Advocate Of the Unheard

Nathanja van Dijk in conversation with Mikhail Karikis


Mikhail Karikis, No Ordinary Protest (2018). Video still.

From the power of sound to ecofeminism, from art to the activist imaginary: artist Mikhail Karikis and curator Nathanja van Dijk discuss Karikis’s projects Children of Unquiet (2014) and No Ordinary Protest (2018) in which the artist focuses on the post-millennial generation’s visions of the future in the wake of rapid post-industrialisation in the West and legacies of economic and environmental crises. 

Mikhail Karikis: “What if we started anew? What if we started forming a new society, with at its core a sustainable form of energy production that is not exploitative, that does not leave traces, nor harms other creatures and their future? Can we imagine an alternative future ecology, in which people and their environment are in tune with one another?” 

These were the questions that Karikis pondered on when visiting Tuscany’s Valle Del Diavolo. According to the local legend the hissing, steaming and sizzling volcanic Devil’s Valley inspired the landscape of Dante’s Inferno. It is also the very location where sustainable energy production was invented and where the world’s first geothermal power plant was built in 1911. Later a group of Modernist villages, designed by the Italian architect Giovanni Michelucci, were build to house the thousands of workers and their families that moved to the valley to operate the plant. But since the late 70’s, the power plant has become increasingly automated resulting in major unemployment, rapid depopulation and ultimately in the abandonment of most of the villages. Karikis’s project Children of Unquiet is situated in the midst of the ruins of this modernist project, with the children of the workers who left as its protagonist. Central to the interdisciplinary, collaborative project, is a film in which we see the children take-over one of these silenced worker’s villages through play, imitating the sounds and noises of the environment that they grew up in: the sound of bubbling water, the whisper of geysers and the roar of the factory’s pipes. 

MK: “When you sing with someone, you harmonise. Your bodies, psyches and souls start to resonate; they start to be in tune with one another. The philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri use the idea of the musical score, in which there are voices that are independent, that might sing completely different things, yet somehow work together as a whole. This is what the children are doing in the village. While singing they harmonise with one another. But they also harmonise with the site, as they are singing along with the earth and the human industry. It is like singing back. The sounds they are making are those of their environment  – a short of onomatopoeia – and while doing so they play with their voices, making different kind of improvised harmonies. Amidst the ruins of this failed modernist project, they try to become in tune with what is around them, rather then demolish it, rather than appropriate it or fight with it. So in a way they make peace with this past, with this lost modernist ecology and move forward, by returning to the site embracing green energy at its core.”

Nathanja van Dijk:Why did you decide to work with children of the parents who have left the village?”

MK: I decided to work with children because of an interesting encounter I had at the beginning of this project. I met a little boy in one of the abandoned villages. He must have been about seven years old. My Italian is not very good, so I looked like an adult, but I spoke to him like a child. The boy however looked like a child, but spoke like an adult. I think we both enjoyed this shift of power dynamics. Our conversation ended abruptly when his mother turned up, who grabbed her son and then quickly took off. She completely ignored my presence, obviously wanting to avoid any interaction. 

What was interesting to me in this brief encounter was the fact that the mother didn’t really acknowledge what her son wanted. The parent wanted to leave. The boy wanted to stay. If we were to look at this on a larger scale, it is illustrative for what is happening in a lot of these post-industrial regions. The mayor, who was very supportive of the project, set up a meeting with the parents. I asked them what they imagine for their children in the future. With no exception all parents said they want their children to leave, because people have lost their jobs, there is no future here. My response to that was: But what do the children want? What does the future of this region looks like through the eyes of the future generation? I wanted to explore this question together with the children.”

The fact that our social and political systems are structured in a way that a lot of people and communities do not have an audible political voice is a major concern for Karikis. Many of his projects are rooted in land that is scarred by industrial obsolescence. His collaborative projects resonate with new ways of thinking about the future of these territories by tuning into the voices of those who are pushed into the precarious periphery of society and therefore remain unheard or are systematically neglected.

