The Musical Spectrum from Tony Basil to Crime: An Interview with Bruce Conner

Bruce Conner is internationally renowned for his innovative work in many media: motion picture, collage, assemblage, sculpture, photography, print making, painting, conceptual art, etc. His first film, A Movie (1958), was selected for the U.S. National Film Registry at the Library of Congress as one of the few American experimental films deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” His work is in many major art museums.

He is responsible for every aspect of the film process. His totally independent 16mm films range in length from ten seconds to thirty-seven minutes. They changed the way that motion picture productions are seen today with their ground-breaking use of collaged film, film artifacts, countdown leader, and stroboscopic fast edits. He never took a film class.

At age 44, he started photographing the last exciting movement in rock and roll. His photos originally appeared in Search and Destroy magazine, and a selection was up at the Barbara Gladstone gallery in New York until January 29.

Interview by Mike Plante

Mike: How did you find the punk rock scene?
Bruce: In 1977 Toni Basil called me and said, “You gotta go to Mabuhay Gardens tonight and see the world’s greatest new rock band, Devo.” So I went there and I liked the show, the place was pretty interesting. I started going back to see if I would find another band just as interesting. There were a number of events there, some of which I photographed. Most of my photographs are of San Francisco and California punk bands; some of the bands were obscure and only played once. There are pictures of Toni Basil and Devo and a few others that are better known.
Mike: The Search and Destroy you showed me had great photos of The Avengers and Negative Trend.
Bruce: Also in the show are Crime, UXA and the Mutants. Usually there’s more than one photo of each band. There is one photo of a band called Ointment that gave a great performance and then disappeared. Vale, who published my photos in Search and Destroy magazine, told me recently that he thought they were the best punk band he remembered seeing at Mabuhay Gardens.
Mike: But were you drawn to the scene quickly?
Bruce: In its own way, it reminded me of the energy of the poets, artists, filmmakers, and dancers who had been characterized as the Beat generation in the 1950’s. Then in the ’60s some of the same people were called the Hippie generation. This creative phenomenon appeared to become publicly conspicuous in San Francisco every ten years.
Mike: You must have seen it differently than everybody else since you had lived through the other two angry youth movements.
Bruce: They weren’t always angry. They were complicated periods of time, just like we are in right now. I wish we could find more people with that kind of intensity today. It’s worth gravitating towards that type of environment. A kind of activity that compels people, despite the limits of their technological or professional abilities, to produce, perform, and have their say.
Mike: Were the punk photos pretty conscious, or more snapshots?
Bruce: Yes. The second time I was there, I saw Vale, who worked at City Lights Bookstore, and he said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Well, I’m interested in this stuff.” And he said, ” I’m starting a new magazine called Search and Destroy about the punk scene.” I said, “Maybe I could take some photos for that.” During the next year, I probably wasted too much time trying to take photos that would be appropriate for the magazine. I had no idea which of three bands playing each night would turn out to be really unique and interesting. I ended up being at Mabuhay Gardens several days a week. I also conceived creating a photographic document during the year of 1978 at Mabuhay Gardens. I didn’t receive any money for the photos printed in Search and Destroy. But, over the years, I’ve gotten used to paying people to look at my work.

You can check out some of Bruce Conner’s punk rock photos in the “Past Exhibitions” section of the Gladstone Gallery website: http://www.gladstonegallery.com/home.html