Jack White might not agree but White Stripes’ “Rag & Bone” goes at the top of my list for the theme tune for zombie media and media archaeology. Listen to it.
If you don’t want it, we’ll take it; if you don’t want to give it to us, we keep walking by.
Keep going, we’re not tired.
Got plenty of places to go, lots of homes we ain’t been to yet.
West side, southwest side, middle-east, rich house, dog house, outhouse, old folks house, house for unwed mothers, halfway homes, catacombs, twilight zones.
Looking for techniques, turntables to gramophones.
So take a last lick of your ice cream cone.
And lock up what you still want to own.
But please be kind.
And don’t rewind.
All of your pretty, your pretty little rags and bones.
All that obsolete stuff and junk, piled up, ready to be used, reused, modified and reappropriated – your rags and bones that fill the attic, the junkyard, the garage.
Of course, this applies to Jack White/White Stripes more generally too. He might not acknowledge that also the pre-digital is technological but still, this is where it actually gets interesting. For instance recording in non-digital studios (Elephant was recorded in London, at Toerag Studios):
It’s all tech, and scholars of music technologies and sound recording could tell much more about that. For Kittler, of course, it was about the reuse of war technologies in the studio, from Stockhausen’s late 1950s use of “the pulse generator, indicating amplifier, band-pass filter, as
well as the sine and square wave oscillators “, all remnants “ discarded U.S. Army equipment” (1999: 97) to Abbey Road . Microphones and tape technologies, all points to the primacy of the studio as this set, place of experimental modes of time axis manipulation and hence reality manipulation. Continuing with Kittler: “Berliner’s primitive recording technology turns into a Magical Mystery Tour. In 195 4 , Abbey Road Studios, which not coincidentally produced the Beatles’ sound, first used stereo audiotapes; by 1970 eight-track machines had become the standard; today discos utilize 3 2 or 64 tracks, each of which can be manipulated on its own and in unison.226 “Welcome to the machine, ” Pink Floyd sang, by which they meant, “tape for its own ends-a form of collage using sound .” In the Funkspiele of the Abwehr, Morse hands could be corrected; in today’s studios, stars do not even have to be able to sing anymore. When the voices of Waters and Gilmour were unable to hit the high notes in “Welcome to the Machine,” they simply resorted to time axis manipulation: they dropped the tape down half a semitone while recording and then dropped the line in on the track.” (109)
Similarly, it’s the operative technics that allows Jack White to do his rag & bone sort of technicity, completely technological too, and why not even a bit of zombie mediaesque in some of its valorisation of the media archaeological moment. Obviously, part of the narrative of rock is the insistance on the authencity which itself is consolidated through technical media.
And that is the trick. In the perceptive note by Ryan Bishop and John Phillips, in their book on avantgarde aesthetics and military/modern technologies they write of this constitutive role of media as environments for such a narrative that keeps on recurring — and is itself recursive in relation to the technological platform sustainining it: ” [...] recording technology – like military surveillance technology – is designed to reduce the evidence of the technology itself, bringing the performance into your living room or bar, replacing “live” music, perhaps to the detriment of live performers.” (2011: 89).
Media amateurism has been an integral part of modern culture way before social media kicked in with its own DIY spirit. The electronic hobbyists and tinkerers of 1970s were themselves too preceded by so many earlier forms of learning communication and building circuits. Code-based culture does not then begin with software as we know it – from the emergence of computing and the much later emergence of computer languages as separate entities that relate to the mythologies of coders, hackers and controlling the hardware through the magical language of code (for a wonderful recent excavation into ontologies of software, see Wendy Chun’s Programmed Visions).
“Thousands of Radio Amateurs find it easy to Learn Code”, read a main title in Popular Science (March 1932), describing the process of getting a radio amateur license and the earlier technological discourse concerning machine-knowledge. Radio amateurism and wireless DIY of the earlier decades of 20th century represents itself perhaps one of the most important media archaeological reference points when thinking about contemporary technological DIY culture, and one can find interesting ideas from that discourse. The way knowledge about machines, code and the professionalism is standardized and practice is itself fascinating – DIY as a crash course into key scientific discoveries of modernity, practically applied. Electrical functions needed to be internalized into a hands-on skill, as the article describes: “You must first master the elementary principles of electricity as given in the simpler textbooks on the subject. Then you must apply the principles of magnetism and electromagnetic action plus an understanding of the radio vacuum tube to mastering simple radio transmitting and receiving circuits. […] You don’t have to know all the ins and outs of complicated radio broadcast transmitting circuits, nor do you require a detailed knowledge of elaborate receiving circuits such as the heterodyne.” (72)
This class of amateurs was however someone who was part of a nationally regulated standardization process flagging the importance of this system of transmission – this regulation had to do with technical knowledge, ethics and legalities as well as speed of communication, or skills more widely: The amateur operation license test was the way to become an operator – the mythical figure still living in such discourses as The Matrix-film(s), the one in charge of the communication field – what message goes where, interpreting of code, sending of things, packets, people to addresses.
