‘Yes, But How Can It Be Live and Collectable?’: Tony Conrad’s Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain 1972

Tony Conrad’s performance artwork Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain has been publicly staged fourteen times since it was first performed in 1972. This essay charts the different interpretations of the work across time as a result of changes enacted not only by Conrad himself, but by those who performed it in his lifetime and following his death, the galleries and spaces it was performed in, its wider social and political contexts and its mediation through sound, film, media and physical bodies. The article asks whether or not, in collecting and re-staging Ten Years Alive, Tate takes on the authority – if not the authorship – of Conrad’s highly collaborative performance piece.


Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain 1972 is a performance artwork by the US artist Tony Conrad (1940–2016). It combines experiments in visual perception with multiple and layered projections of black and white 16 mm film and with the vibratory effects of close harmonies created by a group of musicians on stringed instruments. By journeying through the fourteen performances of this work since its inception – through the shifting environments and acoustics, the traces of the performances in the memories of those who were involved, and the different forms of oral, visual and written documentation about the performances – this essay explores where and how changes and interpretations have been made to Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain since 1972. Divergences and repetitions in the performance of the work are placed in art historical, curatorial, filmic, musical and sound-based contexts as well as in relation to relevant theoretical concepts.

This text comes out of research undertaken at Tate to help support the acquisition of Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain (hereafter Ten Years Alive), which has recently been acquired for the Tate collection along with another work by Conrad, Loose Connection 1972/2011. The research has been collaborative, involving the project team for the Andrew W. Mellon-funded research project Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum; individuals from a range of departments and practices across Tate (Curatorial, Time-Based Media Conservation, Registrars and Collections Management, Archives and Records Management, and Art Handling and Technicians); and collaborators of Conrad’s, both those who were new to the work and those who were familiar with his practice.1 The reason for taking this collaborative approach was in part to reflect the way Conrad worked, performed and taught, and partly to consider the possibilities and ramifications of collecting this performance work without the artist. For most of its life, Ten Years Alive had the creator at its centre, playing violin, often in brightly coloured t-shirts, often speaking to and entertaining the audience. But Conrad passed away in 2016, and the work has come into the Tate collection abstracted from the body of the artist. Collecting the work with decisions about its future life in the collection being agreed not by the artist but by a collective of people inside and outside of the museum is a shift in the approach Tate would normally take. As a result of this process, I ask: can (and has) the authority of the work now become collectively shared, or is this authority fully transferred to Tate?

On each occasion that it was performed, as we will see, Ten Years Alive was not simply shaped by an exhibition curator who instigated the performance. The moment of each performance encompassed the individuals who invited Conrad to perform; those who made decisions about the way it was performed along with Conrad and others; those who placed the performance into a programmatic context and mediated it for audiences; and those who performed and documented it. This involved festival curators and directors, facilitators, documentary technologies, people working in commercial galleries, producers, sound engineers, and now conservators. Because of these various roles and practices, in this paper I follow curator Maria Lind in suggesting that we think of curatorial practice not as something singular but in its expanded sense as ‘a way of thinking in terms of interconnections: linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories, discourses in physical space like an active catalyst, generating twists, turns and tensions’.2

Collecting can form part of this expanded curatorial activity. It involves selection, conceptual and practical decision making, care in its multiple facets, shifts in the degree of authority and authorship. It is a dispersed and shared activity, but this is often not the narrative we hear. The cultural theorist and social scientist Vivian van Saaze has argued that in art history and aesthetic readings we more often get a construction of authenticity and originality through the singular when instead we could see authenticity as something that is ‘done’ and ‘constructed in practice’.3 One way to achieve this is by looking at the ‘interaction between the artist and museum professionals’.4 In the conservation of durational and/or time-based works, detailing an artwork’s biography can be a way to inform conservators about its core principles and its variability. The study of an artwork’s biography in a collection also helps demonstrate how an artwork is co-produced or collaboratively shaped by museum practices.5 Taking the example of Ten Years Alive, although the performance was conceived by Conrad, it has clearly been and will continue to be co-shaped or co-produced by the variety of people, spaces, conditions and practices who were (and will be) involved in its future realisations. This includes the work of conservators, curators and registrars at Tate as well as individuals from the communities of practice outside the institution that surround the performance, the artist, and the forms and styles of musical practice and performance found in Ten Years Alive. 6

We learn about these practices and perspectives by listening to and sometimes recording embodied knowledges and experiences and, as performance art theorist Rebecca Schneider describes, by drawing attention to the ‘basic repetitions that mark performance as indiscreet, non-original, relentlessly citational and remaining’.7 As part of this, it is also important to take account of our own embodied experiences as researchers. The questioning of the singular, original and ‘mythic’ that can come from acknowledging shared production, labour and collaboration at times sits in contradiction to the modernist, canonising project of the museum and of art history – fields that are always entangled with economics and market forces. At other times, these contradictions are part of the same processes. Scholar Fernando Domínguez Rubio, for example, has explored how the elements of an ‘artwork’s particular biography’ in a museum – notes, documentation, contracts, the history of the work – act to stabilise ‘the artwork’s identity by providing standards and criteria for authentic repetition’.8 An artwork in a collection is ‘inseparable from its constituency’, and because of this, caring for an art object in the collection is not just about physical care but also about ‘preserving the components of its constituencies’.9 These contradictory drives, the canonising of art history, the stabilising effect of the museum and the diverse repetitions and perspectives are present in this essay and in this case study as a whole. By bringing them together rather than following one or the other I hope to explore how the changes, differences and interpretations of Ten Years Alive since 1972 have been made not just by Conrad but by those who performed in it, by the site-specificity of galleries and spaces it was performed in and by the wider social and political contexts within which it took place, as well as examining the role of media, sound, film, bodies and technologies in performing, documenting and mediating the performance.

Beginning in the present

In the mid-2000s there was a resurgence of interest in Conrad’s work in the visual arts, which led the artist to look back over his career and revisit past ideas and performances.10 On one of these occasions, in a 2009 interview for Frieze magazine, musician and collaborator David Grubbs asked Conrad whether his ‘back story’ ever felt like a burden. Conrad responded, ‘To start at the end and look back is a good way to do it. We’re always at the end.’11 This comment brings to light his preoccupation with the present and the live moment of a performance. It is also a reminder of the kind of music he created at this time in the early 1970s, which had an emphasis on duration, sustained tones and ‘just intonation’.12 Conrad was interested in creating an experience that would be ‘subjectively transformed’ rather than structured by ‘rational clock-time’.13 Describing this to Grubbs, he frames the present in a similar way to philosopher Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, where the present is not the starting but the end point, the moment of death (a contradiction that is present in Conrad’s work in the idea of ‘living’ on the infinite plain).14 When Conrad reflected on his work it was done in this recursive way. Instead of thinking about a linear chronology, Conrad drew on connections and patterns; he wrote, spoke and thought about these patterns in relation to shifts in political, cultural and social situations.

