlier, but, I mean, the conditions of servitude included slavery and indenture and a lot of other conditions, including simple obligation and kinship. But the idea that somehow in a completely impersonal way that you would exchange the terms of slavery or indentured servitude for money is really recent.
And if you had suggested to people that this would be a good idea, to sell their slavery to somebody else at an earlier time, I think people would have maybe thought twice about that, you know?
And as I discovered in my work with public access in Buffalo, you not only sell your time, but you sell your voice.
For four years I did a show, which was, in effect, an interview show on the steps of City Hall out there. And the team I was working with—collaborating with, I should say—we made this program, A Studio of the Streets, in which we interviewed or spoke with anyone who came along, just anyone. Anyone and everyone was asked to speak with our cameras for use on public access television in the community, with the idea that we would be recirculating the image of the community to itself. But of course some people would talk to the camera freely, and glibly even, and other people would not. Some people would just pass by, or say, “No, no, no, no, no,” “Sorry, I’m busy” or whatever. And I was puzzled at first because so many of our interviewees were African American or disadvantaged people or people who got out of jail and so forth. And finally I realized that the people who would not talk to the public camera were not talking to the camera because they had jobs.
Steve: Or maybe they had to get somewhere?
Tony: No, it’s not that. Let me sketch out a scenario for you. We’ll take Fred. Quote: “Fred, I thought I saw you speaking on TV, Fred. What’s the deal, baby? Uh, you know, Fred, we’re selling tires here, and I don’t really feel comfortable seeing you on TV talking about all kinds of things when we’re trying to make business happen here selling tires.” End quote.
Another scenario, you know, we’re down at the bar, and it’s after work. Quote: “Hey, Fred. I guess you think you’re pretty hot shit now, talking on television. Don’t you, Fred?” and so forth. End quote.
People who are publicly visible have to regulate their speech according to the role that they play in their position. Watch Obama … Who does not sell their voice? Only a very small sector of persons in the job market don’t sell their voice. Some of these might be persons such as myself who are university professors, who are expected to speak out publicly under the cover of what’s called “academic freedom.” This is, in a sense, license to do this, but this is very, very exceptional.
And if you’re looking for work I think it’s a good idea to recognize that at some point you do sell your voice to some degree, and I don’t think people realize that they’re doing that.
Steve: I know what you mean. I see it. I try to talk to people I meet while working at my job as a cab driver, about what they do, that kind of thing. And it seems like there’s a prescribed set of things that they want to talk about, and other things that they don’t want to talk about.
Tony: That’s right, but that’s a cab. That’s a private conversation. If you’re saying, “We’re talking on TV here,” you’d be surprised how quickly people with responsibilities clam up. Or regulate—very carefully regulate—their speech. OK, but to go to your question about duration, I’m just saying these things to suggest that the sale of time is something that is as pervasive and complex in our society as anyone would care to imagine, that it hasn’t always been like that, and this phenomenon is associated with a certain class of people—that is, the rich—who then distance themselves from this condition by not selling their time, by, in fact, conspicuously not selling their time. In other words, in short, people who don’t need to sell their time indulge in leisure activity.
So this contributes to the development of a certain relationship of duration in relation to entertainment and so forth, in which you can be expected to follow social patterns. When you look at what happened in 19th-century culture, for instance, you see that at the same time there were the upheavals that led Marx and Engels to look at the hideous social conditions of the working class in England, you see the development of cultural forms that are especially notable for their long, extended duration, such as huge operas, long performances …
Steve: And what’s the connection between that?
Tony: It’s a conspicuous display of investment in duration.
Steve: It’s something you can indulge in …?
Tony: It’s also developed in relation to the whole ideology of romanticism as self-realization, self-involvement, fantasy, distancing oneself from the conditions of the workplace … going into space …
So in short, I would say that the condition of long-duration cultural activity has historically contingent relations to the issue of the sale of time in the workplace.
Steve: You talk about indulgent uses of time. When I think of this, I think of people going on vacations—taking a cruise or something. Long-duration operas, you think of Robert Wilson, or you think of even a long movie. A three-hour film is a lot for some people to take.
