But Is It Art?

January 11, 2010

I caught this little BBC news story (“The cassette comes back as art”) the other day via the Social A/V Archivist’s blog. I clicked through on the link because I thought it might be about the use of tape as an art material. Turns out it was a trend piece on the renaissance of the audiocassette in England, specifically as a medium for sound art. (Silly me for inferring something beyond the controlled vocabulary of “cassette” in the title.)

I was interested in my imagined topic because during some gallery visits this fall I noticed that there was typically at least one piece which included a pile of magnetic tape as one of the materials. 1/4″ tape hanging from a tree. 1/2″ tape strewn on a platform with eggshells mixed in. Cassettes with tape that had been detached from the hub and was spooling on the floor as playing from open faced Walkmans.

I understood some of what they were trying to express through the selection of magnetic tape as material, but it also made me feel sad for the way tape is thought of and treated. Almost every day when I’m walking through the city I see a busted open VHS or audiocassette, its innards sprawling and knotted across the sidewalk. I’ve often wondered if film was ever treated this way, if at some point in mid-century New York film was just such a ubiquitous commodity that people threw it on the street to blow around in the bay winds until it clung to a parking meter or against someone’s leg.

Certainly there has been an overwhelming amount of cultural detritus published on tape, but even the most dog-eared, broken-binding, ripped-cover copy of Let’s Go: France 1988 is placed lovingly on one’s stoop for someone else to pick up and read. Maybe the issue isn’t one of easy disposal of unworthy content, but rather an issue of disrespect for a certain format type. I’ve often wondered if magnetic tape suffers less love because it has no visually noticeable content like film or paper to draw us in. Do some of these resultant attitudes towards tape – that it’s cheap, plastic, replaceable, low quality – only apply to our old UB40 cassette collection, or might it creep into our general attitude towards magnetic media and subconsciously affect how we treat even materials we’re interested in maintaining? And what might this mean for digital files, which we have even less tangible connection to? And c’mon really, eggshells? What does that juxtaposition even have to do with anything?

— Joshua Ranger