The series of prints is based on a story about gramophone records that were cut on discarded hospital X-rays in Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II. As the Allied front undermined the isolationism of the Stalinist regime, an easement of prohibition on Western goods ensued. Amid shipments of canned pork and chocolate, American popular music trickled across the border. With shellac (a precursor of vinyl) in short supply, enterprising youths invented a recycling technology that utilized a plentiful by-product of war: exposed X-ray film. Before long, this black market industry of obscure origin flooded the region with American jazz, while the Communist government turned a blind eye. Cut on X-rays, the records were labeled on the bones or on the ribs, but as they turned the irony was diffused. Records on the bones helped spread Benny Goodman’s and George Gershwin’s music throughout Russia, as well as tunes by Russian singers who were deemed persona non grata. Among them were Vertinskii who lived in Paris and Kozin who was convicted and exiled for being gay.
The records flooded flea markets and were collected and traded like ordinary LP’s. They were not dirt cheap, as nothing in those days was, but they were affordable and could be bartered as any other common flea market good. A Russian singer remembers trading books for the records: A Thousand and One Nights and Tchaikovsky's letters. She also recalls dancing to the music on the ribs at an official party held at a major concert hall just following her performance. Despite poor quality sound, the records, in the words of my father who first told me the story, "sufficed for moving arms and legs". Regular needles were too sharp for playing these celluloid discs, and only the oldest and the dullest or even whittled wooden ones would not completely scratch the surface. But dull as they were, the needles constantly skipped a groove blurring the sound and making it "gooey".
As the records wore out, people would throw them away. By the early fifties, when the Iron Curtain went up and popularizing Western music became a crime, records on the bones all but disappeared. Also, by then, the official Soviet record industry had been established, making them obsolete. However, the practice must not have ceased entirely. I learned recently that the first Beatles recordings in Russia were pressed on X-rays.
A record on the bones is a recording of collective memory of a generation in whose mind traces of massacre were supplanted by the experience of pleasure. What originated as a teen fad spawned by the black market during the war, instilled a pro-Western ideology even among faithful Stalinists. Western music would remain a symbol of "a better life" conflating the new pop culture and political dissent, up until the fall of Communism.
Being a painter first and printmaker second, I use printmaking as a form of drawing with a press, combining conventional and new techniques, some of which I devised for the series. The prints begin with images of X-rays, photoetched onto water-based photopolymer plates, which are printed on silk tissue, very thin Japanese paper made of kozo and gampi fibers. The silk tissue would later be laminated onto a conventional multiple plate copper etching, creating a veiled window, where disparate and seemingly random objects coalesce in a narrative. The image of a record is a soft ground etching of a vinyl record, one that can withstand the pressure of an etching press. Faces that turn up in some but not all of the prints are drawn using soft ground pencil lift technique. The texture, underlying the objective forms, is usually created with a crackle ground, egg yolk, or by tossing a plate around a parking lot. After printing copper plates on BFK, I chine collé dampened silk tissue over BFK, using corn starch glue. Interpreting the story through the print medium not only underscores the physical connection between the processes of pressing a record and printing an etching but also conveys how memories become veiled and transformed through time.