Becca Kauffman’s
 second Master Cactus

Post Author: Liz Pelly

“We encourage you to hear the way you see,” writes Becca Kauffman to introduce her cassette zine, Master Cactus. It’s an apt mission statement for this sort of project, one that takes a medium typically designated for musicians and pries it open to possibility. Master Cactus offers a glimpse into how musicians might approach non-musical audio, while providing a space for visual artists and writers to try applying their work to sound as well.

The recently-released second installment, a humor-themed issue, includes a collage of children’s choir concerts, a field recording of a dentist appointment, monologues recalling embarrassing moments, fake advertisements, spoofs on workout tapes, a clip of Jessica Hopper interviewing her son about school lunch food, and over 20 other pieces. “I wanted to see how people would respond to the opportunity to make their own audio snapshot,” says Kauffman, who plays in Ava Luna and is a self-proclaimed audio obsessive .

Surrounding the release of Master Cactus issue two, we talked to Kauffman about how listening is the most overlooked form of perception, the ways comedy can work as a social commentary, and more.

Can you start by introducing your project and explaining what inspired you to start it? I’ve read that you were inspired by the 80s experimental tape zine Tellus. How did you first come across that project? 

I found Tellus (Audio Cassette Magazine) in the van on a long drive to a show with Ava Luna. I was googling things like “audio experiments,” “sound art,” “obsessive documentation,” “why can’t I stop pressing record?” It was a relief to find Tellus after many pages of Wikipedia. There are other people like me.

For a long time I felt the need to capture real life moments in sound. I hid a recorder in my sleeve and turned it on whenever conversations started to get good. My friends accused me of being a cop. A cop accused me of possessing a weapon (see: Stopped By the Cops on the Way to Unity, Maine). Some of these dialogues I transcribed, most of them remain piled up on my hard drive. Still, I’m glad to have them. There was one tour where I brought my tape recorder and we passed it around the van a lot and made an audio chain letter. That was 2011. No one’s ever heard it. We’re not allowed to listen to it until 2031 maybe. It’s a time capsule.

I feel like tapes are the perfect medium for capturing fleeting moments like that. First of all, the cassette’s history as a consumer-accessible mode of recording is really embedded in its character. It did for audio what the camera did for pictures. It puts one more possibility of creating into the hands of regular people. In doing this, the tape/tape recorder presents sound (not just music) as a potentially legitimate, standalone sensory mode and form of expression. By starting Master Cactus, I wanted to see how people would respond to the opportunity to make their own audio snapshot.

What about the concept of ‘humor’ is inspiring to you? Are you a big comedy fan? Is humor something that’s generally tied into your art practice?

When I came up with the theme for the second issue of the magazine, I was going to a lot of comedy shows. I went to comedy shows most nights of the week for a year. I guess you could say I was researching the medium via observation (you could also say I was chickening out of actually *doing* comedy). My favorite thing about comedians is that they’re like trick birthday candles; relentless, sparkling, celebratory. It really is a fucking treat to be gifted laughter. Stand up comedy is its own kind of dialogue, between an individual and a group of people who want to experience collective, momentary joy.

Comedy happens in real time, by and for real people. The whole thing is very candid, precarious, imperfect, vulnerable and unpredictable but with a lot of trust built in. It’s those quintessentially human elements, and the intimacy they promote, that connects well to the medium of the cassette tape. The act of making a recording is also a kind of conversation — between the cassette, yourself, the variables of the moment, and maybe your imagined audience. It’s also intimate, it’s also one of a kind, and it’s inevitably going to be flawed. I think we respond to that.

Practically speaking, the cassette has a limited audience. They’re usually made in small batches, and not that many people are going to hear them. The submissions on Master Cactus are basically just a few notches above private. You can hear people breathing into the mic. It’s really personal. The elements of relationship created in a comedy setting carry into the experience of listening to the tape.

Many of the contributors to this issue are comedians, but there are also visual & performance artists, writers, musicians, and even a speech language pathologist. Obviously you don’t have to be a comedian to have a sense of humor. Some of the tracks on this tape are verbally funny, some are sonically humorous; some are palate cleansers– not comic relief, but relief from the comedy. The collection is a total patchwork of comedic sensibilities, and hopefully people who listen to it will zero in on someone who’s surfing their wavelength.

Humor is very specifically tied into my art practice!

Can you tell me about your background as an artist outside of Ava Luna? Do you have any solo projects or other mediums you like to use to make stuff? (Besides this tape of course.)

I do have a solo project. It’s an ongoing video performance series called Home Music Videos. It’s kind of like… my own version of stand up comedy. The closest I can come to it, anyway. It’s not all overtly funny. It’s diaristic so it has moods, but humor is implied or at least acknowledged in each one. I’m also a voice over artist. You can find me in the elevator at Calgary City Hall in Alberta, Canada and also the occasional Teen Mom 2 promo on MTV.

In the mission statement for the tape you write, “We encourage you to hear the way you see.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that? The submissions on the tape are so varied. It feels kind of like a reminder of all the weird and cool things you can put on a tape other than music.

Totally! Putting weird and cool things on tapes as a kid was like, the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon. In that vein, I like the idea of sound-making being open to anyone, not just people who deal directly with the medium (like musicians). Likewise, I’m curious to see how musicians approach making a non-musical piece of audio. Master Cactus is about opening up the idea of what’s listenable/worth listening to/worth capturing, to something beyond or outside the genre of music. Making it less precious. Trying to keep it fun. Taking a picture, but with your ears instead of your eyes.

I think listening is the most overlooked form of perception. I’m not talking in terms of music, but actual sound/s. Everything besides music. We can’t close our ears the way we can our eyes, and there’s so much aural information all the time, so maybe our brains shut out a lot of sounds from our consciousness just to keep us focused and sane. I forget to or don’t listen all the time. Once you start to be pointed about it, though, there’s a lot going on. You realize inanimate objects have life. Maybe they have a voice and even something to say. Maybe the tones that stand out to you are an extension of your own voice, a possible mode of expression for you, like an instrument. One day I’ll do a Master Cactus issue in Braille featuring only blind contributors!

A lot of these are spoofs on advertisements, self-help programs, work out tapes — objects in culture that are arguably kind of problematic/absurd and probably merit some real criticism. But sometimes it’s just as powerful to laugh at them! Do you agree? What did you like most about these types of submissions in particular? 

Yeah, it was interesting to me to see that pattern, too. Comedy is commentary, commentary on structures. And comedy is itself structure. Or, there are many varieties of structural templates within comedy. I think many comedic minds respond to games and formulas with an almost athletic spirit of, “Let’s Do This.” By tackling tropes like the low budget regional radio spot or the interactive voice response phone survey, they’re corrupting the every day structure while still working within it. They’re playing the system … but they’re also participating in it, because they just perpetuated it by producing an imitation and upholding that structure. Which is sort of …meta-funny??? Lots of big winks and nudges.

How did you get the name for your project, Master Cactus? 

The magazine is named after this photo collage called “The Olympic Master Cactus,” by the Bauhaus artist Gunter Hirschel-Protsch. It just says it all.

A listening party for the second issue of Master Cactus will be held tonight at 8pm at Gravesend Recordings featuring comedy by Matt B. Weir, Julio Torres, and Lorelei Ramirez.