In 1957 Samuel Beckett’s first radio play was broadcasted by the BBC’s ‘Third Programme’. Beckett himself was in Paris at the time and the reception was so bad that he ordered the tape with the recording. From then on, he developed an obsession with the idea of time, place and language transmitted through the audio technology. Physical, yet easily destroyable; preserving time and manipulating it, the tape recorder became a symbolic prop in Beckett’s art. The plasticity and the physicality of a tape that can be wound up, reversed, replayed, shredded and erased was a quality that Beckett also explored in the area of language. The relentless pursuit for the tools that can translate the oddest thoughts into language was a life time journey for the Irish writer.
Atom Egoyan, a Canadian film director renowned for his movies concerning themes of displacement and mechanisms of time and memory, has always been fascinated by Beckett and his pursuit to tackle the inexplicable within the brackets of language. Drawn also to the idea of a self-exploration as a film creator, Egoyan often talks on the seductive character of montage, cutting, editing and endless repetition of hauntingly similar processes. Inspired by Beckett’s ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ (1958), one of the most compelling monologues ever written, in 2002 Egoyan created an installation that is an homage to Beckett and to cinema. The title, ‘Steenbeckett’ is a perfectly crafted amalgamation of Beckett and Steenbeck, one of the most famous manufacturers of editing tables in the era of audio recordings. The main character of the play, Krapp is obsessed with revisiting his past through the recordings of his monologues, taken every year on his birthday. Fixated by the past and its manipulation, he falls into madness, enveloped in the echoes of his own words and literally embracing the tape recorder, that Beckett once described as ‘a companion of solitude’.
The installation consists of three rooms, all plunged into darkness so as to emphasize the cinematic experience of the show. As we enter the exhibition, straight away our eyes are drawn to the spectacle of lights and sounds created by two thousand feet of a 35mm celluloid film (with Egoyan’s short film based on ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’) moving through one hundred spindles and travelling across the room. This impenetrable network, with the beginning of the tape highlighted and guiding us through this uncanny roller-coaster, is like a fragile wall that hides the Steenbeck table in the background and Krapp’s performance on a little screen. But with its 3D structure it is also a nod towards the bright and digital future of the cinema. When mesmerized by this spectacle, we can simultaneously hear a projection of the same film coming from the next room. The second, this time a digital screening, may dominate with its loudness and perfect quality of the picture but it loses on the physical oeuvre of the first installation. On the other hand, the close-up, with which we can watch John Hurt’s (playing Krapp) facial expressions of torment, disappointment and an almost deviant attitude towards his tape recorder, is quite striking. Both are complemented by the third, smallest room, which appears as Egoyan’s private chapel devoted to the era of audio technology. Filled with old cinema magazines, manuals on how to use long forgotten tape recorders and rolls of films scattered among this antiquarian mess, we are reminded that the penchant for tangible and magical mediums is not yet dead.