What is the Tape Letters Project? And How did it function in the physical space?
Tape Letters is an oral history project exploring the use of audio cassette tapes as an unorthodox form of long-distance communication by families who migrated from Pakistan to Britain between the 1960s-1980s. Drawing from first-hand interviews and the intimate and informal conversations of the cassettes themselves, the project looks to unearth, archive and re/present the memories and experiences of people within the British-Pakistani community who used tapes in this way. The project was founded by Wajid Yaseen and is run by Modus Arts and we’ve been working on it for the past four years, initially as a pilot which has since turned into a nation-wide project.
On the pilot project, we managed to locate twenty-two surviving cassettes and undertake forty interviews concentrating on two main locations in the UK, namely Manchester and Bradford. Given there were various languages involved, we hired a team of translators both in Pakistan and in the UK, who produced transcriptions, translations, and in many cases phonetic transliterations, for us to make sense of every cassette and every interview.
The Covid pandemic hit as we were about to embark on the nation-wide phase of the project and social distancing rules prevented us from doing in-person interviews, so we developed a remote/online community outreach program. The two key issues we faced were the extremely poor digital literacy rates within the elder members of the community, and the difficulties inherent in remote/on-screen engagement and the typical loss of familiar inter-personal dynamics. Our solution was to hire a team of community engagement officers with specific language skills, providing them with bespoke oral history training, and developing a high-quality but cost-effective mic pack, and hired a tech support team. This resulted in us locating a further twenty-eight cassettes and undertaking a further seventy interviews, providing us with a richly detailed picture of tape letter usage. We then produced a range of public-facing outputs included online talks and events, deep-listening videos, a poetry booklet by Suna Afshan, a photo series by Maryam Wahid, and produced a series of radio episodes that were broadcast on various community radio stations throughout the UK. We were very excited to have discovered the FrameVR platform too which allowed us to produce several WebXR-based exhibitions, populating them with many of Maryam’s stunning photographs. Our primary Frame is a single-scene experience which provides a general overview of the project, whereas other Frames are far more detailed and, in some instances, mirror the type of exhibits we’ve previously installed in physical gallery spaces.
What are some interesting avenues that the project has brought to light? Eg: interest by linguistic experts.
There were a range of reasons as to why people used cassettes for audio messages although we found some common narrative patterns. Many of the people who used cassettes in this way came from poor socio-economic backgrounds and were excluded from formal education - in some instances from primary level education. This meant they were unable to read or write Urdu (the national language of Pakistan) and found it impossible to read or write letters to their family members abroad. Recording themselves on tapes was a solution, with the advantage over written letters in that they could speak their home language – not Urdu but Pothwari, which is part of a cluster of languages and dialects spoken in the Pothohar Plateau of northern Punjab in Pakistan. It’s technically referred to as a ‘transitional language’ sitting between two other languages – Punjabi and Hindko, and is an oral-only language with its own identity, heritage, and colour. It was the language most commonly (although not exclusively) used on the cassettes, and as artist-researchers, we found the parallel between the oral-only aspect of the language and its capture on an aural system (i.e. a cassette recorder and tape) to be especially interesting. Through the lens of the cassettes, the project offered the Tape Letters team the opportunity to fill gaps within the current storytelling of Pakistani migration to the UK, and uncover hidden stories around migration, around gendered discrimination, around linguistics, around the partition of India and Britain’s colonial presence there, around customs and traditions, and around contemporaneous inter-generational and inter-national identities. Not only is the practice of sending tape messages fairly unknown outside the British-Pakistani community, even those within the community, especially the second or third generation are generally unaware of the practice. We’ve received considerable interest in the project from linguists and other academic researchers because the cassettes have preserved language in a very particular kind of way – they’re essentially a sonographic snapshot of time. There’s also been considerable interest from historians because the oral histories and interviews we undertook provide highly personalised accounts and emotive testimonies of migration that help frame the wider political events of the time. Combining written histories with oral histories provides a richer and deeper framing of large-scale socio-political events and small-scale domestic settings. It is not very often we get to hear the other side of established narratives - directly from those whom the events affected at an everyday level. The audio description on one of the cassettes of growing coriander in a new country is a beautiful example.
The project has also attracted academics and researchers who seem to be keen on the methodology we’ve deployed on various aspects of the project, from the sensitivities we’ve had to consider with regards to community engagement, to all of the various the project outputs. The way we’ve approached it isn’t strictly as an arts project but as an oral history project being realised by artists, which makes it fundamentally inter-disciplinary. I think that’s one of the reasons why the project seems to be so well received.
