The Hallucinatory Life of Tape – Paul Hegarty


It would be easy to see tape as part of a sequence in the development of increasingly perfect means of reproducing recorded sound. It would take its place after wax cylinders, shellac records, wire; alongside vinyl of varying formats; itself diversifying into 4 track, 8 track, elcaset, compact, mini or micro cassettes; and before the digital perfection of cd, minidisc and ultimately digital sound without hard media. Such a view could be substantiated or contextualised within a story of cultural production, of technologies in a wider sense, or of a drive to progress, whether commercially or artistically driven (Jonathan Sterne does many of these, with regard to the situation of sound reproduction and recording in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and highlights a critical complicity that has built up around ‘modernity as modernism’ and ‘modernity as modernisation’ (Sterne, 2003: 9-10)).

We cannot lose this story of progress, for not only has it been told, it has been heard, many times, before and even now, surrounding the machinery of listening and production, pre-empting it on many occasions (Sterne, 2003: 288). But at the same time, other narratives occur, spawned even within the thrust of perfection. Many critics have come to question perfection as ever having been possible in audio media (see Hainge, 2007), and that apparent flaws are often enabling devices for normal functioning. As well as this counter to the sense of perpetual improvement, there is also the question of residue: as the ‘perfect sound’ leaves one media for another, the now surpassed, superseded media is supposed to die. If it does, its passing can be mourned, and be preserved; if it doesn’t, then it can be helped, kept on a life-support machine, and hopefully nursed back to health (like vinyl?). Within the dying of media comes the passing or slow dying of individual units – tapes, records, cylinders, cartridges – all of which decay, and in so doing, seem to take on characteristics of having lived. Once digital media arrive as ‘other’, as cyborg sound, the analogue seems to breathe, however rasping the sound. Nostalgia and melancholy imbue formats in general and individual items with pneuma (the essential lifeforce or breath of everything in the universe, according to the Stoics).

These narratives of progress and melancholy are twinned, each necessitating the other. As Sterne notes, the ‘obvious’ function of early sound recording in preserving individuals’ voices, or the voices of dying cultures, was not so obvious at the time because of being unrealisable. In addition, the very preservation meant a ‘sound recording did as much to promote ephemerality as it did to promote permanence in auditory life’ (2003: 288). Not only was the thing being recorded a pre-emption of its demise and transitoriness (318, 330), the fact of only capturing small moments on fragile media meant that ‘the sound recording itself also embodie[d] fragmented time’ (310).

Tape works within this narrative of temporality through technology, and of course, has its own material conditions of production, location in consumer culture, etc., and once I have looked at that briefly, I wish to expand on the idea that tape has its own narrative, its own way of structuring narrative, that is intimately caught up with not so much the economic materiality of its production, but the materiality of its form. This implies a centrality of one narrative: that tape is uniquely oriented to narration, and that this is a narration intimately caught up with human belief in life as an accumulative narrative. Fragmentation, the possibility of cutting and breaking, shadows this, and consistency and failure inform each other. Around this, tape coheres in specific modes: the mix tape, the cut tape and the decaying tape.


Tape was developed as a viable recording format in 1930s Germany, made its way into recording in late 1940s America, and crossed from professional to domestic use with the invention of the cassette (Philips, 1963), which closed the tape in and made it highly portable. This portability is fully realised with the Sony Walkman (1979). This brought tape to the highpoint of its commercial success, which would only fade with the definitive implantation of the cd as prime consumer format, in the early 1990s (although it fought off the minidisc). In the early 21st century, it persists in the form of digital audio tape (DAT) in recording studios, but even here, at least for portable recording, hard disc recorders have more or less edged it out.

