MOSCOW – An exhibition describing a unique chapter in the history of Soviet culture — bootleg music recordings made on used X-ray film — has opened in Moscow.
From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, ingenuous Soviet music lovers made bootleg copies of banned music on used X-ray snapshots, bypassing strict official controls over recordings people were allowed to listen to. They are played on normal record players.
The Bone Music exhibition, which opened in Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art last week, presents research by X-Ray Audio, a project by Stephen Coates and Paul Heartfield from London.
Coates, a composer and music producer, described the recordings as “images of pain and damage inscribed with the sound of forbidden pleasure; fragile photographs of the interiors of Soviet citizens layered with the ghostly music they secretly loved.”
The clandestine recordings weren’t limited to jazz and rock-n-roll, vilified by Communist propaganda as manifestations of Western decadence. They also featured Russian emigre music, as well as popular prison and Gypsy songs also tabooed by Soviet ideologists.
The industry that put bootleggers at risk of arrest gradually died out in the mid-1960s with the appearance of reel-to-reel recorders.
Along with the original recordings on X-ray film, the exhibition tells the stories of people who made, distributed and played them. The installation produced for the Moscow exhibition immerses the audience in an atmosphere that mixes underground technology, forbidden culture, Cold War politics and human ingenuity.