I had never heard of the Tuscan village of Larderello until Mikhail Karikis told me about it in 2012, in the London underground, while returning from a symposium on voice where he had participated at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre (http://www.danacentre.org.uk/).I was immediately impressed by the multilayered history of this small centre in the Pisa’s area and surprised by the fact that I discovered it thanks to a Greek artist based in London (sometimes you need an external perspective to shed light on near issues… We’ll come back to this later, in the conversation).
Larderello is located in the so-called “Devil’s Valley”, a geothermal area characterized by natural phenomena such as geysers, fumaroles and “lagoni.” A surreal, lunar and evocative landscape that, according to the legend, inspired Dante for the setting of his Inferno and, centuries later, one of the masterpieces of Italian silent cinema: Inferno by Francesco Bertolini, Giuseppe de Liguoro and Adolfo Padovan (1911).
Beyond these literary associations, the Devil’s Valley has also a prominent role in the Italian industrial and architectural history and, at the same time, it is a case in point of the wider dynamics of the post-industrial and post-fordist capitalism. Here, the first station for the exploitation of geothermal energy in the world was built, pioneering sustainable production from renewable sources.
Here, in the mid 1950s, the Italian architect Giovanni Michelucci was responsible for drawing up the urban plan of Larderello to respond to the growing needs for labor, providing one of the most significant examples of industrial village in Italy. But today, following the increasing automation of the power stations, these needs are radically decreased resulting in a drastic loss of jobs, with the rise in unemployment and the consequent abandonment of the industrial villages where, until a few years ago, the workers and their families lived.
These historical stratification, the natural, social and economic environment of Larderello, as well as the imagery associated with the Devil’s Valley are the basis of Mikhail Karikis‘ new body of works: Children of Unquiet. Karikis conceived this project during a residency at Villa Romana in Florence for Radio Papesse‘s project Nuovi Paesaggi (2012) curated by Lucia Farinati and then developed it for the following 18 months through a process of gradual expansion of field research and collaborations with the inhabitants of the area.
Therefore, Children of Unquiet has gradually branched off in different directions, giving rise to a series of works that – after several shows in international contexts such as Art Sheffield 2013 or the 19th Biennale of Sydney – has been gathered and exhibited for the first time in Italy at Villa Romana in collaboration with Radio Papesse last summer (03/07 – 29/08/2014).
The entire series gravitates around the homonymous film, that stages a political and fictional allegory, re-imagining a different future from the ruins of the industrial, social and architectural utopia of Larderello through the voices local children.
Gathered in choirs to vocalize the sounds of the natural and industrial environment of their childhood, sitting between the abandoned houses while reading Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt‘s Commonwealth, or occupying the industrial and residential areas to transform them into playgrounds, the children find shared ways of expression and project new imaginations on the now desolate landscape of Larderello.
This possibility to imagine possible futures was created during a drawing workshop held by Karikis with the children of Silvio Pellico primary school in Montecerboli. The artist asked the children to imagine new functions for the abandoned buildings, thus allowing them to have a say on the potential for development of the area where they live (these drawings have been animated in a super8 film and reproduced in a series of photos showed at Villa Romana).
But also the visitor is allowed to re-think the relationship between industry and the community. The exhibition includes a board game, where you can deal with the conflicts generated by the development of the electric power plants, the accumulation of profit, the exclusion of labor force and the subsequent dissolution of the socio-economic project of Larderello.
The contradictions of labour under the current economic system, the voice as a means of individual and collective expression, the role of sound as a vector of community identity are, in reality, the theoretical platform of a wider series of projects by Karikis. The series is entitled Work Quartet and Children of Unquiet can be considered the culmination of it..
Started in 2010, the series includes Xenon (2010-11) – exploring frustration, self-censorship and sense of failure in office work environments – Sounds from Beneath (2010-11) – a collaboration with a Kentish miners’ choir that bring back to life an abandoned colliery by collectively recalling, vocalizing and singing the sounds and noises of their former place of work – and SeaWomen (2012) – a body of works focused on a community of Korean female fishers and on their specific vocal practices.
