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Mo' Better Mo-Tapemosphere

[ 1. "chase away all my fear" ] [ 2. Restmuell ]

june 16, 2007.

The day after the Acoustic flux finissage, on sunday april 1st, I got a ride from Berlin to Cologne. I had been invited by Béla Janssen and two other B-boyz's, Block Barley and Balz Isler, to come there and somehow participate with the 'found tapes' in the events accompanying the ninth (or tenth, it depends on one's point of view) tapemosphere cassette loop installation that they would build that week in the Moltkerei Werkstatt. ( * )

The Mitfahrt dropped me at the Cologne train station, where just minutes later a skateboard came to a grinding halt and with the tip of a shoe was sent up somersaulting into the air, where it ended up in the arms of a curly and smiling Béla ... He took me to his mother's house, where he and Block had set up a working space in part of the living room, separated from the rest of the space by a grand piano and sort of a wall of cardboard boxes.

I posed my bags, and the three of us went on to pay a visit to Christian Merscheid, who is in charge of the Moltkerei.

Until only very recently the use of cassette tapes has been so widespread, that though relatively young - in their mid-twenties - also the three B-boyz's belong to one of the generations for which the 'cassette tape' has been a medium that would have seemed indispensable (being there as a 'given', a fact of life) and whose sudden disappearance, had it not happened under their very eyes, would have been unimaginable. tapemosphere As a kid, Béla told us while we were zipping wine in Christian's kitchen, rather than reading, he used to listen a lot to audio plays (Hörspiele) on cassette tape. And later on he became part of the hip-hop scene, where mix-tapes were an essential means for sharing and spreading one's favorite tracks. "For me there was this really strong feeling," he explained, "that something of my personal history was getting lost along with the replacement of cassette tape by other media ... first the CD , and later the mp3's ...".

Not wanting to loose what has become so much part of themselves, to the three young artists the use of 'cassettes' and 'magnetic tape' as a primary material seemed an obvious choice.

They do not stand alone.

It must be for an important part due to the common awareness that magnetic tape as a 'household' medium over the last one, two years - that is, in less than no time - has all but vanished in the western world, that one senses a wave of tape nostalgia pervading the work of many a contemporary artist; giving sudden birth here and there to collectives only short of issuing manifestos and carrying banners proclaiming the use of 'tape only'. A nostalgia that is accompanied by a growing series of 'events' of varying ambition and size, arising within distinct (social) strata - from amateur to professional, from institutional to independent - that concentrate on the use of tape in the arts. It's a sign of the times; and good news actually for those artists that continue to use tape (disappearing or not) in their work because they like the material, because its manipulability and (sound) characteristics suits them.
I guess I would consider myself belonging to that latter category.

I am regularly asked whether I deplore the fact that magnetic tape these days largely has been replaced by digital media ... or rather: as an avid user of tapes and a collector of tape debris, and moreover being of a generation that lived to witness both rise and fall of the compact cassette, am I somehow supposed to be saddened by this sudden obsoleteness of the medium ... ..? But as a matter of fact: I am not. I am not a nostalgic. Also not a tape-nostalgic. Not at all. I really couldn't care less that in trains and metros no longer near half of the passengers comes equipped with a cassette walkman and is listening to cassettes ... I - on the contrary - do think that as far as 'personal stereo' is concerned, the mp3-format and mp3-players are a much better deal than the relatively cumbersome cassette, MD, or even the CD ...

And as long as there is nobody preventing me from continuing to use tape, and both tape and tape players / recorders continue to be available ... what reason could I have to deplore its de-massif-ication ...?

random access music 1963There actually appears to be nothing but good news. Tape's "disappearance" seems to make many an artist (re-)discover the 'strange things people do with tapes'. Like the thousand and one possible variations on glueing strands of magnetic tape to a surface, and using a hand-held tapemachine playback head to read it, as did Nam June Paik in his Random Access Music from 1963 ... on which a more recent fun variation, by american Dan Perrone, is called uokahd (or tapelake): a radio controlled toy car with a tape head mounted underneath, runs over a surface covered with audio tape (watch and listen to uokahd on YouTube) ...

Amateurs and pros alike took, and still continue to take, on the challenge of designing a compact cassette's packaging - its covers, its labels ( ** ) ... Over the years I have seen cassettes packed in ways that were truly stunning in their extravagancy or their beauty. Or both.

Béla spent a year in France, where he took his collection of cassettes, and friends sent him other cassettes by mail. It is there that he started to draw cassettes, and arrange them spatially, using them like 'building blocks' to spell letters. Then later, in his guise as a grafittist, he began sticking his drawing of a flying cassette all over town, on walls, doors, lampposts ... All of this inspired by the outside, by the compact cassette as an object.