MK: “It doesn’t mean that the children in such post-industrial abandoned areas don’t have a political opinion, they actually do. Society however turns a ‘deaf ear’ to them. But if we want to re-think the narratives of these places – narratives of economic recession, migration and post-industrialisation – we need to realize that the future generation might imagine things differently. If we want to think of an alternative future, we have to think with the people who are the constitution of that future. Therefore the voice of the children is the one that is amplified in this project. It’s the voice that should be heard if you want to start anew.”

In the film we see the children bursting into the abandoned village, literally adding colour and sound to the gloomy and silenced site. These shots are interspersed with images of the children reading passages about productivity and love from the book Commonwealth (2011) by philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. 

ND:Why did you choose to do so?”

MK: “The work is a conversation with this text. The children read the chapter on love, in which Negri and Hardt propose a new perspective on our economic and political system, in which love becomes a central element. How would that change our political structures? They talk about bees, a metaphor also used by Marx to describe a perfect socialist utopia, as both the beehive and the flowers benefit from the labour of the bees. Then Negri and Hardt ask: how can we think of other insects, like wasps, whose work doesn’t make sense in a Marxist way? How can we re-imagine our relationships? And what is the role of immaterial labour in those relationships? I choose this passage because it relates to the relationship that the children have with the site of production. We should not forget that the geothermal power plant is still there. It is just automated. And therefore it is the relationship between the people and the industry that has changed. Initially the workers were there to produce something – like the bees – from which the community benefited. But how can we think about the relationship that the children have to the site, now that they are completely disconnected from the industry? This shift in the ecosystem has changed the relationship, but this doesn’t mean that the relationship has lost its value.”

ND:Can you explain in what way the relationship between the children and the site has changed?”

MK: “At the start of the project all but one girl indicated they wanted to leave the area. Then we went through a very intense process of working together – we made the film, the soundtrack, the conceptual board game etcetera – I asked them again if they imagined themselves leaving or staying in the region. And with no exception all 45 children said that they wanted to stay. Of course I am not deluded into thinking that they are going to stick to this idea and will not leave. But what I realized was the importance of engaging the children with this particular site in a creative and collective endeavour that allows them to imagine things differently from what they are told, or what they are given. So the question is to whom does the current narrative of the region belong – the narrative of economic recession, migration and post-industrialisation. While working with the children I discovered this narrative does not belong to them. By giving them the opportunity to create something without knowing what it is, it turns out that they imagine something that is very different from what we imagine for them. They found a new relationship to the environment, a relationship that is not based on exploitation or production, but instead is based on harmonization, on being in tune. A new relationship that hints at potential alternative futures conjured up by the imagination of the generation that will be most affected by the current social and ecological shifts.”

ND:Your work addresses ideas that are central to the conception of alternative future ecologies: alternative modes of solidarity, the sharing of knowledge and energy resources, a sense of ecological justice, collective agency, and personal as well as collective empowerment. What is the role of art in all of this?”

MK: “Art governs the realm of the imaginary. To be given art is like saying to someone you are free to imagine something different, to imagine solutions that are different from what you have been given so far. And I think this is the role of art: to allow us to think beyond what already exists. It is like alchemy. All the components that we have – our build environment, our natural environment, and our relationships – are already there, we know them. But when they are filtered through imagination, the result is entirely different from what, let’s say, an economist would come up with. I believe that at this point in world politics when we are desperately looking for new solutions to political and environmental problems, we seriously need to think about art education and about the role that imaginative thinking plays in shaping contemporary politics. We don’t necessarily need more economists or politicians. We need them to engage in creative activity, in imaginative thinking. Because it is only then that they would be able to train their minds, to think outside of what already is. How can you come up with a new vision, when you can’t imagine?”

ND: Is this also the idea that inspired your project No Ordinary Protest?”