I have chosen to echo Conrad’s emphasis on the recursive structure as well as on the ending, or death, as the moment of beginning, one that marks the beginning of research into Conrad’s work at Tate and the moment of abstraction from Conrad’s physical body. I begin with the proposal to acquire Ten Years Alive and the moment it was performed in The Tanks at Tate Modern in 2017. I then jump back in time to the first performance at The Kitchen in 1972. From there I pull out three moments; the mid-1990s performances at the Empty Bottle in Chicago and the Showplace Theatre in Buffalo; performances between 2004 and 2007 in arts, music, film festivals and galleries; and finally, its journey into Tate via the Live Arts Festival in Bologna in 2013 and the most recent performance at Tate Liverpool in 2019. These iterations are mediated by watching, looking at and reading the available documentation and by drawing on existing and new interviews with the performers of Ten Years Alive and Conrad’s collaborators, which were undertaken prior to and for the project. I use this archival and ethnographic material to make visible where changes appear to have been made by individuals, technologies, environments and through performances, and then reflect on the extent to which these have a relationship with particular trends in curatorial practice. By exploring what changed and what remained consistent or sticky in Ten Years Alive, we can consider how the performance might have been reshaped in relation to curatorial practice in its expanded sense, and in relation to performance histories, festivals and conservation. This approach is not nostalgic, seeking the original moment as the most authentic, but rather, to use the words of Rebecca Schneider, it looks at how the ‘performance remains differently’ and how the performance becomes itself ‘through messy and eruptive reappearances’.15

Before moving on, I want to acknowledge the gaps in our research. Some individuals were interviewed and not others, and while for some of the performances we have many reflections, for others we have just a few or none at all.16 These gaps, which include an absence of responses from the people watching performances (apart from selected reviews), are important because of the way they ‘may influence practice’.17 Although the Reshaping the Collectible project has been about making the invisible visible, such absences perhaps demonstrate the habit of museums like Tate to give authority to certain individuals and practices while other voices remain unacknowledged.

The Tanks, Tate Modern, London, 2017

In 2015, Andrea Lissoni (Senior Curator at Tate) and Vera Alemani (Gallerist, Greene Naftali) visited Tony Conrad at his studio in Buffalo, New York. In a conversation that focused on the performance of Ten Years Alive as well as the artist’s relationship to minimalism, Lissoni raised the idea of bringing the performance into Tate’s collection. Conrad responded, ‘but how can it be live and collectable?’. Throughout the conversation Conrad appears to have seen this as something that could be worked out.18 He passed away the following year and commemorative projects, exhibitions and memorial events followed.19 At Tate, the ambition to bring this work into the collection continued to be progressed by Lissoni and Carly Whitefield (Assistant Curator). Lissoni recruited the engagement of the Time-Based Media Conservation department and Collection Care Research to support the acquisition and a proposed performance of the work in 2017.20 At this moment the performance began to be co-shaped by the museum and some of Conrad’s collaborators (referred to from 2017 onwards as ‘transmitters’). This research around the acquisition and performance led to the nomination of this work for the research project Reshaping the Collectible.

Tony Conrad Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain 1972 (c) Tate

Tony Conrad Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain 1972 (c) Tate

There has never been a score for the performance of Ten Years Live; there are also no definitive written instructions. Instead, each time it has been shown, Conrad taught the work to new performers (or reminded those who had performed it in the past). With the work coming into the Tate collection but the artist no longer alive to give instructions or clarify how the work should be performed, it was clear that decisions would need to be made based on its history and by listening to the experiences of people who had performed and worked with Conrad in the past. It seemed this would be fitting for the work and his practice, which from the start had challenged authorship (while retaining a sense of authority and control), had surfaced out of collaboration and, over its history, had involved various communities of practice. It was therefore decided by Tate curators and Conrad’s estate that people who had performed with Conrad in the past and those who were close to him, personally and professionally, would be invited to discuss with Tate-based conservators, curators, technicians and researchers how a sense of liveness and variation could be retained as the work moved into the collection. Their research and discussions led to the performance Fifty-Five Years on the Infinite Plain in The Tanks at Tate Modern in January 2017 (fig.1). In the work’s original title from 1972, the ‘ten years’ referenced the previous decade that Conrad had spent working on minimalist music, which began in 1962 when he started to collaborate with musicians La Monte Young, John Cale, Angus MacLise and Marian Zazeela. The title was updated to Forty-Five Years on the Infinite Plain for the 2007 performances in Brussels and Berlin, and in doing so Conrad maintained the temporal relationship with the year 1962; this convention was observed again for the Tate performance in 2017, Fifty-Five Years on the Infinite Plain.21 In the large, cavernous, oil-scented environment of The Tanks, the performance was situated within live art practice and the contemporary art museum.

On this occasion, with Conrad no longer living, his part was played by a recording of his violin taken from an earlier performance, with Rhys Chatham playing the ‘long string instrument’ or ‘long string drone’ invented by Conrad,22 Angharad Davies on violin and Dominic Lash on bass.23 Andrew Lampert (who had restored Conrad’s work for Anthology Film Archives) performed the projections. Apart from Lash, all of these individuals had performed this work with Conrad in the past. Interviews were recorded with these performers and other collaborators before and after the event, with the idea that they would help the future conservation of the work and bring an understanding of how it could be performed and interpreted in the future.24 The interviews also reflected on a future, more permanent display of the performance in the collection galleries that would be called Elements of Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain.25 In the end it was decided that this display version would not be realised or accessioned, since individual elements might take on the status of artworks; there were also concerns that the display version might be shown instead of a performance. But during this moment when the work began to come into Tate’s collection, the collaborations that were initiated, the questions that were raised in the interviews, and the ideas of how it might sit and be shown in the collection set a frame for the development of further research at Tate. Although they were concerned with how the work might live and unfold in the collection, therefore enabling it to change over time, these recorded conversations also acted to fix certain perspectives around ‘the work’ which ultimately guided but also limited the way Ten Years Alive eventually came to Tate.

