An interesting exhibition opened recently (26 June) at Calvert 22 Gallery in East London. Sounding The Body Electric: Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957–1984 brings together parts of the untold stories about interrelation between visual art, sound and live art in the aftermath of stalinism. From the 1960s onwards, post-stalinist thaw gave aritsts new opportunities to experiment with sound, image, films and happenings. Recording studios equipped with modern technology – magnetic tape recorders and later synthesisers – spread across Eastern Europe quickly. The first recording studio of such a kind was the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio, established in Warsaw in 1957. This unique „laboratory of sound” allowed visual artists to collaborate with composers and sound engineers on creative approach to composition and image. Artists who tried to encompass different strategies, while experimenting with electronic music or rather „noises”, expanded their practice beyond visual art form. These actions were asocciated with intellectual freedom and reform. „The exhibition fills in a missing chapter in the history of Sound Art”.
Sounding the Body Electric is curated by David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk. It was first exhibited at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź last year and is now on show in East London until 25August at Calvert 22.
Sounding The Body Electric features following artists: Walerian Borowczyk, Collective Actions, Andrzej Dłużniewski, Szábolcs Esztényi, Bulat Galeyev, Milan Grygar, Zofia & Oskar Hansen, Zoltán Jeney, Milan Knížák, Grzegorz Kowalski, Zygmunt Krauze, Komar & Melamid, Katalin Ladik, Jan Lenica, Dóra Maurer, Henryk Morel, Vladan Radovanović, Józef Robakowski, Eugeniusz Rudnik, Bogusław Schaeffer, Cezary Szubartowski, László Vidovszky, Krzysztof Wodiczko.
Contemporary Lynx: First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the Sounding the Body Electric show at Calvert 22. This is an absolutely must-see exhibition, particulary for those interested in intermedia art. What was the trigger to organise this show?
David Crowley: These intermedia works perform as both music and as art. In fact, they are very often ‘group’ works, produced by artists and composers working together. To give one of many examples – Gabór Body, the Hungarian film maker, and László Vidovszky, a composer from the New Studio in Budapest, made ‘Aldrin’s Space Opera’ in the mid 1970s, a film which seems to open a gap between expression and meaning. Words and sounds – synced together – fail to cohere into meaning.
This is an interesting piece in its own right but it seemed to us that it and, in fact, many major works of art had fallen into a gap, ignored by art historians and curators because they are significant musical compositions and ignored by musicologists who were not interested in the visual qualities of these works. This show puts these overlooked works under the spotlight.
Daniel Muzyczuk: Yes, we’ve tried to look at works of music from Eastern Europe in the period from the perspective of visual art and vice versa. It seems that the last generation of modernists – the main actors in this show – tried to undermine the institutional situation of both music and art by working on the border between the two zones. Artists, perhaps paradoxically, saw music as a world where more freedom of expression was permitted. Much of this enthusiasm and the works which it stimulated has been forgotten, perhaps because these artworks fall into a gap between zones. Musicologists have not been much interested in sound installations or in analysising the films made in collaboration with composers. Perhaps the fact that music appealed to visual artists so strongly then is also the very reason why their vibrant experiments have been forgotten, overlooked in the history of sound art. This show tries to make an Eastern European annex to the well-known history of sound in art.
CL: How did you first decide to research this topic? What was the spark that led you to the subject of experiments with music in Eastern Europe in the 60s and 70s?
DC: A few years ago I was working on another show on art, design and technology in the Cold War for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and made contact with many artists and collections in Eastern Europe. This led me to think about the ‘experimental’ recording studios of Eastern Europe, even though we did not deal with them in Cold War Modern at the V&A. Why were they set up and what kind of interests did the state have in experimental and often difficult forms of music? I spent a couple of years visiting some of the artists – composers and visual artist – who feature in the show, to understand how they made the works.
DM: For a number of years I was interested in the intersection between sound and visual art. This lead to a number of collaborations with musicians and composers and most recently to the project of Konrad Smoleński at the Polish Pavillion at the Venice Biennale. But I feel that the number of discoveries around the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio was the real trigger to dig deeper into some of the practices.
