Public Works Productions

Transcript of Interview on Free Radio Berkeley, May 13, 1997

Casual Quarter with Public Works

Disk reviews

Minneapolis Summit (EP)

Numbers (EP)

Good Times (CD)

Matter (CD)

The Grand Delusion (CD)

Music with Sound (CD)

A subtle buoyancy… (CD)

Show reviews

The Chicago Reader

at the Empty Bottle

at the ATA Gallery

at Illinois State U


Artpaper (Philip Blackburn)

Icon (Todd Kimm)

Tractor (Steve Perkins)

Synergy (Steev Hise)

E-mail (Erik Benndorf)

Radio Free Berkeley

X Magazine (G. Daniels)

Vital (Anton Viergever)


Daily Iowan (1) (2) (3)

Neo (Beth Lucht)

Keyboard (Mark Dery)

Pulse (Paul Ashby)

Montreal Mirror (B. Kelly)

C.R. Gazette (D. Rexroat)

Artpaper (L. Roberts)

Black Book (Anuj Desai)

Hosted by Your Moderator with Wobbly (Peter Conheim and Jon Leidecker) on Free Radio Berkeley, 104.1 FM, Berkeley, Calif.


Peter Conheim: We’re very proud and happy to have in the studio tonight on the Space Platform: Public Works —Lloyd Dunn and Ralph Johnson, previously known as the Tape-beatles. They’re in town to do a series of shows, screening films that they’ve constructed to accompany the work on their last two albums. But we should begin with a discussion of the origin of the Tape-beatles. How did the members meet?

Lloyd Dunn: Ralph and I were roommates in Iowa City when we were college students, back in the 80s. We were interested in working with concrete music, having come across the concept while reading for a class or something. It seemed like a genre that hadn’t really been thoroughly explored, and we began thinking in terms of adopting the same techniques as a means of making something like popular music. So, on a lark almost, we put out a call to our circle of friends, and said that we were interested in forming a pop band that uses tape recorders as musical instruments. We set a meeting time at our apartment, four people showed up, and they became the Tape-beatles.

PC: Plagiarism as a working ethic was in place even then?

LD: Not at all. Plagiarism evolved naturally out of our choice of tape recorders as instruments. It encouraged an attitude about source material which was more concerned with turning something pre-existing into something new, instead of attempting completely ‘original’ works. We had adopted the name Plagiarism® as the name of our ‘record label’ by 1988, for the release of our first recording A subtle buoyancy of pulse.

PC: Of which I have a plagiarized copy, sure.

LD: Very good, you’ve graduated to the School. Here’s your diploma.

PC: I’m gonna cue it up.

LD: So we were making our way through this intellectual terrain, trying not to be too bored with our lives, putting things back into the stream of a culture that encourages people not to participate. And so the Tape-beatles became a media collective.

PC: How much attention were you paying to the work being done by your modern contemporaries in plagiarism, Negativland?

Ralph Johnson: What we were doing was largely in isolation, lighting upon certain ideas and ways of working that seemed to be growing out of cultural moment. We were largely unaware of anyone doing similar work.

LD: Unusual work usually drives people to create genres and distinctions were none exist — which is perfectly understandable.We started playing with the word plagiarism, but without the courage to use it in ‘public.’ Suddenly we discovered that there were people, in England for instance, actually setting up Festivals of Plagiarism. That lit a fire under us to begin developing our approach in a more studied and serious way. That’s when we applied the R in the circle (®) to the title.

PC: So you’re still based in Iowa?

LD: Still my home, yes.

RJ: Not mine. I live in sunny San Leandro.

LD: The Tape-beatles started in Iowa — Ralph did mention isolation. But Iowa isn’t that terribly isolated, it’s bathed in the same media culture as any other part of the country. I don’t know, we read Wired — ask me another question.

Jon Leidecker: You’ve made a step away from the total plagiarism of the previous records with your new CD Matter.

RJ: Part of the charm of the Tape-beatles was our ignorance of the state of the art. We focused on using four-track cassette decks and relatively simple equipment because that was what we had access to. My studies at Mills College opened me up to digital technology, multitrack software, samplers. Of course, my reaction was like ‘We’ve been doing this with tape loops?’

