Out of the Studio, Into the Streets

Tony Conrad’s students remember him

Tony Conrad in 2014 from the exhibit “Two Degrees of Separation” in Vienna, Austria.

Tony Conrad in 2014 from the exhibit “Two Degrees of Separation” in Vienna, Austria. Photo: Maximilian Pramatrov.

Essay by Ron Ehmke (MA ’95)

It would be impossible to sum up the life, work and influence of longtime Department of Media Study professor Tony Conrad in any conventionally tidy way. The most thorough study of his career to date, Branden W. Joseph’s “Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage” (Zone Books, 2008), packs years of interviews, historical accounts and archival research into 365 pages—and it focuses almost entirely on the “flicker” films and minimalist musical pieces Conrad worked on in Manhattan from the 1960s through the early ’70s, before he even got to Buffalo.

After Conrad’s death earlier this year at age 76, obituaries appeared in major publications worldwide, from The New York Times to The Guardian. For an artist of his stature—he was world-renowned as an experimental musician, composer and filmmaker, and hugely influential on everything from the theory of film to the sound of rock and roll—this did not come as a surprise. What was striking about the attention was its range. Artforum, the preeminent journal of postmodern visual art from the 1970s on, sang his praises, but so did the mainstream music industry staple Billboard, longtime British tastemaker NME, Canadian punk tabloid Exclaim, and the millennial-focused Vice, Boing Boing and Pitchfork. John Cale, co-founder of the Velvet Underground, reflected on Conrad’s life and legacy for Rolling Stone. (The two men had been roommates and bandmates in the mid-’60s, and Conrad’s place in rock history was cemented the day he brought home a lurid-looking paperback he had trash-picked and suggested its title might make a good name for the new group Cale and mutual friend Lou Reed were putting together.)

At a May 2 memorial concert and screening at UB’s Center for the Arts, five decades’ worth of Conrad’s students shared joyous, outrageous, often hilarious stories, many ending with the words “he changed my life.” As their anecdotes suggested, his approach to pedagogy was one of a kind. He was, to all of them, simply “Tony”; it’s hard to imagine even a single freshman ever referring to him as “Professor Conrad” after the first day of class. Unsuspecting students who signed up for one of his courses hoping to learn how to hit it big in Hollywood invariably found themselves questioning the very foundations of that approach to filmmaking—along with just about everything else they had once taken for granted.

The international tributes tended to omit one crucial aspect of Conrad’s work: his engagement with the community he lived in. He was a regular presence as both an artist and an audience member when Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center was founded in the mid-1970s, and remained closely involved with the organization for most of the next four decades; in the 1980s he played a crucial role in the creation of both Squeaky Wheel/Buffalo Media Resources [now Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center] and the city’s public access television channel. Any time subsequent generations of young artists set out to launch a storefront gallery, experimental film series or live/work space—something they have tended to do on a regular basis in Buffalo, thanks in part to his encouragement—Conrad would almost invariably be one of the first visitors and loudest advocates, even as his ever-growing touring schedule limited the time he was able to spend in his adopted hometown.

These activities weren’t extracurricular; they were essential to Conrad’s understanding of what art is about. His films, videotapes, performance pieces, installations and musical compositions often revealed a lifelong concern with the notion of control—asking, for instance, who is operating the camera, leading the band or running the show—and the search for more democratic alternatives. That recurring obsession informed both his open-ended, often eccentric style of teaching and his devotion, long before the invention of smartphones and YouTube, to getting media equipment into the hands of everyday people.

In an (ultimately successful) attempt to demonstrate the need for public access television in Buffalo, Conrad once spent months videotaping ordinary citizens from all walks of life on the steps of City Hall, inviting them to tell the kinds of stories that mainstream media outlets have no time for or interest in. He called the project “The Studio of the Streets.”

The entire world was his studio, his stage and his classroom—and as the following sketches illustrate, his audiences’ lives will never be the same.

Ron Ehmke is a writer, performer, media artist, curator and educator who has made Western New York his home since 1982. He was performance programmer/curator at Hallwalls from 1986 through 1994.

Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak (BA ’88), founding and current member of Mercury Rev

In the autumn of 1984, I entered UB to study mathematics. I began hearing about a Department of Media Study professor, Tony Conrad, around campus, and I remembered his name from a Velvet Underground book I had read, called “Up-Tight.” I wandered over to the Main Street Campus (where Media Study was located at the time) and sat in on one of Tony’s classes: Electronic Image Analysis.

Tony’s lecture was mesmerizing as he weaved together perspectives on music, film, video, performance art and the media. With a sly grin, he talked about how the socio-economic-political power structures often dictated how these various disciplines were shaped, and the discrepancy between “history” as it “happened” and how it is then “presented” to the public in cultural terms via the media. I immediately changed my major to Media Study, and changed my life. 

