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Interview: 'A Short Run: A Selection Of New Zealand Lathe-Cut Records' Exhibition

Interview: 'A Short Run: A Selection Of New Zealand Lathe-Cut Records' Exhibition

Chris Cudby / Image credits: A Short Run: A Selection of New Zealand Lathe-Cut Records. Photographer: Samuel Hartnett / Final Image Credit: Haru Sameshima / Thursday 21st November, 2019 1:26PM

Currently showing at Tāmaki Makaurau's Objectspace gallery until the end of November, A Short Run: A Selection Of New Zealand Lathe-Cut Records is an exhibition presenting an eye-popping array of lathe-cut records – an affordable polycarbonate plastic alternative to vinyl pioneered and manufactured by Peter King in Geraldine from the late 1980s onwards, locally produced for artists in limited editions as low as 20 units. Curated by musician and designer Luke Wood (The Hex Waves, The National Grid), A Short Run makes tangible a significant selection of 'underground' or 'obscure' musical activity from throughout Aotearoa, and brings to light such scarce artefacts as Aldous Harding’s sophomore record, of which there are only 40 copies in existence.

Luke Wood generously took time out to speak with Chris Cudby via email about the exhibition and broader cultural context of the traditionally transparent 'Geraldine vinyl' format, and is participating in a panel discussion in the gallery this evening with Stella Corkery (White Saucer, Queen Meanie Puss) and Kim Martinengo (1:12 Records), hosted by Matthew Crawley (Flying Out Records). Aucklanders will be treated to free 95bFM Drive performances at the gallery this Friday featuring Pumice and Ducklingmonster, and have until 30th November to catch the show if they haven't already, while Wellington residents can experience A Short Run at Lower Hutt's The Dowse Art Museum from 15th February 2020.

A Short Run: A Selection Of New Zealand Lathe-Cut Records
Runs until Saturday 30th November - Objectspace, Auckland

Thursday 21st November - Ockham Residential Lecture Series: Keep the Record Playing w/ Luke Wood, Stella Corkery, Kim Martinengo, hosted by Matthew Crawley (6pm start, free)

Friday 22nd November - 95bFM Drive Live from Objectspace: A Short Run w/ Pumice, Ducklingmonster (4pm to 7pm, free)

Chris Cudby: To provide readers with a bit of context – what are lathe-cut records? What is the format's significance to Aotearoa's musical and artistic communities?

Luke Wood: A 'lathe cut’ record is a one that has been made by using a special type of needle or stylus to ‘cut’, or engrave, the audio directly into the surface of a pre-made disc. As opposed to the much more commonly available ‘pressed’ records, which are produced by a complex industrial ‘stamping’ process where essentially two plates come together, and under extreme pressure the audio track is pressed at the same time as the disc is produced. Well that’s a quick answer anyway.

Via the work of Peter King, who’s been making lathe cut records since the late 1980s, the format's significance in NZ has been that it allowed our more marginal and / or experimental musicians to produce records in very small runs for not much money. These were often bands or individual artists who, due to the nature of their work, were never going to have huge audiences in Aotearoa, but by producing lathe cut records with Peter King were able to connect up as a sort of 'mail order' community here in NZ, but also, significantly, internationally. A Peter King lathe cut was like a message in a bottle.

What work is displayed in A Short Run? Who did you work with in order make the exhibition happen?

I spent about a year traveling around the country visiting archives and private collections, and in the end the exhibition is made up of loans from the collections of some very generous people. I ended up focusing on people who’d run labels at various points as these people usually had kept archives of what they’d produced. The fact these records were produced in such small runs meant that they’d been distributed quickly and essentially disappeared, so sourcing them via the label owners was important.

Through doing this I discovered Peter has made far more records than I’d ever imagined, and there were a lot of records I had to leave out of the exhibition. These were hard decisions to make. But mostly I based the final curatorial decisions around tropes of cover art production. I’m a graphic designer by trade, and my interest in this stuff was always about the intersection of music and design, and what I find so interesting about lathe cuts is that being produced in such small runs meant that they often had covers that would defy the logic of a larger more ‘commercially viable’ run. A lot of them use found materials; wallpaper, maps, and corrugated cardboard for example. They also employ interesting printing techniques that would be far too hands-on and / or pricey for commercial releases.

There are also a few records in the show that weren’t produced by Peter King, as I wanted to include some newer examples to highlight where lathe cut technology is at right now. James Meharry (of RDU) has a new and highly modified lathe cut set up in Christchurch and is producing some very hi-fi records on that. Also John Harris, aka ‘Johnny Electric’, also of Christchurch, has been building a machine from scratch by 3D printing his own parts. He’s been making some super strange records, including a gate-fold double 7-inch disc that is in the show.

What was your thinking around how the usually domestic scale (limited edition) objects and artwork (sleeves, etc) would be displayed in the gallery setting at Objectspace?

