listen to your present time tapes and you will begin to see who you are and what you are doing here mix yesterday in with today and hear tomorrow your future rising out of old recordings
everybody splice himself in with everybody else
– William S. Burroughs, as quoted in the online introduction to Dead Fingers Talk: The Tape Experiments of William S. Burroughs, curated by Mark Jackson at iMT Gallery, London.
And I just can’t wait to … document it
And then I can’t wait to … archive the … document …
– Fluffy Pagan Echoes, from ‘The Pharmacopaea’, 2003
It’s a lie to look to the past and pretend there was ever any plan or strategy to the life I’ve led. In fact, it’s been perfectly random. I’ve pursued avenues, activities because they were rewarding or because they were unrewarding; I’ve created work because there seemed to be a call for it from the world at large, or else because there seemed to be a call for it from within myself and to hell with the rest of the world. Texts, images, audio recordings, performances, the impressions I have made on other human beings I’ve encountered – these are the traces of my path.
I was never an artist, until I looked back at my trajectory, the faint traces of my path through time and space, and decided that calling myself an artist made more sense than calling myself anything else.
There are many ways to look back at one’s trajectory through life.
There is memory, the organic archive located in one’s skull, the seat of the mind. I find memory to be highly unreliable, and yet it is infinitely deep and wide. Laurie Anderson first called attention to this latter fact in an interview that I read back in the 80s. She claimed that if she had a single memory of a single day, any day in her life, and she spent a while reflecting on that bit of memory, she could reconstruct the events of the entire day. I frequently use this methodology as part of my creative process.
As an artist, I’m not very interested in making up stories to tell to other people; I find the stories I want to tell in what has happened in my own life. I write poems that grow out of my life; I write stories that grow out of my own life. I photograph – I make audio recordings – of my own life. I find highly crafted fictions – theatre, novels – to be at best, boring, and at worst, moralistical and didactic. (Oddly, I don’t mind fiction in the cinema, perhaps because I don’t make films.)
When I consider Andy Warhol’s early films, I see documents of moments taking place in the world of Andy Warhol. Someone eats something. Someone sleeps. Or various friends get together like children at play, and invent a ridiculous skit. But nobody is fooled by the ridiculous skit – everybody can see that it is really just a bunch of Andy’s friends, acting up. That’s why they always feel slightly pornographic, those films – because the viewer knows she’s being drawn into an essentially private space. People are vulnerable, in those films. It’s disarming.
I can explore similarly private realms through my own audio archives. There’s recordings in there that were made when I was 12 or 13 years old. Lately I’ve been digitizing these old cassettes … for the first time I’m able to make copies of these tapes without losing any of the audio quality. Initially, I’d recorded these moments on the cheapest possible cassettes, bought in packages of four or five from Woolco or Zellers – the tapes were almost guaranteed to seize up the cassette machine. And yet somehow, precariously, they’ve preserved these skits, field recordings of casual conversations, party games, drunken rants, pot and LSD babble, urban wandering, and the first glimmerings of self-conscious ‘artfulness’, for twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five years now …
While I was deep in the process of ‘digitizing’ these old recordings, covering 15 years (from 1972 to 1987), I started making a series of audio letters on CDR, which I mailed to various and sundry family members and friends. I sequenced the old recordings with contemporary pop songs, along with bits of film and television audio, in an attempt to evoke the times more fully. I liked the effect of these ‘autobiographical audio documentaries’, and began similarly sequencing all of the archival recordings in series. From the jumbled order and poor recording quality of the original tape archives, the newly sequenced and polished CDR series began to excavate memories that seemed somehow lodged between – in the interstices behind and beneath all the memories already as familiar as old friends.
The simple act of making an audio recording raises many interesting questions. For instance, why did I start doing this? What was my state of mind as a seven- or eight-year old, when my sister recruited me for a home recording of an improvised version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”? One factor was the simple availability of the recording device itself: a cheap, portable, battery-powered reel-to-reel machine purchased as a gift for my brother from Simpson-Sears. Another factor was the all-important one of ‘play’. As children, we were still ‘natural’ artists – there was no question of ‘should we?’ or ‘are we good enough?’ – with sufficient precautions in place (my older sister serving as supervisor over my still childish clumsiness around delicate mechanisms) we just went ahead and did it. Anything might enter into and be transformed by this maelstrom of creativity called ‘play’, from a piece of twisted driftwood to the latest in cheap consumer electronics.
For years, such audio art remained as ephemeral as any other form of childhood play, simply because of the dearth of tapes on which to store these precious moments. As soon as a new game was invented, the same reel of tape would be recorded over, obliterating whatever was on it, and instantly rendering the past as inaccessible as ever. As a child in the late sixties, I simply didn’t have sufficient disposable income to purchase such high-end commodity items as reels of recording tape. Ten cents a week for candy from the corner store was the full extent of my discretionary spending power.
