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Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction

Caleb Kelly

(The MIT Press; US: Sep 2009)

One of the consistently interesting things about technology is the way that its users find ways to go beyond its prescribed uses. That such prescribed usage is a forgetting of the fact that technology evolves as a result of human needs (rather than arriving out of the blue) does not detract from the sense of unease that its misuse and abuse summons. Those users of recording technology who have been drawn to explore its limitations have found much of interest in the cracks, scratches, and glitches that mark the boundaries of its functionality, discovering instead what Caleb Kelly calls “the sound of malfunction”.


Kelly introduces his subject by reflecting on glitch and its popularity as a chosen aesthetic around the turn of the millennium. Recognizing a need to study the history behind such practice, he proceeds to an account of a variety of “cracked media” from across the 20th century. Kelly makes it clear from the start that he intends to focus on practitioners from the more experimental end of “sound art” and includes among his case studies Nam June Paik, Milan Knižak, Christian Marclay, Yasunao Tone, and Oval, figures for whom malfunction is seen as an artistic and even political strategy.


To highlight what is at stake, Kelly provides a useful overview of various debates about music, sound, and noise. Defining any of these concepts is always a tricky task. When does sound become music? What really separates music from noise? To what extent is noise, as Mary Douglas said of dirt, merely “matter out of place”? And how does the discourse around music dictate the boundaries of that place?


It is necessary to consider such questions before dealing with the nature of cracked media themselves and Kelly steers a steady course through this potential minefield. His arguments are strongly influenced by theorists such as Douglas Kahn and Paul Hegarty, both of whom feature prominently in the book’s bibliography. Kelly also deals with the issue of technological determinism and its counterarguments before going on to discuss ways of cracking, breaking, and otherwise manipulating sonic media.


Kelly also finds space to consider the criticisms leveled against recording technology by thinkers such as Theodor Adorno and Jacques Attali. Practitioners of cracked media, according to Kelly, resist such positions by challenging the intended uses of technology and substituting alternative forms of labor via subversive acts of misuse and abuse. Korean-born Nam June Paik modified turntables to allow numerous randomly accessed records to be played on them simultaneously, the end results working as both quirky sculptures and manifestations of sound art. Czech artist Milan Knižak put on ritualistic happenings in the streets of Prague before moving to sound-based work that included the physical alteration and mutilation of vinyl records. Works such as Broken Music applied cut-up techniques to records, cracking, dismantling, and rebuilding them so that they played reconfigured music.


Christian Marclay also worked with broken and cut-up records on projects which complemented his work in the visual arts while simultaneously performing as a radical turntablist. Yasunao Tone performed similar mutilations on compact discs, “wounding” them in order to change and distort their data. The German band Oval, meanwhile, was instrumental in turning the sound of CD malfunction into aesthetically pleasing music, using glitch as a texture in pop songs.


Cracked Media is well-written and, for the most part, engaging, although a stronger editorial hand might have helped to eliminate some of the overly repeated claims (for example, the fact that records deteriorate with each play which, along with other facts, we are told rather too many times). A more serious issue resides in the claims Kelly makes for cracked media as a political strategy and as an example of the practice of everyday life.


Kelly places the work of the practitioners of cracked media as a challenge to Adorno’s critique of recorded music in which the process of recording was seen to encourage standardization of musical output, passivity in listeners, and the fetishization of music as an exchangeable commodity. But the artists Kelly is writing about are, for the most part, in agreement with Adorno’s views and are challenging the very same “passive” consumers that he set his sights on.


There is a recurrent diatribe in much of this practice against routine, rational thought, and reason. Knižak speaks of finding records boring after repeated plays, while the Fluxus group (where a number of these artists started out) sought to challenge routine and the prescribed use of given media. Such motivations give the ensuing art much of its power and it would be wrong to deny their potential to make people think. Many of these artists had hopes to connect to the people and to be anti-elitist, but their work rarely got far outside the art space. Kelly quotes Marclay as claiming, “It seemed that youth culture and art did not belong together, but since then I’ve learned to love the blurring of these differences”.


It is certainly the case that, while Marclay’s work has not fitted comfortably in either art or popular culture circles, he has at least made the effort to combine them. Fluxus, meanwhile, began as an attack on formal classical concert practice. But it was also often posited as a violently anti-consumerist program, and as such, had to position itself outside the logics of the regular art world and the commercial world. How much it communicated to “the people” remains unclear.


Hip-hop, which also focused on the manipulation of recorded sound, provides a potentially stronger argument for the use of cracked media as a challenge to Adornian view, not least because of the way it is plugged right in to the heart of the culture industry. But even if Kelly were to devote more space to hip-hop, it would still involve a focus on artists and neglect the meanings of recorded media for consumers.


Kelly uses Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life to make the claim that sound artists are resisting dominant discourses by utilizing “strategies” as “users” of technology. But the great strength of Certeau’s work is its insistence on consumers as users; his dedication (“to the ordinary man”) states that it is time for the spotlights to leave the stage and shine on the audience. It is difficult to reconcile such a desire with a focus on exceptional performers and to say virtually nothing about those supposedly passive consumer-listeners who were the target of Adorno’s criticism.


Kelly does briefly recognize consumers’ use of technology when he observes that contemporary listeners can exert considerably more control over their digital music files than record buyers previously could. Elsewhere, however, users as listeners are seldom to be found.


This issue of the use consumers make of music has, of course, been a priority in the sociology of popular music. It would not be fair to ask Kelly to produce such a work when he has a clear agenda to explore the use of cracked media from the viewpoint of the artist. But it is a reminder that the political or strategic claims for such creative practice are not really answers to the Adornian critique of regressive listening, nor ultimately convincing examples of the practice of everyday life.


With these caveats made, it is worth reiterating that Kelly’s study provides access to some fascinating theories of, and experiments in, the “wrong” uses of technology as explored by some important sound artists of the phonographic era.

Rating:

Richard Elliott is a writer, university teacher, and journal editor based in Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the author of the book Fado and the Place of Longing: Loss, Memory and the City (2010), as well as articles and reviews covering a wide variety of popular music genres. Richard is currently working on a co-authored book on ritual, remembrance, and recorded sound.


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