Originally published on Garageland on 30th August 2013
What was once a vociferous mantra of anti-communism is now just a whisper; a muted spectre of Cold War propaganda. Nevertheless, it remains imprinted on the western cultural psyche like a faded tattoo. Nowhere is this more manifest than in the curation of exhibitions containing artwork from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. When presenting work from the former Soviet states, galleries all too often either exhibit work that is tantamount to state-funded propaganda or, as has been the case more recently, present work that stiflingly critiques the censorship and oppression of those regimes through coded Aesopian symbolism.
Whilst Sounding the Body Electric contains a fair bit of the latter, what is most refreshing about Calvert 22’s latest exhibition is that it opens with an unabashed celebration of the free experimentation afforded to artists working inside the lines of intersect between music and art in the late 1950s-early 1960s in the Eastern Bloc. The period of post-Stalin ‘thawing’ gave rise to a number of experimental, state-funded studios.
The interplay between experimental music and visual art in many of the pieces documented is striking; an organic synthesis that composers and sound artists have strived to replicate since. A collection of graphic scores from the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio are amassed on a glass covered table, including Włodzimierz Kotoński’s Concrete Etude (for One Cymbal Stroke) which is accompanied by the piece itself playing through a set of headphones. The piece takes the recording of a single strike of a cymbal before using filters to achieve a wide range of pitches and textures.
The reason for the graphic scores appears to have been one of bureaucratic necessity; in order for the pieces created in the studio to qualify as a composition, they had to be scored. Due to the experimental and indeterminate nature of the music, a typical score would have been near impossible, hence the utilisation of freer, more expressive graphic notation. The notion that the strictures of socialist bureaucracy actually inadvertently gave rise to such a groundbreaking artistic innovation seems highly ironic.
Everywhere you look in this exhibition there are artistic developments which left a lasting impression on the fields of both art and music for the decades that followed. Józef Robakowksi and Eugeniusz Rudnik’s Dynamic Rectangle features a mesmeric red rectangle which changes shape and size in response to the accompanying music; the visual was manipulated in real time and could be seen as a forerunner to the modern practice of VJing (the selection and manipulation of visuals to correspond with music and other art forms).
But the undoubted jewel in the crown is Milan Knížák’s Destroyed Music, a collection of vinyl taken from a 16-year period which have been melted, fused, broken, painted on and otherwise altered so as to completely transform the sound they produced. A set of wireless headphones allows the viewer to get up close and personal with vinyl whilst listening to the sounds they produce. The work is genius, in that it deals with the most visceral, material manifestation of music, which is often so abstract and intangible, and uses it to create remixes and mash ups decades before the advent of music software made this practice widespread. Knížák remixed the original tool of the remix.
5x consisted of five ‘happenings’ over five nights at Warsaw’s Foksal Gallery in 1966. The emphasis was very much on audience participation, with the crowd explicitly told they were ‘co-creating’ the performance. The space was filled with objects for participants to interact with: industrial metal objects that could be sawed, clanged or rolled to produce sounds; broken glass under sheet metal to be crunched under foot; and entangled nets that they would have to navigate.
It seems pertinent that the exhibition itself erects those very barriers between art and audience that the artists of the Eastern bloc were aiming to break down. In truth, Sounding the Body Electric is more like a museum exhibit than an art exhibition; the conventional, chronological ordering of the work only adds to this stilted feeling. Everything is so two-dimensional, partly because the majority of the work is based on archival footage or digital reconstructions of the original works. Rarely have I felt more passive as an audience member, which is ironic given the intentions of the artists behind 5x. And rarely have I felt more isolated from other members of the audience, with everyone siphoned into their own little bubble, listening through separate headphones dotted across the exhibition.
The first iteration of this exhibition in Łódź had recreations and performances featuring some of the original artists, which I feel this time around were sorely lacking. Clearly, this was an important and ground-breaking period in art and music history that rarely gets told. I just wish the curation had been as ambitious as the work it was exhibiting; we should have had a booming performance of the Body Electric, instead what we got was a distant echo.