WHAT FOLLOWS is a the text of an interview conducted via e-mail in October 1994, shortly before Lloyd Dunn was to depart on a long visit to Europe. No one was sure when, or even if, he would come back …
1. What is the status of the Tape-beatles at this point? Do you think they’ll ever produce anything as a group again?
It’s hard to say. As the main center of the group began to migrate off a couple of years ago, I began thinking it was time to move on, you know, begin the difficult process of letting go of something that has been a major force in your live for 6 or 7 years. So I’m ready to let go of it, but at the same time, if something gets done that’s absolutely Tape-beatle in scope or content or whatever, I’ve got no problem with putting it out at Tape-beatle work.
Basically, the Tape-beatles are not together at this point, living in far-flung places, so as long as that is the case, I guess we don’t exist. But Ralph and I are working on collaborating through the mail. The work may be totally different. We don’t know yet, it’s too early to say. John at this point is not well equipped, I think, to do audio art where he’s at right now (Prague) but if he were, he’d be welcome to join in.
2. How has the philosophy and/or the techniques of the group changed over time? How would you characterize the progress from A Subtle Buoyancy of Pulse, the first Tape-beatles release, up to The Grand Delusion?
We began doing work that we thought would define a new (or at least unexplored thoroughly) medium, that of audio tape. Since John, Ralph, and I (it was us 3 who really founded the group, Paul and then Linda joining later) were all visual artists (Ralph the only one of us having serious musical experience) we approached tape in that way. We made collages, we cut things up, we ‘disrespected’ the technology to a certain extent, as part of an effort to coax something really different out of it. We were enthralled with the esthetics of discovery, if you will. We felt that some of our ‘mistakes’ were really interesting foundations for good work. We wanted the medium to ‘speak’ to us and ‘collaborate’ with us, in the sense that the material itself often provided the inspiration for a piece.
As we kept on making work, we simply became more adept at manipulating the equipment, and we began accumulating a repertoire of Tape-beatle ‘effects’ and techniques which, if we indeed have one, became our trademark. We also paid more attention to a different level that even our crudest pieces seemed to have: which I will call their ‘musical’ quality if you will. I think that, just as human beings tend to anthropomorphize most things (look at a 3-prong outlet receptacle, and it seems to be a surprised human face) I also think we tend to ‘linguisticize’ sounds; and when the sounds don’t actually have ‘linguistic’ significance (conventional meaning), our heads hear music instead of language. It has been demonstrated that music and language are processed in the same portion of opposite sides of the brain, so something distinctly homologous between language and music is going on in our interpretation of sounds.
Anyway, we began to emphasize the ‘musical’ qualities of our works, and we consciously tried not to lose the qualities of our first works that we liked (the fast pace, the variety, the bright sound, the mixing of sounds so that each can be heard pretty distinctly, the almost ‘cinematic’ cutting style, etc.). So by the time you get to Music with Sound, some of the pieces on it do not have words, and are more or less purely musical works.
The Grand Delusion takes that whole process a step further, and nests the found language in musical settings that work very well as music, in my opinion. Anyone who hears our three works in succession has to hear that there is a lot of development going on between the works across time.
3. How much actual collaboration was there within the group and how did a typical piece (if there is such a thing) develop?
Well, I think that there was just about the right amount of collaboration in our work. And just about the right amount of individual work, as well.
Usually the process worked this way: One of us would come up with an idea for a piece, and create a sketch on 4-track cassette. We had weekly meetings for a long time when we listened to works in progress and these new sketches. Each of us would be hearing this work, initiated by one of us, at its earliest stage of development. We’d react to it, and say what we thought should be emphasized in the piece, or what direction it should take. Or we’d suggest something that another of us had been working on that might work really well with the new sketch. Or one of us might have some source material that we think would work really well with the new sketch.
At this point, the piece would stay in the hands of whoever initiated the sketch, or he’d pass it onto someone else to work with it, or the meeting would turn into a studio session and we’d all begin working on in right then and there.
Some pieces were really entirely, start to finish, the work of one Tape- beatle. But most of the time, the pieces reflect the input of all of us in some way or another.
4. Who’s responsible for the films used for the Tape-beatle performances?
For the most part, me. Some of these divisions of labor came down to who was best suited to take on these tasks. Since I have a background in film studies, and I have a lot of 16mm equipment and the skills needed to use it, and since I love to edit film, I took on this task.
5. You published zines, either Photostatic, Retrofuturism, or YAWN, almost continuously for about ten years, correct? What made you stop, and do you forsee doing more someday?
