The artist behind 'Cosmic Ray' on his funny, profound, vitally alive and spectrally haunting work
BY THOMAS ALBRIGHT | March 9, 1968
Bruce Conner is a kind of hip Leonardo of the new Rennaissance — painter, assemblagist, printmaker, film-maker, light-show artist, teacher, harmonica player, social critic, mystic, recent candidate for San Francisco supervisor and his own best P.R. man.
Conner's assemblages and collages — funky reliquaries of musty Victorian ghosts, tattered discards, news magazine violence and nudie cheesecake — have influenced a decade of found-object art, and belong to collections of such major museums as the New York Museum of Modern Art. A drawing he did two years ago to publicize a San Francisco "Trips Festival" produced the first known "psychedelic" mandala, now seen everywhere in print shop posters. Conner's 10-year output of "public films" adds up to scarcely an hour of viewing time, but the "fractured flicker" technique of films like "Cosmic Ray" anticipated the early work of such film-makers as Robert Nelson and Ben Van Meter; shot in 1960, when everyone was still listening to "head jazz," "Cosmic Ray" uses the sound of Ray Charles. Conner has recently been involved in light-shows, one of five artists who make up Ben Van Meter's North American Ibis Alchemical Company, which produced some of the first light-shows in 1966 at the Fillmore Auditorium.
Conner talked mostly about the latter activities in a recent interview at his home, a maverick old white-frame among the rows of box houses near the top of San Francisco's Twin Peaks. It is a harmonious mixture of opposites that slightly suggests a Conner college — Victorian relics and "camp" pictures, abstract-impressionist paintings by his wife Jean, his own intricate mandala prints and funk assemblages; an old desk and cabinet where papers are methodically filed away; and Conner himself, 34 years old, decked out in faded jeans, white shirt and snake-skin vest, with a manner of ready humor and restrained intensity, and suggesting an eccentric turn-of-the-century attic craftsman reborn in a more public age.
Originally from Kansas, Conner received a degree in fine arts from the University of Nebraska, and first moved to San Francisco in 1957. He was possibly one of the first figures to bridge the old Beat Generation North Beach with the Haight-Ashbury; Conner frequented the Beat scene, lived in cheap housing in the Haight, and constructed many of his assemblages from material collected at wrecked buildings in an urban renewal project he passed through on the long walk between.
One of his earliest works won a national award in a religious art contest sponsored by the National Council of Churches, and Conner's career in assemblage was accompanied generally by all the trappings of artistic success. He ended it four years ago, coinciding with the award of a Ford Foundation film grant. More precisely, "I stopped gluing it down," he said.
"Fifteen years was long enough. For a long time, I had the field to myself. I could move out in any direction. Then everyone began to stake out territory.
"I feel free when I feel I'm in a new country. I had a lot to do with psychedelics up till the time I stopped doing assemblages — I thought of myself like George Catlin traveling across the country into a new territory, then coming back and making a report. But I decided this represented a kind of arbitrary role-taking, communicating something that couldn't really be communicated. And I always sort of felt that what I was doing was outside the art scene anyway. To rationalize it socially, you have to call it art. I really wanted to have my first show someplace like a filling station; but there weren't any hip filling stations around. It's a lot easier now."
Conner's first film, made in 1958, was originally planned as part of an assemblage, a "very funky" kind of "little theater" that would include cartridge projector, film loops, sound tapes and blinking lights. Finding the cost prohibitive, he simply made "A Movie," a cut-and-splice collage of stock home movie footage, centering on scenes of destruction and set to an accompaniment of Respighi's "Pines of Rome." This was before Conner owned either camera or editing equipment.
"I had always fantasized a movie made up of scenes from all kinds of movies," Conner said. "At the time, it was unique."
Two years later, Conner made his most popular film, "Cosmic Ray," using both stock film and film he shot himself. It counterpoints scenes of violence, dancing nudes, street lights, television commercials and Walt Disney cartoons, set to Ray Charles' version of "What'd I Say?" Conner spent four months editing the film down to a fantastically tight-packed four minutes.
While living in Mexico, Conner shot a multiple-image color film, "Hunting for Mushrooms," based on a search through outlying villages for hallucinogens used in Indian religious rites which Conner made in' the company of a stranger who stopped by to see him: Timothy Leary. Completed last year, when he added sound, the film is a prototype of the edit-inside-inside-the-camera technique now popular in "acid documentaries."
With the Ford grant, Conner made his longest film, a 13-minute "epic" on the assassination of President Kennedy, while he was living in Brookline, Mass., Kennedy's birthplace. Another short film, "Vivian," shows a girl posture, primp and dance into a glass case in an art gallery to the sound of Conway Twitty's "Mona Lisa" ("Are you real . . . or just another work of art?"). Since returning to San Francisco two years ago, Conner has made "Breakaway," a hard-rock short that shows much of dancer Antonoa Christina Basilotta; "Liberty Crown," a kinescope excerpting a show produced for KQED television, and "The White Rose," centering on the removal of a huge canvas from the studio of painter Jo De Feo. Plans for a feature-length, 35-millimeter production in cooperation with Shirley Clark broke down when they failed to raise a $60,000-$70,000 budget. It was to be a musical comedy, starring Conner and the Butterfield Blues Band and titled "The Bruce Conner Story." "Somehow it wasn't saleable to the powers that be," Conner said.
