Issue 23 / 2014

The story of a performer, the story of an item. Willem de Ridder’s tape experiments

Antoni Michnik , transl. Agata Klichowska

The story and the recording

“The narrator—although the name itself is so familiar to us—is by no means present to us in his living activity. He is, to us, something distant and still receding,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay on Nikolai Lesskov.1 Benjamin believed that the skill of oral storytelling ceased to exist in modern societies due to the changes in communication, which replaced the story delivered by the narrator with information provided by the press. “Encounters with people who can actually tell a story become ever more seldom,” he wrote. “Embarrassment tends to be ever more common in a group when someone wishes for a story. It is as if the ability that seemed so inalienable to us, so trusted, was taken away.”

Just as Benjamin was writing his essay on Lesskov, Milman Parry and Albert Lord were carrying out fieldwork in the present-day Bosnia, which revolutionized the understanding of oral literature, and also left a deep mark on the ethnomusicology of the 20th century. Parry and Lord’s purpose was to prove that Homeric epics could be passed on from generation to generation by means of oral tradition, thanks to various mnemonic devices developed by “professional” “storytellers” of the oral communities. With the help of special recording equipment,2 the researchers recorded the possibly most distinguished living “narrators” of the oral culture, first and foremost Avdo Međedović, whom they called the “Yugoslavian Homer.” “He is our present-day Balkan Singer of Tales,” Lord wrote about Međedović in the preface to his most important book.3

Parry and Lord created a new communication situation, where a preliterate community story was now functioning on a medium that belonged to the Information Age. Recording of Međedović’s stories proved not only that it was possible to create complex epics within oral literature, but also that modern media could do justice to their specific character. It was Richard Bauman who gave this phenomenon the most thought, assigning to it the performance category. In his opinion, storytellers were primarily performers, who conveyed the literary content with regard to specific circumstances and specific audience.4 If we were to analyze such an approach, the audio recording of narrating a story acquires the unstable status of registering a performance.

The performer and his speech

George Maciunas' Fluxus Manifesto, a litograph.

George Maciunas, Fluxus Manifesto, MoMA.

Willem de Ridder knows much about different kinds of audiences and the relation the performer establishes between the audience and themselves. He performed and participated in Fluxus concerts (performing the informal function of the “chairman of Fluxus for Northern Europe”); he released records, tapes and avant-garde pornographic magazines; he designed installations, he ran art galleries and clubs, and he hosted radio programs. He used a variety of media, but his raw material of choice was always the word and its diverse forms. De Ridder is someone like a Međedović of the neo-avant-garde period—although he might use any given medium, the form remains the same: a story.5 First and foremost, de Ridder has been spinning an autobiographic tale and navigating the sea of various projects, organizations, institutions, events and auditions he has established, organized, or hosted, for years. The chronology of his story might be unclear—it is characterized by the peculiar “mythical” time of storytellers—the phrases repeated in interview after interview, text after text, create an extra-temporal, mnemonic structure of this story.

However, it is possible to identify a significant turn in de Ridder’s work, although it is more of a process than a fixed point in time: in the 70s, the cassette tape began to grow in importance in his work. With the spread of the tape, de Ridder became a “tape artist,” carrying out experiments to test its potential for performance, radio art, independent art press, and various music forms. During the peak of popularity of the tape in the 80s, he aimed to create new cultural practices around it, by means of referring to the ideals of the radical art of the 60s: participation, interactivity, blurring the line between art and life.

De Ridder’s initial contact with the tape was supposedly connected to his work in radio. In the early 70s, when he was living in Los Angeles, he used tapes to remotely host the weekly program Radio Cadillac in the Dutch public radio NOS.6 At the beginning of the following decade (1980–1982), he used this experience and expanded the idea in the VPRO radio, hosting the program De Radiola Improvisatie Salon (he was living in Netherlands at that time), which consisted of playing tapes sent to the studio by the audience. De Ridder, as the host, opened the envelopes with tapes on air and played them in no particular order. The aim of the program was to provide the minimum time of 5 minutes to anyone who had mailed some material.7