Its rise is a story of usefulness, portability and durability. Field recordings, studio work, editing all seemed easier. Even if early tape was not of a great standard, it was much easier to duplicate from the outset. Multitrack recording is made a normal procedure, as ‘for the first time, audio could be manipulated as a physical entity’ (Wikipedia 2007a: 2). Initially, this involved literally cutting the tape up and re-organising, or just reconnecting the separate bits. John Cage (Fontana Mix (1958)) and William Burroughs both saw the immense potential in new work from fragments of pre-existing recordings. Radio studios appeared all around Europe and in the United States from the late 1950s, with tape the preferred medium not only of storage but of manipulation. Musique concrète had worked with lathe-cut vinyl, and now could open its samples to collage and fragmentation (for a fuller account of the role of tape in music experimentation at this time, see Chadabe, 1997: 63-80).

In addition to claims of heightened functionality, tape was a way of re-organising existing material, and so takes centre stage in a history of sampling and ownership of material (culminating, for tape, in the mixtape). It becomes an explicit means of intervention, altering what we think ‘intervention’ is and who controls it: ‘the records, samples and various other sonic material the DJ uses to construct their mix act as a sort of externalized memory that breaks down previous notions of intellectual property and copyright that Western Society has used in the past’ (Miller, 2004: 353). Sterne questions technological determinism that would say a particular technology altered thought or society, arguing that the technology is part of a wider technology, or Foucauldian épistémè, but don’t media also carry unexpected outcomes, uses and abuses (in the same way feathers evolved ‘because’ of the need to keep warm and then turned out to be useful for flying)? Something about tape’s linearity suggests both fragmentation and the possibility of a restoration of order, ownership, control. Tape is manipulable in ways cylinders and vinyl are not, whilst holding out for continuity. As can be seen in Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s cut-ups, tape is a modernist medium: you can fragment, split up, position yourself as losing identity in a fragmentation, and the result will be the appearance of a new, albeit fragmentary, whole.

With the cassette, ownership of material, or of creativity, is stretched further. Where sound experimentalists sought hidden new works that would break out from residues of the existing world, home tape recorders offered the prospect of avoiding the need to purchase pre-recorded musical commodities. It also meant you could record your own material. This combination of compilation and DIY recording is thought of as ‘cassette culture’ (see Moore, 2004), a way around the culture industry, a re-appropriation of the means of production. Its apogee is the personal ‘mixtape’ (itself now commodified in the form of getting already established musicians to prepare their selections for mass-produced cds).


The mixtape is both personal and an expression of technological will to power – an intervention that occurs not outside but against and within power relations that structure music listening. But mostly, the mixtape is heralded as a personal expression, even if that communication is based on appropriation. Matias Viegener writes that the mixtape declares, on behalf of its creator, ‘I am no mere consumer of pop culture, it says, but also a producer of it’ (in Moore, 2004: 35). Indeed, as Moore suggests, the tape is mostly about the maker: ‘is there a desire to convert your lover into you?’ (43). The mixtape compiles bits of recordings from the producer’s collection, and tries to target its audience of one, either through didacticism, showing off, trying to match up interests, etc.1 It conveys something of the character of the person making it, in theory, as well as being a display of commodity ownership, as opposed to copyright ownership, through creative juxtaposition. This investment (including when the tape is destined for your own use) means the mix takes on the character of a snapshot, and like Barthes’ idea of the photographic image, it suggests narratives beyond it.

For Rob Sheffield, ‘[the mixtape] does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together and they add up to a story of a life’ (Sheffield, 2007: 26). Sheffield’s book is not an analysis, but a sentimental (without being overly sentimental) memoir of his time with his wife, who died young and suddenly, and is told via a series of mixtapes. The tapes are indexical of other narratives: his life, the life of his wife, a record of his listening at the time, the state of US indie music at various points in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the metanarrative that such a tape can make links to narratives ostensibly external to it (Nick Hornby also suggested the capacity of the mixtape to make these links in his novel High Fidelity). When he begins, slightly purply, he writes that ‘tonight I feel like my whole body is made up of memories. I’m a mix tape, a cassette that’s been rewound so many times you can hear the fingerprints smudged on the tape’ (2007: 12). The tape is not only index, it is charged with being a carrier of being, slowly exhaling that imbued pneuma with each playing.