The Kitchen, New York, 1972

Installation view of an artwork comprising performers and television screens

Ben Tatti
Electronic Imagery 1972, installation at The Kitchen, New York, 18 May 1972
Steina and Woody Vasulka Fonds, Daniel Langlois Foundation Collection, Montreal

On 11 March 1972, Rhys Chatham, Tony Conrad, Laurie Spiegel and Woody Vasulka performed Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain at The Kitchen in New York, a space founded in 1971 by Steina and Woody Vasulka for experimental artists and composers. There is no visual documentation of this performance. A photograph of Ben Tatti’s video installation Electronic Imagery 1972 (fig.2), shown later the same year, gives an idea of the space in which Ten Years Alive was performed. But while visual documentation is lacking, we do have an audio recording made by Conrad, as well as accounts of the performance from Chatham and Conrad.26 On violin, Conrad played microtonal intervals, also known as a ‘Pythagorean comma’, ‘creating acoustic beats’27 or a drone sound. Accompanying Conrad’s violin was a series of glissandos played on the long string instrument by Chatham – a nineteen-year-old who at the time ran The Kitchen’s music programme. Spiegel provided a ‘boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom-boom, boom’28 beat by repeatedly strumming the same note on a one-stringed bass guitar that Conrad had modified and provided.29 From Chatham we gather that the musicians sat in the centre of the room with the audience surrounding them. For over an hour and a half the musicians played together following instructions by Conrad. Video monitors were located on the walls of The Kitchen screening experiments in video imaging by the Vasulkas.30 On the evening of the performance they were ‘improvise[d]’ by Woody Vasulka.31

This description of video monitors is not how we recognise the work today. Although the idea of using projections was conceived at the time, it was in fact only realised in public with the 1996 performance at Yttrium Festival in Chicago, run by Table of the Elements, a label that had been reissuing music by Conrad since 1993.32 Conrad retrospectively wrote about his plan in 1972 to have a video transmission that would echo the movement between microtones in minimalist music and in mathematics, via the generation of ‘exclusive or’ – a binary logic used in Boolean algebra:

Was it possible, I wondered, that video signals might be combined to form such an algorithm, generating an EXCLUSIVE OR effect in real time? I brought this issue to The Kitchen, where the Vasulkas had an impressive array of video effects generators. Using a film image of stripes as source material, I wanted to generate a checkerboard pattern by combining the signals from two cameras, one vertical and the other horizontal. However, none of the various ‘recipes’ (such as the above) I had composed for EXCLUSIVE OR was achievable with the particular combination of equipment available. We finally settled on a substitute set of logic functions, and the performance went ahead without EXCLUSIVE OR.33

Conrad’s emphasis on the ‘exclusive or’ is evidence of his mathematical education.34 This binary logic, ‘which is the same binary logic used in computers’, was a concept Conrad explored in his film work, writing and music35 .In Ten Years Alive he intended to explore this mathematical proposition by creating striped patterns in positive/negative film and by combining this with sustained tone. The source material he refers to is a fragment from his work with the filmmaker and actor Beverly Grant called Straight and Narrow 1970, a film of black and white horizontal and vertical stripes accompanied by a percussive musical soundtrack.36 Before the performance at The Kitchen, Conrad tested out his idea of binary logic and video transmission with the Vasulkas, but without success. They became ‘frustrated’ with the lack of available ‘binary video tools’ and found an alternative solution for the event.37 It was not until the mid-1990s, when Ten Years Alive was revisited, that 16 mm projections were used in the performances, and so although the visual side to the work was in some ways conceptualised in 1972 (a continuity stressed by Conrad in his interviews and writing), it only gained consistent shape through later public performances.38

A typed excerpt from a 1972 poem by Tony Conrad that was used for the press announcement for the performance of Ten Years Alive at The Kitchen, New York, 1972

An excerpt from a 1972 poem by Tony Conrad that was used for the press announcement for the performance of Ten Years Alive at The Kitchen, New York, 1972
Vasulka Archive

The sound they created in 1972 (an excerpt of which, recorded by Conrad, can be listened to here) was dissonant, loud and harmonious.39 Played at high volumes, the close harmonies created a ‘vibratory form’ that ran through the body.40 When we undertook research for the performance in Liverpool in 2019, it was notable how often people gestured to their bodies when describing the sound level, for instance by touching their hands to their chest. The physicality that came from the intense sound levels brought attention to the subjectivity of the audience (bringing them into their bodies) and with this came a sense of time or duration41 . This sound and the physical connection it made with the audience can be understood in relation to – and in contradistinction to – the style and genre of minimalist music that had been emerging in the 1950s and 1960s.42 It was part of a cultural moment in which artists were using their bodies and experimental forms of performance to challenge the position and nature of authority in politics, education and the arts. To accompany the performance in 1972, Conrad wrote a poem that was included in the notice announcing the performance at The Kitchen (fig.3). Though not overtly political, it was attuned to the political moment in the way that it expressed a desire to find a ‘shared space’ and create a sense of connection and freedom of expression.43

The musical minimalist scene in New York, which Conrad was both a part of and outside of, had been shaped by La Monte Young and the Theatre of Eternal Music (also known as The Dream Syndicate), a group that Conrad had been a member of in 1962–5, along with John Cale (viola), Angus MacLise (hand drums), Marian Zazeela (voice drone) and, later on, Rhys Chatham.44 The ensemble played in art galleries like ‘the 10–4 Group gallery’ and Young’s loft, ‘deriving their music by incorporating elements of Indian music and jazz improvisation, exploiting elements of “Modernism’s collapse”, exemplified in [John] Cage, into a dedication of singular tones and their harmonics’.45 Their sound, like other examples of early minimalism, had been informed by Arnold Schoenberg’s anti-works and manipulation of twelve tones; Karlheinz Stockhausen’s compositions with electronic music; sustained tone found in Indian music; and Cage’s ‘dedication to singular tones and harmonics’,46 although there was also a rejection of Cage and his criticism of harmonic music.47 The work of the Theatre of Eternal Music ‘would rely on the mathematical rigor and “correctness” of just intonation to counterpose and relativise the comparatively approximate and compromised scale of Western equal temperament.’48 What was particular about the sound in Ten Years Alive, according to Chatham, was that ‘it wasn’t free improvisation at all’ – while there was space for variation and interpretation, the performance was structured around ‘the tuning’ of just intonation (a tuning of musical intervals as whole number ratios of frequencies, such as 3:2 or 4:3).49 This was a sound Conrad had developed in the Theatre of Eternal Music and latterly with Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973), his collaboration with the German krautrock group Faust. This demonstrates that although he created space for duration and micro-tonal exploration – something that came from a desire to replace Western traditions – an alternative structure was in fact present in the performance from the start.

