As if dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers

One of many things you might be missing at the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture—which opens this week and runs till November 25th—is a new acoustic installation by Katarzyna Krakowiak inside the Polish Pavilion.

Her piece, called Making the walls quake as if they were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers is, in the words of Michal Libera, the pavilion’s curator, a controlled “amplification of the Polish Pavilion as a listening-system.”

[Image: A sound-study of the 2012 Polish Pavilion by Andrzej Kłosak for Katarzyna Krakowiak].

In an interesting accompanying essay that foregrounds the acoustic experience of space, Libera goes on to suggest that “we live, work and play in gigantic complexes of sounds—their distribution is what we call architecture.”

Architectural micro-deformations of the building’s walls and floor, the renovation of the ventilation system, and reinforcement of the resonant frequencies serve to bring this latent acoustic experience to the fore. The focus is on the secret but audible knowledge inscribed in the niches, apses, bays and vestibules, full of long-acknowledged deficiencies and forgotten paradoxes. None of the sounds in the Pavilion are alien to the building. They are all always already there.

One of the techniques deployed by Krakowiak, for instance, is to reinforce architecturally the Pavilion’s own resonant frequencies; this leads to “excessive reverberation” that will make “even regular conversation difficult” inside as visitors are enveloped in echoes, everything out-of-synch and returning again in time-delay. Further:

To enhance the experience of being immersed in sound, the floor and one of the walls are tilted at a slight angle. The introduction of a different material (a wooden floor) and the incline itself will also influence sound propagation. With 50 sound sources, the interior of the Polish Pavilion will take the visitor to the heart of an unknown, unfathom- able realm of sound.

Libera describes in detail how Krakowiak partially dismantled the Pavilion itself, performing a kind of acoustic surgery on the various surfaces and materials used inside, analyzing them for their sonic side-effects and picking and choosing which spaces—”the niche, the vestibule and the walls”—to augment, tune, or dampen.

[Image: Another sound-study of the 2012 Polish Pavilion by Andrzej Kłosak for Katarzyna Krakowiak].

While reading about Krakowiak’s work, I was reminded of a short piece by Richard Pinnell in a recent issue of The Wire. There, Pinnell describes the, for him, uncomfortable experience of hearing sound artists Mark and John Bain perform under a railway arch in London, work themed “on the principle of self-destruction.” Mark Bain has been mentioned many times here on BLDGBLOG for his ongoing interest in the possibility of architectural demolition using nothing but bass, and this particular performance seems like one of a piece with those earlier explorations.

Pinnell describes how the “American sibling duo” of the Bain brothers used “seismic sensors to translate the feedback of the actual building itself into heavy, really heavy droning bass tones. The wall of subsonic pressure that hit me as I squeezed alongside others into the arch space threatened to turn my ribcage inside out.” More to the point, he quips that, “If the shock of how physical the sound was caught me off guard, I was even less prepared for the small chunks of crumbling masonry that began to intermittently fall from the bare brick archway above my head as the Victorian building itself struggled against the assault.” We could level whole cities with sound. Building and anti-building with LRAD.

The Bains’ “architectural bass tremors” haunted Pinnell’s sense of equilibrium so much that, he jokes, now, “whenever I enter a room under a railway arch I keep one eye looking over my shoulder,” lest the Bain brothers arrive, acoustic weaponry in hand.

In any case, while Krakowiak’s installation is not premised on the idea of demolition—and thus the connection between these two stories is entirely anecdotal—I am nonetheless struck by the idea of a pavilion, perhaps some future version of the Serpentine, that deliberately interferes with, or manipulates through time-delay, the acoustic events taking place inside it, whether those are human conversations or simply monstrous waves of sub-bass rumbling up from a concert in the basements below.

In fact, you could imagine some strange new art form, a kind of acoustic variation on Noh theater, that takes place only inside buildings tuned to echo at precise intervals, with whole new forms of dialogue—an entire literary genre—written with actors playing the roles of multiple characters, speaking lines perfectly timed for an endless return of disorienting synchronizations, ten, even fifteen, minutes later still listening for the delayed lines of an earlier phase of self-conversation.

Or, for that matter, a mis-built suburban house somewhere lost in echoes, driving its owner insane, as everything said inside is destructively echoed and reverbed to the point of utter incomprehension, for whole days at a time. A tragi-comedy starring Tom Hanks, muttering to himself in a roaring airplane engine of noise—things he said yesterday!—sitting at the dinner table, starring at a salt shaker, unable to talk to his date.

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