The materiality of the tape seems incidental, its functionality compressing its specificity (this seems to be heightened with tape compared to other media). The composer Alvin Lucier is dismissive of tape (despite making a very significant contribution both to sound art through tape and to a form of narrative working through tape itself, see below):

I didn’t choose tape, I had to, because in order to recycle sounds into a space, I had to have them accessible in some form. Tape, then, wasn’t a medium in which to compose sounds, it was a conveyor, a means to record them and play them back one after another in chronological order. (quoted in Chadabe, 1997: 76)

The mixtape is deemed so unreliant on its carrier that it can be separated off, by means of a sub-Cartesian surgical procedure, and reappear as a mixtape, only this time on cd. Moore states simply that cd is the current form of the mixtape (2004: 12). Sheffield, despite basing a whole book on tapes as a way of narrating life stories, writes: ‘most mix tapes are cds now, yet people still call them mix tapes. I can load up my iPod with weeks’ worth of music and set it on shuffle to play a different mix every time. I can borrow somebody else’s iPod and pack it with songs I think they’d like’ (2007: 24). The Wikipedia article on the mixtape concurs: even going so far as to think the cd a superior version, as you do not have to plan everything from the start (Wikipedia 2007b: 4). I know it’s not fair to criticize Wikipedia for not being accurate, especially as I could correct it, but it serves as a good illustration of how pervasive the idea has become that all recording media form part of a continuum, to the point of misrepresenting the different functionalities of the recording process: other than through using a still-expensive genuine cd recorder, burning cds removes all possibility of live intervention as the whole stack of files is prepared before recording starts. There is a nostalgic reference in the persistence of the term ‘mixtape’, but I think above all it is a forgetting of tape.

Sheffield’s statements about the work of a mixtape bear further scrutiny: beyond the simplistic idea of one self-contained, self-aware subject depositing a fractal avatar of him- or herself on tape, to be consumed, communed with by the second self-aware, self-contained subject, we can think of all of these apparently autonomous moments as being caught in circuits of fetishism, all partaking of some mystical essence. Tape, and its mixtape manifestation, are uniquely positioned, as media, to function and/or structure experience this way. Sheffield notes that the mixtape stores up memories better than brain tissue. In saying this, he is coming from the point of view of reliability, of preservation. He does not look into how the mixtape works, so does not see how right his point is: as a fragmentary but connected multiplicity, the mixtape works as a more accurate version of brain functioning and structure (not just an actualisation of connections made unconsciously in preparing a tape) that justifies the comparison, and the belief in the more obvious level he explicitly notes. Mixtapes do not tell stories, or, despite Sheffield’s explicit view on this, present themselves as unities with a single story: they are looser, about connectedness, processes of association, not completed tales with a clear ending, moral and purpose.

He also imagines himself as a tape, a body made of tape. Despite his and Moore’s protestations, I do not think the same imaginary can occur with a cd, or collection of soundfiles. Tape has a resonance with the body, with life, just as early recording and vinyl resonates with death foretold. This is not to say that tape is more truthful, more organic or better for all that. Nor that it excludes death. Instead, it does death differently, and returns life to its residuality, to being a by-product of destruction and decay, as it dwells within (and continually returns to) that slow dying.


The belief in the transparency of recording media held by musique concrète practitioners was not shared by Adorno. Lucier, Pierre Schaeffer and to some extent Cage saw tape, even, or especially, when cut and re-edited, as almost absent as medium, feeling they were dealing with sound itself.2 Adorno looked to the record as a social object, gathering the family as social unit around the gramophone player (Adorno, 2002a: 272). Music itself was trapped, reified, just like a photograph. The record presents neither the time of music (as an authentic structuring of time) nor a static representation of that actual time of playing, but something odder, with ‘time as evanescence, enduring in mute music’ (Adorno, 2002b: 279). The record is not listened to all the time, and even if you did do that, it would be to the cost of all other records.