When did you begin researching the project and gathering information?
The project began around five years ago when I paid a visit to Manchester on the hunt to find one of the recording on cassette of my dad who was fond of singing a devotional hymn called a naat. I remembered people from the community visiting our family home when I was a child wanting to listen to him singing these naats, or he’d be invited to sing them in other people’s homes or in mosques or religious events. He apparently received requests from various families within the community to record himself on cassette so they could listen to him in the comfort of their own home whenever they wanted, and I knew we still had copies of some of these cassettes even though he died over twenty years ago. I’m glad to say I found one of those cassettes but alongside finding that one, I found other tapes that I immediately knew weren’t naat tapes but message tapes. I was transported to when I was a child and remembered being asked by my mum to say hello to an aunty or uncle in Pakistan and feeling typically awkward at having to record my voice on a cassette to a relative I’d never met and who I was never likely to meet. Holding the discovered message tape (that I now refer to as a Tape Letter) was the beginning and basis of the project. I toyed with the idea of approaching the Arts Council of England for funding (my usual go-to for project funding) but realised the project needed to be approached differently, so I initiated conversations with oral historians, librarians, and archivists who helped me develop the proper shape of the project and helped me to realise the project was essentially a heritage project. I set up meetings with the National Heritage Fund here in the UK who funded a pilot project which allowed me to start work on a localised project, focusing on my extended family within Manchester and Bradford. Over time and once we’d reassured people about our motives and intentions of working to build an archive to preserve the oral histories around Tape Letter usage, and once people trusted us enough to know we’d handle their very intimate recordings on cassette with the utmost of care, we managed to source a number of surviving cassettes and undertake interviews around the practice. The project has since grown into a nationwide venture and we’ve managed to find more cassettes and more testimonies with over fifty clear themes emerging. We still feel as though we’re only scratching the surface though.
What was a challenge that you faced during the information gathering stage?
The issue of trust and intention has been key to unlocking the oral histories on the project given the private nature of the messages recorded on cassettes. I’ve been able to deploy an insider-outsider relationship on multiple aspects of the project, including on the various creative disciplines involved (ie between sound arts and oral history), but also as a British-born Pakistani with ethnic/nationality/class identities that are recognisable within the community. It’s been extremely useful and advantageous to use these affordances and I’ve been able to navigate and uncover testimonies that may not have been easily accessible to researchers or academics. There are many intersectional reasons for this insider-outsider access, even the reputation of my father who provided Urdu language and religious studies tutoring to children and families in the community, which initially provided me with access to people’s homes. I’ve since been fortunate enough to hire a project team which understand the inter-personal complexities and sensitivities that need to be considered when working with a marginalised community, and when discussing marginalised lives within a marginalised community – in many instances far more than I do. The project's community engagement officers are embedded within the community and have a firm grasp of what is acceptable and unacceptable when conducting research. That sensitivity combined with the bespoke oral history training they’ve all received has allowed us uncover stories on what are essentially deeply private messages between individuals and families.
You've brought these stories to the virtual world, what are your future plans with the project and its digital presence?
The Tape Letters FrameVR exhibition has been designed by Marianne Marplondon, and we hired Maryam Wahid, now an award-winning photographer, to take pictures on the project (one of them recently one them was awarded the Portrait of Britain prize by the British Journal of Photography) providing us with some incredible content to work with. Although we’re aware of other WebXR-based platforms that are similar to FrameVR, we couldn’t have found a more suitable virtual home for the Tape Letters project. The plan now is to continue work within the UK, focusing on one of the four UK nations at a time – beginning with Scotland. We’ll be looking to compare and contrast the experiences of Scottish-Pakistani families with English-Pakistani families around the use of cassette tapes and see what that themes appear - language manifestations, class experiences, and national identities are the obvious ones but we suspect we’ll uncover others.
We’ve been asked to share our processes, methodologies and outputs with academics and universities, arts institutions and galleries, libraries and community organisations, and our outputs on FrameVR are being shared with all of them. The aim is to continue working with FrameVR, exploring its potential as a platform for the work we’re producing, and include it as a continuous project output. As an organisation keenly interested and excited about the medium of sound, we’d like to push some of the functionality with FrameVR to include multiple synchronous sound points so we can replicate and mirror some of our multi-speaker sound diffusion installations. Very looking forward to see if this can happen!