The Great Recycler

The late Bruce Conner made lasting art out of junk.


When the Wichita-bred filmmaker Bruce Conner moved to San Francisco in 1957, he was stimulated by the bohemian individualism of the Beat scene, by the bustling avant-garde art community, and, above all, by the city's garbage men. "In San Francisco," he told an interviewer in 1983, "the trash was picked up by an organization called the Scavengers Protective Association. They went around the city with big trucks, gathering the trash by emptying trash cans into big flat burlap sheets.…They were using all the remnants, refuse, and outcasts of our society." Inspired, Conner and some friends created a trash-picking alliance of their own, the Ratbastard Protective Association, for "people who were making things with the detritus of society."

By July of this year, when Conner died at age 74, he had become the acknowledged master of turning detritus into art. No director has surpassed his ability to assemble preexisting found footage into something entirely new. Beginning with A Movie in 1958, he made a series of experimental films, from his Zapruder-meets-McLuhan short Television Assassination to his Devo video Mongoloid, that laid the groundwork for the current explosion of remixes and mash-ups.

He wasn't the first person to use recycled footage, of course. "Other filmmakers have done it before," Conner told another interviewer in 1974. "But mainly in a comic sort of way. I'd seen a Marx Brothers movie in which Groucho said to Harpo, 'There's a revolution going on. We need help.' Harpo goes out and pins a 'Help Wanted' sign on the door. Suddenly you see tanks and airplanes and soldiers and elephants all coming to their aid. After that I started thinking…I became aware that [by] putting in an image from a totally different movie you could make it more complex. Like taking the soundtrack from one film that was made in 1932 and put[ting] it on top of images from a movie made in 1948, and intercutting other images together with it. I had this tremendous, fantastic movie going in my head made up of all the scenes I'd seen…a three-hour spectacular."

Conner didn't limit his recycling work to film. He created weird, witty collages that would have made Max Ernst proud, pictures in which a nuclear explosion wears a suit, a pair of mechanical contraptions have a shootout, or a giant hand operates some buttons on Jesus' back. And he made grotesque but transfixing assemblages—sculptures, sort of—out of stretched stockings, faded photos, beads, hair, and a host of found objects, from a suitcase to a highchair, a crucifix to a bicycle wheel. In some ways the results resembled the shadow boxes of the American surrealist Joseph Cornell, but they had a messier, more organic quality, as though they had been left in a garage rather than carefully preserved on a shelf.

Not all of Conner's art was assembled from pre-existing material. He made drawings, paintings, photograms, and items I'm not sure I could describe with a single word. He also made some films the old-fashioned way, photographing them himself rather than compiling them from other people's images. He seemed eager to try his hand at every conceivable medium—even light shows for rock bands.

Now that you can pass off a prank as "conceptual art," I should probably mention that Conner was a great prankster as well. (He has his own chapter in the classic RE/Search anthology Pranks!) He loved to play with identity, and once plotted to present an exhibition of new collages that he would inaccurately attribute to Dennis Hopper. (The actor was a friend, and Conner was an informal consultant on Easy Rider. He made the collages, which are stunning, but the larger plan never came off.) In 1967 Conner ran a jape campaign for San Francisco city supervisor, at one point giving a speech that consisted entirely of a long list of desserts.

And as the San Francisco Chronicle's obituary reports, "Conner announced his own death erroneously on two occasions, once sending an obituary to a national art magazine, and later writing a self-description for the biographical encyclopedia Who Was Who in America." I'd like to believe he's still alive this time too, sharing a beer somewhere with Andy Kaufman, chuckling at the gullible media, and planning a new collage to be assembled from all his obits.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).