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Folkways records are the perfect marriage of political and cultural artifact, vinyl junkie fix, and for the contemporary artist, aesthetic eye candy.
For the exhibition of the work of Folkways designer Ronald Clyne (1925-2006) at The Narrows, John Nixon and Stephen Bram displayed a collection of his album covers that ran in a continuous frieze around the gallery walls. These records can still occasionally be found lurking in dusty second hand record bins, while a search on Google brings up quite an extensive online archive representing the more familiar folk forms like blues, jazz and hillbilly music through to less well known material from native cultures such as Creole songs of Haiti, New Guinea folk songs, Melanesian chants, Torres Strait Islander and Maori songs—to name but a few.
Nixon and Bram trawled their own and others collections (such as that of Sonic Youth collaborator and fellow artist Marco Fusinato) for examples of Clyne’s work which utlilise the modernist simplicity of two colour printing, a stock-in-trade of Folkways graphic output and a process familiar to the world of agit prop publishing, political posters and song sheets. The images on the covers are mostly of an ethnographic nature, (monotone photographs for example), or use modernist squares and text, as in the blues and jazz covers. Other ephemera in the exhibition included a small display case of books on Folkways, an album of songs by Barbra Dane with the striking title I Hate The Capitalist System, and a video interview featuring Folkways label founder Moses Asch with his own collection of tribal art arranged tastefully in the background.
Asch established Folkways (arguably the longest running independent record company in the world) in 1948 with the intention of compiling an exhaustive encyclopedia of rural and urban folk music: a living archive of the sounds and music of the world. Children’s folksongs, political speeches, songs of resistance, New York Street sounds, bottle nosed dolphins, tree frogs and spoken word poetry recordings (the latter of which now fetch large sums on eBay) were all regarded as valid folk forms to be recorded and released on the label.
The attraction of Folkways as a model of creative and musicological enterprise fits well with Nixon’s well documented history as an archivist and blues aficionado and Bram’s background as a jazz musician, presenting a neat tailoring of their interest in music history and indirectly the history of both artists as creative producers involving independent, artist run and alternative projects—Nixon as one of the founders of Art Projects in the 1980s and Bram with the artist-run initiative Store Five in the 1990s. In fact the conceptual approach of the Folkways business model has much in common with the modus operandi of the artist run initiative or collective.
Asch took the concept of niche marketing to a new level by deciding to sell a very small number of records over years. This went against the major label approach of trying to sell as many records as possible in the shortest amount of time. While the folk revival in the 1960s undoubtedly created a demand for new product, ensuring the success of this approach, it also made economic sense. Rather than printing thousands of copies of one or two items Asch made miniscule pressings—sometimes as low as a few hundred copies featuring an extensive and varied catalogue. Most of the Folkways albums were accompanied by stapled booklets which were printed separately in small quantity while the familiar Folkways package of a plain black sleeve with a simple cover glued onto it provided an opportunity to turn the drawback of economic imperatives into a stylistic and cultural statement.
Folkways’ designs represented both an aesthetic point of difference in the market place and a DIY philosophy that extended to a ‘walk in’ street studio for performances, and field recordings which were never altered or manipulated to increase or ‘fix’ the quality of the sound.
There are parallels to this approach in John Nixon’s ‘lounge room’ exhibitions of the ’70s and ’80s (small shows with a tiny audience which lead to his encyclopedic curriculum vitae of some 200 plus projects) and recent installations like EPW Silver (experimental painting workshop, 2006) where Nixon employs seemingly random preparation techniques reminiscent of John Cage’s Prepared Piano and Chance Music (originally released on the Folkways label), by gluing coins, plywood offcuts and string directly onto MDF to create coarsely painted surfaces replete with drips, brush marks and scratches.
The search for an authentic material trace highlights the ethnographic impulse that conceptually underpins Nixon’s creative projects; an oeuvre that does not seem too far removed from the folk abstractions and experimental amateurism of the mid 20th Century antipodean modernist ‘art society’. This concept is reinforced by Nixon’s desire to visually document and ‘catalogue’ his own artworks, as in EPW Orange, where his museological approach mimics both the categorisations of the folk anthropologist and the ad hoc curatorial inclusiveness of the art society salon style hang.
Elements of an alternative historicism were filtered through John Nixon’s recent Tarrawarra Museum installation EPW Polychrome which with a wider colour palette recreated a sense of leftist optimism and modernist experiment overlaid with the nostalgic traces of a 1970’s high school art class exercise in painting theory. An old turntable complete with ‘colour wheels’ displayed on two trestle tables brought the archive of anthropological endeavor full circle. What continually impresses is Nixon’s ability to ‘fill’ a room visually with a body of work that functiones as both display and archive, an inclusive art practice that generates interconnected side projects such as the Ronald Clyne survey at The Narrows and other lost fragments of popular culture.