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Rooftop Cinema: Tony Conrad: Completely In The Present

  • Madison Museum of Contemporary Art 227 State Street Madison, WI, 53703 United States (map)

Tyler Hubby's 2016 documentary explores the work of the pioneering artist, musician, and filmmaker. Info

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Note: This documentary includes excerpts of Tony Conrad's films that may cause epileptic seizures.

The documentary Tony Conrad: Completely In The Present presents the life of a pioneering experimental artist in a non-linear fashion, allowing us to see how cohesive his personal and artistic vision truly was. Director Tyler Hubby first encountered Conrad in 1994 while filming performances for the Table of the Elements label. Hubby continued filming Conrad for the next 20 years as he began to be recognized as an important figure in American experimental art. Following Conrad through his performances and day-to-day life, we're given a glimpse into the life of a radically unconventional artist constantly questioning societal norms.

A Harvard-educated mathematician, Tony Conrad moved to New York City in the early 1960s and quickly became an omnipresent figure of the underground film and music scenes. Playing microtonal drones with La Monte Young, John Cale, Marian Zazeela and Angus MacLise, Conrad helped create music that today is recognized as some of the earliest and most important American Minimalist music. As Cale's roommate and collaborator, Conrad was also a crucial element in the forming of the Velvet Underground. Conrad's 1966 film The Flicker, composed solely of alternating black and white frames to create a strobing effect, was considered by many to be not a film at all, but it was a landmark work of structural film and remains a powerful (and potentially seizure-inducing) work. Conrad continued to push the boundaries of film, video art, and music throughout his life, and while his work is often intense and challenging, it's also refreshingly free of "serious" composer pretentiousness.

Completely In The Present does fall into some familiar documentary traps; there's some animation that seems out of place and the usual talking heads (ugh, Moby again?). However, the strength of Hubby's documentary footage combined with Conrad's archival videos shows how consistently Conrad's forward-thinking philosophies were maintained throughout his art, teaching, and personal life. One of the most moving sections of the film focuses on Conrad's call-in public access show, helping underprivileged children in Buffalo with their math homework. It's a radically simple project but also one that helped countless people while subtly challenging the audience's one-sided relationship with television. Tony Conrad passed away shortly before Completely In The Present was released in 2016, and as a result Conrad's life seems eternally preserved in film, a detail Conrad would have undoubtedly enjoyed. —Ian Adcock