Mikhail Karikis, The Sonic Strata of the Real and the Imagined

Eva Heisler

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For Mikhail Karikis, the voice is sculptural. The voice, he writes, is “a malleable substance that could be compared to visible, physical things used by sculptors, such as rubber or clay” (80). Language is just one form the voice may take. Karikis is particularly interested in extra-linguistic utterances, in those nonsense sounds we invent in play or at work, out of happiness or in grief. Karikis describes these vocalizations as “deserters or rebels, occupying an outsider’s position to the rules of syntax and its principles” (80). Karikis’s projects exploit the capacity of so-called nonsense to serve as agents of community, resistance, and self-expression.

I first saw Karikis’s work at Manifesta 9, a “roving” European biennale that, in 2012, was held in a former mining facility in Genk, Belgium. Karikis’s seven-minute video Sounds from Beneath (2010-11) features a miners’ choir performing on a slag heap. The “song” consisted primarily of vocal imitations of mining equipment, such as drills, grinders, shovels, water sprays, and elevators. The project developed from the artist’s conversations with former miners in England. Karikis asked the men, all members of the Snowden Colliery Choir, to mimic the mining soundscape. Filmed with Uriel Orlow, shots alternate between long takes of the group, standing amid water puddles in a devastated landscape, and close-ups of the men’s lined faces as they mimic machinic rumbles. Sounds from Beneath was one of the most interesting works at Manifesta 9, using artistic research as a springboard, engaging documentary practice, but also testing and reimagining it. 

Sounds from Beneath is one of a series of community-based projects devoted to the soundscapes of labor and industry. Sea Women (2012) centers on the elderly female pearl divers of Jeju, an island off the coast of South Korea. Children of Unquiet (2013-14) stages the “take-over” of an abandoned workers’ village by children of the Larderello region (“Devil’s Valley”) of Tuscany, Italy. The recent Ain’t Got No Fear (2016) features a group of young boys singing about their lives on England’s Isle of Grain, once an important military and industrial site, but now largely abandoned. 

Children of Unquiet and Ain’t Got No Fear were featured in Love is the Institution of Revolution at the Casino Luxembourg—Forum d'art contemporain, in the city of Luxembourg, on view July 1 – October 15, 2017. The artist’s first solo exhibition in Central Europe included several projects created in tandem with the videos Ain’t Got No Fear and Children of Unquiet. One such project is the board game Larderello, the objective of which is to build a pipeline through each of the board’s three zones. Chance cards cleverly illustrate the issues that impact a region such as Larderello. One chance card reads:

Low Pressure!

You have over-drilled the earth to release hot vapour and make more electricity. As a result, the pressure across Valle del Diavolo has decreased and no machines can operate.

Both you and your opponent close half of your power stations and make redundant half of your village-workers
who abandon their homes and go to live elsewhere.

Another chance card instructs:


Congratulations—your factory is modernised.

Open an automated power station at any available source of geothermal energy. Your new power station is so efficient that you do not need as many village-workers.

Throw the die to find out how many village-workers you make redundant.

The race is not, as in Monopoly, to amass rent-producing real estate. In the game of Larderello, the player who ends up employing the largest number of workers wins. 

Larderello, where Children of Unquiet takes place, was not only the site of the first geothermal plant but it was also, according to local legend, the valley that inspired the landscape of Dante’s Inferno. Karikis’s audiovisual installation 102 Years Out of Sync imagines what Dante would have heard during his fourteenth-century visit to Larderello; the stereo sound recording of geothermal rumbles is accompanied by the projection of a text reflecting on landscape, industry, Dante’s visit to the “Devil’s Valley,” and the 1911 silent film L’Inferno:

If for Dante, the geological sounds of the Devil’s Valley inspired his Hell . . .

the continuous noise we hear across the same valley now is an interface . . .

between geology and industry . . .

physics and metaphysics . . .

work and devotional labour.


The sonic strata of the real and the imagined . . .

are still composing the soundtrack of L’Inferno.

Listen closely.

