REVIEW Those of you who can remember them know that cassette tapes aren't exactly sturdy. Forever getting tangled in car stereos or being left to bake on dashboards, during their commercial heyday they practically advertised their obsolescence Maxell ads be damned. But anyone who has managed to wrest the audio from within a warped plastic shell knows that the metamorphosed sound can be strangely beautiful. Composer Daniel Basinkski has made a second career out of looping the death rattles from his magnetic tape archive, and Kevin Shields nearly bankrupted Creation Records while trying to make his guitars sound like so many corroded C-90 tapes.
Dan Nelson invokes the cassette's history of planned obsolescence in "140 Ways to Make a Cassette Tape Unlistenable," his contribution to "Relay," a modest group show of sound-related art at the LAB. Nelson is no stranger to lists, as attested to by his handsome grimoire All Known Metal Bands (McSweeney's, 300 pages, $22). Here, though, he catalogs his repeated and sometimes frustrated attempts at destruction rather than posterity. Lining the walls are vitrines and photographs displaying the remains of cassettes: encased in cement, mobster-style; wrapped in electrical tape; atomized from hammer blows; power-sawed in two. There are letters documenting Nelson's attempts to send tapes over Niagara Falls and into outer space on a NASA rocket. Most hilariously, a missive to the Gagosian Gallery pleads for one of Nelson's cassettes to be interred with Ed Ruscha when Ruscha passes on.
Nelson's installation mines its laughs and its conceptual heft from a self-deprecatory stance: cassettes have long been declared a dead medium, despite whatever nostalgic eternal return may be planned by the Urban Outfitters cultural industrial complex. The ridiculous length to which Nelson is willing to pursue his mission only further underscores this fact. The flogging of a dead horse is rarely so much fun to watch.
RELAY Through Nov. 15. Wed.Sat., 16 p.m. The LAB, 2948 16th St., SF. (415) 864-8855. www.thelab.org