Conrad was born in Concord, New Hampshire to Mary Elizabeth Parfitt and Arthur Emil Conrad. but raised in Baldwin, Maryland and Northern Virginia. His father worked with Everett Warner during World War II in designing dazzle camouflage for the US Navy. Conrad graduated from Harvard University in 1962 with a degree in Mathematics. While studying at Harvard, Conrad was exposed to the ideas of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. After graduating, Conrad went to Copenhagen to see a friend, who was a research mathematician working on a computer project at the Physics Chemist Institute. That computer was the only computer in Denmark at the time, with a memory of 8 kilobytes. Conrad worked on it in machine language during the summer, which helped build his computer skills. He also did work as a computer programmer for a year when he came back to the United States.
After working as a computer programmer, Conrad got into the experimental music scene in New York City.
In an interview with Tony Oursler, as part of Oursler's Synesthesia: Interviews on Rock & Art, Tony Conrad said he moved to New York in the early 1960s and entered into the art picture because of his interest in music, but went to film because it was "too boring" in music. At the time, film was institutionally unattached, which drew Conrad towards the community of New York filmmakers. In 1966, he made his first film, The Flicker, said to be a "landmark in structural filmmaking." Conrad said, "Since other filmmakers were making films at the time that dealt with structure as a foregrounded principle, and this seemed to be built around mathematical principles, it was adopted as a kind of flagship film for the structural film movement, where it dealt with abstract light-organizing ideas." The film consists of only completely black and completely white images, which, as the title suggests, produces a flicker when projected. When the film was first screened several viewers in the audience became physically ill. (Rapid flashes produce epileptic attacks in a small percentage of population.) Conrad wished to generalize the whole technology of film.
He approached the film by considering the relationship between the subjective psychological conditions of the flicker, and its relation to narrative and storytelling. He says, "I had felt that my own experience with flicker was a transporting experience in the way that movies affect the imagination at their best by sweeping one away from reality into a completely different psychic environment."
Yellow Movies was a project of Conrad's in 1973 of twenty "movies" consisting of rectangular borders painted in black house paint on large pieces of photographic paper, effectively framing each sizable expanse of emulsion. Conrad's concept came from a continued attempt at pushing the framework of film, and his interest in engaging the audience in long spaces of time. He wanted to make a film that would last fifty years, but knew that "normal materials" and projection could not last that long. So he created an entirely new conceptual stratagem for Yellow Movies whereby the physical aging and transformation of the emulsion itself would constitute a definitively slow-motion moving picture over such an extended period of time.
Conrad began to work in video and performance in the 1970s as a professor at Antioch College in Ohio, where he overlapped with the filmmaker Paul Sharits. In 1976, Conrad joined the faculty at the Center for Media studies at the University at Buffalo. While in Buffalo, Conrad was part of a scene that included Sharits, as well as Hollis Frampton, Steina and Woody Vasulka, Peter Weibel, James Blue, Cathy Steffan and Gerald O'Grady. Their practices in film, video, performance, and other forms were documented in the 2008 book Buffalo Heads: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers, 1973–1990, edited by Vasulka and Weibel.
In the mid-1970s, Conrad began performing film. With Sukiyaki Film he decided that the film should be prepared immediately before viewing. Sukiyaki was chosen as the paradigm for the work because it is a dish often cooked immediately before eating, in front of the diners. Conrad cooked sukiyaki in front of an audience: egg, meat, vegetables, and 16mm film; and literally "projected" onto the screen behind him.
Conrad made a piece called Pickled Film.
Well, if you take a roll of film and instead of making pictures on it, you process it by pickling it in vinegar and putting it in a jar and presenting it for people to look at that way, projected through the lens of the fluid around it, this is so distorted and such a monstrous disfigurement of the normal way in which you are "supposed to use" film, that it is a kind of pathology; it's a sickness in the sense of a virus being inserted in the system. I think wellness and change are measured by comparison to potential for extremes of illness or death. I was trying to kill film. I wanted to let it lay over and die.
Another of Conrad's early films was "Coming Attractions", which was released in 1970. This film led indirectly to the founding of Syntonic Research and the Environments series of natural sound recordings.