Well, I stopped for a few reasons. I felt like it was taking up all my time, and I wanted to do some other things, as well. Just answering the mail and keeping up with orders ate up several evenings a week and most Saturdays. So I needed to lighten that burden. Also, I feel like I’ve done what I’d set out to do in zine publishing, that is, create a forum for like minded folks to get together, share ideas, look at work, and respond to each other directly (through the mail) because of it. I suppose it would be better if such a project went on forever, but I didn’t have the energy to go another 10 or even 5 years. I had a lot of fun and satisfaction from it while I was on top of things, but I could see that I was being too distracted by other ideas for things I wanted to try out to really give publishing all my energy for much longer.
6. Let’s discuss copyright, Plagiarism, and such. So far, despite your fierce anti-copyright stance, you and the Tape-beatles have avoided any legal troubles. This seems to be due to the group’s ‘underground’ status, and the appropriation of rather obscure or public domain material. Do you foresee yourself taking more risks in the future with more ‘high-profile’ source material? What do you envision happening if you do someday become faced with litigation?
Well, let’s get one thing straight: our purpose is not to get sued. What we want to do is make good work (if you want to call it art or music, it makes me no never mind). So if by this question you mean do we intend to really take the bull by the horns as it were, well, no, not specifically. If it happens, it happens. I could happen already, based on work we already have out there. It hasn’t and I think it’s because of two things you mentioned in your question: 1) we use obscure material, mostly; and 2) we’re too far underground, as yet. I might add a 3) we process our samples a lot so that they’re often not similar in the end to their sources; and a 4) we don’t have ‘deep pockets,’ which means that anybody suing us couldn’t get much (other than, perhaps, moral satisfaction).
I have a small plan in the back of my head as to what I’d probably do if we were sued. I’d do a media blitz (to the limit of my abilities, financial and otherwise). I’d get all my zine publishing friends to do angry editorials, and get them and their readers to write angry (but rational, hopefully) letters and opinions with regard to why they believe this is a moral act. Beyond that, I’d improvise with the situation, I’d do everything I could not to knuckle under to some agreement, such as turning over the masters or destroying undistributed copies. But realistically, there’s probably not much I could do to avoid this. I’d like to have a day in court, but as a purely practical matter it might not be feasible.
7. Specifically what needs to be changed in copyright law?
Well it needs to be loosened a bit, and not be so limiting to the extent that people who want to make work that clearly does not damage the standing or the market or the livelihood of another artist, may do so. Fair use needs to be opened up, so that, not only is it ok to quote for purposes of scholarship, research, or review, it must be alright to dismantle, disassemble, deconstruct, and recompose existing recorded sounds, texts and moving images into new works, which did not exist before their creator made them, and which bear more strongly the mark of the artist doing the borrowing than the artist borrowed from.
8. What will happen to the Iowa Chapter of the Copyright Violation Squad when you leave for France? Are there still a lot of requests for copies of the Negativland or John Oswald works?
The rate of requests has slacked off quite a lot; I get about 3-6 requests per month at this point. After I leave for France, I presume that any requests that straggle in will be returned to the sender by the post office.
As for the ASCW and the CVS, well, they probably won’t set up shop in France; however, they might be re-instituted at some point, depending on what I want to do with my work at that time and what my resources are. I don’t rule out a CVS-Bordeaux as of yet.
9. You’ve mentioned before that someone in California is working on a film about plagiarism (his name eludes me at the moment). Who is this and when is it supposed to be completed?
Actually two separate California filmmakers are working on this subject. Craig Baldwin (San Francisco CA) is doing a film on Negativland, and throwing in a lot of other material on plagiarism (including, possibly, an interview with the Tape-beatles), and Owen O’Toole (Berkeley CA) is doing a feature called ‘The Plagiarist’ in which a scene may appear that I helped him shoot in Iowa City on Flag Day, 1994.
10. Recently the pop-techno-dance group the Orb used some Tape-beatles material without crediting it. What are your feelings on this and what for you would have been the ideal way for them to go about Plagiarizing the Tape-beatles?
You know what, Steev? I don’t want to say anything about this in print because I haven’t actually heard the Orb record. I’m too cheap to actually buy it, too.
11. Of course many comparisons can be made between the work of the Tape-beatles and John Oswald’s Plunderphonic works, and you’ve mentioned that he was a big inspiration. What to you is the difference between Plunderphonics and Plagiarism?
