Playhead (2013) by Eileen Simpson and Ben White builds on an ongoing project initiated by Open Music Archive for 17th Biennale of Sydney 2010 taking as a starting point the 1952 release Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. The project brings together alternative public domain versions of tracks from the anthology not closed down by copyright, from non-attributed folk versions and covers to commercial recordings whose proprietary interests have expired. New copyleft iterations are simultaneously generated from elements of the archive material.
Playhead consists of: a continuous video stream with amplified audio; indexical elements which map channels of access and restriction to archive material - both in printed form and enlarged across the walls, appropriating attributes from abstract minimalism; and elements distributed freely online including over 200 catalogued and ripped public domain tracks and newly commissioned remixes.
The video - a continuous audiovisual stream - acts as an archival playhead, skipping through the 84 anthology tracks to recall archive and new recordings. Shot on DV tape and played back on a 1995 Beovision 4:3 monitor, rotating onscreen numbers link indexically to the collected recordings. The endlessly looping video references algorithmic scripting, recalling the spirit of The Chart Show, a music video programme broadcast terrestrially in the UK in the 1990s which pioneered the policy of 'no presenters', who were instead replaced by computer-generated displays.
The 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music was assembled from an idiosyncratic personal collection of commercial 78rpm records. The recordings date back to the beginnings of the recording industry, a moment that marked the establishment of a system to fix collectively-authored folk lyrics and melodies to individual authors in an attempt to control and profit from previously fluid cultural material.
Like the printed brochure that accompanied the original anthology which included recording dates and additional details on the anthology recordings, a new printed element provides coded annotations on the current public or proprietary status of the anthology recordings, along with future dates of copyright expiry and additional sourced alternative archive recordings which pre and post date those featured in the 1952 anthology. Details of new remixed versions generated for project including electronically processed material by Karen Gwyer and Beatrice Dillon and beats made for specifically for Atlanta based emcees are also listed and linked to. The printed element is offered as a limited unlimited edition for takeaway from the exhibition, unlimited by the fact that it is also available for free download.
Through scrutiny of the public/private status of the archive, its ownerships and freedoms, Playhead assembles a parallel anthology tracing the rights that subsist within recorded material, that prevent or open access and creates a platform for the re-circulation of collectively-authored sonic material - to open out the archive as resource for the future. Pursuing lines of enquiry provoked by Smith's erratic collection, encountering voices conjured from past, the project envisages the anthology as a series of nodes in a larger network and employs a kind of sonic virology - tracing songs across spatial and temporal distances.
Playhead is a coming together of fragments from a complicated series of interconnected trajectories with no singular history - a new roots and future public domain anthology. It is not a musicological, anthropological or historical study, but the distribution of a partial mapping and playback of recorded music, negotiated through the lens of copyright, stretching back one hundred years and simultaneously, projecting decades into the future. The viral nature of folk ensures the inexorable spread of the material, which overlaps with contemporary practices of remix, sampling and peer-to-peer exchange.
Playhead remains open for active future reuse and loops back into the wider ongoing, collaborative project of Open Music Archive.