CL: As a visitor coming to the exhibition about sound and art, I expected to hear some sounds…. but the exhibition seems to be almost „silent”. The visitor can hear video soundtracks and artworks on headphones. I know that in Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź you created a loud, cacophonic display, allowing sounds to mix and overlap. Why did you change your curatorial approach in London?
DM: One key difference between the shows is also to do with the absence of a piece by Teresa Kelm, Zygmunt Krauze and Henryk Morel. It could not come to London because of its dimensions – it is a large room. Made in 1968, it was the first sound installation in Poland and is entitled „Spatial-musical Composition”. It consists of six booths each cast in different colour light and each containing a speaker playing different musical compositions. The visitor is supposed to compose his or her own composition by moving between these sources. This piece was the inspiration to treat the entire space at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź in 2012 as this kind of apparatus.
DC: Yes, in Łódź we decided that we would allow the sounds of the music to bleed, creating a kind of noisy environment. The great benefit –as curators – of a second show is the chance to try something different. We do have a couple of pieces which fill the space with sound – one by Milan Grygar and the other by Dóra Maurer and Zoltán Jeney – but on the whole we use headphones. This gives the visitor a chance to listen carefully, to really pay attention to the qualities of the sounds. Perhaps a third iteration of the show will take the form of a kind of public spectacle in the open air. This is something in discussion presently.
CL: The exhibition presents many Polish artists. Was Poland one of the strongest centres of experimentation among the communist countries? Was there something special about Poland in terms of combining sound with visuals?
DC: The Polish case is particularly important because the first experimental studio in the Bloc was set up in Warsaw in 1957 by Józef Patkowski. He was particularly well connected. His address book contained key figures in the East and in the West. When George Maciunas, the founder of Fluxus, was looking to establish connections with the East he turned to Patkowski.
But Poland was important for other reasons too. The Warsaw Autumn festival brought experimental music to the capital from all around the world. And there was a very animated culture of artistic experiment there too – probably almost as free as that found in Yugoslavia which was not tied to the Soviet Union or Soviet aesthetics. Happenings and installations were created in Poland in the 1960s in sync with events in North America and Western Europe.
The show demonstrates this by featuring documentary material recording a key happening at the Foksal Gallery in 1966 called ‘5x’ organised at the time of the Warsaw Autumn. Another group work, ’5x’ was the product of artists Henryk Morel and Grzegorz Kowalski’s work, as well as that of Zygmunt Krauze, the composer. They turned the gallery into a sounding environment over five nights with pieces of metal salvaged from a junk yard, broken glass underfoot as well as radios and microphones. The visitor – entering the gallery in small groups – was encouraged to generate their own sounds. And if you are a close observer, you will see in the documentary material the figure of Cornelius Cardew – the key figure in British experimental music – playing his cello on the opening night. He was in Warsaw with John Tilbury and David Bedford for the Warsaw Autumn festival.
CL: I felt sentimental watching fragments of the movie Akademia Pana Kleksa (Mr Blot’s Academy, 1983). This is a very popular movie for children in Poland. It was made by Krzysztof Gradowski with soundtrack by Bohdan Mazurek. The soundtrack for this film was made in the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. What else did the Studio produce? Could you tell us more about the activity of the studio?
DM: The roots of Experimental Studio of Polish Radio can be traced back to the Thaw, the period after the death of Stalin. Quite suddenly, abstract, experimental music was tolerated and the State invested greatly in the means to organise and equip a key facility, the Experimental Studio.
But the true character of the Studio can be grasped if we understand its hybrid nature. It was meant to be a place for the composers to work with the engineers on their autonomous compositions. But since it was established as a part of the Polish Radio it served also as a production studio for soundtracks for film and radio. At the beginning these unearthly sounds were usually used as the sounds of the cosmos, or of spaceships and computers in science fiction movies. That way they made it into popular consciousness and were associated with the images of the future. Simultaneously, the studio, as the first of this kind in the Eastern Bloc, became an important place for composers from the region and from western countries. A lot of incredible recordings were made and this estate was known for a long time for only few people. But thanks to Michał Mendyk, Michał Libera and Bolesław Błaszczyk working at Bółt records these works are now finally available to the public.
