Bruce Conner, Cultural Psychic

11/10/2010 4:00 AM |

Now, with the internet, our repetition compulsion as regards images is moving toward a zenith; nobody today watches anything they care about only once. If you haven’t seen that bicycle accident in reverse, or that political stump speech set to hip-hop, or that Olsen twins vid in satanic slo-mo, then, well, you haven’t really seen it. And it’s no accident that internet trolls have dubbed the Zapruder footage “the first meme.” It’s funny cause it’s true. Significant, too, is the fact that as re-viewing has become de rigueur, the assurance of authenticity has evaporated. While the Zapruder footage begged for intense dissection because it was shaky, shot from a distance, and because the physics involved are hard to make out from that angle (or so I’m told), images today might require scrutiny because they’re outrageously embellished or completely fabricated.

The late 70s found Conner the cultural commentator stepping aside to make way for work more indrawn. His pair of head-scratchers Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1977) and Valse Triste (1979) are possessed of a gnomic interiority. While both concern the oneiric and onanistic coming of age of a young boy, they frustrate any straight symbolic reading, offering threads of narrative but remaining essentially mysterious. Constituting a kind of K├╝nstlerroman, Dreamland and Valse Triste are in line with Stephen Greenblatt’s statement that, “the celebration of the imagination has to include a place for solitary sex.”

Like many people associated with the Beats, Conner found himself, in the late 70s and early 80s, attracted to punk-related happenings (Allen Ginsberg, Nicholas Ray and Robert Frank all dropped into CBGB’s to see what the young people were up to). This led to his making some music videos, including Mongoloid (1978), Mea Culpa (1981) and America is Waiting (1981); the first for DEVO and latter two for eponymous songs from Brian Eno and David Byrne’s collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981), an album that was pioneering in its use of sampling—a Conner-esq piece of musical assemblage, in other words. Composed of bits of old industrial and science films, all three works are extraordinary in terms of serving up eerie resonance and offering satisfying and complex sound-image conjunctions. Put them next to almost any mainstream music video from the era and one sees just what MTV was missing. This helps drive home the point that, while Conner was presaging so many of the strategies of contemporary media, he was also pointing toward a future in which these strategies could be mobilized in ways so much more interesting than their general use has allowed. Conner’s future hasn’t, by any means, been entirely foregone—it just exists mostly at the margins, where Conner himself worked. To see found footage work as bracing as Conner’s, one can turn to recent movies by people like Oliver Laric, Kent Lambert and Luther Price, to name only a few—I pick these three simply because I like them a great deal. With originality and verve, they’re adding to and transforming what has become a venerable tradition within alternative media-making-not just incurring a debt to Conner, but helping to repay it, too.