The program became the catalyst for the development of the raising Dutch tape underground. Independent artists, recording the most bizarre works at home, sent in their materials, including the sounds of the electronic music trends of that time (from synthesizer music to proto-noise and industrial). The popularity of the program was so great that de Ridder could publish tape medleys under the Radiola Label and organize a series of concerts, during which anyone with their own tape could become a part of the show, if they were ready to appear on stage in some manner or other. On the other hand, the program became a space for those who created experimental music at home to find out about each other’s existence: for the hometaping scene to come into being, a program that united the dispersed bedrooms was necessary.8)

The arrival of the tape made it possible for people like de Ridder to give voice to the audience, to change the relation between the listener and the host, and to increase the interactive aspect of the radio. The tape magazine Spiral, which de Ridder produced together with Andrew McKenzie (Hafler Trio) between 1989 and 1990, could be regarded as an extension of this concept of “giving voice.” The series of twelve tapes, published monthly, constituted a year’s issue of this exceptional magazine, which contained various archive materials, and the occasional sounds of the interludes recorded by the publishers (in the early Hafler Trio style). Obviously, Spiral did not come into existence in isolation: in 1974, Audio Arts, established by Barry Barker and William Furlong, already existed. What makes Spiral different is the two subjects that link all issues: on the one hand, the search for alternative lifestyles in the contemporary society, and on the other, the matter of controlling the audience through sound. The provocative mix tapes, which heralded Steve Goodmann’s approach to sound, could contain muzak, taped hypnosis sessions and documentaries on anti-nuclear movements in one medley.

The matter of controlling the listeners through voice is the key problem of de Ridder’s experiments, which converged theater, performance, happening, radio art and tapes. One of the Radio Cadillac tapes supposedly contained instructions for simultaneous masturbation.9 The success of the provocative participatory program prompted de Ridder to develop paratheatrical experiments, based on improvisation guided by spoken instructions. For this purpose, de Ridder used his radio programs creating participatory happenings, in which the listeners could co-perform.10 The pattern designed for radio programs could be employed in new ways as the portable audio cassette players became more common. De Ridder developed this formula by developing “audio tours,” a tape variation of soundwalks, and “Audio Directed Personal Theater,” an earlier version of the radio happenings used mainly in art galleries and museums, in which he prepared different instructions for individual participators. An example of this is The Walk, organized in 1981, in collaboration with the Amsterdam Art Centre De Appel. According to the taped instructions, it was supposed to go on for three days. The best example of de Ridder’s tape performance is Walkman Piece (1994), in which four people carry out different commands they hear in their headphones (for example “get on the chair,” “sit down,” “spin the chair,” “start laughing”). Experimenting with such application of tapes, de Ridder prepared Walkman Scores for professional musicians and Cassette Safari, which was to be played in a car, not unlike the radio happening De Grote Oto Derby, which took place on the night between 18th and 19th August, 1978, and where he instructed the audience to get into their cars and led them from Amsterdam to the small city of Hardewijk through a number of towns.11

The success of de Ridder’s experiments resulted from providing the audience with space for improvisation: the “tape plays,” which he created, relied on spontaneity of performance coming from the prior ignorance of the instructions and no rehearsal. The way in which he seduced the audience with his voice and his story was equally important. He builds his relation with the audience by means of controlling the listeners’ emotions, going from terror to humor and from intimacy to irony. He can be considered a contemporary master of verbal performance. It is, however, a peculiar performance, intended as a mediated show. The voice in this case becomes the medium of the performer’s presence.

In his reflections on experiments on recording the speech of performers in the 70s, LaBelle used a quote from Walter Jackson Ong, the author of the so called “orality/literacy theory, as a starting point:” “[t]o apprehend what a person has produced in space—a bit of writing, a picture—is not at all to be sure that he is alive. To hear his voice is to be sure.”12 The immanently uncanny nature of the recorded human voice became the subject of sound experiments supported by the rapidly developing psychoanalysis. The subject of de Ridder’s radio experiments, as well as the later Spiral, suggests that he was equally aware of the peculiar nature of the influence of the human voice, analysed numerous times by Vito Acconci and Alvin Lucier (also LaBelle). The emotional aspect of his programs—partly intimate, partly obscene, partly comedic, partly grotesque—brings to mind especially Acconci’s works (for example Seedbed or Claim). La Belle pointed to the subversive aspect of Acconci’s verbal performances, placing them within a wider context of post-structural deconstruction of acts of speech in the 70s. An analogous interpretation seems justified in the case of de Ridder’s actions, but we shall be concerned more with the way in which the recorded voice in his works constructs the mediated presence of the subject and brings the medium to life.