The actual form of the record itself helps construct these functions. In terms of the social reiteration of the family it structures, it is not just the joint presence around the hearth, but also, he says, because it reflects our wish to see ourselves reflected, and brought into some kind of permanence in so doing:

What the gramophone listener actually wants to hear is himself, and the artist merely offers him a substitute for the sounding-image of his own person, which he would like to safeguard as a possession. The only reason that he accords the record such value is because he himself could also be just as well preserved. (Adorno, 2002a: 274)

Adorno is reasonably neutral in making this particular statement, but it is surrounded by the continual insistence on the inauthenticity of such behaviour, and its part in helping the culture industry replace what he sees as real cultural activity. But it also tells us of a relation between subject and technology that is itself a ‘technology of self’. The record plays out selfhood and a relation to time that continually returns to mortality, and this despite its aim to distract us from thought (in Adorno’s view). The record itself conjures mortality through the spiral of the groove

[the theologian] may also tend to hold that the truth-content of art only arises to the extent that the appearance of liveliness has abandoned it; that artworks only become ‘true’, fragments of the true language, once life has left them; perhaps even only through their decline and that of art itself. It would be, then, that in a seriousness that is hard to measure, the form of the phonograph record could find its true meaning: the scriptal spiral that disappears in the centre, in the opening of the middle, but in return survives in time. (Adorno, 2002b: 280)

Adorno uses the figure of ‘the theologian’ to indicate a return of archaic thinking summoned by reflection of the medium of the record, and far from criticising this, seems to be suggesting the record encourages this, whether this is a good thing or not, and therefore provides a legitimate technology for thinking the self. We should not be misled into thinking Adorno wants us to meditate on the inevitability of death being like a record reaching its end, but instead recall Nietzsche’s eternal return, and, again, not in the banality of getting up and putting the record on again. Instead, the record at every moment contains its ending but cannot close it off (except perhaps in a locked groove, but this would be another version of eternal return anyway); and every time it ends it contains the possibility of coming to be.

Tape can be read similarly, in terms of the ending of a tape, and both record and tape offer the possibility of restoration or a living-on when turning sides, but not all tape offers the spectacle of its own demise and/or living-on. Open reel tapes can show you how long is left and even unspool without destroying the tape. Cassettes offer a murkier version of this. But we should recall that for Adorno, the record does not invoke mortality in the form of an eternal return because we can see how long is left, or that there will be an end at some point. In the record, it is the inevitability of tracing a path that can only end in nothing that does the work of this phenomenological machine. The tape, however, carries the promise of a continual loop, with death a break in that, rather than something coming. Tape does not have the tragic being-unto-death as an explicit part of its working, and instead signals decay and/or disruption.

At this point Krapp looms weightily: Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape of 1958 sees the eponymous Krapp mostly sitting at a table replaying tapes of himself talking. From the numbering system he uses, it is clear that huge chunks of his life must be here, on tape. But what we hear contains little or no content, in terms of events, consisting, instead, of observations, a large number of which concern the process of recording, of living-on as recording. The only identity he has is through recording, and this identity is very little, as identities go. This is life as reduction, but where reduction is the only means available for anything to almost be, or seem to have been. The ‘last tape’ of the title signals that the life, as the tape, as this tape, will end. But the ending has already occurred, in the form of the silence that ends the principal tape listened to, from ’30 years ago’, which plays on through the end of the play, so can never end, as the silent tape runs on, rather than finishing (Beckett, 1990: 223). The Krapp present before us is already gone, already integrated into tape and the decay it contains. Not only that, but the Krapp in front of us has yet to come, as the ‘action’ takes place in the near future….

Krapp and Beckett are aware of the metaphysics of tape, beyond its ability to commemorate, store, simulate and so on. Krapp often refers with delight to the spool, or even ‘the spooool’ (216). Tape is not just a metaphor for life, but a reflection, an equivalent, alternative version: the continual spooling of tape the safety of human linear living, but always carrying the threat of interruption, of ending unexpectedly, just as much as it might end at a clearly signalled moment. Krapp himself interrupts the tape on several occasions, fast-forwarding, or just pausing, but always as a reaction rather than because of some worldly interruption. Even as he ‘cuts’ the tape, he is forming and re-forming his relation to it, and himself as relation to it.