Tony Conrad playing violin during the performance of Ten Years Alive at the Empty Bottle, Chicago, 1996

Tony Conrad playing violin during the performance of Ten Years Alive at the Empty Bottle, Chicago, 1996
Photo: Bettina Herzner

Twenty years later, Ten Years Alive was performed at the Empty Bottle, a Chicago rock club, where it formed part of the three-night ‘Yttrium’ festival organised by the record label Table of the Elements.50 On stage, Conrad (fig.4) was joined by Jim O’Rourke on bass, Alex Gelencser on a ‘bodyless cello’ built by Conrad, and David Grubbs on the long string instrument that had been played by Chatham in 1972.51 On this occasion there were four film projectors, each screening a loop of positive and negative film. During the performance these projectors were gradually moved into the centre, in a ‘performance’ by Jeff Hunt and Dan Allen.52 This iteration of Ten Years Alive occurred at the moment in which Conrad’s practices were being revisited as – to use Conrad’s word – the door to minimalist ‘noise’ opened.53 This happened first within the networks of music and theatre, and later, as I will go on to explore, within the context of expanded cinema, in music and arts festivals, and subsequently in contemporary galleries and museums.

The performance at the Empty Bottle in Chicago formed part of the production and distribution of Conrad’s music by Table of the Elements, which had been set up by Jeff Hunt in 1993. This collaboration between Hunt and Conrad began when the label digitally remastered and released Conrad and Faust’s Outside the Dream Syndicate on CD in 1993.54 In 1994, in the lead up to the release of the CD Four Violins by Table of the Elements, Conrad met Jim O’Rourke in Chicago and through O’Rourke, who was a collaborator and producer of the Velvet Underground, Conrad was introduced to musician David Grubbs.55 While recording Conrad’s album Slapping Pythagoras (1995) together in O’Rourke’s home and studio, O’Rourke, Grubbs and Conrad used some spare time to play and record a version of Ten Years Alive.56 To prepare for this, Grubbs recalls, Conrad provided them with a cassette recording of the 1972 performance at The Kitchen.57 They listened and rehearsed the piece together, ‘set up as a trio in the living room’.58 Two years later this ensemble performed Ten Years Alive in public along with Alex Gelenscer at the Empty Bottle and a year later at the Showplace Theatre in Buffalo.

At the Empty Bottle the performers played on the main stage, positioned in the corner of the room with the audience standing in front looking on.59 Five 16 mm projectors were ‘lined up on a pool table’ with the black and white film loops angled at the stage behind the musicians.60 One onlooker and reviewer, Seth Tisue, captured moment by moment the experience from the audience’s perspective:

9.55 pm
Four projectors are running now, all projecting the same loop of marching stripes. Grubbs strikes the lone string on his instrument with a metal rod, making a grainy twang with a distorted attack. He slides the rod along the string, making downward glissandos. The fifth projector starts. The five projected images span the width of the stage and spill out onto the adjacent walls. The stripes play across the performers’ faces and instruments.

On stage, as Tisue writes, Grubbs was playing the long string drone. In an interview with Hélia Marçal, Ana Ribeiro and Louise Lawson from Tate’s time-based media conservation team, Grubbs describes what he remembers of the evening:

It wasn’t a tiny stage, but it’s not a very large stage. I think Tony really enjoyed that, that the left-most and the right-most of these projections, when you had the five 16 mm projections side-by-side, spilled onto the walls to the left and to the right of the stage. So, it seemed much more like a guerrilla-film performance, making use of the architecture of the Empty Bottle.

Tony is standing … Jim is seated … I’m playing the long string drone across two milkcrates on the ground and I’m just sitting on the stage. Again, I think just with the idea of making the films as visible as possible. I mean, everything else relied on amplification, so there was nothing about the arrangement of musicians on stage that was in any way complex or had anything to do with the amplification demands of the piece.61

Still from Tyler Hubby’s film of the performance of Ten Years Alive at the Empty Bottle, Chicago, 1996, showing the musicians playing their instruments

Still from Tyler Hubby’s film of the performance of Ten Years Alive at the Empty Bottle, Chicago, 1996, showing the musicians playing their instruments

Still from Tyler Hubby’s film of the performance of Ten Years Alive at the Empty Bottle, Chicago, 1996, showing the projector

Still from Tyler Hubby’s film of the performance of Ten Years Alive at the Empty Bottle, Chicago, 1996, showing the projectors

From these recollections we get a sense of the club environment – props are found to hold up the long string drone, the projections fill the space playing over the performers. For Grubbs, this created a visual and acoustic layering of music, projection and space, something that is captured in a film of the performance by Tyler Hubby (figs.5 and 6), which uses a layering of shots in a way that reflects the enveloping of image and sound inherent in the performance.62 We also get the feeling of immersion as part of the intense duration of the piece. Tisue writes, for 11.15pm:

I turn to a friend and ask him how long that was — 45 minutes? I find out it was over 90. (I forgot my watch; the times so far have been estimates.) We calculate that O’Rourke must have played the same note on his bass approximately five thousand times in a row.63

In this iteration there were a number of changes. In 1972 the visual aspect of Ten Years Alive was provided by the Vasulkas’ video performances on monitors around the room. The 1996 performance was the first time that it took place without monitors and instead included five 16 mm projectors. The positioning of the musicians on a stage was different to their 1972 arrangement in the centre of the room, and there was now a fourth musician. There were also adjustments to the way in which the long string instrument was played. As in 1972, this was tuned to the same note as the electric bass, but unlike Chatham’s 1972 performance which, according to Grubbs, was more ‘melodic and improvisatory’, in 1996 the performance was given a different structure.64 Grubbs recalls that ‘Tony marked the spot’ of the bass note ‘with pencil on the body of the instrument and my instructions were to create slow, upward moving glissando, with a slide’.65 His instruction was that this upward slide motion should be made for approximately forty-five minutes, ‘moving towards that central pitch, but never arriving at it, like one moves towards a horizon but never arrives at their horizon, which is an incredibly simple, beautiful idea’.66 Conrad said that following this, when Grubbs was ready, he could change the direction of the glissando into a downwards motion. This is perhaps what contributed to a sense, reflected on more recently by curator Xavier García Bardón, that the piece is structured in two parts.67 Conrad’s reasons for making this change to the performance of the long string instrument from 1972 are unclear, but Grubbs has suggested that these instructions simplified the part performed by the player of the instrument so that it had the potential to be performed by others: ‘the part has become that much more monorythmic and minimal and easy to hold in one’s brain’.68 For the twenty-four years between its creation in 1972 and the performance in Chicago in 1996, Ten Years Alive had remained static, or at least had not seen any public performances; yet in the twenty years that followed 1996, it was shown eight times with Conrad. The simplified instructions described by Grubbs enabled others to take part and helped the work to be distributed more widely.


‘A boom of re-enactments’: festivals, galleries and expanded cinema

After the revisiting of Conrad’s legacy in the experimental music scene in Chicago in the 1990s,69 there was another shift in the environments in which Ten Years Alive was performed when it began to be included in festivals and programmes exploring the intersections between art forms, and subsequently in gallery exhibitions. This was part of a recontextualisation of Conrad’s work within contemporary visual arts and curatorial practice.