Tony: In that regard I think it’s quite important that in fact duration, issues of duration, issues of long or short duration and what I would associate under the heading “Transparency of Artistic Conditions,” comes into play in a very active role in relation to a number of different points where there are challenges to cultural channels and templates.
For example, it then is important that long work that doesn’t conform to these patterns of romantic excess, but then focuses excessively on, and makes one aware, of self-involvement, that becomes sort of “ontologically engaged,” as Richard Foreman would have it. Or work like Cage’s 4’33“, which, you see, actually takes the duration—pure duration in and of itself—and empties it out and displays duration in the most problematic possible way. You know, the piece focuses everything on duration as a factor, with the expectation of a revolutionary sequel.
And this happens again and again in the 20th century—that there are movies that are challenging through duration and through the way that epoché is effective—that is, the demarcation of the beginnings and endings—in pushing this envelope. Cage is one example. Also the long films of Warhol and Michael Snow, among others, and a lot of video that’s long and boring, and theater, as you suggested. So in almost every temporal form, this comes about, including in literature.
Steve: And in your work you feel it’s a challenge to the sort of bourgeois commodification of time?
Tony: It’s the natural and obvious site of challenge because of the key juncture that exists between duration and work.
Steve: Is it different performing your work now from when you started doing this? I mean, there were 250 people at your performance last night. And those pieces were not that long.
Tony: I’m not doing that type of work anymore.
Steve: You’re not?
Tony: I’m not interested in challenging people through long durations at this point because I think that’s been explored. Thoroughly. It’s not really necessary to revisit that. Systematically. Period.
Steve: Well, I was just wondering about that. Because earlier you were talking about preaching to the choir and you mentioned earlier that you felt the presentation had not been challenging enough. I mean, you used the term “preaching to the choir” in a positive sense, referring to a community that circulates ideas to itself and sustains itself.
Tony: For me, yeah. For me, I can see this as a positive system of values, even though I used to feel very suspect of that. You know, I think most people use the term in a derogatory way.
Steve: Well, this is something I’m really trying to come to terms with. In my own work, I really started thinking about duration when I was in school and I didn’t know your work at all, but I kind of knew of it, and I kind of had this idea of it. So when I started hearing about it, I was very interested in it. And I was making films that were not that long. They were maybe ten minutes long, let’s say, but they felt very long—which was interesting to me—and people who saw them were sometimes very provoked by that. And for me the work was kind of about taking that length of time, that ten minutes or whatever, and saying, “Well, this is a space that the outside world isn’t inside, at least for the moment.”
Tony: There’s a lot of ways to respond to what you are saying. But, I mean, I would like to just say that for me La Monte Young’s early work was very, very valuable, in particular because of his interest in long durations and repetition, and so forth. But in the music that we evolved communally—he and I, and John Cale, and Marian Zazeela—the way that long duration functioned was not so much necessarily and specifically embedded in a system of challenging the norms of temporal expectation and the terms of theater or musical time schemes, but for me rather served the need to vacate totally the structures of musical composition and to move directly into a field of sound so that it would be possible to manipulate the field of sound in real time as a plastic sort of circumstance that we would share with the listener. And this is very different and very important because it skipped over the whole compositional heritage—the Western heritage of the composer—and just snapped us into place as we felt at the time, next to frogs and transformers, just continuing sources of sound that were environmental and spatial, rather than compositional in character.
Steve: Does the idea of non-dissipative sound relate to that?
Tony: In some way.
Steve: Douglas Kahn has written about the history of non-dissipative sound , and of this sort of hypothetical sound that existed at the beginning of creation that’s continuously happening—that’s still and always happening, that everything that is exists within. Is that going too far?
Tony: I don’t know about that. I’m seeing this as related to a kind of cultural politics, if you will. It’s an intervention. It’s a radical intervention into the system of cultural politics to try in effect to dismantle and deconstruct—to dismantle through work the underlying structures that have led to the function of the composer as an institutionalized phenomena. This is what I was interested in.
Steve: When you were describing the work that you were doing, you said that you were in the sound and that you created the idea.