At the end of July, I and Mikhail had a long conversation. We talked about the relationships between Children of Unquiet and his previous projects, the sound and image nexus in his films, the ontology of the voice and the different ways in which he explores it in his work, as well as his positioning as an artist. What follows is a transcript of the recording of our dialogue.
Elena Biserna: Children of Unquiet started during a residency at Villa Romana two years ago. Since then, you developed the project in many directions and formats – now we have a film, a photographic series, a super8, an audiovisual performance and a board game. During the opening, you told me that the project itself led you in many new directions… But your projects very often give rise not only to an artwork, but rather to a body of works that may assume many different forms.
Mikhail Karikis: When I make art, I don’t consider it in terms of producing an artwork. Art for me is a way of researching, of exploring issues and particular sites. My last projects, including Children of Unquiet, are site-specific and my approach is to engage sites and their communities in their complexity – the history of the sites, their social, economical, political dimensions… It’s a process of inquiry that lead me to investigate specific issues that might have an historical origin or engage different temporalities – especially in Children of Unquiet – but that continue to be urgent now, for us today. The exhibition of the artworks for me is only a way to communicate this research and process of inquiry.
Elena Biserna: So the multilayered history of Larderello – its natural, geographical, social and economic context – inspired you to work in so many directions. It seems like you followed a process of progressive expansion of your research, then also being able to redirect everything in the different works that make up the exhibition…
Mikhail Karikis: Yes, exactly!
Elena Biserna: On the other hand, I find that the whole project is also deeply connected with your previous body of works. First of all, I think of the workshops you had with the children in Lardarello and in the region. This long process of meetings and encounters with specific communities is part of your modus operandi, at least in your more recent projects such as SeaWomen.
Mikhail Karikis: Children of Unquiet is actually part of a series of works that I call Work Quartet. This series – starting in 2010 with Xenon – explores similar issues such as the relationships between voice and specific communities, between subjects and work contexts.
Xenon investigates frustration, self-censorship and the right to speak in office work environments. For that project, I engaged with a group of young workers and we explored common situations of failure and censorship; when and where we felt we didn’t have the right to express our feelings and ideas freely; how could we find our voices to give voice our rights? These meetings provided the material, the starting point to develop the entire project.
Then, the following project, Sounds from Beneath, which connected with a former coal-mining community, was a kind of new adventure for me, because, although the issues were similar, I had never engaged to such a degree with communities that were outside of the art world where I was operating. In this case, for the first time, I worked with people of a different generation who were doing something very different from me. But, still, sound, site and location were prominent in what they had been practicing. I learned a lot from this situation: how you – as an artist with a different social, ethnic and economic background – can approach a community, how you are perceived and how that affects the project.
From there, I went on with the next project, SeaWomen, working with a community of elderly female pearl divers in South Korea. Again, it was very challenging because I was in a completely different cultural context, we didn’t speak each other languages, there was a big age difference and a gender difference. As in the previous projects, the themes of sound, site and profession were central: the work started from the geographical specificities and vocal expressions connected with the women’s particular profession.
So the series of four projects that make up Work Quartet engages with different generations – people of my age in Xenon, older men in Sound from Beneath, much older women in SeaWomen, and children in Children of Unquiet.
On an emotional level, the series suggests a sort of progression. Xenon expresses the kind of state of mind I was in when I made it. I felt trapped. It was less than ten years after 9/11, in a period were political changes were happening and neoliberalism in UK and Europe was celebrated, before Occupy Movement and the turbulent student protests in the UK and across Europe. So the main question was: how can we express ourselves if the power of political speech and language has been hollowed out?
