Lina Džuverović, Artistic Director at Calvert 22, and curators of the exhibition Sounding the Body Electric David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk discuss the practice of sound curating and shed light on the research process, material and immaterial aspects of sound production and politics of communication supporting the show, in an interview conducted by Sylwia Serafinowicz. Sounding the Body Electric is on display at Calvert 22 in London between 26 June and 27 August.
Sounding the Body Electric, Exhibition view, 2013. Courtesy of Calvert 22 Foundation, photo by Steve White
Sylwia Serafinowicz: Lina, Could you introduce us to the profile of Calvert 22 and tell what Sounding the Body Electric brings to the programme of the foundation?
Lina Džuverović: Calvert 22 is the only foundation in the UK which specialises in the former East, that is contemporary and twentieth-century practices from the former USSR and Eastern Europe. So what is of great interest for us is the idea of connecting as much as possible with practices across the region, not strictly in the visual arts, but also where they intersect with other disciplines. With Sounding the Body Electric this was really our first opportunity to tap into this incredibly rich and interesting history of connections between sonic practices and the visual arts. We are always on the lookout for strong exhibitions that are happening in the region, because we are in a perfect position to bring them to the UK. And this was the case with this exhibition; it was a perfect match in a way.
SS: David and Daniel, you approached the subject of experimental music independently. Where did your interest originate?
David Crowley: I was working on a show on the Cold War a few years ago that had quite a strong interconnection with technology, a subject which could be developed in many ways. Sound and music were obviously one them. As part of the research then, I was talking to a lot of artists and designers from the generation that were active in the sixties. The Sounding the Body Electric project started to take some shape in my mind as a way of giving particular focus in thinking about technology, experimental films, and music, and experimental art. ( The Experimental Studio of Polish Radio was established in Warsaw in 1957).
Daniel Muzyczuk: As for me, experimental or modern compositions of different sorts, were really my hobby, rather than professional interest, although I’ve included sound installations in some of my previous exhibitions. But since my move to Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, I started investing much more time in researching unknown histories of the Polish neo-avant-garde, that’s where I started realising that there was a lot of interaction between both of those spheres. When Muzeum Sztuki invited David to do the show I was appointed his co-curator
SS: Lina, what was the most challenging aspect of this project for you, as the host of the exhibition in London?
Daniel Muzyczuk, during the opening of the exhibition, photo by Nat Urazmetova / courtesy of Calvert 22 Foundation
LD: Probably finding ways to bring an exhibition from a larger space, a museum space, into a smaller foundation that doesn’t have the conditions that are necessary for some of the works. That’s always a challenge for us when we bring in exhibitions of this level. In this case, it was very smooth because everyone was so set on finding ways, and so helpful, that we worked to find the best solutions. But that’s always a challenge, as a lot of the time the work has very specific conditions for how it can be shown, and there were some very ambitious works, large pieces, that were shown in Łódź, which we simply couldn’t even consider showing here. So it was a bit heartbreaking, in some ways, to have to say ‘no’ to certain works. The exhibition is reworked, it is a smaller format, but I think we managed it quite well.
DM: As a matter of fact, I think it’s more consistent. The argument is stronger because of this process of selection.
SS: What is the essential matter of the show, which was present in Łódź and is also present here, in London, despite the different scale of the show?
DM: The starting point of the exhibition – both here and in Łódź - is the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. A child of the post-Stalinist Thaw, the Studio and other experiments of the period after Stalinism, point to common political origins. Nevertheless, we’ve tried to illustrate the diversity of practices in the Bloc and Yugoslavia, while also showing the context of different dynamics in different countries of the region. That’s how I would put it.
SS: David, you mentioned the Cold War as a starting point of your thinking about experimental music. How was it inscribed into this project?
DC: I don’t think it’s so strongly inscribed in the show, but perhaps it helps us understand the remarkable phenomenon of the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. In the late 1950s the Polish state chose to invest in this facility, with state-of-the-art recording equipment, new kinds of oscillators and synthesisers, available to composers, and to artists, to some extent. Why? Perhaps the answer to this question lies in a Cold War context in which a kind of fetish of science and technology in Eastern Europe was made. In that competition between East and West, one of the symbolic markers of authority was to be in control of the scientific apparatus. And strangely, I think there is a kind of echo of that politics in the creation of experimental recording studios that then are used to produce musique_concrète, and other quite difficult forms of music. So yes there is a kind of Cold War echo in the background.
I could say one other thing – my work on the Cold War and on Eastern Europe has sought to produce an expanded picture of cultural practice in Eastern Europe because in the common view, this was a setting which produced nothing of significance... Eastern Europe under communist rule has often been represented as a grey zone with no original art. With this in mind, we also wanted to do justice in the show to a generation of artists and composers who were remarkable creators in their day and then fell into obscurity. That’s why it is really satisfying to bring this show to London, because we can really make that point forcefully.
