In MP3: The Meaning of a Format, Jonathan Sterne observes “that it is no accident that so many media technologies are built around spinning mechanisms” while pointing to the grooves of a vinyl record and wound-down rolls of audio tape as examples of ‘compression technology’. Cassette tapes were expedient as a medium because they compressed an album’s worth of music into a durable, portable format that could be played on stereos, walkmans and in automobiles. What if the tape deck’s capacity to function as a playback device was stripped away though, what would remain? This is exactly the question posed by Binatone Galaxy, a 2011 installation by Oxford-based media artist Stephen Cornford where the prerecorded content of audio tapes are replaced with microphones.
On first listen, Binatone Galaxy is a one-liner – a room is populated with a few dozen tape decks that ‘play’ modified cassette tapes outfitted with lo-fi microphones. The expected audio content of these tapes is missing and each device quite literally plays itself, broadcasting the whirring, rattling and resonant properties of the tape it contains. The net result of a roomful of these players is a self-referential symphony where the listener is immersed in a dense, syncopated sonic environment, awash in the acoustics of the inner-machinations of a format. Each of Cornford’s custom audio cassettes includes a motion sensor, so proximity spurs players into action, making this dead media mausoleum an environment that warrants careful attention.