In this regard, Sounds from Beneath was a kind of solution (perhaps “solution” is not the right word here, but it was a kind of solution in terms of my practice) were I explored the possibility of creating a political vocal gesture that was neither propaganda nor sloganistic speech. The miners vocalize something that is connected to the specificities of what they did, their memory and community, and at the same time they reclaim the political agency they were denied in their protests and strikes. Their abstract vocal acts are specific to their community and go beyond predictable political speech. At that point, something happened in my practice and in my thinking. Yet, I was still engaging with memory – with something that had happened in the past and was reactivated now in the form of recalling.
This is the reason why SeaWomen had to happen: the project is about a disappearing but still active, independent, self-sufficient and dynamic community of women subverting expectations of the male-dominated context they exist in. SeaWomen was the first project that marked a change in the way I felt in terms of my agency as an artist and the way I can affect the world around me.
I think of Xenon as a sort of ‘toxic’ work in that it is very critical, punishing and polemical; Sound from Beneath is a re-collective lament, while in SeaWomen displays dynamism – the old women’s bodies are active and powerful and represent a model of existence that gave me hope.
So, moving to Children of Unquiet was deeply meaningful in my practice. It encapsulates this process and could not have happened four years ago. It needed the background of all the other projects and research. For the first time, I worked with children. The project poses questions about the future: what do we leave to the next generation, how do we empower them to change things? Moreover, if we talk about the film, it actually has glimpses and methodologies of all the other projects: the recalling of sounds of specific places, for example, or the acts of speech that are somehow subverted. These are elements I developed by working on the projects that preceded it.
Elena Biserna: Another element that I find both in Sounds from Beneath and Children of Unquiet is a sort of fascination for desolate and powerful landscapes, that, in some ways, recall the imaginary linked to Hell… This is particularly evident in 102 Years out of Synch, the record you produced for the exhibition – a sort of soundtrack for the first feature film made in Italy inspired by Dante’s Inferno. But this imaginary and the figure of Orpheus come back very often in your work.
Mikhail Karikis: Yes, this is true but very difficult to explain. I suppose it has to do with my cultural background, but also with my personal psycho-emotional make-up. The figure of Orpheus going to an impossible place – Hell or the Underworld – to get his beloved back and, while there he sees the unseen and hears the unheard. He comes back to communicates that. There is something about that myth that has fascinated me for as long as I remember. It became the subject of my academic studies, then, in different ways, was part of my first album Orphica (2007). The theme of traveling to an impossible region – which is also connected with entering another realm, engaging with a life-threatening profession or being in a difficult emotional situation – has somehow permeated all the projects.
For example, I see the coalminers of Sounds from Beneath as contemporary Orpheuses who have chosen a subterranean profession and then came back from the guts of the Earth. On the surface, this may seem like a literal translation of the legend, but it goes beyond the geographic parallels. Similarly, SeaWomen depicts women who spend most of their days underwater, in a different realm and negotiate the limits between life and death by practicing an ancient breathing technique that is transmitted from one generation to the next. It is something that also appears in Xenon. One of the characters wares inflatables and was inspired by an African migrant worker that I saw when I was in Sicily – one may see them all around the Mediterranean; they have no rights, they are socially invisible but visually arresting, they load themselves with inflatable beach toys and go up and down the shores selling them to tourists. They occupy a realm between water and land, between visibility and invisibility. When I saw this man I thought: he is like Charon, the mythical figure transporting people’s breaths (their souls) from the Land of the Living to the Realm of the Dead, occupying both but belonging to neither.
When I came to the UK, I chose to become an outsider and my projects are created from this position. I work with communities I do not belong to, in different cultural and linguistic contexts. Most of the time I operate in this status between visibility and invisibility. As an outsider, sometimes you have the freedom to do things that you could not as a member of a given community. This connects to my perception of what the role of the artist might be.
Elena Biserna: Coming back to the record… I would like to ask another thing regarding the title. 102 Years out of Synch somehow recalls what you were saying before on the different temporalities of Children of Unquiet – your way of actualizing the past but also keeping all the layers of the past in the present. But, in my opinion, this title may also be seen as a sort of climax for your way of dealing with the relation between image and sound in your films. In a certain way, I think that this soundtrack for a film that was made 102 years ago accentuates the gap between sound and image that we often see in your films. The record creates a sort of paradoxical historical relationships, as if returning the sound to those silent images, but in many of your films there isn’t a complete coincidence between sound and image and, when we hear voices, we don’t always see their source, the mouth.
