Arts & Culture, Music

Anti-Authoritian Art in an Authoritarian Age

Non-Event Series Presents Henry Flynt, Lary 7, and Damon & Naomi @ MIT's LIST Center Retrospective Exhibit 'Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective'


‘The sound is coming at you like a railroad train.’
-Tony Conrad

I’ve been recently thinking about ’there-ness’ in terms of the art we encounter in an effort to carry out an ideal of avoiding the unavoidable. To start this process and begin research on this piece I have decided to, in a sense, work inversely.

When I got the email from folks at Non-Event about a performance featuring Henry Flynt, Lary 7, and Damon & Naomi at the Tony Conrad Retrospective exhibit at MIT’s LIST Visual Arts Center on December First, I figured it was a good opportunity to take a detour around life and try to make it as a non-artist.

While music industry titans are easy to pin down and contextualize, the thinking mind needs to conceptually wrestle with these stars to make sense of the culture at large, regardless of where one occupies space, be that in the atmosphere or a ruddy inlay of the earth’s surface.

Henry Flynt and Tony Conrad, conversely, are just as stubbornly present and unavoidable as any industry giant, though their image, as their being, is hidden and stripped away.

Un-avoidability of these figures, further this exhibit, was never the issue. How to contextualize this exhibit in the present time is the unanswerable question throughout my research for this piece. Given that both Lary Seven and Henry Flynt have worked and collaborated with Conrad and that they both hold a storied lineage in the New York Underground art scene (one that Flynt and Conrad brought to cultural consciousness in the early 1960s), the concert on December first rounds off an otherwise untimely exhibit with timeless music.

The Harvard and MIT connection to this exhibit and performance here is obvious upon brief research. Flynt and Conrad met at Harvard during the 1960s during the time Conrad’s minimal recordings and Flynt’s ‘anti-art’ practices were first being recorded. Though part of academia, Flynt actively obstructed and denied the benefits of University life as a fringe leftist throughout his career. This sentiment was demonstrated blatantly when Flynt successfully defended his PhD Dissertation at The New School in New York about socialist allocation of wealth, but then consciously chose to reject his diploma.

Still, is there a reason as to why this exhibit takes priority over more diverse, new or old femme-identifying artists? Does this sentiment matter at all when faced with the likes of Conrad and Flynt, both humans, grandfather types of the New York Avant-garde, inextricable from the now culturally epic story of Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground?

History is like music,
Completely in the Present.
-Tony Conrad

I will tell you pointedly why I took this project on. In the ever-philandering world of art academe and ‘underground’ art there is a chasm. There are the hustlers and the hustled. The hustlers write the books or fill the concert halls with diatribes or theatrics surrounding professionalism as an artist, the artists’ attitudes toward authority, making a livelihood, and so on, the hustled read their books or, in opposition, think ‘how the fuck did they ever get put into a book in the first place?’.

The best art makes you stop, holds you completely in the present, and then sets you free where everything is elucidated through an easily fluent dialogue with oneself. Whether a film, art installation, album, or book, the most restless, rebellious artists are those that seek to divide and inspire provocative actions and thoughts. As non-present as economy is in this equation, the dollar still lurks outside every inaudible thought bubble. Tony Conrad, with his functional, cheaply made instruments and exhibits nullifies the wealth barrier for those who can fully immerse themselves in the art. Though, who has the time to immerse themselves in these subject matters if you’re not an incapacitated, anti-art scum like myself?

Before going forward and evaluating every last word’s economic value, we must ask what is academia in relation to art and how is the pedagogy and knowledge base democratized when those that are the most political, revolutionary artists, are now seen as the authorities they wanted to tear down?

‘I wanted to end composing, get rid of it…’ Conrad states in a video interview filmed later on in his life, ‘I wanted it to die out.’

* * *

In the wake of the international fallout surrounding the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman’s affiliation with American universities, in this case the March 2018 visit of Mohammed bin Salman to Harvard and MIT, a visit that even the Cambridge City Council went on record to express disappoint to both universities over; the question now is for the infantile believers among us, ‘What is an artist left to do on the ground?’ That question is only answerable if one is still able to act and create in the face of authoritarianism and a world ridden with war, pit between fantasies of cozy university posts and the ruthless, sometimes lawless music and arts underground.

Naturally, and in my view, quite in the vein of a Conradian ethic of not working, I choose to meander down this artistic avenue. With a bit of help from friends, the fact that the LIST and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts are free to visit, and access to free materials are provided as a consequence of a keen ask to some special folks, I try to breach navigating a definition of this ‘underground’ aesthetic through the context of the likes of Flynt and Conrad. To do this I have forgone all economy (if I had any in the first place), threw up my hands at my day job, and found smoking weed and biking around Cambridge between Harvard’s Carpenter Center and MIT’s LIST Center Conrad exhibits to be an okay way to proceed at this whole non-art thing.

