Echo Room house designer Jo Jarosinska has a solo exhibition February 14-24 at Wedge Gallery in Sydney, showcasing the the design work she produced last year in and around the the Echo Room Free Vinyl project. The exhibition turns the concept Echo Room into a three dimensional space where visitors can be immersed in the imagery of the project while listening to the records.
Rob: What do the series of images in this exhibition represent for you?
Jo: Echo Room is a visual interpretation of the strange, idiosyncratic and ghostly narratives that inhabit local underground music. Using song titles, fragments of lyrics, and band names as conceptual triggers, the Echo Room comprises album cover designs, prints, and an artists’ book.
Rob: For anyone coming to the show without knowing about the music, art and design collective behind it, what is Echo Room?
Jo: Echo Room began in 2017 as a mock-enterprise art project, created by a group of Sydney friends to build a local underground music community. The way we aimed to do this is through the Free Vinyl Project.
This project invites local underground musicians to contribute recorded tracks and live performances, which we then curated and produced in 12” compilation records, and released in a series of live music events.
These records are not for sale – instead they are given away free at launch events, encouraging people to come out and see local underground music and form meaningful connections around the experience. All musical contributions to this project are voluntary and all money paid by music venues goes into the production costs of the vinyl.
Rob: In one sense, the whole thing was an elaborate joke from the start, to put a huge amount of effort into a project staffed by volunteers to make a product that can’t be bought or sold.
Jo: We all thought that was funny, sure, but jokes can be a powerful way to frame serious ideas. Echo Room was established out of a desire by everyone in the group to resist the growing trend for even underground musicians (and I think all creative practitioners) to represent themselves as ‘brands’, constantly self-promote on social media, and have their work judged through a lens of commercial success (are you commercially successful?) or social media popularity (how many followers do you have?).
Echo Room instead wanted to present a space for celebrating the idiosyncratic, strange, non-standard forms of underground music being made, and removing any responsibilities to make a profit or commercial appeal. I found that liberating as an artist, designing for a zero budget, zero profit enterprise where art for art’s sake is the defining value.
Rob: But now you have pictures for sale in this exhibition. Is that a breach of the Echo Room principles?
Jo: No, the only breach would be to impose dogmatic rules on ourselves and devolve this freewheeling, anarchistic project into some holier-than-thou ideological position. No amount of conceptual gymnastics would enable me to give away a framed original artwork for free, because I would be paying for you to take it from me.
The idea of the free vinyl was to present a playful critique of contemporary capitalist popular culture, not to present some nostalgic defence of communism or a moronic attack on the use of currency, whether or not our politics lean to the left.
Part of the joke was always going to be that a socialist, volunteer-based model for pop music production would definitely fail on capitalist terms. Some of the musicians exploited the opportunity for a free record and ripped us off, as we predicted, reneging on their free performances and feeling very clever about themselves, I’m sure. Others were very generous, giving us multiple free shows and even traveling interstate to participate, because the idea resonated with their values and desires as it did for us.
The absence of accountability for the artists was part of the concept. Most people respected the ‘rules’ and we didn’t lose any money on the records, so I’m looking forward to doing the fourth one this year.
Rob: One thing that interested me was how some people at shows got offended by the free record. A man at one event kept trying to shove some $20 notes into my hand and saying, “What’s the matter with you? Are you afraid of money or something?” I think that was a reasonable question on his part. I’m not saying that to be patronising. It’s not that he didn’t ‘get it’. He got it and thought we were idiots.
Jo: Someone else told me he loved the idea but questioned our use of the word “free” because it’s still a price tag, an enticement in commercial culture, not a neutral value. So even people who enjoyed the concept could become quite critical if they saw our efforts as incoherent, ideologically. I thought it would be obvious that we understand that contradiction. I don’t think the subversive elements are meant as more than a subtext anyway.
We mostly wanted to celebrate local artists and give people a good reason to come out to shows. It’s a simple invitation: Free Entry and Free Vinyl! The conditions of production for a free object are not something anyone is expected to think about in society generally, so why should they think about our product that way? Just come to the gig and get a free record.
Rob: Right. What Echo Room is doing is a joke, or a serious critique, or just a crude marketing gimmick for gigs, depending how you look at it. We might replace that concept with something else whenever we feel like it.
Jo: The images I have made in and around the project are deliberately incoherent or ambiguous, so enough said about coherence. And in the case of the Echo Room art show, an art show is actually an art show, not a mock-enterprise. The pictures are for sale, the records are not.
Rob: How did you develop the visual style of these images?
Jo: My role in Echo Room Records has been to design all the visual imagery attached to the events, website, and the record sleeves themselves. The music presented by Echo Room encompasses a range of genres including lo-fi, shoegaze, post-punk and space rock.
This prompted the strategy of using abstracted visuals for the record sleeve artwork and posters and not focusing on any particular band or genre. Instead, the photocopied, scanned and screen-printed images suggest sound waves, white noise, distortion and movement through music, while avoiding styles or motifs that point to specific genres. These analog processes were chosen for the imperfections, glitches and strange accidents that they create.
