Artist Profile by Rye Holmboe
The invention of the gramophone stimulated a dramatic popularisation of music. The sound of voices and instruments inscribed on a modulated spiral groove led, for the first time, to music’s wide-spread production and consumption. Artists who would have previously been left by the wayside could now make cheap recordings and reach a wide audience. For this same reason, however, music became highly marketable; it became, in a word, commodified. And with the commodification of an art-form comes legislation: author’s rights and copyright law. A medium which in its inception could have led to communicative freedom was, as is always the case, appropriated by the capitalist system, a system, incidentally, which relies on the construction of ‘originality’ and ‘authorship’ to sustain and perpetuate itself. Under the pretext of defending the ‘author’s’ rights, copyright legislation secured profitability. The possibility of communicative freedom was summarily replaced by exchange-value, the qualitative by the quantitative. This not only had a decisive influence on who communicated but also on the very content of that which was communicated, since legislation restricted music’s dissemination.
It is within these reified parameters that Eileen Simpson and Ben White operate. In their latest project, Parallel Anthology, the artists have collected parallel public domain versions of Harry Smith‘s Anthology of American Folk Music. Smith, an eccentric filmmaker, musicologist, anthropologist and ethnographer, compiled the anthology at the request of Moses Asches of Folkway Records, New York City. The Anthology comprised eighty-four music tracks from commercially recorded 78 rpm records that included genres of Appalachian folk, fiddle tunes, gospel, hillbilly and blues. Significantly, these songs were recorded in the brief interval between World War I and the Great Depression, a period when sound recording had not yet reached marginalised populations. So not only did the Anthology present a cultural history of America that had until then been uncharted, it also presented musicians who had been largely unaffected by technological developments in recording. Two points can be deduced from this. Firstly, the various artists had probably not yet heard their music on a recording and so had not been coerced into adapting their sound to new technology. It is important to remember that technological advances decide not only how and what material is recorded but also, in part at least, the very content of that material. So there is, perhaps, a certain technologically unadulterated ‘purity’ to the songs, even if this presupposes an originary unity which may well prove mythical. Secondly, and arguably more importantly, these recordings are remnants of an oral tradition that did not adapt itself to the demands of the market, which itself controls the technological means of production. As such they point to a time before copyright laws when music was borrowed and adapted freely, a time in which the ideological constructions of ‘authorship’ and ‘originality’ had not manifested themselves, at least in the American folkloric tradition.
And this is where Simpson and White’s intervention is of such interest and relevance today, and where the aesthetic becomes inseparable from the political. By making use of songs from the Anthology that have not been closed down by copyright - either because it has expired or because the versions are non-attributed - and inviting artists to cover or remix the music recordings, which in turn will remain copyleft licensed and available to the public on their online Open Music Archive, the artists revive the free dissemination of music. The impact this has is twofold. Not only is old archival material revitalised through contemporary interpretations - call this the aesthetic level - but notions of originality and authorship are destabilised and undermined - call this the ethico-political level. So the tracks become parasitic, not only by re-conceiving old tracks which were themselves endlessly re-conceived in the oral tradition of folk music and whose roots cannot be traced to a fixed origin, but also by opening themselves up to and contaminating interpretations in the future-to-come. The relation of repetition to originality is very much at the heart of the matter in Parallel Anthology.
Link to Open Music Archive - Eddie Lang, April Kisses, MP3, Written by Eddie Lang (1904 - 1933) Performed by Ed Lang (guitar solo with piano)
Simpson and White’s artistic practice may at first sight appear disparate but the same underlying aesthetic, ethical and political concerns impel their earlier projects. In Struggle in Jerash (2008), the result of an artist’s residency in Amman, Jordan, the artists re-animate the first Jordanian feature Struggle in Jerash (1957), a part-gangster part-documentary film based in Jordan and Jerusalem. The film had fallen out of copyright in 2008, the year of the artists’ residencies, allowing for new forms of authorship to emerge outside of the constraints of capitalist ideology or discourse. So, in an almost parodic appropriation of the commercial DVD director’s commentary, curators, artists and critics were invited to comment on the events in the film. These commentaries were then edited and re-assembled in a multi-voiced soundtrack. Each spectator had in a sense turned author. What is more, the film acquires a considerable historical and political valence since visual recordings of Jordan from the period are all held in British archives and reflect British perspectives. Struggle in Jerash, however, contains some of the only footage taken from a Jordanian point of view of a country besieged by civil unrest (1957 - the year the Anglo-Jordan treaty ended, effectively freeing Jordan from British economic and military rule - saw the radical Nasserites attempt to overthrow King Hussein and the consequent imposition of martial law). So, again, the point here is as much aesthetic as it is political.
Similarly, in a work entitled The Brilliant & The Dark, currently on view at The Women’s Library at the London Metropolitan University, Simpson and White use archival material from the library of an opera written by Ursula Vaughan Williams (with a score by Malcolm Williamson), which was originally performed by 1000 women volunteers at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969. Under the direction of the artists, members of the Gaggle choir were asked re-enact scenes basing themselves on a collection of archival photographs documenting the event. The result is surreal and evocative, with images of women dressed in costumes reminiscent of the sculptures of Lynn Chadwick singing a strange hybrid of operatic and electronic music. And it seems as though repetition has a double resonance for Simpson and White: repetition means not only the act of repeating but also the act of rehearsing, and so of preparing for future enactment. Hence the work paradoxically forecloses closure. In so doing the artists call into question all so-called ‘primary’ notions of ‘originality’ or ‘singularity’ in the artwork. After all, they seem to say, the first is not the first if there isn’t a second to follow it.
The Brilliant and The Dark from Open Music Archive on Vimeo.
Eileen Simpson and Ben White live and work in London. Their recent projects include: Parallel Anthology (17th Biennale of Sydney); The Brilliant and the Dark (The Women’s Library, London) Struggle in Jerash (Gasworks, London); Outlet, (Coleman’s Project Space, London) Nought-to-Sixty (ICA, London); Declose (Disclosures, Gasworks, London); Stop. Move (Loose Booty, London/Geneva/Zurich); Clips Blips and Loops (Who Makes And Owns Your Work, Stockholm); Free-to-air (Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK); Screen Tests (in collaboration with Marysia Lewandowska & Neil Cummings British Art Show 6), and Leverage (Futuresonic, Manchester)
Eileen Simpson and Ben White initiated Open Music Archive www.openmusicarchive.org/projects