Konrad Smoleński tells us about his experiences and fascinations: from playing on a "snowing" television set, through being active in the framework of the Audiosfery & Penerstwo workshop, to creating music and detonating sound eruptions in public spaces.
Michał Woliński: We met at your exhibition Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More at the Polish pavilion during the 55th Art Biennale. For you, the road to Venice started in Poznań. Please say something about Prus’s Pack.
Konrad Smoleński: I was lucky enough to attend decent schools where I met not-so-decent people. In high school, together with Piotr Bosacki, we directed most of our attention to painting and we deconstructed the knowledge we gained by painting "badly" a lot. At the Art Academy I used to capsize reality together with extramural students of photography. I was a regular student but thanks to Marek Noniewicz, who was a lab assistant at the Faculty of Photography, I quickly joined the group, which we later called Prus’s Pack.
A lot was going on in Prus’s Pack, and I mean a lot. This excess had to be poured out so we regularly organized exhibitions, concerts, performances, camps… We called one of the exhibitions Excess – 2nd Festival of Confessional Art. We crammed all of the private stuff from the apartment in Prusa Street in the smallest room and in other rooms we presented art. Our exhibitions were visited by hundreds of people, which helped the local late night stores make a profit. Our gatherings usually ended with the police showing up.
Just after the official closing of one of the Pack’s exhibitions I played on a "snowing" television set for half of the night. I kept waving a [recorder] head attached to a cassette player by a long cable, near a TV. Thus I produced a signal, which I amplified with a guitar amp. I used to play on many different things, by the way: on springs, engines, rulers, bass circles, gourds… Later, after Knaf’s [Leszek Knaflewski’s] workshop was created, I decided to conduct most of those activities over at his place.
What sort of experiences did you gain in Leszek Knaflewski’s workshop?
We used to come over there even before the Audiosfery Workshop was formally created. In the first year of the workshop’s activity, it consisted only of 3 students. We had nothing but chairs to serve us as equipment but nevertheless the collaboration was great. Everything was actually so good, that after my studies I stayed there as an assistant for the next 7 years.
The workshop was a meeting point. The punk band Sixa, in which I played, was founded there. That triggered the creation of the PinkPunk community, which in turn brought to Poznań people from such groups as: Plum, Woody Alien or Kristen. Honza Zamojski invited Daniel Szwed to come to Audiosfery and it was there that we founded BNNT.
I also met Wojtek Bąkowski on the spot. He came to us from the Faculty of Animation. He wanted to add sound to his movies, but he also discovered his rap lineage. This led to the founding of the bands Czykita and KOT. At first Knaf was on drums, I was on bass [the assistant KNS] and Bąkowski was left with the microphone [the student WSB] – he played the role of the demiurge right from the beginning. Knaf eventually left KOT and he was replaced by Tomek Mróz and later by Bosacki. Those are nearly all off the early members of the Penerstwo group.
Do you still consider yourself a Pener? What was that all about?
I don’t know whether the Penerstwo group was created for a specific reason. We’re speaking about times in which not every move was calculated. A few years ago, Michał Lasota wanted to publish a book about the Penerstwo group, which was to contain statements made by all of the members. When I read these partisan tales, I was shocked that we all have a different recollection of the group’s origin. My perspective is narrowed down to the ancient conversations with Lasota that concerned a certain core, a certain common denominator between people, who formally did different things. Michał is the one who started to find similarities and he also started looking for interpersonal ties. The term Penerstwo was coined to describe this "family" as precisely as possible.
I think that turning Penerstwo into a "brand" was kind of a blocking thing. That is probably why the period in which we organized joint exhibitions under the banner of Penerstwo quickly ended. Our relations went back to normal – the Peners [members of the Penerstwo group] collaborated naturally once more. The premise of the mutual core is still valid for me. So yes, I consider myself a Pener, in the original sense, which didn’t impose the limitations of an artistic group on anybody. I feel I have something in common with these people and the term Penerstwo is meaningful to me.
Your first works were focused on the moment, in which "the end" occurs (The End, Death). You made use of explosive materials, your works were burned with fire. Your sound installations or your projects referring to the process of sound "production" also address the issue of the discharge of energy (There’s No God). What interests you more – the accumulation of tension "just before" or the dispersion, depletion of energy "just after"?