This, in my imagination, reflects the various deliberate sonic distortions, noise, and lo-fi effects in the music. Limited-run, screen-printed covers were a choice also based on resisting the cheaper mass-produced, plastic and disposable quality of CDs, or the instant availability of digital music, which encourages split-second evaluations rather than focused listening experiences.
During this design process, I began to think about what design work I should pursue next. I’ve continued down the initial abstract path for many of these pieces.
But I also found myself repeatedly drawn to found imagery from my collection of old books and magazines that I’ve always collected from op-shops.
I was always slightly uncomfortable in integrating found imagery from the past into my own work, unless it was heavily abstracted, because I didn’t want to create what Fredric Jameson criticised as ‘blank postmodern pastiche’. When I thought about the most successful precedents that I was drawn to in my research – work from Frauke Dannert, and Julian House in particular – I realised that their collages evoked something more critical and suggestive, by destabilising time and being simultaneously retro and futuristic. Their work also actively engages in trying to decipher the images, giving you a hint of the familiar, but leaving enough space for you to to fill in the narrative blanks through your own unique memory bank of references.
It was only when I read the work of Mark Fisher that this repurposing of images from the past began to present stronger motivations for me, from a speculative design perspective.
My experience of reading Fisher was uncanny in the sense that he theorised the work of the musicians and designers that have obsessed me throughout my adult life, exemplified by Julian House, a designer of many famous underground music album sleeves, and the art rock group Stereolab’s. Julian House’s cheerful 70’s-inspired designs for Stereolab records contrast with lyrics that are highly skeptical about contemporary capitalist culture.
Rob: That’s the hook a lot of people miss in Stereolab, I think. The music is so immersive it takes many, many listens before you even consider what Laetitia and Mary might be singing about.
Jo: I still remember the weird kick when I started noticing the words behind all the walls of harmony and melody and drones. Stuff like, “the meaning of existence can’t be supplied by living in an ideology” in a song with a completely disposable title, Three-Dee Melodie. I already loved them, but band opened up for me a second time when I tuned into that.
Rob: So for the uninitiated, where does Fisher come into all this?
Mark Fisher’s writing situates the work of Julian House and Stereolab as part of a broader subculture of what he calls hauntological artists, which includes bands like Broadcast, Joy Division, Caretaker, and many other artists I admire.
In his study of contemporary popular culture, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, he adopts Jacques Derrida’s term hauntological as a descriptive term for an artistic practice which expresses longing for a future that was imagined in our past but never eventuated. Derrida’s term combines haunting and ontology, in the sense of the present being defined by the past and the future, and what they are or are not.
The subtle melancholia, loss and yearning that hauntological work evokes is not mere nostalgia, which tends to focus on certain idealised images from the past. He argues that what is being longed for in hauntology is not a particular period, but the resumption of the processes of democratisation and pluralism.
Rob: So hauntology is presented as a critical artistic practice in resistance to contemporary postmodern capitalism.
Jo: Yes, he defines our present epoch as “capitalist realism” – an outcome of economic liberalism that makes it increasingly difficult to imagine any alternate reality to capitalism in the present.
Rob: It’s a horrifying argument. Do you think Fisher is too pessimistic? I have recommended Capitalist Realism to friends and some have complained that it all sounded correct but depressed them completely.
Jo: I think that would be a misinterpretation of his project. The important thing for a social theorist is to tell the truth, and Fisher expresses how I experience the present very accurately. It’s up to the reader to decide what to do with it.
Rob: It’s true, I’m much more conscious of wanting to hear sounds I’ve never heard before since reading Ghosts of my Life. His writing disturbed but also energised me.
Jo: I don’t think you have to fully indulge his vision. I read his work as a provocation and a cultural challenge to all artists to stop remaking the same popular culture over and over.
Rob: That’s the shift he provoked in my imagination, exactly. I’ll never be offended to hear another new band sounding like Joy Division or My Bloody Valentine, but there is something culturally senile in that impulse. It would be preferable to hear something new by whatever means an artist can figure out.
Jo: Fisher’s argument resonated with me in a very personal way, as a first generation immigrant, born in communist Poland, who grew up with former communist parents in an Australian socialist democracy.
The politics, institutions, and policies I grew up with remain embedded in my consciousness. But socialist democracy and the popular modernist culture I grew up with both seem now like tantalising spectres rather than the realities of the present, postmodern, economic liberal epoch, which continually places these values under attack.
In terms of Echo Room, Fisher’s arguments clarified for me how the design of an imaginary, alternate world does critical work to expand our imaginative horizons. It led me to use visual design to construct a fictional landscape for the music to inhabit, instead of constructing a fetishistic identity for the bands or artists. That’s been a lot of fun.
Echo Room Art show runs 14-26 February 2019 atWedge Gallery, Kinokuniya Books, Level 2 500 George St, Sydney
Jo Jarosinska feature image by Marah Weston
Rob Crompton is the Echo Room curator and founder of Deep Space Supergroop.
The title Echo Room is from a song by our friend and brother Fergus Miller (Bored Nothing). Read more about his association with us here.