Tony: We went into it.
Steve: You’d go into the sound.
Tony: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Steve: Is that an escapist place?
Tony: Could be … Certainly I would say that the escapist prospects within extended-duration contexts provide a basis for encouraging further incursion into this entire area. If you couldn’t possibly find yourself enthused through the experience of listening to choruses of frogs, or machines humming in the night, it would be hard for you to exercise the discipline necessary to stick with this project, as we did over a longer period of time, and structure it as a cultural intervention. But of course we shared a certain willingness to engage in fantasy, dream, getting high and listening, being indulgent, taking our own fucking space and time for ourselves and screw everybody. There are a lot of terms that go into this that were psychologically very important.
Steve: For you and for the participants?
Tony: Each in their own way. We all were coming to this place, having different reactions and different forms of empathy with the general conditions that we inhabited over a longer period of time. And it was also important to be finding cultural antecedents.
Steve: Such as?
Tony: Such as long-term ceremonies of all kinds in, for example, church, and drumming and trance, for one, and then, for two, in repetitive forms that might be epitomized in La Monte Young’s piece for Henry Flynt [X for Henry Flynt, 1965], which was an endlessly repeated piano smash or gong beat or something like that—which is a phenomenally wonderful piece to listen to.
At the time I used to sit, you know, in 1961 and ’62, I would sit in my room at college and just strike a chord on a guitar over and over and over and over and over again.
Steve: This was before you were involved with Young and the others?
Tony: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Steve: And where did that interest come from?
Tony: That evolved out of my experience with violin lessons—because I was a very poor student. And I had an inspired teacher who realized I sucked and suggested that since I couldn’t play with vibrato, and I didn’t play very well, and I wouldn’t practice, that maybe I should play in tune. So he pointed out that if I wanted to play in tune, I should play very slowly, very carefully, and listen very carefully. And these instructions to play very slowly and very carefully in tune are instructions that I’ve followed ever since. It’s sort of a guidepost that has turned out to be an exceptionally useful guidepost, and as John Cale once said, “Simple stories are the best.”
So I was inspired in my violin performance, in this regard, by things that I found in Baroque music, for example, where there were long durations and careful attention to the sound …
Steve: One thing that’s really interesting to me about this is that you open the space up to the sound. And then there’s something in the space. It’s not a tangible thing. And I’m curious about the antecedents to this. You were talking about Baroque music, but you were also listing trance, and ritual, and all these things like that, and you talk about attacking the idea of a composer, but there’s also something kind of anti-rational about what’s going on in that space. I was surprised to hear you say you followed your teacher’s advice of playing slowly and in tune because last night’s performance didn’t seem to be in tune, although I don’t have much of a musical ear.
Tony: I did two different sets last night. In the first one I tended to follow the idiom that I had developed in connection with our earlier group, the Theater of Eternal Music, or Dream Music, as you will. In the second I decided that I wanted to go to a different place altogether, and that’s because I’ve found a lot of pleasure and interest in the kind of improvised music that’s been going on among younger musicians, and I found that people have an ear for this now, that it’s possible for me to make music that’s really just excellent music, and I know this space well.
At first when I first started expanding my repertoire into “noise,” I felt a little tentative about it, because I felt that while I didn’t want to sort of muddy my own rug—I didn’t want to foul my own nest by polluting things with a lot of noise and so forth. I didn’t want to go into a purist space of harmonically constructed sounds and so forth and crap all over it. But I became very interested in the dichotomy that existed between a kind of aggressive post-punk, trashy, improvised noise music, on the one hand, and a very refined, quiet—or maybe not quiet—controlled experience through articulated sounds, you might say, on the other hand. And I found it was for me very helpful to develop in my collaborations with [artist] MV Carbon.
For example, in a performance at the Tate Modern in London a year ago we performed in a situation that was very dialogical, with everything divided by two. There was one group of two that performed in an anarchic and post-punk noise manner—improv—that was led by Carbon basically, and there was another group led by me, which, one might say, was much more controlled and drone-like. And I really liked the intersection of these things, sort of establishing a kind of spanned difference, a set of differences. Everything is always defined through a set of differences.