What does the tape want?

W.J.T. Mitchell ends the first chapter of his famous book What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images with a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. Arguing that images are in fact items which aim at affecting and controlling us, Mitchell quotes the author of Twilight of the Idols, recommending “‘sounding out’ the idols with the hammer, or ‘tuning fork,’ of critical language:”13

The power of idols over the human mind resides in their silence, their spectacular impassiveness, their dumb insistence on repeating the same message … and their capacity for absorbing human desire and violence and projecting it back to us as a demand for human sacrifice … “Sounding” the idols, by contrast, is a way of playing upon them. It does not dream of breaking the idol but of breaking its silence, making it speak and resonate, and transforming its hollowness into an echo chamber for human thought.14

Mitchell emphasizes that his theory, after certain modifications, could be applied to “verbal representation:” images created with words.15 He points to the fundamental meaning of desire for all practices of representation. The key significance of the logic of his reasoning is the dialogue with the contemporary trend of thing theory: he believes that the attitude of contemporary people towards objects is similar to that from earlier times, covered only by a rationalizing discourse that makes use of depreciating concepts like totems, idols and fetishes. In this sense, the objects affect people without voice, and their “sounding out” is a critical discussion on how this happens.

Walter Benjamin, as mentioned earlier, was one of the first ones to point at the “silence of objects” in the modern world. According to one of the leading thing theory theorists, Bjørnar Olsen, Benjamin points to the process of sublimation of the objects’ power over people: although objects speak to us, we hear their voices as our own voices and desires.16 In this context, the “sounding” of objects is, on the one hand, the acceptance of the repressed power of objects over an individual, and on the other, an act of liberation, entering a new level of awareness of the object as a medium that ceases to be an invisible tool. It is by no means a coincidence that both Olson and Mitchell refer to Marshall McLuhan’s concept of media as crutches. In their view, objects are extensions of the human body, which does not exist in isolation but always interacts with other objects: food, cloth, tools, etc.

Writing about “the silence of a tape” might seem paradoxical but the matter at hand is obviously the awareness of the relations and interaction between humans and objects: the autonomy of the object extensions. In this sense, the tape is silent, but it speaks in the same manner that tools do. Thing theory theorists make use of Martin Heidegger’s reflections on our everyday involvement with objects; they do, however, change the perspective: whereas Heidegger focused on the human attitude towards objects, Graham Harman, for example, focuses on the ability of the objects to be used efficiently.17 If we were to regard Mitchell’s “desires” of objects from this perspective, we would see the silent influence of objects demanding to be used. In this sense, the tape is silent. It is its ability to speak with its own voice that is crucial—a voice seemingly transparent, functioning just like the whisper of a prompter, a voice that is disregarded or even dismissed. The autonomous voice of the tape is a layer of material sounds that covers the recording. Mostly thin, whenever heard, it is usually perceived as the hiss of the tape or noise.

The matter of the “life” of performances and objects is of particular interest to Mitchell. Quite radically, he undermines the simple animate/inanimate opposition, suggesting that our understanding of those basic categories is a historical construct that changes through time. His analyses concern the practices of animating various objects.

Following the aforesaid conclusions, it could be argued that the recording of the voice of a performer can “animate” the medium. When we deal with a story, and not a song, for example, the genre conventions connect the performer with the story in a more profound manner. We presume that someone is speaking to us, and repress the power of the object’s influence. De Ridder’s performances and happenings are an excellent example of this: as their essence is embodied by people executing commands from the radio or a tape/portable audio cassette player. They could be also treated as performative research on the specific character of media, “sounding out” the speech of seemingly mute and transparent idols. In this case, the recordings act as a score, and one could even say that the concept of “Walkman Scores” reveals the repressed nature of performing a piece of music: that it is the score that tells the musicians what to do, and not the composer or the conductor. On the other hand, de Ridder shows in this way the essence of mediating, which is perfectly expressed in the relation between the tape and the portable audio cassette player. It could be argued that the media are objects which try to control the human perception, or cause the “suspension of perception,” rather than extensions of the human body.18 De Ridder’s speech, which seduces with the story or controls by means of commands, points to the jammed or even displaced “voice” of the portable audio cassette player, which aims at creating a mobile realm of autonomy, a perception bubble of sorts, attached to the listening consumer, who is kept in the position of being an audience member.

