Tape 342: A timeline of testimony

July 23 – August 29 2015, Preview July 22

Invisible Manoeuvres , Curated by Sabine Winkler, Galerie Wedding Berlin

Photo credit: Holger Herschel

Artists: Anna Artaker und Meike S. Gleim, Silvia Beck, Burak Delier, Francis Hunger, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Susan Schuppli, Juliane Zelwies

“Next to a man’s wife, his secretary is the most important person in his career. She has to understand every detail of his job; to have unquestioning loyalty and absolute discretion. On every count Rose measures up. I’m a lucky man.”—Richard Nixon, 1957

At some point during the evening of June 20 1972 a conversation between two men was secretly taped on a SONY TC-800B reel-to-reel voice recorder. An innocuous machine that uses 0.5-mm tape and was set to run at the irregular speed of 15/16 IPS—or half the rate of a standard tape recorder. In keeping with this low-fidelity recording mode, the tiny lavalier microphones that picked up this particular conversation were cheap and poorly distributed throughout the space. The result was a tape of degraded sound quality produced under deficient recording conditions.

Tape 342, as it is officially referred to, is but one of a sprawling archive of approximately 3,700 hours of audio recordings taped surreptitiously by the late American President Richard Nixon over a period of several years. Known as the “Nixon White House Tapes” these recordings detail conversations between the President, his staff, and visitors to the White House and Camp David. Of the many thousands of audiotapes confiscated from the Oval Office, Tape 342 remains by far the most infamous. Not because of the damaging or volatile nature of the information it contains, but precisely because of its absence: a gap in the tape of 18-1/2 minutes. A residual silence that is haunted by the spectre of a man who refused to speak on the grounds that such testimony might be self-incriminatory. In pleading executive privilege Nixon refused to fill in the gap that would return the voice to the machinic silence of the tape and enable the playback of history.

When news of the tape’s potential tampering was made public, Nixon’s personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods (now deceased) made two rather contradictory public statements. In her court testimony of November 8 1973 she asserted her secretarial competency, flatly denying ever making any stupid transcription errors when handling the tape recorder. “The buttons said on and off, forward and backward. I caught on to that fairly fast. I don’t think I’m so stupid as to erase what’s on a tape.” However a month later, under cross-examination in a federal courtroom, she told a rather confused story of how she might after all have made “a terrible mistake” and been partially responsible for the glitch. Woods claimed that while she had been transcribing the tape on her UHER 5000, the telephone suddenly rang causing her foot to press the wrong pedal thus producing the erasure.

Summoned by the imperative ringing of the phone, summoned to speak in court, to testify, Rose Mary Woods had been called to action, both to explain her actions and ultimately the actions of her boss. When audio experts later examined the tape they concluded that the RECORD/STOP/RECORD button had actually been pressed 5 to 9 times thus refuting the loyal secretary’s testimony and admission of guilt.

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Review of exhibition by Tom Mustroph (Die Tageszeitung 18.08.15)

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