The Media Is Not Always the Message

I continue to slog my way through revisions on my book project which I’m now calling “the world’s longest Master’s thesis.” This week, I’ve started to revise my chapter titled “Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology.” You can read the original version here.

As part of my effort both to emphasize the American experience more thoughtfully and to trace more specifically the networks and relationships that form what we consider the American experience. In my effort to revise my chapter on media and archaeology, I take as a point of departure the rather mundane appearance of the Atari E.T. game cartridge and contrast it with its rather frustrating game play and its relationship to the blockbuster movie. A narrowly archaeological perspective focused exclusively on the materiality of the game might find little of particular interest in the hard plastic cartridge, the circuit board inside, or the adhesive paper sticker (although see Guins 2014). To understand the significance of the game, one would have to understand game play, the digital code, and the devices that made game play possible.

In the introduction to this chapter I draw upon two musical examples. First is the excavation of an assemblage of records from Rancho Olompali where the Grateful Dead had lived in the late 1960s. These records demonstrate the eclectic and diverse taste of the Dead at the point in their career when they were transitioning from being a more free flowing psychedelic rock style to a style characterized by more intricate folks harmonies, melodies and lyrics. The second example is a reading of the work done by John Cherry and Krysta Ryzewski in documenting the George Martin’s AIR studio on Caribbean island of Monserrat. The first example allows us to consider the impact of consumption patterns on our view of the late-1960s counter culture typified in some ways by The Dead. The second example allows us to reflect on the networks of colonial relationships that informed the music produced at Martin’ AIR Studios in the 1980s. Both examples rely less on the materiality of the records or the studio space and more on the music that these records contained and the AIR studio produced. 

Here are the three most relevant paragraphs:

Micah Bloom’s Codex project (Bloom 2017), which we detailed at the conclusion of the last chapter, likewise explores the fate of media cast out of context by the Souris River flood in Minot. Bloom demonstrates how the topics and titles of the abandoned, damaged, and forlorn books create subtle ironies, emphasize their abject state, and communicate the intimate potential of media. E. Breck Parkman’s excavation and cataloguing of the vinyl records recovered from excavations of the burned remains of Rancho Olompali where the Grateful Dead had lived as part of a larger commune for almost 2 years before a fire destroyed the rented mansion in 1969 offers another example of how media offers a particularly vivid window into the recent past (Parkman 2014). The discography recovered presented a wide range of collecting and listening habits from July Garland to Doc Watson, Frank Sinatra, recordings of Broadway musicals, and jazz artists. The presence of lead and asbestos in the debris required extensive remediation before archaeologists could document and study the material. Like so many of the books recovered by Bloom’s Codex project and the Atari games collected from the Alamogordo landfill, the records were largely unplayable, but nevertheless told the story of the “eclectic and contradictory” tastes of the commune surrounding the Grateful Dead. Parkman noted how the assemblage of records spoke to the diversity of tastes present in the Olompali commune in the late 1960s and complicates a narrow view of late 1960s counter culture.

John Cherry’s, Krysta Ryzewski’s, and Luke J. Pecoraro’s work at the Sir George Martin’s AIR studios on the Caribbean island of Monserrat offers another example of how traditional archaeology intersects with the archaeology of media (Cherry et al. 2013). The studio hosted the recording of any number of famous albums from its establishment in Monserrat in 1979 including significant albums by the Police, Duran Duran, Dire Straits, Elton John, and The Rolling Stones. It was abandoned after hurricane Hugo devastated the island in 1990 and, five years later, the eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano blasted the studio with a pyroclastic flow sealing its fate. Since then, the studio has stood in an exclusion zone surrounding the volcano and succumbed to vegetation and the elements. Cherry and colleagues explored the studio space in 2012 and documented its current condition and the dispersal of key elements of the studio – such as its bar, its recording console, and its sound system – around the island and the world. They also reflected briefly on how the studio’s distinctive layout, design, location, and recording technology shaped the music that the studio produced. While their efforts to document the studio did not reveal any recoverable media or direct links to the studio’s audible output, the archaeology did emphasize that the compact design of the studio and its location on a small island promoted a kind of intimate and intensive practice which contributed to its successful output.

Much as the selection of records in the Grateful Dead’s collection revealed challenges to our expected pattern of consumption associated with counter culture movement. The list of bands produced by George Martin at the AIR studio is almost entirely white, with the exception of Luther Vandross and Ziggy Marley. The status of Monserrat as an British overseas territory serves as remind of the British colonial expansion and its key role in creating the Black Atlantic as a political, cultural, and economic institution. The development of reggae music, for example, among Black residents of the British Caribbean and in the Caribbean diaspora in the UK led to its incorporation into the sound of punk and post-punk bands such as the Police, who by the 1980s traveled to the Caribbean to record their music. The appropriation of blues and R&B music by British bands such as the Climax Blues Band, The Rolling Stones, and Dire Straits, further traced the spread of Black music beyond its origins in the United States through the sale of records. In the context of the AIR studios, the genres of music and the lines of influence follow the recursive flow of Black culture through the Atlantic world and complicates the reading of the studio itself. If “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” offered a compelling caricature of the excesses of the American society in the 1970s and 1980s, it is useful to remember that “rock ’n’ roll” (like many of the more popular drugs of the same period) often traced long-standing colonial lines of exchange. These patterns of exchange also continued to appropriate the creative forces of the Black Atlantic for the benefit of colonial powers. The physical remains of Martin’s AIR studio in Monserrat might ultimately become an important landmark in the islands late-20th century history. The media that this studio produced, however, traces a far more global reach and situates the studio in a longer and more complex history of colonial relations, appropriation, and power.  

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