Monday, May 07, 2007

The Plaza of the Mind Interview with Tape-beatle Lloyd Dunn!

Recently, Lloyd Dunn, co-founder of sound collage bands The Tape-beatles and Public Works Productions, as well as early Xerox-Art collective Photostatic participated in an interview for the Plaza of the Mind. Mr. Dunn was kind enough to take some time and answer some questions concerning his works and general interests.

[The Plaza of the Mind quotes appear in Bold-type, Mr. Dunn's in normal-type]

I seem to ask everyone this question, so I will get it out of the way first: What is your favorite form of architecture?

Although I am not indifferent to architecture, I have to say I don't have a favorite style. As in most things, my tastes are eclectic.

Where do you see the next five years of your works going?

This one I can't answer. I don't know.

How do you feel about the proliferation of self-expression on line - do you think that the top-down establishment is on it's way out or will it be subsumed?

I think there's reason for some measured optimism, but I also know that the forces arrayed against truly free self-expression are formidable. A lot of very powerful people would like nothing better than to turn the internet into another form of television. By that, I mean where the audience is reduced to passive consumers of content. I'm not sure that small independent cultural producers like The Tape-beatles, who work on a non-commercial basis, have any real friends in all this. Maybe the EFF, I suppose, but who else? A few big companies own just about everything. If there's an activity they can't monetize, they'd just as soon smother it, from what I can tell.

On the other hand, there still seem to be opportunities to turn the tables on the powerful. I'm thinking of the rise of Google in the space of a few years to the point where Microsoft is frightened of their popularity and power. It seems like Google came almost out of nowhere. I can only hope that such things are possible in the cultural realm, as well. 'Blair Witch Project' showed it was possible to make it to the big screen using home camcorders, but where's the flood of newly enfranchised film auteurs that was supposed to appear in its wake? On YouTube, maybe, but I don't really see it there, and that's a wholly different form, anyway.

It's difficult to guage well what's really happening when the ground is always shifting. Maybe the present always looks that way, though, to those who are in it.

In the end, my gut says meaningful self-expression can't be controlled anyway. So while I think it's entirely possible your "top-down establishment" could topple and be replaced with something more fluid, I also think it's possible this "establishment" might simply reconfigure itself -- perhaps in a way not readily apparent to most people -- and go on as something different.


You should be careful to always write it: Tape-beatles (note the hyphen and the small 'b').

…Tape-beatles /PWP must have an amazing network of ephemeral media suppliers - how much time do you spend searching out interesting items to incorporate into your collage?

We really don't. We tend to work with what falls in our laps, so to speak. One tenet of our work is that it's possible to make something new out of practically anything. I suppose it's true that our ears are tuned, just from doing this kind of work, to picking up on things that non-sound-collage-artists would simply ignore. But really, we find most of our material by chance, or someone hands us something that they think we'll find interesting to work with.

What has been your favorite era of Tape-beatles /PWP?

The early days were the most fun, in a way, because the feeling that there were no limits (except the ones we ourselves made) was very strong. We were making noises and playing around with machines that we found interesting, and simultaneously inventing a set of attitudes about creativity, originality and authorship; and setting up a public 'mystique' or set of pseudo-marketing postures that have endured. So making the sound collages that went into "A subtle buoyancy of pulse" and "Music with Sound" was a lot of fun.

For me personally, the biggest satisfaction came from seeing "The Grand Delusion" blossom out a few ideas into a PolyVision film spectacular that I still am very pleased with.

Since the mid-90s it's been more difficult for us to make work, and…

How long have you been in Europe and how did the move come about from Iowa City?

I've been here five years; John more than twice that (he's married to a Czech woman). There's no great story about my move. I always wanted to spend an extended time in a foreign country and when John invited me to come, I did. So far I've stayed.

How many hours a week do you think you spend on your works?

We haven't been very active in the last few years. We've recently been awarded a commission by Czech Radio, however, and so we are getting back to it. Probably 10 hours per week now, no doubt accelerating as the deadline approaches (end of June). Keep in mind we both have day jobs.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

I've enjoyed Neal Stephenson's books recently, and Scott McCloud's books explaining how comics work have been very interesting recently, too. Mostly I read old books, and favor non-fiction. Allen's "History of the Georgian People" was a great pleasure to read. Though only competently written, the information was fascinating. I read Wikipedia a lot.

I have found that my inspiration has come from all over the place - not just limited to conventional and unconventional art but things like architecture and design of everyday objects - where do you find your inspiration?

Like you, everywhere. "Fine art" hasn't been very interesting to me for a while, and I am content to be fairly ignorant of contemporary trends. An awful lot of art in the recent past seems like progressive one-upmanship by attention whores. My work isn't really based on inspiration. I find my ideas by working on things. The work comes out of the working on it. Generally, I don't really have more than a vague idea going in, and even that often gets discarded anyway, when it occurs to me I can accomplish something else that's better.

Have you found the cultural climate of Europe to be more conducive to your art, I would imagine that you would attract a broader audience there, but perhaps that is just a stereotype?

