Among other things, Seth Price's 2001 project Title Variable is a question, a query that might be phrased-as the artist did in his 2002 essay "Dispersion"-as follows: "Suppose an artist were to release the work directly into a system that depends on reproduction and distribution for its sustenance, a model that encourages contamination, borrowing, stealing, and horizontal blur? The art system usually corrals errant works, but how could it recoup thousands of freely circulating paperbacks?"1 Title Variable inquires into the ways that digital technologies have affected music production, examining a brief but turbulent history that in thirty years has yielded cheap synthesizers, the compact disc, MIDI (the Musical Instrument Digital Interface), personal computers, the sampler, and the World Wide Web.
The project includes a series of music compilations, concentrating on pivotal but vaguely defined or historicized moments within this history, including both popular forms and more rarified modern compositions. Considered so far are: the growth of the early video-game soundtrack as a musical form; the transition when mainstream pop producers started to assimilate the previously marginal black musical forms of rap and hip-hop into a more lucrative, commercial system; the consolidation of experimental "industrial" music into beat-oriented dance genres; and the very first years of the music sampler. The compilations have been released in various audio formats and packaging designs, occasionally with different titles. Some have been available cheaply in bookstores, museum shops, or on the internet, while others have been selfpublished or produced as limited art editions. As an accompaniment to each, Price wrote an essay on the music in question and published it in a magazine. These essays take rough cues from the music and range in style from the tersely schematic to the base journalistic to the more abstractly theoretical.
If Title Variable functions as a critical history of music technology, suggesting how production tools have transformed music-not just how it sounds but who controls it and its distribution-the project also reflects on the contemporary conditions that govern the production and consumption of culture both within and outside the art world. Price questions how objects and experiences accrue value and meaning, and foregrounds the construction of authority and originality by legal and corporate systems. Not least, Title Variable resists the primacy of the visual in our culture. Its dispersed form is difficult to represent or display-and even hard to talk about, since it does not lend itself to conventional modes of art criticism, nor to the resolution of meaning, which tends to be the goal of such commentary.
Gwen Allen: All of the moments you focus on in the history of sound are in the recent past-mainly the 1980s going up to the early 1990s. What is compelling for you about this time period?
Seth Price: I'm interested in the effect of digital technologies, and they reached the marketplace sometime in the 1970s. It does happen to line up neatly with my own lifespan.
Allen: What role does the experience of listening to the music play in this project? Typically someone makes a music compilation either because they like the music-in the case of amateurs-or in order to profit from it. Your compilations do not seem to fall into either of these categories.
Price: I'm not sure it's necessary to listen to the music to enter the piece. It has something to do with the way recorded music is starting to operate in the culture. As a downloadable file, music is hard to control and hard to sell. It has no packaging. Its value starts to approach zero. So the industry proceeds from the idea that the music is a pretext, that the main reason someone would want to buy it, would recognize it as a product at all, is because there's something desirable about the package: the cover art, or some celebrity essay, or because it's newly remastered. …