The City of K.

An atmospheric fusion of AV technologies and artistic interpretation help to make a new long term exhibition entitled “The City of K. Franz Kafka and Prague” a truly immersive experience.

In a complete change of tack from their staple work of presentation systems and corporate AV installations, Czech integration company AV Media were awarded the task of meeting the AV requirements of the City of K. - an itinerant exhibition portraying the relationship between Prague, and one of her most famous sons, Franz Kafka.

AV Media’s consultant, Michael Bures, who designed the AV system in conjunction with the artistic directors of the exhibition said: “It was brilliant to be able work on a project that was a little out of the ordinary. This is not your average AV application.”

The exhibition was originally prepared by the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona, whose approach is very different to previous presentations of Kafka’s work. Instead of focusing on the documentary evidence of his life and work, the museum seeks to use the documents as a basis for a collection of multimedia experiences throughout the exhibition which reflect particular aspects of the relationship between Prague, Kafka’s life and his writing. Photography, film and sound combine to provide a memorable journey.

The AV technology used is itself neither complex nor particularly obvious, however this is a credit to AV Media who have succeeded in applying a delicate touch to the project.

The exhibition opens with a short flight of stairs at the top of which are projected a series of photographs of Prague from the turn of the century. They are details of buildings, streets and the Jewish quarter in which Kafka was brought up. The Casio XJ-460 projector is mounted in the ceiling of the stairwell which prevents visitor’s heads casting shadows on the wall. Also ceiling mounted is a single Jamo 661K4 cabinet playing the sounds of the city – running water, the sound of carts on cobblestones and Jewish music. Like the projector the speaker is hidden from view.

The next phase deals with Kafka’s early life. After passing a series of cabinets with which display letters from Kafka to his father, and a representation of the Vltava river, which follows the Kafka family tree, a small seated area faces a rear-projection display. A specially built “dark box” behaves like a giant DLP cube about 1.8m x 2.4m in size. A Casio XJ-460 projects on the Pro-Diffusion DayView rear projection screen showing a film loop (Image B). It consists of very old cine-footage blended with period photographs and depicts Kafka’s daily walk to school. The various scenes are explained in a wall display next to the projection. Audio reproduction comes from 3 Jamo 661KA loudspeakers flush mounted into the face of the screen.

Kafka’s working life is characterised in an exhibit consisting of letters detailing his business affairs and administrative duties. A ceiling mounted ASK Proxima C170 loops an animation built from various sketches that Kafka made during his writings. Audio content is again made up of ambient sounds and is played out of a further pair of Jamo 661K4s.

The whole experience is extremely claustrophobic. Selective exhibit lighting and carefully chosen sound effects, as well as music, give a sensation of being trapped in Kafka’s world. Without a budget for acoustic modelling, AV Media has still managed to provide decent isolation of the audio for the various exhibits.

The section of the exhibition devoted to Kafka’s relationships with women does nothing to lighten the mood. A simple, steel framed, cot bed is suspended from the ceiling and the white blanket serves as a projection surface for a Proxima projector. It displays a series of ghostly photographs of the man and his lovers, which merge together. A further series of suspended display cabinets present letters and more photographs.

Descending the stairs to the bottom floor of the exhibition is where things start to get a little weird The staircase itself is fitted with a couple of concealed ceiling mounted speakers, these produce the eerie sound of rats scratching around in Kafka's house. Once down the stairs one is confronted with a nightmarish vision of bureaucracy. Filing cabinets two metres high hem in the visitor and open, illuminated draws display extracts from Kafka’s writings.
A couple of period telephones can be picked up to listen to a narrator reading from the author’s work. The area is dimly lit and all the while permeated with recordings of official stamps hitting documents, the cacophony of paper work. Several cabinet drawers are replaced with 17” Samsung LCD displays showing abstract video content. This ranges from a series of disembodied hands with digits missing (a common injury for the workers that Kafka represented in the Workers Accident Insurance firm) to a video showing numerous mechanical date stamps.

Emerging from the filing cabinet maze, things don’t get much more cheerful. A short movie, “The Castle”, based on Kafka’s unfinished work of the same name, is projected from a Casio XJ-460 onto a white wall flanked by mirrors. The angle of the mirrors is such that the film appears to surround the viewer, disappearing to infinity in both directions. A pair of JAMO 661K4 speakers are flush mounted into the ceiling to provide the accompanying sounds effects and voice reproduction. This film is possibly the most striking feature of the exhibition. Around five minutes in length, it shows silhouettes of barbed wire, castle buildings and words around the themes of exclusion and of alienation. (See image A)

The final stretch of the journey consists of a collection of first editions of Kafka’s work, much of which was not released until years after his death of Tuberculosis in 1924. The display cabinets are accompanied by the sound of the river Vltava again played through Jamo 661K4s.

All the AV content and control is located in a single double-width rack in the museum’s reception area. It hosts 16 pioneer DVR-433-H hard disc player / recorders for the content. These were selected over DVD playback devices simply due to the massive wear and tear that would be experienced. Whilst the exhibition is itinerant, it can expect to be in place for at least two or three years.

Audio amplification comes from a pair of Cloud CX-A850 8-channel amplifiers and a Cloud CX-A450 four channel unit, with content distributed over standard analogue cabling.

Since the exhibition is run day-to-day by relatively unskilled staff, one of the key features of the system was that it was simple to operate. Whilst the brain of the museum’s AV equipment is a highly complex Cue control system, which is responsible for scheduling the media, the user interface could not be any simpler. A single “On / Off” button on the Cue Guise-S+ LCD panel is all that is required to start things up at the beginning of the day, and turn them off at the end.

It’s hard to put across how genuinely effective the AV system in this installation is in capturing the right mood, without visiting it in person. However Michael Bures’s thoughts on the subject are clear: “At the end of a long day working on this project for eight or ten hours, it was not hard to start to feel a little like Kafka must have done. It’s a very interesting but also quite depressing experience.”

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