But it was grey, this area of knowledge – or at least reading through the regulations. Take paragraph 9 of the Radio Division Regulations for Operators: “Amateur Class. Applications for this class of license must pass a code test in transmission and reception at a speed of at least 10 words per minute, in Continental Morse Code (5 characters to the word). An applicant must pass an examination which will develop knowledge of the adjustment and operation of the apparatus which he desires to use and of the international regulations and acts of Congress in so far as they relate to interference with other radio communications and impose duties on all classes of operators.” Speed – speeding up of communication as part of modernity – was something that was still tied to the skills of the operators, and slowed down by the human needing to be trained.
Code, as indicated in the passage, meant of course Morse Code. Dit-dit-dit-dah. A tip given in Popular Science relates to a sensory approach to code as not only abstract pattern but something that relates to your ears and mouths: “In memorizing the code, try to think of the letters as different sounds rather than as so many dots or dashes. Think of the letter C, for example, as “dah-dit-dah-dit” and as dash followed by dot, followed by dash, followed by dot.” (73) Carnal knowledge? Code in the flesh sounds much too poetic, but at least we could say, code in your mouth, ringing in your ears, feedback to your fingers tapping. Code, signal processing, transmission share so much with cultures of music, rhythmics, sound and voice.
(Forthcoming and related: a podcast interview with Paul Demarinis about hands-on, carnal knowing of technical media and media archaeological art.)
This one-question mini-interview with Dr Katy Price (Anglia Ruskin University) is a follow-up on the interview I did with Aleks Kolkowski. Katy has collaborated with Kolkowski on the old sound machine remediations, and has herself done various projects on sound and word art – as well as being a researcher interested in the interchanges between science and literature. I find her take on materialities, appropriation of science and tech, and experimental, playful and inventive take on these themes fascinating. I asked Katy to elaborate a bit how she sees working with obsolete technologies, and how does her word art intertwine with media archaeological themes and Kolkowski’s work with old recording tech:
Katy, you have recently collaborated with Aleks Kolkowski on a project that involves working with old media, appropriating old recording technologies such as Edison wax cylinder discs for creative practice, creative writing. Already before you have been interested in your word art (see for instance here) in working with sound, and creative music technologies, but what specifically makes working with these kinds of “obsolete” technologies interesting? Could you elaborate a bit on your artistic methodologies and interest in these themes (old media, co-curation with audiences as the project now with Science Museum, etc)?
Dr Katy Price: Thanks for asking about this Jussi. For me it is all about the relationship between our use of the latest consumer items and our making through history. A heightened awareness of this relationship – and ways to share this as entertainment.
The past informs how we use and think about our bodies and their companions or additions or substitutes. One way to experience this is through reading about the past and receiving inspiration from historians. Somebody like Paul Fussell points out that memory of the First World War – mud, wire, slaughter and filling in surreal forms – shapes everyone’s identities, even if we weren’t born yet. Or Paul Théberge traces how we assumed the identity and practices of consumers: not just of music but consumers in the act of music-making. All the way from the pianola to MIDI and sampling.
Those are both stories that begin around the start of the twentieth century and there is a great appeal for me in this period because you can almost see, taste, hear the past and the future washing up against each other on the street and in people’s homes: bowler hats and horse-drawn carriages collide with illuminated advertising, cinema, ‘noiseless’ typewriters. I think we would laugh so hard if we suddenly found ourselves on Piccadilly in 1925. And instantly want one of everything. People had a lot of hopes and vision – you could dream about inventing anything, from a new type of escalator to a new society. At the same time there was a lot holding people back – no such thing as maternity leave; lots of brothers, fathers, lovers, left behind in the mud in France or falling apart at home. Under those circumstances, dreaming about the future is both necessary and tough, even impossible. I think we could do with knowing how to be a bit like that now.
The audience for academic books is quite restricted and also the mode of experiencing messages from / about the past is limited to reading the book and perhaps making images in your mind or writing some notes. I found a different angle from the experience of musical artefacts on display and in performance. At the Science Museum in London there is a brilliant case in the Making the Modern World gallery. It is a jumble of items (actually organised by inspiration from a curious thinker called Patrick Geddes) and in one corner you have a Stroh violin next to an ammoniaphone – for use by opera singers and the clergy, to improve their voice before performance with a gust of ammonia – phew! Nearby there is a prosthetic arm. Because the case isn’t directly telling me how to relate these items or how to think of their place in history, I feel almost the privilege of having come across them in a curiosity shop.
