In Conversation

Bruce Conner with John Yau

Bruce Conner, portrait 1995. ©Kim Stringfellow.

John Yau (Rail): Would you talk about a movie you shot during the filming of Cool Hand Luke, but you only just finished?

Bruce Conner: It was in 1967. They were shooting a scene in Cool Hand Luke on a country road, California flatland, very much like the Southern environment where the story was supposed to take place. Dennis Hopper invited me to visit the set. He also asked the producer and the director if I could shoot some film of their location production on that day using my regular 8mm movie camera. They said fine and thought it would be worthwhile and fun, so that is what I did. I didn’t know exactly what I would confront except that they were supposed to have scenes of prisoners working on surfacing a road. I decided to shoot the film and edit it entirely inside the camera, so I would have to discover an opening shot. The film had two and a half minute running time if it was running at sound speed of twenty-four frames per second, I would try to find a concluding shot that hopefully would sum up everything. It was also an exercise in poverty filmmaking. Regular 8mm was being phased out and Super8 was being phased in. The equipment I had was therefore less expensive than anything else, and it fit my budget. I believe this production cost about three dollars, both for the film and processing. As I was riding to the location in a truck with one of the people working on the production itself, the first shot I took was of the sound truck. Then the camera zooms up to the distance where there are people moving behind some bushes, obviously on a road. I made the film about the environment around the actors and mostly off-camera, all the gaffers and camera people. It was a very active shoot because, as they were laying sand onto the black oiled road, they had to keep moving as the road became covered with sand. There were people making false smoke to simulate hot tar. I did a lot of single framing, particularly towards the beginning of the film, because I was able to get a Bolex regular 8 projector that would run at five frames per second and it was my intention to run it at that speed. Instead of being two and a half minutes long, it would be about fifteen minutes.

Rail: Can you say more about the film?

Conner: Well about two years ago, Patrick Gleeson, who has done soundtracks for some of my other films, more so than anybody else, said he wanted to do one more film and asked if I had any footage or finished film that could be the basis for him doing a soundtrack. I didn’t know that I had anything except a lot of unfinished film footage and I mentioned this particular film in 8mm. The film had been enlarged to 16mm years ago when the original footage went into the collection of the MoMA film archives. This was fortunate because regular 8 is so obsolete that nobody can print it anymore. We took that material and Patrick began composing and performing the music for the film. He decided it should be slower than five frames per second. So we did some trickery with digital equipment and got it down to three frames per second. Now it is twenty-two minutes long, and its got stereo sound, the benefit of working in digital. That is the way it will be seen. It won’t be on film.

Rail: In 1984, Peter Selz said you were about to finish a feature-length documentary about a gospel quartet called the Soul Stirrers?

Conner: It was called By and By.

Rail: What happened with that?

Conner: Well, in the last few weeks, I was nominated for a film and video fellowship with a program for media arts. They have $35,000 to give to about fifteen people and they have 120 nominees. I am applying to make a short film from the By and By footage. There is an enormous amount of paper that I need to fill out describing a sample excerpt, and how I would edit the footage that I have. Some of the footage is archival from the National Archives that will accompany music sung by R.H. Harris in the 1940s. He would be featured in this latter day version of By and By. Originally it was intended to be a feature length film, but it broke down because someone owned the arrangements for the Soul Stirrers’ songs—not the words or the songs—and they wanted so much money that we couldn’t afford it. Then my health became poor and it didn’t seem likely that I would be able to edit a feature length film. I closed the production and gave all the footage to the Film Arts Foundation since it helped raise money for the non-profit venture. Now Henry Rosenthal, who was co-producing with me in 1984, has the material and he hasn’t been able to raise any more money since he took it over ten years ago. So I chose to apply for a fellowship to try to at least make a film of a small segment of this production. There is a song the Soul Stirrers recorded in the forties called “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” I plan on editing it the way I did Valse Triste, using the existing music. I am proposing that it would be a 16mm film perhaps with a prologue of a few minutes. This song would be part of a version no longer than thirty minutes. The entire edit would focus on Harris, performing the first original Soul Stirrer singing style that he perfected that later was developed when Sam Cooke replaced him as the group’s lead singer. I would select music that would not be expensive for the film rights. I need to eliminate an enormous amount of footage that we shot of the reunion of the Soul Stirrers. That shoot had four cameras, stereo sound, and all the rest of it; I am dumping all that in order to do it economically.

Rail: In a 1967 issue of ArtForum, there is a piece by Thomas Garver called, “Bruce Conner makes a Sandwich.” It documents the making of a sandwich that includes bacon, Swiss cheese, banana, lettuce, bread, Miracle Whip, peanut butter, and butter. What was the genesis of that piece?