Krapp is also working through a model of memory where despite the apparent linearity or sequence of tapes, comments etc., he has compiled, access is more intuitive, more arbitrary. Beyond these fairly obvious philosophical ideas lies the question of the subject’s relation to recording, of how the spool structures consciousness and access to same. The spool itself suggests a core, a point (birth? death? deconstructed subjectivity? the excluded middle?) around which life accumulates at an even pace. At the end, a linear narrative will have come to be, through the tape’s winding. This winding of the tape itself separates tape from the winding on a record: there is less of a possible mind/body divide, as the ravelling is simultaneously of both sound and tape. Krapp’s glee around the ‘spooool!’ suggests that he spools around the spindle of the body of tapes that is him, adding another possibility to the meaning of the central spool (around which the tape winds): here the spool (not the tape itself spooling) is the life, a life now only an absence turning amidst something else that seems to acquire solidity (and this the most ephemeral element, as it is words spoken in the past).


Krapp, and tape, Krapp and tape, and the playing of tape, the playing of Krapp and the listening of Krapp combine into something more or, significantly less, than a subject (Krapp) listening to an object (his voice, the tape) through another machine (the recorder/player). This then approaches Deleuze and Guattari’s body without organs, or, even more closely, Lyotard’s ‘libidinal band’. Lyotard himself is keen to distinguish this ‘band’ (a sort of Moebius strip combining bodies, sounds, movements, objects etc. into a continually circulating surface)3 from other ‘bandes’ or tapes: the libidinal is not inscribed or marked into something else, because such marking ‘implies an aspect (catégorie) of accumulation, storing up, and material memory, and, which is more of the same, diachrony’ (Lyotard, 1974: 25)4. But neither is tape – Krapp’s, or anyone else’s. Tape is constantly moving along a path that crosses with listening and recording subjects, such that these become-tape, at some level, and will now have always been, less the controllers than that which has been wound, will be wound. Becoming tape is neither: 1. becoming something that is recorded on; nor 2. just like a tape. It is a process that begins with the mechanical realisation of technological sound reproduction. From that point on, mirroring, recording, simulating, storing, preserving are all not merely life (or the keeping alive of what is now dead) but a full interaction of death and life as dual processes, one held off by the promise of the infinite reel, the other held off by the promise of the ending that will come at a given moment.

Krapp is a model of intervention that gets immersed, losing agency even as action/activity occurs, but Burroughs seems to offer a way of mobilising tape against itself. Deleuze and Guattari point to resistance happening through breakdown, disruption and interference (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983: 31). Burroughs himself uses ‘tape recorder technology’ as ‘part of a larger project, which he conceives of most often not in terms of experiment or play but of warfare’ (Lydenberg, 1994: 414). Like so many others, Burroughs does not attribute any agency or specificity explicitly to the medium of tape, but Lydenberg is too hasty in merely seeing tape as a means to an end, a transparent support – making tape just like the paper Burroughs cuts up elsewhere. This means that voice is the medium (as writing is) (426), and it too can be cut up like written words. But we can read Burroughs’ use of tape as something much richer, and the role of tape more important than we might suspect. Burroughs and Gysin developed the cut-up in the 1950s, as tape was spreading as a medium. The cut-up is not only ideally suited to tape, it is as if they emerge as parallel and adjacent parts of the same technology. Each takes the failing of language to reveal new meanings and suggest new possibilities. Later, in the 1960s, through to the 1980s, Burroughs writes often on the revolutionary potential of tape recorders and the manipulation of recordings, particularly live ones recontextualised (see Lydenberg, 1994, for a comprehensive summary of those writings). Unlike cut-ups in text form, tape recordings, or more accurately, tape and tape recorders, can react to new settings and events. Burroughs recommends directing public events through near-subliminal juxtaposition of, say, political speeches and the sounds of animals or riots. The key to this is not just to multiply sound sources and confuse a gathering, but to cut different recordings in order that new meanings and imperatives can be heard. Ideally you would intersperse sounds from around you with other recordings, and this would be done through fast-forwarding and recording over parts of the existing track. This process is not just the same as the cut-up, it is a more profound version, that can only exist on (more accurately as or via) tape. Arguably the whole model of disruption through cut-up relies on a metaphysics of tape, as outlined above, where the linear must always be asserted, but intervention or interference is a constant risk for that linearity and a necessity (because without it, no recording…).5