JL: A cassette deck with a mechanical pause button is a powerful thing —

PC: Let’s hear ‘Recognize Resist’, a two-track construction from A subtle buoyancy of pulse to get a sense of just how much is possible.

“Recognize Resist”, “The Law of Repetition”

PC: The Tape-beatles are no longer a ‘producing entity’ —

LD: People grew and moved on, so we all live in different cities now.

PC: Do you exchange computer files over the phone?

LD: We mail disks, the internet is still too slow.

JL: The principles of Plagiarism remain an overt presence on Matter,but the digital equipment seems to have brought a greater emphasis on sound production. Could you talk about how the approach has changed for Public Works?

RJ: We felt that we Tape-beatles had completed our mission in some sense. To a degree, we’d said what we’d needed to. There’s only so long you can trumpet the call of plagiarism before you reach a fork in the road: plagiarism becomes either self-parody or, more productively, it becomes just one more tool in your cultural arsenal. I think that Matter reflects our use of plagiarism as one more tool.

JL: Form really did equal content in Tape-beatles work; rigorous, unignorable.

RJ: Yes it did, but as we grew an our interests evolved, there need to be an end to that tightly focused project. Once I hit Mills, I had the chance to explore some changes in my thinking. Tape-beatles and Public Works aren’t my only musical projects, and the opportunity to explore other projects has reflected back into Public Works material — the influences in Matter are much more diverse.

PC: Well let’s hear a track from the new record.

“Follow Me”

JL: What’d you use to put that track together?

LD: It’s entirely digital. The source material is Laibach for the backing music, a tour tape from the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa; a Russian Orthodox ecclesiastical choir,— oh, yes. There’s a little bit of Madonna on it, too. I did the entire thing on a Macintosh using SoundEdit 16. The rest of the CD we mostly used Deck II.

JL: How would this piece be different if you’d done it on tape?

LD: I couldn’t have conceived this piece on tape. The digital process led me in certain directions with it. In principle, I could go back and methodically re-construct the same piece on tape, with the digital piece acting as the ‘score,’ but that’d only be a pointless exercise. The digital apparatus led me in directions I wouldn’t have followed with tape.

JL: So it’s not just the increased speed of production, it’s finally a new mode of production.

RJ: That’s right, it suggests different possibilities, they loom up, and you take them on. I think part of it is economic, too. For the amount you’re spending, what you get once you’re set up with a digital system, it’s stunning what you’re able to do. It’s actually quite inexpensive.

PC: So let’s discuss the distinctly visual aspect of Public Works that’s brought you on tour with Matter and The Grand Delusion. Live, the discs serve as the soundtrack for a reel of carefully edited found footage which is at specific moments is flanked on both sides by film loops. From the 16mm refuse of the world, Lloyd has painstakingly edited, structured and synchronized (perfectly I might add) a three-screen visual complement to the group’s audio. The sound and visuals become inseparable, and together they have quite a profound effect. Tell us about your working method with film - what comes first, the music or the image?

LD: We come up with a completely finished piece of music before I begin adding film to it, which is the opposite of the Hollywood practice, generally. My technique is both straightforward and tedious. I choose a piece from the CD, put it on the player in repeat mode, grab a reel of film, put it on the projector, and watch them together. I’ll just be looking for different places where the music and film coincide; serendipity plays some role. I take notes, marking down at first shots I know I don’t want to use, which get cut out before I’ll watch the reel again, so the reel’s getting shorter each time I pass it through the projector. As my familiarity with the reel grows, I start seeing how a shot might work well with a different musical moment, so I begin rearranging things. For me it’s a very natural way to work because it’s dictated, really, by what’s going on with the audio track. I’m making the images a slave to our audio.

PC: We noticed you were adjusting the speed on the fly as certain transitions in the show were coming up. How set are these transitions, are they more or less rehearsed?

LD: The synchronization is all ‘wild synch,’ the projector’s not locked to the CD player, they’re both just running. I have ways of adjusting the timing during a performance.Certain actions on the screen need to happen at certain points in the music, and if it doesn’t look like it’s gonna make it, I’ll speed up the projector for a little bit. The film was purposely cut about 2% longer than the audio for this purpose; just so I can maintain synch on the fly.

