Media Crafting: Tara Rodgers’ Collection of Mini Fibre Arts Audio Gear

Composer, writer, and educator Tara Rodgers speaks with The Museum of Portable Sound about being an historian of synthesised sound, plus how her work in feminist media studies and the history of sound technologies led to a collection of crocheted and cross-stitched replica sound equipment

Tara Rodgers is a musician and historian who created the website Pinknoises.com, about women who make electronic music, in the year 2000. As a result, she compiled a book of oral histories related to women in sound and experimental composition. Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound, published by Duke University Press in 2010, collects interviews with pioneers of the electronic music world, and made significant progress in redressing the ongoing gender gap within the field of experimental and electronic music by documenting the work of important musicians like Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue, Ikue Mori, Pamela Z, Le Tigre, and many others during a crucial period in the ever-expanding development of sound studies as a discipline. In addition to releases and performances, her own musical work has been awarded the IAWM New Genre Prize. Tara and I spoke via email in June and July of 2017.

JOHN KANNENBERG: I’ve invited you to talk a bit about your collection of handcrafted miniatures of audio equipment, but before we get into that, I’m wondering if you might be able to talk a little bit about the overall arc of your creative work and research. I first became aware of your work with the publication of Pink Noises, the groundbreaking 2010 book about women composers in the world of electronic music, and I’m very interested in how your work concerns itself with, as you describe it on your website, ‘the cultural history of sound and audio technologies.’ This description sounds, if you’ll forgive my obsession, fairly ‘museum-y’, and I’d love to learn more about how you became interested in the cultural history of sound. Also, other than the frustratingly glaring discrepancies within typical cultural histories of sound that tend to marginalise the contributions of women, what are some of the other broad-stroke subjects you’ve taken on in the past, or are currently exploring?

TARA RODGERS: Thank you for this invitation. I’ve always had an interest in sound and in technologies and artifacts related to music-making. I learned about doing historical research as an undergraduate several years ago. Soon after that, I found that my interests in sound, music, technology, and history converged…

Following Pink Noises (most of which I had wrapped up by around 2006), I completed a dissertation in 2011 on the history of synthesized sound, which included archival research on audio textbooks, synth manuals, and inventors’ writings. Most of it has been published as book chapters and articles. For that project, I was interested in exploring how ideas of difference, such as differences of gender and race, have inhabited sonic epistemologies and electronic musical instrument designs. I focused on the role of metaphor in audio-technical discourse — specifically metaphors of electronic sounds as both waves and individual entities.

I find archival research almost magical in the sense that through proximity to artifacts and material culture you can gain access to knowledge and practices and kindred spirits that have come before, and it is a challenge to piece those narratives and lines of influence together.

For me, one interesting aspect of doing cultural history is finding connections between areas of culture that might not obviously go together, and in doing so tracing circulations of power. So, a history of sound wave metaphors opens onto oceanographic and maritime themes in acoustics textbooks, which often reveal a colonialist imagination of voyage and discovery. And examining the history of electronic sounds as individual forms leads us back to emergent ideas in modern science about individual variation and species differentiation, and about analogies between electricity and forms of life. Often the ways that ideas about sound were expressed in foundational acoustics texts were entwined with cultural assumptions about bodily differences. One goal of this project, which I’ve tried to advance through public lectures especially, is to encourage practitioners and instrument designers and educators to read textbooks and product manuals critically, to understand the cultural and political dimensions of technical concepts that are usually presented as neutral.

The “museum-y” obsessions that you mention — I do relate! I think where that comes into play for me is that I find archival research almost magical in the sense that through proximity to artifacts and material culture you can gain access to knowledge and practices and kindred spirits that have come before, and it is a challenge to piece those narratives and lines of influence together. But then there is an occupational hazard with being a historian, which is that you become captivated by the ways that objects in the present may be significant for histories told later — a recipe for collecting! So, with the media crafts I’ve been gathering, I think they tell us something about people’s relationships to music technologies now, which may be a useful detail in future histories…

We might say that homemade fiber arts are one stop in the complex social lives of old technologies; like, the material remains eventually get tossed away with the trash, but the idealized form may get preserved in embroidery and hung on somebody’s wall.

JK: Onto the craft collection. You began collecting small handcrafted reproductions of audio gear a few years ago. Can you talk about what the collection is, and how the collection started? What was the first piece you acquired?

