Repurposed Objects, Social Objects: Towards a Social Organology in Technology-based Music


Repurposed items in technology-based music have long evaded traditional methods of organological classification due to the multiple associations they contain in performance settings. These methods of classification, which privilege the material and sensorial qualities of objects, ignore the greater social, cultural, and historical contexts in which objects exist. Instead of defining repurposed items through static and unchanging categories derived from material and sensorial qualities alone, a social organology, one organized around the symbolic order of objects, would consider the multiple narratives yielded by interactions between an object’s symbolic and material qualities in its discussion of a repurposed item’s properties and functions.  A social organology would present a more accurate means to discuss the multiple meanings and functions a repurposed item presents, and would consider how these items inform the cultural, social, and historical aspects of a performance that are not contained within its immediate material or sensorial components.

Keywords: Organology, Theatricality, Affordance, Found Object, Social Object 

Repurposed Items: A Challenge for Traditional Organology

The use of repurposed items in performances of technology-based music has long presented the Western musical tradition with issues concerning their definitions, classifications, and practices, largely due to the ways by which their fluxional natures and identities evade traditional methods of organological classification.  Recent performances that contribute to the blurring of these lines have been seen in the work of, among others, Rie Nakajima, Ryoko Akama, Simon Whetham, and Choi Joonyong, as the repurposed items they use do not fit easily into current “instrument” definitions due to the multiple meanings and functions these seemingly autonomous items appear to contain.  In many cases the items used in these performances are referred to as found, a reductive term in its assessment of a repurposed item’s cultural, social, and historical functions often considered external to performance.

Adherence to the term “found” in current perspectives in technology-based music appears to be in the service of traditional methods of organological classification that emphasize the material and sensorial aspects of an instrument over its cultural, social, or historical functions.  Within technology-based music, these methods often draw from the phenomenology of Pierre Schaeffer and his focus on sound objects, or l’objet sonores, that could be abstracted from concrete sound sources. By making the abstract possibilities contained within concrete sound sources the sole focus of attention and experience, the social, cultural, and historical significance of the objects that create the sounds from which sound objects may be extracted are ignored, leading to organological systems that are unable to easily discuss objects used in performances that contain meaning beyond their material and sensorial qualities. To reassess current views on repurposed items in technology-based music, an expanded perspective that considers the theatricality of objects and their function within cultural, social, and historical narratives is needed.

Drawing on art critic Michael Fried’s framing of Donald Judd’s sculptural work as theatrical, (Fried, 2011) the expanded context in which a repurposed item and its beholder exist is revealed through the beholder’s acknowledgement of the sense of presence projected from a repurposed item, one derived from the object and beholder’s mutual experience of a performance’s context, duration, and significance.  By including the spectator in its projection of presence, a repurposed item no longer contains its own singular presence as expressed by its medium, and instead functions as a social object within the narrative of its perception, in effect becoming theatrical as a fork between its social narratives emerges.  In the process, the cultural, social, and historical associations repurposed items bring into these performances, what has previously been referred to as the extra-musical, are revealed as an intrinsic part of the performance and inform the total meaning of the work. By considering the cultural, social, and historical meanings of repurposed items, a new social organology is required to map the network of a repurposed item’s constitutive elements and narrative trajectories in and between sites of performance.  Such elements include a repurposed item’s symbolic and material qualities, and internal and external performance contexts and narrative functions.

What Constitutes a Repurposed Item?