A clear juncture for the increased visibility of Conrad’s work in contemporary art exhibitions, and eventually some museum collections, came through the inclusion of his Yellow Movies 1972 in the 2005 Lyon Biennale, Expérience de la Durée (Experiencing Duration), curated by Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans. Yellow Movies is a series of works that had first been shown in the exhibition Tony Conrad: Twenty New Movies at the Millennium Film Workshop, New York, on 10 March 1973. These were not films or projections as the title implies, but a series of painted ‘screens’ created using household emulsion paint. Filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who had reviewed the exhibition at the time for Village Voice, recalled his experience of seeing Yellow Movies in a conversation with Bourriaud about ‘long-duration films’.70 As a consequence, Bourriaud and Sans included a ‘gallery full of Conrad’s Yellow Movies’ in the Lyon Biennale in 2005 along with ‘a related installation, Yellow Movie (video) 1973’.71 Other works in the biennale included performance, film, sound and music, many by practitioners from Conrad’s generation (Mekas, Brian Eno, and La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela), as well as other artists whose work had been surfacing in the 1990s, such as Pierre Huyghe, Carsten Höller, Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Many of this younger generation had been contextualised by Bourriaud in light of his theory of relational aesthetics, which describes a set of artistic practices that are created out of human relations and social contexts.72 Bringing the two generations together, the intention of the Lyon Biennale’s curators was to ‘use the energy and patterns of the post-’68 years’, with their waves of counter-culture and rejection of consumer society, ‘to shed light on the present’.73

Conrad’s inclusion in a contemporary art biennale represents a shift for the reception of his work into contemporary visual art. Curator Cathleen Chaffee describes how up until this point the majority of his work had been shown in exhibitions in Western New York (Albright Knox Art Gallery and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, University at Buffalo) and in smaller non-profit university galleries; the Lyon Biennale marked the starting point for Conrad’s ‘new career’.74 A year after the biennale, in 2006, he was taken on by two commercial galleries and the number of exhibitions in contemporary galleries that included his work rapidly increased.75 Commenting on this move into the visual arts, Conrad responded – with irony – ‘So then I was invited to show this work as an artist; then I become an artist, which I’d always put out of… I didn’t want to show this stuff in a gallery, you know? At least back in those days….’76 Conrad always was an artist and was always included in artistic projects, just in a more peripheral way, and this peripherality was something he continually played with. The Lyon Biennale caused a repositioning of his practice, but as we shall see, this was also the result of gradual and increased interest in Conrad’s work from a variety of practices and perspectives, not just contemporary art and curatorial practice.

Expanded cinema, Dortmund, 2004

After the performances of Ten Years Alive at the Empty Bottle and the Showplace Theatre in 1996 and 1997 respectively, there was another gap before it was performed again. This time it was shown in a ‘raw’ warehouse space called the Phoenixhalle on the outskirts of the German city of Dortmund as part of the festival Expanded Cinema: Film als Spektakel, Ereignis und Performance (Expanded Cinema: Film as Spectacle, Event and Performance).77 Curated by Mark Webber and organised by the Hartware MedienKunstVerein (now called HMKV), the festival, which took place over three weekends between 10 and 26 September 2004, was framed as a survey of expanded cinema since the 1960s, introducing audiences to artists through performances, talks and screenings.78

Webber had met Conrad for the first time at an event at the London Musicians’ Collective in 1995. He subsequently included Conrad’s films in a number of programmes revisiting the legacy of expanded cinema and exploring the relationship between art and film in London and New York.79 According to Webber, after he had invited Conrad to perform Ten Years Alive over a number of years, the right opportunity arose with the festival in Dortmund.80 Here, the musicians performed on the floor at the back of the room (behind and to the side of the audience), with the projections aimed at the front of the room. The audience sat on seats facing the projections. Musicians were found in the local area by the festival organiser Katrin Mundt, who was working as Curator and Exhibitions Coordinator for Hartware MedienKunstVerein at the time. Webber performed with four projectors. In an email from Conrad to Webber in 2001, Conrad described the movement of the projectors:

During the piece, the four projected images are very gradually moved together so that, over the course of about an hour and a half, the image changes from a four screen wide projection to a single screen width within which all four images converge. To achieve this, in the past, I’ve almost always projected the film myself using four movable projectors and playing a tape of the sound performance.81

Conrad’s description indicates that there had been other private experiments with and performances of Ten Years Alive, aside from the public performances historicised in this essay.

One distinctive shift with Ten Years Alive in Dortmund in 2004 was the introduction of a four-panelled concertina screen. This created a different kind of play with projection and space, and through Webber’s curation it was positioned in relation to the revival of expanded cinema. The festival in Dortmund formed part of a series of exhibitions, screening programmes and conferences in the early 2000s aimed at readdressing the underrepresented and underacknowledged history of expanded cinema, referring to work from 1960s onwards that was ‘made in and through its projection’.82 These conferences and exhibitions came on the back of curatorial explorations of the relationship between art and film from the late 1990s (coinciding with the hundredth anniversary of film), many of which had included Conrad’s film-based works.83 The concertina screen was then used in performances two years later: on 17 February 2006 at the festival Kill Your Timid Notion 06 at Dundee Contemporary Arts, curated by Barry Esson, and on 3 April 2006 at Lumen’s EVOLUTION 2006 festival, curated by Will Rose at Leeds Art Gallery.84

The context of these subsequent performances are examples of the ways in which Conrad’s work was being brought into dialogue with the practices of a younger generation of artists.85 Festivals exploring the relationship between film and art, sound and music, technology and intermedia increased during the course of the 1990s, often bringing structural film, minimalism and expanded cinema practitioners together with a younger generation of contemporary artists. From a film perspective, the critic and theorist A.L. Rees refers to these festivals as ‘the return of the repressed’, because of the way their programming ‘sparked off new waves of activity from around the year 2000 ... Festivals such as Lumen (under Will Rose, Leeds), Kill Your Timid Notion (Dundee, London), Diversions (Edinburgh) and the important film workshop no.w.here (London, since 2004) have programmed and commissioned expanded cinema films and events.’86 Three of these festivals – Kill Your Timid Notion, Lumen and Tesla in Berlin (a ‘laboratory’ for media art),87 as well as the already mentioned Expanded Cinema: Film als Spektakel, Ereignis und Performance, hosted Conrad and the performance Ten Years Alive within a period of three years. The places that hosted these festivals – sometimes galleries or warehouse spaces – acted as a bridge for this work and for the entry of Conrad’s practice into contemporary galleries and museums. More broadly, it was part of the gradual increase and formalisation of art biennales, which were beginning to surface out of this proliferation of media and performance festivals.88

