This is a journey into sound. Think of it as a free flexi-disc. There’s something slightly perverse – maxima mea culpa – about hunting for sound-bearing plastics in this, an archive devoted to by-products of the visual. Doubly perverse when you consider there’s nothing down here to play any of this stuff on. The late, great Lester Bangs fantasised about owning a mansion undermined with catacombs that contained ‘alphabetised, in endless winding dimly-lit musty rows, every album ever released’. Bangs, America’s most famous rock critic who was known to make up records he felt ought to exist, would have loved the Tate archive: here be sounds off the scale, sounds artists have made themselves, or have loved.
I found all manner of awkward formats and esoteric packaging. I remember going to see Richard Wilson’s snooker table installation at Matt’s Gallery in the mid 1990s, but never realised he released a seven-inch single of the event. Watertable features two tracks: Gurgling groundwater at three meters on the A side, and Gurgling groundwater at 4 meters on the flip. As far as I’m aware, it didn’t chart. To confound the listening experience, the spindle hole has been dinked into the vinyl about three inches shy of the centre.
But what do artists listen to while they work? I know writers who like to hook up to an iPod, and writers who like to tamp wax plugs into their ears so they can hear only the operation of their nervous systems; writers who need a radio babbling in the background, and those who enjoy the kind of disinterested natterings and trills the world provides as backdrop: a café, traffic noise, birdsong. Perhaps even the most lowly, acrylic-spattered C-90 compilation tape from a studio floor can shed light on an artist’s practice, albeit more obliquely than something like a palette, and earns its place in the archive.
For example, imagine Edward Burra re-creating the Harlem Renaissance in his studio in Rye. It seems fitting that Tate has his 78s. Burra fell in love with jazz at an early age and listened to it for the rest of his life. You can tell: these ten-inch bakelite records, hundreds of them, are among the most punished playing surfaces I’ve ever seen. Some must have spent years sliding around the artist’s studio floor. Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Louis Armstrong, all are pitted and flecked with pigment. My Hi De Ho Man by Lil Armstrong looks as though an eclipsing bite has been taken from it. Altogether, they remind me of some lines from a poem by Michael Donaghy:
‘This record’s record is its lunar surface. I wouldn’t risk my stylus to this gouge, or this crater left by a flick of ash…’
That fashion in the early 1990s for layering the fizzing and pops of old vinyl on to pristine digital surfaces? They used samples from the Edward Burra collection. Every now and then, there’s a proprietorial signature on the label – ‘Burra’, delicately, with a very fine brush, rather than the biro I remember from my first singles.
The archive’s relationship with the parallel universe of art is an oblique one. I leave wondering if more of these private playlists should be collected and preserved. Some artists have begun to initiate this process themselves – I’m thinking of Peter Doig’s careful cataloguing of all the records in his studio a few years ago. As this magazine enters its run-out groove, and we fade into the crackle of dust, spare a thought for those messages you used to find scratched into the vinyl when you tilted records to the light. Sometimes they seemed important and freighted with meaning, and were dwelt upon for days; sometimes all you got was ‘A Porky Prime Cut’.