SS: Storytelling is an essential part of the catalogue and the brochure produced by Calvert 22. Did this form originate from what you encountered? Is it a way of giving a testimony?
DC: Yes, but also a way of doing research. There is one kind of kind of curatorial practice where a curator just parachutes in and collects. You can do it with Google if you really want. It seems to me that what’s really important is to understand these artworks well. I think that working on Sounding the Body Electric, we’ve been a bit like archaeologists. We’ve done a lot of work to excavate practices, or works, that have been forgotten. And we’ve been working with the artists in a lot of cases. This is about making an intellectual investment in the work.
David Crowley, curator, during the opening of the exhibition, photo by Nat Urazmetova / courtesy of Calvert 22 Foundation
There is also a distinct Łódź context too, which Daniel has written about in the brochure, because we were very keen to try and demonstrate that this show can be traced back to Łódź too, both to the show we mounted there last summer and earlier. Daniel, could you say few words about your research?
DM: I’ve tried to juxtapose two art pieces that were made in the early seventies. One is present here in the London show – Łódź piece by Andrzej Dłużniewski. The second one couldn’t be exhibited. It is was a transmission made by Wojciech Bruszewski from 1973. These pieces suggest a very specific understanding of the public sphere in a socialist state. In my own understanding, these are very sophisticated sound practices that not only drew attention to the self-referentiality of the medium, but also to different qualities of everyday life in the city. And my text also brings the themes of the show back to Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, on whose archives this research was partly based.
SS: It was a very interesting conceptual move, similar to those from the seventies, when artists were actually sending documents, works paper on paper, as well as photographs, abroad to establish this spatial-temporal connection with the West.In this context, I wonder why you decided to focus so strongly on former Eastern and Central Europe? Were you not tempted to show more of the dialogue between the two sides of the Iron Curtain?
DM: I think we’ve shown some relevant points of dialogue. For instance, we’ve documented Cornelius Cardew taking part in the 5x happening organised at the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw in 1966, or a progression of composers who went through the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. (5x was an audio-visual spectacle initiated at the Foksal Gallery by Grzegorz Kowalski, Zygmunt Krauze, Henryk Morel, and Cezary Szubartowski in September 1966). Similarly, you can hear the voice of Paul Pignon, the British Composer working with Vladan Radovanović in Belgrade in the early 1970s. The network of exchanges between Western and Eastern Europe brings us back to the often-cited idea of the influence of John Cage. But somehow – in this particular context – this is not an ideal gesture. For certain artists, the influence of Fluxus and Cage was less significant compared to, say, the influence of the Russian composer Skriabin. (Aleksander Skriabin was a Russian composer and pianist, one of precursors of experiments with synaesthesia). We also wanted to show that many of these practices – sometimes connected to what was happening in Western Europe –were home-grown, to the extent that they were created their own ground. I wouldn’t say Eastern Europe was a complete world, because sometimes there were just islands of activities. But they really grew out of the local context, and yet displayed the same dynamics of evolution and development as western compositions.
Katalin Ladik, Ausgewählte Volkslieder (Selected Folk Songs), 1973-1975, installation view, 10 framed collages on paper. Courtesy of Kontakt. The Art Collection of Erste Group and ERSTE Foundation, photo by Steve White
You already mentioned some of the content of the show. Could you say how it is organised at Calvert 22? It is divided into two floors, and this fact seems to have an impact on the content, as there is a certain tension between the two sections.
DC: Yes, the run of works on the upper floor starts in the late fifties and, broadly, features works that owe their intellectual footings to that moment of the Thaw. They are typically euphoric works, works which imagine that, perhaps, the body can be liberated through sound, or through its abstraction. In this section we show happenings made in Warsaw in 1966 at the Foksal Gallery, for instance, and we show experiments with the visual language of graphic scores. Most were created to encourage improvisation, and as such they were about a certain a sort of liberation. I think that’s a very meaningful claim in the context of command – a better word for describing the conditions of Eastern Europe under communist rule than, say, totalitarianism.
Of course, Eastern Europe was a world of command, but in the second half of the show, downstairs, we also try to show that artists and musicians become critical of the world in which they lived as well as the prevailing myths of freedom, even the freedoms to experiment in the recording studios being established across the Bloc in the 1960s. Where did the resources to kit out the studios come from? Why were they being provided by the state? What kind of freedom is freedom when it is under license from the state? And so, with this in mind, we have works on the lower floor which date from after 1968. 1968 is clearly a symbolic year in the relations between rulers and ruled in Eastern Europe, and, as a group, these artworks seem to make connections with matters like surveillance, bugging, radio jamming. In this context, sound, music, and noise start to carry much darker associations. And again, we’ve done some reconstruction work to draw this out. Daniel worked very closely with Krzysztof Wodiczko and Szábolcs Esztényi … .