In Dundee, Ten Years Alive was shown after a performance by artists Emma Hart and Benedict Drew that took the form of a conversation between a 16 mm projector and electric bass. The musicians for Ten Years Alive – Mark Wastell (on cello), Nikos Veliotis (on the long string drone), Conrad and Angharad Davies (both on violin) – sat at the back of the room on a slightly raised platform, with the audience in front on chairs facing the screen. To the side of the musicians, also on a platform, was artist and filmmaker Jennifer Reaves, who gradually moved the four projections into the centre of a concertina screen.89 One of the people sitting in the audience was Will Rose, curator of the EVOLUTION festival in Leeds. Around the same time as Barry Esson, curator of the Dundee performance, Rose had been in touch with Conrad inviting him to contribute to EVOLUTION that same year. He was interested in how Ten Years Alive would fit into the loose theme for that year’s iteration – ‘duration’ – having come across the performance in programmes and documentation produced for Dortmund and the work’s restaging at The Kitchen in New York in 2005.90 Two months after the performance in Dundee, Conrad performed at the Silver Gallery in Leeds Art Gallery as part of EVOLUTION 2006. At the back of the room on a large platform, projectionist Peter Spence performed with four projectors. At the right-hand side of the room, illuminated by small desk lamps, were the musicians – Conrad and Davies on violin, Mike Flowers on bass, and Ryoko Kuwajima (now Akama) on the long string instrument.91 Here again was the concertina screen at the front of the space with the audience seated on the floor facing the screen.

According to Webber, in Dortmund Conrad had wanted ‘the screens constructed in this way’ as a reference to a venue or environment in which Ten Years Alive had previously been performed.92 This is most likely to have been the Empty Bottle, where the musicians had performed on a corner stage. Tyler Hubby’s film of the Empty Bottle performance emphasises the angularity of the space through a layering of viewpoints. For Rose, the screen added to the ‘lateral movement’ of the projectors and ‘disorientated the viewer’, providing everyone with ‘a different angle on the work’; he noted further that it could be interpreted as Conrad’s attempt to ‘break up that normative method of display’.93 But the screen could have also been a curatorial response by Conrad to the festival environments in which he was performing at the time. There were often a number of performances in the same space over a day or evening, such that a quick changeover was often needed. Within the space of these festivals, the concertina screen in Ten Years Alive created a distinctive identity for the performance. After these three performances, however, in the next two instances in 2007, Conrad chose to project directly onto a long flat wall, perhaps as a response to a new moment and context for the performance.

A new ‘stereophonic version’

When Conrad was invited to perform at BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels and Tesla in Berlin in 2007, he made further changes to Ten Years Alive. The title was changed from Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain to Forty-Five Years on the Infinite Plain. As mentioned above, this was about marking a new present and a broader chronological view in relation to 1962, as well as suggesting a contemporary repositioning of minimalism. Secondly, on these two occasions there were two groups of musicians rather than one. Both of these changes reflect how Conrad’s work was being recontextualised in that moment, in relation to contemporary visual art and in relation to his own (and others’) reflections on his work and practice at the time.

Fig.7 Performance of Tony Conrad, Forty-Five Years Alive on the Infinite Plain, BOZAR, Brussels, 1 December 2007

Performance of Tony Conrad, Forty-Five Years Alive on the Infinite Plain, BOZAR, Brussels, 1 December 2007

After witnessing the performance in Dortmund in 2004, Xavier García Bardón invited Conrad to perform at BOZAR, where he was curator at the time.94 By coincidence an invitation had also come from María Palacios Cruz, curator at ARGOS Centre for Audiovisual Arts, also in Brussels, and so the event was programmed in collaboration between the two institutions. For the iteration at BOZAR, the audience sat on cushions on the wooden floor of a long underground space.95 One long, flat wall was used as the screen for the projections (fig.7). There were acoustic banners helping to create a sound that reverberated around the room.96 Either side of the audience were two groups of musicians (Conrad on violin; Timo van Luijk on the long string drone;97 Julia Eckhardt on viola; Stefaan Smagghe on violin; Stefaan Quix on acoustic fretless bass guitar, amplified;98 Jurgen de Blonde on electric bass; Dominica Eyckmans on viola) and the projectionist Els van Riel. One group was led by Conrad on violin, the other by sound artist and composer M.V. Carbon on cello with reel-to-reel tape recorder and electronics.99 Bardón understood from Conrad that the idea of this dual ensemble was that the ‘two groups’ would ‘perform similar music but provide competing information ... The rhythm was different’, creating a ‘stereophonic version’ of the performance. 100 Jurgen de Blonde, who played bass in the group with Conrad, recalls the instruction from Conrad:

The piece is political, there will be two groups of performers, one on each side of the room, one side is the progressive side and is allowed to perform more free while the other side is the conservative side and has to perform as rigid as possible. I got the very simple instruction to play the D note on my bass guitar as consistent and as regular as possible in a slow tempo. The bass guitar at the other side was allowed to be more free and was performed by Stefaan Quix. I remember Stefaan freaking out at the other side while I was being as monotonous as possible. It was a strange, intense and transformative experience to play D for an hour and a half.101

The political message of the performance that was communicated to the performers by Conrad and through the performance structure with the two groups of musicians, one ‘progressive’ and one ‘conservative’, along with the change of title, can be interpreted as a reworking of the performance for the present moment.102 These changes were also part of the performance that took place two months later at Tesla in Berlin. In a quotation by Conrad, reprinted to accompany the description of the events in 2007, he describes how making this change was a way to ‘address … a broader chronological perspective’.103 In giving the original title to the work in 1972, Conrad referenced the decade he had just spent working on minimalist music and captured the infinite plain of minimalism and the present moment of the performance. The change of title to Forty-Five Years Alive on the Infinite Plain in Brussels and Berlin asserted a new present moment – 2007 – as the point of departure and perhaps a sense of continuity from 1962. Conrad goes on to describe in the text quoted above how he was interested in ‘relocating’ the performance to ‘a different social allegory, accessing the plural tools that encompass a more contemporary “minimalism”’. At the centre of the work was still the subject as it had been in 1972 – the creation of a ‘shared space'104 – ‘but now the polyvalence of subjectivity is recognised in a figural usage of heterophony and antiphony’, represented by two competing approaches to the music and two political positions.105

In making these changes to the performance in 2007, and in reasserting a political position, Conrad was perhaps acknowledging theoretical, cultural and political shifts that had taken place since he first performed the work in 1972. As Conrad wrote in another text, published in 2005 prior to the Brussels and Berlin performances, the ‘excess’ of ideas that had ‘surrounded the critical context of the day’ in the 1970s could become ‘serviceable margins in our effort to re-examine and use these works in ways that are relevant to us now’.106 By bringing the work together with current or recent reflections on cultural theory it was possible to imagine how it could be performed differently. A change was made in recognition of the ‘excess of ideas’ pervading in 1972, such as relational aesthetics and postmodernism – these ideas were present in earlier artworks and writings but articulated after the millennium. Are the same moments of revision still possible with the work in the Tate collection? Could Tate decide to have more than two groups of musicians in future performances of Ten Years Alive? As noted by Hélia Marçal, Louise Lawson and Ana Ribeiro, on being acquired by Tate the work reverted to the original title – Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain – as a way of acknowledging that Conrad would not be involved in future performances.107 However, selecting this title was also about Tate claiming space in the longer history of the work. Is a further change to the title and number of performers still possible, or can this only be instigated by the author, the artist, the creator? What are the limits in the transfer of such authority to the museum?

