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Essays

Andrew Clifford on Dugal McKinnon's Popular Archeology

Giovanni Tiso on Tao Wells' The Beneficiary's Office

Heather Galbraith on Kim Paton's Free Store

Richard Meros on Bronwyn Holloway Smith's Pioneer City 

Martin Pattrick on Colin Hodson's The Market Testament

Hannah Zwartz on Suburban Floral Association's Shopfront

Emma Willis on Mark Harvey's Productive Bodies

Mark Amery on Dance Art Club and radio

Cathy Aronson on Julian Priest's Free of Charge 

Sally Blundell on the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa 2013

Kerryn Pollock on Projected Fields

Reuben Friend and others on the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa 2015

 

ESSAY

MAGNETIC NORTH: WOW AND FLUTTER

Andrew Clifford on the cassette tape and Dugal McKinnon’s Popular Archaeology.

 

The shop at 141 Willis Street is empty. The concrete floors are bare. Exposed pipes and ducting line the roof. But against the distant back wall are rows of old cassette players on shelves, echoing sound through the space in unison, like a ghostly mechanical choir, tape loops crinkly and stretched from wear. Sounds are indistinct, like the chattering of ethereal voices on the wind. If retail is the intention then these are bargain-basement tapes, commercial refugees left over from the final sale. Each tape contains repeating fragments of a long forgotten hit song, no longer in the spotlight and left on rotate as if trying to perpetually recreate its lost moment of glory, one more voice added to the dustbin of history.

Moving through the room the sounds seems to shift as different layers are revealed or buried, although it is difficult to later recall or describe a particular moment or sound. Listening back to documentation, individual loops are near-impossible to distinguish. They are encrusted with traces of media transfer, and breakdown. They are then buried amidst the other loops in a combined reverberant wash, all cemented together into a fixed stereo recording. Repeated listening to any fragment only makes it stranger, like trying to identify a mumbled word on a recording, or reciting a phrase until it becomes meaningless. Like an audio Rorschach blot, any motif heard is probably imagined as a palimpsest or mirage emerging from the layered and distorted voices.[i]

Approaching the barely intelligible sound of Dugal McKinnon’s recreated pop history, I’m reminded of Michel Gondry’s 2008 film Be Kind Rewind, a tribute to half-remembered cinema favourites. Gondry’s story gets underway when a video rental store’s entire VHS stock, outmoded and yet to be upgraded to DVD, is accidentally erased by the disaster-prone character, Jerry (Jack Black), who has become magnetised after a mishap in an electrical substation. To keep the store in business, replacement movies are filmed-to-order using DIY sets and costumes. These bespoke remakes, known as ‘sweded’ copies, become popular in their own right and the store is inundated with requests to recreate favourite films. 

To produce sweded films, audio cassettes are used to overdub the narration, but it’s not this incidental connection to Dugal McKinnon’s Popular Archaeology: Cassette, c.1967-1994 exhibition that interests me so much as the playful approach to a library of archives, memory and analogue media. Be Kind Rewind not only pays homage to a community-driven model of homemade entertainment, but also to the reclamation and adaptation of memory and heritage. In critic John Finlay Kerr’s analysis of Gondry’s film, he describes the shared history of cinema as a collective memory, however incomplete or imperfect, and as a social process that maps public culture onto a space.[ii] Like many of Gondry’s films, Be Kind Rewind is “about memories evaporating and being reconstructed, through reminiscence and illusion,” an erased history of cinema whose library must be rebuilt.[iii]

In addressing popular culture through the disposable medium of hit songs on user-friendly compact cassettes, McKinnon’s project addresses similar ideas of social memory and the reclamation of culture. He architecturally maps his hand-looped fragments of pop history across a gridded space, layered one above another, both physically and sonically like accretions of experience that combine with and disguise each other, offering snatches of familiarity, whether genuine or imagined.

Because music and sound are activities we can experience while attending to other things, they have a powerful mnemonic ability to revive associated memories. A familiar musical fragment can conjure up detailed images from the faintest trace of a sound. Music is like an index for an obscured archive of the mind, to be reconstituted as myth through memory and interpretation.

