CONVERSATIONS Mousse 9
No Truth: Bruce Conner
by Paul Cummings
Excerpt from an oral history interview with Bruce Conner, 1973 April 16, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
To say that he was the “inventor of the videoclip” is not only false but also diminutive. Sure, the fact he structured many short films as “visual tracks” of a piece of music (including pop and underground rock; do you remember the band, Devo?), has caused him to have a certain amount of influence on the birth of this genre. However, Bruce Conner (1933), legend of experimental cinema, is much more than this. He was one of the first to work on found footage (in the legendary A Movie of 1958, for example), creating new narrations of old materials or distilling abstract rhythms. At Art Basel, we will find him in the “Unlimited” section. While we wait, let’s treat ourselves to one of his interviews from 1973.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You were born in McPherson, Kansas in 1933?
BRUCE CONNER: November 18.
PC: Basically, you grew up in Kansas.
BC: Yes. I was in Wichita, at Wichita University and then I graduated from the University of Nebraska. I don’t remember the grade schools, but Robinson Junior High, East High School and Wichita University.
PC: Did you have any during let’s say junior or high school, any instructors who you remember or who were important to you at that time?
BC: Well, the Wichita Art Association had drawing classes. All I can remember was getting dirty charcoal all over my fingers and not liking what they wanted us to draw and getting kicked out of the class for doing something wrong like throwing water at somebody.
PC: Were you in high school then?
BC: No, that was in grade school. I was maybe eight or nine years old. I was taking private lessons from a woman who lived just about three blocks from my house. I can’t remember her name [Mrs. Rader] at all except I do remember that she had me copying a picture of Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, a cabin, and she came over to show me how to draw a tree which she drew on the paper. I was watching her and was really disgusted with her tree. I did my tree on the other side and she came around and looked at it and admired it and told the other students that I had drawn a better tree than she had. My parents still have that some place.
PC: Were your parents interested in this manifestation of yours?
BC: Well, my mother was but my father couldn’t care less.
PC: Has that attitude prevailed or is it different these days?
BC: Oh, once I had people writing about me and shows appearing here and there and winning prizes and stuff, then things changed a little bit. Then I became a famous artist.
PC: Where did you get the idea that you wanted to be an artist? Was it in high school, or when college came around?
BC: Well, when I figured I couldn’t really cope with my environment except using that as a device to rationalize my behavior.
PC: How was the university? Did it accomplish what you wanted from it or did it do things that you did not want?
BC: Going to college kept you out of the Army. While going to college, remember exactly when it was.
PC: Because the first show I read was in 1960.
BC: Well, no. I mean, I was in group shows.
PC: Oh, I see.
BC: I remember going to New York one summer trying to find a gallery. It was in June. I went around with all these slides. No, it was much later. It must have been 1955, after I was at the University of Nebraska. So I went around with slides, photographs and paintings, portfolio.
PC: A whole production.
BC: I went to twenty galleries, being rejected one right after another. Nobody was really interested except that there were a few places where the people who ran the gallery would sit down and look at my work. I can’t remember …there was a woman who had a gallery on 57th Street, and I am sure you would know who it was if I mentioned her name.
PC: Bertha Schaeffer, or somebody like that?
BC: Yes, I think it was.
PC: Bertha Schaeffer, Betty Parsons?
BC: It was Bertha Schaeffer, and I showed her the slides. She said, “Well, this is interesting work but I can’t handle it here in my gallery. It doesn’t fit what I have, but why don’t you go to Charles Alan.” I had never thought going to Charles Alan because I knew of what he showed [Jack] Levine and the other people. “Okay, I’ll try it.” I went in with the stuff and he was really interested in it. “Do you have more work?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Why don’t you bring it down because I would like to buy one of these and maybe I will buy something else.” So I got the other stuff and came back and he bought three pieces. That was absolutely amazing to me after all this rejection. That is why I never got another gallery in New York. I figured that anybody that would do that, not withstanding whatever kind of economic advantages, that was the person to stay with After I left there I got a job in Wichita, Kansas that summer, saved up some money, married my wife on September 30, 1957 and, immediately after the ceremony, we flew to San Francisco.
