Tony Conrad at Tate Modern

Tony Conrad weekend at the Tate has just passed. I went to the Saturday and Sunday events – showings of some of his 1980s video work, a late night performance in the Turbine Hall, and a round table discussion with Branden Joseph, author of this recent book. I didn’t see any of the early films though cos they were on at the same time as EXAUDI at Spitalfields (more on which to follow).

Conrad’s video work was all new to me, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of some of it. Films like No Europe (positing the idea that white Americans appeared as native aborigines, rather than European immigrants – and thus had a whole bunch of white, middle class sensibilities but no skills, tools or culture appropriate for working the land) were funny but seemed totally out of place among the more experimental stuff to do with the audience/medium/artist relationship (which I found more interesting – eg Concord Ultimatum, Redressing Down and In Line).

The musical performance was much more interesting to me. Very troubling, but very powerful too. The easiest way to describe it is to show you – here are a few photos someone has posted to flickr. And I took a few very amateur sound recordings on my mp3 player:

1. http://www.sendspace.com/file/fpmvo7 – transition between ‘vinyl shish kebab’ and droning strings
2. http://www.sendspace.com/file/c6p47o – droning strings
3. http://www.sendspace.com/file/5wfu6u – more droning strings – towards the end; also walking around so you get some sense of the ‘power noise’ vs ‘drone’ aspects of the sound design.

The performers were on the bridge/balcony that is in the middle of the Turbine Hall, and the performance area was shrouded on its two open sides with these massive white sheets. They were raised just enough that you could see the performers underneath, but they were also backlit and their shadows projected 40-foot high onto these screens. You could walk under the bridge and see these projections from either end of the Hall. Each end of the hall was surrounded by an immense soundsystem that amplified the performers – and emphasised different channels of the sound output (so more noise at one end than the other).

Basically the performance was in three chunks, two shortish, one much longer. In the first (which I didn’t record, but some of the photos show) TC was using a HUGE power drill to bore holes into blocks of wood and reels of film stock – recreating Boring Film. This film was projected onto the screens later in the set.

In the second he got out his vinyl kebab – basically a stack of LPs attached to a long drill bit, attached to the drill itself. So the records are spinning at 100s of rpm or whatever, and TC is playing them with two handheld tone arms. You get some of this at the start of the first extract.

The third section was much more conventional – essentially lots of string drones that ebbed and flowed and generated lots of lovely difference tones. There was also a ton of noise overlaid with effects pedals, drills, electric hums etc (some of which were generated by the Tate’s one remaining turbine itself).

The whole lot was deafeningly loud. Moving around the hall was physically oppressive, especially as you walked in and out of range of the various speakers. The first section, with TC’s shadow (with his hat) looming like a maniac with a drill, was terrifying.Rainforests, glaciers and Xenakis are awesome; Conrad is frightening, like climate change. On my way home I was physically discomfited – not just ringing ears, but ringing skin. I had to wash the sound off me before I could sleep.

This all threw up a bunch of issues that bothered me. By design, any installation in the Turbine Hall is a massive ego trip; this one in particular in which the figure of the artist (literally) looms so large over his subjected audience. The commitment of resources – not just electricity etc but also the physical investment of people’s ear drums – I found very troubling. The actual aesthetic point didn’t seem enough; the best justification from an audience point of view was a sort of blissed out, transcendentalism (accompanied by a total submission to TC’s will) – which is kind of unsatisfactory. But then again, it was an extraordinary experience that I’m glad to have had, and I don’t doubt TC’s artistic sincerity – there was nothing cheap or tawdry here.

In the round table on Sunday afternoon, some of these questions were put to TC, who was unusually unconvincing in his response – he argued that this all had to be seen in the context of his complete output, which has always tackled issues of power etc. He also mentioned sado-masochism, but I didn’t really get that since the issues of consent and so on in an S&M context and in an art gallery seem quite different to me. I’d be interested to hear thoughts from anyone else who was there.

2 thoughts on “Tony Conrad at Tate Modern

  1. Nice article. I did find it odd that Conrad chose to open with two such abrasive and alienating noise pieces. He had cleared out at least two thirds of the audience in the first fifteen minutes! I am a fan of a lot of noise and noise rock music but found these opening pieces unredeemingly ‘fingers down blackboard’ stuff … sado-masochism indeed. If this was the artistic intent it was achieved perfectly.

    It was a shame though that the wider public attracted to the Tate event had left alienated before the beautiful string drones that closed out the rest of the performance. Conrad was not not there to make fans.

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