Steve: Is that right?
Tony: Yeah. I’m not all into sort of Derridian understanding, but yeah, things are defined as differences.
And so I found this set of differences really exciting, and I found also that I could incorporate heterological elements into my music performance in a way that was exciting to me. At first I did this very tentatively, like I said. Like, I would play a sustained drone improv, but in the middle I will put in some really off-the-wall shit, and people would say to me later, “Oh, I especially liked the part where you were doing la-dee-da.” And I thought, “Oh, this means that people are hearing this in a way that I understand, that’s familiar to me, that I understand the ‘performance philosophy,’ the sensibilities that are involved, and it’s something I can do and do very well, and I like it, and so I’ll do it.” And the more I did it, the more people seemed to enjoy it.
Now, there’s a certain loss of discipline that goes with this approach, which I feel is unfortunate, so one of the things that I’m very interested in trying to do today, that is, in the present tense, or in the future tense, is to construct a matrix of requirements for a music that does sustain discipline, but also doesn’t have to be grounded in a sense of harmonic structure, or existing ideas that have to do with platonic ideals, absolutes, cosmic order and all this other kind of crap that plays into the hands of power structures.
Steve: So you’ve been intersecting with the world of so-called noise artists for quite a while, ten or fifteen years at least.
Tony: Well, I’ve always liked doing what I want to do. I have a nice recording that I’d like to release sometime soon that’s in a genre that I think of as Lower East Side documentary, or, as I think of it, Lower East Side ethnic music.
Steve: And what is that?
Tony: It’s like basically free improv from the early ’60s that happened with me and my friends, and sometimes happened with other people, but that was not free jazz and really took a kind of shape that I think people don’t know about. Very open, playing “out” music by amateurs that’s just excellent. And the reason we didn’t know about this is because there weren’t very many people recording stuff at that time. Well, maybe there were a lot of people that might have recorded it, but if so, they didn’t value it. Sometimes [in those days] I would record something and think to myself, “Man, that is such great stuff. This is incredible shit that we recorded.” But then the idea that you would ever want someone else to listen to it seemed very remote because at the time the strictures on what was released, and what was thought of as suitable for the radio or the concert hall, was very anally tense.
Steve: Well, there’s a lot more interest in esoteric, weird shit like that now. There are a lot more venues for it, like labels, or whatever, right?
Tony: Yeah, well, part of that I think just has to do with the fact that now people can be exposed to anything they want to see or hear. We owe a lot of that to UbuWeb and to CDs, and to downloading of audio and video material. I mean, if you want to hear what Zulu musicians sounded like in 1930, go for it. If you want to see some kind of film that was shot by Romanian filmmakers in the ’50s, go for it.
Steve: Right, right, like what we were talking about yesterday about everything being published, or the idea that maybe Cinematheque needs to put this stuff out.
Tony: That’s right. And this access creates a kind of complexity that I think in earlier times would have been seen as disturbing and defeating. We had a phase in the U.S. where people spoke freely about the crisis of modernity as being like the age of anxiety, and the problems that modern man faced in dealing with a complex society. But I’m much more drawn to Nicholas [Lehman’s] understanding that complexity breeds complexity and understanding, that if the conditions are complex, they stimulate complexity in the structuring of response. So the more that’s out there, the more people know; and the more they hear, the more they like it and the more they look for it. This is demonstrable because people are out there and they are looking for stuff. They’re finding films and sounds and all kinds of stuff, and they don’t even care anymore about the disciplinary boundaries. They don’t care if it’s a film or a movie, or whether it’s video, or recorded on celluloid. I mean, there’s a lot of chatter about this because it’s in crisis.
Steve: But you embrace that …
Tony: It’s a condition. The front side of the historical curve suggests that a lot of discriminations that have obtained in the past have been elaborated with a different kind of complexity, so that we’re going to have not only film and video, say. We don’t have to have an argument between film and video, but we’re going to have film as film, and film as video, and video as film, and video as video, and a thousand other variations, and this is not bad. It’s going to be film as installation, and installation as video, and on and on and on, and it’s very exciting. To me, it’s very exciting. I mean, I’m not saying I’m in favor or against it, but there it is.
