Making the walls quake, as if they were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers
The abovementioned quotation, taken from Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son, was chosen by curator Michał Libera as the title of Katarzyna Krakowiak’s best-known work. N.B. this work represented Poland during the 13th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice in 2011. In this article I would like to briefly consider the triadic relation of environment, sound and architecture beginning from Krakowiak’s works, but also extend this with the context of rich relations between architecture and sound, and present a few complementary, contemporary artistic strategies.
In the pieces that I describe, I treat the inner space of architecture as a kind of narrowed sound territory. Within analysis conducted in such a way, we may distinguish a few levels of mutual relations: listening to architecture, listening through architecture, or simply architecture as listening. In my opinion, Krakowiak includes all these threads of working with acoustic space and its cultural references in her projects, and therefore they seem to be perfect for analysis of the issues I wish to discuss.
Both sound and architecture are forms which are not so much socially rooted as simply disciplining and shaping social relations and behaviour in public space – together they territorialise social life. So what does sound tell us about architecture and its space? How does this relation affect the surrounding environment? Do architectural spaces have their acoustics planned, or do they passively and often fecklessly absorb intruding sounds? How, in this context, does so-called hearing/listening architecture (aural architecture) present itself? Does oculocentric perception of the world destroy our sensitivity to the meaning of sound in architecture, or to sound in general?
Before I focus on the analysis of modern undertakings, I will briefly delve into the genesis of 20th-century Polish interest in the topic of sound in architecture as a way of shaping space. Showing the broader historical perspective will allow us to find parallels and grasp the essence of the modern phenomena I describe. One may assume that the direction of this field’s development is marked by the works of Oskar Hansen and Jerzy Sołtan: both incorporated elements of acoustics and their influence on space, social relations, corporeality, etc. into architectural – or, more broadly – artistic thinking. One of the first works in this field was My Place, My Music (Moje miejsce, moja muzyka) by Zofia and Oskar Hansen – a plan of a pavilion for the 1958 Contemporary Music Festival in Warsaw, commissioned by Józef Patkowski. The main idea behind the project was to use lightweight elements which reflect and absorb sound, as well as exploiting changeable acoustic conditions (depending on the location of the listener). The project was never completed, although all of its elements were developed in later works.
The artist-architect-musician collaboration was fully developed in the sixties, mainly due to the project of the so-called “black room” – a space dedicated to editing, part of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio in Warsaw (1962). Although it was widely acclaimed by art critics, it didn’t arouse such enthusiasm among the studio’s users. This was mainly due to impracticalities. Perhaps because of this, greater attention was later paid to very close and more conscious cooperation and, at the same time, reference to numerous traditions sustaining interdisciplinary collaboration between fields (artistic, architectural, engineering). A good example of such an approach was the installation/happening Music Show 5x at the Foksal Gallery. This was created by artists Grzegorz Kowalski, Henryk Morel and Cezary Szubartowski, and composer and musician Zygmunt Krauze. The gallery space was specially arranged: possible visiting routes were suggested but the final choice was up to the audience. This resembled a bricolage approach to a limited amount of objects/props, yet also referred to the “unistic” theory embedded in Krauze’s art. Other integral elements of the project were musical happenings which took place in the gallery, and in which, aside from random members of the audience, Cornelius Cardew, David Bedford and John Tilbury took part, as they were in Warsaw for their performance at the Warsaw Autumn Festival.
An attempt to unite space and sound was also made in the Spatial-Musical Composition (Kompozycja przestrzenno-muzyczna) of 1968, in part a continuation of the ideas behind 5x. This was created by almost the same group of people: Teresa Kelm, Henryk Morel and Zygmunt Krauze.
The idea behind this project is to closely tie together music and space […] So a musical piece and architecture create an integral entirety and can only exist in this mutual connection. Architecture, just like an instrument, is here an element which determines the performance of the piece. The functioning of a musical composition can be connected to the functioning of an artistic sequence.
In the abovementioned works, architecture was given a new status and the possibility to influence both its surroundings and our perception. Together with sound, it became a force which controlled and determined musical composition. This very brief historical background obviously does not exhaust the subject, however it shows directions for the intellectual development of artistic ideas which sit at the intersection of architecture and sound – introducing the category of site-specific to the Polish artistic context.
Katarzyna Krakowiak consistently develops her interest in links between art, architecture and sound. Her works are characterised by a remarkably original and creative approach to sonic issues like radio waves (interventions in public space), cosmic waves (manipulation of conversations which are influenced by the Moon), and architectural noise. From the rich portfolio of the artist I have chosen those projects which are marked by the greatest sensitivity to the environments in which they are anchored. From her oeuvre I will discuss, among others: Metaphones; Making the walls quake, as if they were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers; Rise and Fall of Air; Chute/Zsyp; and The great and the secret show/ The look out gallery.
