MOCAtv is the Museum Of Contemporary Art’s YouTube channel. MOCAtv has been showcasing some well-produced and very hip programs about art and music. One that is of particular interest to me is a series of short pieces on experimental filmmaker and artist Bruce Conner and his collaborations with Devo, Brian & David Byrne and Toni Basil. Conner began creating film collages composed of found footage, newsreels, animation and distressed celluloid back in the early 1960s and his style has been an undeniable influence on the MTV generation of video directors. His 1961 short film Cosmic Ray features Ray Charles singing “What I’d Say” set to a darkly psychedelic montage of go-go dancers, nuclear age imagery, cartoons and war footage that still carries some of the shock value that must have nailed viewers to the floor back in the early Sixties. Punk before punk.
In the mid-Seventies when punk erupted like the mushroom clouds in Cosmic Ray, Conner found a kindred artistic spirit in the subversive, often surreal, high-energy and over-the-top groups that were upending rock and roll in much the same that he himself had done with the visual arts more than a decade earlier. Conner’s creative juices were primed by punk and he spent many nights in the late Seventies hanging out with and photographing musicians at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens.
One of the bands that really connected with Conner’s dada sensibilities was Devo. In this episode of MOCAtv, Devo vocalist, bass guitar/synthesizer player Jerry Casale talks about his encounters with Conner and the film that Bruce made for Devo’s “Mongoloid.”
In 1966 Conner made a film featuring Toni Basil dancing to a Northern Soul-ish single she had just released called “Breakaway.” It’s an amazing work on many levels—Basil’s dancing is exquisite, her nakedness is taboo-shattering: no female pop singer in the Sixties was so fearless and open—and there’s Conner’s gorgeous black and white photography and trippy editing. The film for “Breakaway” was, and still is, a fucking stunner. Conner’s buddy Dennis Hopper held the lights for the Breakaway shoot and ended up casting Basil in Easy Rider. I wonder if Kate Bush ever saw Breakaway. Basil and Bush are on similar wavelengths and after seeing Conner’s film I’ve become a Basil devotee. This ain’t no “Mickey.”
Toni Basil recounts her experiences with Conner in this episode of MOCAtv.
These presentations of MOCAtv were produced by Matthew Shattuck and directed by Chris Green.
The photos featured here of Devo in performance and Toni Basil in front of Mabuhay Gardens are both from 1978 and were taken by Conner. This is their Internet debut and they were provided to Dangerous Minds exclusively by the Conner Family Trust. We’re thrilled to be able to share them with you.
The uncut (NSFW) version of Breakaway.
Many thanks to Tim Jones for making the connection.
Previously on DM: Bruce Conner: The Artist Who Shaped Our World