Sound and visual artist Alyce Santoro has created Sonic Fabric, a cloth made from pre-recorded, recycled cassette tape combined with other fibers. Using a minimally hacked Walkman, the fabric becomes an audible reminder of its musical past.
An umbrella and a dress made of Sonic Fabric are collaborations between artist Alyce Santoro and her seamstress mother.
Sonic Fabric feels a bit like flexible plastic tarp, and is durable and hand-washable. Santoro’s work has drawn lots of oohs and aahs, and is making waves in the design world.
She came up with the idea in 2001 as a conceptual art project where she used strands of cassette tape to determine the direction of the wind, combining the idea of wind-activated prayers on Tibetan prayer flags with her childhood love of sailing.
"As kid I would imagine I could hear sound coming off the tape if the wind hit it the right way," Santoro said.
She knitted a pre-recorded tape into potholder-shaped prototypes by hand. Later she tried a commercial loom and found her eighth-inch wide cassette tape fit onto it perfectly. Soon she began weaving tape with cotton.
Her first try yielded two yard-long panels that, for all she knew, would never make a peep.
Then one day in 2002, another artist suggested running a Walkman tape head over the fabric. They extracted a sound piece from a Walkman and mounted it on a block of wood. Moving it across the fabric, Santoro heard the cumulative noise of five tracks of sound.
"It sounds kind of like scratching a record backward. It’s pretty garbled," she said.
Her latest creations play 20 tracks at once. She creates sound collages on a four-track, and the reader picks up five strands at a time.
Though it doesn’t sound like Bach, her current work has taken off. She’s worked with some designers to create a dress for Phish
drummer Jon Fishman, which he "played" in concert.
Instead of splicing tapes together herself, a tape duplication specialist on Long Island now records Santoro’s sound collages. She sells Tibetan monk-inspired bags and her take on Tibetan prayer flags online
and at some stores. High-profile companies like Target and Nissan have also expressed interest in her work.
Santoro is overwhelmed by the attention.
"To me, the important part is being able to walk around in your favorite music or sound," she said.
"It’s an absolutely fabulous product," said Samantha Delman-Caserta, co-owner of Brooklyn, New York, eco-conscious store 3R Living, which sells Santoro’s products. She said customers love the look and feel of Sonic Fabric.
Eventually, Santoro hopes to make fabrics that can play individual sounds, and she’s working with another artist on a compact fabric reader.
For now, though, she’s still a little starry-eyed.
"I never in a million years expected to take the project this far," she said.
Jon Fishman, drummer for the jam band Phish, plays a dress made for him by Alyce Santoro.