At one level, Burroughs’ tapes and textual cut-ups are very much an extension of the project of the classic modernist novel, where fragmentation is the new truth. At another, though, Burroughs’ fragmentation never even resolves as an answer: instead we have many answers, many assertions, multiple assessments, all undermining one another. The fragmentation that occurs through tape is resolutely anti-linear: i.e. it does not ignore linearity, but replaces it with a parodic version, whether through splicing or picking random moments of a tape in which to insert new recordings. Tape will always exceed the intention of its operator, as unnoticed sounds make their way on to the tape (Burroughs, 1979: 137). As this occurs, the listener is running his own tape recording, which has been edited in realtime: ‘the sound has been erased according to a scanning pattern which is automatic’ (ibid.). Far more than Lyotard suspects, his ‘band’ translates into tape, at least when tape reveals its non-functioning, limits, ends, etc., that it relies on for functionality.


As is well-known, Burroughs regards language as a virus that has invaded humanity, making humans dual creatures, alienated from a more interesting (not necessarily truer) universe. Language is a parasite, benefiting from human activity and directing it. Tape could be seen as a way in which language solidifies its hold, imposing a simple linearity on experience. Hence, the cut-up as a way of disrupting this. The cutting-up of tape is not just the written cut-up by other means – it is a deeper operation, not because it operates with voice instead of writing, but precisely because it operates through a prosthetic living, a prosthetic speaking, both of which emphasize that there is only ever prosthesis when it comes to the ideas or conditions of living. The cut-up intervenes directly in the symbiotic evolution of recording and the human.6 It refuses the immunity of inoculation (i.e. living with recording, accepting linear, spool-based life) and replaces it with a constant test situation. Disrupting the ‘natural’ progress of recording methods in order to illustrate the chance elements and the ‘flaws’ in systems that allow operation, cutting up tape, literally or otherwise, takes tape into the realm of recombinant DNA. This might seem an obvious and only metaphorical connection, but the working of DNA occurs very much within the thinking induced by tape as medium.7

A superficial connection also exists between the double helix of the DNA molecule and a reel of tape, but more interesting is the connection suggested by the presence of mitochondrial DNA, which Lyn Margulis suggests is an ‘endosymbiotic’ element, having initially invaded the cell hundreds of millions of years ago (Margulis, 1993). DNA is affected by this extraneous but contained other, and once together the structures need each other. Cutting and splicing is not a new phase, but does alert us to the interdependency of linearity ‘objectively stored’ in recorded form and the sense of continuity and living on in expectation of a linear end, and that this is not inevitably how it was always going to turn out, nor is recording a progressive evolution toward the best, but a more non-linear and fully hazardous path.

At a literal level, this can be seen in the succession of forms of recording media. For commercial reasons, inferior media have often succeeded over ‘superior’ ones (VHS over Betamax, mp3 over other digital formats). This is not always due to the choices made by corporations and struggles between them, but due to unexpected popularity of formats, or rejection of others (such as disc-based video formats). In hindsight, this is always justified as the outcome of a rational competition, based on utility and fitness. But the only fitness is survival (survival does not prove superiority), everything else is ideology and hindsight (even if this is all we have). Therefore, we do not need to reject an evolutionist history of recording, but reconfigure it. In addition to recording media helping us to recall Darwin’s thought of what fitness actually means, we need to refer to the idea of ecosystems: individual ‘species’ do not struggle against everything else. If nothing else, the highly corporatised history of recording means that the capitalist economy prevents a war of all against all it claims to want, in favour of the equally Hobbesian Leviathan of oligopoly. Tape then, occurs and cohabits with vinyl, in a highly developed way, establishing a dominant form of stereo equipment. It has an uneasy relation to 8 track, as these look to the same resources, but 8 track can be adapted to play tapes through a further cartridge. More recently, cassette players in cars are given a life-saving prosthesis to connect to cd players, and then to iPods, in the form of a mimetic cartridge empty of tape. Cassette as coral.