The peculiarity of the “Walkman effect,” described in the 80s by Shuhei Hosokawa,19 might seem clichéd today, in the era of the prevalence of mobile devices and the development of the soundscape, but we must not forget that it was not so in the 80s. In his text, Hosokawa emphasizes the changes the portable audio cassette player brought into the perception of the city and the experience of it: a person listening to a portable audio cassette player is in an isolated space of fantasy. The relation between a person immersed in the fabric of the city but listening to a portable audio cassette player, and the city itself, becomes loose, relaxes. Hosokawa’s text initiated a new way of thinking about mobile music devices, where they were perceived as devices reinforcing individuality, and sometimes even treated as a factor that shattered city communities (such far‑reaching approach was, however, heavily criticized20). In this context, de Ridder’s experiments with portable audio cassette players are sometimes interpreted as attempts to create, based on the logic of the temporary media of new types of communities of that time.21  If we, however, look at the portable audio cassette player and the discourses surrounding it from Mitchell’s perspective, an image emerges of liberal narrations eclipsing the silent voice of the item, and the control exercised by it.

Not only the aforesaid content of the tape magazine Spiral, but also the paradoxical enterprise of releasing an experimental opera on tape could be regarded as de Ridder’s commentary on the practice of listening to music in the 80s. In 1986, de Ridder, together with his then partner Cora Emans, and representatives of the Dutch domestic tape underground Nicoale and Hessell Veldman, prepared an FNTC Opera: a cross between a music installation and an electronic music concert. The audience was surrounded by sound, which was meant to dominate the visuals through the mandatory covering of the eyes with a blindfold: an action heralding the contemporary practices of Francisco Lopez. The radical oppression of perception was softened by ensuring that the audience was comfortable: during the performance of Opera they lay on the previously prepared sofas. In the tradition of Fluxus experiments on concepts and forms of opera, the effect was paradoxical: a genre that connected music and visuals was performed with radical renouncement of everything that is visual; the form was intentionally placed in the visual practices of the time of the radio and the portable audio cassette player. Consequently, Opera came into being as a radio program, and was also released on tape. Giving up the visuals made it possible to recreate the experience of the performance in private. The instructions stated that the listener should lie down and use a headset.

It could be argued that in performing the Audio Directed Personal Theater experiments and Walkman scores, de Ridder “sounded out” the tape recorder’s desire, and in the case of Opera he dealt with the desire of the headset. Yet what do his experiments tell us about the tape itself?

The tape was conceived as a compressed, mobile and also cheap medium. From the beginning it had potential for use in mobile devices, leading to the development first of boom boxes, and then portable audio cassette players. The choice of a magnetic tape as the basic information storage device made the tape potentially re-recordable from the beginning, which gave it the potential to cause a change in the relationship between the artist and the consumer. It was no accident that de Ridder’s experiments brought about the development of the Dutch tape underground. On the one hand, he was widely known as a neo-avant-garde freak, encouraging people to participate in various ways, and on the other hand, he was using a medium that possessed the appropriate potential for participation. According to the thing theory this potential is contained in the ontology of the tape—in its sound, might I add. As the tape has a voice, it can also tell stories. In this sense, when we record something, we include the tape in the world of our culture, which provides the materials for its own story. The tape speaks with sounds given to it in the same way we use words and concepts provided by our culture. When we listen to de Ridder’s tape recordings, whose story do we hear? We hear a joint story, the framework of which was established by de Ridder, but is told by the tape, which, in a way, takes possession of the story. What we have here is a situation analogous to that of oral cultures, where the relation between the tradition and the storyteller is similar. What do the de Ridder’s experiments tell us about the tape, then? Only that it is the contemporary Međedović.

