Photo courtesy of the University at Buffalo.
Photo courtesy of the University at Buffalo.

Tony Conrad: Generations

by / Apr. 12, 2016 7pm EST

Generations are a funny thing. Technically, it’s pretty straightforward: In our species, as in any species, when we have offspring, we have spawned a second generation, and when our offspring go on to have kids of their own, there’s your third generation, and so on ad infinitum into the future (your legacy), or backward into the past if you’re counting generations in that direction (your ancestors, precursors, and precedents). Biologically, all it takes to spawn the next generation is for a given generation to reach sexual maturity (puberty, fertility, child-bearing years, fruition) and to act on it (be fruitful and multiply). In our human species, therefore, generations can be, biologically speaking, as little as 15 years apart or less, and indeed that has been (and in some cases still is) the norm in many cultures historically and/or geographically, especially when or where average life spans have been (or still are) “nasty, brutish and short” (Thomas Hobbes) and infant mortality is high, and more hands are needed sooner to work the farm (or whatever the family business may be), or for whatever other reason time is of the essence and there isn’t the privilege of putting it off. But for my purposes here, in this time and place (in my Mid-Century Modern American lifetime), let’s just say a generation is around 20 years, give or take.

My mother was 19 when I was born in the middle of the last century, my father was 22, so I fall right into that arbitrary metric. But I was the eldest of four siblings, and when my baby sister was born in 1970, I was going on 15, and my mother had just turned 34. So although my sister and I are biologically of the same generation (same parentage, same spawn), I was much closer in age when she was born to the age my mother was when I was born than I am in age to my sister. In other words, culturally speaking, my sister and I are a generation apart, especially when measured at the accelerated rate at which each successive generation has been defined against the preceding generation in those years since she was born. And when my now 22-year-old daughter was born in the last decade of the last century, I was going on 39, so culturally speaking, my daughter and I are two generations apart.

In terms of the generational labels assigned to us by pop sociology and the popular media, I was born smack dab in the middle of the Baby Boom (1955), my two younger brothers (born in 1958 and 1962 respectively) are also solid Boomers, my sister is solidly Generation X, and my daughter (born in 1994) is—like all her older and younger boy cousins—a Millennial (and, yes, a proudly feminist Bernie supporter). My parents (born in 1933 and 1936) lived through the Great Depression and World War II, making them part of what a single member of the popular media, Tom Brokaw, retroactively dubbed the “Greatest Generation.” (My first-generation Italian-American father did serve in the US Navy, but about a decade after the end of World War II.)

Tony Conrad, born in 1940—four years after my mother and five or six years before the start of the Baby Boom, was also part of the “Greatest Generation” culturally speaking, albeit a relative latecomer to it. (He lived the first part of his childhood during World War II, but just barely, not formatively; like me—and like Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Quinan, and others—he was a native New Englander, in his case born in Concord, New Hampshire, and educated—in mathematics—at Harvard, Class of 1962.) More formatively, Tony was also part (on the early side) of the generation of 1960s-1970s rockers we seem to be losing so unrelentingly these days, and not only by age affinity, but by actual first-hand contact and personal participation: He was briefly (in 1964, at age 24) in a short-lived proto-punk band, the Primitives, with Lou Reed (whom we lost not so long ago in October 2013) and John Cale (still with us) before they went on to form the Velvet Underground, the naming of which Tony Conrad was famously (if indirectly) responsible for before moving on to different (but always kindred) musical and artistic pursuits.

In the recent flurry of impressive and illuminating obituaries in such publications as the New York Times and Rolling Stone, and in the many marvelous personal reminiscences by the likes of filmmaker Jonas Mekas and musician John Cale (as well as by generations of younger bandmates, artistic collaborators, and students) posted on social media, you can read (and likely already have) about his groundbreaking and influential activities in the NYC experimental music, film, and art scenes post-Primitives (1964) and prior to his long and influential teaching career, first briefly at Antioch, then, for 40 years—from 1976 until his death last week—here in Buffalo in the Department of Media Study; his long under-recognized and overshadowed (but recently rediscovered and justly celebrated) co-founding of Early Minimalist music; his sound production of and appearances in films of his friend Jack Smith; the creation of his own indelible contribution to Structuralist film, The Flicker; his involvement with the Warhol and Fluxus crowds; etc., etc.

