Public Works Productions

Interview by Philip Blackburn for Artpaper, vol. 12 no. 1, September 1992

Meet the Tape-beatles

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)

The Tape-beatles have existed, at least as a name in Lloyd Dunn’s head, since 1983. As a living, breathing entity, they’ve been around since 1987. Coming from a variety of non-musical artistic backgrounds (except for former punk rocker Paul Neff), they share a common passion for playing with obsolete audio and visual technology — a passion inspired equally by thrift and Buster Keaton. They divide their creative energies between deconstructing cultural artifacts in their Iowa City studio, searching for plunderable material — evocative, compelling, and discarded preachings, instructional or self-help tapes — in local second-hand stores, and crouching over pause buttons, awaiting the Weather Channel’s mention of “Texas” or Wheel of Fortune’s mention of a dollar figure. The Tape Beatles’ parasitic tendencies, exemplified by their motto, Plagiarism®, render any and all cultural property fair game and can best be heard on their much-praised CD, Music With Sound. Philip Blackburn caught up with The Tape-beatles last July over lunch at the Mandarin Cafe in Waterloo, Iowa.

JOHN HECK: I see our group as a collection of visual artists who are doing music. We all have training in visual arts, photography, filmmaking, and performance art.

LLOYD DUNN: Linda, for instance, was doing jewelry- making, video art, drawing, and painting. We’ve latched onto audio as maybe our prime activity, but we’re approaching it as a visual artist might approach new visual media. We’ve thought about audiotape as a distinct medium with distinct possibilities, not necessarily focusing on making musical compositions but rather on making audio art.

JH: Another thing we all have in common as visual artists is that we use machines and devices to make our art, whether they’re cameras, camcorders, amplifiers, xerox machines, computers, or electric guitars. Tape machines fall along that line, and certainly 16mm film projectors. These are the tools we use in live performances. We’re basically machine operators. That’s pretty much how we started, too.

LD: For several years before I was with The Tape-beatles, I was working in a sort of xerographic collage medium, exploring the different ways images go together on a piece of paper, found images especially. A xerox machine suggests using found imagery more than original imagery because it’s a copying machine.

PHILIP BLACKBURN: Do you find that there’s a sociopolitical element in the technologies you use?

PAUL NEFF: There’s a kind of polarization with machine-assisted art: you have to have money to do it, you have to have training to do it. That’s something we wanted to strike out at. What we wanted to do was take cast-off equipment, like old reel-to-reel tape recorders found in pawn shops for $25, and put together an archaic electronic music studio. We’re trying to move away from being experts and into being something everybody can understand.

PB: People on the cutting edge of art often use recently developed technology, and their work seems to be little more than a demonstration of that technology. Do you see yourselves as managing to avoid that?

JH: I think we go backwards instead and use things that are very familiar — even collectible and antique. Instead of embracing new technology, we embrace things that are seen as obsolete.

LD: We do that with our media as well. Our sources are generally discarded cultural material. We find cassette tapes, discarded reels, film strips, and motion pictures at used record stores. We try to rehabilitate this discarded equipment; at the same time, we try to rehabilitate the software that was made on it. Our hope is to bring out the original intent of the messages—how they were intended to indoctrinate, inform, or even oppress certain groups of people — and how similar kinds of things are still going on today.

JH: Our aims are somewhat anthropological.

LD: It’s kind of sociological research.

PB: Do you know of any other artists who are working with these same issues?

PN: There are two in Canada: John Oswald and a group called Sucking Chest Wound, who make something that’s really more like dance music.

PB: How does your work compare to the phased loops of Steve Reich or the cut-ups of W.S. Burroughs or Bryon Gyson?

LD: We’re a lot funnier. One of the things that has had a considerable influence on my thinking is the Situationist concept of detournement, in which you take a popular form and inject it with radical content. Then when you take it back out to the public, the radical content is sugarcoated, so to speak, so audiences have a chance to absorb it. It may look like a comic strip or a normal newspaper, but now there’s something different about it.

PB: So how do the Tape-beatles go about creating detournement?

LD: We use pop form on at least some level. Our work has an immediate attraction because it’s bright-sounding, it’s fast-moving, it’s punchy—like commercials.

PN: We use simple song structures too. A lot of the time there’s some sort of rhythmic element.

LD: That’s a sort of hook to draw listeners in. Then once they’re there, they’re confronted with some kind of content that they may never have met before.

JH: Or at least the content is presented in a completely different context. In one of our recent works there’s a Dan Quayle speech that we slowed down by half-applying a pause button, so it sounds a little more ominous, twisted.

PB: More ominous than Dan Quayle?

LD: (sarcastically) That was a trick! We hold up a distorted mirror to reality and show everyone how strange it really is. Our distortions compensate for reality and make its representation more accurate.

PB: How do you present these individual pieces in an evening-length performance?

LD: We project three simultaneously running 16mm projectors onto a wall for a cinemascopic, panoramic effect of three images in a perfect row. It’s like sitting down and watching a movie and hearing this wild sound come out. We’ve also used a video projection as the center image because Linda’s made a 46-minute videotape that synchronizes with our entire Music with Sound CD.

JH: To simplify things, we play our recorded music pretty much straight, so the live element is manipulation of the visuals and other theatrical elements, like spooling off a tape reel through the audience, switching projectors on and off, or walking around the hall with a boombox.