In my opinion the techniques are largely the same, that is, using the tape recorder and recording studio as if they were musical instruments, using fairly conventional audio production techniques and technologies; placing some emphasis on the sensual nature of sounds so that ‘good sound quality’ whatever that really means is an important consideration; trying to use these conventional techniques in new configurations. Where the Tape-beatles tend to forefront a content that comes from the literary or poetic qualities of the work (that is, the words), Oswald’s content seems often inherent and self-referential to the source of the work. In some sense his content is derived from the text of the music, you see. These are importantly different tendencies in audio art. I will explain.
The Tape-beatles (hereinafter ‘we’) like to make ‘issue’ pieces, where we find somebody’s voice saying something on tape, and work with that tape until it discloses something that is either ‘hidden’ information or somehow pertinent to ‘our’ view of the world. Oswald (hereinafter ‘he’) is more like a ‘fine’ artist, I guess. His ‘Pretender’, based on Dolly Parton’s recording of ‘The Great Pretender’ is a case in point. Her voice is gradually slowed down, turning from her signature soprano into a quite credible tenor. The content of the work is a play on the title ‘Pretender’ in that the vocal bends its gender in the process. So for me, the content is somehow inherent in the recording itself, and doesn’t come from a world outside of the world posited by the recording. (In film parlance, the content might be called ‘diegetic’.) We tend to bring content from the outside world into our works to put forth our critique or our view of the world. The content of our work, I would say, is a response to culture every bit as much as it is a creative response to the source material. In the strictest sense, Oswald is responding to ‘culture’ by responding to recorded music as source material in the first place, but I think in a broader interpretation, my above claim becomes more meaningful. Oswald’s clearest and most salient response is to the music that is his source material. He reshapes the works of others to make them his own (and theirs at the same time, in a paradoxical way). His is not strictly a parody or gesture at parody, although I think that that’s an element in some of his work. Our work is occasionally parodic in this sense, but more salient in our work is irony, I believe.
12. Is Plagiarism or copy culture in general ‘justified’ by its subversive role in culture? (or does it even need justification?) In other words, a lot of the art of appropriation is using the act of appropriation to comment on upon its source material— it has a social or political agenda that it expresses by recycling culture. But if appropriation is used simply as a tool for making more pop music or art, is it in a way less forgivable? Or does it almost automatically contain a subversive element?
Well, it goes further toward ‘suggesting’ radicalism than it does at actually achieving it. Anybody with both a tape deck and a cd player at home is subversive in that they’ve probably made copies of their cds onto tape without giving it a second thought. This activity scratches at the base of the embankments and bastions of copyright, gradually eroding our society’s respect for the principles it espouses, eventually, I guess, causing it to crumble. This is subversion. To be quite self-critical, it is possible for me to feel that we’ve taken on radicalism and subversion as a style, almost, as a call to others to be subversive in this way. It’s a mode and not a deep reality for us. We all work day jobs, we collect paychecks. We buy cds and other culture just like everyone else. We participate in the galaxy of notions we most stridently criticize. It can be no other way. The mechanisms are all- encompassing, and over arch themselves. They claim to be the source of all and the reason for everything’s existence. Five Iowans are not, by themselves going to destroy this edifice. On the other hand, where I think we do some good is by pointing out to our listeners that it’s possible (at the very least) to think about our society and its mechanisms in a different way, and thereby not wholly succumb to its flickering promise of comfort and prosperity, and make some effort to enrich our internal lives, as well as our external lives.
13. I’ve heard that Negativland and its label Seeland Media Media hopes to become sort of a central home-base for appropriators and cultural recyclers everywhere. What do you think of this idea? Do you think Oswald and/or the Tape-beatles may someday ‘join forces’ with Negativland?
Seems like a good idea. I talked to Mark Hosler about it and he felt like it was a good way for the cultural producers of this sort to receive more of the dividends from their work, instead of so much of it being sucked up by a record label. On the other hand, the producers actually have to bear the expenses of production and duplication themselves, so some (like the Tape- beatles) probably cannot at this point afford to participate. As for joining forces with Negativland, I’m not opposed to it, but I haven’t heard a concrete proposal yet. In other words, it depends on the nature of the project and its internal power structure and all those bothersome details.
14. What creative work are you planning for the future?
I want to focus more on composing and other time-based media, possibly with the idea of working on a film or video eventually.
15. Anything else you want to mention?
Well, since I’m moving to France (to engage my ongoing sub-project of living an interesting life) I will not be able to keep up with my correspondence to the extent that I used to (postage is a lot more expensive over there and I’m not sure how long my money will last).