Is this Penny Ante or a High Stakes Game?

An Interventionist approach to Experimental Filmmaking

Tony Conrad

Printed in MFJ No. 43/44 (Summer/Fall 2005) Paracinema Performance

John Cage wrote 4'33” a half century ago, in 1952; Rauschenberg's White Paintings were done around the same time. So when I was making my first film, The Flicker, more than a decade later in 1965, the least of my fascinations was with the fact that it had no pictures. Yet as with the minimal sculpture that emerged around that same time, it was the “emptiness” (as one might say) of the work that first drew viewers' attention and surprise. My interest in The Flicker was more subversive than that; I was devoted to the experiential excess that flickering light made accessible to “abstract” film. There exists, in fact, a recording of the first flicker experiment that Jack Smith and I conducted with Mario Montez on March 5, 1963. Amid the clashing of finger symbols and repeated gasps of pleasure and excess, we hear:

Jack Smith: Oh Tony, look! Can you see this being photographed in this flickering light? Aah, look! Aah, boy, it's hallucinatory. Oh!…a scene of barbaric splendor! Oh, my brain… And the projector flicker can be modulated.

Tony Conrad: Um hum.

JS: Oh Tony, can you see that?

TC: Mm, mm.

JS: Have your actual eyes in reality ever seen anything as exaggerated and raging as this? I mean aside from theatrical experience…oh! 1

What I am trying to say here is that The Flicker was not a recuperative exercise in structural minimalism, along the lines of the formalist works of LeWitt, Morris, Smith, Olitski, et al. If anything, it was preconceived as an assault upon that estheticism, and as a sometime assault upon the expectations of film viewers; and moreover as an exploration of possible compound harmonic structures in flicker perception.

Henry Flynt wrote “Concept Art” in 1961; the most significant Fluxus works were done around the same time. So when the similarly-named “conceptual art” movement emerged years later, in the late 1960s, it was easy for me to feel that this was a recuperative effort to bail out [capital A] Art, in spite of its practitioners' sometimes avowed intentions of “dematerializing” art and disrupting the gallery system. After all, Flynt's aims had been far more radical and decisive. The original “Concept Art” had redefined art as a launch pad for a full-out interdisciplinary intervention into the so-called “hard” sciences. As Flynt has stated,

Concept art differs from the schools of art in that it was prompted by what I saw as an intellectual opportunity.
It was not one style in a succession of styles seeking to appeal to the public;
it was a recognition of a debacle of mathematics
…. 2

This view of art, as a symbolic vehicle with the capacity to subvert and collapse both itself and other disciplines as well, also inhabited the tautological performance pieces that I had composed in 1961.

All of these early '60s works arose within a cultural milieu of progressivism, a pervasive understanding that priority and “newness” were entrained with absolute developmental processes. Within this regimen, cultural influence was seen as abetted and impelled forward by epochal symbolic events, such as the first performance of Cage's 4'33” or (as we saw it) Flynt's sidewalk demonstration, in which I participated, against Stockhausen. Under today's postmodernist cultural regime it is difficult to appreciate the scope and sway of this patent office mentality, this presumption of the regulative efficacy of dialectical or artistic priority, which made incomprehensible the apparently unrestrainable continuation of art, of art making, of the art market, and of art in general as an institution, after their collapse that had been symbolically negotiated through the anti-art efforts of (at least some participants in) Fluxus and others.

How and why should art be continued as an institution, when the premise of providing “beauty” had so demonstrably been relativized? -when art had so evidently served a discriminatory classist function for centuries? -when the pursuit of art careers was so exploitative of all but a few? -when art served to distract dissidents from cogent social issues? -and so on. Yet no critique could stay the course of the art institutions, which served conservative interests, including in particular the stability of the market in art objects. For those who wished to fully sidestep the critiques I have mentioned, it was imperative first and foremost to turn aside from the art market.

By the mid-1960s I had been drawn to film because of its hopelessly shabby integrity, and also because of its restive and anarchic aspects, which implicitly challenged the progressivism of the art market. At the same time, and perhaps even because of its unruliness and freedom from the market, I felt that film could be used to construct esthetic challenges that the existing market disciplines in art did not, would not, or could not touch. It seemed to me quite rational to look to the border regions of art for its greatest mobility and interest. After all, it had been within music, not painting or sculpture, that the most radical artistic challenges of the early 1960s had appeared.

Within the experimental film [I am willing to go along with the term “experimental film,” warts and all, only because of its identification with the interests of a new community of makers, as expressed in the “Manifesto” of (] framework, however, I found two major disappointments during the early 1970s. First, the film movement that P. Adams Sitney had so problematically dubbed “structural film” became a kind of fashionable doxology, within which younger filmmakers felt compelled to revisit many of the formalist issues that had been run ragged in painting and sculpture a decade earlier. The progressive and idealist sense of discovery and development that had moored painting to the religiosity of Greenberg and minimalism had now infected filmmaking.