But you can’t play with the items in the museum case, or see them in use.
Aleks Kolkowski has collected and restored the only working Stroh quartet: two violins, viola and cello. Instead of wooden bodies they have a metal horn (enormous on the cello). Completely mechanical: no electricity! The horn is attached to a diaphragm which picks up the sound – you play it with the bow as normal, but it sounds almost reedy, and much louder in the direction of the horn. It was used until the 1920s to make the strings audible on early gramophone recordings, before microphones. The group Apartment House played a concert on the Strohs in Cambridge a few years ago, including a piece by Aleks which incorporated two cylinder phonographs. They were all attached together with plastic tubes, which struck me as a mechanical parody of electronic connectivity. It got me thinking about how artefacts in performance can give the audience a chance to think about today’s technology in our lives by seeing an amusing or strange performance with obsolete items.
The next thing I saw was a concerto for Pianola and iPhone composed by Julio d’Escriván, which he performed with Rex Lawson. Rex is a great showman and he is happy to show the audience how the pianola works. Julio is interested in how audiences perceive the minimal gestures of laptop musicans, and he works with the iPhone in ways that make us aware of our own need for a correlation between gesture and output sound. The combination made me think that performances like this can invite us to see the new gadgets as artefacts for a moment.
I am now working a little bit with the Science Museum on how to use creative writing as part of the process of co-curation / co-creation. This means that audience groups are invited to select objects and tell stories about or through them, for display in an exhibition. So far we spent 2 days with a group of young people. Aleks showed them his phonographs and gramophones, and talked about these mechanical objects. I got them to write monologues and poems. For example: what the gramophone said to the ipod and the other way round. Then we recorded these works onto wax cylinders and gramophone discs. They were captivated by the items from Aleks’ collection: the look and feel, the sound of themselves coming back in this ghostly form. They found the mechanical process mysterious and intriguing – which it is. How can sound be captured and played back without electricity?They learned a bit about the history of sound recording and we had a lot of fun. Their writing was amazing and I think there is a lot more we could do with speaking through these artefacts: unlike other forms of object writing, you have the opportunity for double voicing when it is recorded and played back using this item.
Aleks is building up a phonograph archive of wax cylinder recordings of contemporary artists and musicians. I won’t say too much about this for now but prepare to be amazed when it is launched… I have heard some of the cylinders and the effects are stunning. They will be digitised and online soon. For the archive I wrote a poem in two voices: Thomas Edison and Charles Cros, who had the idea for the phonograph at the same time but Edison got it on the market first. We recorded one voice on the cylinder and the other one over the top, so that they weave in and out of each other. When Aleks told me about Cros, his interest in language and plans for communication with extra-terrestrials, I recognised him as one of those hopeful impossible figures of his time. He clearly deserved to be reincarnated on a wax cylinder, interfering with Edison’s confidence.
One of the highlights of my pre-academia career as a freelance journalist when during a phone interview the interviewee, a female at a telecommunications company marketing department or something of approx. 35 years of age, interrupted me: “Oh I am sorry to interrupt the interview but I just have to say you have an amazing telephone voice.”
I blush, stutter, and for a second wonder if my future career is somewhere where I could put my voice into better use, such as in some of those dubious 0800-numbers that offer services of very wide variety.
Instead, I end up as an academic.
Despite the shortness of the flirtation with the idea of using my voice to make money, I have been drawn into something again where I need to talk – publicly. The shock horror at first, but then realizing its actually enjoyable despite the fact that there is always a tiny region in your brain that is probably trying to say something very inappropriate.
We label it as
“A podcast on technology and creativity, technology mostly misused, unintentionally artistic technology and music technology with the odd splattering of digital economies” and hope it to be usually a 30 min aberration into the interminglings of technology, net culture, a slight dash of political economy, academic stuff and lots of media arts.
It features interviews of creatives, techs and academics, and aims to throw a spotlight both on the work done at CoDE institute in Cambridge but also more widely (as in globally) on creative technology and arts. I am suspecting it turns out to be quite focused on sound, knowing Julio’s interests and expertise in sound art, sonicity, but it will definitely splash into other fields of expression too and I am sure to throw in a nice dose of media theoretical meditation.
Its hopefully soon available on Itunes, but meanwhile episodes can be downloaded here.
Please get in touch if you have feedback, or suggestions for themes, sites, projects, etc. to be featured!