The End or Death, these are my Warsaw beginnings. These things didn’t come out of nowhere. Before these works were created I had already made Zona, which stemmed from the Pack or Drawing – a video created for the drawing workshop of Iza Gustowska. When I moved to Warsaw I also ended my years-long project, the performance Niununi Plays on a Dog. But you’re right, in most of these things you may find tension resulting from the accumulation of energy. Am I interested more in bulging or in burnt-out situations? I couldn’t really say.
I’m fascinated by electric discharges that are generated by outdoor high-voltage switches. I know how much power is released by these discharges therefore I feel respect for the sounds of working transformers. To me it seems interesting that a small murmur, a leftover, a remnant, may convey information about powers that surpass us. The realization There’s No God was based on this relation. Yes I’m interested in the idea of power, of powerful forces, in the face of which perplexed societies create systems of beliefs. In some of my works I try to refer to the anxiety of a person who is deprived of the support of social groups and symbolic constructions.
This potential that you inquired about may also be found in the relation with the audience. Concerts are better because they’re devoid of the distance that is usually present in galleries. The reception of music and the openness of the audience enhance the energy of the performance. I try to generate similar tensions when I exhibit visual art but that’s not easy.
In 2011 you won the Views competition, which was organized by the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts and Deutsche Bank. Did you sense an "accumulation of energy" in that moment?
I try to be calm about such things. When I’m satisfied and I think I’ve done my best I usually get confirmation of this from others. When I worked as a tenement-house renovator in London I used to have arguments with my colleague. He didn’t understand why I tried to do things well and efficiently, when I was being paid by the hour. Although sometimes it’s better to do something quickly and to move on, but I’ve got a problem with that.
The moment in which my energy accumulated occurred in California. I was working with Foot Village on the film Energy Hunters and I didn’t know about the nomination for the Views award. So showing this movie had a great context right from the beginning and that was really cool. By the way, the movie was created in a place located underneath overhead power lines.
You make sound installations, videos, photographs and objects shown in galleries. You also play in musical groups (Sixa, Kristen, KOT and BNNT). Is your musical activity part of your artistic practice? Do such genre categorizations even have sense in your case?
Things are better or worse, regardless of which category they fall into. I myself have problems when I need to describe my work and its genre affiliations. Object / installation / audio / movie? Is BNNT a kind of theatre? The problems with categorization are evident in the case of BNNT. We play at festivals, galleries, we make sonic attacks on streets. We devote as much attention to the visual side of this project as we do to the music and sometimes - and this happens both in clubs and in galleries - we’re treated like an alien element.
I’m always puzzled by this urge to pigeonhole every activity. I try to defend myself against this because I’m conscious that being "named" equals being "forgotten". The openness offered by art is something I really appreciate. The scope of the artistic language and its elusiveness enable me to express myself fully. That’s why I respect freedom also on a category and genre level.
At the Biennale I’m showing a 3-element work, which may be considered an audio installation, a sculpture, a musical composition or even a performance. Automated "instruments" play a composition every hour. The music is recorded and processed live. Over a few days I listened to this dozens of times and I always felt stage fright as if I was about to perform myself. Now I’m going to feel a little uneasy for half a year [laughter].
It’s almost like a concert that goes on for 15 minutes. The Biennale will run for 6 months and over that time the automated instruments will play once every hour. Please say something about the structure of this work.
It is made from 3 elements: bells, detached walls of speakers and walls of metal cabinets. The entirety was copied and placed on the opposite side of the original so the 2 parts take up the left and right hand side of the pavilion. The piece works like this: at first there is a sound that comes from the central part of the pavilion. It is a 3.5 minute-long ringing of the bells, which are set into motion by an engine. The sound of the bells is recorded and after a while it is played from the speakers.
During the reproduction, the recording is processed. The tones are gradually lowered and stretched and reverbs are added. The process involves also the use of a noise-gate effect [the sounds of the clappers hitting the sides of the bells become inaudible]. The resulting sound resembles a fluently vibrating wave, it’s devoid of the rhythm of the ringing bells. In the next phase, the subwoofers standing behind the cabinets start emitting so-called drones that stem from the source sound. These noises have very low frequencies [40-80 Hz]. They cause the whole pavilion to shake. The walls of metal cabinets also begin to shake and because of this they start acting as a spring in a snare drum, enriching the whole situation with their trembling sound.
