Various Artists – Handle With Care (Sabotage Recordings, 1996)

Sabotage Recordings was an electronic music label run by Robert Jelinek from 1995 until 1999, at which point its remaining inventory was melted down and used for the dance floor at Vienna’s nightclub, Flex. As that stunt might suggest, apart from releasing electronic music of various stripes, Sabotage also acted as a form of conceptual collective known for insidious pranks.

Jelinek and co. have concocted several past social experiments. Once, they concealed microphones in a private members club and broadcast the conversations publicly via speakers posted outside the building. On another occasion, they swapped out the guided-tour audio for an exhibition at a local art museum with audio about various art heists. They also once replaced the telephone book in a phone booth in Linz, Germany with ones from Linz, Austria.

The Sabotage Recordings label has also been home to its fair share of experiments. One particularly memorable occasion was a compilation, Handle With Care, which came out in 1996.

The back tray insert, complete with subtle warning regarding the virus.

Featuring a few artists affiliated with Sabotage and some one-offs (Zink and Line, for example, were obscure pseudonyms of a producer named Markus Brand), Handle With Care was, by Jelinek’s description, “very repetitive, loop-like” electronic music. What was interesting about it was that it came booby-trapped with a “friendly virus” which, when played in a CD-ROM drive, prevented the listener from opening the drive up to remove the CD. According to Jelinek, this virus was created by “local hackers from the Chaos Club Berlin” and was set to deploy once the first track was played. He also tells me the only way to rescue the CD was to find and trigger the manual release button on one’s CD-ROM drive. “There was no menu, no manual, no preparation,” he explains. “Program started automatically.”

Jelinek compares this booby-trapped CD to Merzbow’s famous, limited-to-one-copy Merzcar release, a fabled CDR of noise that came inside a car! According to the story, the owner of the Releasing Eskimo label, which put out Merzbow’s Noisembryo album, owned an out-of-commission Mercedes that the police had ordered him to move. So he decided to entice Merzbow fans to take his problem off his hands by rigging up the car’s CD player to play Noisembryo indefinitely, modifying the stereo to prevent users from turning it off or removing the disc. He then promoted Merzcar as an ultra-limited-edition Merzbow goodie. The interested customer was required to buy the whole car in order to obtain the CD, representing the apotheosis of elaborate packaging feats! Jelinek reflects that, much like the Merzcar, which is locked into a car stereo, doomed to be played on repeat for eternity, Handle With Care has “a romantic motive behind it: a piece of music inseparable, forever. Implemented with the technical know-how of the time.”

Back of the CD.

Jelinek tells me a bit more about customers’ experiences with the album. “It was often a nasty surprise for the ignorant and there was a need for explanation. The handling of computer viruses was new at the time and accordingly one was awkward but also careful.” He explains that people who knew that track one was booby-trapped would know they had to start the CD at track two.

Handle with Care was also given as a mean gift,” he recalls. “And some club owners contacted us because DJs played this CD and they didn’t know how to get it out of their devices. And again, it was about our patterns of action in dealing with technology, trust and manipulation.”

It’s no coincidence that the label’s name was Sabotage, and it’s an idea that Jelinek has carried forward long past the end of the formal imprint. In 2003, he established a sovereign state called State of Sabotage:

 The State of Sabotage (SoS) was founded as a sovereign state in 2003 on the unpopulated island Harakka in Finland by the Austrian artist ROBERT JELINEK. Even before it had existed the end of the state had already been planned and set for August 30 2013. Exactly after ten years. Independently from the exhibition date the validity of all documents such as SoS passports and ID cards ends with August 30th 2013.

from Jelinek’s website,

That state, destined to be sabotaged from the start, was, indeed, shut down on its intended date, but not before issuing passports and ID cards, and corresponding with the United Nations.

Though Handle With Care was one of many Jelinek-initiated acts of sabotage, it’s a particularly pithy one. A CD that commandeers your computer and plays itself endlessly — in today’s era of unlimited musical choice, such a state of sabotage is almost unthinkable.

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