The performances of Ten Years Alive between 2004 and 2007 gave Conrad’s work greater presence in the visual arts, helped by his new gallery representation from 2006. They also formed part of an increasing interest on the part of museums and galleries in presenting artworks and projects that involved the intersection of sound, film, performance and media, but with this perhaps also came a sense of homogenisation. The festivals that had been surfacing during the 1990s and early 2000s paved the way for a culture of biennales, which gave space for film and performance work to be shown in larger institutions. This in turn began to have an effect on museum collections. Take expanded cinema, for example: as historians and curators galvanised around the extent to which expanded cinema had been neglected from 2000, there was an increase in re-enactments of works and events in galleries and festivals across Europe and North America. The restaging of expanded cinema created the conditions for some of these works to be collected and ‘stabilise[d]’.108 A comparable impact was felt with performance. The growing awareness of artists working across fields, mediums and practices would also lead into the increased presence of live artistic practices in museum collections. The realisation of gaps, and the restaging and creation of conditions for collecting live art, is in part what we see occurring in the different iterations of Ten Years Alive.

Live in Bologna: a journey into Tate’s collection

The last time Conrad publicly performed Ten Years Alive was in 2013 for Live Arts Week Festival II in Bologna. As with the previous iterations in festivals in 2004 and 2006, the performance was curated within the context of practices that sat at the intersection of sound, film, contemporary art and performance. In this instance, the blurring of practices was framed through liveness, performativity and ‘research’, a curatorial approach that has continued to inform the co-shaping of the work at Tate.109

In 2013 Live Arts Week was in its second year. It had emerged out of two previous festivals: F.I.S.Co. (Festival Internazionale sullo Spettacolo Contemporaneo) and Netmage International Live Media Festival, which had run between 2000 and 2011. F.I.S.Co focused on ‘innovative languages in the field of the performing arts’.110 It was rooted in dance and choreography and included performances, installations and artist interventions. Netmage explored ‘new forms of creativity related to technological, social and communication innovation’, and included ‘visual arts, cinema, television, post-rave culture and entertainment.’111 Over ten days at Netmage, festival-goers would experience ‘TV and web projects, discussion arenas, concerts, art installations, film and video projections, theatre performances and mixed media’.112 Both festivals, one associated with dance and the other with intermedia practices, and the subsequent Live Arts Week were organised by Xing, a collective based in Bologna and founded by Silvia Fanti, Daniele Gasparinetti and Andrea Lissoni.113 As one of Xing’s activities, Live Arts Week combined ‘witnessing the transformation in the musical scene, worldwide’ and pushing ‘production between visionary … musicians and artists’.114 The events were spread across spaces in Bologna. In 2013 this included a screening of Pierre Huyghe’s The Host and The Cloud 2010, a two-hour film that is set in the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris and explores the movement between fact and fiction, contemporary subjectivity and ‘re-enactment and reconstruction’;115 a dance duet by Eszter Salamon and Christine de Smedt; a neo-dub and psych-rock musical performance by Sun Araw; and screenings of silent movies. The central venue for the week was the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (MAMbo) and this is where Ten Years Alive was performed on the first evening of the week.116

The work was performed in the ground floor gallery at MAMbo where, as Lissoni describes, the height of the ceiling made the sound ‘present in a bright way’.117 There were five musicians on this occasion but no long string drone. Silvia Mandolini and Conrad played on violin, Valentino Corvino on viola, Marco Radaelli on cello and Emiliano Amadori on double bass. The musicians were located at the back of the room, seated on chairs positioned on Persian rugs.118 Next to the musicians was a long low-rise platform with six projectors on top. Conrad had brought two extra reels of film to Bologna, commenting to Lissoni that he had originally made the piece with six projectors.119 Mirco Santi, who worked as a projectionist across events for Live Arts Week II, performed the work’s visual element with these six projectors.

Santi remembers being given instructions from Conrad that gave some structure and shape to his performance through an outline of timings, but that also included a moment of ‘performativity’.120 After the music started, one by one the projectors were turned on, not sequentially but in a ‘random order’.121 Gradually, over the course of an hour, Santi moved all of the projections from the periphery into the centre of the screen. For the last twenty-five minutes of the ninety-minute performance, Conrad had instructed Santi to ‘make all you want in term[s] of zoom, in term[s] of focus … it is totally free and random’.122 As the performance came to an end, the projectors were switched off, one by one.

The experience of performing as a projectionist appears to have been daunting for Santi but also held the potential for creative expression:

it’s very, a very, a very good feeling with the music and the situation. The idea is when I … in, at this moment, I’m totally free, and really, I appreciate the opportunity to unfocus, focus, and zooming. It’s very, very impression[able], the light, that you can have [the] flicker, very, very extreme, and that you have some time, when you have totally unfocused.123

The sense of the freedom and space to become absorbed in the performance of the projectors was shared by Lissoni:

But then you are there and you are in a performance that you’ve been working on. So, you don’t have a critical approach anymore. You’re just enjoying and being scared if something goes wrong. Anything can happen, someone can start screaming, a light can go out. I mean you have a different kind of proximity, so you don’t really enjoy what’s going on. But, yes, it was very peaceful because we weren’t controlling. We were just hosting.124

The combination of a structure provided by Conrad through the timings, a certain freedom to perform (in Santi’s case), and a peacefulness when control or change was impossible (for Lissoni) is an effect of the work, its history and the way in which Conrad taught others to perform or host it. Understanding the simultaneous connection to and rejection of minimalism in Conrad’s work and placing it within the broader context of live art practices – as we see in the performance in Bologna – is something that Lissoni would continue to reflect on at Tate when he joined as a Senior Curator the following year, in 2014. This understanding would be brought into the 2017 performance of Ten Years Alive in The Tanks at Tate Modern.