Mikhail Karikis: Yes, this is particularly evident in SeaWomen. In the actual installation of the work the sound is in a different room from the moving image. The installation is set up in two rooms connecting through a doorway. In the first room there is a 12-speaker sound installation. In the second room there is a projection. So you can choose where to stay – if you stay in the room where the sound is, you have to watch the images through the doorway; if you go to the second room, you hear the sound coming from behind. So, although sound and image are linked, they are never completely joined.
In Sounds from Beneath sound and image really challenge one another. The video starts with a silent image and the first noise you hear is a pfffffffff… a kind of explosive vocal sound which turns the image to black. The idea is that voice and sound have the power to extinguish light and the image… This is something that occurs several times in different ways in the film. I wanted to communicate straight away that sound and image challenge one another. I tried to develop this in several ways in other projects.
In general, I think there is a kind of impossibility in pretending the coincidence of sound and image in audiovisual media (performance is different). I’m not trying to be honest through my work – it’s not really about that – but I find the pretence of audio-visual synching problematic. I explore images or visual moments that I find interesting for what I wish to communicate; these do not necessarily coincide with sonically interesting or informative moments. So I don’t see why I should keep an image just because of the sound or, conversely, why I should keep a sound just because it happened at the same time as an image. Usually, I edit the sound first and then I work with the moving image. Sound and image are like two lovers who live together but act independently.
Elena Biserna: I didn’t know about the dislocation between sound and images in the installation of SeaWomen. I was wondering if this might also be a way to reflect on the nature of voice in general, as something which is always between inside and outside – it comes from the interior of the body to go outside. From this perspective, seeing the mouth doesn’t give you the real origin of voice because voice always has a dislocated relationship with the body and with subjectivity…
Mikhail Karikis: This is something that I explored theoretically in essays and really interests me. I hadn’t thought about that in this respect, but I see how that kind of dislocation can be interpreted in connection with the ontology of the voice, which is both inside and outside. The voice is invisible – when we see the mouth moving we don’t see the voice, we just see a symptom of what produces the voice, or something we have attached the voice to. In SeaWomen I took a very deliberate decision to not show the mouth of the women making that sound because this would have given it a banal source when, in fact, the actual sonic experience is extraordinary. What is amazing is that the women make astonishing dolphin or bird-like noises. If you see the mouth and reveal the visual source of the voice, you shut it down and spoil the magic of what actually the voice can do to us on a sensory level.
Elena Biserna: As in the process of deacousmatisation of the voice in cinema…
Mikhail Karikis: Exactly! This is not how voice is experienced. Although these projects deal with social realities and politics, and there is a sort of anthropological dimension to them, the imaginary is prominent. This is linked to the voice as well as the way I deal with landscape or architecture. In my works, real architectures and natural sites also evoke metaphorical or poetic landscapes. This opens up a space to address that imaginary dimension. Art in general, to me, has a unique power to speak to the imaginary.
Elena Biserna: Yes, I see what you mean. Especially Children of Unquiet and Sounds from Beneath… To me, they are more allegories than documentaries – the metaphoric dimension always prevail over the documentary one (given that documentation can really exist when you have a camera or a sound recording device).
I would like to go deeper into the issue of voice, that has always been prominent in your work as an embodied, material medium, in relationship with subjectivity. While in your first works you investigated the relationship between voice and your own subjectivity, working on your body, with the last projects you seem to become more and more interested in the oral traditions of certain communities or in collective vocal expressions, so in the relationship between voice and plural subjects. What lead you to make this shift?
