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Bruce Conner 1933-2008

        rest in peace   Art Forum San Francisco Gate New York Times Walker Art Center Collections and Resources (portraits by Larry Keenan)    

  • Joe Beres says:

    My friend, artist Coleman Miller, just posted some kind and personal words about Bruce Conner over on his blog. Take a look:

  • Steven Fama says:

    Dear Joe Beres and Walker Art Center,

    Thank you so much for this tribute and memorial to and about Bruce Conner.

    The Walker, to say the least, has been THE insitutional museum supporter and exhibitor of Bruce’s work.

    The copyright holder for Bruce’s work — Jean, his wife and widow — has asked that I request and demand that all postings and links to postings of Bruce’s movies be taken down. Bruce was adamant that his films not be shown or seen on-line. Jean shares this view. YouTube has been contacted (as they have in the past) and I anticipate that they will cooperate with Jean’s request (and Bruce’s explicit wishes). In the meantime, it would be appreciated if you would remove the embedded version of MONGOLOID on this page.

    Thank you for your anticipated cooperation with this request, and thank you again for remembering Bruce Conner.


    Steven Fama


  • Joe Beres says:

    Hi Steven,

    I’m more than happy to comply with your request.

    The video has been removed.

  • Mike M. says:

    Wow, I’ve just learned of Bruce’s passing via the WA site. Very sad indeed, but also disappointing to see the above exchange – as it displays a very conservative and short-sighted nature I wouldn’t have associated with him.

    As someone who frequents arts installations and have traveled extensively for international Biennials and exhibitions, I always find it disappointing to be expected to sit through video art in these environments – rarely does one encounter these pieces from the playback beginning – and generally the environment has little to do with the pieces, as they are shown in dark hot rooms placed between more ‘important’ media-works. If one is lucky, as at the Pompidou, there is an in-house lending library for artist’s works on video – but even that service is the exception to the rule.

    I have to assume from Bruce’s wishes that he prefers this archaic ‘distribution’ idea and would rather keep his works out of the exposure of most people – very elitist indeed, and in my opinion, a clear reason video art has long been ‘ghetto-ized’ and deservedly so. Any arguments one would make of quality or technical issues is moot at this point, as the internet can easily deliver the same format and quality as the television, which seems to be perfectly acceptable within most exhibition spaces – and in fact, some of the abominable VHS copies I’ve seen on display in reputable arts centers make YouTube seem HQ.

    He will be missed, but attitudes like that certainly won’t.

  • Steven Fama says:

    Mike M., Bruce Conner actually watched his movies as pirated and posted on YouTube. On that venue, they become a pixelated distorted mess, parfticularly the “black” sections.

    Your post repeatedly uses the word “video.” That’s telling, I think. Conner’s movies are film, intended to be projected.

    I gotta assume you didn’t catch 2000 BC: THE BRUCE CONNER STORY PART II. The film installations`(there were three separate screening galleries within the exhibition, plus a daily cinemateque) were heavenly, and seemed to be enjoyed greatly by those who went.

  • Mike M. says:

    Well Steven, as I said, elitism equates itself with limited availability. I traveled over 4 months last year, primarily to international arts events. I’m sure I missed more than your screening.

    Further, YouTube is certainly NOT the limits of technology and if someone from his estate cared to get his works out they could do so on a far higher level of quality – the reason things are ‘bootlegged’ is that people WANT to view the material – it wouldn’t happen if there wasn’t a market. Film decays over time as well, so in 50 years would Bruce also object to the showing of the same copy you screened of his film? (also emphasis on COPY)

    Your (client’s) attitude seems to be one of indifference to the rest of us unlucky enough to share that particular moment in screening history. Forgive me if I consider film a transferable medium and not an inherent physical performance.

    Lastly, as I began, none of this detracts from my appreciation of his art – it’s a larger critique of the institutionalism of this particular form of ‘art’. However, unfortunately this exchange will probably tarnish my appreciation of the artist – in spite of your insistence that we remember Bruce Connor, apparently moreso than his work.

  • Joe Beres says:

    Mike, firstly, thanks to both you and Steven for your commentaries. I did not know Bruce personally, and can’t and won’t attempt to speak for him or his concerns. However, I can address the issues you raise in general, and will say that this is a far more complex issue than you seem to imagine.

    You are right to say that YouTube does not represent the limits of current video technology, but accessibility to the upper echelons of video technology is limited and quite expensive. A high-quality video transfer from a 16mm print can cost hundreds of dollars per minute.

