Culture Machine, Vol 9 (2007)

CM2007 Article: Introduction


The contributions to this special issue of Culture Machine, gathered under the thematic 'Recordings', perform a series of displacements toward the goal of rethinking the cultural logics of technological reproduction in the digital age. All of our contributors have responded to the challenge of the digital - its myth of exactitude and absoluteness, its simulations, banalities and everyday promises. Some meet the challenge head-on, while others meditate on the analogue. They do so not in a game of equalization, but in order to revisit cultural dead ends in search of hitherto unnoticed escape routes. Put in a corner by the digital, forced to eschew the easy satisfactions of nostalgia, a complex aesthetics of decline emerges across these essays.

Detours are made around European and American perspectives; myths of technological progress and the perfection of sound and vision are debunked; preservation, permanence, persistence, and linear continuity are trumped by decay, impermanence, instability, and discontinuity; and the hierarchy of the living and dead is reversed by the afterlives of technologies, which elevate the latter of the pair's enduring qualities and influence on subjectivity production. These are massive challenges to the self-sufficiency, objectivity and transparency of the playback that constitutes 'recording' technologies. As a result, the memorialising function of recording is compromised; the site of sound production demythologised; while the bodies that constitute its networked body multiply.

Andrew Murphie's and Ross Harley's study the history of the cultures of electronica in Australian popular music since the1980s. In doing so they situate the recordings thematic in relation to technological innovations in several urban music scenes - specifically Sydney and Melbourne, with a nod to Brisbane - each of which had its own unique vernacular and history. Invoking Henri Lefebvre's rhythmanalysis, Murphie and Harley trace the multiple rhythms - cultural, technical, social, bodily, cyclical, and musical - by means of which cultural territories were built and renovated. They listen to these cities, attending to their electronic scenes and how each of them found places and times for themselves, building institutions and tearing them down again. Rhythm is in the refrain, in electronica's celebrated use of dynamic repetition. Murphie and Harley want to know how this connected to bodies in motion in local sites, the build up of expressive components and the assemblage of personnel, micro-institutions, performance venues, and distribution networks.

The authors also develop a variety of key openings in Australian territories. At the level of material machines operating at the intersection of music and engineering, for instance, the first digital sampler, the Fairlight CMI, crossed from music schools into the rock mainstream, and thus gave impetus to experimentation in the electronic arts. Yet in its demonstration of linkages across the globe, via cutting-edge record companies like Volition in Sydney and Factory in Manchester, this story of Australian electronica is far more than a brief national history.

The example of Australia is important for what it prevents, as it renders uncomfortable a strictly European and North American assessment of recordings, grounded in avant-gardes or pop circles. As such, it assists in affecting a significant displacement of reference points. But it does so neither in the name of the assertion of national importance, nor in relation to a bland history of this or that technology. Instead, the example of Australia shows us not only that recordings travel, but that they never rest. Mobility is a key point here: borrowing from Paul Gilroy, 'automotivity' is crucial to Gary Genosko's study of 8-tracks. This tape technology was linked doubly to vehicles of transportation in the US: in the first place to the Lear Jet through designer/inventor William Lear, and secondly in the under-the-dash player units found in the early days of the car stereo. But the 8-track also developed a replacements parts industry that was a subunit of the vast auto-parts empire of North America.

What makes the 8-track fascinating is its link to crash culture: it was constantly breaking down. In fact, its breakdowns provided breakthroughs in terms of how 8-track technology may be critically appreciated by orienting the discussion towards the inherent flaws of tape and cartridge, the fickle interventions of editors in influencing how songs were ordered and broken up by the 8-track's tell tale sound signature, and, ultimately, the medium's fragility in the unforgiving environment of the automobile. While 8-tracks were a global format in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they remain marked by American preoccupations with automotivity. The real story of the 8-track centres around its flaws and failures.

Paul Hegarty pursues the temporal aesthetics of tape through challenges to its linearity, crises in ecologies of preservation and the promotion of permanence. Swerving around the progress myth that drives the valorization of the development of new 'superior' formats such as DAT, Hegarty rigorously unravels tape's power to narrativize. He does so by referring to strategies of fragmentation and mixture, using the contested ground of these interventions to call into question another myth: tape's unity and linearity. The dual references in Hegarty and Adam Bryx's review of a new book edited by Charles Acland, Residual Media, (see Reviews Section) to Beckett's play from 1958, Krapp's Last Tape, show the diminishing returns of the link between identity and recording. Krapp is spliced into his tapes; he is not a last man but a man of the last tape when memory as a medium decays. For Bryx, Krapp's Last Tape is a key work that complicates rather than secures identity in the information age. Hegarty adds to the mix a reflection on William Burroughs's 'cut-up' method applied to tape as a key artistic challenge to non-linearity. He also considers the destiny of the 'space tapes' on NASA's Voyager mission - another kind of radical vehicularity, one that will be switched off in 2010 after more than 30 years of recording.

Greg Hainge explores the temporalities of recording media suspended between two deaths: the death of what was recorded, and the inevitable death of the recording medium itself. Hainge reads the waxing of the digital and the waning of the analogue as two great cultural tombstones: both are haunted by missing referents, the lost reals they memorialize, which serve as exquisite objects of mourning. His case studies focus on the materiality of phonographic technologies as bridges to the spirit world and as sites for avant-garde experiments in decomposition.

Jérôme Hansen meanwhile explains how sociological and curatorial awkwardness with regard to sound art may be overcome. Focusing on the powerful myths of the studio as creative crucible, Hansen deploys a Latourian network model of the social-technical ensembles of production in order to understand how to reconstitute the studio in the age of digital technologies. In the era when the studio's romance has given way to home studios, mobile and relocatable production faciltities, the studio-as-intrument and the rise of the producer-creator, Hansen maps the populations and publics who traverse the studio at various points in the creative process.

Studios may buzz, but are they host to swarms? Eugene Thacker extends the phenomenon of group behaviour to the object of swarm-as-sound. For Thacker the question is that of the representability of the swarm acoustic. Passing through classical visual tropes of swarms and the aeshetics of sublimity, Thacker emerges with a nonhuman theorization of a paradoxical object: the swarm as both singular and multiple, emanating from everywhere and anywhere. Swarms challenge representation in music, with reference to the 'necro-sound' of decay and nonhuman technologic interventions. Perhaps, Thacker thinks, swarm-as-sound passes beyond representation and into sound itself, to which it is both immanent and 'emanent'.

Finally, painter of the digital simulacrum, Dan Hays, explores the fluid effects of digital technologies on the relationship between photography and painting. His focus is on digital photography posted on the Internet. Thus his material ranges widely from the work of amateurs to established artists. Hays isolates landscapes, however, within the history of painting and in the era of the web-cam, in order to grasp the implications of this subject when it becomes unburdened by aesthetic meditations. Despite this, Hays finds in digital photography a certain 'painterliness' that, albeit simulacral, cold and functional, nevertheless points a way out of the wilderness of the digital. We are delighted to include at the and of his article a small gallery of Dan's work.