Mikhail Karikis: There are several reasons for that. When I was in my 20s and at Art School, I was thinking about voice as a kind of sculptural, embodied material. Being embodied, voice implicates the politics of the particular body that produces it – a gendered, social, cultural and political body. I focused on my own voice and my own subjectivity. This related to my personal development as a person: I wanted to discover who I was, what was this body of mine, where and how does it exist? A decade later, when I felt I had some understanding of my own voice, I became very curious about other people’s voices and especially about what I call “non-sense sounds.” How others use voice and why they use it in their particular ways.
The other branch of your question – the collective – is actually curious. I haven not thought about it in these terms before but, if I am so fascinated by my voice and by the position of the outsider, then why am I also so interested in the communal? The communities I dealt with tend to be communities of outsiders – of politically disempowered people. Books I have been reading in the last years deal with the issue of the common, or notions of community, or the relationship between “I” and “we”, the moment you realize that you are an individual and, at the same time, it is realized in relation to others.
Elena Biserna: Jean-Luc Nancy would go so far as to say that “being with” is the ontology of “Being” in general…[i]
Mikhail Karikis: I am referring to his writings. It may also have to do – I am just speculating here – with the fact that I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, a period of dramatic social changes, individualism and the celebration of neoliberalism. So I suppose it is also a response to those, a way to discover something different from the values with which I grew up and I felt uncomfortable.
Elena Biserna: I know that you are also interested in the writings of the Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero. Lucia Farinati told me that you went together to interview her. What you say is very interesting in relationship with her interpretation of voice as the element that reveals the uniqueness of every human being, but also as the primary form of relationship with the other, dismantling any notions of individuality… Another interesting thing is that Cavarero explores the relationship between voice and logos as gendered, underlying that the patriarchal order identified rationality with the masculine and the body with the feminine and, thus, has always given privilege to the text and the semantic content of speech rather than to voice.[ii]
Mikhail Karikis: You are very perceptive. These are ideas that I am kind of articulating right now. I have been reflecting on my practice while writing an essay for a publication recently and I realized that, no matter which communities I work with, even with the coalminers, whose image is really connected with masculinity, the kind of strategies I employ intuitively are feminist strategies. For example, the coalminers’ vocal act in Sounds from Beneath for me relates with feminist practices, if we go along with Cavarero’s thinking that identifies the semantic with the patriarchal. They do not engage in language.
Elena Biserna: In your performances and projects, voice is used, very often, in its “pre-linguistic” and “post-linguistic” forms, as Mladen Dolar would say.[iii] Voice before or beyond language and signification. So singing, for example, as a post-linguistic and structured practice, or humming and producing guttural sounds that don’t have any meaning and that precede language…
Mikhail Karikis: They do not have any meaning outside their specific context. They acquire meaning within specific geographical and communal contexts.
Elena Biserna: Yes, you’re right. Both in Sound from Beneath and Children of Unquiet you created a very specific form of singing – a vocal soundscape – by asking a choir of children in one case, and a choir of former miners in the other, to recall and vocalize the sounds of the places where they had lived or worked. In my opinion, this places these vocal acts in a sort of in-between position, between the pre-linguistic and the post-linguistic. Singing is a very codified practice, but the choirs here don’t sing any text. They sing sounds, they imitate sounds… this seems to point to an origin of language in relationship with the imitation of nature and the sounds of the environment. I am curious to know more about this sung vocal mimesis.
Mikhail Karikis: This may be connected with my “compositional instinct.” In my projects the different elements are composed. As soon as I look at something or I take the camera, I naturally compose the image. In Children of Unquiet I wanted to break away from this approach and I asked other people to film with me. The same happens with sounds. Although I am interested in sounds that are outside of language, then I instinctively compose and structure them.
Elena Biserna: I am also very interested in the ways you use choirs in your work in general (I am biased here, since this is the topic that I am trying to research at the moment!). This cultural and aesthetic practice comes back very often in your projects – in Sea Women we have the recordings of songs sung by the workers, in other cases you orchestrated choirs. Is this somehow related to what we were saying before? In my view, the choir in itself may also be a sort of apparatus of plurality and embody the challenge of being in common, of expressing ourselves in common.