Conner: ArtNews had a regular series, with pieces like “Jean Dubuffet Makes a Painting.” It included the artist’s signature and photographs documenting the product being produced. As I saw it, it was a product being produced because the camera was there, and, when somebody is observing the performer’s action, that always alters things. I decided it would be interesting to submit an article to ArtNews about Bruce Conner making a peanut butter sandwich, peanut butter being one of my favorite foods and main standbys during periods of economic distress. I also decided that it should be compulsively and precisely detailed.

Rail: Yes, as in “Jean Conner, the artist’s wife is wearing sandals, black slacks, a flowered print blouse in blue, green, and white, and grey rimmed glasses,” and your son Robert is wearing “red tennis shoes, white socks, red corduroy trousers, a blue and white t-shirt.”

Conner: I asked Tom Garver to come to my apartment and take photographs as I built this sculpture and also while I ate it, which I didn’t tell him I was going to do. I set up a tape machine to record the entire process so we could time every action exactly to the second so that, in the article when it says the time is 11:35 and 10 seconds a certain action is happening. By timing the tape after the fact, it was possible to do that as precisely as possible. I then wrote the entire article. I wrote about building the sandwich and then about eating it. I asked Thomas to put his name on it because I knew ArtNews would not print it if it did not have an established, professional voyeur commenting and presenting the event. He said fine. However, he would not put his name to me eating the sandwich, which took place precisely at noon.

Rail: I wondered what happened to it.

Conner: It was easily consumed by the primary audience, but Thomas said it was obscene for an artist to eat his own artwork.

Rail: You once talked about a food show, which you described as including big sandwiches, and that it opened and closed in two hours.

Conner: I’ll tell you about that in a minute. So we submitted the article for some reason ArtNews rejected it. Then we sent it to ArtForum and they were delighted. They printed it just like ArtNews would print theirs. Within a few months, ArtNews discontinued that series. They may have decided that it had run its course.
Now to follow up, you did ask me about the food show. In part, because this article and the concept of making food a medium was popular with Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, and some other artists, it became organized into an artist-inspired exhibition that included a lot of Bay Area people. At that time, it was possible to obtain a gallery space at the San Francisco Museum of Art. The nusuem had it scheduled to open at seven o’clock, but it didn’t open for forty-five minutes or longer because they were waiting for a photographer to come, but no photographer showed up. So they opened the doors and people went in and had absolutely no respect and started eating everything. Jean had a fish bowl filled with lime Jell-O; parsely, shell pasta, and carrot-sculpted gold fish. Neri had a giant popsicle that was a sculpted block of ice that had no flavor but was purple. Other people had painted or created something with food to hang on the wall. I think Gordon Cook had a wooden platform with a vertical bar and from it a wire with a hook holding a whole beef tongue.

Bruce Conner, "Negative Trend: Audience of One," February 16, 1978 (printed July-Sept 2004), black and white photograph on Ilford Glossy Silver Archival fibre base paper ©1978 Bruce Conner. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

Rail: So you weren’t supposed to eat anything?

Conner: Well, nobody was enforcing don’t touch the artwork. Part of the philosophy of museums is that everybody is supposed to have a good time and party. “We’re having a special event of decorated eggs for Easter. Please decorate this egg and send it back and we will raise money for our place.” Or, “decorate this tie.” They come up with wonderful ideas like this. Well, they didn’t have anything quite like this food show back 1970 or ’71. This was also about the time when museums, particularly in the East, were putting together exhibitions of new directions in art. They started doing this in the sixties with pop art, op art, kinetic art, et cetera. They seemed to have a new gimmick every other month. It wouldn’t be too long until someone picked up on food art, but nobody did much about it after our San Francisco show.

Rail: One reason I mention the connection between food and art is because once, while talking about your assemblages, you said that you were not trying to make permanent art because life was change and decay. Do you feel any different now? You just finished a film you started in 1967.

Conner: Well I am not going to sop breathing until I have to. In some commentary Patrick Gleeson has written about working on films with me. He observed that I would take one small project and work on it industriously and with dedication for an infinite amount of time.

Rail: It’s true of your felt-tip pen watercolors and inkblot drawings.

