The author with Tony Oursler(c) and mentor Tony Conrad(l)
I dedicate most blog posts to demonstrating how art making and art makers provide useful insights to success in life and the workplace. Today I share about the person who led me to see that in the clearest way possible. For full value of this post, I suggest you click on the video below to provide a soundtrack to your read.
Tony Conrad, my great friend, mentor, artist and humble genius passed on last Saturday. The thousands of words in the scores of articles that flooded the internet soon after point to an artist whose thesis was to break the boundaries ascribed to whatever medium he touched - music, film, video, writing, painting, performance, teaching, activism, collecting, broadcasting….
If there was a constant with Tony it was paradox.
A respected and well-known film maker who shows up to his own screening in NYC with several 20 minute reels of super 8 film. Did he know that each reel change would give his audience the space to get up and leave? From a packed room there were just 7 of us left at the end.
His earliest music was pulling a bow across a violin with other instrumentalists for hours at a time. It was around the time of John Cage re-figuring composition. Tony was quoted as wanting to re-figure John Cage.
One could call him a cultural bomb thrower but that would miss the point. In performance and presentation, his understanding of time, space, structure and materials led him to the edge of everything he made. Coupled with a welcoming attitude and mischievous air he was clever in deflecting the serious depth of his work. He often manifested this in public, whether on stage or in the classroom, by playing the disruptive simpleton, like Jarry’s Ubu Roi.
His clever pose attracted someone, and many others, like me. I was one who came late to art and was trying to make work straight from my heart. Tony let my band practice at his loft-and occasionally played with us. He lent me the equipment to create my first full-length video. He championed me in a grad student teaching position and at art festivals. I won awards. Soon the lure of producing took me away from making art to bringing it to new audiences.
I went from producing art and music into business. Then I started a family. Now I have a job bringing communities together in service of wellness.
And Tony’s influence on me as a leader and father continues. He taught me that the doorway away from structure is always close by. I should always seek it and freely move toward it. When I took the position to direct Tobacco Free WNY in 2008 I knew nothing about tobacco policy and public health. In less than six months people saw me as an expert in the field and now 8 years later we are leading ground breaking projects among our state and national colleagues. Tony taught me that it’s time to start something new when I have stopped looking beyond. He reminded me there always is the next piece to make - “So stop looking and get to back to work, heh heh heh!” I hear him say as I write this. Tony knew the only way to break free of structure was to start.
He gave me my bullshit meter to know when someone is talking too much I could pretty much expect that they will not be doing too much either. He also instilled a graciousness with which to treat others, whether they were doers or not. In the grand scheme of our time here, he would say, "There's room for everybody, don't you think so?"
It took Tony more than 40 years to receive the recognition and respect that other contemporaries - Cage, Cunningham, Warhol received much earlier. Instead of embracing and leveraging notoriety Tony stayed close to the ground in Buffalo content to stay involved with his work and the work of others he respected.
The magic of Tony is that once I met him and spent some time with him, whether I knew it or not he was in some way guiding me in all that I did. What more could I ask of a mentor?