May 26, 2011  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Talking to Tony Conrad

Tony Conrad. In Line. 1986. Video, color, sound, 7 min. © 2011 Tony Conrad

One of the major aims of Looking at Music: 3.0 is to examine the impact of technological innovation on music and art during the 1980s and 1990s. The advent of the music video, the proliferation of TV, and the development of cheap, immediate, color video recording equipment were significant events of this era that had a huge impact on the media artists used as well as the content they investigated. Looking at Music includes several examples of early forays into video art, including works by Robert Beck, Steven Parrino, Dara Birnbaum, Tony Oursler, and Tony Conrad. These video works are juxtaposed with music videos that, while tailored to more mainstream audiences, have remarkable artistic merit.

The key themes that arose in video art of this period are sampling and appropriation, autoreflexivity, and a marked distrust in mainstream media production. In Looking at Music: 3.0, we can see these concepts played out across multiple genres and mediums, from Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full to Tony Conrad’s In Line.

I had the pleasure of spending a day with Conrad at MoMA this fall while we transferred videos from hard drive to computer and back again. Getting to know Conrad was remarkable, mostly because his personality contrasts so much with the man we see on video monitor: sadistic, tortured, insane. In person, Conrad is certainly cynical, but in the way one expects from a pioneering video artist overlooked for many years and snow-packed in Buffalo for most of his career. Conrad is one of those underground iconoclasts, simultaneously revered and under-appreciated.

In Line reappropriates and deconstructs TV, the authority of the narrative voice, and the power of the electronic image, all with an edge of irreverent humor. In this work, Conrad interjects himself into a TV news segment; as the video progresses, his hysterical interludes escalate, becoming increasingly layered with the news footage and the ominous sound of a heartbeat. At one point, near the zenith of our emotional torment, he taunts, “You still think you’re in charge—you still think you’re running this! I’ll show you. I’ll show you who’s running this. I can make you think of anything I want to. Let’s see…think of a rubber glove. [He holds up a rubber glove.] Do you still know who’s in charge here? Who’s in line here?” The annoying and unnerving part is that Conrad’s message rings true—of course, staring at the yellow rubber glove, seductively waved across the TV screen, we lose control. We can’t think of anything else—and that feeling of deception lingers long after the video ends. This is really the question In Line leaves us with: Does the TV control us in the sinister way the video suggests? It’s a question that neither the audience nor Conrad can adequately answer, but it is exactly the question taken on by many of the artists represented in Looking at Music: 3.0.

Looking at Music: 3.0 closes on Monday, May 30, so don’t miss the last few days to see the exhibition!