TellusMedia, the Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center record label, recently issued a 2-LP compilation of music previously released on the label. TellusTools comprises two 12″ vinyl records of identical material, packaged in a gatefold cover designed by sound/conceptual artist Christian Marclay. Included in the liner notes are instructions on how to create personalized sonic experiences using two turntables and a mixer. Taketo Shimada, creator and editor of TellusTools, envisioned the project as a way to engage people in what he calls “active listening,” where listeners are encouraged to create their own sound environments.
The basic premise is for people to create their own mixes using the albums as a point of departure, thus linking the experimental music of the 1980s to the present. Furthermore, these new compositions can be mailed to Harvestworks so the lifespan of the project can be extended into future endeavors.
Conceived as a much-needed alternative to radio, Tellus began as an audiocassette magazine, founded in 1983 by visual artist Joseph Nechvatal, curator Claudia Gould, and composer and now the executive director of Harvestworks, Carol Parkinson. For each issue, they collected and organized experimental sound art pieces around a specific theme, often inviting experts in a particular field to act as guest editor. In addition, emerging visual artists were asked to design the cover art for each issue. Shimada sums up the significance of Tellus during the 1980s: “Going through the history of Tellus is like going through the history of New York experimental themes in the eighties.”
The idea for TellusTools was born when Shimada, a Harvestworks resident artist and DJ himself, was put on hold at Harvestworks. “I was working for Harvestworks on a different project and whenever I called Carol [Parkinson] she would put me on hold. When she put me on hold they played music in the background and from time to time, it was different music, and sometimes they would play music that interested me and I asked her where this music was coming from and she told me it was from Tellus back issues.” When he approached Parkinson with his idea for a compilation, she was immediately interested in the project.
“In the beginning we just wanted to make a Tellus compilation that would present Tellus to a newer generation, because I myself wasn’t around when the earlier Tellus was on the market,” explains Shimada. Shimada and Parkinson decided immediately to ask artist Christian Marclay to come aboard to do the cover art and help conceptualize the project. Together, they decided that two LPs with identical material would be an ideal way to bring this music to a younger generation of sound artists and encourage active listening. “I like that you can actually touch the vinyl. It’s more physical,” Shimada said of the decision to use vinyl instead of issuing the compilation on CD. Parkinson adds, “It was always in our mind to do a ‘Best of Tellus’ and I think that the pieces just came together, with the interest in vinyl…with Taketo’s interest in having new artists, a younger generation listen to the works…having Christian be this crossover artist who was a success, who successfully crossed over, and Harvestworks’ need for a fundraising project which would get people interested in us as an arts organization.”
At this point, the compilation had crossed over into a conceptual art piece that would reveal the compositional process by allowing listeners to actively participate in creating new sound experiences. Shimada embarked on the process of finding “songs that were not only playable in a club or in a bar but that also sort of crystallized…the early eighties to mid-eighties.” When he was done, the set included works by a list of influential experimental sound artists including Nicolas Collins, Louise Lawler, Isaac Jackson, Kiki Smith, Alan Tomlinson, Joe Jones, Christian Marclay, Alison Knowles, Ken Montgomery, Catherine Jauniaux, and Ikue Mori.
In addition to introducing the music of Tellus to younger audiences, Parkinson explained that “taking this process of mixing sounds to create new ones that is so common to the DJ community makes it accessible to the sound art audience as well.”
A series of events have been scheduled in order to promote TellusTools. The project was introduced at a fundraising event for Harvestworks at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City on June 27, 2001, where 25 photograms by Christian Marclay were on display. Shimada, Marclay and sound artist Ken Montgomery, whose piece “Icebreaker” appears on TellusTools, DJed the event with TellusTools. Twenty-five special edition copies were available, each including one of Marclay’s photograms and selling for $450 a piece. A total of 500 copies of the album were pressed and can be obtained for $30 each from Harvestworks.
In addition to the gallery event, Taketo Shimada, composer Ray Sweeten, and Harvestworks resident artist Andrea Polli will be spinning TellusTools during the Downtown Arts Festival in New York on September 4 at the artist bookstore Printed Matter. Giant reproductions of all of the original Tellus cover art will be on display. “Every Tellus since 1983 has invited a visual artist, mostly they were emerging visual artists, to do the cover art. So if you look at the whole series of cover art artists, they’re quite impressive in terms of who they are.” Parkinson remarks. “There’s a Mike Kelly and Peter Moore did the ‘Flux Tellus’ cover, but visually they’re all quite striking and they do sort of echo the development of visual art in its own little way during the eighties.”
She goes on to explain that the mixing of media have always been of great interest to Harvestworks as an arts organization, which is apparent at both of these events. In October, the TellusTools entourage will perform at Tonic, a New York City club that supports experimental jazz, rock, and electronic music.
In the more distant future, Harvestworks may use the new pieces created through TellusTools in other endeavors. “The project just doesn’t end with the LP.” Parkinson points out. “We are recording the mixes in this series of special events that they are having and it [the instructions] does indicate that you can send your recording to Harvestworks and we’ll collect them and then we’ll see what we have. To extend the life of the project we can release a CD of the recordings that were made using the LPs as source material, but we’ll have to see what it sounds like.”
TellusTools Instructions From the TellusTools’ liner notes