When I was at the University of Buffalo as a graduate student, it was my privilege to study with Tony Conrad, who, as time passes, becomes an increasingly iconic figure for various counter-cultural locations and art movements of the past forty some odd years. Taking seminars with Tony at Buffalo was a joy since to take a class with him was not only to understand everything that had happened since the mid-century so much better, but to understand it through the engaging and poly-mathic works that accompany his biography.
In Branden W. Joseph’s Beyond the Dream Syndicate, a recent study of Conrad and “the arts after [John] Cage,” Joseph, taking up the terminology of Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, paints Conrad as a “minor” artist. To be minor, in Deleuze’s/Guattari’s sense of the term, is to exist at the boundaries of official historical narration, as well to open up gaps and interstices where counter-narratives can occur. Following Joseph’s compelling thesis, Conrad’s oeuvre presents multiple points of indiscernibility for the post-War avant garde, inasmuch as it forces one to reevaluate the cultural significance of any number of avant garde practices and movements, not least of which include usual suspects such as Serialism, Cage, Expanded Cinema, Fluxus, Minimalist Music, Structuralist Film, and “Postmodernism” so-called.
What coheres through Conrad’s fellow-travellings with said movements and figures is as much a throw-back to Renaissance virtuosity, as it is a deconstruction of virtuosity itself by which those shibboleths of Historicism—“genius” and “authorship”—should also be taken to task. What Conrad’s variegated work reveals, without exception, is a relentlessly horizontal investigation of power in all of its guises and forms. Parallel with thinkers like Michel Foucault and Deleuze (who sites Conrad’s The Flicker in his Cinema volumes), Conrad demonstrates “the powers of the false” as that upon which all social and natural life is based, and allowed to flourish. Power, in the work of Deleuze and Foucault, as in the work of Conrad, is something to be celebrated, not deplored.
It is in this affirmative sense that I see Conrad not only as a specter haunting the late-20th century avant garde (if not also a contemporary one), but as your consummate trickster figure. While there remains something heroic about Conrad’s minorness, there is also the sense in The Flicker, or by pickling film, or in the many videos he has appeared in whereof he assumes a particular mask or character, that Tony is pulling our legs. And we who love to be fooled and entertained of course want our legs pulled. Only leg-pulling becomes a serious business whenever it is combined with Tony’s vast skill-set, and his equally vast eagerness to seek out the cracks in culture.
I am reminded of this business by the work that Tony inspired of me and other students at Buffalo Media Studies in his 2001 seminar, “Contemporary Alternative Media.” In this particular seminar students were encouraged to cultivate unique and collective identities in the interest of interactive performance, tactical media intervention, and collaboration. For part of our final work, I vividly recall the majority of our class participating in a demonstration at the Peace Bridge on the border of Canada and the United States in Buffalo.
Gearing up for the event Tony encouraged us to wear uniforms, so we all wore red pants and t-shirts. Anticipating local news coverage, we approached the bridge in our uniforms carrying an American flag—as though in mourning, or already incensed by what was going on at the bridge. As we approached, I remember cameras seeming to swarm us. When we got to the Peace Bridge we played a series of games together, all in the spirit of suggesting or fomenting actual revolt. The game I remember us playing for the duration of the demonstration was a game of Red Rover. “Red rover, red rover send so-and-so over,” as though to taunt the line of police who remained within earshot.
The final action my friend Brandon and I thought to take, but never ended up taking, was to raise our asses towards the police and fart—a ridiculous reverse-parody of the harrowing tear-gassings a year before in Seattle during a WTO demonstration. Although Tony was not organizing our class on the day of the demonstrations per se—he just seemed one of us, only older—many of the elements I now find so fundamental to his work were there in what we were doing, however unconsciously: an unshaken awareness that History (with a capital “H”) issues from a complex and interrelated series of representations, and not a plenitude of eternal truths; that to play—or “dance over an abyss,” as Nietzsche would have it—can and must be put in the interest of social justice and political action; and that, mainly, perversion is one of the many effective forms resistance can assume.
Without further adieu…