Mikhail Karikis, Ain’t Got No Fear, 2016. Video still. © the artist.

Interview with Mikhail Karikis

Mikhail Karikis’ practice emerges from his long-standing investigation of the voice as a material and a socio-political agent. He collaborates with communities connected to places of production to generate site-specific performances to camera which explore the role sound plays in creating a sense of collectivity, highlighting alternative modes of human existence, work and action.

Mikhail Karikis showed Ain’t Got No Fear in Whitstable Biennale 2016.

Kiira Laurikka: How and when did you first encounter the issues and missions of the young people on the Isle of Grain?

Mikhail Karikis: At first through word of mouth and the organisation Out of the Ordinary Places [1] and eventually through informal conversations and spending time and meeting people on the Isle of Grain.

What aspects of this culture are unique to this specific geographical location and what are more general facets of the experience of modern youth?

I find it difficult to generalise or to be able to give a general statement about the uniqueness of the culture and the place, as I don’t have a full comprehensive knowledge or understanding of the area. However, this doesn’t make what the young people do there less urgent, less important, or less of a result of the combination of place, geographical location, economic infrastructures and cultural circumstances that surround the young people of Isle of Grain.

This project has made me think about what margins mean and how the term ‘marginalisation’ depends profoundly on what position one occupies. For many, Grain village is considered to be rather remote: it’s near London and other urban centres, such as Rochester, yet quite disconnected – there is very limited public transport and the railway network completely bypasses it. On the one hand, these factors reduce its desirability, but on the other, they keep property prices lower than other parts of South East England, the population and local traffic low. Thus it is a more affordable choice for young families wishing to acquire a house, a safer choice for those with young children who can play outdoors unsupervised and for retired people who can walk to every part of the village.

In its recent history, the village has been industrial, it depended on the local power plants and industries for employment, but industrial retrenchment means that the village population can no longer rely on finding work locally. Living in Grain village is particularly challenging for adolescents and young adults who find it difficult to stay due to the lack of a local high school or college, diverse youth culture and physical spaces for them to congregate, as well as due to limited mobile phone and internet connectivity, employment and entertainment. The people I have been mostly communicating and working with belong to this age group: twelve to twenty-years old.

Your work targets surveillance as a largely negative force which is to be resisted, but is there a sense in which this is also productive? The young people on Grain surely rely on these technologies for the distribution of the means of music production for example as well as for rapid communication between themselves.

The two parts of the question are not necessarily linked. The first is about resistance of surveillance while the second is a general about technologies which I don’t think are so bad, they are there to facilitate whatever we want to do with them. However, this generation of young people is the most closely recorded, monitored and observed generation that has ever existed in the history of humanity, because of the technologies that states have developed to control populations. This has a very direct effect on different things: one is privacy, another is what young people think private and public are. Surveillance has altered the way we think of and practice our freedom of movement and our sense of territory in places we grow up and belong in. The children of the Isle of Grain spend a lot of time outdoors from a very young age. I was there during half term, and some kids are out during all of the daytime hours, from morning to late afternoon, and when it gets dark they may continue on to their friends’ places. Their sense of space and the relationship they develop with the place where they grow up is different from youths in urban centres; they navigate vast areas on foot and remap their surrounding space by following the logic of play, often creating hideaway places for the sake of adventure and in order to evade adult surveillance. Being guided by them and experiencing the site by following their logic has been very inspiring and moving for me.

This seems very rare nowadays, to still have young people being outdoors and owning the public space around them.

It’s incredible. In London you never see children being outdoors without their parents being around and in areas without fences, cameras and prohibiting signs. In the Isle of Grain, children may run and roam several square miles in a day, along the beach or in their little forest.

When they become teenagers, the sense of belonging and being part of a group is very important. A growing sense of individuality comes with a need for space to which parents and adults have no access. This is the importance of the small woody enclave next to Grain village. This is the place where teenagers would regularly congregate to listen to music, light a fire and hang out. It is secluded. In general, I feel that youths try to understand and place themselves in the narrow space between surveillance and its evasion, between the urban and total wilderness. The situation is that whatever little space there might be for them is being taken away by privatisation, adult surveillance and police monitoring of potential criminal activity. Youths are being made aware of these, they are dispersed but are offered no other alternative – in places like Grain there is literally nowhere else for them to go.