JL: Most of the film editing aims for a careful anarchic tension with the soundtrack — but some of the visual cuts and segues were so precisely synched to the sound as to be sort of shocking.

LD: That’s just a matter of practice, knowing the film and audio so well that I know when the picture needs to catch up with the sound.

PC: So this idea of a film that uses three screens came originally from the French filmmaker Abel Gance, who called the process PolyVision?

LD: Yeah, Gance was working in silent film in the 20s. His most famous picture was Napoleon, a big three-screen spectacular. His innovation prefigured Cinemascope and Panavision, but he had a Rube-Goldberg sort of device, running three separate cameras in synch by means of a bike chain. So if he wanted to, he could set all three cameras into a panoramic vista, capturing the scene contiguously. By means of a similar projecting device, he could reproduce this contiguous space in a theatre.

PC: But his PolyVision wasn’t a montage —

LD: But he also foresaw the use of montage with the technique. He used montages in Napoleon, as well, which is what caught my attention in the first place. So I’ve adapted this technique, and adopted the name he gave it, PolyVision.

PC: To me, one of the strongest things about the work is the sophistication of the collage. The laboriously cut center reel’s montage segues into the cueing of flanking loops constructed for that scene, and suddenly you’ll have the images from the central reel ‘ghosting’ back and forth across the screens.

JL: Fragmented images from the center reel skidding back and forth between the three screens as the loops go in and out of synch — and the images you’ve chosen continue to generate new contexts and meanings as they cycle around.

PC: The transitions in and out of the triptych portions are impressive as well. One section surrounds close-ups of pondering faces of 50s teens, flanked by hi-density loops of the same characters, which finally cut out just as one boy comes to a realization on the center reel. You do a fine job with conveying this degree of information.

LD: Well, thanks, it’s really satisfying to present it, too, because I think audiences respond to it really well. There’s something very engaging about all this flicker going on at the same time, part of it’s, well, psychotronic. Then our content is carefully engineered to match the kind of issues that are going on in the music. When you listen to the CD alone, it stands on its own I think, but you might interpret it in your mind as ‘just’ music. You might interpret the themes in a different way than you might when accompanied by the images. The images hijack the content and push it into different positions. Particularly in Matter, I think.

PC: Well, very much in The Grand Delusion as well, a very somber piece, composed as you’ve said in the wake of the Gulf War tragedy. You’ve got Dan Quayle, George Bush, not really manipulated that much —

LD: No, you don’t need to manipulate them at all to make them sound scary.

PC: All these voices from our recent memory, joined to vintage images from the Second World War. Well, I guess there’s not much Gulf War 16mm stock around —

LD: Well, that wouldn’t be very interesting. You enrich the work by bringing in things from elsewhere that resonate with it.

JL: Well, the Gulf War was a nightmarish, incomprehensible tragedy when taken purely on it’s own terms, but when the same speeches that were so clearly insincere in 1991 are contrasted with historical footage of the War that ‘made this country great,’ suddenly they begin making a very horrifying sense.

LD: If people walk away from The Grand Delusion with the sense that if you don’t know history, you are doomed to repeat it, then I think we’ve accomplished what we set out to do.

“I Can’t Do It”

PC: We’d love to be able to play the entire Music with Sound record —

JL: The material really does contain an argument for its own style. More than once I’ve heard relatively straight DJs go from normal sets into a Tape-beatles track, and then the mix just starts to get a little strange.

RJ: We used to refer to that as a ‘manifesto by deed.’

LD: We also had a fleeting intention at one point to sell Tape-beatle franchises, so that thousands of groups could release their work under the name of the Tape-beatles.They wouldn’t have to pay us anything, we’d just give them a certificate for free, on request.

JL: The idea seems even more fitting for Public Works. You two can take the credit for all sorts of important activity with that title.

PC: I think that’s a fitting cue for The Orb!

JL: Well, sure — let’s play ‘Beautiful State,’ the first track on Music with Sound.

“Beautiful State”

JL: And now let’s go immediately to ‘Plateau’, the first track on The Orb’s album Live 93 on the notorious Island records.