My use of the term repurposed in reference to objects and electronics pertains to items that appear to contain functions not corresponding to the current function within a site of performance, in effect giving them multiple meanings and functions due to the multiple narratives in which they appear to exist. This includes non-musical electronics and objects, as well as consumer musical equipment that has been abstracted from its original purpose.  Repurposed objects and electronics are often used by the group Voice Crack, for example, who perform with a myriad of circuit-bent and altered machines. Further removed from the electronic manipulations of Voice Crack are the experiments of musicians like Anne-F Jacques, Elizabeth Millar, Pierre Berthet, Rie Nakajima, and Ryoko Akama, who utilise fans, motors, and miscellaneous objects to bring out acoustic and autonomous qualities while evading traditional methods of electronic audio generation. Experiments with abstracted consumer electronic equipment include the experiments of Sachiko M and Toshimaru Nakamura with empty audio samplers and no-input mixers (Novak, 2010, pp. 45-46), as well as more experimental approaches to turntablism. Many musicians of the South Korean concert series Dotolim, such as Jin Sangtae, Choi Joonyong, and Hong Chulki, take a similar approach to consumer electronics abstraction in their manipulation of repurposed computer parts and consumer electronics like hard drives, disk drives, CD players, VCRs, and turntables with the intention of using both their acoustic and electronic sounds (Joonyong, Hankil, and Chulki, 2001). Joonyong, at a 2008 Dotolim performance, presents an example of a merging of repurposed objects, electronics, and abstracted consumer electronic equipment through his performance with a single reel-to-reel tape machine (Joonyong, 2008). At this performance, Joonyoong manipulates and augments the tape machine by using a small cymbal, a tape measure, and unspecified portable electronics, also touching the machine with his hands, while using the stop, start, forward, and reverse functions. Given that the entire piece is created, played back, and performed on a reel-to-reel tape machine it is ostensibly a work of tape music, but it also is not, despite the source of the work’s creation. By performing and composing on a tape machine through methods unused in conventional tape music, and without true magnetic tape, the work abstracts the reel-to-reel tape recorder from its functional expectations at the site of its performance. Similarly, each object used to prepare the tape machine, like the tape measure and cymbal, carry their own clash of prior and current function into the site of performance. In the case of this performance, as well as in many of the previously mentioned performance practices, it feels necessary to describe the functions and significances that each electronic and non-electronic object has externally to its use within a performance setting, as these functions and significances inform the meaning of the work despite their lack of sensorial presence within it. It is important to note that in many of these examples repurposed items are presented as whole objects, without overt alterations of their sonic or visual attributes. While repurposed items can and often are altered to fit specific aesthetic ends, the use of repurposed items without overt alteration often leads to these items being referred to as “found.” The use of the term found, which refers either to the exploration of the potential artistic qualities contained within everyday objects, or the process by which objects become art objects through recontextualisation, often seems to be used to resolve issues of systematisation that stem from the difficulty these items present to current organological methods. The following section will discuss these two meanings of the term found in reference to repurposed items and organology.

Found or Repurposed?

The most common approach to describing the use of repurposed items in performance settings is to describe these items as “found.” As I will show, use of the term found often privileges the material qualities of objects over their symbolic qualities.  In doing so, the term found often focuses on the sensorial aspects of these objects over their cultural, social, and historical context, which in turn creates issues in defining and categorizing these objects due to the multiple uses and identities these objects command depending on the narratives in which they are embedded. 

Scholar Jennifer Stock has presented a history of the term’s links between visual art and music, starting with Picasso’s early explorations in collage in his synthetic cubist works.  This early use of found materials in works like Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass (1912) and Still Life with Chair Caning (1912) allowed Picasso to explore the artistic potential in everyday materials, as well as the gap between objects and their representation within an art piece (Stock, 2014, pp.1-10). This use of the term “found” shares common ground with Schaeffer’s Musique Concrète. Within his concept of Musique Concrète, Schaeffer sought to create a new music by starting with concrete sounds from which sound objects could be abstracted, rather than the traditional approach to composition in which music first exists as an abstract idea in the mind of the composer before being realized by concrete instruments as indicated by a score. Looking to visual art, Schaeffer compared his approach to Musique Concrete to representational painting, claiming that Musique Concrete and figurative painting functioned similarly in that they both originated from things in external world before being abstracted through artistic process. Such a similarity contrasted with abstract painting, Schaeffer argued, because abstract painting started as an idea that was realized concretely through the use of paint and canvas, or pencils and paper (Schaeffer, 2017, pp. 7-8). This use of the term “found” as a means to explore the artistic potentials of everyday objects differs from the later Duchampian sense of the term.

Duchamp’s use of the term “found object” is attached to the concept of the readymade, which he began using in the early 1900s alongside his use of everyday objects in his art practice. Duchamp saw his shift to ready-made objects as a conversation with painting at large, and thought of his abandonment of painting as an approach to art making. Duchamp’s shift towards the ready-made was motivated by two main interests: an interest in conceptual, non-retinal art, and as a critique of industrialization. Ashline, via art theorist Thierry de Duve, calls attention to Duchamp’s critique of industrialization and references his writing: 

“Let’s say you use a tube of paint: you didn’t make it. You bought it and used it as a readymade. Even if you mix two vermilions together, it’s still a mixing of two readymades. So, man can never expect to start from scratch; he must start from ready-made things […] Since the tubes of paint used by the artists are manufactured and ready-made products we must conclude that all paintings in the world are “readymades aided” and also works of assemblage.” (de Duve, 1996, pp. 162-163, and Ashline, 2003, pp. 25) 