Conner's film style continues to flow from an assemblagist's additive eye, his films are essentially multilevel collages in time. "Found objects, in the form of stock, home-movie footage, are wrenched into startling new contexts, live film is chopped into fragments that are sharply juxtaposed in new relationships, and often the two are combined, all above sound tracks which amplify the visual rhythms and underline the sometimes wildly humorous, sometimes grimly symbolic, ironic content. The result is a unique amalgam of medium and message — photographic grain, abrupt cuts, flashing leader numbers and occasionally, a blank, flickering screen, all rivet attention to the film as film, yet function equally to convey qualities like age, frenetic movement, a count-down suspense and blank, bewildering anxiety.
Conner has spent years working on a single film, editing and re-editing waiting for the appropriate sound. The process sometimes leaves several versions of the same film — there are three of "Cosmic Ray," eight of "Report," and this refers only to the films themselves; Conner says "Cosmic Ray," though set to Charles, works equally well to a Ravi Shankar record, though in a completely different way, and the possibilities are endless. Sometimes, the process leaves no film at all — "it just doesn't resolve" — and Conner has also made several more or less private films, sometimes running them "until they fall apart," or giving them away to their subjects as "portraits."
He considers all his films "home movies. I would like properly for people to own them, so they can see them many times, like having a favorite book or paintings on the wall.
"My main concerns — life and death," Conner said " 'Cosmic Ray' is all about light; among other things it uses the sound of Ray Charles, who's a blind man. The title refers to him. Why Charles? Because Charles is it — he goes out in all directions he can find to touch people. If he needs Mantovani orchestration to do it, then he uses it.
"The film is also about censorship and pornography. I see censorship, and all the repressive organizations of our society, as anti-life. When you censor sex, what are you opposing? The U.S. Army is the ultimate extension of anti-sex, anti-life social organization — it destroys the fruit of woman, and it is also the largest homosexual organization in the United States. It takes all the creative energy away from life and redirects it into killing."
Conner made "Report" to rescue the reality of Kennedy's death — and life — from "all the social ritual and absurdity that went along with it." He originally planned to take live film of Kennedy's burial at a family gravesite reserved for his body at Brookline, Mass.; when the ceremony was moved to Washington, Conner tried unsuccessfully to get newreel footage from NBC. He ended up using stock home movie footage over a recorded sound track of newscasts of the motorcade, assassination and burial. The film moves back and forth through chronological time; Conner used the first eight minutes for such insistently repetitive scenes as a view of Jacqueline Kennedy reaching for an ambulance door, finding it locked, standing back, then reaching again. The assassination moves back to the motorcade, with lines like "the limousine of gunmetal gray" assuming a grim irony, "like the prelude to an epic poem," says Conner. The last few minutes of the film interweave footage of the burial with scenes of a matador, a stricken bull, a shattering light bulb, television commercials, and a secretary pushing a "Sell" button on an IBM calculator.
"The repetition is like the first three days after the assassination, when there was nothing to think about but the death of Kennedy," Conner said. "It's never been a good film — on purpose — up to the last five minutes. The art should not stand in the way of the realization of the death of the man."
Conner joined North American Ibis midway through last year, after the company had moved its light shows to the Avalon Ballroom. "The light show has fulfilled a multitude of — Continued on following page — Continued from preceding page needs creatively," he said. "You're creating the images at the same time they are consumed, which is an ideal situation. You're working together with a group. Most of the time, if not working in a strong way, we at least try to make it pretty."
In all his creative outlets, Conner has acquired some reputation as a self-publicist; he frequently turns out pairs of buttons, one reading "I am Bruce Conner," the other, "I Am Not Bruce Conner." Last year, he entered the sweepstake-sized election race for San Francisco supervisor, complete with "Super Conner" bumper stickers and a Voter's Pamphlet statement quoting a mystical passage from the New Testament; under "occupation," he listed "Nothing." He received 5,375 votes, "by second count."
Whatever Conner touches somehow turns out funny, profound, vitally alive and spectrally haunting, among other things. He has "always been involved in mysticism — Zen, alchemy, magic, all that stuff. After you're through it you realize there's plenty of Western mysticism; there's no reason to reject the Christian mysticism, except in rejecting the values of the elders."
In his desk, Conner has filed away his own typewritten concordat to the New Testament, filled mostly with passages like "the lilies of the field, how they grow." His art is like that, and usually sprouting just a little earlier than the rest of the field.