On Craig Dworkin and Jarrod Fowler's 'Rhythmic Fact'

Above: CD-R of ‘Rhythmic Fact.’

Craig Dworkin’s collaboration with conceptual percussionist Jarrod Fowler, Rhythmic Fact, provides a striking limit-case of legibility. The work is comprised of a short piece of text printed on the label side of a blank Compact Disc-Recordable, or CD-R. As with other iterations in Dworkin’s “Fact” series, the text exhaustively details the chemical composition of the medium in which it is concretized:  

Ink [solvent, pigment, resin, humectant, surfactant and fungicide] cured to a hydrophobic solid-dye resin sheet varnished to a 5µm-thick acrylic lamina [epoxy polymer, methylacrylic acid (C4H6O2), and benzophenone (C13H10O)] spincoat lacquered to an encoded skein-grooved .067µm-thick pellicle of gold [Au] sputtered to aryl-nitrogen stabilized cyanine [CH(CH=CH)n] dyed to a 1.2mm-thick center-punched clear polycarbonate substrate [C16H14O3].[1]

Such extreme self-reflexivity pushes “realist” or “object-oriented” poetry to perhaps its furthermost point, resulting in a poem that is practically illegible or meaningless, at least to the average nonspecialist reader. However, this textual illegibility redirects attention onto the materiality of the CD-R object itself, and, in so doing, points to an otherwise invisible or obscured legal and political structure governing the purportedly blank object.

To begin with, the work playfully engages its readers in the type of “literally machinic” reading that much “pure” conceptual writing seems to call for.[2] Dworkin’s text is divided into four equal-length lines comprising the four sides of a square that encompasses the main area of the label and whose corners are situated near the disc’s outer circumference. With the poem set in this square shape and unfolding via ninety-degree turns, the reader is forced to rotate the disc around in their hand in order to “read” it. Following the suggestion of the physical characteristics of the CD-R itself, it is likely the reader will place their index finger in the center hole and rotate the disc using their fingers, thus simulating the operation of the CD drive, which spins a (recorded) disc in order to read its “meaningless” spiral-encoded string of ones and zeros.

Yet in drawing our attention to the material object, Rhythmic Fact does more than simply engage us in a quasi-machinic operation — it also invites us to consider the wider cultural status of an often underappreciated medium. Although now widely presumed to be obsolete, the CD-R in fact remains a popular format within various underground music scenes, with hundreds, if not thousands, of albums released as home-burnt CD-Rs every year. For small independent labels working outside of the larger commercial circuits of more mainstream music, the CD-R is an attractive medium as it is inexpensive and readily available and therefore perfectly suited to the demands of DIY publishing. This is certainly the case with W.M.O./r, the Spanish label specializing in noise and free improvisation that published Rhythmic Fact in 2011. The label is run by Mattin, a Basque musician and artist who, along with advocating a punk-inflected DIY philosophy with regard to music making, is highly critical of copyright and intellectual property laws. Indeed, for Mattin,

the radical and exploratory character of improvisation should be directed not only to the making of music but in changing the conditions in which the music is produced. Today these conditions are at least partially set by the discourses of intellectual property, copyright and authorship. These notions should be challenged and perverted the same way improvisers pervert their instruments to create new sounds, so we can create new conditions that suit our necessities, interests and desires.[3]

The label’s attempt to pervert or thwart the economic authority of copyright and intellectual property takes a number of different forms, including releasing albums composed exclusively using free non-patented software; making every CD-R release simultaneously available as a free download; and actively encouraging the free copying and distribution of its catalogue via a militantly anticopyright stance.

By evacuating content and publishing a blank CD-R on Mattin’s label, Dworkin and Fowler draw attention to the material substrate facilitating the distribution of the label’s explicitly anticopyrighted music, with the text itself pointing the more intrepid “reader” to the fact that “blank” CD-Rs are not actually empty or contentless. As a self-reflexive “data track” detailing information about the material conditions that precede whatever audio may be written to the disc, Dworkin’s poem formally evokes or hints at a discreet data signal intrinsic to the CD-R medium known as “Absolute Time in Pregroove,” or ATIP. ATIP is a shallow spiral groove preinscribed in the polycarbonate substrate of every writable disc whose function is to guide the laser assembly during the recording process. Extending from the inside rim of the recordable area to the disc’s outside diameter, this “pregroove” spiral contains a slight sinusoidal wobble (with a frequency of 22.05KHz) that delivers timing information to the drive to ensure data is written at a constant rate. In addition to this timing function, ATIP also contains encoded information regarding manufacturer, disc length, and — like Dworkin’s text — the specific dye type used. Significantly, this preinscribed data track — absent from factory pressed, nonrecordable CDs — is not erased when audio is burnt to the disc, and the manufacturer’s mark it contains is used in some copyright protection schemes as a means of distinguishing original CDs from illegally pirated CD-R copies.

Furthermore, the ATIP of every audio CD-R also contains a special “Disc Application Code” that identifies it as specifically designed for audio recording. Except for this one crucial difference, audio CD-Rs marketed for home recording and data CD-Rs marketed for computer applications and storage are essentially identical. However, standard consumer audio recorders are programmed to reject blank data discs as they do not contain this code in their pregroove. The rationale behind this restriction — which otherwise serves no practical purpose — relates to certain international copyright agreements. By imposing this distinction, “various countries and other authorizing jurisdictions can selectively apply copyright levies to the price of blank discs intended for consumer audio use while exempting those destined for computer or professional applications.”[4] The specifics of this tax on purchases of recordable media vary between countries, but typically the collected income is paid to the recording industry as compensation for the supposed loss of profits resulting from the reproduction of copyrighted content.

Thus, although Mattin’s W.M.O./r label is strictly anticopyright, the CD-R format it champions is itself ineluctably imbricated in various copyright schemes, meaning the production of its releases has contributed, albeit in an admittedly small way, to the “compensation” of the record industry. In this sense, ATIP functions as a control structure underwriting every publishing “freedom” the medium otherwise affords to such DIY labels. Furthermore, Dworkin’s self-reflexive text also encodes such copyright issues in a manner formally analogous to ATIP, since the chemical composition it itemizes is itself the subject of copyright protection. The reason why there were so many different types of CD-Rs during the height of the medium’s popularity was that the material makeup of each brand was patented. If a new seller wanted to enter the market, they had to come up with their own specific combination of materials, which in turn had to conform to a set of protocols dictating the commercial standards of CD-R manufacture. By simply itemizing the exact ingredients of a blank CD-R, Dworkin deftly gestures toward such larger political structures, rendering a critical intervention into a niche mode of experimental music production.

1. Craig Dworkin and Jarrod Fowler, Rhythmic Fact, W.M.O./r 36, 2011, CD-R.

2. See Judith Goldman, “Re-thinking ‘Non-retinal Literature’: Citation, ‘Radical Mimesis,’ and Phenomenologies of Reading in Conceptual Writing,” Postmodern Culture 22, no. 1 (2011): np.

3. Mattin, “Anti-Copyright: Why Improvisation and Noise Run Against the Idea of Intellectual Property,” in Noise and Capitalism, ed. Anthony Iles and Mattin (San Sebastián: Arteleku, 2010), 167–91.

4. Understanding CD-R & CD-RW,” Optical Storage Technology Association.