“Let’s say you use a tube of paint: you didn’t make it. You bought it and used it as a readymade. Even if you mix two vermilions together, it’s still a mixing of two readymades. So, man can never expect to start from scratch; he must start from ready-made things […] Since the tubes of paint used by the artists are manufactured and ready-made products we must conclude that all paintings in the world are “readymades aided” and also works of assemblage.” 

de Duve, 1996, pp. 162-163, and Ashline, 2003, pp. 25

Clearly, for Duchamp the shift towards industrialisation in the realm of painting had contributed to the art style’s destruction and impossibility. No longer did the artists make their own paints or construct their own canvases, they simply purchased these mass-produced ready-made items and assembled them into a painting. From this perspective, Duchamp’s use of found objects and ready-mades is not about the expansion of what can be considered or viewed as a work of art.  Instead, it is a way to suggest the impossibility of art, as any given readymade is no less found, repurposed, and assembled than any given painting, due to the standardisation of the art form under industrialisation and mass-production. This critique also signals Duchamp’s shift towards conceptual art. By placing the meaning and conversation of the ready-made within the mind of the viewer rather than within the visual perception of the work in and of itself, Duchamp’s work moved towards non-retinal art, or art whose meaning is primarily non-visual and in conversation with a larger artistic context than the confines of its own borders as an object within a visual field.

William Ashline, via the work of tabletop guitarist and electro-acoustic improvisor Keith Rowe, presents us with a means to parse the twin meanings of the term “found” in relation to music that draws upon repurposed materials.  According to Ashline, Rowe is known to reference the work of Marcel Duchamp, specifically his use of found objects or objet trouvé in reference to the items with which he prepares and performs with on his guitar (Ashline, 2003, pp. 23-26). For Rowe, the use of what he terms found objects is a way to extend the possibilities of the guitar, allowing it to take on a mobile form, as he has described in conversations about electronic instruments, controllers, objects, and more. Says Rowe in a 2003 interview,

[…] as an art student the found object was something that I thought extremely appealing.  Using the world around you directly, rather than trying to imitate it or reproduce it, made sense. For me it poses the question of exactly where the prepared guitar starts.

Ashline, 2003, p. 24

For Rowe, the use of what he terms a found object is drawn from an interest in exploratory and expansive sound-making. These objects have been placed within an artistic context in the effort of expanding the definition of what we consider a musical sound, object, and instrument. This definition and use of the term “found object” fails to maintain the fundamental critique that was integral to Duchamp’s initial use of and artistic deployment of the term, but does align with the term’s use in reference to the aforementioned works of Picasso and other related works. Like Picasso and Schaeffer, Rowe is exploring the gap between an object and its representation by starting with concrete materials from which new and engaging sounds might be abstracted. 

Within many examples of repurposed items, like Joonyong’s performance with a prepared reel-to-reel tape machine, neither sense of the term found object seems to uniformly apply. Due to the direct use of repurposed items in these performances, the focus is not primarily on the creation of new sounds abstracted from concrete sources, nor is the performance entirely conceptual due to the clear interest in these performances in creating works of organized sound. Instead, due to the direct presentation of these items and presence of both sensorial and social functions, these repurposed items appear to have a stronger artistic tie with the sculptural work of Donald Judd and Michael Fried’s later critique than with found art traditions.

Moving Beyond Found Objects

Donald Judd, in his manifesto “Specific Objects” (1964) calls attention to the direct use of materials in his three-dimensional work, as well as the work of others. For Judd, the most important quality of his work and the work of his peers was the holistic quality. These works sought to omit clear parts or areas, contrasts, variations, and other representational components of artworks that are inherited by format, such as the part-by-part compositional approach of much sculpture or the flat, rectangular plane of a painting on canvas. By omitting these details to function as one simultaneous, singular whole, the objects of Judd and others became “specific” and acted directly on the observer by extending immediate presence into the environment that defines their three dimensions.  Judd writes:

“It isn’t necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyze one by one, to contemplate. The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting. The main things are alone and are more intense, clear, and powerful. They are not diluted by an inherited format, variations of a form, mild contrasts and connecting parts and areas. […] Most of the work involves new materials, either recent inventions or things not used before in art. Little was done until lately with the wide range of industrial products […] Materials vary greatly and are simply materials […] They are specific. If they are used directly, they are more specific […] They aren’t obviously art. The form of a work and its materials are closely related.”