So we start out with sounds of idiophones, which are strongly rooted in our culture and have many meanings, and we end up with an abstract, physical, unsignified wave. I’m glad you called this a concert. The fact that this work has something in common with a live performance is important to me. The audio material could have been prepared in the form of a computer file and the audience probably wouldn’t have noticed the difference, but that would be like lip-synching at a concert. The curators even laughed at me, kindheartedly I hope. They found it funny that I’m so concerned with the category of truth.
Your work is received by the body. The listener’s body resonates right from the beginning of the automated sequence. The piece is accompanied by a catalogue that features texts about the notion of time and about the understanding of sounds.
The book contains a few possible interpretational ideas that were proposed by Craig Dworkin, Alexandra Hui and Andrei Smirnov. The publication also includes interviews with Julian Barbour, Eugeniusz Rudnik, Thibau de Ruyter and Simon Critchley. Everything is summed up by a text by Daniel Myzyczuk and Aga Pindera, which links all of those stories to some of my earlier works.
Since the beginning, we assumed in our conversations with the curators that the experience based on abstract sound won’t be expressible in verbal language. Musical notation contains a lot of information about a given composition but only a performance will give you direct access to the music. Therefore we treated the book as a separate entity that accompanied the exhibition. This is not your typical catalogue. It is more of a hybrid of a scientific publication, an analysis of artistic work and an exhibition catalogue. Moonmadness beautifully designed the orange volume, which contains great photographs by Bartek Górka. The publication deserves a room of its own, so it is available in the vestibule of the pavilion, where one may sit down and read.
The installation looks like a precise thing. It’s clean and… elegant. However the production of its key elements – the bells – is a dirty job that involves the use of such things as earth, metal and fire. There’s something ritual about it.
The production took over 2 months and the process had something in common with playing live music. I was interested by this fact: bellmakers who come from families which have made bells for generations, bellmakers who have made bells since their childhood days, experience something similar to stage fright just before the cast is made. They feel a specific tension and they enter a trancelike state in which they gain higher efficiency.
With BNNT the preparation for a performance also takes a while. We take our time to concentrate. Then, from a certain point everything happens fast, almost automatically. That is when we experience strong emotional tension. And here we are, talking about the accumulation of energy once more. This might sound a little superstitious but such electrical discharges really impress me.
The bellmakers I worked with relocated their workshop back in the 1970s. From the old site they took a ton of earth in which they used to bury molds for the casts. This dirt holds the molds together and helps maintain a correct level of pressure during the process of casting. Just a bit of earth, nothing special about it, but a few grown men move it around from place to place. This whole craft could easily provide objects for mysterious pagan rites. Instead it produces instruments for churches and fire brigades.
In this sooty, black workshop, apart from earth they also use clay, which is sifted in many different ways until only dust is left. Also beef suet, horsehair, beeswax and handmade knives come in handy. Fire is of the greatest importance as it is used more or less intensely throughout most of the process. The bellmakers don’t hurry when they work. They hardly talk to each other. Instead they quietly sing some strange Haitian incantations, as it seems. This is eastern Poland. On the other hand. the propulsive devices that set the bells in motion were created in a completely different world. These devices were made by Poznań bikers.
How was the installation prepared at the pavilion?
It was prepared in stages. Logistics and organization were among the most troublesome elements. And of course not exceeding the budget was also difficult. I had wonderful and efficient curators and we brought friends that collaborate with BNNT onto the team. We were also aided by Joanna Waśko from the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts. She was right there on the frontline for what I think was five years. The Adam Mickiewicz Institute was also very helpful. The work and help of so many people enabled us to prepare a proposition, which has been received very warmly. I would like to declare that the project is successful and thank everybody involved.
Your artistic practice is a permanent process of accumulating and discharging energy. Do you have enough in-between time to regenerate and to recharge your batteries?
That’s a question about the source of this energy. "Recharging your batteries" doesn’t have to be a stagnant process. I’m inspired by motion, I don’t like idleness. For instance the intervals between the sound sequences in Everything Was Forever… aren’t entirely blank. Electricity flows through the cables all the time.
Interview by Michał Woliński, June 2013