Tony was interested in subverting the conventional narrative, poking holes in historical narratives and taking back the “power” in one’s own work. He created art on the fringes and encouraged students to find their own voices, to seek out and knock down cultural iconography. Big lessons!

One of Tony’s gifts was being profound and serious while simultaneously lampooning the subject he was talking about. His intellect was astounding, yet he was a cut-up, always entertaining and also very funny.

In the past ten years, I would occasionally run into Tony bicycling around New York’s Lower East Side, and one time he came to see me DJ at The Pink Flamingo in Buffalo. I saw him the last time in 2013 while playing with John Cale at BAM. He was funny and insightful as ever, and we traded phone numbers a few times to collaborate. He said, “Bring your clarinet!” But our schedules were always out of sync, and we never did get to make music together.

In a video interview, Tony talks about wanting to take his music “into the celestial realms, where the heavens begin to crumble, where everything begins to come apart.” And I suspect he is out there, on that fringe, where death pretty much feels the same as before we were born.

Performing at Tonic in New York City in 2001. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Armin Heurich (MLS ’97, BFA ’85), media artist and high school librarian

I started taking Media Study classes in the early ’80s, without great confidence in a personal artistic vision, surrounded by at least a few others just like me. Tony was unlike any professor I had encountered. His easy laughter and openness made him so approachable. He was instrumental in opening me to worlds of ideas that challenged orthodoxy, and cemented my love of art that confounded and enthralled. His embrace of work by young artists from the punk generation left quite an impression.

My first lasting memory of Tony was a lecture in advanced video class. Tony detailed his relationship to Bulgarian women’s choir music and his struggles to embrace exotic styles and harmonic overtones. At the time I had no idea of his influential explorations into drone music and overtones in the early ’60s and beyond. It was Tony’s plea for us to fully explore artistic expression free from our cultural predispositions, and it worked. I embraced the experiment of forcing myself to listen to music that I had previously derided, learning to find great joy and appreciation in it and all forms of artistic expression that I had earlier discounted.

Q&A sessions with visiting artists were enthralling with Tony present, and conversations extended long after the venue was shut down. He became a dear friend and mentor to so many. He championed our art, urged us to believe in ourselves, and asked tough and insightful questions that helped us grow as artists, critics and people. 

Brandon Stosuy (MA ’01), editor-in-chief at Kickstarter/The Creative Independent; former director of editorial operations at Pitchfork

When I first met Tony Conrad, I was in my early 20s, nervous and about to enter the graduate English program at UB. I’d made a short film earlier that year about Flaubert, punk rock and two male friends falling in love; someone had thought it was interesting enough that I was asked to teach video to undergrads in the media study department. I already knew about Tony’s work, so I was intimidated; I was more a writer than a filmmaker, and he was an all-around legend. But when he walked in pushing along a bike, he greeted me with a big smile, an outfit that was pale bright green from shoulder to ankles, and a positive, welcoming attitude. We hit it off and I went on to become one of his students, collaborators and close friends (though I never stopped feeling like his student).

There was an easy rigor and consistency to Tony, like he’d discovered the secret to life early on and decided not to change a thing. For instance, as I write this, I realize that the last time I saw Tony alive, he was riding a bike much like the one he’d had with him that first day in Buffalo. This time he was headed quickly down a street near my home in Brooklyn; he didn’t see me as he passed, and I didn’t stop him because he looked like he was on his way to something important. I just paused, smiled and kept walking.

One of my first assignments for Tony was to take a film or piece of music we personally enjoyed, but then write about it negatively. Then the next week, we were to do the same, only this time writing about something we personally disliked in a positive light. This exercise was an epiphany! As students, we had to ask ourselves, “What makes something ‘good’ art and what makes something ‘bad’ art?”

—Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak

Ekrem Serdar (MFA ’11), media arts curator at Squeaky Wheel

Tony fit multiple lives within one. There is the artist who made “The Flicker” and formed a core of the “structuralist fortress” that was the [UB] Center for Media Study in the 1970s. There was the droner on the cover of the influential album he made in collaboration with the German rock band Faust in the early 1970s, “Outside the Dream Syndicate,” wearing a fedora, his shadow falling on a lit curtain. The New York art world regular who famously gave Lou Reed a pulp novel named “The Velvet Underground” and who continued to be deep in this world throughout his life (difficult to think of an established artist anywhere who was more present at various gnarly, marginal art happenings). There’s the activist who picketed Karlheinz Stockhausen, got himself arrested during the Artpark protests in 1990, and was a regular fixture at protests against war and labor injustices. There was the educator who would be part of and star in numerous student works. There was the videomaker, the theoretician. There are other Tonys too. Someone should make a Matryoshka doll of his likeness.

