Sound-Oriented Archive as Prosthetic Memory?: The Case of Conserve the Sound

Sound-Oriented Archive as Prosthetic Memory?:  The Case of Conserve the Sound

Hojong Lee

 

Conserve the Sound is an online museum of “vanishing and endangered sound” established by the Germany-based design duo CHUNDERSKEN and funded by the Film & Medienstiftung NRW, Germany. They primarily focus on recording the sound emanated from everyday gadgets on the brink of obsoleteness. In this essay, I will first examine the attributes of sound-oriented archives in the digital age and analyze the sound materials in Conserve the Sound. Then, I will point out how Conserve the Sound serves to be an example of Alison Landsberg’s “prosthetic memory” while contradicting the concept’s optimistic view of mass cultural forms. This online archive shows the tendency of sound-based research to connect sound materials to physical objects in order to highlight their cultural context, and the way of which seemingly class, gender, nationality-neutral sound materials may have underlying culture-specific histories undergirding them.

In “Ephemera as Medium: The Afterlife of Lost Films,” Paul S. Moore delineates his itinerary of tracing a lost early film. [1] This task proves to be arduous since early cinema is primarily researched by placing the ephemera as the central medium. Though digital media has been a catalyst in instigating the preservation of the soon-to-be-gone “analog” materials, archives have existed long before the digital era with the 16, 17th century cabinets of curiosities as one of its many precursors. The decisive discrepancy between these precedents and the contemporaneous archive is that the latter strives to conserve the ephemeral in a digital form which is believed to guarantee permanent preservation—as if the archivist is performing taxidermy.[2] This enables digital archives to exhibit the works to its patrons without the actual physical object in display. One may easily associate this tendency to how many cellulose nitrate based films are not projected but rather sealed in storages, with their content circulating only in their digital copies.

1. One of the most notable “cabinets of curiosity” belonged to 17th century naturalist, antiquarian, and physician Ole Worm

One of the most notable “cabinets of curiosity” belonged to 17th century naturalist, antiquarian, and physician Ole Worm

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“Sound” section of Conserve the Sound

This matter becomes complex when it comes to sound, since sound is often deemed to have no physical and tangible existence. In many cases sound materials were not preserved in the ocularcentric culture, but even when they were, their evanescent nature[3] hindered one from capturing and possessing it in the traditional sense of ownership. Contrary to visual materials, the identification of sound material’s ownership is often inextricable from the tangible medium which plays or stores it—such as the phonograph, radio, disc, mp3, etc.[4] Conserve the Sound is unique in that it focuses on the technological device of the past but specifically on the sounds that these devices emanate when operated in the hands of human. Unlike works in sound studies that focus on the relationship between certain sound materials, the technology related to them, and the cultural background of that era, Conserve the Sound tends to efface the conspicuous cultural and time-specific contexts of each device in its “Sound” section. The photograph of each device is taken as if it is an object in the white cube gallery detached from its quotidian context. To each device, there is a small metadata section where the “model,” “decade,” “Typ, Name,” “Brand, Manufacturer” are marked, but the way of which the device is photographed and the sound is recorded makes it difficult to imagine the actual place and time that it would have been used in daily life. The sound is recorded in a soundproofed environment with someone operating the machine in a dry manner so that the listener may only hear the interaction between the hand and the machine. As the “natural” soundscape of that device’s everyday use is erased from the sound, contemporary listeners acquire an aural experience that is different from what the users back in the past would have had, making each device’s sound be analogous to artifacts of the white cube museum.[5]

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These traits of Conserve the Sound’s “Sound” menu are more interesting when examined in the context of Alison Landsberg’s Prosthetic memory.[6] Prosthetic memory is a term devised by Landsberg to indicate the memory developed through mass cultural forms such as cinema which she contends, has the potential to form histories that transcends the border of race, class, and gender. Landsberg further highlights how the cinema’s sensory aspect and its blurring of the “real” and the “experiential” enables this counterhegemonic sphere. In a way, the sound recordings of Conserve the Sound are substantially similar to what Landsberg defines as catalysts of prosthetic memory. They implant an atemporal fragment of memory upon the listener’s mind through its aural and tactile properties. “Experiencing the real” and “having a real experience” become equivocal as the listener simultaneously believes one is retrieving the aural fragments of the past while gathering what is the reenactments of the past (since the sound materials are all newly recorded sounds of human hands operating older machines). A new past of the now-obsolete machines is registered into the human mind as relatively neutral technologies.

But when looking into the “Video” section, one may discover the underlying narrative of culture-specific memories branded beneath the ostensibly neutral design of the “Sound” section. The content is quite specific to Germany and their people who used these devices in their everyday life. The responses to the common questions asked to the interviewees, for instance, “Is there a sound that brings back memories of your childhood?” are marked with a communal quality that those in similar cultural registers are expected to empathize. Eventually, the “prosthetic” past proves to be an “intended heritance” for a certain audience. The combination of the sound of a machine with the photographs of a machine becomes the passage of which each individual connects their memories to their community (since many of them were common household gadgets which are identified through recognition of the model). Thus, this platform alludes to Landsberg’s limitation—nothing may be wholly free from the division of race, class, gender, and nationality.

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Returning to the issue of ephemera, it is notable how certain seemingly neutral sound fragments may be organized to construct a certain micro-history in specific cultures. The focus here may be not to assume that contemporary media enables a full democratization of sociocultural specificity, or to deem all empirical data as imbued with sociocultural specificity to a point that solidarity is impossible. Rather, there seems to be a necessity to identify the underlying contexts of what is left in the storage of ephemera in order to rightly understand and situate them.

 

[1] Moore, Paul S. “Ephemera as Medium: The Afterlife of Lost Films.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (Spring 2016): pp. 134-139.

[2] This becomes clear when recalling Walter Benjamin’s concept of mechanical reproduction as opposed to the artworks of aura.

[3] Smith, Jacob. “Kissing as Telling: Some Thoughts on the Cultural History of Media Performance.” Cinema Journal (Spring 2012): p. 123

[4] Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format may be one representative example.

[5] O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. 1986.

[6] Landsberg, Alison. “Prosthetic memory.” In Alison Landsberg’s Prosthetic memory. 2004.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, 217-252. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

 

Landsberg, Alison. “Prosthetic memory.” In Alison Landsberg’s Prosthetic memory. 2004.

 

Moore, Paul S. “Ephemera as Medium: The Afterlife of Lost Films.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (Spring 2016): pp. 134-139.

 

O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. 1986.

 

Smith, Jacob. “Kissing as Telling: Some Thoughts on the Cultural History of Media Performance.” Cinema Journal (Spring 2012): pp. 123-128.

 

Sterne, Jonathan. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. 2012.

Brian O’Doherty. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. 1986.

 

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