“Plateau” The Orb:

[Consists of: 90 second unmodified ‘sample’ of ‘Beautiful State,’ mixed with intermittent crowd ambience. 30 seconds in, Middle Eastern female vocal is added; 60-90 seconds in, an ambient rhythm is gradually brought up as ‘Beautiful State’ is slowly faded out.]

PC: First, all Tape-beatles output is accompanied by the terms ‘N© (no copyright)’ and ‘Public Domain,’ as it appears in various prominent locations on the disc’s packaging. Your work is drawing attention to its plagiarized origins.

JL: The Orb are maybe the best example of a group that’s achieved massive success with a musical style almost entirely built from plagiarist principles. Their work may be rooted in drum programming and sequencing, but their real focus is on the live mixing and recontextualizing of recordings ‘finished’ by other people. The resulting music is rich with cultural referents, densely detailed yet very easy to listen to, and increasingly popular. It’s interesting that the group is finding mass success using the same basic aesthetic as the Tape-beatles and John Oswald. Here’s a group that’s found an unthreatening way to appropriate appropriation, and they’re rewarded with a record contract with the same record label that two years before had indignantly sued Negativland for copyright and trademark infringement. It only makes sense that the content-hungry Orb mixers found their way to your disc and began seeding their ambient music with your conveniently pre-fragmented samples. Certainly you’ve made a disc that nearly prompts reuse. Their use of it in constructing two CDs of live mixes that cover minimal beats and sequences with a dense swamp of other people’s records hardly seems invalid. But I’m not quite sure exactly what’s to be made of this. For the record, what was your reaction to being appropriated?

LD: Well, when I first heard they’d sampled us, I thought, ‘That’s kind of exciting, that’s what we stand for, somebody sampling us. Might be kind of an obvious gesture, but if they did something cool with it, great. And then when I heard it I was really disappointed, I don’t think they did anything very interesting with it. They never contacted us, which is all right, given that the stuff is in the public domain, so there’s not too much I can say about it. I would have preferred it if they’d made it their own, given it some flavor of the ‘Orb’ that couldn’t be mistaken for a Tape-beatles piece. But you know, the Orb — they’re ambient — they’re not all that exciting, ambient music is generally indifferent to merely okay, you know.

PC: But it’s conceivably mistakable for a Tape-beatles remix, some new odd thing on Staalplaat — maybe I would have even bought it! Ha. They’re presenting your unmodified work, for sale as their product.

JL: Leaving aside issues of copyright and finance. You know, what is money to us, we are artists— uh —


RJ: Well ‘said.’

JL: Even after foregoing the legal device of attaching Copyright to your plagiarist work, I believe it’s still very important to retain to some degree the right to be recognized as the author of your own work. Live 93 contains a sample list, and you’re not on it. Neither is Kraftwerk, Steve Reich, or the Fripp & Eno record they run quietly under the beat for nearly ten minutes. In fact, I suspect the sample list is limited to the obvious sources they more than likely had to license.

RJ: In a way, it’s a non-issue. I think the only sin they’ve committed is one of taste — they’ve done something uninteresting. If they’d done something that reflects awareness of the Tape-beatle agenda, or even their own personal agenda, we’d be applauding them. But if we’re going to be true to what the Tape-beatles are about, having your work out in the public domain, it’s something that you have to learn to live with. Not everyone’s going to understand, it’s going to get co-opted to some degree — that’s just part of it.

JL: Well, I think I’m overly sensitive if not paranoid about the co-opted model that the Orb represents. ‘Thoughtless’ seems like a fair way to describe their approach to Plagiarism, making ambient music that nearly prevents you from paying too much attention to it, i.e. consciously regard, appreciate or even notice the method and aesthetic of its construction, collage. We’re watching the ‘inherently subversive’ aesthetic of plagiarism making commercial inroads into a culture obsessed with ownership and property, and the result is commercial plagiarism, constructs of fragmented references and montages that have eaten their sources whole. I fear that my only point is that consumer culture is bad or something —

RJ: Well, I consider what the Orb did to be appropriation — that’s why we prefer to use terms like Plagiarism and Theft and Stealing. Plagiarism calls attention to itself, but in an ironic way, because really, we aren’t plagiarizing, we aren’t stealing, in the same manner as the Orb does, even though that’s what we’re insisting that we’re doing. What the Orb’s done is much closer to what the post-modernists have done in relation to appropriation.

