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Issue 158

Sounding the Body Electric

BY Basia Lewandowska Cummings in Reviews | 17 OCT 13

Documentation of a performance by Zygmunt Krauze, Henryk Morel, Cezary Szubartowski and Grzegorz Kowalski, 1966, Foksal Gallery, Warsaw

‘Sounding the Body Electric’ uncovered an impressive group of artists, composers and musicians, who – in the thaw following Stalin’s death in 1953 – were using sound to critique the incessant hum of Soviet party rhetoric. The assembled works by 25 artists documented a shift in cultural attitudes – starting in the late 1950s, until the mid-’80s – towards that vague territory through which soundwaves travel. But it also displayed sound’s material foundations: spliced magnetic tapes, destroyed records and reams of coloured film drew oblique lines between sounds and objects; ethereal challenges to the Soviet political order were situated within the context of a rampant industrialization.

‘As the circle turns, you should imagine the sounds: rasping, bursting, breaking, cracking of sanitation pipes, water pipes, electric lines, phone lines, foundations, roots of trees, shrubs … fade to end.’ This text accompanies a modified map of Łódź drawn by the Polish sculptor Andrzej Dłużniewski in 1972. It encourages the reader to imagine a symphony of destruction: through sound, Łódź’s infrastructure is both destroyed and liberated, the city becoming the source of a new kind of musique concrète. Elsewhere, Milan Knižák’s Destroyed Music (1963–79) comprises vinyl records that have been played to the point of ruination or burned, ripped and decorated. What results is a kind of proto-sampling: between periods of white noise and crackle bloom echoes of music and stuttering voices. Like Walter Benjamin wrote in ‘The Destructive Character’ (1931), ‘what exists he reduces to rubble – not for the sake of the rubble, but for that of the way leading through it’.

Amongst this creative rubble, however, ‘Sounding the Body Electric’ was also haunted by the old conundrum of exhibiting sound. Though the curators, David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk, collected a far-reaching selection of works, the installation felt flat. For in the end, the curators relied on the staples: headphones, projections, darkened rooms playing films. Yet the collective strength of the pieces did gesture towards a space beyond the gallery walls, an alternate geography drawn up by influences and affinities: the crisscross of ideas between Fluxus artists on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and in the influences that can be traced between Warsaw’s Foksal Gallery and the 1960s New York art scene lifted ‘Sounding the Body Electric’ out of its indecisive installation.

Knižák’s piece beautifully summons the audiosphere of 1950s Eastern Europe, when the air was thick with jammed radio signals, and where broadcasting was entirely unilateral, strictly controlled by state-sanctioned units that, via radiotochki – mini-loudspeakers that were ubiquitous in factories and homes – transmitted idealized visions of citizenship. For many of the artists included here, the airwaves were susceptible to manipulation and take-over. Kryzstof Wodiczko and Esztenyi Szábolcs’s Just Transistor Radios (1969/2012), scored for eight performers, summons the crackle and chatter of radio jamming, seeming to carve a new form of occupation out of a strictly controlled soundscape. While there are clear similarities with John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No.4 (1951), from the Eastern European perspective, as Crowley points out in his catalogue essay, the idea of amplifying everyday noise possesses a more sinister character. Vladan Radovanović’s Voice From the Loudspeaker (1973) illustrates this further. The artist reads from a manifesto of sorts: ‘If I say I am speaking louder, it’s truer,’ he says, a wry comment on the din of Soviet propaganda. Again, this recalls Western works, such as Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in A Room (1969). Yet where Lucier’s was an exciting experiment in tape Minimalism, Radovanović’s piece is more melancholic – less an investigation into the projection of the voice than a statement about its hijack during the Soviet era.

‘Sounding the Body Electric’ did not only explore the counter-cultural. The Experimental Unit of Polish Radio, a pioneering radiophonic workshop established in 1957, was embraced, even celebrated, by the government because its musical experiments fell under the auspices of technological and cultural advancement. Some of Poland’s most celebrated composers – Krzysztof Penderecki, Bogusław Schaeffer, Włodzimierz Kotoński and Andrzej Dobrowolski – were all residents. Like Bulat Galeyev and the Prometheus Institute, founded in 1963 in Kazan, who were both making synaesthetic audiovisual works using technology developed for the Space Race, critical experimentation often occurred in the corners of official, state-sanctioned departments, complicating the line between what was anti-institutional and what was in fact in line with Soviet ideology. Here, their exhibition as gallery objects, re-institutionalized, further complicates the already entangled politics that shaped their making.