Honoring an Avant-Garde Giant

Two upcoming nights of film at the Mini Microcinema are devoted to the late Tony Conrad, an experimentalist who was both fearless and funny

click to enlarge Conrad could hear and "conduct" the music inherent in street traffic. - PHOTO: Provided
PHOTO: Provided
Conrad could hear and "conduct" the music inherent in street traffic.

John Rich and Jon Lorenz, the creators of the No Response music festival, have a mission: To bring as many of the giants, the elders, of the avant-garde to Cincinnati as they can. As Rich explains it, it’s an honor for the city to be able to host them while it can — not unlike hosting an Olympics or World Series if you really care about arts and culture. 

“We feel a very deep sense of history, and it’s good to present people who have broken ground,” Rich says. “For the older people who haven’t been brought here yet, we’ve got to do it.”

On Tuesday (Dec. 5) at the Mini Microcinema, they are honoring one who got away — Tony Conrad, who died last year at age 76. They’re presenting a recent documentary by Tyler Hubby called Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present. Conrad was one of the creators of musical Minimalism as well as an avant-garde filmmaker and a conceptual artist with an impish wit. And on Dec. 7, the microcinema is showing a program of Conrad’s own short films and videos.

Previously, the two have tried to bring such artists, live and in person, to town on what Rich acknowledges is a limited budget. They have presented New York No Wave musician Lydia Lunch; German Free Jazz saxophone/clarinet colossus Peter Brötzmann; and literary and musical experimentalist Genesis P-Orridge. This isn’t merely an exercise in looking backward at forward-thinking artists. They know that younger artists learn from seeing the most historically important avant-gardists still out there. 

Nor are they alone in their mission: Michael Solway, managing director of Carl Solway Gallery, brought the pioneers of psychedelic art into town for this year’s Distant Horizons show, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Contemporary Arts Center and MusicNow have also brought such elders in.

But it can be a struggle — not everyone gets the importance of providing such cultural experiences. And the artists who fit this category aren’t getting any younger.

If there was someone who Rich and Lorenz wanted to bring here in person to be honored, but couldn’t, it was Conrad. He died before their first No Response Festival. 

“Jon and I worship Tony Conrad,” Rich says. “His existence was our starting point for doing the festival; we said we’ve got to get him to town somehow. Now that he’s passed away, we’re showing the documentary. And the voice he had in his short films and videos definitely makes them deserve a program of their own.”

Trained in math at Harvard University and a keen student of computers, Conrad perfected a revolutionary droning sound on his violin while playing in the Theatre of Eternal Music, an early-1960s collective of New York experimental musicians devoted to the tension and beauty of composer-less Minimalism. Doing the same on viola was John Cale, who went on to bring the Theatre of Eternal Music’s Classical ideas to the Rock group Velvet Underground — that band’s name came from a book Conrad kept in his apartment. Conrad began to perform live in front of a sheet lit to make him appear like a towering shadow.

As a filmmaker, Conrad challenged our notions about the structure of a movie. His groundbreaking 1966 The Flicker, which will be screened at the Mini Microcinema on Dec. 7, alternates all-black and all-white frames in a way that, over the course of 30 minutes, can cause a viewer’s brain to perceive hallucinatory images. In the 1970s, Conrad substituted film stock for foodstuff in recipes, producing jars of “pickled film.” 

Having seen Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present in preparation for this story, I highly recommend it. It ends with a scene of great warmth and humor that is masterfully insightful about what made Conrad special. It’s also telling about how artists can see through the commonplace. 

Standing in traffic, Conrad “conducts” the noises like an orchestra. “Make children noises,” he says as some kids pass. He dismisses a passing bicyclist for not making enough noise. A woman crossing the street asks if he’s all right — his actions strike her as odd. But Tony Conrad couldn’t be better. 

TONY CONRAD: COMPLETELY IN THE PRESENT screens 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (Dec. 5) at the Mini Microcinema (1329 Main St., OTR), and short films and videos by Tony Conrad screens there 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7. More info: mini-cinema.org