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5 ways Buffalo's Tony Conrad changed global culture

The influence of Tony Conrad, the legendary Buffalo artist, composer and teacher who died in 2016, is impossible to escape.

You hear it when you turn on the radio, catching mutated flickers of his early work in countless pieces of pop and electronica.

You see it on YouTube, where his long-held dream of media access for everyone is finally playing out on an enormous scale.

And you see it when you walk into any contemporary art gallery, where traces of his influence in experimental music, film and installation art are everywhere.

All these different Tony Conrads, and many more, will be on display in "Introducing Tony Conrad," an exhibition co-organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the University at Buffalo Art Gallery. The Albright-Knox segment opens March 3, joining an exhibition at UB already in progress.

"You don’t know who I am," Conrad told The Guardian in 2016, "but somehow, indirectly, you’ve been affected by things I did."

True. Here are five examples:

He inspired the name -- and music -- of the Velvet Underground.

Though this is the most-cited fact about Conrad's early influence, it is in some ways the least significant. Even so, the story demonstrates his centrality in New York City's art and music culture during the 1960s:

According to lore, Conrad owned a copy of Michael Leigh's book about "aberrant" sexual subcultures of the time. John Cale, who had formed a group with singer and guitarist Lou Reed, along with Sterling Morrison and Angus MacLise, adopted the racy title for their new group. Cale knew Conrad through their membership in an influential group called The Theatre of Eternal Music, which had clear influences on the Velvet Underground's sound and reverberated through the rock and electronic music of the late 20th century and beyond.

He created the longest movie in history. It's still playing.

In 1973, Conrad set out to make a film that would play for at least half a century. And he did.

The materials he used were simply paper and a painted frame. The "movie" is simply the gradual yellowing of the paper -- a process that will continue indefinitely. While this may strike some as a gimmick, it demonstrates Conrad's wildly unorthodox thinking about the limits of traditional media. That thinking, in Conrad's "Yellow Movies," as in music, has pushed other artists to test the limits of their own chosen forms of expression.

His 1966 film, "The Flicker," helped to launch a new discipline of filmmaking.

For a generation of artists that emerged in the 1960s and '70s, the medium of film came to be used as a raw material like paint or clay, instead of a tool to tell stories or document scenes. Conrad's 1966 film "The Flicker," which repeated frames of pure black and white to create a hypnotic strobe effect, was a key early entry in structuralist filmmaking. It gave film a place in the minimalist art movement. And it inspired many other artists to push the boundaries of what was considered practical or even possible in the medium.

He came up with the idea of YouTube decades before YouTube existed.

While Conrad is rightly revered for his contributions to the avant-garde, he was also dedicated to bringing the tools for media-making into the mainstream. He was a loud and respected proponent of local public access programming in the 1980s and a founder of the media-access organization Squeaky Wheel. His "Studio of the Streets" project was an effort to advocate on behalf of the public for increased opportunities and access to the public airwaves.

Decades later, thanks to the proliferation of smart-phones and the work of organizations like Squeaky Wheel, Conrad's dream for universal media access is becoming a reality.

His record "Outside the Dream Syndicate" inspired generations of musicians.

As a member of the Theatre of Eternal Music (a.k.a. The Dream Syndicate), Conrad and his fellow avant-garde musicians often traveled to Europe to perform in the mid-1960s and '70s. Their work influenced European electronic musicians and groups. The 1973 album "Outside the Dream Syndicate," which Conrad recorded with the German band Faust, is considered his most significant contribution to music.

Conrad described the music he and his Dream Syndicate colleagues created as "the first non-bagpipe western drone music." You can clearly detect its influence on groups like Kraftwerk, thence diluted into the synth-laden pop music of the 1980s, and on to Kanye West and MGMT.

It's may be too simplistic to draw a line directly from Conrad to Kraftwerk and then to KISS 98.5, but his work is one of many important, invisible threads connecting the experiments of the avant-garde to the experience of popular culture.

Art Preview

"Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective" opens March 3 and runs through May 27 in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (1217 Elmwood Ave.) and through May 26 in the University at Buffalo Art Gallery in Amherst. Visit albrightknox.org.

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