KUNZHAUS / Robert KUŚMIROWSKI
I was invited to completely reshuffle the layout of this, the second of the Rialto Street Art Houses, guided solely by my artistic vision and passion. In a manner typical of site specific, the first step I took before transforming the building located at 1718 Rialto Street was an on- site inspection. However, not only was the house itself important to me, but also its vicinity, neighborhood, and an archival record of its former occupants. All the interventions that I have ever made were adjusted to a specific location and contrived during the very first visit at the site. They were the result of my first reflections on a house as a place that I was to adapt as if it were my own, a place where I would like to potentially live. Without this sense of belonging to the entire property — along with its garden and the inventory of items left by previous owners –my work would appear to be temporary, unfamiliar, out of place, and not suitable for display in the long run. One of the most significant experiences was the very process of exploring and examining all the nooks and corners of the house, which made me realize that all of my previous exhibitions would fit in here. Intuitively, I visualized them in most of the rooms as if they had their origins in this place. Therefore, in a way, Kunzhaus is an expansion of my previous exhibitions and ideas which – for various reasons – could not have been entirely realized in the way I initially imagined and planned.
The house was built around 1880 at what was then called 21 Ravine Street before Pittsburgh merged with Allegheny City in 1907. Its first occupants were John and Elizabeth Allig, and their daughter Willis. Milkman and laborer, John Allig was from Bavaria. Elizabeth Allig, who ran the house, was possibly from the Sudeten. They would often rent rooms to fellow immigrants. One of them was Fredolin Kunz, who emigrated from Switzerland at the end of the nineteenth century and married Katherina, a woman of German origin. In April 1896, they bought the house for 2,500 dollars and lived there for almost sixty years. The Kunzes had six children — Frederick, George, Leo, Elizabeth, Kosmas, and Stella — who all took jobs at an early age to help support the family. Katherina died the day after Christmas of 1947, and in January 1948 Fredolin sold the house to John J. Boss and Clara B. (Weidner) Boss for the equivalent of one dollar along with all the claims.
I decided to take interest in this family that had occupied the house for the longest period of time and who had adapted it to their own needs. Furthermore, it is relatively easy to find phonetic similarities between Kunz=Kunst and Kunz=Kunzmirowski, which I used as an inspiration for further research on the genome of this place.
The first impression while looking at the house from the street provides no associations. It looks like an ordinary house, occupied by a typical American family. Artistically, it is no different than any other building in the neighborhood. It was my intention not to reveal all the follies concealed in the Kunzkammer. Houses are always full of surprises, just like it was in the case of Ted Kaczynski’s lodge in the woods — which I used in an exhibition, After Nature at the New Museum in NYC in 2009 — where he would construct bombs and send them to people. No one knows what is hidden behind the closed doors, what people collect, how they decorate interiors, what art they surround themselves with, and what deviations they may have. Entering the Kunzhaus, one receives a benediction with a collection of sacred pictures and figurines placed against wooden planks which have been darkened and gnawed by time and mere negligence. The scent and colors are reminiscent of my childhood when I frequented various country churches and chapels from the sixteenth and seventeenth century all made of wood that has never been cleaned. With time, the wood became covered in patina and started to emit a specific scent that would permeate through the wet fibers intensified by forces of nature.
A religious conglomerate of objects in the corridor is to show high regard for the visitors. It is intended to introduce the atmosphere of peace and quiet similar to the one present in churches. This kind of peacefulness is necessary for the proper reception of works found inside the house. It requires having a calm mind, a mind which is often busy, overworked, and devoid of time to reflect upon life. A few steps farther, one encounters yet another collection: an homage to manual labor and tools used to do the work. It is also a gesture of respect to all those who built this house and to those responsible for transforming it for the purpose of this exhibition.
Basements, which are usually devoid of daylight, in a way encourage those inside to act against the law. Therefore, I created a transceiving room equipped with a number of devices essential for a DIY amateur-radio-operator who is constructing powerful radio receivers and transmitters using components obtained by dismantling some other devices collected particularly for this purpose. During the Cold War it was illegal to capture radio signals, but the ban meant nothing for sound aficionados. When I met with one of Judica-Cordiglia brothers in the suburbs of Turin, I understood how much they risked. At the same time, I also understood how much passion they put into what they were doing in the 1950s when they made a number of unique recordings, including: the sounds of first satellites launched into orbit, Laika’s heartbeat, or the dying sounds of some anonymous astronauts who tragically died during space expeditions. All these recordings can be found on the album UHER.C released in 2009 as part of the exhibition under the same title and presented in Guido Costa Projects in Turin. One hears them now in this basement.
