Call Signs

I’ve got a lot of catching up to do to dig deeper into the world of Konrad Smolenski, a young Polish artist who’s been garnering positive reviews, awards and plaudits for his work lately. Looks to be a maverick type who makes powerful and enigmatic statements in video, installations, performance, and sound art…many astute critics are bowled over by the strong integration of sound elements within his visual pieces. I say this because we received a nice tape called Split from the West Den Haag gallery in the Netherlands in September 2014, along with an invitation to their Sept-Oct 2014 exhibition. The tape has three of his aural pieces on one side, ‘Fly’, ‘The End of Radio’ and ‘Judge’, all of which are abrasive no-nonsense utterances of semi-industrial process noise arranged in highly intelligent ways. The radio piece is already a strong favourite; it includes distorted voices that are fit for any given nightmare, except it’s clear that the nightmare is no fantasy and has been derived from the here and the now, and may be applicable to anything from deceitful politicians to the pernicious media who assist in that deceit. So far in less than half an hour, Smolenski impresses with his judicious tightrope act, balancing the need for abstraction and texture with social engagement and strange but potent symbols. I’ll wager many critics liken him to Mike Kelley or Raymond Pettibon, favourably at that.

On the other side of cassette, we’ve got three other notable sound artists, starting with that agit-prop imp of noise, Mattin. His ‘untitled’ is some precious moments of insufferable high-pitched whine unrolled with as much grim intent as the loading of a machine-gun. Even so, I’ve heard things from Mattin with far more force and attack. American Gregory Whitehead is one of the more literary and provocative workers in the radiophonic field, and it might be interesting to investigate some of his radio plays and essays commissioned for BBC Radio. His ‘As We Know’ is an eerie miniature which deconstructs the words of Donald Rumsfeld in a careful manner that Robert Ashley would be proud of. Speaking of eerie, better keep the lights on when you play the last track by Jack Sutton, ‘Contacts Dead Airmen’. Sutton is described here as an English trance medium. This audio piece apparently documents a conversation with the ghost of a terrified, breathless wartime pilot who burned to death in a crash. It’s spine-tingling stuff; with its echo effect, the tape itself feels like it’s been rescued from the wreckage of an airplane, the wreckage of the past.

The last part of this jigsaw is a printed text by Michal Libera, whose compilations for Bolt Records I’ve been enjoying very much, particularly his work in the Populista series. He’s provocative, sometimes almost pretentious, but at least he’s original in his vigourous and imaginative linking of ideas, making intellectual connections across time and space that few academics would dare. At least, that’s what I’m expecting to find when I read Knowns And Unknowns Of New Trends In Cleaning The Landscape, a printed booklet which is an integral part of the Split exhibition. Maybe Libera will join the dots between the above enigmatic sonic statements.