From the very beginning the studio was a very interesting place also for the visual artists too. Zofia and Oskar Hansen designed the interior. The studio supplied soundtracks for a lot of Polish experimental animated movies. An, at the same time, composers working there like Kotonski invented entirely new visual languages in their graphic scores to represent the sounds which they were generating with the filters and oscillators in the Studio. Later in the 1960s, Krzysztof Wodiczko created his ‘instruments’, works of art which had a kind of technical character, there too.
For all these reasons we decided to place the Warsaw studio on the very beginning of the show.
CL: My favourite artwork on the show is the surrealist video „Dom” (the House, 1958) by Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica with electroacustic music by Włodzimierz Kotoński. I liked the futuristic, perhaps prophetic vision whereby objects become more human while humans are more like robots.
How about you? What is your favourite artwork and why?
DC: Yes, ‘Dom’ is a kind of symbolic work for the show. It is quite well known but we hope that this piece can be seen and, importantly, be heard in a different light in ‘Sounding the Body Electric’. Few pay attention to the music when viewing the piece, but when you understand how integral Kotonski’s soundtrack is – the point is clear, that sound and vision combine in these intermedia works. Moreover, the piece – as you say – seems to raise some questions about human agency. What kind of world turns people into automata, and seems to be populated with living machines? It was made at a moment when cybernetics was being vaunted as the future of socialism. Later in the show, the theme returns when artists and composers become critical commentators on the soundscapes of socialism. Vladan Radovanovićć, a composer from Serbia, made a sound piece in the mid 1970s in which he explores what the amplification and project of the human voice through loudspeakers means: he ends his meditation by saying ‘it is not me talking at all’. If his voice is not his own, to whom does it belong?
My current favourite explores something similar – it is called Dynamic Rectangle by composer and sound engineer Eugeniusz Rudnik and artist, film maker Józef Robakowski. The piece is very simple – a film with a pulsing red rectangle which seems to be choreographed to a very rhythmic piece of music. In fact, the piece originated as a musical composition made in the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio by Rudnik. Robakowski supplied the images by filmed a red wall through a kind of diaphragm which allowed the height and width of the rectangle to be altered. What is striking is that this piece was filmed real time. What the viewer sees is Robakowski’s attempts to keep up with the insistent, machinic music – the shapes are his ‘interpretation’ of the sounds. In the end he fails: Man cannot live up to the rhythm and the order of the machine. This is a rather dark form of ‘Sounding the Body Electric.’
CL: thank you for talking to Contemporary Lynx
David Crowley – is a professor in the School of Humanities at the Royal College of Art, London where he runs the Critical Writing in Art and Design MA. He has published a number of books including National Style and Nation-state: Design in Poland (MUP, 1992) Graphic Design: Reproduction and Representation (with Paul Jobling, MUP, 1996) Warsaw (Reaktion, 2003); Style and Socialism and Socialist Spaces (with Susan Reid, Berg, 2002 and 2002) and Pleasures in Socialism (Northwestern University Press, 2010). He curated a number of exhibitions including „The Power of Fantasy: Modern and Contemporary Art from Poland” at BOZAR, Brussels (2011) and „Cold War Modern. Design 1945-1970” at the V&A Museum in London (2008-09).
Daniel Muzyczuk – is a curator at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland. From 2008 to 2011, he was a curator at the Centre of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu in Toruń. He also curated various projects, including Long Gone Susan Philipsz, Gone to Croatan (with Robert Rumas). He is an author of critical texts. He is the curator of the Polish Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
The Calvert 22 Foundation is dedicated to building cultural bridges between Russia, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet republics and the rest of the world. It seeks to foster dialogue and encourage a global reappraisal of the culture of this part of the world, independent of governmental dictates or commercial interests. The Foundation was created by Nonna Materkova, a Russian born, London based economist, who in May 2009 opened Calvert 22, a not- for-profit gallery dedicated to contemporary art from Russia, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics.
Interviewed by Sylwia Krason