Steve: OK. So I think we saw that, for example, last night. We saw a whole mix of people at the show, but mostly, well, a lot of people probably come to your music through experimental music or through the noise music world or something like that, and that’s fine with you …
Tony: Oh yes.
Steve: Because you were just mentioning the loss of discipline by incorporating these sorts of other elements into the music.
Tony: I do like cultural alternatives, in what they used to think of as countercultures. In other words, other channels or infrastructures, systems, sub-systems, cultural sub-systems that perform with some kind of skin around them that prevents them from being absorbed completely, or dissipated completely, that hang together. I like this because I think it enriches everything and I have—I like it, period. I like that. I think that these systems, these subsystems, like political subsystems, they need to have their preaching to the choir.
Steve: I was going to ask you about that.
Tony: Yeah. They need that—noise music people need to have noise music.
And you find that it stabilizes and solidifies that. At the same time, when the noise music, or post-punk, or whatever it is, becomes so feathered out and formless that it just becomes everything, then the sense of there being some kind of preaching to the choir is lost because the discipline is lost. In other words, the discipline of the choir—the social formation—is dissipated. That’s why I think that a kind of disciplined outlook and a disciplined practice are really getting to be a necessity now, simply to shape something.
Steve: Rather than just a little of this and a little of that.
Tony: “Everything is everything” is not everything; it’s nothing.
Because if everything is unified, there’s very little differentiation, and we need to have controversy, differentiation and clear product formation. A good example from earlier in the century is that you have groups of people who call themselves Rayonists, or call themselves Dadists. Or call themselves maybe the Beatles. You find a group of people that consolidate around a particular idiom, and this is a clear-cut pathway to successful intervention in the cultural territory, and it enriches that and becomes possible to sustain and negotiate with.
Steve: Well, I really perked up when you were talking about feeding back into the subculture and reflecting back at your talk the other night. We just had Rebecca Solnit as a guest to introduce this Bruce Conner retrospective that we did [March 18–19, 2009]. She wrote a book about Bruce in the ’50s, and his milieu in San Francisco. It was very inspiring for her to say that this separation from society was an important thing, and she had clearly drawn this inspiration from Bruce’s scene.
Tony: Yeah, yeah. And it raises the question, “How do things get to be important?” That’s a really sort of very interesting question, especially when a lot of people don’t think that they’re important.
Steve: You mean in the big picture?
Tony: Yeah, or in certain respects. People can be doing fascinating things, and they don’t feel that it’s important. I think it helps to feel like what you’re doing is important. It’s nice.
Steve: And you feel that you’re feeding back into that—whatever you want to call it—the noise music scene in a positive way and having a dialogue?
Tony: I don’t really know. That’s not for me to say.
Steve: What about the experimental film community? How do you feel in relation to that? I mean, you’re famous for this film, The Flicker  …
Tony: That’s right.
Steve: And …
Tony: And I made a film and it turned out to be excellent, and it endures, and you look at it again, and here it is, 2009—we’ll look at it tonight. And it’s still good. And that’s just a great, great piece of good fortune on my account to be associated with something that just simply works as well as this film works—every time. But it’s not really something you can count on doing. I mean, I can’t count on doing it either.
But I don’t expect this of other people either. I always think that if anybody really succeeds in impressing me, even once with their work, that they must be really wonderful. Because it’s so tough to get there. [laughs]
Steve: You mean to impress you, Tony Conrad, or just to push the rock up the hill?
Tony: To push the rock up the hill. It’s so tough, and you can fail a lot, but if you succeed in a striking way, it’s really something else.
Steve: You were also saying the other night about Descartes and this idea that he was writing about geometry and not intending to make this philosophical statement [“I think, therefore I am”], and then this thing emerged as a whole philosophical statement. It was out of his control.
