The Wire

In Writing

The Mire: Tangents, threads and opinions from The Wire HQ

Analog alchemy: Auris Apothecary and the anti-cassette

Jennifer Lucy Allan

Indiana based label Auris Apothecary is only a record label in part. A package sent from them recently contained cassettes and CDs, but also a small spice mix, a tin full of dirt, and a small wax sealed scroll printed on acetate.

Sitar Outreach Ministry's Spring Of 1970, a two track cassette, is wrapped and bound in a dried sunflower leaf. Unwrapping it made a dirty mess on the floor of The Wire's meeting room, and coated my hands in a dusty organic scuzz. Wrapped like it was, once I'd starting tearing layers of green leaves away, I'd never be able to wrap it up neatly again. I had to tear it apart piece by piece, and now I've got a plastic bag full of crackly old leaves that smell like earth, and a cassette in cardboard case, and I'm not really sure whether to chuck out the leaves or not.

This packaging challenge is something that's been explored by other artists and labels: Entr'acte's vacuum packs, and Dreams Of Tall Buildings's plaster cast William Morris box. The packaging must be destroyed for you to access the music, forcing the listener/owner to choose between the physical artefact and the cultural artefact, between being a listener or a collector.

But there's more than that simple dichotomy at work in Auris Apothecary's releases. The packaging that I find most compelling is the one I find most crudely titled. Unholy Triforce's Sandin' Yr Vagina is an "anti-cassette" (Auris Apothecary makes a number of different "anti-cassettes", including one nailed into its plastic casing). It's filled with black sand, the holes plugged with Scotch tape, and bound in black emery board. Silly? A bit. But interesting too: the sand poses a direct risk to your cassette player - play this tape, and you'll almost definitely ruin your machine.

This is all part of the plan. Dante Augustus Scarlatti, Auris Apothecary founder says: "We spend countless hours perfecting each fold and drop of ink on our releases, part of the absurdity in what we do is that we also promote absolute destruction – sonically, physically, socially, spiritually and mentally. If that happens to entail destroying part of the package we worked so hard to make, it was all part of the greater plan and should be considered an acceptable casualty in the pursuit of understanding.

"Anti-cassettes are our extension of that idea, promoting physical alteration to a degree that it would appear unplayable or damaging to perform in its presented state... They are obstacles designed to provide tangible insight into otherwise abstract concepts, and we encourage the listener to perform whatever tasks are necessary to hear the audio. They also represent a basic test of logical reasoning, serving as a mental measure of common sense. If you believe it will damage your equipment, why would you play it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to solve whatever is preventing it from playing correctly?"

The cassette is given an agency it doesn't enjoy otherwise. Playing this tape, it's your machine that becomes the transient, finite thing in the equation, not the music. It's a direct opposite to the current discussion about the direction of music consumption. This cassette leaves reminders of itself everywhere – there are still grains of black sand on my desk.

"I imagine folks view [the cassette] too often externally and write it off, thinking it’s created as an art-object that holds no audio value. We present a challenge, and we hope people attempt a solution. But that's not to say that we don’t entirely condone people destroying equipment by shoving a sand-filled tape into their perfectly-functioning tape players."

The music lives on to destroy another machine, and will (presumably) change from one play to the next, depending on the dispersal of sand on the tape and in the reels, and the hardiness of the machine you've chosen to sacrifice next. This cassette is put together to be a mechanical aggressor (which probably explains the title), hell bent on ruining your listening for years to come, as you hoover grains of sand from your Walkman.

Tags: | | |