From one highly obscure corner of the sound art world, I bring you a cassette that uses the sound of breaking tapes as its source.
In 1998, Ven Voisey and Andrew Campbell were studying together at San Francisco State University’s Conceptual Information Arts Program, which the school charmingly refers to as the CIA Program. Both Voisey and Campbell were experimental composers and artists. “We were both in very exploratory points of developing artwork/sound/music,” Voisey tells me via email.
Around this time, Voisey ran a record label called Throat in partnership with several creative friends. “Throat came together as a means for myself and a few friends to release sound projects and collaborate on compilations, and to occasionally perform in different ensembles.”
He explains that Throat had three “eras.” The first one was the t-series, which started with a compilation called errorCycle, allocated catalog number t0000. Another release from that era was 8L, a collection of “ambient recordings taken from living spaces as source material, then modified by the inhabitant,” by Voisey recording under the mysterious handle iot.
Throat’s second era saw the creation of a net-label named throat hz, while its third and final incarnation involved the production of a handful of 3″ CD-Rs. At that point, Voisey was also working with Chico MacMurtrie’s Amorphic Robot Works project, a collaboration between engineers and artists to create robotic sculptures.
Voisey remembers Plastic Memory Value starting life as a project for a class that he and Campbell were taking. “I’m a little fuzzy on some of these details,” he admits. “Which is just about perfect for the content of this project.”
He recalls the creation process as being relatively simple. “A microphone was used to capture the cracking of the tape case and unravelling and breaking of the tape,” he explains. “That recording was then used by both Andrew [Campbell] and myself as source material to create two distinct compositions : one was side A and one was side B of Plastic Memory Value“
As I ask him about the significance of a recording about destroying physical media, Voisey explains that I’ve got it wrong. “I think the inspiration for Plastic Memory Value had less to do with destruction of media and more to do with ephemerality of memory,” he reflects.
Voisey points out that Campbell, at the time, was reading the work of two authors. One was the economist Jacques Attali, author of Noise: The Political Economy of Music, which examines the history of music to show how capitalist forces are constantly turning music into a commodity — though Attali ultimately predicts that people are destined to reclaim the process of music production. The other author was the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, whose major work, Simulacra and Simulation, argues that society has replaced all meaning with symbols and signs, leading to our experience being a simulation of reality.
“In general Andrew was and is a hell of a lot smarter and more well read than I am,” Voisey says. “Both of us were pretty into exploring the idea of disembodied memory. I was deeply into Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape, which basically consists of a man rummaging through a pile of tapes to play back passionate rambling bits of his life to himself in circular poetic language… and lots of space and tape manipulation (moving back and forth through speech). Still love that play.”
The idea behind Plastic Memory Value was that customers were supposed to listen to the tape once, then destroy it. “And listeners were invited to continue the process of recording and re-compose the sound of that tape breaking,” Voisey points out. As Voisey points out, the goal is to create a chain of artistic action, from one person to the next. “We were both interested in taking a medium used to hold a memory of sound — in this case, the cassette tape — and creating a circumstance in which a disembodied memory could be passed to another person, or group of people and experienced; [they then partake] in the same action which originally generated the source sounds, which makes that transference of experience/memory have a sort of visceral finality.”
Voisey tells me they staged one performance of Plastic Memory Value as part of their class, playing the cassette and the breaking it after it played. “I think we got an A on the project,” he laughs. “The audience appreciated it, but the critique didn’t go too deep.”
He isn’t sure how many of the customers who received a copy of Plastic Memory Value chose to destroy their copy after playing it. From a collector’s perspective, it can be hard to justify ruining a tape. “We did an initial very limited release with a handmade cardboard sleeve and bits of the tape wound around the cardboard, then did the slightly later Throat release with the plastic shell and vellum cover in 1999. It had a pretty limited release and I mostly gave copies to friends and a handful of people around the globe that somehow found us. It’s possible I gave copies to folks over at Vital Weekly, which ended up being one of the main reviewers of throat releases, grateful for those folks.
“I was pretty terrible at running a label, but regardless, some of the things we put out were nice, so glad a few people got their hands and ears on them. And my own take? I liked it, it was an idea worth exploring and I enjoyed sharing ideas and sounds with Andrew. It was a visceral percussive satisfying texture to work with, and that aspect of it certainly stays with me.”
The ideas raised by Plastic Memory Value have been through lines in Voisey’s artistic career, in particular the way it encourages active listening. “We were asking listeners to destroy the cassette afterward, making that playback more ephemeral, and consequently, perhaps more valuable; a way of situating a listener into a circumstance of active listening — albeit through an act of violence/destruction which I might approach differently now … Active listening as a means of entering the present moment remains a practice of mine, and it still functions as a primary tool for creating work. My work now involves a lot of call and response: listening to environmental sounds, responding/mimicking with voice, recording, layering, playback, using the recording as an instrument.
Voisey isn’t sure if he still has a copy of Plastic Memory Value. There aren’t many in existence. But if he does have it, he can’t get it now. “I have a copy of most of the Throat releases in storage in the basement of a building in Massachusetts,” he says. “I am, however, currently in California.”
Thanks to Ven Voisey for the interview. Ven Voisey’s recent happenings are documented on his website. All images are taken from archived versions of the throat website (formerly throat.org), except where otherwise credited.