Conner: I don’t think of pieces as having a beginning or end. Usually when I speak about the assemblages or collages, I have a date for them. Basically that’s the day when I put it on a wall, a sculpture stand, or on exhibit. It didn’t mean that it was finished because I never considered them to be finished. I considered them to be in process, that I would continue to work on them through the future and that I would have the ability to do so. There were inherent characteristics of these pieces, but if I didn’t want it to be the way it appeared to be I would change it. However, once they started becoming property, then I didn’t have access to them.
One problem I had in discussions of retrospectives of my work starting in the 1970s was that museums didn’t want me to touch my own artwork. In the meantime, the artwork was in many cases considerably altered from the last time I saw it, perhaps to the point where I didn’t consider it to represent my intention. It had been altered by other people and by happenstance and accident. Henry Hopkins, the director of the San Francisco Museum, was proposing a retrospective exhibition and said, “if the work has been damaged there can be restoration but you have to file an insurance claim and it has to be based on documentation, a photograph.” Many pieces were not photographed originally. So the photograph that might exist would be one most recently made by whoever had the piece and the piece had already been altered considerably. I asked to have the right to exclude things from the retrospective that I did not consider to represent my work. Either that, or allow me to perform the work that I needed to do to bring it into its proper character.

Rail: So the show didn’t happen?

Conner: No. They wouldn’t let me touch my own artwork. They said that the only way this could be done would be for the insurance company to hire a conservator and go through all these formal structures. When conservators did work on these pieces, they put their own aesthetics onto them. They would take something that was at an angle and reorganize it so it was horizontal and vertical. They patched holes when the piece was purposely designed to have them. They replaced stockings with pantyhose. They cleaned the dust off. They decided that some things were not to be intended to be there and I wouldn’t have any say in the matter. This prevented me from having a major museum show for many years until Peter Boswell, Joan Rothfuss, Kathy Hallbreich, and other people at the Walker Art Center agreed with my premises.
Hey, this is a lot of technical garbage. Can’t I be sardonic and sarcastic?

Rail: Here is an opportunity to be sardonic and sarcastic. You once told me a story about sending letters and collages to a New York critic, and you said that you knew he was having an affair with your wife and please not to write about you anymore.

Conner: It was about 1960. I think this would be called conceptual or performance art nowadays. I chose to create a persona for myself, and to include this critic as the main audience. Actually, beside myself, he was the audience. There was a series of letters and events that took place over a period of about a year. The persona I was playing with was an extension of a personality that critics assumed existed because of what had been seen in my collages and assemblages.

Rail: So you were making a persona based on a critical projection into your work?

Conner Many times people have and continue to project on me the content of a character that they see in the work, which they regard as an expression of the artist’s innermost self. This bullshit has been going for ages. I was working more in a form like a drama, story, biography, or a creation of dramatic events. There are characters represented in these pieces. Why would somebody assume that Shakespeare is Macbeth, Hamlet, or Richard the Third?

Rail: And you sent stuff to him?

Conner: By today’s standards, I sent him rather quaint bondage, leather masks, Betty Page-like photos. And I found one petite attractive black-haired woman, I sent this photograph too. I told him it was a photo of Jean. The letter would go into unexpected, incoherent turns. The theme was that I really wanted thus art critic’s favor, but I really resented, hated, and loved him all at the same time. Sometimes he would get letters that would change midway through, others would be absolutely and totally insulting, making unpleasant surmises about his sexual proclivities for example. This is an area that critics sometimes consider to be their purview. So here I was making comments about him and his personal life and what he’s doing. Of course I didn’t get any replies, so I sent a really unpleasant one to him and, by coincidence, my New York dealer Charles Alan saw him and said, “Well, I understand that Bruce Conner has been sending you some correspondence,” and he said, “Yes, I wish he would stop.” So after this really unpleasant one and his comment, I had a bouquet of roses sent to him with a card that said, “Let’s be friends.” About six months later, I heard he was in the Bay Area visiting galleries and museums. I didn’t see him or know where he might be, but I thought he might look at my work. After he left, I wrote him a letter. I told him how disappointed I was that he didn’t come to dinner and how we had just set everything up and how he had said he was coming and how Jean had fixed this wonderful meal. It was a really pathetic letter.
I had my friend Dave Haselwood, who ran the Auerhan Press and published Allen Gisnberg and Michael McClure and other writers in limited editions, print up some stationery with a false psychiatrist and asked him to write a letter to the critic from the psychiatrist. The letter, which I never saw, but which he said he sent, was to say, “I don’t really like to become involved in my patient’s situations. But Mr. Conner has been my patient for the last two years, and although I understand he has been difficult at times, it does not help for him to receive the kind of correspondence from you that he had showed me. “ That was the end. I don’t talk about it much. Jean thinks it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my life, persecuting this poor gentleman. It is a rather unpleasant thing to do. But it entertains other critics when I tell them about it.