Let’s start with the earliest work: Metaphones – Design for the Ear (Słuchawy – projektowanie dla ucha), part of a larger project organised by the Bęc Zmiana Foundation called Expectative. The titular Metaphones seem to be a good starting point for further acoustic research, and Expectative considers the need for shaping the city’s phonosphere while bearing in mind that sound does not materially exist, is not constant, and both shapes and is shaped. In the book documenting the project, a distinction between full and depleted hearing is made. Full hearing, or “natural hearing”, is the ability to interpret both language and music. Depleted hearing means either hearing music or hearing speech. The idea behind the Metaphones was to broaden the hearing spectrum, bringing it closer to the optimum of full hearing, as a means to map and order space anew. It was an artistic variation focused on the possibility of creating one’s own sound space in the city, of searching for an individual path mapped out by sound. The project was based on an analysis of Athanasius Kircher’s prints and his thoughts on the phenomenon of echo. Krakowiak treated this as a prototype with various possibilities for use: “Depending on their size, they could be used by soundscape enthusiasts, jealous lovers or – when looked at from a slightly different perspective – Metaphones could also become a powerful tool to manifest one’s own presence”.
A second project – Impossible figures – acoustic spatial shaping. Model visualisation with the use of the PlayStation 3 console was created in cooperation with Andrzej Kłosak, a sound engineer and acoustician. As this title suggests, it is a method of visualising a musical sculpture which explores the context of the location, anchoring, and the significance of echo in the urban environment. It focuses in particular on modality – all the potentialities of sound and its distortion. These two examples show that Krakowiak’s works are focused on the condition of sound, the propagation of sound waves, the phenomenon of echo, and its possible implications for public space.
Before I continue with the analysis of further works, I would like to reflect for a moment on the qualities of the abovementioned phenomena. What is essential here are the specifics of the acoustic environment characterised by four dominants: simultaneity, superimposition, nonlinearity and resonance. Simultaneity is the ability to distinguish various sounds which are being emitted at the same moment (there’s no such possibility with light waves!). Superimposition may be explained as the overlapping of different waves from different sources, which merge and interpenetrate as they reach the ear. Resonance, on the other hand, is the ability of waves to produce energy that can affect solid objects.
In order to deal with the overrepresentation of terms referring to the world of sounds which are essential in describing space, I will try to clarify them. In Poland, the world of sounds is most commonly referred to as the “audiosphere”. From the audiosphere, one may extract a phonosphere and a sonosphere. The phonosphere is the area related to vocal and also non-verbal sounds. The sonosphere concerns intentional sound creation – its timbre and source. The audiosphere itself, being the sum of the phonosphere and sonosphere, becomes a sound universe. A distinction made by Maciej Gołąb is also worth mentioning. He divides the audiosphere into the melosphere and phonosphere, where: “a melosphere contains a discursively-musical aspect of the phonosystem, thus what is being intentionally composed in an aesthetic way. The phonosphere is the non-musical aspect of the audiosphere – acoustic facts, unplanned and random sound events which are generating the noise belonging to the Schaefferian lo-fi soundscape.”
Space – what does it really mean? Is it our surroundings, or rather an artistic site-specific which is closer to an artist’s imaginary construct? Or is it perhaps the immediate environment? As for “environment” – I use this term according to Arnold Berleant, who organises the discourse on acoustic space by naming the four main traits of the environment:
- it is not external in relation to the subject (a clear anti-Cartesian turn) and… it is impossible to get to know in a holistic, objective way;
- it is multisensory – perceived by the subject through various senses;
- it remains under the strong influence of nature, often impossible to harness;
- it is understood as the common space of existence.
It is significant that Krakowiak consequently uses the term “sound sculpture” in relation to her works. She treats architecture as a sculptural form – elastic, modifiable. Berleant also introduces an important (from the perspective of these considerations) typology of sound sculptures, distinguishing them as:
These forms should respond to the visual overload, the visual overstimulation in public space. Motivational sculptures don’t have a good reputation, and many thick books have been written about Muzak. An example of a pictorial sculpture which is at the same time an ambient-contextual one can be found in the work of Bill Fontana, with his attempts to shift chosen sound situations to other environments. A representative case is the work from 1983 in Berlin. By using a set of speakers, he transferred the soundscape of a train station in Cologne to a train station in Anhalter. Not only did he create confusion with misleading announcements, but also asked questions about the status of space, distance and communication. His initial intention was to make a real-time transmission, but unfortunately that was impossible due to the political situation. Krakowiak has also created politically involved works, for example all.fm free radio jaffa, which concerned the complicated relations between Israel and Palestine. By using radio waves she was probing new, common ground for communication, infecting asymmetrical public space by broadcasting announcements inconvenient for those broadcasters associated with the authorities.
