Magazine article Art Monthly

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

Magazine article Art Monthly

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

Article excerpt

'The question of what a sound might be or where it might be heard was, we shall see, given heightened significance in Eastern Europe, where censorship operated and communications were under official command.' Thus writes David Crowley in the fine catalogue essay introducing this wide-ranging exhibition of electronic and experimental sound and music. Co-curated with Daniel Muzyczuk, the exhibition was installed in the ground-floor galleries of MS2, the new building of Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, converted within the Manufaktura, a complex of 19th-century red-brick textile factories now functioning as the new 'creative quarter' of the city.

One of the fascinations of the exhibition is the way in which experiments in Eastern Europe intertwine with developments in the West (Largely through the huge international influence of John Cage and Fluxus) but acquire new meanings with the changing context. A Leading example of this, as described by Crowley, was a concert organised in 1970 by Krzyszt of Wodiczko (then working as a designer for the Polish electronics industry) and the composer Szabolcs Estenyi. In Just Radio Transistors an ensemble of 12 musicians from the Section of Young Artists of the Association of Polish Composers was instructed to 'play' their portable transistor radios by adjusting their volume and turning them on and off. Each radio was tuned to a different wavelength and the resulting cacophany was not unlike the effects of radio jamming, as practised to differing degrees by state authorities throughout the Eastern Bloc, an effect underlined by the fact that all the performers wore earplugs. Here, as Crowley observes, 'the context formed by state broadcasting and the "minor" addition of ear plugs are the keys to the interpretation' of the action, and to its critical intent.

However, the earlier years covered by the exhibition were infused with an extraordinary enthusiasm for experimentation in science and technology and a high degree of state support for experimental sound. In 1957 the first major recording studio in Eastern Europe was established in Warsaw by a young musicologist, Jozef Patkowski, following the precedent of the Club d'Essai in Paris, founded at the end of the 1940s, and the Music Studio in Cologne, established in 1951. Designed by the modernist architect Oskar Hansen, the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio was, in Crowley's words, 'a remarkable and genuinely innovative zone of intellectual experiment'. Similarly, in the Soviet Union, the new network of institutes and laboratories formed under the aegis of the Scientific-Technological Revolution could provide welcoming environments for artists and designers. The exhibition includes the remarkable example of the Prometheus Institute, established in Kazan, where electronic engineers explored the synaesthic field of light-music as part of the Soviet aeronautics programme.

Synaesthesia was a major preoccupation of the 1960s, and provides one of the memorable experiences in the exhibition, the reconstruction of an audio installation - Spatial Musical Composition - originally mounted at the Galeria Wspolczesna in Warsaw in 1968. A collaboration between sculptor Henryk Morel, composer Zygmunt Krauze and architect Teresa Kelm, the installation comprises six booths equipped with a source of sound and light, with areas between where sounds can merge. …

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