Mikhail Karikis: The paradox of being an individual and at the same time plural is part of the dynamics of choirs – how can you be your voice and, at the same time, part of a communal voice? How can you retain yourself within that group? If we think about national anthems – Cavarero talks about this – they lead to the disappearance of individual voice in the communal, serving a higher cause, such as the Nation.
Elena Biserna: This sort of “homogenizing effect” of singing in unison.
Mikhail Karikis: In the project For you, only you (2007) – made in collaboration with the artist Sonia Boyce – I battled with these dynamics. I worked with an Early Music choir called Alamire which relies on creating a very homogeneous, unified sound, where the texture of individual voices disappears. In that project, I set up a kind of dynamic between my voice and their communal voice. The question was: How does the communal address the individual? How do we communicate?
Elena Biserna: I have watched the video. This opposition was emphasized also by your position in the performative space, behind the choir, at the back of the singers.
Mikhail Karikis: This was back in 2007… Well, I’m just thinking that it is quite a long time ago, isn’t it? (laugh) Working through these ideas.
Elena Biserna: We have already been talking for more than an hour, so (before you start hating me!) I would like to end up by asking you a comment on the “motto” of the project – “Love is an institution of revolution.”
Mikhail Karikis: That sentence came out while reading Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri‘s writings. I was fascinated by Hardt and Negri’s ideas on love and how they discuss it in relation to work and politics. [iv]
To say it simply, they suggest that love is a kind of paradoxical event. On the one hand, when we fall in love everything changes – our bodies, the way we see others and the world. So they interpret love as a kind of revolutionary event, connected with constant change. But, on the other hand, love tends to resist change, because it creates sustainable bonds – on a very basic level, you continue to love your beloved even beyond death. So love, simultaneously, is a revolutionary force and creates sustainable bonds that resist change. Hardt and Negri transpose these observations in the field of politics by asking: how is it possible to think of a political system that exists through revolution and constant change and, at the same time, creates sustainable bonds?
For me this seems to be the fundamental question in relation to industrial village of Larderello in the project Children of Unquiet. There was a pioneering, innovative industry – they invented geothermal energy production – that was possible only because of change. A community was created because of that – people moved there to work, to operate the power plant. The industry did not stop changing and introduced automated technology. This shift created a fracture and disrupted the connection with the community. The industry was not able to sustain its bonds with the people that made it happen in the first place. Why was that? How is that possible? If we think through Negri and Hardt’s ideas, that change should have engaged the community so that those bonds would not have been destroyed. “Love is the institution of revolution” is really about this. We usually think of institutions as stable and revolution as a change, but love contains this contradictory dynamic – it is able to create both stability and change. I really stand by that.
Elena Biserna: So the idea of the children reading out the book and then taking over the village becomes a way of suggesting a different future still to be written, I guess.
Mikhail Karikis: The children’s occupation of the village is a form of revolution that I suggest. But there is something about the institutions as well – they are reading kind of “institutions,” prominent and now almost mainstream philosophers. This is what we leave to them: big ideas together with the remnants, the ruins of the modernist utopia the previous generation thought they were building. The children actually intrinsically question the language of these philosophical ideas because they are not able to pronounce them correctly.
Elena Biserna: Yes. They struggle to pronounce them…
Mikhail Karikis: The stuttering consequences of their struggle to read interests me. They resist that language – the language of idealism. So the film has both those dynamics – breaking that language and, at the same time, learning from it; sitting in the ruins of a utopian modernist architecture and, at the same time, transforming it into a football ground. The contradiction between stability and movement, stasis and change.
Notes:[i] – Jean-Luc Nancy, Être singulier pluriel (Paris: Galilée, 2000). [ii] – Adriana Cavarero, For More than One Voice. Toward a philosophy of vocal expression (Stanford: Stanford U.P., 2005) [iii] – Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge-London: MIT Press, 2006) [iv] – Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 2009).