A Movie and Much, Much More: Iconic Artist Bruce Conner Remembered

By Jon Davies

bruce-conner-physical-services.jpgPhysical Services, 1964

Bruce Conner, who died in San Francisco on July 7th 2008, led more lives in his 74 years than most of us could begin to imagine.

An unpredictable and inveterate trickster, he made sculptures, collages, films, prints, drawings, paintings, photos, light shows and even stood for political office. Tetchy and restless, he didn’t hesitate to drop each craft and move onto the next, whether alienated by his experiences in a certain field or because he felt he had exhausted its expressive possibilities. He pronounced his own death twice before the real one got him, including in a 1959 exhibition invitation to see work by ‘the late Bruce Conner.’ He disliked being photographed, and avoided both signatures on his work and a signature style, yet he released a series of full-body photogram self-portraits where he transformed his being into pure light. Their title: Angels (1972-5). (They were recently on view at Life on Mars, the 2008 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.)

His experiments in identity slippage and dissolution foreshadowed those of our current cultural moment: as a child he entered an altered state of consciousness and saw his life flash before his eyes (before he discovered peyote); he convinced accomplices to portray him at public appearances long before Warhol did; he became fixated on finding all the other Bruce Conners in the world; he lost a Bruce Conner lookalike contest by entering a mirror into the competition; and he tried to mount a 1967 exhibition of collages under the name of his friend, the quintessential ’60s countercultural figure Dennis Hopper (to complicate matters further, the collages are reminiscent of Max Ernst’s in La Femme 100 têtes, and a Conner collage was once even mistaken for an Ernst by an expert.)

Born in McPherson, Kansas, in 1933 and the recipient of a BFA from the University of Nebraska in 1956, Conner soon fled the dusty, stultifying Midwest of the paranoid, difference-hating Cold War era for the promise and excitement of the Bay Area, where he started his art practice in the ’50s surrounded by all manner of mischievous and magical Beats, mystics and other Californians.

bombhead-bruce-conner.jpgBombhead, 1989-2002

Rather than exploring personal material, Conner grappled with the mysterious truths of human existence: the sacred and the profane, the sublime and the mundane, desire and repression, but his work was always marked by a profound existential ambivalence. He infused his creations with both a political consciousness (thankfully free of dogmas) and a darkly ironic wit that frequently leaves one in a state poised between laughter and despair.

In post-war American mass culture’s cast-offs, he found evidence of his country’s polymorphously perverse unconscious: thus torn nylons envelop his pendulous sculptures and girlie mags are brought out from under the mattress and onto the gallery walls. In this ephemeral trash, Conner found “intimations of our mortality” (in curator Joan C. Siegfried’s words) and he stands as one of the great chroniclers of America’s apocalyptic imagination, with the doom-laden mushroom cloud a recurring motif in his work. For example, his 1976 film Crossroads is an unsettling, slow-burn montage of different shots of a nuclear bomb test at the Bikini Atoll – described by critic Ernest Callenbach as “a kind of atomic Guernica” – and the bluntly titled Bombhead, an impish 1989 collage of a suit whose head has been replaced with the iconic radioactive puff. Sculptures such as Child (1959) have an abject quality that the Eisenhower years could barely stomach – a premonition of the traumatic sixties – and Conner’s concern for human degradation continued throughout his career. Child and the other often grotesque assemblages that made him an art star in the fifties employed found objects – or, as critic Philip Leider says, “lost objects” for they never regain a new life but instead hold onto all the sad majesty of their dejected, discarded status. Conner was soon exhausted and ulcer-scarred by the experience of being a commodity traded by the New York art world, and largely abandoned his 3D work and his gallery representation as his fame crested in 1967.

I came to know Conner’s work through his films, notably A Movie (1958) and Report (1964-7). Growing up in a Kansas that Stan Brakhage compared to Dorothy’s dull, black-and-white “no place like home” of The Wizard of Oz, Conner understood the huge emotional – nay, erotic – power of the cinema to uplift banal reality to the status of glorious, excessive spectacle. While he made work in honour of commanding female stars like Jean Harlow (the assemblage Homage to Jean Harlow [1963]) and Marilyn Monroe (the 1968-73 film Marilyn Times Five), on big and small screen alike he mostly saw lies, lies, lies – as glamorous and compelling as they may be.

suitcase-bruce-conner.jpgSuitcase, 1961-1963

Conner began filmmaking almost by accident, with A Movie originally intended as a prohibitively expensive rear-projected 16mm loop within a larger multimedia installation. While his films are infused with the same ironic, collage sensibility of his other artwork, the films achieve full mastery of his tone and go furthest in capturing his worldview. Using decontextualised fragments of whatever found footage he could afford – particularly newsreels, B-movies, stock footage, educational and industrial films, smut and most notoriously, celluloid leader and the other filmic elements that usually only the projectionists see – he carefully orchestrated kinetic, rhythmic and frequently shocking montages, often relying on repetition to suggest how trapped we are in our patterns of destruction. The anonymous, universal quality of the generic footage and bare-bones craft of the editing gives the films the stature of myth, as does their epic themes.

