‘I’ve got 50,000 watts of power / I want to ionize the air / This microphone turns sound into electricity / Can you hear me now?’ These lines by the band Shellac immediately sprung to mind on seeing Konrad Smolen´ski’s The End of Radio (all works 2012). Or, to be fair, they arose the moment I saw a photograph of his work, which apparently takes its title from the 2005 song by the Chicago post-hardcore band. For ‘It’s On’, his latest exhibition at Galeria Leto, Smolen´ski prepared two sound installations that, if they didn’t literally ionize the air, were sure to at least electrify his audience.
So there it was, The End of Radio, an impressive cluster of microphones on stands crammed into a tiny room. I had to tread carefully, as it felt like the slightest movement could trigger a deafening avalanche of amplified sound that would leave me with a headache for the rest of the day. But I soon realized that things were not quite so predictable. A high-pitched buzz filled the space, the kind emitted from the speakers of cheap handheld radios. The microphones were actually producing the sound, not picking it up. And if you cut through the noise, you could make out fragments of recordings – what sounded like hopeless, trapped, human voices caught in an endless loop of broadcasts of crashes, disasters and street protests. Giving the installation a final glance, I was reminded of Ilya Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870–3), a textbook example of Russian realist painting, in which a group of men struggle to tow a barge upstream. The End of Radio seemed to mirror Repin’s composition, with the microphones forming an anguished crowd that almost collapsed beneath an invisible burden.
Smolen´ski’s second piece was located offsite in an industrial hall. As I approached, I was assaulted by a low droning that could have been coming from a piece of industrial machinery working at full steam. Inside the massive whitewashed interior space sat It’s Bigger Than Me, a large, geometric plywood structure. The transparent roof of the space trembled from the lingering vibration. It turned out that the pale brown box, shaped like a curious totem or a hooded head, held a massive loudspeaker, booming an ominous, raw, repetitive tune to a pattern designed by the artist. The sound was alluring and yet almost impossible to endure, and it easily drowned out everything around you: your voice, even your own thoughts, making the voices emanating from within the microphones of the previous piece seem even more harmless and feeble.
‘It’s On’ emitted a palpable air of anxiety. Much like the guitars and drums on Shellac records, the ‘instruments’ in Smolen´ski’s works are used to produce textures rather than melodies. And these sounds – both the treble buzz of the dwarfish tangle of microphones in The End of Radio and the bass droning of the monolithic cowl-covered head in It’s Bigger Than Me – tell a disquieting tale of the extinction of mass media meeting informational chaos, and our helplessness and fascination in the face of things bigger than ourselves. Rather than playing a nostalgic swan song to a bygone era, however, Smolen´ski’s installations sound a powerful, rousing call to arms. Making my way to the exit I thought about the opening lines of Shellac’s The End of Radio again: ‘Is this thing on? / Can you hear me now? / Are we going?’ In this show, it was on, and there was no doubt about it.