This was something I really struggled with actually. I often think exhibitions of graphic design can look really bad because the artefacts, usually made for bookshelves or walls in the streets of a city, don’t transition well into the white cube of the contemporary art gallery. My main priority was that I wanted the records to be seen as objects. So front and back, and wherever possible with the discs out. To be honest I pretty much made that the gallery’s problem, and then Kim Paton, the Director at Objectspace, briefed and oversaw the exhibition design. I thought it looked really good once it was all installed and I’m hugely grateful to Kim for her expertise and talent in this area.

Why did Aotearoa's noise / underground music community gravitate to the lathe-cut format? Are there any international artists' works featured in A Short Run?

I think mostly because it was cheap! You could make 20 records with Peter King for say $200 as opposed to the $2000 it’d cost you to press a small run of 200 records. Also we’re talking about music that often has a very dedicated but small audience, and so you don’t necessarily want hundreds of records. Also Peter’s records aren’t super hi-fi to be fair, and so they weren’t everyones cup of tea. But a bit of surface noise here and there didn’t bother someone who’d recorded their music on a Sony Walkman anyway. To some extent the fidelity of Peter’s records became the charm.

I have included international artists in the show but only where the record was released by a New Zealand-based label. So the Lee Ranaldo one is a good example. Lee is from the band Sonic Youth and is obviously American, but this record, ‘Spoken for Geraldine’, was put out by Michael Morley on his Precious Metal label in 1994. So I’ve included a few like that, but the show was already too big and so mostly I’ve left out international stuff.

What was your motivation to make this exhibition happen? What's your personal history with 'Geraldine vinyl'?

I’ve made a few lathe cut records with Peter King over the years, but got into it again a little more seriously when I decided to start an ‘art school record label’ out of the Ilam School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury where I currently work. I’d been designing books for artists and galleries for years, and then we’d set up a publishing workshop at the school, the Ilam Press, to involve students in this sort of work. We were going to lots of art book fairs around the world when it occurred to me that there was an awful lot of independent arts publishing going on anyway, and perhaps I could more usefully try and apply what I’d learnt about small run arts publishing to making records and helping my friends get their music out. From my perspective there’s a lot more opportunities and funding available to visual arts in this country than there is for interesting music.

And so I started making lathe cut records again, with at least half the motivation being to make some cool record covers using the Ilam Press facilities. I made one with Bruce Russell, a collaboration between the two of us, and launched it in Auckland at Strange Haven. Kim Paton came to that launch and we got talking about these strange things called lathe cut records and the history of them in New Zealand. I think I suggested we do a exhibition of them then and Kim was very receptive.

Are lathe-cut records still being made by Peter King? Do you feel the exhibition documents a specific era of artistic activity in Aotearoa?

Unfortunately Peter has just recently stopped, or ‘paused' taking orders. I don’t know if this is long-term or not. I know he’d like to keep going but he has some health issues that are getting in the way.

The exhibition certainly focuses on the development of the experimental / noise scene in Aotearoa, and it would have been easy, and perhaps made a lot of sense, to just curate the show around that. But I included a lot of other things, including the more recent developments by other lathe cutters mentioned above, to hopefully point to a future for lathe cut records as well. The last 20 years have seen an explosion in independent short run book and magazine (or ‘zine’) publishing, and I wanted to see if this was happening in (less documented areas of) music as well. Which it sort of is and isn’t.

Obviously digital platforms have a lot to offer independent bands and musicians, and you can have a Bandcamp page for free. But, interestingly, something like Bandcamp also supports the distribution of physical product quite well, and a lot of people I know buy a lot of records and tapes through Bandcamp. I guess I like the idea that we are in a new(ish) era whereby marginal musicians can trade their wares around the world more easily than ever before. And so while big commercially successful bands and labels might find making lathe cut records and cassette tapes laughable, us freaks, weirdos, and losers can have a (not so) secret underground culture in which the distribution of music on out-dated physical media might flourish!

The research for this show must have been a substantial undertaking. Did you encounter any particularly surprising or pleasing discoveries in your research for A Short Run?

The research took a while because it meant traveling all over the country, mostly to visit people I’d never met. And the most surprising discovery, for me personally, was how open and generous people were considering I was often contacting them out of the blue and asking if I could come and visit and look through their record collection! I’ve met some really great people and made some friends along the way. I’ve also, obviously, heard a lot of music I hadn’t heard before, and so my listening tastes have shifted a bit as a result of researching the show. Which was naively unexpected to be honest.

What's happening with the exhibition after it finishes up at Objectspace?

The exhibition is traveling to The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, where it will open again on the 15th of February. And we’ll be having bands play down there as part of that as well.

I’m also hoping to get a chance to properly photograph the records with a potential book in mind. A lot of people I met were enthusiastic about the idea of a book about the history of lathe cut records in New Zealand music, and so, urgh, yeah maybe there is a book on the horizon eh!?

For further info on 'A Short Run: A Selection Of New Zealand Lathe-Cut Records' head along to the Objectspace website here.


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