Bruce Conner

May 1998

Bruce Conner.

McPherson, Kansas, 1933, has explored many different languages: painting, sculpture, photography and cinema. Practically unknown outside of specialized environments, his film work advances some of the features characteristic of contemporary audiovisual art. Conner started his film career in the city of San Francisco, approaching the Beat generation, achieving popularity in American underground film circles, and later becoming a cult artsit, especially thanks to Marilyn Times Five, a piece created in 1972 out of archival materials from before the mythic era of Marilyn Monroe. His first films date from the 50’s and parallel in certain ways his “assemblies”, sculptural pieces made from found materials. His production in 16mm from this era is based on this same procedure, the reuse of pre-existing materials, like educational and advertising film archives, historical documentaries and newsreels.

On the one hand, Conner reorders all of this audiovisual material in collage form guided by a thematic thread, in many cases with powerful irony (A Movie, America is Waiting and Mongoloid). On the other hand, the material he appropriates generates analogies, parallel versions which manage to bring out tensions hidden in the original (Marilyn Times Five and Report). This monographic program on Bruce Conner presents, in its original format (16mm), an historical selection of his cinematic work, fundamental to a precise understanding of the evolution of audiovisual formats leading to the mixture of video, film and the new technological formats.

Report, 13’, 1965, USA.

The documentary images of the Kennedy assasination, manipulated by Conner, lead the spectator to a kind of transitory hypnotic state, in which the tragedy is hidden: an intermittent blank screen appears at the moment the president is cut down, but the commentator´s voice continues recounting the event, generating an intense atmosphere of anxiety and disorientation. This displacement of the visual dimension certifies that, lacking what we understand as an obligatory reference, we enter an ambiguous and anxious territory difficult to overcome unless we let ourselves be fascinated by the loss of this reference. At the end of this blind immersion in the white light of the projector, the image of the presidential limousine continuing its route reappears. Conner insistently repeats the sequence in the form of a loop, transmitting a perception of the consummated act (the assasination) as already accepted. As opposed to the censored, official vision, Report presents in their entirety the images of Kennedy´s acts of protocol, establishing an association between bullfights, ritual of political self-confirmation and the fight for life.

A Movie, 12’, 1958, USA.

Conner utilizes material from different sources to construct a crescendo of images and interlocked parallel sequences which follow a logical progression. This piece, particular significant as a representation of a part of Conner´s audiovisual proposal, is also essential outside the context of his work, because it advances a way of using archival material based on critical rigor, a practice which years later, with the appearance of videographic formats, has influenced many other independent productions. All of this found material is structured according to a pricese need: to create a flow of retro-alimentation between the collection of reused images and their own original orientations as icons of an era. A Movie is essentially a chronicle about the society of progress, guided primarily by competition converted into a spectacle of conventionalisms of the postwar years.

Marilyn Times Five, 13’, 1972, USA.

The images come from a film which is rumored to star Marilyn Monroe. Conner creates a film based on two essential elements: on the one hand, the erotically charges images of a very young Marilyn, before achieving the fame which led to her destruction. On the other hand, the soundtrack I´m Through with Love, a song she herself had sung in the movies and that in a way tells her own story. Conner forces the balance between the two elements, repeating the cycle marked by the song five times, until it reaches a state in which the sensual atmosphere of the film accompanies the emotional descent it has trigered.

America is Waiting, 3’30”, 1981, USA.

America is Waiting is a music video for a song by Brian Eno and David Byrne. It employs different audiovisual sources, especially B movies and educational documentaries, creating a piece in line with A Movie which underlines the potential of promotional pop film.

Mongoloid, 4’, 1978, USA.

This documentary film explores the way an ambitious young man overcomes a mental defect and becomes a “real man.” Through editing techniques it explores the dreams, ideals and problems of a broad segment of the male American population. The soundtrack is by the DEVO Orchestra.

Crossroads, 36’, 1976, USA.

Conner bases this film on governmental footage of the first H-Bomb test, July 25, 1946, on Bikini atoll in the Pacific. Taped at different speeds, from normal to extremely slow, the same explosion is seen -27 times- from the air, from ships, and from dry land, alternating distant and close-up takes. The segment which opens the short emphasizes the grandeur of the explosion, in its destructive aspects, as well as in its dramatic beauty. But as the image is repeated, the explosion gradually shakes off its historical significance and assumes the dimensions of a universal, cosmic force.

  • Bruce Conner