Fermynwoods Focus – Spencer Graham

Xylophobia: Online is an exhibition of digitally based work which takes its name from the fear of wooden objects, forests, or wooded areas. Responding to the increased needs and fears of outdoor activities in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the featured work presents explorative, experimental and conceptual spaces at this intersection, whilst inquisitive and mindful of the environmental impact of creating and presenting artworks using digital technology.


Xylophobia / Shinrin-yoku is a series of three audio mixes by Spencer Graham consisting of compilations of tracks titled after the specific words ‘Xylophobia’ [the fear of wooden objects, forests, or wooded areas] and ‘Shinrin-yoku’ [the Japanese term for forest bathing and encouragement of spending time in nature]. The third and final mix will be comprised of selections from the first two mixes chopped, looped and layered to explore the contrast suggested by the opposing track titles, with the addition of field recordings from Fermyn Woods.

“I’ve got this weird thing about ownership”, says Spencer when discussing the work. Where possible Spencer acquired the music from audio distribution platform Bandcamp (where an average of 82% of the money goes directly to the artist or their label). On occasions where this wasn’t possible, such as the incongruously titled Xylophobia by The Regimental Band of the 1st Battalion, Spencer relied on recordings already in the online domain.

It speaks to the seemingly infinite collections of music at our fingertips, essentially or literally freely available from file-sharing and audio-streaming sites, that ownership of music might be considered in any way weird. Our consumption of music has been fundamentally altered by the shift from ownership towards access – with some consequences.

The University of Glasgow and University of Oslo’s The Cost of Music research collaboration found that the price consumers have been willing to pay for listening to recorded music has never been lower, while the environmental impact of listening to music has never been higher. A dichotomy reflected in Spencer’s Xylophobia mix premiering on 22 April 2023 – both Record Store Day and Earth Day.

Where the switch from physical to digital music formats has led to a huge reduction in the use of plastics “From a carbon emissions perspective, however, the transition towards streaming recorded music from internet-connected devices has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music.”[1]

A highlight of the mix is Archie Gunn’s avant-garde jazz dramatic percussion track, Xylophobia, which this time Spencer acquired physically on 10″ vinyl from Austria. “It wasn’t cheap but it was worth it”, he recalls before describing being transported back to the sounds of Radiophonic Workshops of the sixties. Vinyl audiophiles will be aware of the full breadth of experiences that format of listening brings over digital tracks. Sleeve notes, album covers, smells and other associations that Spencer refers to as non-sonic variables – a term coined in Adam Harper’s “Infinite Music”.

Even the accompanying tracks that Gunn included on the LP – Going Sinister, Hypnotic, Borrowed Time. Would we listen to these without the physical copy when algorithms increasingly curate our digital playlists?

Musician Terre Thaemlitz asks, “As an audience, how willing are we to take responsibility for the care of ‘underground’ information’s distribution and cultural movement?”[2] bemoaning the “eradication of any specificity of context and audience that occurs”[3] through indiscriminate sharing.


Alert to this and prompted by Hito Steyerl’s essay In Defense of the Poor Image,[4] Spencer subverts Mixcloud’s advice for a as clear as possible an image to accompany the Xylophobia audio mix, as a way to investigate its circulation when uploaded to various websites and embedded in different contexts on multiple platforms. “There is an interesting analogue here to the circulation of mixtapes and bootleg audio recordings”, Spencer adds.

Artful approaches to listening and collecting, such as Spencer’s self-set constraints of specific track titles can give us pause for thought to the need for more tracks than we could possibly ever listen to, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, streamed effortlessly from data centres in other continents.[5]

Like Thaemlitz notes on their ‘full-length MP3 album’ Soulnessless, which was in excess of 32 hours long, “These playback restrictions also create a welcome ‘problem’ within the world of music distribution, in that the project is immediately not for everyone. Because it requires special listening procedures, it cannot function as an impulse buy item placed like a candy bar near the supermarket register. It begs a more specific audience willing to participate in a form of digital media consumption that differs from the online business models of late.”[6]

You can listen to Spencer’s Xylophobia / Shinrin-yoku mixes here, with reflection.

These mixes took 11.34kg of carbon to produce, according to The Networked Condition carbon calculator tool.

James Steventon

Spencer Graham is an artist based in Northamptonshire, UK. His practice revolves around a deep interest in music, and questions ideas relating to materiality and place. Utilising and sharing very specific collections of music, acquired according to self-set constraints, he considers how we access, consume, use, and most importantly, listen to music. Previous work has included collecting photographs of people with their original (1983) pressings of New Order’s 12″ single “Blue Monday” and an ongoing exploration of how the “techno city” of Detroit is represented in flyers, posters, music journalism, record sleeves and CD inserts.

Xylophobia / Shinrin-yoku was commissioned by Fermynwoods Contemporary Art for Xylophobia: Online – an exhibition of digitally based work which takes its name from the fear of wooden objects, forests, or wooded areas. Responding to the increased needs and fears of outdoor activities in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the featured work presents explorative, experimental and conceptual spaces at this intersection, whilst inquisitive and mindful of the environmental impact of creating and presenting artworks using digital technology. Funded by Arts Council England.


[1] Maeve Campbell, ‘Is Our Addiction to Spotify Ruining the Planet?’ Euronews, 16 March 2020
<https://www.euronews.com/green/2020/03/16/is-our-addiction-to-spotify-ruining-the-planet-the-environmental-cost-of-streaming-is-invi>

[2] Terre Thaemlitz, ‘Social Media Content Removal Fail’, 2013
<https://www.comatonse.com/writings/2013_social_media_content_removal_fail.html>

[3] Terre Thaemlitz, ‘Collateral Damage, 2012
<http://www.comatonse.com/writings/2012_collateral_damage.html>

[4] Hito Steyerl, In Defense of the Poor Image, 2009
<https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image>

[5] Global digital music service Spotify has committed to reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 but notes that 42% of its emissions come from listener streaming.

[6] Terre Thaemlitz, ‘Social Media Content Removal Fail’, 2013
<https://www.comatonse.com/writings/2013_social_media_content_removal_fail.html>