MK: “What actually inspired that project is a scene from the film 120 BPM, which documents AIDS activism that was taking place in Paris in the early 90’s in the LGBT-community. In the scene, a group of activists storm into a function for politicians and a pharmaceutical office and they start throwing the ashes of a person that died of AIDS and had been cremated. It was so shocking! I thought: this is what the activist imaginary is. And I think that this activist imaginary and art are deeply connected. Because to really protest in a way that is effective, that brings about change and that is beyond the ordinary, you have to have imagination, you have to think outside of the box. What I was trying to explore in the project No Ordinary Protest is this potential to imagine a way of protesting, a descent that really makes you think again, that makes you imagine and act in a different way.”

Karikis’s project No Ordinary Protest takes on the children’s science fiction novel The Iron Woman (1993) by British writer and poet Ted Hughes. This eco-feminist story features a female superhero that has the power to receive a noise. Transmitted through touch, this noise resonates with the collective howl of all creatures on the planet that are suffering from the environmental crisis. The Iron Woman gifts the children with this supernatural ability to receive this noise. The children then realize they have to take matters into their own hands and take action. For No Ordinary Protest Karikis worked for nine months with a group of seven-year-old schoolchildren from a historically disadvantaged area of East London. Through workshops and play they created a project together, which reflects on the environmental themes of the book and imagines the noise that assists the protagonists in their protest. In the central video of Karikis’ project, we see the children debating on the environment and the reckless attitude of adults towards it. This debate ignites a sort of activist-spirit in the children, and a spirit of solidarity. The children become advocates of the unheard through their positive reclamations of noise. In the final act of the film we see them wearing self-made masks, as if they have become one with the noise-making creatures. This new activists unit of noise making creatures slowly comes crawling towards us. While being uncertain about their ecological future, No Ordinary Protest uncovers children’s political voice and activist imagination.

MK: I am trying to understand the potential of the activist imaginary. In No Ordinary Protest this potential is symbolized through transformation. During the workshops with the children we played a lot with materials and transformation. We conducted cymatic experiments, whereby a noise or sound takes on unique visual forms. Basically what you do is take a granular substance, like salt or flour, and put in on a surface. Under that surface you put a speaker. When you start playing sound the substance will start moving and will take on different shapes, which are the sonic patterns of the sound. Because of the vibrations produced by sound, the solid substance begins to look as if it is liquid. Resembling morphing landscapes, these vibrational experiments echo the power to mobilise change through ‘noise’. It is through collective noise-making that the individual body and the collective harmonise and dissolve. When things become liquid they can transform.”

The noise – the howl of the creation – in Ted Huges’s story, is reminiscent of what Michel Serres describes as ‘background noise’ in his publication Genesis (2005). In his theory Serres makes a distinction between ‘parasitic perturbation’ – noise as a disruptive and relational force – and ‘background noise’ – noise that prefigures phenomena. It is the latter that is of interest here. “Noise is not a matter of phenomenology, (…) it is a matter of being itself. It settles in subjects as well as in objects, in hearing as well as in space, in the observers as well as in the observed, it moves through the means of the tools of observation, whether material or logical, hardware or software, constructed channels or languages; it is part of the in-itself, part of the for-itself, it cuts across the oldest and surest philosophical divisions, yes noise is metaphysical.” (Serres, Genesis, 2005, p. 13).

Serres background noise is not loud. We are often unaware of it. However we should not turn a ‘deaf ear’ to the noise. Instead, Serres argues, we should try to hear – through both its content and its form – this noise, the sound and the fury, as it is ‘the ground of the world’, the condition of life. 

Perhaps, Karikis says, this is what we should learn from the female superhero and the children: “that only if we are willing to listen and sing along to the noise that swells up from the precarious periphery of today’s world, we will be able to imagine an alternative ecological future, a future in which man and nature, people and all other creatures will be in tune again.”

September 2019