    Then there is the matter of distribution. That raises questions of the method and format. DVDs are the most accessible form, but compression and quality concerns keep many artists away from it. DVDs too, are far from the limits of technology. Blu-Ray technology is certainly an improvement, but it’s still not reached the point of accessibility and affordability that DVDs have. Certainly, high-quality downloads are also an option aesthetically, but costs and infrastructure present another unique set of challenges.

    All of the options above have costs associated with them, and the higher the quality one wants to obtain, the higher the cost. Who will pay for these and how? You said, “ the reason things are bootlegged’ is that people WANT to view the material – it wouldn’t happen if there wasn’t a market.” Yes, people want to view these things, but how many of them would be willing to pay for it – even just to cover the costs of making it accessible?

    In a perfect world, the art would be accessible and affordable, and of a quality that an artist feels suits their work, but we’re not there yet. It’s a highly complicated balancing act, to say the least.

  • Mike M. says:

    Thanks Joe,

    But actually I work in a technology field, often with artists and arts institutions, and these issues aren’t that complex.

    Distribution is not the problem – even Blu-ray, DVD9 or multi-GB disc arrays are easily distributed today via bittorrent for example, distribution costs are distributed by those who want the material – for costs that are a fraction of what you pay for your web hosting service – the more people who want the material, the cheaper it becomes – perfectly democratic.

    The transfer technology is currently possible at the desktop level, and the trade as usual comes between time and money – less money means a slower system and more manual involvement – however the end result done by a skilled person is indistinguishable from the expensive commercial transfer you may be referring to as “upper echelon”.

    Once an acceptable (to all parties) transfer is made, then we have the additional benefit that future digital copies are completely LOSSLESS and virtually free – anathema of course to the ‘Institution of Art’.

    We could always use technology or some tangent issue of unobtainable quality as a convenient excuse not to do something – but in general this is only a red herring. How many times has even the WA Center put something less than a first generation copy on public view for lack of a better option? – and it happens in every art institution.

    The larger issue seems to be the will, or, and unfortunately as I’ve had this discussion with lots of people from the arts side – greed. Is that the balancing act you refer to?

  • ps says:

    Mongoloid looks great on my blog!

  • Joe Beres says:

    Thanks for the continued discussion, Mike.

    You keep neglecting that we are talking about work on film – not video. I am fairly certain that there is no “desktop level” of transfer technology available. Those costs are going to be there, like it or not.

    As to the Walker exhibiting something less than a first generation copy, I would be curious to know if you are referring to something specific. We work closely with artists (or their estates) to present the best quality version of the work in question. If it is being presented, it is presented with the artists’ approval, and we do indeed respect an artist’s wish when they do not want their work presented via a particular format, whatever reason there is behind it. We respect the artist’s intent, period.

    As to greed, whose greed? At the end of the day the rights to a film, or most any work of art, belong to an artist. Should they all simply give their work away with no support, financial or otherwise? Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world that supports the arts in a way that provides artists a means to work without having to earn a living.

    You clearly have the knowledge and understanding to democratically and inexpensively get work out into the world. A lot of artists lack the means to do just that. Have you considered contacting your favorite artists and offering you skills? I’m sure that many would appreciate the help.

  • Mike M. says:

    Film, video, holograms, it’s immaterial and your tangent is well off of my original point. By your logic, would your institution be more legitimate if you still had stone tablets instead of paper? if you had all of your materials photo typeset instead of using laser printers?

    I’m sorry Joe, but you should better educate yourself on both the technology and where projected images are currently and will be within the mainstream fairly soon:

    I believe I have seen a video of Carolee Schneemann’s performances at WA. I’m certain there was no video technology at the time to capture that – did you get her permission to use video rather than 8mm? And why was that video on a TV screen instead of projected, which would have been far truer to the happening and scale of the event?

    I already use my skills to help artists, arts institutions and a lot of other people, as I would hope someone in your own position would do and be responsible enough to understand the possibilities available rather than excluding solutions out of hand.

    Greed vs artists’ need to make a living? I’m certainly not arguing artists can’t determine how their work is used. However, I don’t believe Bruce needs to make a living anymore?

    “we don’t live in a world that supports the arts (adequately)” – you are finally touching on what I was initially trying to address here. Have the arts been supporting the People very adequately?

  • Joe Beres says:

    I can’t begin to understand your first point. I made no qualitative statements or any points about the “legitimacy” of any given medium. It just so happens that the works at the root of this discussion were created on 16mm film. Does that fact make them “better” or more legitimate than a work created in paint, or digital video? No, and I never made the claim it did. I’m quite well-versed in the state of the projected image and the technological potentials, but I don’t see how having or lacking that knowledge pertains to this discussion.

