Though we’re firmly in the era of the MP3, there’s a good deal of physical media that’s still getting used today. CDs remain the easiest way to listen to music in our cars, and their circular forebears, vinyl records, continue to enjoy popularity with analog purists, DJs, and the kids who fancy themselves one or the other. But the medium sandwiched between those two, historically speaking, has largely disappeared: Cassette tapes are not quite recent enough to be compatible with our current hardware and not quite old enough to be an object of our nostalgic interest. The cassette is the focus, however, of an installation by artist Stephen Cornford, though the piece isn’t concerned with tapes so much as the machines that play them. Cornford’s piece, Binatone Galaxy, is a gallery full of vintage cassette players that play nothing but themselves.
The variety of machines Cornford’s work employs, some 28 models, including units from Sharp, Sanyo, and one dubbed the Binatone Galaxy, makes for an interesting tableau on a purely visual level. But Cornford isn’t concerned with how the machines look so much as how they sound. Using custom-made cassette players outfitted with a lo-fi microphone, the installation fills the room with the sounds of the machines themselves—the whirring of the motors and the rhythms of the tape heads—activated by the viewers’ presence through the use of motion-detecting sensors. With a few people pacing around the gallery, you get tape players sounding off from all sides—an immersive symphony of a near-extinct technology.
The piece was about making the cassette medium into an "autonomous and somewhat indeterminate instrument," Cornford says, but discerning listeners will find that each machine is really a unique instrument unto itself. When amplified through his microphone-equipped tape, the machines "totally assert their individuality," he says."The strength of the motor, the material the casing is made of, the age of the amplifier, and a dozen other material qualities of the mechanics, housing, and electronics—all of these things not only colour the sound but in a lot of cases change it beyond recognition. A metal-cased first generation 1960s machine has a high piercing tone whereas, perhaps surprisingly, the '80s black plastic ones tend to sound warmer just due to the resonance of plastic rather than of metal."
On his website, Cornford, who’s also a musician, offers a CD composed entirely of tracks made from the cassette machine sounds—a sort of mixtape of the machines that gave birth to that very format.
The Binatone Galaxy piece itself was first installed in London last year, and it can currently be found at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, where it will reside through January. It’s a somewhat unusual celebration of the machines we were forced to use before we could skip from one track to the next with a push of a button, but while digital audio file formats and the devices that play them certainly make it easier for us to listen to music, a room full of iPods wouldn’t sound like much, mic’d or not.
[Hat tip: Creative Applications]