Key to the architectural nature of McKinnon’s installation is the physical placement of vintage cassette players in chronological order, each playing a chronologically corresponding cassette. They are arranged in gridded rows across standard issue office Lundia shelves that span the width of a disused retail space. Each song represents a New Zealand chart hit from the years 1967-1994, the approximate period in which the cassette was a dominant mode of music distribution. Top left, in a brown education issue player, is Mr Lee Grant’s ‘Thanks to you’, bottom right, in a silver streamlined boom-box, is Southside of Bombay’s ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf.’ By moving around this ‘wall of sound’, you can aurally browse the archive to select a particular player and song, or try to get a fix on a familiar strain emerging from the mix. By moving away from the wall, individual players become indistinguishable until, standing closest to the entrance, all that can be heard is a sonic stew that characterises the room’s reverberant qualities.

In this regard, Popular Archaeology recalls the 1969 Alvin Lucier performance, I am sitting in a room. As curator Manuela Ammer has noted, “Lucier became one of the first composers to see the architectonic space not just as a ‘storage space’ for musical instruments, but as an instrument in its own right.”[iv] For I am sitting in a room, the composer recorded his own recitation of a text then repeatedly recorded the new recording being played back in the space. With each subsequent generation recorded, the text was increasingly destroyed while the resonant frequencies of the room and the characteristics of the media became more pronounced.

The tape loop both revives and destroys an artefact, repeatedly bringing it to the ‘viewer’s’ attention and, in the same gesture, obscuring it like an insect embedded in thick layers of resin. Just as the fleeting nature of disposable pop culture is brought to light but then is always doomed to fade. Reliant on a constant process of renewal and redundancy, the commercial music industry’s chief ally is time, building a precarious lineage with accumulated successions of fleeting achievements that become legend for those that remember. “Time becomes their material and history an indecipherable web of hyperlinked anecdotes, un-recorded conversations and re-discovered memories,” argue curators Laura Preston and Mark Williams in the introduction to the catalogue for exhibition Object Lessons that later in 2010 similarly considered the effects of materiality and memory on musical production.[v] 

As McKinnon’s exhibition continued the cassettes deteriorated, becoming muffled and distorted as the tape stretched and the recorded layer wore down, an effect not possible with digital media. This is true of any analogue media – to revive through playback also increases deterioration. At the end of the exhibition’s duration, the tapes had endured 22 days of almost continuous daytime playback and subsequent wear, although the soundtrack we remember, or imagine we are experiencing, probably changes little.

 

In the 1960s the shift from expensive acetate record production – strictly the domain of record company technicians – to reel-to-reel magnetic tape allowed greater artist involvement and therefore experimentation in the recording process, starting a shift in the balance of power (and the means of production) from companies to musicians. This would eventually move on to the consumer with home-recording on compact cassettes.[vi] Whereas baby-boomers had to receive the fixed statements of factory-pressed long-playing records, Generation X got to deconstruct their entertainment. This shift is signified by the motif of a DJ ‘hacking’ a vinyl record by scratching it back and forth, but more commonly evidenced by the home-taping revolution of audio cassettes and VHS. 

The rise of the cassette set the scene for the post-punk era, founded on a DIY dogma that allowed indie culture to take control of the dissemination of its own content. Small labels could manufacture music to order, promoted through cheap advertisements in the back of magazines and packaged with photocopied artwork, perhaps with an added dash of hand-colouring or some tinted paper to enhance the effect. Or sold on the street, supported by portable boomboxes, which is how hip-hop as an underground movement, unsupported by radio or record labels, initially gained momentum.[vii] Niche labels, such as Bruce Russell’s Dunedin-based Xpressway, found an international audience through the establishment of mail-order networks, and it certainly didn’t hurt that a cassette could fit in a standard envelope and was unlikely to buckle or break.

Cassettes were cheaper, almost disposable. Even major record companies knew this. From them, a purchased cassette seemed a lesser version of owning the same music on LP. Despite protesting that home-taping would kill the industry, they found they could get around giving free music to reviewers by supplying dubbed tapes, and radio station giveaways would increasingly become cassettes, unless it was a big investment promotion. Many of the tapes shelved in Popular Archaeology’s racks bring vivid recollections to me of the disappointment of picking up a cassette prize or receiving a dubbed review tape in the mail[viii]. Contrast this with the much-coveted acquisition of a new recording on cassette purchased directly from the band at the door of a concert; releases mostly long lost to time. 