In 2019, building on initial research at Tate, the Reshaping the Collectible team worked with curators and conservators, Conrad’s collaborators, and new musicians and supporters to organise, transmit and re-perform Ten Years Alive for LightNight at Tate Liverpool. Without the physical body and presence of the artist, the challenge was to see if the work could still be the work without the artist, and to collaborate with those who had more ‘authority’ than the museum to test out conservation, registrar and curatorial strategies for performances in the future. These ideas are explored elsewhere in this publication in the essays ‘Experimenting with Transmission’ by Hélia Marçal, Louise Lawson and Ana Ribeiro, and ‘Assessing the Status of the Long String Drone’ by Stephen Huyton.125 During a feedback session with those who had performed the work in the past that was held following the rehearsal in Liverpool, it seems consensus was reached – this was the work – but through the discussion and in one-to-one teaching sessions, tweaks were made. One of the interesting things to emerge – as noted by Bardón – was how a structure for the performance was insisted on by past performers and previous curators, though perhaps this was a structure that shifted depending on the viewpoint of each individual.126


[O]nly works that are not so controlled, and this assumes something like an agency of their own, are the ones that retain the real potential to surprise.127

In all its iterations, Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain (or what would, in 2022, be Sixty Years Alive on the Infinite Plain) seems to materialise Conrad’s partial relationship with a number of ideas, forms and practices – minimalism, anti-authoritarianism, experimental music, media arts, community practice, visual arts and expanded cinema, to name a few. The performance was conceived as a ‘shared space’ and a conversation between film, sound, theatre and the visual arts, and their respective audiences. This conversation has been expressed in the performances of musicians and projectionists in spaces and audiences related to each of these forms and practices.128 Each time it has been publicly performed, different elements have been introduced, sometimes as reflections or ‘performative traces’ 129 that connect back to a previous moment or documentation, or as gestures contextualising the new present moment for the performance. For Conrad, like the other performances he returned to, Ten Years Alive was a means of revisiting moments in experimental perceptual imaging, sound and minimalism with the benefit of new theories and new practices.130

Ten Years Alive gained visibility from the mid-1990s onwards as awareness of Conrad’s work increased in the visual arts. But it is important to remember that Conrad had always been (and played at being) on the intersection of film, music, art, theory, community activism and teaching. Although the inclusion of his work in the Lyon Biennale is described (and was used) as a kind of validation for his work, he had been included in international visual art exhibitions from the early 1970s.131 The use of this validation is an example of how, in art history, narratives are constructed around artists to create and foster myths. In Conrad’s biography on Greene Naftali gallery’s website, for example, group exhibitions are only listed from 2005 (the year he was included in the Lyon Biennale).132 The performances organised by Table of the Elements or those in Dortmund, Berlin or Bologna are not mentioned. Clearly galleries might struggle to include all examples, but the ones that are excluded could be seen to divert attention away from a narrative of contemporary, ‘experimental’ practice. The gallery’s biography of Conrad also suggests a lack of activity in the 1980s and 1990s, and yet the chronology at the back of the 2018 exhibition catalogue Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective shows this was not the case.133 Between 1972 and 1996 Conrad exhibited regularly in university galleries; he taught, wrote and programmed at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Buffalo; he met and worked with artists Mike Kelly and Tony Oursler; he made work in response to the AIDS pandemic; he protested and made the community broadcasts Studio of the Streets 1991–3 and Homework Helpline 1994–5 for Buffalo public access TV. What is it about this work that seems irrelevant for the audiences of contemporary commercial galleries?

As we have seen, there is no score or set of instructions for Ten Years Alive – a mark of Conrad’s anti-authoritarianism – and so what the performance consists of now, in Tate’s collection, largely comes down to Conrad’s approach and his reflections on the performance in his writing, interviews and in archives. We have documentation of the performances as captured by individuals and technologies in film, photography and sound recording. We also have the memories and practices of those who have been involved in and experienced the performance. By looking over the history of the performance we can see how it has been co-shaped by those who performed it and hosted it, through the instructions they received from Conrad, through their own knowledge and practice, and through embodied memories. It has also been shaped by the spaces it was shown in and the materiality and historical context of its documentation. Both the venue in Chicago and Tyler Hubby’s film of the 1996 performance in Chicago, seem to act as a ‘performative trace’ influencing the introduction of the concertina screens in the performances of Ten Years Alive held in 2004–6.

The hope is that Ten Years Alive will continue to be shaped by these transmitters and forms of transmission, as well as by individuals working in the museum, caring for the work in various ways or loaning it for display. Through future performances, Ten Years Alive will be further disseminated by the involvement of new people, technologies and spaces. But how precarious is this collective authenticity? And to what extent do these individuals really have agency? Is there not a risk that without the artist present to author changes and reposition the work in the present it will start to become fixed, with a definitive iteration as the reference point? Experimenting with previous changes is an option but this does potentially keep the work in a circuit of its own history and it would be interesting to see if Tate can go beyond this. How can the museum be creative with artworks in the collection while also respecting the artist’s legacy?

Although the hope might be that authority around Ten Years Alive is held collectively, it also feels inescapable that Conrad remains the author of the work. It is hard to see the changes in each of its iterations as being authored by individuals or agents other than Conrad. This may come down to our learning (for me, through art history and curatorial practice) and our institutional structures that so often emphasise single, static works and singular authorship. But can we perhaps navigate this by creating awareness of what is interpretive, different and affective? For example, what do we learn from past performers about their perception of the work? How do they reflect on the differences between performances? Some, for example, start by describing the space or the quality of the sound. These subjective memories, recollections and interpretations could be embraced more in the collection and its mediation as the work continues to be shown. Differences in the work could be made visible and built on, rather than hidden. There are aspects that have appeared in the past but not yet been restaged – such as the two groups of musicians and the concertina screen. As Tate started to acquire the work in 2017 – and even before this as conversations began with Conrad – Tate initiated a process of fixing the work, perhaps implicitly. This can be seen in the choice to revert to the work’s original title. It is also something that becomes possible through interviews, through the individual experience and memory of a work.134 If we began this same process now – if this was the beginning and not the end – would we do anything differently? For instance, would we include different collaborators?

The ‘fixing’ of a work seems to occur in museums when a consensus or ideal version of an artwork is searched for. For Tate, this fixing process appears to have its roots first in the Bologna performance in 2013 and then in The Tanks iteration in 2017. But as we have seen, the notion of fixing an ideal work goes against the way Conrad approached each performance, which instead involved a consideration of the present context, moment, space and the musicians, and the location or availability of materials. In his performances themselves there was both structure and the space to be performative. As such, while Conrad remains the creator of Ten Years Alive, differences in the perception, experience and documentation of the work are inherent to it, and the dispersed authority this enables for our understanding of the work is part of what will keep it both live and collectable.

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