“Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, “Listen, mate, life has surface noise.”
From September 2010 to February 2011, Duke University's Nasher Art Museum played host to a unique museum exhibit (indeed, the first of its kind) dedicated to vinyl culture. The exhibit, entitled The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl, contained over forty works of art that celebrated both the material and aesthetic qualities of vinyl. Spanning the last fifty years, The Record displayed work from well-known artists (Jasper Johns, Laurie Anderson) alongside emerging art luminaries (William Cordova, Dario Robleto). The pieces themselves transversed various styles and forms: there were ornate collaged paintings that were both tacky and seemingly appropriate, short films which bore witness to acts of vinyl alteration and destruction, and sound installations which challenged our propensity to merely listen when we could also visualize.
At a time when digitally downloaded albums are at an all time high, why did the Nasher choose to celebrate the vinyl record in a contemporary art exhibit? Memorializing cultural objects in museums is, of course, not a new phenomenon. The more interesting question, it seems, concerns what this attention signifies for the cultural medium of the vinyl record? According to the art historian Ernst Gombrich, the illusion of an absence is what enables us as participants to actively construct “an impression of the real.” And in this case, the vinyl record has reached the status of “nostalgic” which renders it both capable of being objectified and culturally significant. Cultural theorist Greg Hainge explains, “The near total eradication of analogue media forms from the listening practices of all but the most nostalgic or purist of auditory subjects” produces a distance which renders the material form and cultural impact of the vinyl record. In response, we erect memory techniques such as museum exhibits so that we do not forget. In this way, nostalgia both produces, and participates in, a medium’s ability to be objectified.
What is it about vinyl that makes it worth memorializing? In fact, some might wonder why you might choose to interact with a medium that has markedly lower quality audio fidelity, in contrast to more widely accessible digitally recorded output. There is much to celebrate in the aesthetics of vinyl that push beyond its simple capacities as a recording medium. For many an audiophile, it is those very cracks and hisses on vinyl that are the pleasing traces of an authenticity made invisible by the digital format. Yet the experience of vinyl records is as much about the physical, material conditions of the specificity of this medium as anything else - indeed, these conditions enable/produce important interactions that go well beyond the audible. One need not look further than the vinyl itself which often uses different colored acetate to provide visual cues about its content (the significance of the pressing, the musical classification scheme, other unique bits of information.) Contrast the difference between viewing album cover artwork, for example, and the miniaturized inserts accompanying compact discs. Or the ability to actually read the liner notes found inside an album cover that can help ferret out lesser-known details about an artist's life or work.
As documentation of cultural heritage, vinyl records present narratives that are audible and visible inscriptions of a particular event. They document a happening. By the same token, they can also represent the absent narrative – what wasn’t recorded or made visible. Memorializing the vinyl record and all that is bound up in its inscriptive forms produces a space where we are able to interact with and in some cases, counter that representation. Indeed, addressing and repairing this invisibility was the focus of several of the pieces in the exhibit. What happens when an artifact is subjected to its own medium to create a new narrative? In Carrie Mae Weems 1989 piece Ode to Affirmative Action(1989), the African-American artist visualizes herself as a singer at the Copacabana nightclub, a setting notorious for racially charged incidents. Using the record cover as a means of producing an alternative narrative, Weems makes a formerly absent voice visible again. She uses the title of the piece, “Live at the Copa” to position the new narrative in direct contestation with the old – so that we are not forgetting what came before but also acknowledging what existed within. Ed Ruscha’s two pieces comment similarly on the legitimacy of the medium. In “Unidentified Hit Record” (1977) and “Hit Record” (1980) the works juxtapose what it means to be memorialized in recorded form. In Christian Marclay’s “Looking for Love”, we recognize the power of the record’s inscription. The film’s concentration on a needle which drags and skips, subject to the movements of an unidentified hand, demonstrates how we, as a listening audience, are bound to its mechanical deciphering.
The collection of artwork by outsider artist Mingering Mike illustrates many pervasive themes in the exhibit: memorialization, narrative, cultural reflection, appropriation, and fantasy. From 1968 to 1977, Mingering Mike created over fifty fictitious “albums” handcrafted out of cardboard and intricately designed to mirror the vinyl record and its unique characteristics. Each record cover painstakingly adheres to the norms of vinyl culture: there are track titles, production credits, record labels, and artwork. Yet under the wing of the Ming/War Productions dynasty, an alternative narrative emerges from the stories told on each cover in the collection. And Mingering Mike has inserted himself front and center into this universe of heroic proportions, as both storyteller and champion. Along with comrades like Audio Andrew and the Big D, Mingering Mike battles good and evil in resolutely different forms: the devil, drugs, war. There are displays of idealized power and strength (“A Tribute to Bruce”, “The Freedom Stompers”, “The Ghetto Prince”). But there are also more subtle, culturally astute displays of observation. In “The Two Sides of Mingering Mike” (1970), Mingering Mike must choose between arming himself with a microphone or a gun. In his 1974 piece “Brother of the Dragon,” a fire-breathing dragon is framed by black power fists. In “Positive Impiety” (1976), Mingering Mike celebrates the nation’s anniversary by inserting himself as a revolutionary-era solider, complete with hairpiece and patriotic garb. In a space formerly reserved in cultural memory for white men, Mingering Mike positions himself in a new discourse to counter an absent representation.
Satch Hoyt’s Celestial Vessel is one of two pieces that was commissioned by the exhibit. Hanging prominently from the ceiling in the Nasher lobby, the 16-foot canoe drew natural light from the windows to appear majestic (at least on sunny days). The work was fashioned from an amalgamation of 1950’s era red-colored 45 rpm records. Museum goers could stand directly underneath the structure to hear recorded sounds from a selection of artists traditionally left out of the musical canon. Hoyt describes the piece as symbolizing the African diaspora and its resulting impact on loss of identity and culture. In his resurrection, Hoyt reunites the dispersion in a visual showing of the strength and unity of collected voices.
Hoyt mentions that as a child growing up in the UK he used to await the arrival of imported American records as the “promise of another world.” In this description, he conveys the ability of music to transport us to a new landscape, to introduce us to the possibility of somewhere else other than here. Such realizations figure prominently into how we configure our world view, but they also demonstrate how the concepts of place and time perform in acts of cultural memory. By its very nature, recorded output can never truly represent a “now moment.” Instead, we can regard the medium as representing two important reflections. On the one hand, we can observe how we see ourselves, rooted in a specific time and place that is documented. At the same time, we are also observed as how we are, made possible by the very fact that we have been documented as an event. What Mingering Mike, Hoyt, and others in the exhibit show us is what happens when that space is seized and interrogated. The commemoration of the vinyl record, as both a culturally significant art form and as a projection of culture itself, is ultimately what makes the exhibit so compelling. We’re not just looking at archaic pieces of acetate, we’re looking at ourselves.