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FRAME BY FRAME

Bruce Conner’s flickering spirit

FILM STILL COURTESY OF CONNER FAMILY TRUST

“EVE-RAY-FOREVER’’ is a montage of flickering black and white film that’s played on a loop. More accurately, it’s three such films playing side by side.

Although the work, which is dated 1965/2006, has a complicated history, it’s essentially very simple. And it’s diabolically effective. It’s one of those rare cases in art of a bold innovation that prefigures a whole genre (the multiscreen video installation) and, rather than looking like a primitive precursor, actually looks sharper and more sophisticated than most of what came in its wake. (As I fell under its spell, I thought of the novelist Angela Carter’s little aphorism: “I like anything that flickers.’’)

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The work, on show at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, is the product of the fecund creative imagination of Bruce Conner (1933-2008), one of the most interesting and underrated spirits in American art over the past half century.

Conner is credited by some with making the first music video. That work, set to the music of a song by Ray Charles, was originally titled “COSMIC RAY,’’ and comprises the central “RAY’’ part of this triptych - though without the sound. The “EVE’’ and “FOREVER’’ parts which flank it use snippets from “RAY’’ spliced with other footage.

As well as being a filmmaker, Conner was a sculptor - specializing in assemblages of found objects, from broken dolls to bicycle wheels - a photographer, a painter, and an all-around whiz when it came to coughing up compelling imagery.

“EVE-RAY-FOREVER’’ has an astonishingly crisp beauty. In just a few minutes, it does to your head what a long, late-night ramble through city streets does to the state of your soul: makes it tremble and blur, even as its racing, leapfrogging perceptions come to seem more fragile and friable by the minute.

It combines footage of a beautiful young woman dancing and posing seductively with abstract black-and-white patterns, excerpts from advertisements, footage of war, animated cartoons, diagrams, random words, and countdown leader, all of it passing before your eyes with almost subliminal speed in a dance of disclosure and concealment.

Each part of the triptych is of a different duration, so the films are never in synch. The work was first shown in a Conner exhibition put on by the Rose in 1965. It was one of three works from the show that the Rose bought for its collection at the time, paying $150 for the cartridges of 8mm film.

But film disintegrates, and by 2001, the cartridges were in such poor condition that the piece could not easily be re-created. Conner, who often professed an anti-technology stance, embraced the idea of his art’s natural obsolescence. So when the museum asked for his permission to exhibit his films as video projection, he was initially resistant, asking: “Would you exhibit a hologram of a sculpture?’’

But Conner was eventually persuaded to let the fragile film be transferred to high quality digital video files. He worked with film editor Michelle Silva on the task, transforming the whole work in the process. We can be thankful, because “EVE-RAY-FOREVER’’ deserves to flicker on into the future.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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