ghostlands: regenerating the fragments of a forgotten memory

by spencer grady record collector, UK, 2012

Spencer Grady speaks to author and artist Steve Roden about … i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces, a stunning collection of vernacular photographs related to the auditory world of music, sound and listening

“Dust of my dust, 
And dust with my dust,
O, child who died as you entered the world,
Dead with my death” 
(Elizabeth Childers from Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters) 

“A collection should not have to conform to some overbearing logical and finite sense of completion, as much as it should have the potential to exist in a state of flux and evolution … it should be a personal endeavour, where value is determined by the gatherer rather than the marketplace.”  
   Taken from the opening essay of Roden’s book, … i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces (he is a ubiquitous user of the lower case), this latter quote maps out a manifesto for his intuitive assembly of beguiling vernacular photographs (spanning the years 1880-1955), old 78rpm recordings (blues, folk and field recordings of both natural and artificial provenance) and short literary excerpts (William Wordsworth, Joseph Roth, Knut Hamsun, Herman Melville, Rainer Maria Rilke all feature, alongside Pär Lagerkvist, whose Aftonland lends this tome its title). Generating a unique and unifying “mood core”, these Spencer Grady speaks to author and artist Steve Roden about … i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces, a stunning collection of vernacular photographs related to the auditory world of music, sound and listening A “seemingly disparate artefacts meld together to forge an uncanny representation of some imaginary American south, resurrecting the quasi-mystical tableaus found populating the stories of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and James Still.
   But return to these same sepia-tinged relics and a fresh set of alternate histories are likely to be revealed. Roden invites the formation of endless aesthetic ghostlands. By omitting key clues and coordinates, such as page numbers and narrative relating to his bric-a-brac of favoured images, he offers a springboard for creation, allowing each reader to become the master of their own invention; providing a platform where the resonance of things collide and stoke the fires of our imagination. Here are the lands where all our phantoms dwell, untrammelled by notions of time and place.  
   Roden has succeeded in a “collision of gathered forgottens”, bringing the past back to life through the accumulation of dead fragments. Like Dr Frankenstein or Stan Brakhage (a marked influence upon Roden’s creations) with his film Mothlight, the collection lends “new life to objects that might otherwise remain entirely forgotten in the perpetual darkness of cardboard boxes, attics, basements or storage spaces”.

How did you come to collect images and sounds from this era?
I really started collecting 78s once the Harry Smith Anthology Of American Folk Music was released on CD. I’ve always loved early blues recordings, but I never thought hillbilly music would be my thing. But the way Harry Smith brought alchemy to the discussion, I had to dig deeper. Up to that point, I had really only been buying Indian and Turkish 78s, ethnographic stuff. But, after listening to the Harry Smith set, American music also became an interest point. The images came later, around 10 years ago. I’m a flea market junkie and I collect a lot of different things, some of which I simply happen upon rather than seek out. I found this photograph of two guys sitting on the grass playing instruments with a coyote  howling between them. I bought it, and then I began to think about images that were taken in the presence of sound and how that subject can never be captured in a visual image. The photos of people playing instruments or listening to Victrolas seem totally uncanny. I started to look for images related to sound or listening. This book is a very specific group of shots that all seem to relate in mood or feel,
but I’ve thousands of images – some quite hilarious, some that are less striking visually but contain an interesting subject (such as a double neck harp guitar). Sometimes the sound or listening is not of interest in the image at all, but there’s something else that attracts my attention, and the fact that it’s
music related, allows it to enter the collection. I guess I’ve always loved old things. I collected old records, comic books and baseball cards when I was a kid. In high school, I would go to thrift shops to buy 50s clothes, I always went to see old movies… so it’s not inconsistent with part of my aesthetic. This doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in the present and/or the future, but I tend to converse with the past a lot more in most of my endeavours.

Why compile your private collection in this book?
That’s a very good question, and something I considered numerous times during the project. I didn’t start buying these things so I could do a book. The idea of using these objects and sounds came later. For me, a lot of the interest was in seeing how I could pull things together – to see if the parts would contribute to a greater whole. I didn’t want to simply offer a brag book of all the cool things I’d found. Obviously, part of the interest is sharing the material – a book can reach a lot more people than my collection can. Another thing is that, once I started talking to old photograph dealers rather than flea market merchants, I realised that no one else was collecting the type of images I was after. Certainly, an early tintype of an AfricanAmerican playing a guitar would fall into the relevant territory of numerous kinds of collector, but telling dealers I was only looking for images specifically related to music and listening usually got me a head scratch and a bewildered look. So I figured another reason for sharing this material is that it’s an archive unlike others.

What do these artefacts say about their collector; to what extent do they constitute an autobiography?
I think they say a lot about the collector – all of my choices for acquisition are gut decisions. Because there’s no established market for these items, or a checklist to complete, my relationship to these objects is deeply intuitive and personal. In terms of autobiography, I would say the melancholy
tone is consistent with much of my work and interests. The additions of the literary and poetic texts offer clues as to my own aesthetic. Many of these texts and authors have been part of my work for the last 20 years. The book wears its heart on its sleeve.

While you provide details for the music included on the CDs, you offer no information on the provenance of the imagery. Could you explain why? Likewise, there are no page numbers. Are you encouraging the reader to lose themselves in the past?
That’s funny because someone else complained there wasn’t enough information about the tracks. I wanted all descriptive information kept to a minimum. In terms of the music, I figured that anyone with access to the web could research the artists. With the images I’d say maybe 10 per cent came with names. I can only think of two professional artists who are pictured. As you say, I viewed this as a world to get lost in. I’m not a historian and I didn’t want to write some kind of pedestrian chronology when there are hundreds of places to research recording and photographic histories. This mode of presentation evolves from the fact that I’m an artist. At some point I stopped thinking about this being a book of my collection and it became a “piece” – something that I was able to consider in relation to my work and ideas so that it wouldn’t have to conform to the form of a historical document. I’m a huge advocate of things that don’t completely resolve at the end, so you can go back to the beginning and 
start over, find new things. There’s no wrong or right way to experience it. In fact, that’s all it is… something to experience. You shouldn’t need extra knowledge or insight to get something from it. It’s an offering that allows readers to bring something to the table. Piecing all these things together will not get you a simple truth. My hope is that these things offer a wealth of different readings. I never thought page numbers were necessary. There’s no index or any reason why you would need to attach an image to a number for reference.

Several of the photographic images contained within the book display distinctly spectral qualities (smears, transparency and discolouration); can you talk a little about this?
I wanted to show how age adds a whole other quality to the way images speak. In collector markets, things are generally valued according to rarity and condition. With comics and baseball cards there are so-called condition freaks and private professional graders who determine the worth of an object. But I’m drawn to objects with a human history. In the case of the photos, some of the smears and creases remind me of early spiritualist photographs – ghosts and ectoplasm, some kind of wraithlike presence leaving the body. There’s one photo in the book, of four people playing music with a gigantic green smear, it’s like the spirits inside them are being ripped out.

… i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces, published by Dust-To-Digital, is out now