TR: I have around a dozen items now, which are handcrafted artworks that represent media technologies in some way. It is a personal collection, although it started as an outgrowth of work I was doing for the Women’s Studies Multimedia Studio at the University of Maryland, a teaching lab and event space that I founded during the few years I was on the faculty there. There was a certain politics to creating a media lab and digital humanities location on campus that was grounded in women’s studies and feminist pedagogies. It felt important that women’s studies students could walk in and see aspects of their own histories reflected in the history of analog and digital media, and feel some sense of welcome or belonging in a media lab. Digital and technology lab spaces don’t typically offer that… And it also felt important for the digital media students who took classes in the lab — most of whom were men, and all of whom hadn’t taken women’s studies courses — to have the experience of learning in a media lab where women’s contributions to art and technology cultures were foregrounded. So, even though these were pretty small details, I curated some resources and artifacts that would contribute to this sort of atmosphere. There was a small library of books and videos to browse, and other objects — like a Favianna Rodriguez poster on the wall; “What Would Joan Jett Do?” stickers on the file cabinet; a dozen or so old 7" records hanging on the wall that reflected the breadth of women’s work in rock, pop, and R&B over the decades, for example.

It was a tangent of that informal curating that led me to search online for handmade craft objects — either made by women or that reflected craft traditions that women pioneered — that represented media technologies as the subjects of the artwork. There were two orders I placed around the same time, probably about six years ago: I first came across a brilliant series by Syniva Whitney, an artist based in Seattle, with complex replicas of analog signal abstractions — analog TV white noise “snow” and the color bar test pattern — made in needlepoint and latch hook and then represented in large photographic prints. I was blown away by the amazing level of detail and commitment in producing those works. And then I also purchased a cross-stitched cassette tape in a lovely frame on Etsy, which had a certain elegance to it.

JK: Aside from your own personal enjoyment of these objects, do you see any other uses or functions for them? What stories do they tell to you? To others? Could you see this collection being displayed outside of your home, for a more general audience?

TR: I have the fiber art objects lined up on my fireplace mantel, and they are a good conversation piece when people visit. It’s interesting to hear what people’s favorite piece is and to talk about our personal relationships to technologies and “old” media.

I honestly haven’t thought of this collection as something that anyone else (other than fellow audio and media history nerds) would be interested in. I would be open to having them shown publicly, although my mantel would be sadly bare!

In terms of the stories these objects tell — I had some of them around my living space for awhile before something clicked and I thought, oh, there’s actually something interesting about this as a cultural phenomenon. That it is part of a longer trajectory of musical instruments and media as subjects of decorative arts and crafts…

There are many ways to interpret this phenomenon, which surely goes back decades and varies across cultural contexts. We might say that homemade fiber arts are one stop in the complex social lives of old technologies; like, the material remains eventually get tossed away with the trash, but the idealized form may get preserved in embroidery and hung on somebody’s wall. Or, at a certain point in a musical instrument’s multigenerational lifespan, its iconic form becomes recognizable, like a companion species, within the visual culture of domestic settings. So one makes a latch hook of a grand piano in the same way that one might make one to commemorate whatever breed of dog is special in that household… I also want to use a word like “remediation” to describe this phenomenon, but I think it’s slightly different — this odd process by which the creative output of one hobby (e.g., needlework) memorializes a technology that is central to another, contemporaneous hobby (e.g., listening to records).

All of this in some way tells us things about labor and leisure. In other words, there is in most cases a different level of cultural and economic privilege enabling the work of makers of handmade cassette needlepoints, compared to conditions of workers on media storage assembly lines (who may also be doing a form of handmade work). At the same time, the crafters are personalizing a global, capitalist media manufacturing apparatus in ways that are meaningful and important… I haven’t done enough research to verify this, but my sense is that the rise of synth and drum machine magnets, brooches, needlepoints, and pillows closely parallels the recent surge in boutique analog synth and pedal manufacturers. Both are interesting, small-scale, creative responses to synth cultures in the ’80s and ’90s that were dominated more by multinational corporations like Roland and Yamaha.

I honestly haven’t thought of this collection as something that anyone else (other than fellow audio and media history nerds) would be interested in. I would be open to having them shown publicly, although my mantel would be sadly bare! Or maybe I would share them in an online presentation sometime.

JK: Do you have a favourite piece in your collection?

TR: I enjoy each of them. There is a wonderful minimalist embroidery that outlines a floppy disk; a soft crocheted mini gramophone that struggles to stand up; and detailed magnets and brooches that replicate a reel-to-reel tape recorder and an MPC sequencer. I have the analog signal fiber-art photographs by Syniva Whitney in my studio now, directly over my workstation, and I like to look up at them to clear my head when I’m working. This never gets old! The abstraction and the detail is inspiring.

JK: Have you made any of the pieces yourself, or commissioned anyone to make any? Or are they all unique finds? Are there any objects you haven’t been able to acquire yet that you would love to see crafted in this manner?

TR: I have not made any myself, but that is a nice idea! I also like the idea of commissioning works but don’t have a budget for that right now. I haven’t been actively collecting in recent years. I am less invested in pursuing a collection on my own terms than in periodically supporting artists who have the inspiration and dedication, say, to embroider a brooch that faithfully represents a specific drum machine that has special meaning to them. I love that people are doing this.