  1. Benjamin, Walter. Der Erzähler. Betrachtungen zum Werk Nikolai Lesskows, in: Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. II, 2. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1977, 438–465. 

  2. It was a modified phonograph designed for constant recording of sounds in the field by Sound Specialties Company of Waterbury. The device recorded sounds on aluminum discs; thanks to the scissor-switch, Parry and Lord could record non-stop in times when one disc could hold only few minutes of material. During the several years of research, Parry and Lord used more than 3500 discs. The power supply was a totally different matter; the initial constant voltage of 300 V was provided by an MGU with the use of 6 V automobile battery. Such arrangement was, however, problem-ridden and caused a lot of noise, which posed more and more problems for the researchers. In the end the power supply system was modified after consultation with Bell-Edison in Zagrzeb. See: Lord, Albert B. The Singer of Tales, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. 

  3. Ibid., 55. 

  4. See: Bauman, Richard. “Sztuka słowa jako performance.” In Literatura Ustna, edited by Przemysław Czapliński, 202–231. Gdańsk: słowo/obraz terytoria, 2010. 

  5. In the early 60s, de Ridder graduated from the Academy of Art and Design in ’s-Hertogenbosch and “left” the world of institutional art, creating a series of objects that referred to the then trend of transcending the image. The crushed linen became the symbolic work of this series, and triggered a series of works called Paper Constellations. See: De Ridder, Willem. “Fluxus Tales.” Accesed February 13, 2020. www.flash— Between the 50s and the 60s the term “constellation” referred directly to Eugen Gomringer’s concrete poetry. Other artists connected to Fluxus, mainly Dick Higgins, transplanted this term to experimental music, naming some of the music pieces based on word scores. De Ridder’s “departure” from the visual arts involved entering the more spacious form of verbal creativity). 

  6. “Bo lubię wyruszać w nieznane tereny!” Klaudia Rachubińska’s interview with Willem De Ridder. In Narracje – Estetyki – Geografie: Fluxus w trzech aktach, edited by Antoni Michnik & Klaudia Rachubińska. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2014. Another anecdote related to de Ridder’s early relationship with tapes concerns threats he received from Manson Family members after publishing the first issue of the pornographic magazine GOD

  7. “Radiola Salon.” Showcase. Accessed February 13, 2020.

  8. It is visible in Exart record label founder Hessel Veldman’s statement concerning the first time he heard music of Velthuys, whom he later published in Exart 

  9. See: “Bo lubię wyruszać w nieznane tereny!” Klaudia Rachubińska’s interview with Willem De Ridder. 

  10. De Ridder’s broadcast of that time, Doodsangst Therapie (Deathly Fear Therapy), was an extension of the then-popular theatrical thrillers on the radio. By provoking strong emotions with narration, de Ridder stimulated the audience to enter the art. The radio-coordinated happenings were the logical consequence of this practice. 

  11. According to various sources, between 3000 and 7500 cars participated in this happening. See: “Willem De Ridder ‘De Grote Oto Derby.'” Continuo’s weblog. Accessed February 13, 2020.

  12. Ong, Walter Jackson. “A Dialectic of Aural and Objective Correlatives.” In The Barbarian Within, and Other Fugitive Essays. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1962. 28. Quoted in La Belle, Brandon. Background Noise: Perspectives On Sound Art. London: Bloomsbury, 2008. 99. 

  13. Mitchell, William John Thomas. What do pictures want? The lives and loves of images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005, 26-27. 

  14. Ibid. 

  15. Ibid., 87. 

  16. Olsen, Bjørnar. W obronie rzeczy. Archeologia i ontologia przedmiotów. Warszawa: Instytut Badań Literackich PAN, 2013, 151–152. 

  17. Ibid. 

  18. Crary, Jonathan. Zawieszenia percepcji. Uwaga, spektakl i kultura nowoczesna. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2009. 

  19. Hosokawa, Shuhei. “The Walkman Effect.” Popular Music 4 (1984): 165–180. 

  20. See: Borden, Iain. “Another Pavement, Another Beach: Skateboarding and The Performative Critique of The City.”In The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space, edited by Iain Borden et al., 186–193. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000. 

  21. Landy, Leigh. What’s the Matter With Today’s Experimental Music? Abingdon: Routlege, 2013, 116.