Sounding the Body Electric: Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957-1984

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Sounding the Body Electric: Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957-1984

Calvert 22 London 26 June to 25 August

Let's be appropriate to the subject for a moment and try to think like good old Soviet dialecticians. Thesis (and even to frame it in these rhetorical terms seems flatly demeaning): artists suffered terribly under the satellite regimes of the USSR. The story is familiar: the lack of expressive freedom, the possibility of being disappeared, the frustrating formal constraints, the psychological pain and listless toil of conforming. All this was summed up for the West in the famous images of Russian tanks rolling into Wenceslas Square during the repression of the Prague Spring.

The intellectual and political compromises, and the psychological gymnastics necessary for artists to compromise and continue making work during those times, was recorded with diamond-like precision by the great Polish poet Czes[begin strikethrough]l[end strikethrough]aw Mi[begin strikethrough]l[end strikethrough]osz in his elegant prose polemic The Captive Mind, 1953. Milosz tracked the web of paradoxes in which the intellectuals of central Europe became caught. Many convinced themselves that they were tied to the burning wheel of history and that the party was its axle, and besides, though life as an artist could be difficult, at least artists were taken seriously. Milosz: 'Fear of the indifference with which the economic system of the West treats its artists and scholars is widespread among Eastern intellectuals. They say it is better to deal with an intelligent devil than with a good-natured idiot.'

And this, to make the first dialectical move, is the antithesis: the state was your enemy, but it was also your friend. The state-funded culture that would never see the light of day in a world where competition rules, while simultaneously shuffling artists off to the dark places of its world. Think of the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. His greatest film, Andrei Rublev, is a three and a half hour epic on the life of a Russian monk and icon painter moving slowly through a punishing medieval landscape. This film, possibly the greatest work of religious art of the 20th century, was made in the world's first atheist empire--and, more, it is a film that could never have been made in the Hollywood system. Admittedly it was not shown in the USSR for five years after completion, but such were the absurdist conditions for artists under the Soviet imperium.

This paradox came to mind as I viewed the excellent recent touring show at Calvert 22, Sounding the Body Electric: Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957-1984 (for a review of the Polish version, see AM359). The show charts the growth of experimental, state-funded sound studios across the Eastern Bloc in the quarter century after Krushchev's famous speech to the 20th Party Congress in Moscow On the Personality Cult and its Consequences. The speech was given behind closed doors and began the so-called 'thaw' after Stalin's death. For artists this meant increased freedom to experiment and, enjoying a supply of state funding almost inconceivable to our austerity starved minds, they did so to striking effect.

The first of these studios to be established was the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. The show at Calvert 22 opens with a black-and-white film of two practitioners producing musique concrete sounds in 1963, the narrator calls this 'a joyful sound of the future'. …