LD: It’s not even that interesting.

RJ: Not even that interesting, but the tendency does come from the same impulse, and what the Tape-beatles did I think is very different, and I think it’s hard for people to understand that difference sometimes.

PC: Let’s listen to ‘Love,’ from The Grand Delusion, which was voted in at #4 on KALX’s top 100 songs of 1993.


PC: We’re here with the Tape-beatles, and their track ‘Love.’ What are those industrial sounds used for the soundbed on that piece?

LD: It was taken from a Ravi Shankar album, a loop of the tabla player accompanying him.

PC: Conceived entirely on four track cassette, that piece?

LD: Yes. One of the tracks, the looped letters spelling ‘L-O-V-E,’ was done on a Macintosh. Digital sound starting to creep in at that point.

(at this point, an unsolicited phone call is taken on-air)

Phone: About the song ‘Scientists Are Working’ — it’s a full song, lasting maybe around a minute. Did you record that on your own, or was it sampled?

RJ: That’s from an educational record from a filmstrip.

LD: Don’t labor under any misapprehensions, we don’t compose our own music like that, we steal everything.

Phone: Well it’s just amazing how some things come together and like wow that’s sampled, that’s amazing.

LD: Yes the world is a pretty darn rich place … .

PC: Owen O’Toole mentioned the potential of re-radicalizing The Grand Delusion by showing it to a bunch of recruits, or any attempt at reaching beyond the art-film audience?

RJ: Not preaching to the converted, to go out to a group of new recruits and play them this piece that’s highly critical of the structure they’ve just joined? No, haven’t considered it. I think going out to high schools, junior highs - often, their notion of what art is, film is, music is, is stifled by the programs that they are exposed to.

PC: ‘You hold in your hands the making of a walnut tree!’

RJ: Precisely.

PC: I think The Grand Delusion would be an incredibly powerful tool to show this as an educational film.

JL: The Tape-beatles made extensive use of outdated and archaic technologies. The Tape-beatle pieces are structured investigations of the many different varieties of sound reproduction, juxtaposing variable fidelities, finding any way to extend the scope of the work to include its own medium - pretty crucial stances given today’s increasingly ‘convincing’ media technologies. This extends to the films assembled from stock footage. These projects invite the audience straight into the means of production. The sound of Public Works is anything but archaic - the transition to digital has put you into an entirely different area. I’m curious as to how your thoughts are developing through this transition, curious about any new logic that’s growing out of this new direction with Public Works. What’s in store?

RJ: What’s in store is — a wedding of those two realms of technology, of the high and the low, brought together, into a kind of Frankenstein creature. One thing I’m particularly interested in with Public Works, an idea that I think comes out in the performance with Lloyd’s film, is the idea that the media removes time - we are allowed, in a sense, to be present in all different spaces at all different times, for the first time in history. Our sense of history has been radically altered, now being able to ‘watch’ a war as it happens in the Middle East. At the same time, we’ve the option to watch all these films about World War II. There’s a quality of stasis created by the media. There’s a chance to explore this by using a cross-section of media technologies, from the past, present and into the future — to explore this sense of stasis that is also being used to create the illusion of progress, i.e. always what’s next, the new piece of media, the very developments that have been designed to keep people in stasis, while experiencing it as progress. That’s part of what I’m interested in exploring.

JL: Our progress is stasis. Well, Public Works is beginning to use much of this same stasis-inducing equipment yourself, I’m curious as to how the work of finding subversive, effective, critical uses for this new technology is going — and perhaps how your mastery of analog is informing your progress with digital.

LD: Well Ralph has acquired a whole range of things allowing him to interface his computer with obsolete technology —

RJ: I think maybe, at least right now, a good way to consider works is as kind of a museum.

LD: We’re archaeologists?

RJ: Yeah, we’re archaeologists.

Peter Conheim is involved in the live film projector trio Wet Gate and the media ensemble Negativland.

Jon Leidecker is a member of the live electro-acoustic radio unit Wobbly.

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