Most importantly, home-taping meant consumers taking control of their recorded entertainment to re-imagine music collections in endless new configurations. Thurston Moore’s book Mix Tape: The art of cassette culture[ix] pays tribute to the currency of the bespoke mix; tapes made for rock stars, tapes made by rock stars, tapes made for lovers, tapes made for tours, tapes made for parties, tapes made for dental surgery; usually transferred in real time from radio, records or other cassettes with handwritten or carefully collaged covers. Some act literally as archival documents, recording band performances (officially or as bootlegs) that aren’t otherwise released, others offer a summation of long forgotten listening habits – an autobiographical statement for personal consumption or as a means of testing or communicating a commonality, like a mechanical matchmaker, a litmus test for a potentially likeminded companion, a moral compass or cultural barometer. 

Decorating the cassettes and players of Popular Archaeology are the almost-forgotten runes of another age, the once familiar vocabulary of cassette culture: Dolby/metal/chrome, C60/90/120, hi-speed dubbing and auto-reverse. This cyclical evolution of language is a symptom of the consumer culture that turned the humble cassette player into a twin-decked ghetto blaster of shoulder breaking proportions. Also evoked by the cassettes that turn inside McKinnon’s players, is the physical memory of a multitude of rituals: the straightening of a twisted tape, unspooling tangled tape from a cassette munching player, breaking out the record-tabs (or plugging them up to reuse the tape), taping from the radio while avoiding the announcer, deciding how to use the supplied stickers (and trying to put them on straight), marker pens, or a more elaborate ransom-note-style system of collage and sellotape to title each tape. Bypassing the capitalist control of music, mix tapes are usually traded or gifted. As handcrafted objects, they become more worthy as an affectionate gift than any equivalent commercial item.

Before its development as consumer technology, magnetic tape had already contributed to a revolution in musical structures and hierarchies in the world of avant garde music. Prior to the advent of recording technology, music could only exist when it was performed by musicians, and could only be stored in the form of a composer’s score. With tape, a composer could record any sound source they desired, without the need for a score or performers, and continue to manipulate or rearrange that recording into a final form. Initially there were two key approaches; electronic music, using synthesised sources; and musique concrete, utilising found concrete sounds from the real world.

Pierre Boulez, in siding with the German electronic composers in a period of post-WWII rivalry, described musique concrete’s appropriations as not composed. He saw this as a problematic looseness, which he described as “a flea market of sounds.”[x] This may have been intended pejoratively but it’s also an excellent way to describe McKinnon’s project presented in a retail environment. 

British artist Philip Jeck is a modern bricoleur and amateur archivist, assembling as many as 180 secondhand Dansette record players (found at car boot sales) in large stacked scaffold configurations for the performance and installation of stuck-groove records, bought in junk shops and marked by their history. Assembled en masse, Jeck’s turntables are an imposing monument that defies their impending extinction in attics and rubbish tips.

Despite the promise of digital immortality, the portability of mp3s, and the ubiquity of online formats, vinyl retains a niche market and cassettes are making a comeback. For some, it is the way tape resists easy digitisation, for others it brings an underground allure or op-shop chic. Mix-tape culture is on the rise and boutique labels like New Zealand’s Dungeon Taxis[xi] can easily create editioned objets d’art which are arriving on reviewers' desks in growing quantities.[xii] And somehow, in the crude techniques of glued down covers and home taping, there is a sense of a back-to-basics sustainability that doesn’t rely on design software, download speeds, and compression rates. This tangibility is also manifest in the networks by which music is exchanged, notable in the rise of record fairs that double as community-driven social occasions. As McKinnon has said, “[Popular Archeology] plays upon the myth of totality that has emerged in the online era, an era in which the entire world is available in digitised form, effectively replacing the real in an enactment of Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra. This totality is a myth, the digital archive is imperfect, and what is left behind will be forgotten or misrembered…”[xiii]

Although McKinnon’s installation initially resembles a museum of music and machinery, neatly laid out in chronological fashion, its starkness has more to do with the unmediated spaces of backroom storage facilities – an open archive or ad-hoc library that can be freely consumed, interpreted or added to. Everything is laid out in orderly rows, but only in a functional manner on rented shelves, formal-yet-organic, seemingly devoid of exhibition furniture, design, signage, interpretation, curatorial selection. This nondescript selection of players and yesteryear hits presents no particular narrative of development or deviation. Instead, they are the overlooked casualties of history, left out of the glamorous story of inventions and heroics. All speaking at once without the aid of a narrator, they cancel each other out. Up close, a viewer can carefully single out traces of an individual song, but move ever so slightly in any direction and you are immediately lost in the rubble of unmediated information, merged into a “sonic dust” that slowly crumbles and fades as it awaits the attention of a pop archaeologist. 