Tape has yet to become redundant, and just as new species do not abolish ‘older’ ones, tapes live on, infesting houses and cars, their primary exoskeleton preserving slowly rotting insides. Survival rates are often higher without the decorative coverings that house the cassette. Decay is a fundamental part of tape’s existence, due to the presence of oxides that initially fixed the recording. But crucially, the inside and outside do not necessarily die at the same pace.


Tape’s ironic fate is that recordings made on it need preserving on new media. This is not necessarily due to the quality of playback, but the effect of playback on the medium. Restoration and preservation offer new niches for what at least were tape recordings. Awareness of tape ecology has moved on considerably since the BBC threw out huge portions of master tapes, or recorded over them some 30 years ago. But outside of this transfer of tape into simulation, with its apologies for variable levels and quality, and heritage-style references to the initial conditions of recording, tape persists differently, or its life is examined differently.

Like the alien in the eponymous film, tape lives on in space despite attempts to destroy it. The Voyager spacecraft run tape recording systems which record plasma, plasma wave and low energy charge particles. This digital tape is based on 1963 technology and was launched in 1977. It is still working, and it is only due to communication limits that it will be switched off in 2010.8 This tape has lasted so well thanks to being outside of earth’s atmosphere, but perhaps also because of its specific mode of functioning, which is to be permanently recording, transmitting and erasing, whilst in continual movement.9 The Voyager tapes are a far more human artefact than the more famous gold disc with its images, sound recordings etc., which is also on board, for aliens to find. The tape’s operation will reveal much more of how humans predominantly construct their existence. Whilst the tapes interact with us (through transmission of data), it is as if some human presence lingers at the outer limits of the Solar System. But the tape has not only travelled many multiples of miles further than humanity, it will persist cryogenically. Ideally, an error might restart it at some point, as it records and sends data, futilely, as far as we are concerned, through increasingly emptier space.


Alvin Lucier explored the saprophytic possibilities of tape in his I am sitting in a room (1969). In this piece, he records himself reading a text in a room, then records that tape on another tape, records that one in turn and so on, so the tape gradually fills up with hiss, multiplying with each generation. As noted above, Lucier seems oblivious to the specificity of tape in producing this effect. A more satisfying and less (badly) conceptualised work that looks at tape recording in decay is William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops (Musex, 2001). Whilst engaging in the preservation mode, archiving old recordings, Basinski

soon realized that the tape loop itself was disintegrating: as it played round and round, the iron oxide particles were gradually turning to dust and dropping into the tape machine, leaving bare plastic spots on the tape, and silence in these corresponding sections of the new recording. (The Disintegration Loops, liner notes)

This creates a seemingly elegiac piece, as the tape plays itself decaying through the medium of the sound decaying (in terms of the new recording) (excerpt 1).10 Despite Basinski making this impression more solid by noting his listening to the piece on September 11th, 2001, he is aware it is not just about death, or even the terrible beauty of death, or about hope, either, but about how these intertwine, as it is the ‘life and death’ of the music that is being saved (liner notes). It is not just being saved though, because the saving is performing the destruction. This recording is not just about endings, then, but process, decay and the necessity of decay potential in allowing tape to act as recorder.

