Tony Conrad – Grading Tips for Teachers (2013)
If there’s any consensus on the Left, it’s that 2016 has been a bitch. Beyond the hard shift to the Right within the world of global politics, those of us connected avant-garde music, have lost some of our leading lights – the most jarring of which, were Tony Conrad and Pauline Oliveros. In both cases, these two towering creative minds raised the bar for everyone they (or their work) came into contact with, not just through creative practice, but in ways to be, live, and engage.
Tony Conrad was one of my great heroes. I encountered his music in my late teens, shortly after arriving at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid-90’s – roughly the same point he was reemerging into the world of sound, following decades dedicated to works in film (and video). His droning violin, rewrote my world. Though unquestionably one of most important voices in 20th Century music, his great passion was the moving image. It was the medium which best suited his personality, to which he dedicated most of his years, and taught. For Tony, there was no barrier between art in life, and this is best reflected in his films – particularity because he placed himself at the center of many of them. His ideas permeated the way he existed in the world – what he did, the way he spoke, what he said, and the way he interacted with others, as much they did his work. There was no separation, and as such, through what he has left behind, he remains with us and continues to give.
Though far too complex to sum up, above all else, Tony was a radical nonconformist. His entire life pushed against social norms and the structures placed upon us. He despised authority. This is the arching theme which runs through his body of film work. Though often couched is his own brand of wry humor, it is a challenge, a fuck you, and break with “rules” – an indication that nothing should be taken at face value, and an illumination of finding one’s own path. Part of reason Tony was so attracted to this medium, was access. He saw it as a way for people the realized their voices without restriction, and to reach others – a vehicle for democracy. In addition to the way he presented this in own work, he dedicated a great deal of effort – specifically in the forum of community television, to activism for other people to access technology as a means to promote their own position and voice. His relationship to the form, both in personal practice, and arching principle, was politic.
About a week ago, it came to my attention that Lara Odell, who worked with Tony on his film Grading Tips for Teachers, had posted it online. It seemed like a perfect chance to talk a bit more about our lost visionary, and send it out into the world. The film itself has a particular resonance for me. I come from a family of teachers, where stacks of student papers devoured furniture and consumed our lives. Their presence announced the unwelcome coming of fatigue and frustration in my mother’s, aunts’, uncles’, and cousins’ eyes. My first encounter with Grading Tips for Teachers, also marks an important day – the first time I had the courage to speak to Tony in the flesh. This was at a retrospective of his film works, arranged by friend Eric Namour in London, roughly a decade ago. I’m not easily star struck, but I’m shy – saying hello to Tony took everything I had. The way he regarded me, changed everything about how I saw the world, and continues to frame the way I relate to others. To my shock, Tony – a legend for anyone connected to the avant-garde, was far more interested in me, than letting any attention rest on himself. He was governed by curiosity, and generous to the core. He put me at ease, and through his actions, indicated that my thoughts and words had equal value to his own. With introductions behind us, I had the good fortune to run into him again by chance, a few days later in Switzerland, where we spoke at great length – the first of many conversations over the years. He was a man governed by a need to learn and to give – a model and a path which I now endeavor to make my own.
With that all said, I leave you with Tony’s wonderful Grading Tips for Teachers, and an extended interview which he gave a few years back. I hope they bring a smile into your day, and offer some of the spirit we need to face all that is ahead.