Culturally, with the ubiquity of digital media, we are developing a
curious relationship with physical objects.
I think it's a good idea to look at these developments historically.
Definitions of art forms are always up for debate and negotiation. For
example, the category now known as "sound art" didn't appear from
nowhere, and it isn't purely a product of technology. For me, sound
art means dealing with the poetic qualities of the physical apparatus
used to create, distribute and reproduce the sonic work. It also means
dealing with the complexities of historical conditions and social
interactions that surround it .
In my own example, 30 years ago, I had spent three years of my time in
the sculpture department of an art school. This was the best way I could
find of exploring my practice of "multimedia" – meaning a
convergence of categories between artforms and nothing whatsoever to do
with computers. I explored photocopy, screenprint, film, sound, the
postal systems, and what was then called "environments" (something like,
but slightly different to what we now call installation art). I liked
the Fluxus idea of the art multiple. Some people interpret Fluxus as
part of the process of dematerialising the art object. To me the
importance of Fluxus was in questioning art-as-commodity. In other
words, dematerialising the artist-as-commodity - negating art as an
alienated career path within modern capitalism.
In the late 70s and early 80s there emerged a context known as "cassette
culture", wherein marginal musicians and performers could operate in
opposition to the capitalistic aim of maximizing profit. I spent most of
my time active in this DIY scene,. I produced sound pieces that were
home-produced and distributed on hand-made cassettes through the Sterile
Records label I ran with my partner. There was great diversity amongst
such labels, some were entirely 'bedroom based', utilising new home tape
copying technologies whilst others were more organised, functioning in a
similar way to more established record labels. Some also did vinyl
releases, or later developed into vinyl labels. Many compilation albums
were released, presenting samples of work from various artists. It was
not uncommon for artists who had a vinyl contract to release on cassette
compilations, or to continue to do cassette-only album releases (of live
recordings, work-in-progress material, etc.) after they had started
A lot of the ethos of file-sharing networks, appropriation/remix/collage
of elements of existing recordings, which is now associated with the
internet emerged within that period.
But there was still a physicality. It was using things that could be put
in the post. It overlapped with the concerns of mail art and many mail
artists made sound art and vice versa. Digital audio can be "instant",
"free" and "accessible to millions". But a physical object could also be
used for other purposes than those it was intended for. It can be
contemplated, touched. A physical object exists in time and space, it
can wear out and assume new qualities in its degradation and scratches.
It is never just pure code.
Composing/improvising/editing for cassette, vinyl, radio, or CD or
download, or live performance, are all qualitively different processes.
There are also different degrees of intimacy involved. Giving or
receiving a compact disc has different ritual meaning to giving or
receiving a download. The experience of "live" acoustic sound is
qualitatively different to that of recorded sound.
It's important to think of these "object quality" elements - as well as
social interaction - as formal poetic elements within arts that use
digital platforms. They are the ecological elements that give them their