The second disappointment I experienced was institutional. In 1972 Birgit and Wilhelm Hein invited me to show films at documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany. When I arrived, I found that the work by filmmakers was shown in the local movie house, while the films by artists were displayed more generously in the palace. The filmmakers were-and for the most part still are-very obviously being sent to the back of the bus.

My response at the time to this affront was to see a need for the filmmakers to get a move on, to accelerate what I perceived as the inexorably progressive formalism they would have to traverse in order to reposition themselves in parity with the so-called “artists.” In any case, it was important that the filmmakers not continue blindly digging away at a vein that had been mined out by the “artists” a decade before. If I were able to intervene by hastening the inevitable playing out of formalist exploration, in which waves of filmmakers would otherwise painfully and incrementally claim delusively novel territory, leading in the end to the already-familiar depletion of new formal ideas and the “dematerialization” of the medium, I felt this might bring on the end of the structuralist hegemony.

In time-based media the issue of duration was an armature for formal elaboration that had not been fully explored, in spite of Warhol and the structuralists' long and notoriously tedious films. Scaling film to the duration of a human lifetime was the first problem I took up. Since no projector or film would run for fifty years or more, I turned to the underlying question of how to manufacture an image that could involve recorded light, but whose gradual change would articulately implicate the scale of a lifetime. The Yellow Movie series of 1972-1976 used a painted movie screen shape, and relied on the gradual fading of cheap paint as its light recording mechanism.

The Yellow Movies, of which I produced very many, frequently working together with Jerry Tartaglia, ultimately failed as an intervention, since they were not cogently legible at the time within either film or art. They were exhibited at Millennium Film Workshop, but received notice only from the ever-progressive Jonas Mekas. Gallerist Ivan Karp said they did not function as a “legible international iconography,” which was his yardstick for art.

Though this and other interventionist tactics that I adopted in the early to mid 1970s ultimately failed, or perhaps better were occluded by the more relevant feminist interventions of the mid 1970s, my efforts did spawn some of the most pathological works that have ever been asserted as films. Married to an active professional, I was frequently pinned down at home, myself, by childrearing obligations, and I responded by turning to domestic activities as analogues for filmmaking. I processed films by canning, boiling, baking, and frying. I also wove a film “matte,” my final flicker film.

The work that served for me as a checkmate in the “structural” film game is Articulation of Boolean Algebra for Film Opticals (1975). This film achieved something of an apogee in formalist design, that conceptual regimentation which, in relation to Sade's eroticism, Barthes called “encyclopedic”-“the same inventorial spirit which animates Newton or Fourier.” (246)3 Articulation literally unifies the optical and sound tracks. Both are the result of a design that follows an algorithmic system of stripes. The scale of the six stripes on the film strip positions them in relation to screen design, flicker, tone, rhythm, and meter, all with octave relationships. After making this film, I moved away from the interventionist approach, and in my work of the later 1970s and 1980s I occupied myself instead with institutional authority relationships.

The work I have called suki7;interventionist” was conceived at the time, as I have described, as an effort to systematically exhaust the formalist toolbox to the point of an end game. However, media discourse at the time did not generally regard the term “form” as the armature from which structural film depended. Perhaps the most influential interpretation of what I would have been calling “formalist” film was instead converging upon the term “materialist.”

The surprising thing about the idea of “materialist” film was its parentage, which lay in a shotgun wedding between an idealist conception of abstract art and, on the other side of the aisle, Marxism. On the one hand, many film “purists” were intent on conspicuously purging themselves of allusive contaminants such as theatricalism and romanticism, in order to get at the essential nature of film (or art) through examining the material basis of film (or art) itself. Purity this absolute can exist only in a system of binary oppositions; it is necessarily contested ground. This arena might be described as the heaven and hell battlefield that the oeuvre of Paul Sharits rages across. The same field of contestation has also seen encampments of one sort or another by Bruce Nauman and Woody Vasulka, among others.

The other side of materialism was centered in Britain, where the film community had been influenced by American makers but equally by French theorists. French political and literary theory had flourished in the film scene there, and some of the earliest English translations of continental Marxist and structuralist theory spilled right into the British film scene. British makers saw their relationship to film exhibition in Brechtian terms, in that the apparatus of film should or ought to be candidly brought forward to dismantle the illusionism of cinema. Furthermore, the apparatus and material of film served as metaphors for socialist materialism more broadly, and the filmmaker was then to be seen in a Vertovian light, as a worker “with a movie camera.”

