Katarzyna Krakowiak is the artist whose powerful sound installation won a special mention for the Polish Pavilion at last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. That work formed the first part of her ongoing “Architectural Trilogy,” the second iteration of which was a recent installation at Zachęta National Gallery for Art in Warsaw. This work, The Rise and Fall of Air, occupies every last centimeter of the museum's unused space with amplified sound. Here’s why a possibly esoteric-sounding sound installation is remarkably relevant to our contemporary moment.
It’s a well-known saying that we humans only use 10% of our brains. This may be a scientifically-laughable fact (we use pretty much all we’ve got), but the concept retains a certain appeal. Perhaps it’s because we love the idea that there exists a whole store of unharnessed brainpower inside us just waiting to be tapped into – if only we could get to it. Study harder? Do more cardio? Invent a nanochip implant?
In her installation Powstanie I upadek powietrza (“The Rise and Fall of Air”) at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, the Polish artist Katarzyna Krakowiak tapped into our common desire to access that vast unused territory of grey matter – in this case the museum’s total 15,000 cubic meters of unoccupied or inaccessible space. These “voids” were the gaps between walls, elevator shafts, technical rooms, and an entire separate floor of skylights. Any building has these negative spaces, but Zachęta has a particular wealth of them; its entire two-floor gallery space is a structure built in the early 1990s within the shell of the original architecture, which dates back to 1900.
Krakowiak installed microphones in the various shafts and corridors between the museum’s inner and outer skeletons, which picked up ambient sounds such as ventilation air flows and echoes of visitors traipsing up and down stairs. The sounds collected by the microphones were transmitted to energize a group of electromagnetically-powered knocking machines, which were scattered in a gigantic space atop the second-floor ceiling of skylights. Additionally, speakers positioned behind the walls around the building repeated sounds as they reflected off a multitude of internal surfaces.
This work was the second in Krakowiak’s “Architectural Trilogy,” the first part of which was presented in the Polish Pavilion at last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. That installation, called Making the walls quake as if they were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers, won a Special Mention. Upon entering the empty-looking space of the pavilion, viewers encountered a fully-dimensional sound sculpture carefully engineered for the space. Surfaces were designed to alter or garble reflection and reverberation of sound, ventilation pipes were installed in a ceiling shaft to transport the sounds from nearby pavilions into the room, and the “quaking,” or vibrations, of the main walls caused by viewer presence and atmospheric conditions were made audible through amplification. This installation was intended to manifest the space inside the skull in an architectural scale, that is, to mimic in the room the way the human head-apparatus interpolates and localizes sounds.
In the age of the Quantified Self, when your Nikes can track your heartrate and your iPhone can measure your sleep cycles, we’re all trying to find and expand the limits of human capacity through measurement. You can learn quantified-sleep techniques on YouTube that are designed to teach you, through rigorous measurement and training, how to ostensibly increase your lifespan by decreasing the amount of sleep you need over several years. You’re supposed to find, map out, and maximize every empty air shaft or ventilation duct of your body.
Krakowiak’s installation at Zachęta, however, wasn’t about exploiting every possible square meter for maximum knowledge, use value, or “art” benefit. It was the opposite: a way of honoring zones of the unconsciousness, bringing them to the edge of perception without exposing them to quantification. Personally, I don’t consider sleeping “dead time” anyway – when else would I get a chance to dream?
- Elvia Wilk, Berlin