Tony: I have the feeling that his longer-term impact on Western philosophy was not what he intended originally, very likely. Although, you know, it’s always unsafe to think of what somebody intended. But it seemed as though the general drift was to try to reinstate the authority of the church and its relation to enabling the divine right of kings, and other things that it needed to do in order to stabilize the society at a time when there was a lot of libertinage that was fomented and abetted by the translation of Sextus Empiericus and other texts into the vernacular so that people could read arguments against everything. And moral certainty was dying on the vine, and it seemed as though they were looking for a way to nail things down, and keep things going and keep it together, and instead inadvertently it turned out that “I think, therefore I am” tore everything up in the long run.
So it could be also we’re entrapped by this kind of thing too, and everything we see as importantly revolutionary and importantly aimed in what we would like to think of as the “right direction”—quote, unquote—may turn out to be completely misconstruable and ill-conceived. Hard to say.
Steve: Well, you know people are always looking back and finding something valuable or interesting from previous eras. For example, there’s been a lot of interest in your own over the last ten or so years …
Tony: The reading of work shifts radically over the course of time. The interpretation of people’s way of placing things and understanding what a particular cultural artifact has to do with the current concerns—it shifts; it changes, really. Strikingly so.
Steve: So back to the film/video community—do you feel you’re actively participating in that and feeding back into that community at this point?
Tony: No, I don’t, and the reason I don’t is I think that the—if you will—the autonomous identity of what you’re calling “the film/video community” has kind of melted a little bit.
We all know about convergence, right? Convergence as a term which alludes to the technological consolidation of digital systems, where everything, it turns out, that we identify as pictures, or words, or language or sounds, can be converted into a string of bits.
So that’s one kind of convergence that’s happening. But there are other kinds of convergence that also—it seems to me—are occurring in the wake of that.
There’s a kind of communicational convergence, which, as I suggested earlier, means that we don’t have a clearly separable idea about film—and after all, this is related to some of the things that I wished for, in trying to abet an onrush of an endgame for the structural film in its formal concerns [in works such as Yellow Movies]. In the process of a media convergence, it turns out that film can be film, but it can also be defined by its place of exhibition, or, you know, whether it’s film or not, it can still show up online …
As Paul Arthur once pointed out, everybody knows the film Empire by Warhol, but almost nobody ever saw it. And so what film is and how it defines a community is a little looser than we expect it to be.
And at the same time there are people who are making experimental films who are not experimenting, but are actually participating in a genre. And how that genre is defined is different within and from without the movement, or the system of identification. Like a film that, for example, might be made by scratching up shots of the San Francisco Bay could be thought of internally as experimental, but from outside it might be thought of as, for instance, possibly abstract expressionist. Or it might be seen through some other lens. But this preaching to the choir, in terms of sustained terminology and a set of exhibition practices and so forth, is sustaining to some of these communities. But at the same time, there’s another force that this convergence is really challenging. And for me it’s very hard to see how to make radical moves within this system. You know, if I wanted to make a radical experimental film right now—
Steve: What would you do?
Tony: Yeah, what would I do?
Would I challenge its identity as experimentation? I don’t think this would help because it would simply position me outside the language. Should I challenge its identity as abstract expressionist? I don’t think this would help because it wouldn’t be recognizable from within. So we’re in a little bit of a crisis in that regard, and I think that’s very interesting, but I don’t know personally how to deal with it.
So in a situation like that, my tendency personally is to look for a larger envelope and to see how I might be able to restructure things within that larger systemic outline.
Steve: Larger envelope being larger cultural space to play around in?
Tony: Yeah, or to readjust elements of previous approaches, say, l look for different sites of exhibition, or different mechanisms of production or look at other aspects of the whole system.
For example, in the early ’70s I decided that in working with film, I decided I don’t like Kodak’s role. I decided that Kodak has all the fun: they get to make the film. I decided that I should make the film myself. At the time I knew photographers could make their own emulsion, so I thought, “Why can’t I make my own film? I want to make my own film.” It’s much more difficult to figure out. “Okay, I decided that I don’t want to use a camera.” A lot of people decided that, but then I said, “I don’t want to use light. I want to use something else to expose the film.” And it turns out there’s a lot of ways to expose film. I mean, even just using the emulsion in the standard way. I’m not talking about painting on the film even—just using the regular emulsion. There’s a lot of ways to activate it that don’t use a camera. You can use pressure … You can use chemicals … You can use electricity … And so forth and so on. And so maybe I want to try working with some of these instead.
