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Brain Man

Dan Conrad's Light Experiments Tease and Taunt Sensory Perception

Michael Northrup
Dan Conrad

By Lee Gardner | Posted 9/3/2008

Ask Dan Conrad about his recent work with the Chromaccord, the nearly indescribable sui generis light device he's been thinking about, tinkering with, and playing for decades, and he cracks a wry smile and characterizes it as "a failure."

"Whenever I tell somebody that, they say, `No, no, no,'" he says, mimicking the sound of sympathetic reassurance. "But it misses the point." The point, Conrad says, is that while many of the people who've seen the Chromaccord in action over the past dozen years find themselves entranced by its shifting hues and the peculiar vividness of the visual it produces, its effect is too abstract, too ephemeral to build much of a following.

"I found that if I played the Chromaccord in Baltimore more than once a year, or even every other year, the audience would dwindle and go away," he says. "It had perpetual novelty appeal and very little sustaining appeal."

But "failure" hasn't deterred Conrad: "I still love it. I'm happy to do it and happy to pull it out anytime."

Thus Conrad is sitting in a Roland Park coffeehouse talking about his upcoming performance at the High Zero Festival, for which he will collaborate with his older brother, artist and composer Tony Conrad. The younger Conrad will not be playing the Chromaccord but a still-under-construction light device that operates on the same principles. He says he's not sure how what he's designing is going to work, exactly, much less whether it will work at all. "On the other hand," he says, "that's what the situation calls for."

Spending time talking to Conrad makes it clear that he is an experimental artist in a deeper sense than those merely lumped under that rubric because what they do is abrasive or hard to fathom. With his background in science (including 21 years teaching physics at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute) and his lifelong passion for art, he is engaged in a restless inquiry into visual stimulus, music, and the brain, and how they all work off each other, an inquiry that is part technical, part philosophical, part aesthetic, and part emotional. And at age 62, it is only intensifying.

It's fitting that the Maryland native's latest experiment is being conducted with his brother, since Tony Conrad provided one of the early inspirations for Dan's work with his 1965 film The Flicker, which used black and white frames to create a stroboscopic effect, which in turn created a hallucinatory effect. The idea that light could have a direct effect on the brain fused with Dan's interest in the color theories of Josef Albers, which he discovered while studying painting at Amherst College during the late '60s.

After relocating to San Francisco in the early '70s, Dan began work on the first of several devices he has developed and built that use shifting areas of contrasting color to exploit the eye's retinal afterimage effect--put as simply as possible, staring at a green circle and then staring at a red circle makes the red even more intense, thanks to the afterimage of the contrasting color still lingering on the retina. Expand that idea to encompass the entire spectrum of visible light, shifted via faders on a control panel and veritably vibrating thanks to the after-image effect, and you get some inkling of the device Conrad eventually dubbed the Chromaccord

Conrad returned to Maryland in the mid-'70s to earn a master's degree in painting from Maryland Institute College of Art, but opted for teaching science instead of a studio career when he found himself with a family to support. He stowed the Chromaccord in his attic for years, but by the mid-'90s he was spending a lot of time thinking about art and hauled down the lights and screens. He soon developed close collaborations with local musicians ranging from sitarist Jay Kishor to electronic musician (and erstwhile City Paper contributor) Ian Nagoski, with whom Conrad improvised live, complementing their sounds with his subtly shifting colors ("Pigments of His Imagination," Arts & Entertainment, July 4, 2001). As much as he enjoyed the Chromaccord wowing small audiences at the Red Room and the 14 Karat Cabaret, however, he continued to struggle with the limits of what amounted to a new medium.

"You go to hear music and there's a light show, that's great," he offers. "You don't go to see the light show and there's music." He attempted to create color-based compositions for the Chromaccord, but even he couldn't remember how they went. Typically, he suspects a neurological explanation; put simply, "There's a part of the brain that's devoted to color change, and it's very small."

Hence, failure. But Conrad notes that as far as he's concerned the failure of the Chromaccord is no greater than that of "almost all other light-show work" other than cinema. And, as he says, he remains fascinated by it.

"Apparently the High Zero group thought it would be interesting to have a Conrad brother performance," Conrad says of the impetus that brings him back to live light performance alongside his sibling, whom he says will play "violin in the form that he usually plays"--sonorous, sustained drones. Although they often focus on different mediums and have only performed together once before, Conrad sees essential similarities in what they're each trying to do. "Part of the purpose of the Chromaccord is to have the stimulus function neurologically, so that the neural response is a part of the medium," he says. "[Tony's] approach to minimalism is of that same nature. The reason to sustain the sound and create these complex constructs of sound is to sustain it to the point that neural interaction becomes apparent." In other words, both Conrads make art that doesn't just stimulate your thoughts or emotions; it interacts with the way your gray matter itself works.

To hear Conrad tell it, the Chromaccord taking a backseat for a while may be a good thing. Enabled by technological improvements like programmable color LED systems and bespoke circuits made by local electronics whiz Peter Blasser, Conrad has been working on a series of light boxes that work on some of the same principles of the Chromaccord but evolve their colors in a more sophisticated design, and much more slowly. But nothing has done more to boost his art than his retirement from Poly at the end of the 2007-'08 school year. After putting aside his art career decades ago to teach science, he's back to art full time.

"I feel very fortunate to be able to make this step, and because of that I feel a great responsibility to bring a discipline to [my artwork]," he says. "I don't want to travel and see the world. I really, really want to do my work. I feel like it's an almost obligation."

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