But then there's also the inside that comes with another, a different, material-ity: that of a small reel containing an average of a hundred meters of thin magnetic tape. Tape, being stretched out, literally is a time line, a length, a strip of time that you may hold and run (like sand) through your hands, again and again; it is very versatile; extremely plastic, in all the senses of the word. ( *** )

tapemosphere#1"It felt like a liberation," Béla told, "when during the first tapemosphere event, in a friend's apartment in Hamburg, I decided to take out the tape from its holder, and had it run in a big loop through the space, with the player being suspended in the air ... It was spring, and I wanted to do something with the feelings that evoked in me ... but not just again stick the flying cassette sticker on the walls ... and so I opened up the box, and made this big loop with a recording of birdsong ..."

Ah, spring it was again, the days I spent in Köln. And Béla had another spring idea: we would go into a park, and there record the sounds of the birds and all that goes on, and while recording we would just let the tape run out of the recorder, onto the ground. Béla then would take that tape, and climb into the trees, to spread strands of that tape all over the branches. And that then the birds would come, to take the strands of tape and use them in the construction of their nests ...

We didn't do it, though ... Maybe Béla did it later. Or maybe he will do it next year, or a year after that ... I am not likely to forget this as an image, though; like out of a dream I woke up from with a smile ...

After the first 'flying cassette loop' installation in Hamburg, together with friends Béla continued to develop and investigate spatial cassette loop installations. Each of them is called a 'tapemosphere', and is documented on the tapemosphere website.

Installing Tapemosphere #9 Installing Tapemosphere #9
Installing Tapemosphere #9 Installing Tapemosphere #9

In the Moltkerei it were Béla and Block Barley that did the installing of the ninth tapemosphere installation, a sphere - no! it was the idea of a sphere! - suspended in the empty Werkstatt space, built from five tapeloops led along the heads of five vintage cassette players (slightly customized, so as to make it easy for the tape to pass in and out along the heads).

tapemosphere 9 I watched them build it ...
(click the picture to enlarge)
These were happy moments ... to see these Euclid's children there struggle with a wooden approximation of an octagon, to get the projections right, and mark the spots on the floor and on the ceiling where to put the screws to hold the nylon wires that would keep the cassette machines up floating in the air as if on a slightly inclined plane ... See how transparent, how very fragile, how shaky! A something that's almost not there. It looks as if made out of thin glass, about to shiver at the slightest of touch ... And when set in motion, by plugging the plugs, it does so hesitatingly. The long looped strands of tape quiver, the little motors and wheels slightly squeal. Here and there one of the B-boyz's has to lend the machine a hand, re-adjusting the placement of the tapes along the nylon wires that guide it, help them find their proper track ... It is as if it is coming to life, willy-nilly, and not quite decided whether that is the right thing to do.
Much of its beauty is due to this hesitation, this frailty caused by the installation's mechanical and analog imperfections ...

The tapemosphere website has a short sound recording of the tapemosphere #9 installation.

If you listen carefully you'll hear a singer sing "Chase away all my fear" ... It is part of one of the looped tunes ( **** ) composed for the tapemosphere by Block Barley. It is like a plea, or a prayer; it might be the statement of a fact; but it is also a command, and a charm, and a spell. In fact, it is all of these together. And because it is all of these together it is magic. A tune that lingers; a mantra playing on - insistently - inside your head. An earworm if ever I got one ...
chalk "Chase away all my fear" was this ninth tapemosphere's soundtrack, endlessly looping from Block's laptop in the mornings, and twirling from a cassette playing in a portable player during the installation of the loop-sphere in the Moltkerei, at times dangling from the steering wheel of a bicycle while we were going here or there, or standing on the pavement while we were late in the evening drinking beers on the steps of a shop's porch in the Aachener Straße, with Béla making chalk drawings of cassettes, and rushing up and down the street on his skateboard, handing out flyers to passers-by.

I watched the B-boyz's, and felt moved by their actions.

For as long as such will continue to arise and occur, all hope can not be lost.

notes __ ::
(*) We exchanged emails and phoned, but also Béla sent me a package with tapemosphere goodies, which included a clod of cassette tape, that - as I only discovered months later - contained a spoken invitation by Balz and Béla ... You can listen to (part of) that message in fotex73, the montage accompanying the 73rd acquisition of the Found Tapes Exhibition. [ ^ ]

(**) Which is as good a spot as any to link to the online cassette (label) generator ... There's on the same domain an online vinyl record (label) generator as well ... [ ^ ]

(***) Which for some reason made me think of the tape recorder's precursor, the steel wire recorder. In the times that stainless steel wire was used to record sounds, being able to 'home' record must have been the privilege of but a very happy few. But I do recall that in the late 1970's I once actually found such a steel wire recorder in the Amsterdam street where I then lived, put outside for the garbage collectors, along with other discarded electrical household machinery. I took it home, and even got to play back the reel of wire that was on it, but as at the time all that did have little further interest for me, it soon again disappeared from my sight. Maybe it ended up in the attic, and got destroyed or lost when some years later the house went up in flames. Or maybe I gave it away ... [ ^ ]

(****) [ added sept. 03, 2007 ] Based on (a) sample(s) from a song on a Scott Fagan album ... I should ask Block for the precise reference. [ ^ ]

tags: tapemosphere, found tapes, cologne, köln

# .236.

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