It was in 1972 that I graduated to the level of the ‘owning’ class, when I was given a portable cassette recorder for my birthday. Shortly thereafter, we moved (mine was a military family, moving from one base to another every three or four years throughout my childhood), and I found myself more-or-less friendless in a strange town. I spent the summer playing on my own, and found the cassette recorder lent itself to this sort of solitary activity. That same year, I hit on the next key activity in the creation of an audio archive: the technical ability to make copies. With a simple mono male-to-male cord, I could directly record the audio output of my brother’s old reel-to-reel onto a cassette in my own machine. The earliest recordings in my audio archive are a 12 minute ‘demonstration’ cassette, on which I had saved short excerpts of three reels from my brother’s machine, recorded in the summer and fall of 1972. (Recently, my mother unearthed a sole surviving reel of tape from my brother’s machine, containing the last recordings I made on it, circa December 1972.)
That school year, a friend and I proposed to make an audio recording for a school assignment. We scripted and acted out the drama of a World War II submarine as it went through a series of attacks and mishaps, until it was finally destroyed with all hands. This decidedly anti-war drama was recorded using three recorders – my own cassette recorder, the old reel-to-reel, and my friend’s cassette machine – which enabled us to indulge in a primitive form of ‘multi-tracking’ of sound effects and overdubbing of voices for the crowd scenes. Idiotically, this cassette went missing – the loss of such a precious artifact made me all the more determined to conserve, and collect, and hold onto my recording projects in the future.
Separation prompted audio art when my family moved again. Cassettes lent themselves to long-distance communication through the mail when phone calls were still prohibitively expensive. Along with voluminous letters, I’d occasionally send cassettes to my much-missed friends. As teenagers, our audio equipment had improved considerably – we’d graduated to full-fledged stereo systems. We’d record songs from the radio, or copy our latest LPs and sent them to each other. Then we’d pretend to be radio DJs and make mix tapes complete with between-song patter, ads and call signals. Puberty intervened with its pall of hideous self-consciousness; if it weren’t for the simultaneous exploration of various intoxicants, the making of recordings might has stopped altogether. I mean, for most people, that’s precisely where such ‘play’ will end. People grow up and move on to more mature pursuits – generally, the obsessive and endless getting of money.
Not me. A few years later, my collection of audio recordings had taken on a life of its own, and became known by my circle of friends as ‘The Archive’. Special moments – parties, holidays, visits – might be captured on audio, as well as in the usual consumer forms of archiving one’s life – letters, journals, snapshots. Documents, ‘raw footage’ of an aimless university student’s life. More skits, parodies of favourite television shows, audio letters … then, tentative forays into music-making, song, audio art, and poetry.
Time is the all-important seasoning in my archival recipe. Often sheer embarassment with my perceived lack of talent, frustration at my technical limitations and ineptness, a sense of failing to properly ‘capture’ the moment, all led to a strange sort of ‘forgetting’ at the very moment of remembrance. The audio recording was almost willfully forgotten as soon as it was made. Then it had to pass through a period when it might be erased – recorded over by some other audio experiment. If it survived this gauntlet, it could nestle, for years, then decades, on a bit of tape, in a little cheap cassette carry-all or a cardboard cassette box, as the archive was moved, first from Ontario to Nova Scotia, then to Montreal, then back to Halifax, then to Vancouver, to Montreal, to Halifax, then back to Montreal again. All the while, these ‘forgotten’ moments carried some sort of glamour – ‘glamour’ in the old sense of a kind of magical spell – that prevented their being destroyed.
Not all the recordings remained dormant. My audio archive is always a working archive. Favourite pieces were copied or reworked and sent to friends. When I began to program campus radio shows in 1985, many pieces were aired in the wee hours of the morning, when it was ‘safe’, when only crazy insomniacs might be listening. More recordings were made specifically to be aired on the radio. And the inception of various self-designations – as radio DJ, as poet, as musician, as performance poet, event organizer – led to the creation of more and more audio documents to add to the archive. I often delved into it to create cassette and CDR ‘releases’ which were sold at zine fairs, launch parties and in the Distroboto network of art-dispensing ex-cigarette machines. My most recent such project was the 2008 chapbook / CDR collection, I Am Burdened With A Past: Poetry Recordings1986 – 2006.
Today, as I listen to my oldest recordings, I find myself well past the point of embarassment. In certain cases, what was only noise, audio junk, resolves itself now into found musique concrete. I’m enchanted by the quality of the sound – the unsteady flutter of certain old cassettes, the sudden gaps on crumbling magnetic tape, the hiss of a recording that is the copy of a copy of a copy – and yet is, paradoxically, an ‘original’, because all other copies have been lost to the vagaries of time. How spectral voices, room tones, songs, stories, ambient noises arise from the depths of that interstellar hiss. For a moment, even the dead are resurrected in this space that dwells, mysteriously, in my audio archives. A blind space that is not blind, for the images arise, called by the sounds that stream from my headphones. The stories that tell themselves, and ask to be retold. Small wonder that this project of listening, of preserving old recordings, has led me to write voluminously as well.
I know that it’s futile, ultimately. All those carefully preserved audio moments will disappear, eventually, into the forgetfulness of a culture glutted with such artifacts. But for now I’m happy to have these recordings. They glow like the embers of a fire in the depths of a dark wood.