Tony Conrad at Culturgest

The era of post-truth, meta-irony and “laughter for the sake of laughter” is cracking at the foundations. Nihilistic, hedonistic humour, without ethical foundation, is a meme consumed in a flash to the brink of exhaustion. What is the importance of irony without its critical and regenerating support? Why does satire matter without the underlying social transformation, without concern for authority and the hierarchical powers that turn life and everyday politics into an absurd farce?

But it is part of it. This unconcerned consumption with worldly things is part of the (post-)modern and capitalist condition, as long as they belong to the same logic as the prevailing system, fed by social media and algorithms that live off the idiosyncrasies of those who make them up. We all belong to the Society of the Spectacle, with the media and social digital networks supporting the current capitalist regime; we all belong to the Foucauldian panopticon of vigilant security.

This is in relation to Tony Conrad’s exhibition at Culturgest, an artist, filmmaker and musician who has constantly challenged notions of authority, authorship and hierarchies, in a time before everything had the prefix “post”, before post-irony and post-sincerity. Conrad uses humour and conceptual and linguistic games, working technology and time as if they were matters of a rampantly accelerating capitalism. Rather than using the mechanics of irony, satire and humour beyond the life of the world, Conrad finds in them a transformative power to shed light on the insidious processes that rule our everyday lives and their institutions.

Studio of the Streets (1991-93 / 2012) is the opening piece, installed in the Culturgest foyer, and prepares us for his iconoclastic, activist, combative verve. It sets the tone for the whole exhibition to decode the North American media and give a voice to the unrepresented. But the piece’s morphology, in a museological context, may have other contours, hurting the Museum as a (supposedly) democratic and democratising institution. Like the Museum, this is a work in construction, with cones and signalling barriers, wheelbarrows, earth and letters and vinyl panels. Just as democracy requires permanent work and commitment, the media and the museums do not have that energy and breath to force them to revise processes, forms of representation and inclusion and the inherent pedagogical methods. In this context, and considering this extrapolation, not only the media’s neutrality is under scrutiny here, but also that of Museums.

In Tony Conrad, video is omnipresent. Video is what connects its strong conceptualism of materiality and devices to the questions of Modernity or Contemporaneity. Video serves as a weapon against the aforementioned media, but also against military structures, society and the politics of surveillance and security, and questions of authorship. The mechanics of video, film, all instruments and languages, are used in the counterfeiting of signs and meanings: films are soaked in canning jars and turned into pickles; drawing paper sheets are dyed with enamel paints, as if they were cinema screens. Then they wait for the measurement of the passage of time, with the paint yellowing; the video art technology is broken down for Conrad to harness video art in itself – everything comes into play in an economy of means that gives creative and critical agency back to ordinary citizens.

This radical experimentalism is also in the musical pieces. In fact, Tony Conrad is an essential name in New York experimental music. In the first room, we listen to Four Violins (1964), a piece in continuous tone without composition, essentialist because it is only sound: a note in an infinite and hypnotic loop, capable of putting us in a trance. Four Violins is at the beginning of the so-called drone music, with pure intonations and sustained sounds, usually translated as “dream music”.

But experiments with music and sound are not only these. The exhibition shows a remarkable ensemble with instruments designed by the artist, built with cheap and banal materials. Everything has its own sonority, a rhythm, an intonation. Everything can be used to generate sound. Everything is matter for poetic improvisation, recommended by the economy of means defended by the artist.

The exhibition ends on a vaguely lugubrious note. Underwear (2009) is an apparently comic series, but humour is replaced by an inescapable melancholy when the context of the pieces is revealed: Conrad stretches cotton underwear and attaches it to cork frames; a barrier in the middle of the room resembles those used in retirement homes. Some underwear looks yellowed with time: again the measurement of time, now with the body’s veils bent by incontinence, biology, flaccidity. Conrad and curator Balthazar Lovay’s ultimate attack is against old age, its inevitability, disease. The end of shame and dignity. The paintings and pants have no self-respect whatsoever, saying something like: “here is the old body. Look. You will get here too. The body and old age are this: stains of faeces and urine; bodies like stones, waiting for an obvious outcome”.

Everything in this exhibition is political, just as everything in life is political. And life is comic. And tragic. A tragic irony.

Tony Conrad, at Culturgest, until July 3, curated by Balthazar Lovay.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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