Conrad's work has been shown at many museums including the Museum of Modern Art, P.S. 1, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; the Louvre in Paris; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; and many others. Specifically, his film The Flicker was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art's exhibition, The American Century; he participated in the 2006 Whitney Biennial; and one of his Yellow Paintings was featured in the museum's 2015–2016 exhibition "Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner." In 1991, he had a video retrospective at The Kitchen, an artist-run-organization in New York City. In 2006, the full hour-long recording of Conrad's Joan of Arc was released, a 1968 recording for the soundtrack to Piero Heliczer's like-named short film.
Conrad's artwork is represented by Greene Naftali Gallery in New York City, and by Galerie Buchholz in Germany.
Conrad had been a faculty member in the State University of New York at Buffalo since 1976. He continued to teach there in the Department of Media Study as well as work on many notable B&W film image projects with Princess G. St. Mary until his death in 2016.
In music, Conrad was an early member of the Theatre of Eternal Music, nicknamed The Dream Syndicate, which included John Cale, Angus MacLise, La Monte Young, and Marian Zazeela, and utilized just intonation and sustained sound (drones) to produce what the group called "dream music" (and is now called drone music).
Conrad's first musical release, and only release for many years, was a 1972 collaboration with the German "Krautrock" group Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate, published by Caroline (UK) in 1973. This remains his best known musical work and is considered a classic of minimalist music and drone music.
Later, Conrad composed more than a dozen audio works with special scales and tuning for solo amplified violin with amplified strings. Releases included Early Minimalism Volume 1, a four-CD set, Slapping Pythagoras in 1995, Four Violins (1964) in 1996, Outside the Dream Syndicate Alive with Faust, from London 1995, and Fantastic Glissando. He also issued two archival CDs featuring the work of late New York filmmaker Jack Smith, with whom he was associated in the 1960s. He released the 1968 recording of Joan of Arc in 2006.
He also collaborated with artists such as Charlemagne Palestine, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Keiji Haino, Jim O'Rourke, David Grubbs, C Spencer Yeh, Tovah Olson, MV Carbon, and numerous others. Conrad was chosen by Animal Collective to perform at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival that they curated in May 2011. In 2012 Conrad was part of the line-up of the touring avant garde festival Sonic Protest that took place in five cities in France. In 2013 Conrad visited Genoa to open his first solo exhibition in Italy.
In the early 1960s, Conrad and John Cale were recruited by Pickwick Records to play as a backing band for a new act, The Primitives, to perform the 1964 single "The Ostrich"/"Sneaky Pete." Conrad and Cale played guitar and bass, the artist Walter de Maria joined on drums, and the only pre-existing member of the band, Lou Reed, sang. Conrad and Cale's instruments were tuned to "Ostrich" tuning — every string to the same pitch — to make them easier to play, but the uniformity also resonated with the drone music they were playing with the Theatre of Eternal Music. After a few shows, the group disbanded. Cale and Reed went on to form The Velvet Underground.
Conrad was indirectly responsible for the name of The Velvet Underground, although he was never a member of the group. After moving into Conrad's old apartment on Ludlow Street in New York City, Reed and Cale found a book entitled The Velvet Underground, which had belonged to Conrad, and took the book's name for their group.
Conrad died in Cheektowaga, New York on April 9, 2016 at age 76 after fighting prostate cancer.Outside the Dream Syndicate (with Faust) (Caroline, 1973)
Slapping Pythagoras (Table of the Elements, 1995)
The Japanese Room at La Pagode / May (split with Gastr del Sol) (Table of the Elements, 1995)
Four Violins (1964) (Table of the Elements, 1996)
Early Minimalism Volume One (Table of the Elements, 1997)
Inside the Dream Syndicate Volume I: Day of Niagara (with John Cale, Angus MacLise, La Monte Young, and Marian Zazeela) (Table of the Elements, [Recorded 1965] 2000)
Fantastic Glissando (Table of the Elements, 2003)
Joan of Arc (Table of the Elements, [Recorded 1968] 2006)
An Aural Symbiotic Mystery (with Charlemagne Palestine) (Sub Rosa, 2006)
Taking Issue (with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge) (Dais Records, 2009)
XXX Macarena (with Jutta Koether and John Miller) (From the Nursery and Primary Information, 2010)