By setting up a conversation around archives, memory and temporality, McKinnon is also asking questions about mortality. The conundrum for all collectors of artefacts is the tension between use and preservation, obscurity or death. To make use of a collection or archive is to reduce its longevity through handling and exposure. 

Composer William Basinkski draws a connection between mortality and analogue media. His well known series The Disintegration Loops (2002-2003) was created out of the process of rescuing tape loops, made in the 1980s, to digital format. During the transfer it became apparent that the resuscitation of these tapes was destroying them, so the subsequent recording captures their gradual deterioration, bringing to life forgotten music from a previous era but simultaneously replacing it with the sound of its own entropic demise. As one reviewer notes, “as the tape winds on over the capstans, fragments are lost or dulled, and the music becomes a ghost of itself, tiny gasps of full-bodied chords groaning to life amid pits of near-silence.”[xiv]

Intertwined with the original tapes are the composer’s memories of earlier work and of a previous time. Basinski himself says, “Tied up in these melodies were my youth, my paradise lost, the American pastoral landscape, all dying gently, gracefully, beautifully. Life and death were being recorded here as a whole: death as simply a part of life: a cosmic change, a transformation."[xv] Like any return to old music, new associations are immediately forged: as has become part of the legend of these recordings, Basinski completed and listened to the new recordings while watching the unfolding demise of the World Trade Centre in 2001, a moment in time that has become emblematic of a significant shift from one era to another, signified by the glaring absence of a once imposing structure.

 

Andrew Clifford

Although best known as an art critic and curator for The University of Auckland's Gus Fisher Gallery, Andrew Clifford also has a long history of working with music; producing radio programmes and writing for a range of publications. Naturally, he has a particular interest in the curious ways the worlds of art and music overlap, particularly invented instruments and sound sculpture. He is curator of Auckland City’s 2011 Living Room programme and a board member for the Audio Foundation.

Images: Boofa (boofa@ihadhippyparents.com)


Footnotes

[i] “Rorschach Audio” is the title of a paper by Joe Banks that discusses ideas to do with Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP), which is the alleged presence of supernatural voices in noisy recordings, published in Leonardo Music Journal, Volume 11, 2001, pp. 77-83, revised for Slash Seconds [website], issue 8, April 2008, accessed 5 December 2010, http://www.slashseconds.org/issues/002/004/articles/jbanks/index.php

[ii] John Finlay Kerr, “‘Rereading’ Be Kind Rewind (USA 2008): How film history can be remapped through the social memories of popular culture” in Screening the Past, accessed 28 August 2010, http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/24/be-kind-rewind.html

[iii] ibid Kerr.

[iv] Manuela Ammer, “Alvin Lucier: I Am Sitting in a Room, 1969” in Coima Rainer, Stella Rollig, Dieter Daniels, Manuela Ammer (ed.s), See This Sound: Promises in Sound and Vision (Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2009) 256.

[v]  Laura Preston and Mark Williams, “Introducing Object Lessons: A Musical Fiction”, Object Lessons: A Musical Fiction (Wellington: Adam Art Gallery, 2010), 5.

[vi] Andre Millard, “Tape Recording and Music Making” in Hans-Joachim Braun (ed), Music and Technology in the Twentieth Century (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002) 158-166.

[vii] Millard, 163-165.

[viii] It could be noted that one of the exhibition curators, Mark Amery, who has provided many of the cassettes that remain on shelves near the entrance in case somebody wants to play one, spent a considerable about of time at 95bFM during the cassette era, and that this writer also spent much of that same era at bFM, so both own many of the same tapes.

[ix] Thurston Moore, Mix Tape: The art of cassette culture (New York: Universe, 2004).

[x] Timothy D. Taylor Strange Sounds: Music, Technology & Culture (New York: Routledge, 2001) 50-51.

[xi] Dungeontaxis.blogspot.com  

[xii] Derek Walmsley, “D30, D60, D90 Go” on The Mire [blog], 17 June 2010, accessed 20 September 2010, http://www.thewire.co.uk/themire/2010/06/d30-d60-d90-go

[xiii] Dugal McKinnon, in www.lettingspace.org.nz/dugal-mckinnon

[xiv] Joe Tangari, “William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops I-IV” in Pitchfork [website], 8 April 2004, http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/577-the-disintegration-loops-i-iv/, accessed 12 February 2011.

[xv] William Basinski, “The Disintegration Loops” in The Music of William Basinski [website], http://www.mmlxii.com/music/music.html accessed 18 February 2011.