Tony popped up in some important moments in my life. When I moved to Texas following my MFA, he dropped by to present his work at UT Austin the week I moved there; I snuck into the after party and met some of my first friends through him. When I moved back to Buffalo, I was unemployed; he put some cash into my pocket for lugging 2x4s and badly assembling a bookcase in his amazing house. We then went for coffee where he grinningly called a certain 16mm-only filmmaker’s work “baroque.”

I now work at an institution he founded, and which he remained with throughout his life. The institution, born of him and his friends writing about 30 grant applications and driving NYSCA crazy, now offers its employees health insurance and continues its mission of giving low-cost access to gear, classes on how to use the gear, and shows of beautiful works made with such gear. I’m grateful to have known what little I did of him. The world might now be quieter, but the heavens drone on.

The Primitives—a precursor to the Velvet Underground—in 1964, featuring (from left) Tony Conrad, Walter De Maria, Lou Reed and John Cale.

Kathy High (MA ’81), video and new media professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Tony was my mentor when I attended graduate school at the Center for Media Study from 1979 to 1981, and he was my friend. Besides being an eclectic and provocative artist, he was an amazing educator. He started each class informing us about art events in and around Buffalo that he encouraged us to participate in. I was so happy to never leave the confines of the Main Street campus that I found this invitation motivating.

As a result of Tony’s prompting, I started attending events and ulimately worked at various local art spaces including CEPA, Hallwalls and Media Study/Buffalo. Participation in the Buffalo arts community provided the basis of my graduate education. He was one of the first people to teach relational aesthetics, participatory design and social practice. None of that was labeled as such in the early 1980s. But Tony understood how to grow communities and how to foster them. He understood that we are stronger collectively than alone.

A favorite memory with Tony was our hypnosis club meetings. We used to meet at his loft, working late into the night trying to hypnotize each other. I remember Chris Hill and Tony Billoni being easy to hypnotize. Me and Tony, not so much. I’m not sure what that says about us, but I loved watching everyone’s arms floating in the air as we barked commands, with the prison cells Tony had constructed as a film set in the background.

Cheryl Jackson (MA ’93), art educator; former executive director of Squeaky Wheel

Tony Conrad was my first professor when I began graduate school at the Department of Media Study in 1986. I’d come from Arizona and, beyond the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, had no idea about Buffalo and its rich artistic and cultural community, past or present. Though it’s hard to believe now, 30 years later, I thought my two years in grad school were going to revolve solely around UB, and then I’d no doubt move away to someplace warmer and sexier.

However, what I distinctly remember, and what early on changed the trajectory of my studies, was Tony’s invitation to come downtown and “join in” with a brand new media arts center called Squeaky Wheel. Tony was one of the group’s founders, and while he was certainly trying to help it grow and prosper, he also knew that I needed more than a simple two-year program in academia—that what I needed was to be part of an active, engaged arts community. What I found were artists who’d recently graduated from UB (and didn’t move away!) but, more to the point, shared and understood my own “experimental” and “performative” artistic ideas. Tony, as a pioneering media artist and a creative force of nature, had a major influence on my own work, and was always supportive and thoughtful in his critiques. I later went on to become Squeaky Wheel's executive director, working side by side with media artists for more than eight years.

While that story is about his friendly, professorial “invitation” to me, the flip-side was his insistent and relentless challenges, year after year, to creatively engage people in their community, find new resources for artists, spread the word about what was happening here in upstate New York and so on. Public access television here in Buffalo was just one of those many challenges, and I’m proud to say that Tony and I served together on its board of directors for years, pushing for the right of everyone to have access to the “people’s channel.”

How fortunate we at UB and in Buffalo were to have Tony in our lives for as long as we did. We have lost not only a great teacher and professor, but a person who cared deeply about Buffalo and was truly a friend to all he met here through the years.

Carolyn Tennant (MFA ’06), archivist and former media arts director at Hallwalls

I worked with Tony as a teaching assistant when I was a graduate student. Many things about his methods of engaging students with complex materials, from critical essays to experimental media art, were remarkable. His enthusiasm for the world outside of the classroom, however, and the space he carved into each class to convey that excitement, stands as one of the most precious gifts that he imparted to his students.

Tony commenced each class by discussing upcoming events, some on but mostly off campus. It often felt casual, like he was going through fliers he’d found in his mailbox, buying himself and his students a little time before beginning the hard work of media analysis. This information may have been lost on a majority of students, but others were encouraged to make the leap off campus to explore media art in action and to participate in the larger community as both audience members and cultural producers. It wasn’t long before I understood how very important these moments were, and I’d later borrow this strategy in my own classroom.

Tony's students learned that there were spaces where they could flourish off campus, meet visiting artists, make new friends, and even gain access to equipment and workshops that could enhance what they were doing in the classroom.