LD: I’m in the back constantly changing loops on my projector, cueing things up. That’s really the performance — getting the images to sync up with the prerecorded sound. We wear portable light sources on our heads — they’re called headlights. Anyone looking at us sees these black silhouetted figures with two beams of light coming out of approximately where our eyes are. Wherever we look, a pool of light appears; the lights help us thread the projectors in the dark and create this weird effect of someone back here in the darkness. We’re the people behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz.

PB: I can listen to one of your individual pieces and get a sense of the rhythm and intelligibility of it. An evening’s worth of this material, however, produces a different effect: the cult of distraction takes over and I start noticing myself tuning out all this excess information. Is this reaction consistent with your intentions?

LD: What we’re trying to set up is some sort of microcosm of society. We get all these commercials and TV channels, billboards, bus advertising — all these messages come at us all the time. We develop earlids; we learn to tune most of that stuff out. People come to our concert with the expectation of a theatrical or a cinematic experience: they want to take everything in, want to get their money’s worth. We make it impossible for them to do this. It’s too big to swallow, and that creates cognitive dissonance.

PB: What other marketing formats do you have for your work besides the live shows?

LINDA MORGAN BROWN: Our mail-order products line: buttons. T-shirts, CDs, tapes, Retrofuturism magazine. Marketing is the finest art of the twentieth century.

PB: So no matter how much you partake of mainstream consumer culture, you’re still ironic enough not to be corrupted by it?

PN: Is he suggesting that we can’t make a strong critique of capitalism when we’re as capitalist as hell ourselves?

LD: I don’t think we’re capitalist as hell.

PN: I think we are. We use the same apparatus as every other musical group. We’re still trying to sell records in the traditional way. I don’t say we’re offering a critique of capitalism. We are capitalists. Let’s face it.

LD: If making money were really our aim, we wouldn’t be making this kind of work.

PB: This seems like the same sort of dilemma that something like the Weekly World News produces; we don’t know whether to take it at face value or to view it as an elaborate hoax.

LD: Well, in the case of our work, it’s an elaborate hoax that you can take at face value.

PB: At what point does a critique of culture become an example of the culture it attempts to critique?

LD: The minute it’s made. We’re clearly not the same as a Tylenol advertisement or Joe Camel.

PB: What makes the difference? Irony?

LD: Intent. Irony is not even our most important commodity. It’s our intent.

PN: The nice thing about being in this big contentious group is that we’ve kept each other honest …

PB: … a kind of art therapy for masochists …

PN: There’s an adage in punk rock: Never be in a band with visual artists.

LD: Visual artists make such lousy collaborators — they can’t even work with themselves.

PB: The Tape-beatles’ motto is Plagiarism®. By that do you mean regurgitated consumer culture or a special sort of kleptomania?

PN: A lot of the time we just take what’s convenient … Fifty-cent Goodwill records …

LD: We do it that way because it almost doesn’t matter what you start out with — you can always make something out of it.

JH: One thing we learned from combining plagiarism with tape composition is that when you steal a lick, you steal more than that musical bit — you steal its entire production quality. That’s very strongly present in a recorded piece but not overt. In our songs you can hear the sounds the recording industry makes.

LD: You can hear the state of the art.

PB: Do you see any relationship between your work and musical minimalism, which also puts technical process in the foreground?

LD We don’t make an effort to hide the process. You can hear pause squeaks and splices in some of our pieces. We don’t make an effort to mask the fact that this is an artifact. A lot of filmmakers make films hoping that audiences will think they grew on trees and fell to the ground for us to find. We don’t try to hide the fact that our stuff is edited, spliced, processed. That part of the work is pretty close to the top. But I think the topmost layer is the content, which also has social significance.

JH: We say that our process has social significance.

LD: One of the things our motto. Plagiarism®, asks is if it’s possible not to steal. We argue that any creative act is based on earlier creative acts. We get our ideas from our figurative parents, the artists who’ve influenced us. Theft is always the case.

PN: We don’t copyright our materials. They’re in the public domain.

LD: Our anti-copyright stance suggests that there are some cases of originality and creativity that copyright simply disallows. I don’t think we’re saying that all forms of copyright are bad. What we do when we make a piece is create something that didn’t exist before. So it’s not really plagiarism: it’s a product of our vision. In a certain sense, we’re the only people who could have made it.

PB: Do you think your arguments would hold up in a court of law?

LD: Not in this political climate. We still take the risk that someday somebody will buy a Tape-beatles CD thinking it’s a Beatles CD.

JH: Actually, that’s already happened.

LD: We’ve received letters from England from people wanting to trade Beatles bootlegs for our CD.

PR: Then there was the woman who brought her four kids to a show thinking we had something to do with the Beatles. She sat there put out with us through the whole thing, but her kids loved it.

JH: Directors of institutes of psychology have bought our tapes. And there’s a rabbi in Kentucky who pays for them out of the rabbi discretionary fund. And there’s a filmmaker who purchased our tape because she was having an editing block. Our tape freed her up. Got writer’s block? Take Tape-beatles fiber!

PB: Once you’ve experienced a Tape- Beatles show, you’re never the same again. Every time you turn on the TV or participate in mass culture, you think: “The Tape-beatles taught me to be ironic about this.” Culture has suddenly become opaque, thanks to you.

JH: I guess seeing one of our shows is like drinking an entire pot of espresso. And getting the hiccups. And then having a giant piece of chocolate cake.

PN: Or the cultural equivalent of a beer bong.

Philip Blackburn is a Twin Cities-based composer and performer. He is director of composer services at the Minnesota Composers Forum.

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