But then, in 1976, fortunately for us, he left all that glamor behind and moved to Buffalo, immediately becoming part of—eventually the heart of, the presiding presence over—“the Buffalo Avant Garde of the 1970s” that was celebrated in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s 2012 exhibition Wish You Were Here, and then of the 1980s, and of the 1990s, and all the way up to, well, pretty much last week. As Tony says about that move in a public conversation with Branden Joseph at Hallwalls documented on videotape, part of Hallwalls’ October 2006 Pioneer of the Minimal: A Tony Conrad Retrospective

I wasn’t really tied into Times Square very much, either [in the early 1970s], I was a little jaded on that account…I was actually living a block from Times Square at that time, I was living on 42nd Street between Broadway and…you know, they say the center of the universe is Broadway and 42nd Street? Well, down the block [from there] was where my loft was. So it struck me that…it was an interesting neighborhood to live in, but after I was there I was like, okay, I can live in Buffalo now, you know, you don’t have to go to the middle of anything after that.

And hard as it is for me to believe now, in 1981, a mere five years years after Tony moved here in 1976, I myself moved to Buffalo, to study in UB’s celebrated English Department. My background was literary (I came here to pursue a Ph.D. I never completed after getting a master’s degree in creative writing at CU Boulder), and other than some critical (rather than practical) film studies as an undergrad (not including anything remotely like The Flicker), and some pretty conventional film reviewing for the college newspaper at UMass Boston, I hadn’t yet really had any exposure to the other art forms I would soon encounter, and then would become immersed in, and eventually would make a curatorial and administrative career of here in Buffalo over pretty much the same four decades Tony was here.

But my first apartment was near Bethune Hall, where the Art Department was located at that time, and my apartment mate and fellow CU graduate Alan Bigelow started hanging out at the student-run Bethune Hall art gallery, and meeting young visual artists, and both of us got involved in romances with art students, and we talked them (well, the one I got involved with, the one who ran the gallery) into letting us start a reading series in the gallery (we’d done such a series in a bookstore/coffee shop in Boulder and had even featured Allen Ginsberg in one of them), and somehow one of the “writers” we asked to “read” (only it was really something new to me called “performance art” that he did) was this guy Tony Conrad, from the “Center for Media Studies” (then so called), then located in Wende Hall, a short distance up Main Street along our daily walk from our apartment to the South Campus.

A few months later (May 1982), a professor of mine in the English Department (and future chair of the by that time redubbed Department of Media Study), Roy Roussel, whom I had actually met out west in Boulder and Santa Fe in 1980, before ever applying to let alone actually coming to UB, and who had told me in advance back in Boulder (over a game of hearts, as I recall, and a bottle of some kind of strong liquor, and certainly some pot) about this place “Media Study Buffalo” and this other place “Hallwalls” that he thought I’d be interested in getting involved in if I ever moved to Buffalo, asked me to “do tech” for a then new performance at Bethune Hall Gallery by Carolee Schneemann (whom I had never heard of) entitled Fresh Blood: A Dream Morphology (“dual slide projection system with dissolve unit, pre-recorded and spoken text. Sound collage. Live relay video feeds into four monitors. Red umbrella, red pajamas, watering can, door, raised table, etc.”), a featured event of an interdisciplinary conference being planned jointly by our department (English) and CMS. “Doing tech” consisted of my operating the two old-fashioned carousel slide projectors and dissolve unit (pretty rudimentary stuff), and of course I said yes, and it was eye-opening and mind-blowing and all that, and during that conference I got to meet and hang out with Carolee, and Paul Sharits for the first time (that’s a whole other story), and Tony, of course, and a lot of other famous video artists (although famous for his experimental film at the time he was hired by UB, it was video art he had been brought to CMS to teach). Of course, I had no idea then who any of them were, or that they were famous, or even what video art was.

And since I was a graduate student and Tony was a professor (albeit in a different department from mine), I naturally thought of him then (not artistically, by any means, because everything I ever got from him was ever new to me, and never stopped being new to me in the 35 years I knew him, but just in terms of our ages and ranks) as being of the previous (older) generation and myself as the subsequent (younger) generation, although in reality we were only 15 years apart in age, not very much less than the scant 19 years I was younger than my mother, and exactly the same considerable 15 years I was older than my sister.

Because, of course, the other kind of generations there are (besides biological, and anthropological, and pop sociological, and media-labeled)—and which Tony epitomized—are academic and artistic generations, the generations of teachers and students, mentors and apprentices, and preceding movements in art shaping then being supplanted by subsequent movements in art, one generation passing down its learning and innovations to the next, influencing and inspiring it, ultimately, after being plundered and incorporated into it, being overturned and rejected by it. But sometimes remaining alive and ever-changing in it, as Tony’s work always was, and sometimes (on rare and special occasions) being rediscovered and embraced anew, as Tony’s music of the 1960s (his early 20s) has been rediscovered in the past decade of collaboration with younger musicians and new recordings and world touring to packed houses, and long overdue accolades, which fortunately he got to enjoy as a participant—at once honoree and ceaseless innovator—and not only posthumously, although that is happening now, too, inevitably.

