The Curves of the Needle

The Curves of the Needle comes at a time of resurgent interest in vinyl as a format, an object and a symbol of the archival instinct. This group exhibition looks to artists and musicians who share a relationship with the ‘record’ and aims to crystallise vinyl as cultural bridge, rather than a retro fad.

It is hard not to be cynical about the current position of vinyl records in the contemporary cultural landscape. Record Store Day has gone from a means of putting independent record stores in the limelight to being a near national holiday that puts more emphasis on swirly, glittery slabs of collectability. Whilst it could be seen as a revolving communicator returning to its original owner, pop, the commercial instinct of the most visible state of vinyl culture overshadows the very reason of its survival in the first place. Its singular aural quality, the ritual of playing, artwork as being part of the totality of sound and vision and its position as a physical archive – this is what is being celebrated in this exhibition.

The exhibition looks to both international heavyweights and the presence of the record in Newcastle’s, sometimes blurred, art and music scenes. Christian Marclay’s ‘Looking for Love’ (2008) shows the turntablist pioneer at his most obsessive and prankish. Hopping the needle across the surface of the record he physically searches for the word ‘love’ in order to extract its sonic payoff. This violent exercise sits opposite one of the strongest works in the show, Phillip Jeck and Lol Sargent’s Vinyl requiem (1993). The work is a eulogy to the then dying vinyl. Here the arrangement of record players is not to synthesise or coordinate in the sense a DJ would, but to obliterate the fidelity and composition of song making and return it to pure sonic power.

Displays of Sun Ra records and works by Jandek, arranged by Graham Dolphin, show the savant musician in the mythical image they either cultivated or had applied to them. But also, the dizzying visual spectacle of the record is hoisted into the gallery space in a way that demystifies our sometimes inflexible cultural separations.

Records produced by :zoviet*france: are featured in the show and this provides a local touchstone for the vital interplay between sound and art. The group’s textural compositions have frequently been transposed into the packaging of their records. The physical relationship between sound and object is evident. This is further emphasised by Ralf Brög’s ‘Zero RPM Records’ that make visible the undulating surface of the record, but not before rendering it unplayable.

The show moves between archive and art, intangible and tangible, the remembered and the recorded. The show takes its title from an essay by Theodor Adorno, in which he recalls that in their early stages, technologies ‘had the power to penetrate rationally the reigning artistic practice.’ The vinyl record has undoubtedly re-entered the mainstream market, to the chagrin of many diehards and the delight of others, but it has also had a longstanding relationship with visual art. As part of the exhibition, artists have been invited to re-imagine the cover sleeves of records of their choice. These can be displayed or bought, but they reduce the record to what it is at its most basic – something to hold and listen to, that you wish you had made.

The Curves of the Needle, BALTIC 39, Newcastle
3 April – 17 May 2015

Image: The Curves of the Needle Installation View © BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. 2015 Photo: Colin Davison

Thomas Hopkin is a writer based in Newcastle