Kettle’s Yard had today a CoDEful of people performing on “Musical and Poetic Approaches to Technology, from subversive, DIY and historical perspectives.” By CoDEful I mean Katy Price, Tom Hall and Richard Hoadley, all affiliated with our institute.
The experimental takes on sound, music and performance moved from digital investigations into soundscapes (Katherine Norman’s pieces) to for example physical computing and interface experiments as with Richard Hoadley who performed with his self designed Gaggle too — along with two new devices, Wired and Gagglina.
I truly enjoyed Katy Price’s performance piece Bookmachine which is described as “found poem drawn from three sources about books and machines.” The opening line “the book is a machine to think with” is a declaration of book’s haptic, sonic, material qualities; an exploration into the pragmatics of the book. (And as I learned, comes from I.A.Richard’s). Indeed, the book is touched, scraped, made into a sonic platform; it is torn, taped back together, punctured. The book is less read, and when its read, its not a work of extracting meanings from it, for sure. The book is “typed into a BBC Microcomputer simulator running ‘Speech’ and the speech facility in a Macbook.” The book does, and is an object of doing much more than meaning in a Deleuzian spirit.
This is where I am alluding to, Deleuze and Guattari on the book: the root-book is very different even if its the classical form of the book; hierarchical and full of meaning. We read such books as we should read books — the way we are taught. Start in the beginning, think of what it means. The modernists then were already cutting up books (cut-ups by Burroughs) and making new kinds of series proliferate. But books can be made to do other kinds of things; books are machines, and machines connect. They connect to senses, new uses, making books into objects, trajectories, surfaces, scapes. A machine to think with alludes to the fact that books always function as part of assemblages. We like to think of book’s as organic and self-sustaining, but they always are there to help to do stuff, to think with, to accompany. We become with books. And if the book is a machine to think with, it also alludes that there are other machines to think with too; that the book is a machine similarly as computers and such are.
Book as a machinic assemblage is much more than we usually attribute to literature, and sees it even as a , well, war-machine (in the DeleuzeGuattarian-sense again). To quote Gregg Lambert:
“…literature functions as a war machine. ‘The only way to defend language is to attack it’(Proust, quoted in CC4). This could be the principle of much of modern literature and capture the sense of process that aims beyond the limit of language. As noted above, however, this limit beyond which the outside of language appears is not outside language, but appears in its points of rupture, in the gaps, or tears, in the interstices between words, or between one word and the next.” (Lambert, The Non-Philosophy of Deleuze, 141).
Literally, what lies between words are blank gaps on the page, but also paper, and the porous surface of inscription. There is always a lot that goes on between any word – much more than hallucination of meaning. The stuttering “and” is what constitutes an experimental assemblage of the book machine which tries out the various material modalities in which text, covers, paper, expose much more than meaning. The rhizome-book is the bookmachine, it reaches to outsides and neglects illusions of books as images of the world. It represents less, but sounds a lot more.
The book too has its on level of “body without organs” — the final phrase from the performance. Much more, such perspectives relate to futures of literature and literature studies. New territories of how we approach literature, books, meanings do not take at face value the idea of hermeneutics and deciphering meanings in that traditional sense, but are open to, well, opening up the book in different ways. Literature can be made into such new contexts of use and imagination where semantics and interpretation can be seen as only one way of “practicing literature”. This is where the translation of literature whether into data open to algorithmic manipulations, or then new realms of sensation in terms of multimodality, or part of other creative, experimental takes finds its futures.
Professor Nicholas Cook, Cambridge University:
Beyond reference: Eclectic Method’s music for the eyes
Date: Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Time: 17:00 – 18:15
Location: Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, Cambridge, room Hel 252
Screen media genres from Fantasia (1940) to the music video of half a century later extended the boundaries of music by bringing moving images within the purview of musical organisation: the visuals of rap videos, for example, are in essence just another set of musical parameters, bringing their own connotations into play within the semantic mix in precisely the same way as do more traditional musical parameters. But in the last two decades digital technology has taken such musicalisation of the visible to a new level, with the development of integrated software tools for the editing and manipulation of sounds and images. In this paper I illustrate these developments through the work of the UK-born but US-based remix trio Eclectic Method, focussing in particular on the interaction between their multimedia compositional procedures and the complex chains of reference that result, in particular, from their film mashups.
Professor Nicholas Cook is currently Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge, where he is a Fellow of Darwin College. Previously, he was Professorial Research Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he directed the AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (CHARM). He has also taught at the University of Hong Kong, University of Sydney, and University of Southampton, where he served as Dean of Arts.
He is a former editor of the Journal of the Royal Musical Association and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2001.
The talk is free and open for all to attend.