Judd, 1964

Art critic Michael Fried, in his 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood,” takes issue with several of Judd’s statements in “Specific Objects”, as well as the Minimal Art movement at large, which he here refers to as the “literalist art” movement. Fried’s main criticism of Judd is his work’s use of wholeness, or singleness of shape, to project objecthood, or specificity. For Fried, this projection of objecthood denies an artwork the ability to contain its own meaning, but instead includes its context and beholder in its projection of objecthood.  Fried describes this inclusion of the beholder in his statement that:

“Here again the experience of being distanced by the work in question seems crucial: the beholder knows himself to stand in an indeterminate, open-ended – and unexacting -relation as subject to the impassive object on the wall or floor. In fact, being distanced by such objects is not, I suggest, entirely unlike being distanced, or crowded, by the silent presence of another person; the experience of coming upon literalist objects unexpectedly – for example, in somewhat darkened rooms – can be strongly, if momentarily, disquieting in just this way.”

Fried, 2011, pp. 148-172

For Fried, this simultaneous distancing and inclusion of the beholder in the presence and experience of the art object caused it to become anthropomorphised and durational. The art object’s anthropomorphic qualities arise from the human characteristics ascribed to the art object as the beholder considers the presence of the work within which they are contained, much like an encounter with another person. This interaction imbues the work with duration, as the presence and meaning of the work is now tied to how the work is perceived over the course of its viewing. Fried saw the anthropomorphic and durational qualities imbedded in these objects as fundamentally theatrical in a way that he considered to be antithetical to art making, as these works no longer contained their own singular presence as expressed by their medium.  

This debate between Judd and Fried provides necessary context for considering how repurposed items might better fit within an organological system.  Like Judd’s specific objects, these repurposed items have been presented directly, without clear sonic or visual alteration. Because these directly presented items have been repurposed, we are included in the projection of the repurposed item’s presence as we align the current function of the item within a specific setting with the meanings and associations we have for the repurposed item eternal to the current performance. This negotiation of sensorial and social meanings prompted by repurposed items casts these performances as theatrical as we become acutely aware of our presence within the space of the repurposed object, and how our relationship with this object changes over the duration of a performance.  By seeing performances with repurposed objects as theatrical, we can see that repurposed items, by their very nature, direct our attention to beyond their specific material and sensorial qualities to their greater social, cultural, and historical contexts and functions (Kim-Cohen, 2009, p. 37-39). In order to accurately place repurposed items in an organological system that accounts for an item’s multiple contextually dependent functions, it is necessary to consider how these items negotiate these different functions in the hands of the performer and eye of the spectator.

Repurposed Items and Affordance

The concept of affordances as put forward by J.J. Gibson through the lenses of Windsor and de Bézenac presents a compelling means to assess a repurposed item’s multiple contextually dependent functions. Windsor and de Bézenac apply Gibson’s environmental approach to visual perception to the music performance, suggesting that the unique combination of affordances contained within an instrument or object, the invariant properties of an object that suggest possible use, aid in shaping the music that results from the subject’s interactions with the instrument or object.  These affordances, Windsor and de Bézenac argue, may also be subverted by the subject to create new forms of musical expression not previously considered to be part of the instrument or its potential capacities for artistic expression (Windsor and de Bézenac, 2012, pp. 104-112). This idea, Windsor argues, is not limited to the information one can glean from a static object, as objects, much like the example of theatricality presented above, can present us with information about other objects, or about social, cultural, and historical events (Windsor, 2004, pp. 181-187).

Jane Bennett, in her book Vibrant Matter (2010)presents means to understand how affordances inform and command our interactions with objects in her description of items sitting on a storm drain on Cold Spring Lane in Baltimore. For Bennett, these items, which included “one large men’s black plastic work glove, one dense mat of oak pollen, one unblemished dead rat, one white plastic bottle cap, one smooth stick of wood” (Bennett, 2010, pp. 4-5), offered her an example of things that simultaneously acted as marks of human action, but also commanded attention, from both human observers and each other. In other words, these items and their assemblage on the storm drain were clearly the results of human action, but also produced their own effects on human action and each other. Bennett describes this ability for items to produce their own effects and affects as “thing-power,” which refers to the perceived vibrancy of non-human materials. Bennett suggests two main constitutive elements for the power of things: affect and assemblage.  Affect, in this case, refers to a thing’s potential capacity to act upon or be acted upon by other things. Through affective systems, agency is seen as fundamentally distributed rather than enacted through intentionality. Bennett describes this perspective on agency in reference to the process of writing her book, writing:

“The sentences of this book also emerged from the confederate agency of many striving macro-and micro-actants: from “my” memories, intentions, contentions, intestinal bacteria, eyeglasses, and blood sugar, as well as from the plastic computer keyboard, the bird song from the open window, or the air or particulates in the room, to name only a few of the participants.”

Bennett, 2010, p. 23

This system of affective forces derived from a collected network of things constitutes an assemblage, which Bennett defines as a collection of emergent properties structured by things in an event-space. These assemblages have no central authority.  Instead, the duration, trajectory, and specific function of any given assemblage is determined by the mutual affective forces of the things contained within it. As suggested by social scientist Rom Harré, the power of things appears to arise from the roles they potentially play in a narrative through their affects or affordances, be it a narrative on the micro-level of artistic production, or on the macro-level of social, cultural, or historical meaning.  In performing a role in a narrative these objects become shift from material objects that exist independently of a clear narrative function to social objects that contribute to the production of social and cultural meaning. A material object, due to its various affects or affordances, can exist as multiple social objects, with each social object being its role in a separate narrative, be it social, cultural, or historical (Harre, 2002, p. 27-32).

Social Objects, Social Organology

Looking back to Joonyong’s performance with a reel-to-reel tape machine, we can see how the affordances of each object allow them to function as social objects within multiple concurrent narratives: that of the history of technology-based music, and that of the performance that unfolds before us. On the material and sensorial level of the performance, there are moments in which the affordances of the various objects contained in the performance enable certain musical results, or moments when Joonyong attempts to undermine these affordances to varying results. During the performance, moments arise when Joonyong’s intentions with the tape measure and cymbal do not seem to align with what transpires during the performance. This can be seen most clearly in moments where Joonyong appears to struggle to create sound with the tape measure against the heads of the tape machine, for example. Whether or not this is an intentional part of the performance is unclear, but what is important to note is the way by which this interaction guides the performance. As Joonyong attempts different performance techniques with the tape machine and tape measure, these objects give information back to Joonyong, causing him to adjust his performance strategies. Again, Joonyong is not acting through the tape machine, but with it. He is engaging with the mutual affective forces of the various objects in the performance in a push and pull of action and reaction.  On a macro-level, we see the reel-to-reel tape machine within the context of the history of technology-based music, and the ways in which the tape machine affords consistencies with and subversions of many of its historical traditions.  Its use as the primary element of Joonyong’s performance suggests that the performance is ostensibly a work of tape music, but it also is not, due to the lack of magnetic tape and overt focus on the tape machine’s acoustic qualities. By seeing Joonyong’s tape machine in this performance as a social object, we can see how symbolic exchanges between the affordances of objects and narratives in which they are embedded produce and manage meaning beyond that of the material or sensorial qualities of objects alone.

Repurposed objects, like Joonyong’s reel-to-reel tape machine, tape measure, and cymbal, reveal to us how the materials used in the production of music can contain many social objects that exist within multiple levels of narrative. For a system of organology to properly systematise the many social objects contained within repurposed materials, it must move away from defining the identities and roles of the items based on the productive capacities of their material or sensorial qualities alone. Instead, the system must consider the multitude of social and cultural functions and meanings they contain beyond the material and sensorial, and how these meanings converge within a performance. Such a reframing would necessarily constitute a social organology, one that balances the symbolic order of things with their material origin. A social organology would provide a more flexible means to discuss instruments as it would incorporate the social, cultural, and historical functions, definitions, and orders contained within them. In doing so, we are presented with a means to discuss repurposed objects that fully accounts for the multiple levels of experience and context in which these objects are engaged.


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About the Author

Dylan Burchett engages in a variety of sound-related actions that frequently involve materials powered by electricity. Much of his work involves investigating the theatrical and narrative capacities of reused and repurposed physical and/or sonic materials placed in improvised settings, though the degree to which each of these aspects are present often varies. Dylan received an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College in 2018, a BFA in Music Composition from New College of Florida in 2015, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Experimental Music and Digital Media at Louisiana State University.