An avant-garde artist for all seasons

Tony Conrad has been one of the best-kept secrets of the 1960s New York avant-garde art and music scene.

Tony Conrad in 1966 (photo credit: FREDERICK EBERSTAD/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
Tony Conrad in 1966
Anyone heard of Tony Conrad? No? You’re not alone. Okay, let’s try another identification ploy. How many of you have heard of Velvet Underground? A lot more, huh? Well, it may interest you to know that, anonymity notwithstanding, had it not been for Conrad we might never have had the pleasure of listening to the aforementioned American experimental rock band.
That, and plenty more, comes across in Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, a documentary by Tyler Hubby that will screen at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on July 17 at 6 p.m.
Watching the film, one becomes ever more incredulous that Conrad’s name has not been up in giant lights for the past half century, and that he was not hailed as one of the seminal groundbreakers of the ’60s. Conrad, who died last year at the age of 76, managed to engage in numerous left-field arts projects in music, the plastic arts and filmmaking. His work may seem wacky, but Conrad was no maverick fly-by-nighter. He was a well-educated musician, composer, avant-garde video creator, sound artist and educator who throughout his life never shied away from innovative departures, doing his utmost to stay in touch with the pulse of everyday street folk.
Conrad has been one of the best-kept secrets of the 1960s New York avant-garde art and music scene. His work has inspired Velvet Underground founders John Cale and Lou Reed, multimedia and installation artist Tony Oursler and now 81-year-old avant-garde composer, musician and artist La Monte Young, who has been hailed as the world’s first minimalist composer.
For many, the term “avant garde” may conjure up images of eccentric oddball characters who spend all their waking hours working somewhere beyond the pale of socially acceptable behavior, but Conrad seems to have been anything but that. He comes across as a highly personable chap who was simply driven by a desire to constantly check out the boundaries of our perception of the world about us.
Conrad perceived things, often perfectly mundane elements, that the rest of us don’t consciously get. Take, for instance, the closing slot of the documentary in which Conrad “conducts” traffic. Who else would have even noticed the clearly perceptible tones and textures produced by vehicles of different sizes and shapes, and traveling at different speeds, let alone tried to orchestrate them?
“That was just something that came up on the spot,” says Hubby. “We were trying to shoot some other scenes, and I had a couple of interview questions I wanted to ask him. We tried doing that at first, but we realized it wasn’t really working for him, and it evolved into this idea of conducting the traffic.”
At one point, a woman crossing the street, noticing a gray-haired gent gesticulating toward the passing traffic, asks Conrad if he’s OK. “I’m fine,” comes the reply. And he was. He was still feeding off life – every day, definitively accessible life. Not for Conrad the ivory towers of elitist, possibly unfathomable conceptual art; he was the archetypal down-anddirty artist.
Hubby knew the man well.
“I first met Tony in 1994, around the time that the compact disc re-release of Outside the Dream Syndicate was put out,” says the director, referring to an album that was originally released in 1973, in which Conrad collaborated with German krautrock group Faust. “Table of the Elements [the record label that released Outside the Dream Syndicate] was started by Jeff Hunt, who was a roommate of mine in San Francisco. I sort of got drafted into being the videographer for a series of live events they were doing.”
During the course of the series, Hubby had time to chat with Conrad and the seed for what eventually became Completely in the Present was sown back then, over 20 years before the film eventually materialized.
In fact, had a prior project worked out, we may never have gotten to see Completely in the Present. In 2002, Hubby was about to put out a bunch of short DVDs about Conrad, with interviews and gig excerpts that would be viewable in shuffle mode.
“The project was scrubbed right at the 11th hour,” explains Hubby. However, there was some positive fallout from the last-minute rejection. “All of that material reverted back to me so I had all these scenes and short films I had done on Tony. Some were performances, and there were interviews – a mixed bag of things. It was just meant to be a loose order of isolated things you could watch in different orders. We decided it would be better to upgrade it all into a sort of 90-ish minute film.” And so Completely in the Present was born.
Hubby must have had his work cut out for him. Conrad was always coming up with some new, sometimes startling, creative idea. It must have been hard for the filmmaker to keep up.
“Ideas were just always there or, if he didn’t have an idea he was knocking down some other idea,” Hubby notes, adding that he working with such a mercurial character forced the filmmaker to just go with the improvisational flow.
“I’d plan all sorts of things for a day’s shooting, but I’d often realize that I should just throw them all out. Tony was a notorious contrarian. Anything you’d suggest, his first response would usually be no.”
That may have been frustrating for Hubby, but once he’d accepted that this was the way it had to be if he was going to get any worthwhile footage out of Conrad, life became a lot easier.
“I realized I didn’t have to put so much effort into my plans because they would just be shot down anyway.
I just thought that, whatever the best idea was – which was usually Tony’s – that’s fine.”
The result of that laissez-faire ethos is an insightful film about an utterly fascinating and seemingly approachable man. Conrad comes across as being totally devoid of airs and graces, and despite the tough times he endured – and there were quite a few – he did not appear to dwell on the bad stuff. He just got on with the next job in hand, whatever came up.
The hackneyed epithet “a man ahead of his time” is a perfect fit for Conrad. He solved his problem of being on the road – and therefore, unable to sit with his students in the same classroom – by using a rudimentary form of videoconferencing, long before Skype. He used his media skills to address what he called “probably the most despised institution in the world, outside of war – homework,” trying to make the onerous task fun for kids of all ages. He also tried to demystify the media for the ordinary man, woman and kid on the street.
Artists who ply their craft toward the cutting edge of creative endeavor can tend to be somewhat aloof or impassive. Conrad gives the impression of being totally down-to-earth and engaged with his fellow Homo sapiens.
For more information: Left: The performative piece ‘Bowed Film’ demonstrates Conrad’s minimalist approach to music and film.