I’ve already long ago passed my suggested word count, and haven’t even touched on Tony’s long involvement with Hallwalls, which started within a couple of years of its founding with his performance with Robert Longo on February 12, 1977, during the aftermath of the historic blizzard, of “a multi-media opera” as part of the legendary Snow Show, and continued through…well, allow me be lazy and efficient and recycle what I first posted on Facebook at 3:45pm Saturday, the day he died:

Obviously just getting started on the Tony Conrad posts. Still at over 50 years ago (1964). Not yet to when he first got involved with Hallwalls (1977), or I first met him (1982), or when Cheryl Jackson moved from Bisbee, AZ to Buffalo and started studying with him and the start of Squeaky Wheel (1986), or when he picketed La Monte Young’s April appearance at Hallwalls down on Main Street and later that summer got arrested and jailed (with 17 others) for protesting something entirely different at Artpark (1990), or when he shot a paintball at the gallery wall during Hallwalls’ big Fluxus show or shot video at our wedding (1991), or when Hallwalls presented Pioneer of the Minimal: A Tony Conrad Retrospective in October 2006, or when he appeared with Karen Finley and younger musicians now in their twenties in A/V Imbroglio: Redux—Archive Clips & Live Performances, to kick off Hallwalls’ 40th anniversary in October 2014. Much more to come.

And later the same day at 5:20pm: 

Tony has the longest Artist’s Page on Hallwalls’ Timeline, spanning from the founding years (1977 performance with Robert Longo), through curating music and performance as part of the staff, through his transition from minimal music and structuralist film to video art and performance video and activist (or citizen) video and back to musical performance, through co-founding Squeaky Wheel as a spin-off from and successor to the shuttered Media Study Buffalo, through serving on the Hallwalls and Squeaky Wheel boards of directors, through the past couple of years of retrospectives, musical rediscovery, and international accolades.

Tony was never my teacher in a classroom, but to me, Tony was a friend, a creative inspiration, an advisor to me as an arts administrator, a gadfly (always with the first and most provocative question at every Hallwalls artist’s Q&A), an entertainer, an authoritative source and touchstone on all things creative and avant-garde, the best of neighbors (i.e., fellow citizen) in a City of Good Neighbors, an exemplar of commitment in equal measure to the working-class Rust Belt community he chose to live most of his life in and to unceasing artistic vision and change at the highest level of the international avant-garde, ever challenging, ever accessible, ever generous as a collaborator, teacher, and conduit to the big art world beyond Buffalo, while always remaining an integral and fully present part of our smaller but big-hearted art world here.

At the height of the so-called Culture Wars—a quarter of a century ago now—as new executive director of Hallwalls, I thought it necessary (urgent even) to formally amend the mission statement in our by-laws to enshrine in writing within them the commitment to artistic freedom that had always been core to Hallwalls’ practice, much as the Bill of Rights itself—and especially the First Amendment—had been added later as amendments to the US Constitution. I wrote the first draft, but Tony, then a long-time member of our board of directors, worked on revising it with me, and helped get it passed, which it was, unanimously. Thanks to that collaboration, what it says now is:

To recognize and serve a vital community artistic presence which is global in its outlook, challenging in its ideas, pluralistic in its concerns, and diverse in its expression. Hallwalls’ twofold mission is to serve artists by supporting the creation and presentation of new work in the visual, media, performing, and literary arts, and to serve the public by making these works available to audiences. We are dedicated in particular to work by artists which challenges and extends the traditional boundaries of the various art forms, and which is critically engaged with current issues in the arts and—through the arts—in society. Finally, we believe that the right of freedom of expression for artists, and for free access to their works by interested individuals, must be protected as a fundamental and necessary condition of our mission.

It’s all there in our institutional mission, which slightly preceded Tony and will now, we know, outlive him, as it was always there within Tony’s own person: restlessly multidisciplinary, challenging but accessible, local but global, non-traditional and boundary-crossing, engaged but free.

When I first met Tony, I thought of him as of the older generation, because I was a graduate student of 26 and he was a university professor of 41. Now that most of two generations and four decades have passed—that we native New Englanders have passed them in this Rust Belt town—I’m proud to say that in recent years I’ve come to see myself as of the same generation as Tony (as generationally merged), that is, the generation of the elders, fellow elders of our tribe with a responsibility to subsequent generations (the youngsters), responsibility that must be exercised or modeled with at once the utmost seriousness and the utter lightness that Tony always embodied.