“The only evidence that this conversation ever took place here is the recording, and if those recordings where altered at your discretion, then that would be the only record. The past only exists in some record of it, right? There are no facts.”
(William S. Burroughs, in conversation with Gerard Malanga, July 1974)
Dani, one of your central works is the “Historical Record Archive”, a collection of public speeches, radio broadcasts, and interviews published on vinyl records. Is there a certain pattern to what kinds of events are recorded and published as audio documents?
Most of them are speeches at special events which later proved to be historical, important. But there are also other major events from different years that became news around the world. I have, for example, a record of a terrible earthquake in California. I do not know if a lot of catastrophes and failures have been published. Normally, it is the successes that are published. I think the biggest documented failure that I have is Nixon’s resignation on TV. In this context the history of documentation of the civil rights movement in America is also interesting. Because the speeches and events were not officially broadcast on radio in the U.S., African Americans had to find their own means of documentation, production, and distribution. Later, hip-hop DJs sampled those recordings. Most of these recordings glorify people who were supposedly important and historically significant. Often I am not all that interested in the original intention of a published recording. It first becomes interesting for me when there are sounds, voices, or comments from everyday people included. You find it, for example, on a recording from 09 November 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell. You can feel and hear the excitement of people who were there. Another example is a recording from Israel, in which people complain about housing and emigration problems. I found it very touching to listen to people who are not significant in historical terms, but who have been immortalized on a record, so one can listen to them again and again. It is not just a voice; it is a moment that was recorded together with all the sounds and noises of the street.
Now, that we are talking about the sounds and noises included on recordings of historical events or in the background of public speeches, a question: Is there a difference between sound and language? Is language a specific kind of sound, and at what point does sound provide information?
In voiceoverhead, a sound performance project in collaboration with Achim Lengerer, we play parts of the Historical Record Archive but treat the sounds in a formal way. We are interested in the content, but we try to ignore it and focus on the atmosphere that the recording creates. The listener’s relationship to the time of the recording becomes emotional. While rehearsing for the performances, we went back and forth between the sound quality of the recorded event and the voice of the speaker.
In addition, the age of your recordings and the way the material was recorded often add another layer of sound. You can hear cracklings, distortion, indistinct bits of speech, and background noise. The language sometimes turns back into sound. So we find different levels of information on those recordings. There is the content of a speech, then the specific performance of the speech by a speaker, the background sounds of the recording, and then also the changes to the recording over time, which sometimes pushes the content into the background, but it is still there.
The content is always there because in recorded material the sound quality is also specific. You can feel the room, the situation in which the recording took place, the time and the quality of the recording devices. For me, this makes it more interesting to listen to vinyl records than, for example, to read historical speeches. I find it interesting to listen to the situation that was documented.
Perhaps people in general find it interesting. One would rather listen to an audio document, or maybe watch some video footage, because one thinks it is more real or authentic.
The question of authenticity comes up when one starts to ask how information is being relayed and when documented events are conveyed through different mediums. As opposed to a written speech, recorded audio material gives the performative aspect of a speaker. It is a record of something that happened. One part is the speech, and another is the sounds in the background. The ambience of a room re-animates the event. It can really put you in the situation. The title of the video work Nothing Here but the Recordings is taken from William S. Burroughs and is similar to the quotation we used at the beginning of the transcript of this conversation.
The quote leads also to a differentiation between recorded, archived, and selected or published material and information. An event which is not documented might be forgotten after a while. But even if an event is documented, if it is not published it may be forgotten as well. Another level is therefore the selection of recorded material before it is published.
Yes, of course, all the recordings in my collection are selections of material; some of them are obvious propaganda and others reveal political leanings. The selection reflects who was in power. It shows how the person doing the selecting wants to influence the memory of the people and how collective memory is constructed. The work The Talking Mountain of Israel addresses the question of the archive and the selection of material from the opposite direction. The work is a reconstruction of the first Israeli TV show. The broadcast consisted of a slide show of a journalist’s photos of different people, sites, and national events at that time. The purpose of this broadcast was to test the audio and video reception quality in different areas of the country. I found a paragraph about this in a history book and then started to read the papers from that period. I interviewed the people involved and eventually gained access to the photo archive that holds the photos used in the program. There is enough evidence that this broadcast took place, and yet the artwork is still a construction because the people involved could not remember the exact content of the broadcast, which was not documented. What I did is an interpretation of an actual event on the basis of small pieces of information. So there is a gap between the document I created and the actual event from forty years ago. This is the gap I am interested in. Another aspect would be the relationship between found imagery and accompanying spoken or written information, which I dealt with in the installation The New Terrorism. It is a genuine American educational school kit from the 1970s incorporating a series of slides and a vinyl record explaining the slides. The installation de-synchronizes the text from the image and leaves the combination of image and text to chance. The discrepancy between the recorded lesson and the slides opens up a space to question the authenticity of the lesson’s content.
The selection of documentation material is also an interpretation of events. Your video “Nothing Here but the Recordings”, which you mentioned earlier, is a short documentary on a sound technician who recorded the first seven hours of the “Yom Kippur War” in 1973. In your film the technician listens to the pure, unselected audio material again and remembers the situation more than thirty years later. Maybe one can only interpret such an audio document after a certain period of time.