No question, there is more support for the arts in (especially western) Europe than in America. Governments support it, audiences support it by attending events, communities grow up around it. If we chose to make a living from our work (we don't) the odds would be far better here than in the US.

What are some of your favorite films?

I like the classics, Welles, Murnau, the early Soviet films. Kurosawa; Kubrick; Abuladze's "Repentance". I'm a fan of Craig Baldwin's work (for obvious reasons). Too many to name.

Any albums that you would recommend for fans of the audio collage?

Everyone should listen to "Music with Sound".

I really enjoy your Photostatic works - could you describe the climate in which they were created?

I started Photostatic based on a very simple motivation: I wanted to collect and present art made using photocopiers. Sometime in the 70s photocopying became very cheap, and the quality had become such that I (along with many others) could entertain the thought of using xerox for self-publishing. At the same time, there was this explosion of creative energy around punk rock and do-it-yourself activities such as fan zines. Of course, the posters that bands used to promote their gigs were all xerox, as were flyers for political meetings and actions. I started to notice a somewhat cohesive esthetic evolving in these kinds of ephemera. Although crudely made, there was often a sophisticated eye for design at work in enough of these pieces to interest me. I thought if I could collect enough work, something self-sustaining might grow out of it.

So I started a magazine. I wasn't only one. As I was soon to discover, there were hundreds of small xeroxed zines beginning to blossom at that time, and many weren't centered around any subject matter other than the editor's own desire to offer their own ideas and fascinations to the public, and to meet others of a like mind. A community arose, and it was beautiful.

It's also worth noting that the Tape-beatles' earliest impulse was along similar lines: to take a non-professional process -- home tape recording -- and turn it into an expressive medium. This act has sometimes been characterized as 'subversive' in the sense that this is taking devices designed around passive 'consumption' of content, and instead turning the procedure around and using it to make culture actively. Although, in truth, we were initially motivated largely by wanting to work with what we already had available, partly to avoid spending a lot of money that we didn't have. Punk rock and the DIY esthetic, prevalent at the time, both encouraged and legitimated this choice by explicity de-valuing 'professionalism' and, in a sense, making everyone a cultural 'expert'.

The early Tape-beatles works strike me as being an iconic representation of the glory days of the bedroom-band cassette mail order phenomenon. Do you miss those days or are you content with the relative ease of the internet? Personally, I had always dreamed of getting involved in that scene [zines - cassettes, etc.] but my temperament seemed to be more well-suited to the digital realm so I am only beginning to now get my work out to a very small audience - and it's taken a long long time.

Well, I really love the internet, and the sheer sense of possibility it creates in peoples' imaginations is at times simply heady. It seems to me a lot of what we were doing with zines and home taping prefigured the Open culture of exchange we see in software, and other community-minded projects that are scattered all over the web. Also, there is breaking down the walls between the audience and site creators, through blogs that encourage visitor comments, community weblogs and the like, as well as more ambitious Open culture projects. So I'm all for it, generally speaking.

That said, the early days of zines and tape collage were pretty special for me personally. And I've spent a considerable amount of time historifying and documenting my pre-www activities on my web sites.

One's choice of tools has a decisive effect on what one chooses to create and how one conceives of works at the outset. There are things we did with tape that we could never think to do in digital audio, and vice versa. The same goes for doing physical layouts for the photocopier with scissors and tape versus using a page layout program to put together a printed page, or HTML for the screen. The tactility of the earlier medium offered a feeling of directness and immediacy, but came with its own constraints. It would be wrong, however, to think that digital has definitively fewer constraints, I think. The new constraints may even seem harder to detect at first, but this is an illusion. They are certainly there.

I have often found that the electro-quote holds a certain aesthetic magic in it - depending on the quote and its usage [of course] - it is somehow able to say much more than if I were to simply perform the same statement. -- Any insights?

It has a kind of alchemical magic, like re-animating the dead, or creating the presence of a voice that emanates from something alive that's not there. It references the listener's cultural knowledge and flatters them for the act of recognition. It cleverly short-circuits the inevitably obscure (or should I say obscured?) process of creating something ex nihilo, and maintains that originality is a myth. It honestly appraises cultural activity for what it really is: everyone everywhere making anything always starts with something that came before, and it recognizes that there is no escape from this. It finds exhilaration in exploring the world as if it were new, and then proclaims that the world IS new.

I am blown away by the sheer volume of corporate film and audio that has been recorded over the past fifty years - do you know if there are any preservationist groups out there?

The Prelinger Archive at is a big collection of free movies to download in various resolutions. The collection is built around industrial, promotional, and educational films that have come into the public domain. Additionally, if you are interested in collecting the films themselves, Ebay is a good place to look for prints. And there are the usual hucksters on line who sell old film prints.

I find your work to have an inherent melancholy in it - or perhaps I am just a melancholy person - many of your works contain pieces of a time that no longer exists - are you attracted to any point in recent history as having an aesthetic that you can appreciate more than the one we currently live in?

A sense of loss is a major thread in our work. So is futility. It is right to be sad about these things.