Next I drown myself in both Conrad’s and Flynt’s separate musical catalogues, both of which are elusive in practicality yet bald in practice, cutting yet mythic in meaning, and heard with as extensive a path backward as one forward. Today, in every meter of experimental music, Tony Conrad’s legacy as a solo artist as well as his work with The Theatre of Eternal Music, lurk at the peripheries of every dissipating swell.

Flynt’s work on the album ‘I Don’t Wanna’ with The Insurrections put out in 1966, a Dylan inspired straightforward rock n’roll album, employs anti-war mantras with raw lyrics as explosive as their subject matter.

‘Nobody talk peace like Uncle Sam do/
Uncle Sam talking peace, dropping napalm on you’

Flynt has an as equally storied career as Conrad, as his biography states” working as a ‘philosopher, musician, anti-art activist and exhibited artist.’ Flynt may perhaps best be known as the person who coined the term ‘concept art’ in 1961, an art form which he revived for ‘tactical reasons’ in the 1980’s.

What solidified Flynt’s musical career however is his employment of ethnic art with Pandit Pran Nath. Flynt integrated different modes to continue to experiment and traverse musical terrains. Flynt’s ‘Graduation’, and to a much more diverse palate his ‘hillbilly tape music’ and ‘Purified by the Fire’, as Conrad succeeded in doing, ‘turn the minimal, maximal’ a paraphrasing of a Jeff Hunt quote from the Tony Conrad documentary ‘Completely in the Present’. During the 1980’s with ‘You are my Everlovin’, Flynt solidified his legacy as an experimental forerunner by ultimately combining not only Classical Indian music, but also, avant-garde music, electronic music, and folk music into one record designed to further dissolve the boundaries between experience.

I got this email the 13th when I was in Florida visiting my friend who was recently diagnosed with Leukemia, again. Since this email I’ve been, among other things, trying to quit smoking cigarettes, evading all responsibility (it feels fantastic) and frying my mind with the sound of Flynt and Conrad’s violins.

One striking loose thread through Conrad and Flynt’s work is the concept of ‘anti-art activism’. A topic that most artists avoid, being anti-art is, quite possibly the only thing that is for life in itself and creates an entendre within the piece of art or the process of creation itself.

At the exhibit, I was drawn to an article placed near the exit of the Tony Conrad exhibit in the LIST entitled ‘The Social Dropout’ whereby the piece written in the 1960s set Conrad under the underground. The piece just reads so pseudo. The text focused on working yet not working and what it meant to stay underneath a metaphorical ground in the 1960s. Though Conrad did not just focus on these aspects in his work and interviews, he actively taught and emoted an anti-authoritarian ethic and an art practice against authority regardless of how arbitrary the authority surrounding his own art may be, and how arbitrary authority is in general when it comes to the borders of states or artistic mediums.

Conrad has said, his film installation piece on view, ‘Beholden to Victory’ was set up to be a dismissive film, one that audiences should leave. Does this evoke the medium of film’s authority itself, challenging the boundaries of film as his much admired, yellow movies do, or does it function as the artists’ own self-erasure?

That is the ultimate distinction that not only the individual must face, but also the culture at large must interact with on a daily basis in such overwhelmingly apocalyptic, authoritarian times.

Conrad went to film after he got into music because not enough was happening for him at the time. His pioneering work in structural film with movies such as The Flicker work to make the artistic experience a more collaborative one. As the film actively interacts with the machine and projector, no aspect of this interaction is lost on the audience who slowly meld into their own small hallucinations induced by intense, long lasting flashing of lights.

Eschewing morbidity, Conrad’s art moves people and redirects the power of the object and institution into the viewers hands.

* * *

‘Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective’ is on view at MIT’s LIST Center for the Visual Arts until January 6th, 2019. This exhibit is also on view at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for Visual Arts until December 30th, 2018.

An additional film screening of Tony Conrad’s ‘Loose Connection’ and ‘Cycles of 3s and 7s’ will be shown at the Harvard Film Archive November 30th, 2018 at 7pm.

Feature Photo: ‘Yellow Movies’ (1973) by Tony Conrad. Photo by the Author.


Chris Hughes-Zimmerman //// is a poet & writer from Boston, Ma & music editor of //// They can be reached at [email protected] or @crsjh_ via instagram & twitter.

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