Through deconstructing the empire’s images, Conner could articulate the horrors and pleasures that lay hidden beneath its veneer of prosperity and purity. A favourite Conner trope was to invoke the psychosexual nature of warfare, for example by inserting a naughty starlet into the viewfinder of a submarine periscope, which promptly launches a phallic torpedo in A Movie. In twelve minutes, A Movie mutates from comical slapstick to hellish cataclysm in its critique of American might and conquest. A stampede of violence and devastation – on land, on sea and in the air – A Movie is all movies, all narrative that sees the world in terms of heroes and villains, and Conner declares “the end” to these stories before the film even starts. The men and their life-extinguishing games on flagrant display here are sharply contrasted with all the women in Conner’s less death-haunted films like Cosmic Ray, Breakaway and others, the source instead of a potent life-energy.

In their ecstatic, forward-driving juxtaposition of sound and image, many of Conner’s films smack of the death drive. All excite the senses as much as the intellect. For example the lightning-quick climax of Mongoloid – which critic Phil Anderson calls “a nightmare of sensory overload” – as it plummets down the abyssal archive of our horrifying twentieth century, making us feel like all the bodies thrown about by crashing vehicles in A Movie. By shunning colour and sticking to black and white, Conner’s films feel like “the past,” but this is all a careful manipulation. He claimed to avoid colour because it would be impossible to closely match clips from his widely varying sources; the divergences would be too distracting for viewers. (With black and white, “it’s easier to disguise the difference and convey a continuity […] I try to make separate things become one,” he told Scott MacDonald in a 1981 interview.) But colour would have also given his films a certain unwanted contemporary specificity and historical immediacy. The affective punch of Conner’s film is so strong because their aesthetics look so archaic, even primeval. Anderson in Afterimage identified nostalgia in Conner’s films from the mid- to late-seventies, before clarifying: “By ‘nostalgia’ I do not suggest that there is a longing for the past in Conner’s recycled images. Instead, they evoke a compulsive, semi-archaeological, occasionally obsessive fixation, which negates longing and makes the films more relevant to the present than to stagnant or outdated issues. Like any archaeologist, Conner explores the supposedly familiar past in order to reach new perceptions.” Each fragment that Conner unearths and re-contextualises resembles a ghostlike piece of evidence of humanity’s potential – whether for destruction or creation.

bruce-conner.jpgBruce Conner

In Report, Conner obsessively returned to the terror of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the transformation of the dead president into merely another marketable myth of the 1960s media landscape. Radio reports of that fateful day are provocatively juxtaposed with a wide variety of surprising and affecting found images, from shots of the motorcade to glossy commercials. No other film gives me the chills the way Report does, and not only in its visually assaultive substitution of (inaccessible) footage of the moment of Kennedy’s shooting with the hallucinogenic flicker of alternating black and white frames, and later at his moment of death with a neurotic repetition of countdown leader – as if to admit the failure of representation in the face of the real lived catastrophe we hear described in panicked tones by the announcer. (Conner once said, “there’s no real film there.”)

It is in the second act’s evocation of a soul-killing popular culture that turns citizens into spectator-consumers and politicians into merchandise that I find myself shaken to the core, as Conner unleashes a torrent of scathing visual puns to suggest how JFK was merely another precious product for sale alongside snack foods and scouring pads. This barrage of imagery is so powerful because its soundtrack has returned to the announcer’s up-tempo commentary on the unsullied early moments of the presidential procession, before Kennedy is shot. Punctuating his optimistic oration, Report’s closing image of a secretary pressing a “SELL” button is like a jolt of electricity, coming as it does at the end of all the horror that the enraged and possessed Conner has put us through.

Conner would re-edit his films throughout their life-spans, they were always in progress, lived and breathed, never finished (completing Report meant Conner would have to accept that JFK was really dead). Conner’s visionary spirit – his love, his anger and his fear – will live on in all who are marked by their visceral intensity.

Bruce Conner (18.11.1933 – 7.7.2008). Many of his films are distributed in the UK by the LUX.

Jon Davies is a film, video and media arts programmer, curator and critic based in Toronto. He is currently the Assistant Curator of Public Programs at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, and has published widely on cinema and contemporary art in Canada and internationally.