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Playhead: A Parallel Anthology


October 2013 - February 2014

Centre D'Art Contemporain La Synagogue de Delme
33 rue Poincaré F - 57590 Delme

curated by Anna Colin & Sam Thorne

Playhead (2013) by Eileen Simpson and Ben White builds on an ongoing project initiated by Open Music Archive for 17th Biennale of Sydney 2010, which takes as a starting point the 1952 release Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. The project seeks to collect alternative public domain versions of tracks from the anthology not closed down by copyright, from non-attributed folk versions to commercial recordings whose proprietary interests have expired, and to generate new copyleft iterations.

Playhead consists of: a continuous video stream with amplified audio; indexical elements which map channels of access and restriction to archive material through the appropriation of attributes from abstract minimalism - both in printed form and enlarged across the walls; and elements distributed online including over 200 catalogued and ripped public domain tracks and newly commissioned remixes.

A 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 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 that fixed 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 annotations on the current public or proprietary status of the anthology recordings along with future dates of copyright expiry and augmented with additionally sourced alternative archive recordings which pre and post date those featured in the 1952 anthology and new remixed versions generated for the project. 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, and uncovering the rights that subsist within recorded material that prevent or open access, the project seeks to assemble a parallel anthology – a platform for the re-circulation of collectively-authored sonic material, opening out an archive of material as a resource for the future. Pursuing lines in Smith's erratic collection, 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 proposes a parallel collection: 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 of recorded music, stretching back one hundred years and, simultaneously projecting decades into the future – negotiated through the lens of copyright and legal access. 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 distributes archive material that remains open for active future reuse and loops back into the wider ongoing project of Open Music Archive.


Playhead was commissioned for Schizophonia an exhibition curated by Anna Colin and Sam Thorne at Synagogue De Delme

New copyleft editions by Beatrice Dillon and Karen Gwyer have been produced for the exhibition.

Designer: Ismini Adami
Researcher: Matthew White

Playhead has been supported by MIRIAD: Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design