On June 27, I had the opportunity to talk with Karikis as he was installing Love is the Institution of Revolution at the Casino Luxembourg. We started with Ain’t Got No Fear, and then moved through the installations and objects associated with Children of Unquiet.     

—Eva Heisler

Tell me about the Isle of Grain where Ain’t Got No Fear was set.

Grain used to be an industrial region—a lot of the houses were built by BP (British Petroleum)—but much of the industry has disappeared, and people have become unemployed. Grain is near London but it’s very difficult to reach because public transportation lines don’t go anywhere near it. It’s a problem for youngsters; there’s nothing for them to do, especially when they return from school.

I was very interested in the place when I found out that young people organize raves, and I decided to visit. I got a bit lost when I was looking for the rave site. I bumped into three teenage boys and, when I told them I was looking for the rave site, they said, “Oh, we organize the raves. We can show you where they are.” They were very proud of what they were self-organizing.

That particular part of the UK is the place where grime came from. Grime uses the aesthetics of rap—this kind of verbal delivery which is quite autobiographical, it rhymes, and it uses a lot of street language, but the ethos of grime is the complete opposite of rap. A lot of the lyrics are activist, against big brands, against fashion, against misogyny—it’s quite amazing.

The kids invited me to film the rave, but the rave was raided by the police that night. They were very upset. I thought, okay, so how can I continue this interaction?

For several months, we planned different workshops every weekend. They were focused on things the kids enjoyed doing: beatboxing, some music sequencing, live technology. I thought, what does a rave consist of, in terms of infrastructure and content? We organized workshops around that. Some workshops were also about the politics of raves.

As the workshops developed, there was a small group of boys—thirteen, fourteen years old—interested in taking the project further. They asked me, “Can we make a documentary about our lives from our point of view?”

This is a dream of a project for me. This is the aim of a lot of my projects: rather than imposing my vision on the people that I’m working with, I ask, how can I create a situation in which they see me, and the medium of filmmaking, and music-making, and language, how can they see these media as ways through which they can express themselves, and create representations of themselves? Representations of which they are the agents. 

Of course, there are a lot of popular representations of poverty, of youth, of kids having raves, and the kids are often demonized. The photographic series Little Demons is a playful response to the kids feeling demonized by adults. I told them, okay, maybe we should turn into demons. We came up with the idea of making masks. The masks use the aesthetics of the light displays of raves, so they are brightly colored and angular. We cut the photographs to make the masks, and in the exhibition space, the portraits of the boys wearing the masks are installed onto a wallpaper reproduction of the rave site.  

The children wrote their own lyrics to Ain’t Got No Fear?

They loved the fact that they had freedom, but I helped them with the structure. I told them, okay, the song is autobiographical, but how are you going to structure it? I suggested that each section of the song, of the lyrics, could be about a different stage of their lives. So, they start from the age of seven and go to the age of thirteen, then sixteen or eighteen, thirty, and then sixty. The song becomes a vehicle for them to reflect on the past and to also imagine the future.

The video Ain’t Got No Fear oscillates between sections that are more straightforward music video and other sections in which the kids take us places where no adults go, such as a former military tunnel from the Second World War. These are the hidden spaces that they occupy to evade adult surveillance, to play, to be adventurous.

Are you down there with them in the tunnel, filming?

Of course. It took a year to develop a relationship in which they trusted me. No adult will ever let them light fire, but the fact that I’m there, it’s fine; I’m not there to judge them.

I’m just there because I’m interested in how they use that space, and I respect what is private.   

This goes back to the title of the show Love is the Institution of Revolution [inspired by the book Commonwealth by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri]. When we think about space, or the arrangement of the urban environment, through a different logic, rather than that of what is private, what is public, but through a logic of friendship or adventure, space is experienced in a very different way. 

Who composed the music?

I always compose the music. We made recordings of the nearby power plant which is being demolished. I made a beat using those sounds to which the kids rap. The idea for that came out of trying to make something positive out of negative circumstances. That sound of the power plant—it was the soundtrack to their day-to-day lives. It signals their parents’ unemployment. It signals poverty, because people will have to leave . . . We musicalized those sounds.  

