Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction by Caleb Kelly

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.

Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction

Publisher: The MIT Press
Length: 392 pages
Author: Caleb Kelly
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-09

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.





In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.


Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.


Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.


Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.


Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.


'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.


Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.


From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.


Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.


Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.


Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.


That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.


Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.


Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.


Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.


'Thor: Ragnarok' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.


Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.