Over 63 minutes the track ‘d|p 1.1 gradually solidifies into clusters of increasingly noisefilled lumps as the structure loses definition. The warm short phrases give way very quickly to their own breakdown. Specific pressure points appear, and those sections of the loop lead the decay. But for long periods, the tape seems to be only very sedately disintegrating (this is probably just as much due to this listener getting used to a process and imagining it as constant). The erosion is geological,11 water dripping on rock, but more accurately it is biological – the tape is the reiteration of its basic process until it can no longer sustain it (excerpt 3), and having declined at a much more rapid pace (after 40 minutes, and again toward the end (excerpt 2). So there is the catastrophe of sudden collapse, as the disintegration is not fully constant. The music is gradually submerged in its own decay, its definition lost. Only a suggestion of its momentum/rhythm persists. Sounds get less distinct. The Disintegration Loops mark their own passing, make their own passing happen, and, for Basinski listening in 2001, they mark the passing of his past, and of the lives of people killed in the World Trade Center attacks. They can only do this through tape, and through tape as transferred to another medium. As well as marking the conditions in which tape can work, ‘d|p 1.1’ marks the passing of tape, but not its end, rather its mutation and persistence in its failing.


1. Mixtapes are also produced by DJs and MCs as a showcase for their skills, and therefore target a wider audience.

2. Part of the imagined progress of recording media involves progressive disappearance of the medium itself, culminating in the digital format. At the same time, sound itself becomes more visible, indexed as a visual waveform that offers itself for direct manipulation. However, digital sound has only moved the location of technology, such that there are now parallel digital supports, rather than one reproductive machine (record, tape, cartridge, etc.) and one processor (the player of the object). In order to achieve the invisibility of a medium, much more complex mediating machinery is necessary.

3. Christian Marclay has realised a variant of this in his Moebius Loop (1994) where hundreds of cassette tapes are netted together to form a fence-like structure with a kink to make it that infinite non-dimensional figure. This parody of intensities creates a failed synthesis (the tapes are kept discrete) through the failure of the functionality of the tapes. This giant tape shows the necessity of limiting, of factoring in failure instead of the ironic closure of the infinite ‘libidinal’ band.

4. Translation my own.

5. Deleuze and Guattari write that ‘breaking down is part of the very function of desiring machines’ (1983: 32), where a ‘desiring machine’ is opposed to and supersedes ordinary machines, as it sets up open-ended processes and relations, rather than being fixed into an object. They underestimate the capacity for machines to have always, from the start, been part of a more interesting and relational machinicity.

6. Eugene Thacker identifies the intersection of biology and human as ‘biomedia’, such that ‘the biological and the digital domains are no longer rendered ontologically distinct, but instead are seen to inhere in each other; the biological “informs” the digital, just as the digital “corporealizes” the biological’ (Thacker, 2004: 7).

7. Genetics and recording share a history as part of a technology of ‘coding’ as identified by Baudrillard in 1976 (see Baudrillard, 1993). Baudrillard is primarily interested in a binary code, which comes to supplant other forms of reality, and finds its apotheosis in computer code, digitality and, ultimately, virtual reality. Nonetheless, computing history is of course utterly caught up not just with code, but code as carried by tape. Tape had found a new habitat inside various hardwares. We might also note that DNA is caught up within a history of recording, with X-ray photography one of the key tools in the ‘revealing’ of DNA’s structure.

8. All information on Voyager’s tape system is courtesy of the Voyager team at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), whom I thank profusely for their time, assistance and information. Any errors in presentation of their data are mine.

9. These tapes are long: 12697.5 inches on Voyager 1, and 12873.75 on Voyager 2. There are 9 tracks, with the ninth being a tachometer track indicating the portion for transmission.

10. I would like to thank William Basinski for permission to use these extracts, and for his encouragement. The cuts are my own, and extracts 1 and 2 have purposely not been given long, smooth fades, which would have conferred a false sense of their being self-contained. Extract 3 is the very end of ‘d|p 1.1’.

11. A similar process is suggested in Marclay’s Tape Fall (1989), where an open reel tape recorder plays the sound of falling water as the tape (not connected to a second spindle) falls slowly to the ground from the raised tape player, forming an outcrop of unwound tape.


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Wikipedia (2007a) Reel-to-reel audio tape recording. Accessed 10th April, 2007.

Wikipedia (2007b) Mixtape. Accessed 10th April, 2007.

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