In Ted Hughes’ short story The Iron Woman, a background murmur of eerie disquiet emanating from rivers and fields is recognised by children as more than an ordinary everyday phenomenon and, instead, as a collective howl of pain and anguish emitted by the creatures who live there. Roused into action by this distress call to which adults have turned a deaf ear, a group of youngsters converge on a local factory that has been a major source of pollution in the area. Angered by the complacency and complicity of their elders, the children take matters into their own hands, confronting the workers at the factory with the consequences of their actions, and forcing them to wake up to the significance of this increasingly audible, urgent alarm.
In Mikhail Karikis’ short video, a class of seven-year-olds from an East London school, who have been studying and discussing the story in their lessons, wonder what they might do in similar circumstances. The kids also get a crash course (from Karikis) in the dynamic properties of sound – how it ripples and reverberates through the material universe; and how it can trigger transformative change. A highlight of the video is Karikis’ use of cymatics experiments, in which the vibrations of a particular noise or utterance, when passed through liquid or other viscous or powdered matter, acquire their own unique visual signature. Activated by sound, each random spill suggests a hubbub of possibility, as mysterious as it is unsettling.
Shape-shifting, spongiform and always in flux, the cymatics experiments resemble miniature landscapes. Fissuring like melting ice-floes or thawing permafrost, they feel like omens of the uncertain ecological future that the children will inherit. An augury of the rising tide that may come to engulf them, these images – self-generating, cumulative, viral – also prefigure the wave of collective energy that will be needed to combat the damage we are doing to the planet. At the end of the film, the children – colourfully masked, accusing, defiant – crowd around the camera. In an echo of the Hughes story, or following the lead of a current social media hashtag that has been gaining rapidly in popularity, they are ready to ‘bring the noise’. No ordinary protest, but a riotous, righteous chorus of diminutive voices demanding to be heard.
Read Steven Bode's essay No Ordinary Summer, which looks back at Karikis' video through the discoloured lens of the extraordinary events of the summer of 2023, as well as the 2018 exhibition text by Cathy Lane.