Rutherford Chang

Interview with Max Dax and Rutherford Chang, 2020 (Excerpt)

Max Dax: What was the starting point of your project?

Rutherford Chang: I bought a copy of the White Album as a teenager, just a copy on vinyl to play the music. I don’t remember it being a particularly important event or an influential record for me then. It was just a dollar at a garage sale, so I bought it. This was not the beginning of the project at all, but that was definitely the first White Album I bought. I would say that the project started when I bought my second copy. That was 14 years ago in 2007. That’s when I became aware that these once identical objects had become unique artefacts and that they would all tell a story of where they had been. That’s when I decided to get as many as I could.

M. D.: You even did design a neon sign “WE BUY WHITE ALBUMS” that is signaling people who pass by the museum that they can sell records to you.

R. C.: Exactly. Before that I was buying most of these albums online or seeking them out myself, but since I’ve been showing this project for about the last eight years, it has drawn some attention and people come to me, offer me copies, and I buy them. If people want to bring them to the museum, I’ll absolutely buy them, if it’s a numbered copy and a reasonable price of course.

M. D.: What’s a reasonable price for you?

R. C.: I guess it depends, but I’ve never paid much for a copy. I am not interested in paying high rates for low-number mint quality copies for instance. I am more interested in run-down copies whose covers show signs of age or are even damaged.

M. D.: You get rid of the distance between the artwork and the audience, basically. Normally you’re not allowed at all to touch anything in a museum, usually the alarm goes off and you get arrested. 

R. C.: Exactly. You interact as if they were in a real record store. Except that you can’t buy the records. 

M. D.: There is this aspect to the installation, that you also have 100 copies on display on the wall as if it would be some kind of a display within the record store. Are these always the same records that you put there or do you decide it on the spot or is it the curator who decides which copies are highlighted?

R. C.: Those were decided the first time I did the exhibition in New York eight years ago. Visitors came in and they would choose records to play and those were the first 100 records that were chosen. I also pressed a record of these first 100 copies. I recorded each of those records separately and then I layered these recordings together and pressed it as a new vinyl which sounds like 100 different copies of the same record playing simultaneously.

M. D.: The record sounds like a cacophony. It is an entirely different listening experience.

R. C.: Yeah. The cover of that album is also a composite of those 100 different covers, so it’s obviously nowhere near white, completely covered with drawing and writing—it looks more like a graffitied wall.

M. D.: Your installation is ever growing. At the Akademie der Künste you are presenting it in the way it has been evolved over the last years and if another museum chooses to show the installation there will be again more copies, because in Rotterdam, the last stop of your installation, you have bought some. 

R. C.: That’s true. The installation is ongoing and growing and kind of the beauty of that album is that it’s a mass product and at the same time due to the serial number every copy is unique, but to collect them all is an absurd task. 

M. D.: How many copies are you approximately showing at the Akademie der Künste?

R. C.: Just a couple of weeks ago I posted the 2,900th copy that I purchased on Instagram and I’m still constantly buying more.

M. D.: How have the reactions to the installations been so far? Do people from the art world like it or also people from the music world who dig it?

R. C.: It’s pretty mixed. There are art world people and then there are record collectors. This definitely touches upon the obsession of record collectors. This is taking record collecting to a real obsessive level. You know, there have been Beatles fans who believe that I’m the most extreme fan. But I’m not buying this record to listen to the music. I mean, you definitely don’t need 3,000 copies of the same album for the music. But the phenomenon of the Beatles is interesting to me nonetheless: What happens when a band becomes the biggest band in the world? And the same applies to their following and all of the culture around it. And this is totally apparent in what happened to these albums—in the way that they have aged and in the way that people have decorated them and that stories come with all the copies. 

M. D.: Richard Hamilton is considered the first pop artist of the world, even before Andy Warhol. It was a pretty bold statement I would say, being the most important or most famous band in the world to have a blank canvas as an album cover, which basically means that you can project anything onto it, right?

R. C.: Exactly. That’s what makes it the most amazing pop art piece and the best record to collect of all time. I also like the contrast between the art world and the music world that becomes obvious here. If you own an original Picasso, then you’re a made man. In the music world it’s not so much about owning the master, it’s more about owning a copy. The copy that you own might be one of two or three or five or ten million copies that are existing, it’s a mass media thing. There is a dynamic inherent between the unique original object and the copy. And I think that was very much part of Richard Hamilton’s original design of putting that serial number on the cover. It’s incredibly important because everyone has this very personal relationship with the music on this album, but it’s obviously millions of people having a similar experience or a related experience and that’s why bringing copies from this vast edition back together is creating a kind of an artifact of that experience.


In the exhibition:

Rutherford Chang
We Buy White Albums, 2013 – ongoing
Vinyl Records, Neon
Courtesy of the Artist


Additional information about the artist