DM: Just Transistor Radios is a piece by Esztényi, a composer, and Wodiczko, a visual artist and designer at that time, who was starting to work with installation art. The piece appears to be very similar to Imaginary Landscape No. 4 by John Cage, but in fact it’s not. It involves eight performers, operating radios, and a very precise graphic score , yet allows one much freedom of interpretation. But the important aspect is its context – it was performed in an environment where radio waves were being constantly jammed. Plus the earplugs, visible in the ears of the performers, are an equally crucial element too. And if we consider Personal Instrument by Krzysztof Wodiczko as an instrument which engages critically with the use and control of the public sphere – this piece could be seen as a prototype of an approach which is familiar today.
SS: In the context of the reconstruction or re-enactment, what proved to be impossible to bring back to life? And what was repeatable?
DM: What we could do was to repeat the meeting of two people - Wodiczko and Esztényi - after 40 years. But the piece as such, to a certain degree, is impossible to perform nowadays. The historic sound of the radio jamming – using the techniques of the period with one broadcast overlaid on another, some sort of pop music or folk music, for instance – was not a serious option. So what we’ve ended up with is a demonstration of how this piece could have operated in the late sixties. Yet I wouldn’t say it’s an ersatz performance, because radio waves are still being, to a certain degree, political. Think of Radio Maryja in Poland... (Radio Maryja (Radio Virgin Mary) is a Polish religious radio station).
SS: Materiality and material history of sound seem to be very important in the context of this show. You put lots of emphasis on the properties of magnetic tape, transistor radios as well as visual music scores. Why is it important for the project?
DC: If you’re young, sound seems immaterial. It can exist on your computer, and if you want to modify or manipulate that sound, it’s easy ... But if you look at the day-to-day practices of the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio, they involved extraordinarily material and physical process – meters of magnetic tape, scissors and glue. And the very precise work of engineers, like Eugeniusz Rudnik, was a remarkable craft. At a simple level we wanted to show that sound has these material origins, and that it was a sculptural object in the sixties, in a way that, I think, it no longer is today.
DM: Yes, the operations of the experimental studio can now be repeated with just a laptop. But the transistor radio piece by Krzysztof Wodiczko and Esztényi shows a very different perspective – that you cannot hack some sound technologies. Technologies are less and less open to experimentation. You cannot find white noise, for example, on radio waves nowadays –because radios don’t use transistors and they tune in to a very clear signal. That’s one thing, but there’s also the shift in the approach to technology. So I wouldn’t say this is a nostalgic journey into an era when experimentation was possible, but it does suggest a loss of potential, the potential of those myriads of approaches towards hacking technology.
Vladan Radovanović, Voice from the Loudspeaker, 1975. Vinyl record and sound file, 4’22”. Courtesy of the artist, photo by Steve White
SS: I remember a tour you guided around the show in Łódź. You mentioned then that there was a very practical side to the visual music scores – in order to be registered, an experimental piece had to have a visual side as well.
DM: Yes, that was a legal requirement in Poland. The pieces produced at the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio had to have their scores prepared for publication in order to be registered as “serious compositions”. And that was a bizarre moment: the tape is the score. To play the tape is to play the score. But then you have this bizarre visual object that is not meant to be reproduced or played, it exists to capture some of the qualities of the piece. And it became, thanks to the whole series of publications, a means to educate people, and also a means for Bogusław Schaeffer, for instance, to rethink the practice of experimenting with magnetic tape.
SS: In the context of this show and the pavilion for the 2013 Venice Biennale of Art, which you Daniel curated together with Aga Pindera, I wonder whether you see showcasing a new sound installation as a distant practice from what you did before this exhibition, or are there perhaps some things in common?
DM: It’s a very different thing. Although for Sounding the Body Electric we were working mostly with living artists. We were really trying to do justice to the times, their profiles, and attitudes. Whereas developing a new piece with young artists allows some degree of negotiation. But, yes, the piece in Venice is also a tape-driven machine that captures the sound of two hand-crafted bells. And thus it comes somewhat close to the work of Eugeniusz Rudnik at the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. Of course he didn’t have speakers as loud as Konrad Smoleński’s, but the materiality of sound is a shared concern.
SS: There is a special exhibition brochure produced for Calvert 22, independent from the catalogue of the show. Why did you choose make such a move, and what did you want to communicate to the audiences here in London?