Steve: And those are some of the films we’re going to see tonight, right?
Tony: Right. So there’s different ways of processing the film. You can process it by, instead of using the right chemicals, you can use different ways to process the film and so forth. I’ll show some tonight. [The screening included Curried 7302, 4–X Attack, and 7302 Creole—all 1973—among others.]
See, here’s one for example that I’m bringing, that I want to show. This is Roast Kalvar. [Removes the film from a case.] And it’s been painted.
Steve: So that one’s not going to go through the projector.
Tony: No, it’s too crispy. Very coiled up. This was made in 1974.
Steve: That’s the same one you made in 1974?
Tony: Well, that’s the one, yeah.
Steve: Like a little pet—like you can carry it around …
Tony: Well, at least it doesn’t break apart. I have some that I made that are even crispier, which don’t travel easily.
Steve: Some of the films from this series run through the projector, right? And some of them are in jars, right?
Tony: Yeah, exactly.
Steve: So when we look at these, is the work of the piece in the gesture of doing this action on the film, or is it the experience of watching the films? Or is it making the whole package in a new way, confronting the person—the viewer who “consumes” this film—with something new? Is it the overall experience?
Tony: As I say, I think what I’m most interested in here is trying to expand the paradigmatic envelope by occupying other sites than simply the ones that have been traditionally affected, but also then to try to rush ahead with the inevitable deconstructive process that accompanies an emphasis on formal systems and procedures. Because part of what I had been exposed to in music early on, that is, through Cage and Fluxus and so forth, was the inevitable deconstructive collapse of film—rather [corrects himself] of a music composition process as the formal aspects of that were elaborated more and more thoroughly among composers. Like you have Schoenberg sort of suggesting that we just use all the notes equally. Then you have—if I can sort of skip high point to high point—you have Boulez organizing not only the notes but also the durations and the timbres, and the length of notes, and so forth, all according to a scale of structures from one to twelve. And then you have people who throw out the whole number system, like Cage, and just do it by chance. And then you have a shift in which, instead of using the notes at all, you have, like, Dick Higgins saying in his piece, you just boil the telephone. Or Yoko Ono’s work. Or La Monte Young’s work. The next thing is you have everything sort of collapse into performance, and you have happenings. And then you have anything. So I watch that happen.
Steve: But I feel like your music is more experiential than that….
Tony: All those things are experiences …
So you see I watch this processing curve, then in the late ’60s. I mean, you can follow the same kind of thing happening in painting and sculpture if you read Lucy Lippard’s book on the dematerialization of the art object, or some other study of late ’60s conceptualism, you know? And then I see the same formal structures being emphasized in film and I think, “Oh god, the same thing is going to happen here. Let’s get it over with and get to the next thing like everybody else is. Because we don’t want to hang up here and have to take twenty years to do this, or ten, or five years. You know, let’s get on with it.” And once you get past that then things become, you know, much more mutable.
Steve: And what happens after that?
Tony: Well, what happened, for example, in painting and sculpture, was there was a social revolution that brought women into the process, very importantly, for one. That’s one thing that happened.
Tony: So the process of renewal and medium identity shifted to social identity. So you have all these things like feminist art, and political art and the reintroduction of pictures, and everything comes back in a way that’s seen through a different lens. And you have gay culture—I mean, suddenly there’s a whole new ballpark.
Steve: Do you think film recovered in that way?
Tony: Or will it?
Steve: Will it?
Tony: I don’t know. It would be interesting and it seems like a lot of these things have been happening, but what are the next cultural moves? That’s sort of what we’re looking at here, and it’s very interesting to try to consider what might happen in the next decade. It’s not too evident yet to me, but I’m overloaded.
Steve: Overloaded in what sense?
