Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present

A very special guest post by my hubby Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner) on the forthcoming film screening of Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present at Tate Modern on Friday 14 October 2016 and an interview with the director Tyler Hubby. Enjoy!

Over six decades Tony Conrad (1940-2016) was astonishingly prolific in countless mediums, pioneering work in film, music and art. Though his name may be unfamiliar to many readers, Tony Conrad joined the dots between a vast variety of characters, music scenes and artists, from The Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, counterculture film, Sonic Youth and minimalism in art and music.


I was fortunate enough to see him perform a couple of times, once in London at The Queen Elizabeth Hall in the 1990s, where he seemed to be rather a shadowy figure, quite literally as he performed behind a massive white screen, his silhouette projected from a light behind him, a simple but very formidable image. Having seen Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Swans, SPK and other legendary noisy bands live before I was also astounded at the sheer volume of the performance, with a friend afterwards quite seriously threatening to sue the venue for his potential loss of hearing!

This week the UK premiere of Tyler Hubby’s Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present portrait documentary takes place at Tate Modern on Friday 14 October, followed by an in conversation with curator Andrea Lissoni, and two live performances featuring David Grubbs, musician and composer, Paige Sarlin, media scholar and Conrad’s widow, and Jennifer Walshe, vocalist, composer and artist. What’s especially interesting is that Tony Conrad’s Amplified Drone Strings is set up so that the musicians are playing ‘with’ Conrad and just simply performing his music.

In anticipation the director of the film, Tyler Hubby, was gracious enough to answer a few questions of my one pertaining to the film.

Tyler Hubby signing the film poster in our living room!

So where did this all begin? I’m curious as to what the inspiration was to make this feature film?
I began documenting Tony Conrad in 1994 when he began releasing recordings on Table of the Elements. In the first interview I did with him he answered one question with a 45-minute soliloquy – with cross references. I was astounded by his on-camera presence. At the time I was totally unaware of his television and media work but he was very camera savvy. As I continued to document Tony over the years, in both interview and performance, I would casually joke that one day I would weave all this stuff into a feature, and in 2010 I suggested that it was time to start. I shot new interviews and dug deeper into Tony’s own archive of works. The trick in putting all of this together was to find a commonality amongst the works and the idea that came through the strongest was that Tony’s work empowers the viewer (or listener) to be a co-creator in the work and truly create their own experience.

Were there aspects of Tony’s life that were impossible to capture on film?
Tony was probably the most multifaceted person I have ever known and it was impossible to get every one of them on camera. He could change his tone several times within a single conversation. He sometimes could have an explosive temper that was well known to those who were close to him but it was hard to get that on camera in a way that could be contextualized. It also took him a long time to step back from more theoretical discussions and get into some of his feelings about his work and relationships.

Are there artists around today that you feel offer up the same level of commitment and wild exploratory nature that Tony pushed for his entire life?
There is a Los Angeles based artist named Marc Horowitz who, although not a musician, has a similar playful and subversive approach towards media and community and has done some hilarious stuff. He went on a national tour having dinner with strangers, he set up free coffee cart in public parks and did some very funny stuff with streaming live video where he would take suggestions from viewers. He has recently moved back into painting and seems to be doing less of this work.

Any thoughts regarding the live music performances that will take place after the Tate Modern screening?
As all of us who knew Tony are now facing the problem of seeing his legacy and performance idiom continue. He is impossible to imitate. One solution that is emerging is that when his pieces are being performed he is right there playing in pre-recorded form and the musicians use his backing track as a guide to build on.

What legacy has Tony left behind?
This will take some time to figure out, I’m afraid. There are so many works and notes and recordings that haven’t even been cataloged. An archive has been set up and that process has begun but it will take time. But the most tactile legacy I have encountered are the many former students whose lives and practices have been altered because of their experience with him. He empowered a lot of people.

Tony was recognised as a provocateur in many ways – has that influenced or inspired your own work since working on the documentary?
My own work has always listed toward the silly and confounding and is provocative (if at all) in a more sly and understated way. I do want the audience to be confronted with their own (mis)perceptions, but in a quieter way. My own shyness is reflected in that. I put works out there and tend to be somewhere offstage cackling away. But Tony has given me and many others a sense of courage and fearlessness in pursuing our most absurd and ridiculous ideas. There just may be truth in those ideas.

Your own interests seem to frequently focus on the outsider – figures such as maverick musician Daniel Johnston, DC band Bad Brains, Johan Grimonprez’s wonderful Double Take film, and especially many of your photo series. What draws you to such folks?
Since childhood I’ve always felt like a bit of outsider. Even my wife will tell you I’m a bit of an odd duck. I have always admired those who struck out on their own path and (maybe even inadvertently) created something original. Originality is hard, and requires lots of failure and pushing through and embracing of the new and unfamiliar. And of course you risk being hated and misunderstood. All the time. But it’s a great trade off if you discover something new. One place to start is with the personal. So I go there and document my own life and surroundings and am trying to push myself into a new point of view.

And of course, what can we expect next from you?
There are still some Tony Conrad materials to get out there. I’m sitting on a massive archive of stuff and working with the estate to get that in order and get it out there. It may never really end. But I’m also getting together another film idea about my childhood in 1970s post-hippie Silicon Valley and working on some photo projects.

The UK premiere of Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present takes place at Tate Modern on 14th October 2016, with countless screenings to follow around Europe and around the globe. Catch this essential film somewhere!


Click here more information about the events at Tate Modern on Friday 14 October 2016.
Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present movie
Tyler Hubby
Burning Bridges
Robin Rimbaud


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