PC: Why San Francisco?
BC: Where the hell else would I go?
PC: Well, you know, New York.
BC: New York.
PC: You’d been there, right?
BC: I hated New York. I couldn’t stand it. My six months here and all the other times I have been here has been just miserable. I was hungry and I did not know very many people. It did not seem to be a friendly place and I felt claustrophobic after living in Kansas where you can look out the window and see the horizon line.
BC: When I was in New York it was like a maze, a rat maze, going from one little box to another little box and passing through passageways to get from one safe haven to another.
PC: Well, how did you find the cultural life at that time?
BC: The cultural life in San Francisco, you mean the art world?
BC: The galleries were absurd because the galleries that were showing the things by San Francisco artists were run by artists themselves.
PC: Were they co-ops or…?
BC: They were co-ops or somebody who decided to do that or several artists wanted to put something together. The Six Gallery was that sort of thing. The Six Galley would have an opening and everybody would have a lot of beer and wine and get drunk. The only way it was opened afterwards was that one of those artists who ran the place would have to go and open it up. It was never open. They were sick and tired of it when nobody came, so it was never opened. The idea of having shows was silly. Why have a show? Just have a party.
PC: Were did the Cambridge, Massachusetts period come in? That was what, late in the fifties that you were up there?
BC: Well, I left San Francisco in 1961 and went to Mexico. Ferus Gallery had bought some collages. I had made seven thousand dollars that year. Everybody told me you could live cheap in Mexico. I planned to go to Mexico and live cheap and produce all these great productions. I’d show them in the United States and sell them. I went to Mexico and found out that all in all it cost me more to live there than it did in San Francisco. We had a child. My son, Robert, has born in Mexico in 1963. At the end of that twelve months I came back to the United States. Nobody bought my work when I wasn’t in the neighborhood anymore. I was totally penniless. Didn’t have any money at all. I went to Wichita and lived there. My parents helped me furnish an apartment, gave me some money. I was there for five or six months. I had met Leary in New York before I went to Mexico. We’d gone around looking for mushrooms in Mexico. I made a movie called Looking for Mushrooms. Leary kept telling me I should come to Massachusetts and live. I went there at Christmastime for a week and a half. I liked all the people. I liked the place. Later that spring I drove there. When I arrived I found out that everybody had gone to Mexico and that everything was closing up. I was still practically penniless. I got a Ford Foundation grant the next year. That managed it pretty well for us for a year or so. Mainly I got stuck there because of the work I had. I had a whole station wagon full of stuff when I got there. A lot of it was collages and things I was still working on. Couldn’t afford to ship the stuff to California. I couldn’t move to California. I couldn’t afford to move my family and me and this stuff also. I moved back to San Francisco in 1965. I’ve been there since 1965.
PC: How did you get into filmmaking, in that way?
BC: When I was at the University of Colorado I started a group called the Experimental Cinema Group. Four hundred and fifty people joined the group for three dollars. The films were experimental film, old avant-garde films, historical films, silent films, foreign films, etc. At that time there were no film classes anywhere in the United States. There was one at NYU that Hans Richter was teaching. But you had to have two years of undergraduate study in something like sociology before you could take his class. The-other one was at UCLA. It was a technical course for film technicians.
PC: For the Hollywood business, yeah.
BC: And now there’s a hundred and fifty thousand film students in this country.
BC: Well, it wasn’t easy to do it, and the kind of movies that I made weren’t like anybody else’s movies. With the Ford Foundation grant all of a sudden instead of being an artist that had made a couple of short films, I became a filmmaker who dabbled in the arts.
Originally published on Mousse 9 (Summer 2007)