Tony: Well, I was there in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80, ’90s and this decade, and you know—you should ask somebody younger. [laughs] Maybe they can tell you what’s going to happen next! I’ve got too much on my plate …
Anyway, it’s an exciting territory. And it’s certainly the case that there’s a lot of room for younger people to move ahead, move out—a lot of territories to occupy.
I think principally because of the fact that the old differences, you know, which you were alluding to in some respect, have changed completely. As everything goes online, you find that when I want my students to know about some artist’s work today—let’s say Bruce Conner—they just go to Google, or they go to YouTube or UbuWeb, and there’s stuff on there, and that was never true before.
Steve: But there’s stuff that’s not on there.
Tony: There’s a ton of stuff that’s not on there.
Steve: Cinematheque did this Bruce Conner retrospective a couple of weeks ago, and I when I was working on the program notes I went out of my way to find information from published sources that specifically were not out there on the Internet. Just to put more stuff out there into the sea of information. And I did it for your show tonight.
Tony: But the difference is that, see, like I grew up in sort of a fairly undistinguished area of rural Maryland, and if I wanted at that time to find out about Bruce Conner … well, I simply couldn’t have. But today I can find out about Bruce Conner even if I lived in northern Portugal.
And not only that, but the Bruce Conner information would be right next to the Tony Conrad information, and for that matter, also maybe next to a famous Canadian horror film director whose name would turn out to be very similar to some composer’s. And yet all of these things sort of occupy the same general envelope. You begin to lose the difference. I’m not sure that people today would understand the difference between Bruce Conner’s film, A Movie  and some other thing that they dig up that they saw on TV, or old advertising that Rick Prelinger would have … You know, there’s 500 channels, and they’re all there and you begin to lose the sense of there being a basis for [growls] “God damn it, this is different!”
So at the same time that there’s this loss of differentiation, there’s a simultaneous increase in differentiation. It’s like the complexity of the system.
Steve: In library science we say we “aggregate and differentiate.” For example, you’ve got a database of a thousand things, or maybe a million things, and let’s say they’re not even as interesting as Bruce Conner’s films; maybe we’re talking about surveys of like conductivity of a certain type of metal. So the challenge is, how do you sort these things and order these things and present a subset that’s meaningful? That’s aggregation and differentiation.
Tony: Is that right? I want to co-opt your words right here; aggregate and differentiate is exactly it, yeah.
Steve: And a new cultural idea that’s out there is creation is “out” and selection—or curation, if you want to use that word—is “in,” and assembling interest in certain material is an act of creation.
For example you look at people like Rick Prelinger, or Craig Baldwin, who—you know—Craig will just grab anything. He’ll show weird Canadian industrial films, TV commercials, avant-garde films and just kind of throw it all into a big mess. And he said a very interesting thing to me once. He said, “You know what? If you’re making a movie, you’ve just got to take anything from everywhere. You’ve got to get it all in the same shape”—16mm was the shape he was talking about—“and then you can do whatever you want with it!”
Tony: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And in relation to your question about my music, I would say one additional thing that sort of moves in this direction. And that is in my performance as a minimal musician, one of the things I was criticized for pretty broadly was being too expressive.
Steve: Well, I wondered about that, because in your work there seems there’s a lot of sensual indulgence.
Tony: Well, I felt one of the things I could bring forward about music, and in a sense as an instructional service, or as providing an example, or giving something to people, is the fact that one note can do everything that music does. It can be beautiful or ugly. It can be raucous or smooth. It can be exciting or dull. It can be like a dance, or it can be a meditation. Anything. I can try to sort of bring all of these things into play just within a note, and in that sense there’s something similar to what you were saying about the materials not making any difference. There is something odd in that the music lives in some way on a different plane from the materials that comprise it.
So in relation to the second performance [the previous night], I’m also interested in the way that I can take musical materials and bend them to the same interests—so I can make music that is raucous or smooth, or beautiful or not, and these qualities become indistinguishable at the level of the sound itself except in a way that delivers the music to the audience, you know? And I would like to try to do something like that, you know, so something is conveyed and learned, and happy, happy, happy, happy day.