Furthermore, Basement is a continuation of the military part of my exhibition Humanbomber, presented in Lublin in 2011. It is also a place where the aforementioned musical compositions unite with the instruments that conceived them.
Moving on to another room, one enters the Laboratory which is almost entirely fabricated out of furniture and kitchen appliances found on site and adapted to monitor seismic activity. Essential for conducting nuclear tests, such equipment was also used during the Cold War. In that time, it was a triumph of engineering and newly developed technology. Today, it rather resembles a sophisticated décor or a wax machines museum. This collection reminds me of past times of crude computerization yet impeccable aesthetics, which make my senses tremble with excitement, especially while designing prototypes. I am particularly interested in projects that were either superseded or put on the shelf until cheaper and newer technology were introduced. Putting patents in this sort of quarantine is often like a death sentence to them as, during the same time, other companies all over the world provide more interesting alternatives. This simultaneously buries hundreds of innovative ideas existing only on paper into oblivion and eventually deeming them obsolete. To build a machine solely on the basis of its scientific and technical description, without any drafts or other visual materials, is incredibly creative. This process makes it possible to invent machines, people, or interiors fairly different in their visuality and function from the ones already known. In this way, based on technical documentation, I reconstructed one of the first electronic data processing machines DATAmatic 880, presented at the Magazin Gallery in Berlin. The computer was an unwanted sister of DATAmatic 1000 – its later version that was actually manufactured.
Laboratory, in fact, refers to two exhibitions, namely DATAmatic 880 and the installation P.A.P.O.P presented at the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in 2007.
Quarantine is imposed when one moves from the Laboratory to the Postfuturoom. This is a place where I present two videos displaying reactions of my body – the moment of anticipation before it is tested and the moment after. The reason why I decided to show this work is yet another piece that I created when I was still a student. It was recorded on two VHS cassettes and screened synchronously on two huge TV sets. The very idea to conduct tests on my own body has its source in practices known from the Laboratory, where exposing people to radiation was very common. In order to prevent this from happening, different liquids were poured into human bodies, which were later subject to quarantine until the desired results were obtained.
This is one of the most nostalgic rooms in the entire Kunzhaus, the one I have always dreamed of living in. This is the aftermath of the books, comic books, and science-fiction magazines I used to read as a child. It was in the 1950s and 1960s when the greatest number of ideas conveying visions of our lives after 2000 were formed. Those prophetic dreams and yet-unattainable technologies shown on pages of magazines were presented to Polish children who suffered from chronic deficiency of colorful joy. Therefore, in the world of black and white television, gutter press, and shortages of art materials, even a poster containing some visionary images filled children with delight. Today, I am able to create work that not only has an impact, but also responds to my childhood needs. This is like a beautiful comeback to the aesthetics that have remained dormant for many years just to be awakened at some point in my adult life allowing me to make my dreams come true.
Postfuturoom is adjusted to the existing room and it is dedicated to all the scientists who contributed to improving the quality of our lives.
After taking the stairs to the next floor, one encounters a broader collection of self-portraits made between 2003 and 2015 mostly for the purpose of projects stylized to resemble archival photographs. They all refer to events associated with specific rooms, from atrocities of war to forced labor and the trauma caused by it.
This is a working restroom in the form of a monochromatic mock-up which aims to quiet visitors’ minds and to give them some rest. Under a layer of innocent-looking color hide emotions and traces of former owners of the house. There are also the remains of a dog (possibly the last occupant of the house) who must have come here looking for shelter or some water. This work reflects upon the man/animal relationship. It is also a continuation of the project, Pain Thing — presented at the Art Festival in Edinburgh in 2012 in a former veterinary clinic — where studies and tests on animals were conducted for the purpose of broader education. The horror of that place was reflected in layers of transparent paint. Furthermore, a collection of medicaments, tools, objects created for this project, as well as a visible drainage system, caused visitors pain, as in the title Pain/thing. In the case of Rest/room everything is covered with one bland color.