    Steven Fama is working to uphold Bruce Conner’s wish that his work not be shoddily presented via a vehicle like YouTube, nothing more. No decrees were made that his work would never be presented in anything other than 16mm film, but you’ve taken his actions as such.

    In any case, if you can’t appreciate or understand the intent and wishes of an artist – regardless of the reason behind them, then this conversation is pointless. You can blindly deem those wishes to be “elitist,” but the point I’ve been trying to make is that there are often many complicating factors at work as well. It’s not simply black and white.

  • Dr. Patrick Gleeson says:

    Bruce and I collaborated on one happening and 4 films over a period of 40 years. I contributed the music scores for: Crossroads (with Terry Riley), Take the 5:10 to Dreamland, Television Assassination and LUKE.

    I’ve followed the above discussion with interest. Basically, I think the Walker and Joe Beres have it right: this is what Bruce wanted. He was a passionate guy and if you will notice, one of the themes that runs through Bruce’s work is the destructive power of technology–not that technology was bad; Bruce wasn’t a Luddite–but that the consequences of its careless use were far worse than most of us realize. The U-Tube is a fairly obvious example of the degradation of art that Bruce found abhorrent.

    A recurring theme in our conversations over the years was about the destruction of art by technology. This wasn’t an abstract argument; it was a personal observation out of his own experience. The transference from Bruce’s film masters to even the best copy was a frustrating process involving misunderstandings by technical personnel and resulting in something that didn’t express his intention. He destroyed at least one very beautiful print edition because, finally, he couldn’t find a printer that could get it right. So far as film is concerned, Bruce and I worked together over the various transfers of sound and image for all the films I was involved with. They all took a long time. Bruce was patient, but exacting, and he was completing uninterested in any compromise budget considerations might have suggested.

    Finally, however, and, I think, with some misgivings, he did supervise some DVDs of some works and for one of the reasons mentioned above: as labs capable of 16 mm black and white technology disappeared along with the 16 mm film societies that were Bruce’s primary means of distribution, he really had little choice. Both Take the 5:10 to Dreamland and Television Assassination are, or were, commercially available. The second half of Crossroads, the half that Terry scored, is available from his website. If the estate is agreeable, I will eventually pay for a digital transfer of the half I scored. We also did a DVD transfer of LUKE and the intention was that we would sell it. We never got around to it, and now, of course, I really can’t sell copies until the estate has figured out what will happen. However, if you are a serious collector of Bruce’s work I do have 15-20 copies; I think I can send you one free (Steven Fama–you might give me some guidance on this).

    Dr Patrick Gleeson

  • Mike M. says:

    First off, let me clarify that my main concern in general is that all art of ALL forms is accessible to the majority. Works of a projected nature are by far the least accessible for a number of reasons.

    I clearly understand the difficulties Mr. Gleeson described regarding Bruce’s frustration in being an ‘early adopter’. Anyone who values quality when facing new technologies has the same problems. However, beyond declaring that process for perfection an artistic goal in itself, I truly believe that it is acceptible to sacrifice a certain amount of quality if it means the art becomes more accessible to the majority. We are constantly confronted with poor quality reproductions of works on paper in a variety of publications, exacerbated for over 15+ years by the proliferation of amateurish websites. By the very logic carried through this discussion, should we also abandon all of these vehicles for bringing work closer to the general public, which often is purely marketing driven in the first place? I see a lot of miserable JPG reproductions across the WA site – I’m sure some artists object to work being so reproduced, just as Mr. Conner has a right to resist his work being reproduced on sites like YouTube.

    But beyond this particular example of an artist feeling otherwise, I don’t understand why the “Institution” in general, is so reluctant to accept this means of promotion for projected works as already exists across virtually all other media. Obviously it’s a far cry from the original and an artist can certainly object to partaking in this crass commercial/marketing promotion. However, which other parts of our society share that predilection? Not a clear justification of course, however, but back to where part of my simple exhaustion in this projected media comes from, is it’s insistence that I have to experience it within totally artificial and uncomfortable circumstances. Yes, I do in one sense believe that good art should challenge, however, it’s rare that its the psychological intent of projected works to challenge the viewer in this sense – pure discomfort within the viewing experience and environment.

    Further as the Dr. and Joe have insinuated, artists do desire financial reward from their efforts. In my (extensive) experience with the psychology of users who trade files digitally both legally and illegally – collectors in general, value quality. If someone experiences a work at a lower quality and it reaches them, they will make a concerted effort to obtain a higher quality version or original. I myself have purchased art because tiny reproductions of it captured my interest. So I really fail to see the merit of this arguement in general from the financial argument – artists want to survive AND wonderful places like WA try to make art more accessible to the majority AND the majority when exposed to art that touches them will consume.