Unfortunately the external pressures of societal norms are being projected onto them.

In the culture of normalisation, teenagers are often demonised and seen as the ‘other’, always being up to something ‘wrong’ – this isn’t the case. It’s the responsibility of our generation to give them space.

You have managed to take a very respectful, non-patronising attitude towards the teenagers. It is very special and unique, and something that they must have sensed, that even as an adult person you respected them and their space. The loss of mutual respect often starts with adults.

One of many important moments in the development of the project happened when I was recording one of the raves (with permission from the young organisers) and the police turned up, discontinuing the rave, forcing the teenagers to remove the equipment, lights, everything, issuing a dispersal order, which meant that all the attendants were ordered to leave. There are many issues with this, many specific to the Isle of Grain. Rather than making it safer, the dispersal order the police issued made it less safe as there was no public transport at that hour for them to return home safely and no alternative place for them to go. Usually when I develop projects I try to remain neutral without taking sides, but that particular dynamic, which involved teenagers who are disempowered, without any political voice, and the police with a patronising voice of authority, it was difficult to remain neutral, I could see the two sides were not of equal power. Without being offensive I told them that ‘if we think that the event the teenagers are organising is unsafe, rather than sabotaging their efforts and wasting the little money they managed to save up to put it together, as adults we ought to help them make it safer; penalising them for something they need to do is not the way to go about it.’

I was particularly surprised by the peaceful responses of the kids. If this had happened in the 80s or the 90s they’d be a lot of noise and resistance. I was alarmed by the fact that the younger generation may not quite be aware of the fact that claims authority makes may not necessarily be reasonable and that alternatives are possible.

You’ve talked about the role of the artist as an outsider in previous interviews. But to what extent is this a dynamic role and how does it change throughout the stages of the production process? Is your critical distance affected as you work more closely with the communities? 

Because I’m an outsider, I have access to different kinds of worlds. The outsider comes with an undefined status. As an outsider I can work with people from different background, ages, class. However, there are aspects of who I am that are very visible which I have to work with. Being male, white, bilingual etc. – these are politically charged factors that affect how others perceive me. The role of the artist (as in how I understand my role as an artist) is to be very sensitive to the circumstances, to who I encounter, and how my presence fits within and changes the dynamics of each encounter.

Your work reminds me of visual anthropology. You’ve mentioned that you consider your work a kind of research. Is there any sense in which this category is constraining? Do you feel any pressure for example to explain and justify your work in the structure of a traditional research project?

There is an element of VA in the work, but at no point do I wish to tell the truth, there is a degree of fantasy in all of my projects as well as an element of social realism. I work with what is there and I try to present what is there, hopefully highlighting someone else’s point of view – someone who isn’t necessarily politically empowered or customarily in charge of their own representation. In Ain’t Got No Fear the young people in the film are in a way directing it. It all happened through conversations, but in essence, they chose the places they wanted me to see, the locations wherein they wanted to be filmed, the words they wanted to utter and the clothes they wanted to wear. As part of the project, the kids wrote the lyrics to a song which spans from their memories of being seven years old to visions of themselves at the age of sixty – our song-writing exercise becomes a vehicle for them to reflect on their past and imagine the future. Through my projects I research and develop social, aesthetic and compositional aims and concerns. I have questions that provide a more speculative dimension to my projects. There are overlaps with academic research and visual anthropology but ultimately the value of my projects lies elsewhere – they address the imaginary, giving power to those who are part of the work to represent themselves and speculate on different possible futures while allowing viewers to get a glimpse into different models of being.

Kiira Laurikka is studying for a BA in History and Philosophy of Art at University of Kent, and is a Whitstable Biennale Intern 2015-2016.

[1] Out of the Ordinary Places was a project initiated by Ideas Test, an organisation that aims to increase opportunities for people in Swale & Medway (in Kent) to take part in arts and creative activity in whatever way they choose.