The material that he recorded forms an interesting contrast with one of the records in my collection. It is a double album of the Six-Day War in Israel, which was issued in the tens of thousands of copies in Israel in 1967. It was very popular after the war – one of those victory albums which show the success of the war; but in fact it was a complete propaganda product. After the Six-Day War in Israel the people were very euphoric about the country’s power. The recordings of Avi Yaffe in Nothing Here but the Recordings show the trauma that lies in the aural memory of war. These recordings of the Yom Kippur War contrast with the Six-Day War recordings not only because the content of the recordings is partly a critique of the behavior of the army and a description of a terrible war, but also because they are constructed differently. It is unedited material that was never published versus an officially edited and distributed record. In one part of my work I take all those very well-constructed and published materials and reconstruct and reconfigure them in different ways, either by disconnecting the material or by taking parts out of context. This is the difference between an artist and a journalist, who has to be current and provide information.
There is often a big difference between the raw documentation material and the final media product. This conversation between you and me will also be transcribed and edited, the order of parts might be changed, and finally we might end up with only a small part of the original conversation, which will be considerably different from the original recording. The documentation materials we normally come across in the media are processed and finished products.
I think we have simply learned to do this and are used to consuming information in this way. No one would broadcast seven hours of war on the radio, though in my opinion it would be much more interesting to listen to that than to two minutes of news. But people need a headline and brief information to grasp and remember things.
Remembering things — that brings us back to “Nothing Here but the Recordings” and “Avi Yaffe’s memories of the first hours of the war”, prompted by the audio recordings. The experience of an event is often quite subjective. We often only remember minor parts of an event, such as the wind in the trees during a public speech because the speech itself did not interest us so much in that moment. If a person listens to the raw material of a recording again, he can still select the information in his own subjective way, and maybe remember something completely different that stands out, rather than something that is logically selected or important.
Yes, we could remember a feeling. Achim Lengerer and I are trying to bring out these qualities in the voiceoverhead performances. We play sounds from historical events, emphasizing the ambience of each event to give the listener a feeling for it. Memory as a feeling — one might think of Proust in this context. I think such feelings are very important for the creation of collective memory. I am very interested in the relationship between collective and personal memory. Some of the works, such as Nothing Here but the Recordings and Keiner schiebt uns weg (Nobody Pushes Us Away), try to show collective memory that functions as personal memory, and vice versa.
In your video “Oscillations”, the juxtaposition of the rehearsal of a punk band with an adaptation of the last scene of the film “Stalker” by Andrei Tarkovsky also deals with the perception of events and the influence of subjective feelings on perception. The scene suggests that the stalker’s daughter possesses telekinetic powers, showing her slowly moving a glass, without touching it, to the edge of a table until it falls down. Why is this telekinesis scene at the end of the film Stalker? The girl does not play a role in the film at all. The scene seems to function as a symbol for the entire film. It documents something which we all know does not happen, which is not possible. The viewer experiences impossibility.
In Tarkovsky’s Stalker it is not clear whether the glass is moving because of the train, which one can hear in the background, or because of the telekinetic abilities of the girl. The scene by Tarkovsky is based on footage of Nina Kulagina, a famous Russian practitioner of telekinesis. In Oscillations I juxtapose the telekinesis with the image of a punk band in a rehearsal room that used to be a Nazi bunker; the image is shaky because the camera was resting on the amplifier. Here, too, it is unclear what makes the glass move. In another work I refer to Solaris, also by Tarkovsky; I called the work How to Convert a Scientific Problem into a Banal Love Story. Its structure is similar to that of The New Terrorism — a record plays without any direct relation to a moving image. It refers to the scene in Solaris, in which the cosmonauts talk about hanging strips of paper at the ventilation system of the spaceship in order to remind them of the wind on Earth. I filmed flapping paper strips on a vent, and next to it I played a 1970s record that features leaves blowing in the wind. The record is a kind of alternative hippy product which comes with the instruction to listen to it at low volume. It was made to help people to relax, to concentrate, and even to have better sex. I filmed the image without sound and played the sounds from the record. Sometimes it felt as if the sound came from the film; at other times the two sources were completely disconnected. The record was supposed to have a real recording of wind, and the paper was just supposed to fake the wind, but the perception was the other way around.
In terms of reality and sound, we can also think of radio waves. You cannot see them, but they are always present. Yet they only materialize as a radio broadcast if there is a receiver available. Sound material is sent out into the world, but if nobody turns on the radio and nobody listens to it, then it is not there. It is lost.
This is the tragedy of the radio DJ. The DJ performs, but maybe no one is listening.
It is also an interesting symbol for the availability and existence of information. The documentation is one thing, but the material always needs a receiver to come to life and be present. If no one reads a book or newspaper, or listens to the radio or to the recordings in your collection, it is forgotten, it does not exist.
As part of the work The Talking Mountain of Israel, I presented a newspaper article about what I call the frequency war. The article says that the Israeli antennae are stronger than those of the surrounding countries. Of course, radio frequencies can cross national borders and infiltrate the other side with information. This is a demonstration of power at the level of conveying information. When I was a kid, a lot of homes in Israel could receive Jordanian television. The Jordanians used to have a news program in Hebrew. It was obviously some kind of propaganda to present the news in our own language with a foreign accent from the other side of the border. For me, as a little kid, it was always a bit strange. The shows had a very friendly tone and used specific expressions in Hebrew to show that they were familiar with the mindset of the other society.
By the way, this was also the case at the time of the former GDR. West German television was not allowed to be broadcast in the GDR, and yet, of course, the people could pick up the signals. Sound and information can always cross borders in some way.
Yes, especially when the border is so ridiculously unnatural. Is that the reason why they built the television tower at Alexanderplatz so high? The ball of the tower is huge; it became a symbol of Berlin. But maybe they also wanted to show their power over broadcasting, the media control.
This interview was first published in the exhibition catalogue Freisteller, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin. (c) The authors and Deutsche Bank. Frankfurt/Main, 2009.