LD: We have a track record of publishing catalogues for every exhibition, something we have done since the very beginning. We feel good about this as it tracks all of our exhibitions. It is also a good way to have something that remains after the show. In this case, it was somewhat special, because the catalogue for this exhibition already existed. We decided to do something that would address the exhibition as it is here. So that it would still be something special and new for our audiences here, but also allow people to be drawn to the catalogue. We didn’t want to duplicate too much. The idea was that those who are really interested would also buy the catalogue, but the brochure would be specific to this show. And I think it’s good to continue this policy with touring exhibitions in the future.
DM: Moreover, we really appreciate the fact that the show is growing. The brochure sheds a different light onto works that we have already shown in Łódź. Also we’ve released a CD compilation, which also tells a different story. You can’t just repeat the same story all over again – and for that reason we’ve focused on the sonic qualities of some of the pieces and added some more works provide parallels to the works presented here in London.
SS: I like the fact that the colours that I saw in Łódź have also been transferred here, so that you can really feel that there’s a link between the two events. I was also thinking about other forms of engagement, a policy that Calvert 22 has to involve the local audiences in its programme.
LD: When putting together the strategy for the programme, I strongly felt that it wasn’t enough to just bring the work and show it. It was very important to contextualise it. A lot of the practices that we show, whether contemporary or historical, sit in a wider context that informed them. Showing individual pieces doesn’t do them justice. Also, we have to address the fact that within our audiences there are not only people who are familiar with the works, but also many who are not. So what we try to do is find different points of entry for different types of audiences –different kinds of people who come to us to explore the possible narratives behind the work. I always say that I like to think of the exhibition that we have here as a text, a starting point for different perspectives that you take and develop. We’ve had a number of discursive projects, and we have one core research strand which has been running for two years, and another one that is about to start. We’ve had a number of events that essentially relate to the exhibitions, but sometimes are wider as well. I think that it’s really crucial to engage our audiences in a deeper way.
SS: Lina, you are about to moderate a panel discussion on the subject of sound curating. What aspects of this practice are of your particular interest?
LD: We are going to discuss the conflict between sound-based practices and visual arts institutions from the point of view that traditional visual arts institutions are basically built for showing art on the wall – exhibiting painting and sculpture – and what happens when these more ephemeral practices come in. What are the ways in which they penetrate the arts institution, and the conceptual challenges. Also I’m really interested in this meeting with the culture of improvisation, where the focus isn’t on the final object, or the finished product, but is much more on the process of improvising. That’s something that, for me, doesn’t sit so comfortably with the visual arts where it’s all about the object. I’m very much interested in this kind of potential tension. So that’s the starting point.
SS: I think it’s also a very good point to finish our conversation – having the “potential of improvisation” in the back of our heads as an inspiring concept.
David Crowley runs the Critical Writing in Art & Design MA at the RCA. He is the author of various books, most recently Pleasures in Socialism: Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc (with Susan Reid, 2010). He writes regularly for the art and design press. Crowley also curates exhibitions (including Cold War Modern at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2008–9 and Sounding the Body Electric, Experimental Art and Music in Eastern Europe at Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, 2012).
Lina Džuverović is a PhD candidate on a Collaborative Doctoral Award between the Critical Writing in Art and Design Department at the Royal College of Art and Tate, researching Pop Art in the former Yugoslavia in 1960s and 1970s. Lina works as a freelance curator, currently in the role of Artistic Director at Calvert 22 Foundation in London. Prior to joining Calvert 22 in 2011, Lina spent seven years as Executive Director of Electra, a London-based commissioning organisation, which she co-founded in 2003. In 2006 Lina was named the 2006 Decibel Mid-Career Curatorial Fellow by Arts Council England (an award to one curator every two years) and awarded a two year grant towards professional development.
Daniel Muzyczuk is a curator at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź and former curator (2008-2011) at the CoCA in Toruń. Curator of numerous projects, among others: Long Gone Susan Philipsz, CoCA, Toruń, 2009;Gone to Croatan (with Robert Rumas); CoCA, Toruń; HMKV, Dortmund,2008-2011; Mariusz Waras and Krzysztof Topolski. Factory, CoCA, Toruń, 2009; Views 2011, Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, 2011; and Sounding the Body Electric (with David Crowley), Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, 2012. He is the winner (together with Agnieszka Pindera) of the Igor Zabel Competition in 2011. Co-curator of the Polish Pavillion for the 55th Venice Biennale (with Agnieszka Pindera). AICA member.
Sylwia Serafinowicz is an art critic and a freelance curator. She is currently writing her PhD thesis, More than Documentation: Photography in the People's Republic of Poland Between 1965 and 1981 at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She is a Correspondent for Artforum magazine and a member of Ph: The Postgraduate Photography Research Network based in London
Interview by Sylwia Serafinowicz, August 2013