Exhibition: Graham Dunning – For Posterity @ SoundFjord, 15/03/12 – 21/04/12

“First of all, apologies for this unsolicited letter. I’m trying to contact a family who lived at ******* ***, ***********, between 1958 and mid-1965. I realise that this is a long shot but please allow me to explain my story.”

And so begins Graham Dunning’s first attempt at contact with a family with which he is already strangely familiar. “For Posterity” is part art piece, part gesture of goodwill, as Dunning attempts to return an old spool of tape that was intended to be passed down through family generations, and somehow ended up tucked into an old tape recorder that Dunning purchased at a car boot sale.

The tape itself is a document of family life – two parents (the father in particular) attempt to facilitate conversations with their four young children, by asking them what they did during the day, praising their efforts at school, and encouraging them to engage in song. The parents wrestle with their children’s unwillingness to co-operate, briefly indulging in their trivial remarks before attempting to guide the conversation back towards something of substance. A combination of childish excitement and shyness occasionally stalls the interchange (“just because I’ve got a microphone in my hand, you’re different” remarks the father at one point), but these breaks in the fluency bring forth enlightening glimpses of parental discipline, contributing further to the insight into the nature of these family relationships.

The recordings take place across nine years between 1958 and 1967. The listener is whisked between the playful gurgles of infancy through to the more curious and talkative ages of between five and ten, gifted a peek at the excitable buzz in the run up to Christmas, treated to the carol-singing of Boxing Day’s residual merriment and inundated with the complicated to-do lists that accompany moving house. The father formally announces each recording as it commences with the date and a brief outline of context, sometimes introducing each family member like the cast list of a radio play. It’s addictive listening. The more familiar the voices become, the more engrossed the listener becomes in their interaction, while speculations as to what the family might look like begin to materialise, arriving as vague mental depictions manifested out of the muffled voices that emerge through the tape hiss.

But there are jolting reminders of the listener’s distance from these subjects. Most prominent are the beeps of sine wave that blot out personal information (names and addresses), in order to maintain the family’s anonymity on their own request. It makes the experience more voyeuristic; the listener is constantly reminded that they are eavesdropping on conversations intended for the family’s future generations only, while the lack of any names whatsoever – not even first names – forms a barricade, by which the listener’s “connection” to these people is only able to progress so far. Also, it’s an indicator of the artist’s own intervention. The chronology and content of the recordings has been left unedited, although the overlain sine waves remind listeners that this exhibition is based on a family that they have never met, presented by an artist that they have (most likely) never met either, and set in a time and place far from the SoundFjord gallery in the now.

But never does this hinder the listener’s emotional involvement in the exhibition. Across the walls are letters and transcripts of contact with the family members, beginning with Dunning’s first contact and culminating in the heart-breaking confession that the mother cannot bring herself to listen to the tape, following the deaths of her husband and one of the children on the recording. The recordings were nonetheless returned to the mother’s possession in the form of a CD, after she protested that Dunning had paid for the tape and the recorder and was thus entitled to keep both. Dunning may have “succeeded” in returning these recordings to their rightful owner – allowing them to resume their purpose of posterity – but there’s something painfully inconclusive about the fact that the raw imprint of these recordings onto analogue tape reside in the gallery as opposed to with the family.