Test Centre is a new micro-publishing outfit in Dalston that’s putting out a series of limited-edition spoken-word vinyl records. Its second LP, The Museum of Loneliness by Chris Petit, was launched earlier this month at the Whitechapel Gallery. There was a screening of Asylum, a film Petit made with Iain Sinclair in 2000, set in a post- apocalyptic world where a ‘virus’ has ‘created itself out of the protein soup of bad television with the sole aim of destroying its own memory’. Investigators are on a mission to recover the lost cultural memory, seeking out writers of the counter-culture: Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, James Sallis, Ed Dorn, screened in grainy chiaroscuro, tight black and white close-ups. Certain phrases of Dorn’s are caught and repeated, like a vinyl scratch loop; later in the film he reappears on a boxy TV in a desolate Texas motel.
The film anticipates Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence – the obsessive recording of a life through insignificant artefacts – and Hari Kunzru’s Memory Palace, a book and an exhibition which will open at the V&A in June. In Kunzru’s story, collective memory is erased by a magnetic pulse that wipes the digital world. A small band of Memorialists do their best to piece together what they can from ‘wetware’ – their own brains. These projects, though they’re based on books, find their natural home in galleries or museums; their concern is with curation, collecting and recording.
After the Asylum screening the audience trooped to the bookshop, and sales of The Museum of Loneliness were brisk. The anti-commercialism of this kind of work doesn’t exclude the market, only the mass market. This is the world of limited editions, books as collectible artefacts, handmade objects – the opposite of infinitely reproducible, intangible digital products. ‘The Museum of Loneliness,’ Petit says on the LP, ‘starts at the opposite end of dot com.’ And later: ‘The discipline of selection is the key to the first age of the internet.’ He and Sinclair are curators of their own archives, making use of Ed Dorn’s Literate Projector, a machine that chews up and digests old novels to produce or ‘uncover a new form of literature that was already there’.
Both LPs released by Test Centre so far (the first was Sinclair’s Stone Tape Shuffle) are composed of materials culled from earlier works. Petit’s record is a collage of readings (by him) of extracts from his novels (‘deservedly lost books’), elements from the soundtracks of Asylum and his most recent film, Content, and field recordings from ‘out-of-season resorts’. The whole is scored (or ‘smeared and spored’, as the record’s sleeve has it) by Mordant Music. He punctuates Petit’s voice, which is reasonable, measured, considered throughout, with amplifications and distortions of his hiccups and hesitations. Side A is entitled ‘Dead Drunks’, the drunks in question being three shady characters from Petit’s novels. Side B begins with a description of what the Museum of Loneliness contains, or what it is, if there’s a difference: it’s a museum without walls, or even a site. With a tussive explosion, this dissolves into Mordant Music’s fragmentary arrangement of ‘detritus from the audio sphere’, before recomposing itself into a litany of iconic moments in the history of cinema.
Test Centre’s other projects include a series of limited edition pamphlets, most recently Sinclair’s ‘Austerlitz’ and After, an account of a walk round Whitechapel in W.G. Sebald’s footsteps, guided by the poet Stephen Watts; a magazine; and, later this year, a shop. Two more LPs are lined up, from Stewart Home and Tom McCarthy.
In the early days of the phonograph, it was imagined that people might use it to make family albums of their loved ones’ voices. But it didn’t happen, and there’s something about the material capture of ordinary sound, familiar voices, whether pressed into wax or vinyl, that still seems strange. Think of all the people you have photos of whose voices you will never hear again.