    While I do definitely respect and enjoy Bruce’s work, those feelings were only formed because a large part of that work reached me via print and copies in a variety of formats. I’m sure the live installation was heavenly as Steven stated, but should most people be excluded from ‘heaven’ because they don’t live in Minneapolis? It’s only too sad that Bruce’s general sentiments will result in ever more people in the future not knowing his brillance.

  • Steven Fama says:

    I appreciate your comments and understand that you love Bruce’s work.

    The heavenly film installations in 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II were seen by folks in Ft. Worth, LA, and SF, in addition to Minneapolis.

    But your point, I agree, is still true: only a limited number of people had the opportunity to see the films.

    But lots and lots of things are time and space limited, if one really wants to experience them. Everything from El Capitan in Yosemite to Grand Central Terminal in NYC, for example.

    You are also probably right that by not having films on YouTube, fewer will get to know Bruce’s brilliance. But I’m pretty sure that Bruce believed that the movies of his posted on YouTube weren’t truly his work. Bruce was, to say the least, profoundly alienated by the standard YouTube display with the image inset on a screen surrounded by words, colors, etc. He was even more — to use a polite term here — unimpressed by the pixellated mess of images that resulted when the YouTube full screen option was used.

  • Dr. Patrick Gleeson says:

    Jackie Stewart doesn’t have an obligation to make it easier for you to share the grand prix experience by setting up a starter course somewhere with rubber walls and detuned cars. Bruce Conner doesn’t have an obligation to make it easier for you to share the Bruce Conner experience by making available bad (or even good) copies you can download on your computer. You’re confusing art with public service.

    I also disagree with the general import of what you’re saying, Mike, because it seems far removed from what got Bruce up in the morning (and what worried, pleased and enraged him). Bruce was very competitive in some ways–his roots were Middle American–but I think questions of distribution, fame, money, public access to his art, etc.–the things we often count up when assessing success, were secondary to Bruce. That’s not unusual–a lot of artists, probably most artists, feel that way. We want and hope to be paid, but that’s not exactly why we “do” art.

    However: what makes Bruce different from many artists–and I think this is the part you’re somewhat stubbornly not getting–is just how extremely secondary these concerns were when weighed against the things that for Bruce really counted–in a lot of ways, particularly later in his life, he actually opposed and disliked the art market–as his enduring and frustrated dealers would certainly affirm.

    For Bruce there was centrally and primarily the art experience. I can’t even tell you very much about what that was for Bruce because he was deliberately cagey on the subject, as everyone close to him will tell you. He was very willing to talk about it up to a point, but I think there was some very personal and mystical high that making art led him to that he wasn’t willing to discuss with anyone. Maybe Jean. I don’t know. I’ve never asked her and have no intention of asking her because if Bruce had wanted me to know more about that he would have told me himself. We were friends and art-collaborators for over 40 years.

    So the artist’s own art experience was paramount. After that there was the experience of that art by others. He knew exactly how he wanted his art to be experienced and he was extremely, sometimes maddeningly, detailed and exacting about the terms. This had absolutely nothing to do with money, distribution, etc.–it had to do with how this art experience, or some legitimate variation of it that could possibly be made available to someone else. He felt passionately that a lot of what passed for the art experience in contemporary life was a cruelly stupid replacement for the real thing–a cuckoo’s egg in the robin’s nest. He found it deeply offensive. He proposed certain terms about how others could share in that experience not because he was cultural snob, but because he deeply believed that except through those terms the art-experience didn’t exist. In other words, he was trying to share with us everything that could be shared.

    I think the centrality of that hasn’t quite sunk into this discussion. To propose that Bruce, and now his estate, ought to allow YouTube or other down-pixeled copies to circulate because of possible monetary benefits would, I’m afraid, have enraged him.

    I have one other thought about this and then I’m going to retire permanently from this topic on the blog. I think there’s a belief underlying part of this discussion that the artist, here Bruce of course, has some kind of obligation to share his experience with as many persons as possible–it’s a beautiful experience and should be shared.

    Where does this obligation come from? I don’t think it exists; it’s a pseudo-populist fantasy and probably has more to do with our Puritan cultural heritage whereby we save ourselves by good works and reveal god’s pleasure in us through our worldly success. Bruce was just making art. The distribution of it, the marketing of it–all that really got him down. I think he thought that indulging in it might even be a character flaw–he spent considerable energy the past few years of his life trying to purge himself of the distraction.

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