What actually is the work Making the walls quake, as if…, which was awarded at the Venice Biennale? Is it an architectural design? An artistic proposition? The title itself is intriguing and ambiguous. Why did Michał Libera, the music curator of the project, make use of a 19th-century writer to describe the sound? In the project’s catalogue, a greater role is played by the non-musicians, in particular the non-architects. Is that because writers have more to say about sound awareness? The chosen quote from Dickens refers to a railway line cutting through Camden Town. We see here a highlighting of the role of industrialisation, and irreversible changes in the audiosphere of the city, stimulated by new dimensions of sound. Could it be that the quaking walls as a result of the passing train recall Lévi–Strauss’ mythical distinction of “culture vs nature”? And how is this change in the phonosphere changing us?
A watchword of the 13th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice in 2011 was “common ground”. What is this ground, and what shapes it? The idea behind the Polish pavilion was not of creating, but rather absorbing – soaking in the surroundings. By using an “eavesdropping” system, acoustic material was collected from the phonosphere of the Serbian, Romanian or Egyptian pavilions. This was later amplified and played back inside the Polish pavilion. Also, to match the title, a quaking of the pavilion’s walls was induced. Thereby, if the medium is at the same time the emitter, the distinction between acoustic territories, considering the sound sources, became blurred. It undermined the existing, unconscious patterns of perceiving reality.
The next step for Krakowiak and Kłosak was to create a map of the sound reflection’s density. Using this, the pavilion was divided into areas of possible distortion. Utilising the out-of-order ventilation system made the final point. Thereby the distinction between interior and exterior became blurred by separating the subject of cognition from external conditions. As a result, the acoustic environment was not somewhere next to us, but rather we were a part of it for the entire time. All of these artistic gestures caused the emergence of a new acoustic situation, the generation of individual “architecture moments” (Krakowiak) and a new field of communication (or its impossibility). Sound was not the sculptural material here, but rather the air which filled the pavilion (and its surroundings).
We should consider the three levels of interpretation on which we are also being guided by the chapters of the exhibition catalogue: Sound in architecture: Reverberation; Sound through architecture: eavesdropping; and Sounds of architecture: vibration. These three elements define the main focus of my article. Physical confrontation with space seems to be an interesting aspect, both as a starting point for the project, and for the later reception of it. This confrontation created a mythical common space where people experienced their surroundings together, and where all was not necessarily about verbal communication. Is Krakowiak’s work a harbinger of the end of the eye’s hegemony? Or does it at least consider the diminished sense of hearing? To undermine the dominant discourse, not only do we need articles and works – even if they are helpful – but an overall change in the way we think, or rather in how we perceive our surroundings. What is certain is that Krakowiak’s work is another important element in the newly arising discourse about sound.
The phenomenon of resonance (vibration, propagation of sound in solids) has intrigued artists for a long time. The topic was also explored by Mark Bain – in his works, as in Krakowiak’s, an interest in the acoustic possibilities of architecture is discernible (see Vibration and Archisonic).
Solids […] are perfect conductors for acoustic waves and vibrations. If you have a few devices which are emitting energy in the form of vibration, you can easily force it into the building so that the architectural construction starts to behave like a speaker membrane.
As Krakowiak in some way marks space with sound, Bain tests the possibilities of architecture itself by using it as amplifier and instrument. He bases his projects on simple physics: the density of the object affects the propagation of sound waves. In his work he sometimes utilises seismographic equipment, due to which he is able to analyse the structure of a building by “forcing sound into it”. He uses low frequencies and infrasound to achieve this. Therefore a problem occurs: what in this case is the medium, and what is the transmitter? Like Krakowiak, Bain focuses on ventilation pipes, the building’s curves, acoustic nonlinearities – although he uses these for slightly different purposes than they were created for. In 1997 Bain created The Live Room project, in which a ventilation system was treated simultaneously as an instrument and a sound transmitter, thus becoming a metaphorical respiratory system. Paweł Kulczyński’s work approaches things from a slightly different angle: he also focuses on architectural sound research, but not necessarily from the perspective of residential buildings. In his cycle When Attitudes Become Form – one of the most interesting projects from our perspective – he tests the acoustic possibilities of a 25-metre silo, which seems to be the perfect space for exploring the phenomena of echo, permutation and sound distortion. Even the most subtle sound introduced into this environment generates unusual possibilities for the reflections and reverberations induced by a custom-built analogue modular synthesizer. The circulation or flow of sound waves is not essential here, but rather the harmonising of sound before and after reflection.