The children appear very natural in front of the camera.

This happens when people believe in what they’re doing. My directions were minimal. They delivered the way they wanted to. There is something about, yes, people feeling that what we are doing is a way for them to express themselves. Also, the familiarity we had. Usually I film on my own, especially in community-engaged situations like this. So, the bond we develop, the trust, comes out. This is what people really see at the end. It seems effortless that the kids are natural, but it is the result of several months of engagement with them, and developing a relationship.

Ain’t Got No Fear and Children of Unquiet are the first projects you’ve done with children. How do you like working with children?

I love it. Working with children was a very particular intention, maybe because I’ve been growing older and have questions around legacy. What is it that my generation leaves behind for the younger generation? Are we proud of it? Actually, I’m not proud of what my generation, and the older generation, are leaving behind. Legacies of unemployment, poverty, a huge gap between the rich and the poor, an environmental crisis, privatization of the common. We really have to be ashamed of ourselves.  

It has been inspiring to work with children. There’s a spirit of lawlessness, and a kind of imaginary, not really following rules the way that we know them; this has been very inspiring.

You have written about the dematerialization of the voice, how that dematerialization has political implications, and how important it is to locate the voice in a body and a context. How do you find working with children’s voices? Are their voices more malleable or elastic?

The children that I have worked with, especially the very young ones in Children of Unquiet, have more fluid access to the nonverbal, maybe because their distance from the preverbal stage is less than that of adults. That realm of the nonverbal, of voice as sound, voice as material, is more accessible to them.

As we grow older, we rely so much on communicating ourselves and our ideas through language, that to lose the ability to speak is shameful or embarrassing. At the beginning of the project with the coal miners, there was a lot of embarrassment around the fact that they were not using words, but they were making sounds. I am interested in this question: what is the cause of embarrassment when what we say is gibberish, noise? Kids don’t really have that; they enjoy being immersed in sound.      

Children of Unquiet uses a similar methodology to Sounds from Beneath in that the children make a soundtrack. The entire soundscape is made of children imitating the sounds of the environment, and the environment is very extreme because it has geothermal energy, so they are imitating the sound of steam erupting, bubbling water, sizzling.  

Did they do that spontaneously, or did you have to direct them to pay attention to sound?

There was a workshop we did that was focused on listening.

Let me step back . . . with Children of Unquiet, we are in a context similar to that of Ain’t Got No Fear. The region is industrial but plants have become automated. People have lost their jobs, and entire villages are abandoned. At the start of the project, I had a consultation with the mayor, and I asked if I could meet parents. I had several questions, but my key question was: what do the parents imagine for the children in the future? With no exception, all parents said they want their children to leave because there is nothing for them to do in Larderello; there are no jobs, no opportunities. My response to that was, but what do your children think? Do they have the same opinion?   

This is what initiated the project, that question: what do the children think? That comes from another political concern I have, the fact that our society and our political system is organized so that young people don’t have an audible political voice. It doesn’t mean they don’t have political opinions, because they do, but we structure our political system in a way that excludes them completely. I was thinking, how do I explore this?

We organized meetings with the children in a local community center. We decided to make a film and, out of different conversations, we decided that the film would be a children’s take-over of one of the abandoned workers villages.

We were discussing what the soundtrack would be. I told the children, it’s about your point of view, your representation of this village. This goes back to our earlier conversation about this embodiment and the physical dimension of sound and the voice. My methodology addresses the link between the children and the site where they’re growing up, and the fact that sound is not something that is out there, sound is actually inside of them. The sound that surrounds them becomes part of their psychic make-up. 

Were you speaking Italian with the children?

My Italian is very basic, so the kids were helping me. I didn’t have the same command of Italian as adults did, and actually my command of the language was not as good as theirs. I was adult but spoke like a small child. I needed the kids to communicate. That shifted the power dynamics, which they enjoyed!  

Tell me about the scenes of children reading a theoretical text.

