Tape and the domestic soundscape
Tape is the material that gathered and collected a curious generation’s first experiments in home-recording, and historically disseminated the power to author, retain and remix the soundscape of the home. Almost all contemporary domestic -recording experiments and techniques are derived from this context, and so art-practises that focus on the collection of ordinary sounds are linked – inextricably – to tape. Like records, tape has sound directly and tangibly embedded in it, and can be used in a synaesthetic way to say something about sound without being played as in Christian Marclay’s The Beatles, made from crocheted magnet tape pillow. As well as having this synaesthetic quality, tape additionally turned home-recording into a relatively widespread social and familial practise. Tape enabled hundreds – maybe thousands – of amateur recordings to be made of birthday parties, family holidays, historic personal moments, children’s first words, audio letters, and even Weddings.
Today these recordings give – in a very practical sense – subjective impressions of various domestic soundscapes. But the tapes that haven’t been thrown away over the past twenty or thirty years also say something about how we value the apparently banal moments of our early – or our ancestors’ – existences. Old recordings have an aural quality akin to that possessed by treasured family photographs, only the same cropping cannot occur on tape as in a photograph, because time and sound leak outside of the box of a photographic frame and cassettes are not easily edited. A recurrent theme in conversations about tape concerns the unwanted or mistake-rich quality of this inefficient medium, and the process by which – over time – those parts of a tape that were initially most irritating, most accidental and most non-deliberate, can often become its most valuable features. Sometimes hearing a sketchy, taped impression of a room’s acoustics can bring memories and associations flooding back in ways that a photo, with its deliberate, self-conscious and much-more-easily-edited content, cannot. Like family snapshots, home-recordings reflect our desire to keep or retain important, personal experiences. Like old photographs – which have been widely adopted as a reference point and material by artists working visually – old recordings have associative, imaginative, historic and material characteristics essential to our experience and understanding of domestic space.
Additionally, tape – as a material that can be damaged and repaired – is analogous in the way it behaves, to our physical bodies. You can wear tape out, you can hurt it, you can take care of it, you can neglect it, and you can mend it. A busted CD can’t be played and can’t be repaired, but a damaged tape – though indelibly scarred – can probably still relay its contents. A useful comparison may be drawn between a contemporary adoption of worn-out, amateurishly recorded old/found tapes and the persistent use of the human body and its functions by artists in the 1960 and 70s. Yoko Ono’s Coughing Piece and Toilet Piece reminded the world of our humble, mortal bodies in a cultural climate overwhelmingly obsessed with abstract and formal art-making concerns, and Ono was one of many artists who challenged abstraction by asserting that the personal is political. The cultural value of working with the difficult, muddled and imperfect social realities of life was really pushed by feminists at this point in history, and continues to have an influence – particularly in relation to ideas concerning domestic space. In a contemporary sonic-arts framework, works that deal with the everyday soundscape in terms of history, meaning and materiality, are a challenge to ideas that privilege high-fidelity and crisp audio production values over and above the more literal and social aspects of sound. Tape is a matter of history; a vast, swirling, magnetic ribbon of collected experiences, forgotten moments, and shared sounds.
Looking at these and other connections between listening, understanding and art-making, Felicity Ford tries to unpack some of the complexities surrounding tape in TAPE and The Domestic Soundscape.
Organising a mixtape swap through her blog and a tapespondence through the Yahoo phonography group, reading Rob Sheffield’s memoir, Love is a Mixtape, travelling to Sheffield, London and Glasgow to meet Bob Levene, Rachael Matthews and Mark Vernon and spending many hours online reading up on projects involving tape, the research for TAPE and The Domestic Soundscape has also involved knitting headphones from an old tape and listening to a lot of old cassettes.
The consequent podcast features interviews with Mark Vernon, Bob Levene, Rachael Matthews, Lloyd Dunn, Joyoti Wylie, Joceline Colvert and the Sticks and String knitting group, and the emphasis throughout is on what tape means, what it says, what its history is, how artists use and relate to tape, how tape behaves materially, sonically and imaginatively, and why tape is important in terms of The Domestic Soundscape.
Felicity Ford dialogues with Mark Vernon and Lloyd Dunn about recording communities that grew up around tapes and home-recording, meets with Rachael to discuss yarn spun from mixtapes, discovers old family tapes belonging to Bob Levene and Mel, listens carefully to Aki Onda’s recording For the Birds, and finds out from Joyoti Wylie how an answerphone tape and a cellphone can be used to create new conversations about art history.
Featuring old recordings, contemporary recording experiments, delights from the Phono-Static cassette and Derby Tape Club archives, the analogous sounds of Rachael Matthews’ spinning wheel and some of the thoughts Felicity Ford has had along the way, it is hoped that this small foray into a vast topic will stimulate a few conversations about the role that tape has played in home-recordings and the way we hear ourselves and our lives.
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