The way that feminism and materialism, each in a different way, threw a profoundly skewed light across the surface of structuralist or formalist film during the 1970s offers an impressive object lesson for how to understand the kind of revisitation that the film work of that day is beginning to be accorded now. The needs that these decades-old works may most helpfully address today will be very different from the problems and the conditions amid which they were originally situated. I like to think of it as a condition of excess: that there was always already, so to speak, an excess in the works that overflowed the critical contextualization of the day; and that today elements of that excess can become the serviceable margins in our effort to reexamine and use these works in ways that are relevant to us now; but that in turn other, new elements of excess will inevitably rotate out of view.

Consider, as a “for instance,” my performance film 7360 Sukiyaki, from 1973 and 1974.4 Modeled on the dish of the same name, 7360 Sukiyaki was prepared immediately prior to being “consumed.” Shreds of beef, vegetables, and Eastman Kodak's EK 7360 film stock (a product which, I learn as I write this, is just now being discontinued) were lightly stir-fried with tamari in a film can, dipped in raw egg, and cast forward (pro-“jected”) onto the film screen. The preparation of the film of course became a part of the spectacle, which was consummated in pieces of gooey meat and film sliding down the screen, leaving gleaming trails of juices and raw egg.

7360 Sukiyaki offered a doubled object for contemplation: there were the chains of signification relating to materialism, projection, making, and pic(ture/king) on the one hand; and the performative closure of the actions and their visual issue on the other. The “excess” in this instance is not my overarching figural reference to Japan, but rather the ironic displacement of expectation, and the doubling of institutional channels, that come about through the splicing of cuisine and cinema. The displacement engenders audience laughter; the splicing produces embarrassed consternation. Together, these responses-laughter and consternation-effectively erased the critical capacity that the more serious aspects of the work intended.

In the contemporary frame of reference proposed by Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics, though, 7360 Sukiyaki may be seen as an interesting precursor to 1990s artists' work. In this context, attention centers on the unusual way in which 7360 Sukiyaki brings the filmmaker and the audience together, collapsing the mediation that ordinarily habituates the activities of film making and viewing. The works of all artists, Bourriaud says,

whose work stems from relational aesthetics…involve mehods of social exchanges,
interactivity with the viewer within the aesthetic experience being offered to him/her,
and the various communication processes, in their tangible dimension
as tools serving to link individuals and human groups together.

With this refocusing, the earlier framework of excess-the splicing of cuisine into the institution of film presentation-now begins to fill out a coherent “relational” image of the work. In Bourriaud's terms, cuisine is used in 7360 Sukiyaki to introduce a recognizable and productive activity, recontextualized within the specific province of cinema. The audience clientele is being waited upon. Just as Bourriaud says of those he extols in the 1990s,

the artist works in the real field of the production of goods and services,
and aims to set up a certain ambiguity, within the space of his activity,
between the utilitarian function of the objects he is presenting, and their aesthetic function.

Even 7360 Sukiyaki's Japanese imprint reflects a feature that Bourriaud makes out as characteristic of the cosmopolitan urbanity to which he attributes the emergence of a relational esthetic modality. In the compact global conditions of the late 20th century, a system of intensive encounters has produced linked artistic practices-

an art form where the substrate is formed by intersubjectivity,
and which takes being-together as a central theme, the “encounter”
between beholder and picture, and the collective elaboration of meaning.

Of course, in centering his discussion on younger European artists, Bourriaud is not trying to be exclusionary, nor to make claims that the urban condition of “relational aesthetics” emerged ab ovo in 1990. But it is instructive to find that work which eluded definition under the terms of late modernity/postmodernity can be revisited with enhanced clarity in light of later developments in the arts.

I am not trying to claim that my work of the 1970s is better represented through the lens of theories that have matured a quarter century afterwards, than it could have been at the time if there had been a greater sensitivity to meta-institutional moment as a factor within the discourses of the art and film worlds. But I would be heartened to see the resurfacing of more cultural interventions and a more concerted meta-institutional discourse. Some “culture jamming” initiatives-I am thinking of ®™ark-are promising in this regard.

Perhaps the general artistic turbulence that shook cultural institutions from the late 1940s through the beginning of the 1960s (with Cobra, the Lettristes, the Situationist Internationale, early Cage and Rauschenberg, and Fluxus) was displaced (first) by the cooptation of the conceptualist rebels, who were lured back inside the gallery, and (second) by the art world's gradual embrace of its excluded Others-women first, then “outsiders” from every direction. I still believe, though, that media artists can stand (like the Man with a Movie Camera) everywhere, even above the institutional processes of corporate capitalism, and should pose, within the hierarchy of signs, necessary questions and meta-questions.

Tony Conrad
Buffalo, New York
March 2-3, 2004