Rail: [laughs] Yeah, it’s both funny and terrifying!

Conner: Yeah, you’re laughing your head off. But the critic shall remain nameless. I guess this kind of procedure had sarcasm involved. It was entertaining but also difficult at times.

Rail: It was a performance piece.

Conner: I guess so. You know all these terms like assemblage and performance, conceptual art et cetera; they didn’t exist in the fifties.

Rail: You were a proto-performance artist.

Conner: We just didn’t have the language, the blessing of the church of art that explains all this.

Rail: You were rejecting the notion that art comes from an inner self and art as a therapeutic manifestation of this inner self.

Conner: I don’t know that I have fully rejected it. It’s just that I find that totally using that reading is false. You cannot avoid your own personal involvement in any of these works, despite the protestation of minimalist artists. They obviously shovel enormous amounts of personality into it. Otherwise, how can it ever be exhibited and talked about if they don’t dump their ego into it. They have to put their name on the whole thing.

Rail: And you retired in 1988?

Conner: A famous poet friend of mine told me that he had visited an older poet who said that you spend the first years of your life writing poetry and the last years archiving its reception.

Rail: I think I told you that story.

Conner: Yeah, I think you did.

Rail: So you spent the first years making work and now you are archiving it?

Conner: Yeah, I am polishing the furniture, doing interviews, answering silly questions.

Rail: At last, you are being sarcastic.

Conner: I thought I was being realistic, straightforward, and honest. I do find that I don’t always understand what I am and am not supposed to talk about. A close friend said I am always talking about things I shouldn’t. You’re not supposed to say, “So Charlie, where is your wife now that you’re with this girl?” Of course I wouldn’t be doing it to aggravate him. It was just what was going on.

Rail: There are a number of personae, like Emily Feather and Diogenes Lucero. Can you talk a bit about that?

Conner: These are associates of mine. They are not personae. They are true entities.

Rail: And they all make art?

Conner: Not all of them. We would have shows together, I would show a new DVD of some of my films and there would be work by Anonymouse and people would say these are all by Bruce Conner. I had some discussions with my associates about that, because Bruce Conner should not be taking credit for Anonymouse’s works. Despite the fact that I tried to point out that these were group shows, their work would be attributed to me because it somewhat resembled mine. I encouraged the Anonymouse artists to either create a new name for themselves or to use their own names and we could show together. And I also recommended that the other anonymous people go out and exhibit in a context which has absolutely no relationship to Bruce Conner and perhaps then the work itself would have no identification with Bruce Conner. This should peak your curiosity enormously and should frustrate you in the future because you will not know at which turn you are looking at one of my associate’s works, who were formerly associated with Bruce Conner.

Rail: Oh Bruce, I am used to you driving me crazy.

Conner: [laughs] How do you know when you are crazy and driven? When do you know when you are being transported to insanity?

Rail: I don’t. It is all part of the reality of knowing Bruce Conner.

Conner: There are some people that have developed complete philosophies based on the assumption that all is illusion; everything that is real is illusion and everything that is illusion is the same as reality.

Rail: Then it’s illusion

Conner: It means this illusion is so out of its gourd that I better get away from it.

Rail: Now are you going to have a show in New York this year?

Conner: I have printed some photographs that I took in 1978 of punk rock performers, mostly from the Bay Area. They are not too well known outside of this area. I was taking and printing some of the photographs in a newspaper called Search and Destroy. At the time, I spent the whole year taking photos in a club called Mahbuhay Gardens. I printed a group of twenty-six of these around 1985, and have now printed another twenty-seven. There should be fifty-three of these photographs at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery opening December 16. There will also be the recently completed motion picture named LUKE, which I talked about earlier, thirty-four years in the making. I have a lot of unfinished works that need to be polished up. Occasionally they are translated into another medium like using the engraving collages using images from New and Old Testament illustrations, and made into tapestries ten feet wide. It requires an awful lot of intense dedication to go through that process of translating a small image of about five by six inches and recreate it in a way that it could be woven.

Rail: Are you going to show the tapestries too?

Conner: I showed a couple of them this last January at the Susan Inglett Gallery in New York. I had a show of five of them at the Michael Kohn gallery in L.A. last March, and that is where it stands at the present time.

Rail: So this will be the first time you have had a solo at Barbara Gladstone?

Conner: That’s right. She displayed some of my other photographic work, photograms, photocopy images, punk photographs, and other photos along with a video of my films at an International Photography Fair about a year ago. The punk photos are what she is interested in showing this time.

Rail: Are you going to come to New York for the show?

Conner: I do not travel these days. I plan to stick right here.

Contributor

John Yau