With Tony Conrad's experimental 1966 work out on DVD, Yusef Sayed considers the filmmaker's relevance in the contemporary media landscape.
The valuable contributions of several DVD labels to the distribution of significant avant-garde works in recent years have not always been received without a grumble. Where the spectacular potential of traditional cinema screening apparatus and the material specificity of the work is deemed to be integral to the effect of a given film, reservations about the usefulness of home viewing to a proper understanding of certain avant-garde films have been raised.
Recently, Criterion released a collection of experimental films by Hollis Frampton and have previously graced us with two fine volumes of Stan Brakhage’s work. Austria’s Index label has unleashed a series of essential DVDs documenting a great deal of the history of the country’s avant-garde, from Kurt Kren to Martin Arnold.
As welcome as this is for most film fans, with few opportunities to see such work screened at specially programmed events in the cinema, insights into the nature of each work and the artist’s specific interests should, of course, not be dismissed. And rather than making any monolithic judgements on the validity of a work presented on DVD without justification, it is always beneficial to consider the ways in which the experiences differ in order to reach a more carefully thought out position.
Tony Conrad’s landmark film The Flicker is a work well-suited to such consideration. Completed in 1966 and now finally released on DVD by Re:voir, as a supplement to Marie Losier’s short film about the director, DreaMinimalist, there are no doubt many who would balk at the idea that the film 'works' on DVD. The writings of P Adams Sitney have long left the film with the 'structuralist' tag, and it is possible to argue that the particular effects of the cinematic apparatus first utilised by Conrad at the time of the film’s production are integral to the work – the projector, light, the cinema screen and film strip used outside of their normative roles.
Yet this is to overlook the extent to which Conrad was interested in flicker effects and other, wide-ranging techniques of perceptual and neurophysiological stimulation in his artistic practice, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Flicker grew out of an experiment with a lenseless 16mm projector in Conrad’s Ludlow Street apartment in New York in 1963, in the company of fellow artist Jack Smith, notorious for his film Flaming Creatures (1962-63). Intending to create a ‘library of masking filmstrip patterns that could be used in various ways to produce various flicker effects’ with other representational films, Conrad soon began researching the relationship between the pattern of black and white frames on film, and harmonic relationships in music.
Conrad was involved in the Theatre of Eternal Music, a seminal group of minimalist composers that included John Cale, who would go on to join The Velvet Underground – given their name thanks to Conrad. The group made drone music of long duration built around strict compositional ideas and harmonic ratios. It was in addition to these musical ideas that Conrad investigated the potential of flicker effects, as a means of visual composition.
It was not only the musical ideas that Conrad was intensely fascinated with that was feeding into his earliest attempts at filmmaking, but also a broad range of subjects including op art, psychedelia, broadcast television, Gestalt psychology, hallucinogens and subliminal messaging. As such, Conrad’s interest in flicker effects was linked to numerous experimental and artistic applications, and significantly this was contemporaneous with the Dream Machine experiments of Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville.
In this light, we might usefully embrace the DVD release of The Flicker as yet another manifestation of Conrad’s investigation into the compositional, psychological, physiological and social possibilities of the flicker – whether it is to be strictly identified as the same as his 1966 work, which saw all manner of reactions from audience members, or a variation of some kind.
In the past, Conrad has spoken about The Flicker in terms which sometimes foreground the significance of the materials of cinema, while at others according the medium itself little significance and putting much of the emphasis on the viewer and their idiosyncratic, subjective relationship to the flicker. This makes it still more difficult to gauge to what extent the presentation of The Flicker on film, projected in a cinema, was integral to Conrad’s aims.
After making the film, Conrad worked on a series of related works that traversed different mediums, notably the use of television static in his The Eye of Count Flickerstein (1966-67; 1975).
"My idea was that basically this would just knock people’s socks off, and I wanted them to understand that they were being run by the power of this film," Conrad told writer Branden W Joseph in 1995, and the effect is certainly not lost with the DVD edition of The Flicker. Conrad’s work has the potential to be seen in various circumstances and across an array of platforms today.
His tireless investigations into numerous aspects of the media, through his artistic practice, research and teaching, as well as his interest in – and oppositions to – control in many of its forms, seem to encourage deeper thinking about the potential of the flicker effect today and the value of Conrad’s archival works in the contemporary media landscape.