Conceptual Digitisation

Jace Clayton on afro-funk and digital preservation

One of favourite music and culture bloggers (and DJs), Jace Clayton has a lovely piece in Frieze which explores the issues around how collectors might trawl the digital music of today in forty years time. He starts out looking at the recent craze in African funk reissues – records recovered from master tapes buried in dusty warehouses in Africa – the ephemeral pop music of the time – and wonders how this same activity might occur in the future.

In a world of rock songs sold as ringtones and YouTube-launched singles, there’s something heroic about Redjeb’s travails. Reissues aside, there are no more treasured ‘master tapes’ to be repackaged and sold years later. The music of the early 21st century exists in a digital ecosystem. Songs now travel from a recording studio’s hard drive to CD and beyond in the form of zeros and ones.


You can’t help but wonder how a man like Redjeb will dig for off-the-beaten-path music 40 years from now. For future hunter–gatherers of musical greatness, those dusty Benin warehouses filled with scorpions and records whose local relevance has long since evaporated will have been replaced by … what, exactly? Cluttered hard drives? Obsolete iPhones? Some people hoard MP3s, but nobody collects them in the traditional sense. Digital Africa is exemplified by the trio of expat Africans who run New York City’s bootleg CD-r mixtape industry.

Having a foot (an ear?) in both worlds of museums and music, I’ve often heard it said that the role of curators will necessarily grow rather than shrink. Yet the nature of curatorial practice is inevitably changing too as a the materials curators bring together become, increasingly ephemeral, impermanent cultural materials. And now that the social life of these materials is also digital, it is becoming far less about collecting, and documenting ‘objects’ but more about entire cultural ecosystems.

One reply on “Jace Clayton on afro-funk and digital preservation”

It’s an interesting question – how will the ephemeral survive?

I’ll bet you, someone, somewhere is collecting the equivalent of today’s African funk on MP3s, and whatever is the surviving medium of the future, they’ll find a way to transfer their collection to that medium so it will endure for the next generation. Some esoteric corners of The Powerhouse Museum’s collection are testament to the fact that collectors will always be collectors and will squirrel away stuff that nobody else thinks is a valuable cultural artefact – and then they donate it to The Powerhouse either before or after they die.

Another example, albeit non-musical, of how today’s ephemera is being preserved is the National Library of Australia’s Pandora project.

And both of those are leaving out whatever Google manages to cache away for us.

Look, there’s people who have Edison era wax and aluminium cylinders for goodness sake. I’ve got Edison bakelite cylinders. I know people with 1000s of 78rpm records. Don’t worry, someone will always collect something.

Mind you – I don’t have anything to play my Edison cylinders on. but I’m sure the Powerhouse Museum has.

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