Friday, November 02, 2007
Delay in Glass Enacted
Tony Conrad *Window Enactment* Greene-Naftali Gallery October 30th
Tony Conrad is perhaps best know for his film *The Flicker* and his seminal contributions to early Minimalist music in the 60’s, and less well know for his work in visual art performance. His recent showings at Greene-Naftali gallery prove the tides are changing for Conrad as his entire career is being taken better into account by art critics, historians and fans alike. Since a seminar I took with Conrad at the University of Buffalo and through my encounters with Tony while living in Buffalo I have known him to be a consummate performer, if not principally performative, since 2001. Conrad’s singular personality, his mischievous and careful control of performance details, place him as a performer foremost before his formidable achievements as a musician and time-based media artist.
Conrad’s performance at Greene-Naftali, *Window Enactment*, left many in the audience seemingly baffled as to what he was up to. My own reception of the performance is conditioned by the fact that I could not see much of what was being “enacted” as it could only be viewed through a relatively small window set in a corner of the spacious and open gallery. As I consider other performances I’ve witnessed by Conrad, I don’t doubt it was his point to frustrate an audience’s view of the performance and thus their overall reception of the work.
The performance began with a projected video image of a house set-construction with a single window set within its edifice. This video played for an unusually long duration (five minutes or so) preempting frustration among many in the audience who sat and stood in anticipation of what would eventually occur. I suspect this video image, clearly a reproduction of a Super 8 film, was shot in the 70’s as the press release to *Window Enactment* places the work’s composition somewhere between 1970 (with a parenthesized question mark following the date) and 2007. So *Window Enactment* is something long in the making—a delay in (literal) glass—like many of Conrad’s projects which he has only recently taken up again after renewed interest in his career.
Following the projection were a series of scenes, tableaus and performance-‘events' whose only unifying logic seemed to be a meta-critical view of aesthetic participation, pleasure and spectatorship: what is seen and what can’t be seen, who sees who (through the window), what is called to attention as exhaustive (and thereby ironic) banality, and what as titillating perversion, exhibition, scopophilia, fetish, ambiguous ambient presence. The fact that the audience should view the performance enacted through a window seems both allegorical and effective, the window establishing a private space for the viewer to peer *into* and for the performers to see *out of*, watching the audience with binoculars at one point and by various other voyeuristic means at others. Regardless a panoptical ('two-way') gaze was heavily in play throughout the performance foregrounding the window itself in its obtrusive, mediating character.
Much of what I could see from my vantage in the gallery were naked bodies performing simple domestic tasks like setting and clearing a dining table, dressing and undressing, watching television, playing LPs, turning off and on lights, and having basic conversations by cell phone. Discerning some of the cell conversations (for example, “I can’t come right now ‘cause I can’t go right now ‘cause I am stuck right now. Why don’t you come over?...” I was struck by their utter banality; the performers would talk about what they ate for lunch that day and other small-talk in between heavy breathing and sexual innuendo. Some of the tableaus reminded me of the work of Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelly with whom Conrad has collaborated throughout his career, and notably before Kelly and McCarthy were the art world figures they are today. I was also reminded of the kitsch of Jack Smith for whom Conrad assisted on sound for Smith’s ‘underground’ classic *Flaming Creatures*, as well as George Kuchar and Abigail Child whose films and videos involve melodrama and kitsch similarly.
In Conrad’s performances an air of mystery and fascination is consistently over-determined by perverse behaviorist experiment. As soon as the audience has sunk with the performers to an extreme level of boredom Conrad will put on a light show with flash or “clapper” lights—post-psychedelic era “eye-candy”— or hold a nude Minimalist chamber concert to recall the audience’s active interest. Here there is a dialectic between the anesthetizing quotidian as it exhausts the viewer, and the spectacular wondrous as it maintains the viewer’s curiosity forcing the more patient viewer (more than half the audience cleared out before the performance was finished including many I know to be sympathetic with Conrad’s work) to continue attending the performance.
Conrad is for me a perverted performance artist who yet raises many exigent and critical questions about the relationship between audience and performer/artist as they embody problems of power, and visual-sonic empowerment especially, in post-Modern Western culture. That I could not see much of what went on finally during the performance (however I did sneak closer and closer to the most advantageous perspective before the window as much of the audience with the choicest seating cleared out) and therefore report ‘accurately’ on ‘what happened’ seems par for the course with much of Conrad’s performance work as the work deliberately underscores the relationship between performers, audience and artist-performer-director. As one gathers from much of the sound and visuals of *Window Enactment*, Conrad is also a master in control of his craft who knows how to deliver the beautiful, exquisite and frenetic in respite, if not respect, to his audience’s frustrated attention.