They’re reading from a text that has been central to this project. It’s a chapter on love in the book Commonwealth by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. The chapter tries to suggest a way of thinking about our political and economic system from a different perspective. What if we reorient our priorities and love becomes a kind of center, how would politics be different?

You had the children reading this very difficult language, and struggling with the words, sounding out the words.

I didn’t want them to rehearse it.

Did the children even understand what they were reading?

After a while, they didn’t. In the beginning, maybe, because the chapter talks about bees, using a metaphor also used by Marx. The chapter talks about the relationship between bees and flowers, how the labor of the bees benefits the beehive, but also it pollinates the flowers, so this is a model of a perfect socialist utopia. Then the text moves on and asks: how can we think about other insects, like wasps, that don’t produce honey, and how can we think of the work that we do which is immaterial? How can we think about relationships? I chose that section of the text because it addresses the disconnection that the children have with the site of production; they are growing up there [in Larderello], but they’re totally disconnected.

I didn’t want the children to rehearse the text. Not really understanding everything was vital. Something happens when we hear an authorial voice—the political philosopher talking to us with male authority—and then when children read that, there’s something about the pitch of the voice that changes the gravitas of the text. When the children stumble, and they try to say the words again and again, it really makes us think. What does that word really mean? They deconstruct both the authorial voice and the meaning of the text. It addresses us and the text in a new way.      

In the opening scene of Children of Unquiet, a group of children are whispering. They are communicating something to each other but we, the adults, are excluded. The children have their own visions, their own plans, their own way of speaking. It suggests something that is unknown . . . whispers also have an interesting materiality. They are language spoken without the voice—whispers have a texture that is closer to the half-formed and to what might be imagined or not (yet) material. Everything whispers in that place. The land is whispering. Visions, a photographic series, shows the children in different states of aural reverie, listening to the earth, to the industry, to the pipes, in some cases, with their eyes closed.  

I notice the children are all wearing colorful cotton shorts and shirts. Did you costume them?

I was working with about fifty kids, and I was trying to organize them to wear non-branded clothing for the film. The whole project addresses capitalist forces, and it seemed to me conceptually incoherent if the kids wore multinationals like Nike, Adidas, and Benetton . . . so I decided to make all the clothes. Because of these clothes, I started rethinking the video. The children become bright brushstrokes in the predominantly charcoal landscape. The bold colors also evoke the palette of 1950s advertising brochures for the model worker villages.

How do you see the relationship between performance work and these community-based projects?

Performance is where I come from. Doing vocal performances myself, I have an understanding of the voice, and what it’s like to manipulate the voice, to produce different sounds. But something happened between 2008 and 2010 when I was involved in student protests. I was a lecturer but I was really feeling for my students; what the government was doing was really horrendous, and it was affecting the younger generation. I thought, I have to change how I represent, and what I represent through my work. The community projects are not about me embodying something but about me enabling others, about providing circumstances for others to create representations of themselves.

Your work is not ethnographic, of course, but it has documentary elements. How would you explain the difference between your community engagement and documentary practices?

My presence as an artist, or as someone who changes the dynamics of the communities I work with, is always felt. I am not there to just observe. It is because of the fact that I am structuring, initiating, orchestrating a project, that the project happens.

Ain’t Got No Fear and Children of Unquiet have the children singing and making sounds individually but, most often, they are performing as a group. You are so interested in the idiosyncrasies of voice, in its embodiment, but the individual body dissolves in a choir. How do you see the relationship between the individual voice and the choir?   

This has been such a big question in my thinking. I tried to understand it from participating in different choirs. I sang as a soloist, and I received so many different responses from choirmasters. One of them told me, I would never want you in my ensemble—as a soloist, yes, but your voice is too strange to be part of the ensemble. The different harmonics of my voice don’t blend in with choral singing.

I don’t have an answer, but I am interested in the question because of this tension that choral singing generates. You’re both an individual but also you dissolve into the group. How can you be both a group and an individual? Hardt and Negri’s Commonwealth, especially the chapter on love, addresses this.