We Buy White Albums

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In my previous entry I talked about music formats as representations of sound recordings and performances. In particular I noted We Buy White Records – an exhibition by American artist Rutherford Chang, who owns over 1000 copies of first run pressings of the Beatles’ eponymous ninth album, normally referred to as the “White Album”. Until September 14th 2014, Rutherford’s collection was being displayed in its entirety at FACT in Liverpool, and as we speak it is currently in transit to be exhibited in Hong Kong. Located in a re-appropriated loading bay just off Liverpool’s Bold Street, Chang’s collection was arranged and presented in the style of a record store, with visitors invited to browse and explore the different copies, to take them out and play them on the turntables provided, and (if they feel inclined) to sell Chang their own first edition copy of the White Album. At the end of August (and before a trip to New York interrupted my intention to write about it) I travelled from Glasgow to Liverpool for the day to meet Rutherford and to explore and experience his collection for myself.

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Chang himself was raised in California, and lives and works in New York when not travelling the world displaying his collection. He began this process at the age of 15 when he purchased his first copy of the White Album for $1 at a garage sale. At the time it didn’t seem particularly significant to him. “It wasn’t a particularly special experience” he recalls. “It was when I was starting to get into music and I had heard of the White Album as a famous album so I bought it, along with some Bob Dylan albums.” However, upon later acquiring a second copy of the record, his interest was sparked by the subtle discrepancies and minute differences in the way the albums had aged. It was at this point that he decided that he wanted to collect more.

But why the White Album? This is certainly one of the questions that was most pressing to me in the run up to our meeting, and definitely one of the questions that I’ve been asked the most since. When I put this question to Rutherford he explained “because it’s all white it’s basically like a blank canvas that collects everything from 1968 until now… and whatever’s happened to them becomes more apparent than the original design”. However, there is more to it than simply the covers’ immediate appearance. As each of the first run of the album (somewhere in the region of 3 million copies) was numbered, all of the records can be organised by number. The first one hundred copies that he acquired are displayed in rows upon the wall, the rest are catalogued, chronologically ordered, and contained in racks, as you would expect to find in a second hand record store. As is also the case in second hand record stores, the condition of the records varies dramatically, although the number of records that you might consider VG+ pales in comparison to the number of poor-to-pulverised copies. To Chang, this drastic variation is at the heart of what makes the collection so interesting.

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“Because it’s all white it’s like a blank canvas that collects everything that’s happened between 1968 and now. They become these artefacts where whatever has happened to them becomes more apparent than the original design, and that’s what you see rather than the cover”

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“It was when I got my second copy of the album and saw the minute ways that it aged differently from the first that made my interested in collecting multiple copies. The more I got, the more interesting it became, so I’m still collecting.”

The thing that I found so immediately compelling about We Buy White Albums (and the reason that I decided to take a very last-minute trip from Glasgow to Liverpool to see it and speak to Chang for myself) was that it illustrated a very particular kind of value that is inherent only to physical artefacts, one that is implicitly, subconsciously present in the minds of record collectors, and perhaps all collectors of physical, cultural artefacts.

These subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) variations are immediately and urgently apparent from the moment you walk into the space, and I have to say that the experience of walking in and being confronted with so many distinct, different representations of the same record is, initially, really quite overwhelming. Upon introducing myself and moving to interview Rutherford about his collection I found myself distracted, on more than one occasion, by the ranks of records crowding the walls and tables of the converted loading bay, uniform in their difference. So many of Rutherford’s copies of the White Album are damaged or degraded almost beyond recognition. In the eyes of the conventional record collector, many of the individual copies are worthless. The sleeves are mouldy, worn, decomposing. To a casual listener, many of the records themselves are not fit for purpose. They are warped, scratched, unable to accurately or adequately convey the music that was once inscribed on them. Some are deliberately defaced, with Rutherford drawing my attention to a specific disk that had had the tracks “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” scratched out in case the owners parents heard the tracks playing and confiscated the record. Individually, many of the records lack any real exchange value to dealers, use value to listeners, or aesthetic value to onlookers. Yet, when collected together, they possess a completely different value all together, where value resides not in the individual objects but in the countless variations between and amongst multiple copies of the same artefact. Every record is the same, but each record is different.

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Chang, however, isn’t just in the business of collecting. As part of his ongoing fascination with the White Album, and his exploration of the differences between each of his copies, he has created a number of derivative artefacts exploring and highlighting these differences in the form of a new vinyl LP, one that simultaneously embodies visual and sonic elements of the first one hundred copies of the album that he acquired. Conceived around the time of Rutherford’s original exhibition in New York, the “100 White Albums” record’s sleeve is made up of scans of each of Rutherford’s first one hundred copies, digitally combined to simultaneously embody elements of each. Remove either of the records from its sleeve and you can see that the label in the centre has been produced in the same fashion. Play the record and what you hear is the sound of the same one hundred White Albums, all at once. This resulting effect is a sound that, at first, is reminiscent of playing a record through a broken sound system – crackly, distorted, and out of phase. By the end of each side the sound is a cacophony of noise, a barely comprehensible garble of eerily familiar sounds,all playing at different times and caused by physical variations in each record; warping, scratching, skipping – a collective illustration of these albums that are individual yet unique.

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