The second part of Krakowiak’s architectonic trilogy – Rise and Fall of Air – was presented to the audience of Warsaw gallery Zachęta in 2013. To some extent the threads which originated in Venice were developed in this work: making maximum use of the building’s structure and filling it with sound, and also emphasising the meaning of air as a medium. In Rise and Fall of Air, Krakowiak focused more on revealing than on eavesdropping. Spaces which are somewhat unused became significant elements of the work: abandoned spaces, skylights, lift shafts, etc. Noncontinuous, rough objects also became perfectly artistic objects in Krakowiak’s hands. The work filled 13 rooms, with a total volume of 15,000 m3 (probably the largest installation in the history of Zachęta). The gallery space was deprived of its basic function of exhibition – it was no longer a white cube, and became a part of a larger structure. Decomposition of the space consisted in charting new ways of communicating, revealing hidden skylights, etc. Some art critics noticed in this a show of monumentalising space, of awaking a new sublimity. I would hesitate to overemphasise the visual aspects of Krakowiak’s works though: as in the Venice pavilion, few objects were demanding attention and thus pulling one away from the clou of the project. The space was instead sterile, calm, neutral, and sound was the tool that showed what could not be seen (a holistic structure of the building cut by walls, unavailable and unutilised rooms, etc.). Krakowiak therefore attempts in her work to present the structure of the hidden by using the invisible. Sound is the key, and is treated as a kind of matter, not mere timbre or intensity. Sound in those works also has to redefine itself, find new paths – the change in the structure of the building affects its flow, there are different places of reflection, muffling, diffusion. It appears as a strictly physical phenomenon, a tool that unveils and restores the absent.
Another example of a thorough architectural examination is Krakowiak’s work is Chute/Zsyp, presented in Liverpool in 2013 as part of the Turning FACT Inside Out exhibition. As in the other works a given space was recorded, amplified, processed and afterwards presented to the audience. A chute, or rather the network of hidden spaces which create an intricate but integral part of buildings, became the starting point. This was a reflection on the cultural role of the chute – a symbol of high-rise flats – an element which is denied, which is dirty and undesirable, although located just behind the wall. Through the work, Krakowiak was asking the question of whether sounds from such marginalised spaces are also unwanted and perceived as worse. The work entitled The great and the secret show/The look out gallery complements the architectonic triptych, and was presented in New York in 2013. New York’s Penn Station Post Office building was transformed into a musical sculpture. The space, which was once crowded and bustling with life, has emptied and begun to nod towards collapse over recent years. This became the perfect “sculpting” material in Krakowiak’s hands. Dickens was once witness to the industrial revolution, and now we observe the progress of change almost every day. The post office as a symbol of communication – linking the past with the present – is slowly fading. Krakowiak brought the place back to life by using sounds which are typical for such institutions: magnetic cards being swiped, all manner of clicking and clacking. The sculpture became a sound study of the archaeology of memory.
Krakowiak’s artistic practice is extraordinarily subtle and – despite using similar means of expression when working on subsequent projects – is properly suited to both the spaces and topics which arise. There is noticeable subtlety in using the method, which originates from Mirosław Bałka’s Studio of Spatial Activities (Pracownia Działań Przestrzennych). It may sound trivial, but based on the abovementioned examples it is possible to see that architecture disciplines not only the eye but equally the ear, and that it is difficult to separate these relations. Architecture needs sound –sound strengthens it, explores it and controls it. It is a process of leaving the purely acoustic qualities of space for the sake of more conscious, more sensuous, aural architecture. If space “produces” our feelings, then let us learn to stimulate these properly. In Krakowiak’s art, sound becomes form, even an architectural structure which is at once a part of a greater entirety. Such testing of the architecture – or, more broadly, the sound territory – generates the emergence of new, less oppressive, more decentralised and open spaces. Do those strategies synesthetise listening about seeing, and at the same time sensitise and restore the lost position of the ear? How the works are received by critics and audiences indicate that this process is actually progressing. In one of the work’s descriptions, the term “building’s soundscape” appeared, and is probably the most accurate description of Krakowiak’s work.
translated by Małgorzata Cnota