Tony had a little, performative “heh heh” that he would pepper into conversation. He’d be talking about one thing, then give an opposing point of view, one that you might think he didn’t agree with. Then “heh heh.” But that little chuckle wasn’t necessarily to dismiss the opposing view; that space between opinions, where questions lived, was what he was interested in. 

—Ekrem Serdar

Chris Hill (MFA ’84), adjunct faculty, California Institute of the Arts; former video curator at Hallwalls

I first spoke with Tony Conrad on the phone when contemplating a media arts graduate program in the early 1980s. He concluded by observing that Buffalo was a city receptive to individuals who wanted to do something in the arts—an intriguing recommendation. The first semester, I took his War and Violence class and found it not only a challenging immersion into contemporary media art, but also a remarkable exchange about taking risks as an artist in the classroom.

Tony was an inspiring teacher who approached cultural problems from unexpected directions. For example, one day, unannounced and without explanation, he performed Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi,” an absurdist play dealing with abuse of power. Tony’s version employed four speakers set up strategically around the classroom that spatially situated the recorded voices (all his) of the various characters. Tony stood at the front of the classroom with a large flip chart and silently flipped the pages that identified the scenes as the “action” progressed. I was a little older than most of the students, and to experience someone approaching teaching with such energy, insight and playfulness was a revelation not only about art but about art in life.

Tony’s initial observation about the Buffalo arts community was also spot on—he challenged us all to address media culture as a living commitment, a critical local experiment, a performative engagement with community. I am forever grateful to hiim for guiding me and others across the educational threshold of Media Study and into the artist-run and public spaces in Buffalo in the 1980s.

The cover of the classic 1973 drone music album “Outside the Dream Syndicate,” a collaboration between Tony Conrad and German art-rock collective Faust.

Edmund Cardoni (MA ’85), executive director of Hallwalls

Tony was never my teacher in a classroom (I had come to UB in 1981 to study English), but as soon as our paths crossed my first year here—just five years after he himself had moved here from the center of New York’s experimental music and film scenes—Tony became a friend, an inspiration, an adviser to me as an arts administrator, an icebreaker and gadfly (always with the first and most provocative question at every Hallwalls Q&A), a wise jester animating many circles, an authoritative source on all things artful and interdisciplinary, an exemplar of commitment to the Rust Belt community he chose to live most of his life in, as well as to unceasing artistic vision and innovation at the highest level of the international avant-garde. He was ever challenging, ever accessible, ever generous as a collaborator, teacher and conduit to the big art world beyond Buffalo, while always remaining an integral and fully present part of our smaller but big-hearted art world here.

When I (a graduate student of 26) first met Tony (a professor of 41), I thought of him as of the older generation. In the 35 years our lives overlapped in Buffalo, I came to see myself as of the same generation, the generation of the elders, fellow elders of our tribe with a responsibility to subsequent generations, responsibility that must be exercised or modeled with at once the utmost seriousness and utter lightness that Tony always embodied.

Among the millions of things Tony taught me over the years (including how to build a musical instrument out of vacuum parts and that you should always use frozen olive oil instead of butter) was that you didn’t need to be a professional in any given field to make great work. He showed me that you could approach life and art with a sense of humor, and that you didn’t have to take yourself too seriously even when the stuff you made was incredibly serious. 

—Brandon Stosuy

Terry Cuddy (MFA, ’03), graphic design and new media instructor at Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES

I met Tony before I became his student at UB. He was a mainstay at the upstate media arts conferences that took place during the 1990s in Syracuse from time to time. That was my introduction to Tony and why I chose to come to UB. Once I arrived, every Media Study class I took of his was exhilarating.

I always entered his lectures with a sense of wonder, I never knew what to expect, but I always left with a license to trust my instincts and to challenge the status quo. I loved his humor. I was terrified by his intelligence. Almost every important artistic advancement of the last 50 years had his mark on it. From underground cinema, experimental music, activist media, to radical pedagogy, Tony was there to pave the way and challenge us all.

His passing was a tremendous loss. Since his death, I’ve been watching and re-watching his online interviews. They remind me his generous spirit. I am fortunate to have known him, and I know that his influence will continue to thrive for years to come.

As a former student and as a curator who benefited from Tony’s active presence in our community, I feel his absence as a Wile E. Coyote-shaped hole in a wall. 

—­Carolyn Tennant

Now Playing

"Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present," a film by Tyler Hubby, opens the 10th annual Buffalo International Film Festival on October 7. Hubby's comprehensive twenty-year project playfully traces Conrad’s life and times, incorporating archival materials, interviews with music and art world luminaries, and even Conrad’s impromptu street performances.

Dan Allen

Tony changed (everything) in me. I received my MAH in Media Studies in 1996, and had the privilege to get to know him while working as a media tech at UB, and in the classroom. He was/is the top of the pyramid for me, and it was so cool to get to know him.