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Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage

By Branden W. Joseph
Zone books, New York, 2011
480 pp., illus. 78 b/w.  trade, $34.95; paper, $22.95
ISBN: 978-1-890951-86-3 ; ISBN: 978-1-890951-87-0.

Reviewed by Stephen Petersen


“By the time we arrive at La Monte Young, Robert Morris, etc., the boundaries between the mediums become unimportant. There was a milieu which may have consisted only of Young, Morris, myself, and one or two others, and which was never chronicled in art history. This milieu regarded the mystique of the separate arts--painting, sculpture, music, poetry, drama, ballet, opera--as "uptown," as corny. Methods (e.g. minimalism) were freely transferred from one medium to another.”-- Henry Flynt, “The Crystallization of Concept Art in 1961” (1994)

Looking back more than three decades after his 1961 invention of the mathematical-musical-linguistic-artistic hybrid that he called “Concept Art,” Henry Flynt placed it within the activities of a small group of downtown New York composers and artists, a milieu that he noted was “never chronicled in art history.” The reasons for this oversight, he suggested, have much to do with the fierce defense of medium specificity within historical studies of the avant-garde.  A conservative discipline, art history has failed to deal adequately with work that falls between media and methods that “were freely transferred from one medium to another.”

This previously uninhabited (art) historical space is precisely the territory covered by Branden Joseph’s illuminating study of the composer and filmmaker Tony Conrad, originally published in 2008 and now reissued in paperback. Joseph’s approach is decidedly non-monographic; he spends as much or more time on figures such as Flynt whose work intersects in different ways with Conrad as with Conrad himself. Nor yet is it a contextual study that would seek to recreate the ambiance of a time and place (although it does so to a considerable degree). Borrowing a term from the late artist Mike Kelley, Joseph calls his project a “minor history,” minor in the sense that the word has been used by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to designate a heterogeneous cultural field, irreducibly different from--yet in Kelley’s formulation “parasitical” to--the “major,” understood as sovereign and hierarchical. If “minimalism” is a stable (i.e. major) category in the histories of art, dance, music, and film, a “constant against which, whether explicitly or implicitly, other phenomena are measured,” Joseph looks rather at those “minor” figures, Conrad foremost among them, who elude categorizing and whose place in the narrative of minimalism has been largely overlooked. “Minor” as used here does not mean less significant but rather outside the dominant discourses, and shifty with respect to linear narratives and object-based histories. And, echoing Flynt’s dismissal of the “uptown,” it remains “fringe” or low with respect to official culture.

The book’s subtitle points to the critical importance of John Cage, whose compositional and performance strategies were based on a withdrawal from cultural authority and authorship and a new relation of work to audience in real time and space, what the critic Michael Fried would famously call “theatricality.” The “arts after Cage” are characterized by heterogeneity and hybridity of means, an emphasis on materiality and direct experience, and an implicit (sometimes explicit) anti-authoritarian politics.

The five main chapters of the book cover little more than a half-decade, charting Conrad’s trajectory from Harvard mathematics major and violin player to “structural” filmmaker through a series of collaborations and friendships, what Joseph calls a “network of intersecting positions” (p. 74). In 1959 Conrad met experimental composer La Monte Young in Berkeley and soon thereafter immersed himself in musical composition, influenced by Stockhausen and Cage. Although drawing different lessons from Cage, Conrad and Young would closely collaborate in the ambient performances of the avant-garde enterprise known as the Theater of Eternal Music or what Conrad would come to redefine as the “Dream Syndicate.” Where they differed was on the ideological import of their sonic experiments (Young tending toward mysticism and idealism and, along with sculptor Robert Morris, toward restoring a sense of control, power, and form to the anarchic Cagean project). Joseph then turns to the philosophical “concept art” of Henry Flynt (a classmate of Conrad’s) but also to Flynt’s quasi-political ideology of “creepism”--cultural deviance (in multiple senses of the term)--and his embrace of “acognitive culture,” namely the realm of wholly unofficial or “uncodified” actions. This leads into a discussion of the short-lived, proto-alternative rock group The Primitives (featuring Conrad along with John Cale, Lou Reed, and Walter de Maria) and the sexually transgressive underground film  Flaming Creatures (1962-63) by Conrad’s friend and collaborator Jack Smith. The book’s final chapter considers Conrad’s abstract stroboscopic film The Flicker (1965-66) in relation to his “investigation into techniques of perceptual and neurological stimulation” (p. 301) and alongside Brion Gysin’s “dream machine” as a work that acted directly upon its viewer’s nervous system. By trying ultimately to shift the viewer’s mode of attention and thereby to afford “new types of thinking” (p. 349), Conrad’s work exemplifies and develops the radical legacy of Cage.

Beyond the fascinating and heretofore untold story recounted here, this book is important for the way its method mirrors its subject. Joseph moves across and between disciplinary genres of scholarship, and thereby challenges the reader’s capacity to think outside familiar categories. This study sits at the fringes of several academic disciplines and, to its credit, fits squarely within none. To paraphrase Conrad, by shifting our mode of attention it prompts us both to renew and to alter our thinking.

Last Updated 2 August 2012

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