When I first saw this room, all its walls were covered with yellow and brown residue – the result of compulsive cigarette smoking. I took it as a challenge, which directed my attention to the problem of the building deterioration and its partial burning down, which could have happened (or may happen in the future). Artistically, a burned-down ruin, damaged by fire to such an extent that it is impossible to determine the original layout of the building, provides the best opportunity to do research on its psychoarchitecture. With no designs, façade plans or ornament drawings, we can never know just by looking at a ruined house what they actually looked like the moment they were built or what happened to them in time. How should they be rebuilt? At this point, the only thing that allows for such a reconstruction is fragmentary memory or a dogmatic reading of what has left. Investigating a house fire or an attempt to start a fire is purely detective and archeological work, but, still, it can be done. Even if we know what the building looked like when it was commissioned, we have no knowledge about its interiors. We may only know who designed it, provided we have access to its documentation.
While working with such partly burnt architectural tissue, the most satisfying thing is studying its disintegration. There is an incessant learning process of how to build ruins as no one has ever invented a school that would teach how to do it. For this reason alone, this problem is worth being addressed as a theme and visually represented. In one word, ruin stands for death, which coincides with the birth of authentic historical time. Knowledge about the process of the dying of ruins and their inevitable end provides a much clearer vision of this potential, historical ruin. In my opinion, time endlessly reminds of itself. It always begins when it ends. Furthermore, the location of ruins is also exposed to changes. The image of ruins is, in fact, already in ruins itself.
Another part of this exposition are the stereoscopes placed in the alcoves where closets used to be. Normally, when visiting a house, one doesn’t get to look into closets. Here it is different. In this case we are given the opportunity to peep into situations that tend to be dangerous or scandalous. Even though we are watching harm being made, we would prefer not to see ourselves in that position. This kind of voyeuristic nature that drives us into spying on other people’s lives is crucial here.
In previous works, I have used objects found in various burnt houses and presented them, arranged in a similar way, at two other exhibitions titled Träumgutstraße at Salon Akademii Gallery in Warsaw in 2014 and at Johnen Gallery in Berlin in 2015. Additionally, my stereoscopic works placed in a round peep show machine were shown during the exhibition Cosmorama (x) at the Civica Gallery in Trento in 2011.
A feeling of split personality that we can experience while entering two seemingly identical rooms is a consequence of an optical illusion. The arrangement of books, grand furniture or distinct lights not only is distracting but is also hypnotizing! Perception yields as it succumbs to the impossible fact that there is one room reflected as if in a mirror. Only after a longer analysis of particular objects or photographs can we realize how tricky this all is, and that there are two separate rooms seemingly filled with the same objects. The two biggest paintings hanging over the desks clearly inform us that all is not identical, as one of them refers to the journey to the city while the other depicts returning to the country. Even such radically different approaches can be masked by one aesthetic, which, in this case, means similar gestures and colors used by the artist. I love being deceived this way — falling into optical traps — but also creating them myself. They either create fear or provide us with some diabolical thoughts.
Double Room refers to one of my first solo exhibitions in Warsaw — Double V from 2003, presented in the Laboratory of the Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle.
I have always associated attics with accumulation of various objects — both useful ones and those to be thrown away — stored from generation to generation by different occupants. Although random, such collections can also be arranged. First of all, objects that did not fit in the concept of other rooms can be used to create a cabinet of curiosities, which may also include a collection assembled during different trips around the world. In my work, however, I allowed myself to go even further, as I really wanted to refer to another exhibition which not only deceives its viewers but is also displayed in Pittsburgh: The Center for PostNatural History. In this small museum, all trivial and rather insignificant organisms grow to the rank of unusual exhibits. What amazes me is how several aesthetic procedures can make a dead mouse an object of interest and even desire. The opposite to what is presented at the Centre for PostNatural History — something that I also found incredibly inspiring — is a collection of almost five thousand religious relics housed in Saint Anthony’s Chapel in Troy Hill. After many unsuccessful attempts to visit the Chapel, I peeked inside through some innocent-looking doors — which did not appear to be the entrance to the chapel at all — and then the miracle happened as I finally saw these wonders. This is an unbelievable collection. It is unique on a worldwide scale, and yet its fame in comparison with some other museums — even others in the city — is almost nonexistent. Only those interested enough are lucky to learn about it. Therefore, the collection presented in the attic is a fusion of forces. Mess, clutter — typical of attics — resembles a garbage dump. But if we look closely enough, we may find real treasure here.
How is history created? Museums, chapels, reliquaries and countless other sites of reflection are created to frame history in the way we hope to be remembered. In a modest house in a quiet neighborhood, the family Kunz has united with the family Kusmirowski. As you exit to the rear of the house, I invite you to ponder our story as you wander past Memorabilis, Epitaph, and the grave markers or our family plot through gates that seem to have been there forever.