No Ordinary Summer

Steven Bode

Steven Bode looks back at Mikhail Karikis’ No Ordinary Protest through the discoloured lens of the extraordinary events of the summer of 2023.

'No Ordinary Protest' by Mikhail Karikis is available now on FVU Watch.

I have a question for the Just Stop Oil protestors. I have no quibble with their analysis of the dire situation facing the planet, and I stand wholeheartedly behind their cause. But what is it with the orange powder and the orange paint? Did they get a job-lot of the stuff that they are reluctant to see go to waste? Or is there some deeper, unexplained symbolism at work? Whatever the intention, their efforts have made a noticeable splash. A salvo of hi-vis art-attacks, a cocktail of audacious Situationist actions mixed with, for me at least, a twist of half-remembered Nineties ‘Tango’ ad campaigns, these Molotov bursts of iridescent orange made a vivid contrast with the green of a sports pitch, or the baize of snooker table, or the lawns of a garden show. As with any good guerrilla gesture, each incendiary infraction sends a larger plume of meaning out into the world. Like a hotspot on a heat-map, each riot of colour flashes up an amber warning of something out of the ordinary; or even, at a more visceral level, an intimation of flames. After a summer where huge swathes of land in the Northern hemisphere and beyond have been ravaged by fire, these warnings couldn’t be more urgent.

The lightning strikes of Just Stop Oil have come at a time when the atmospheric phenomenon of ‘global warming’, and indeed the very language used to describe it, has turned more ominous, threatening, and stark. Goodbye ‘climate change’. Hello full-on ‘climate crisis’. This shift in semantics is, arguably, long overdue. Many commentators have noted that gradual change, of a ‘managed’ 1.5 or 2-degree temperature rise, might only, inadvertently, encourage a false sense of security – an imaginary comfort blanket that disguises an inevitable tipping point, at which things start to spiral or unravel. Human beings’ slow sleepwalk into climate disaster has often been likened to a case of so-called ‘boiling frog syndrome’. Throw that theoretical amphibian into a notional cauldron of boiling water and it’s a sure bet that it will jump out, in fear of its life. Place it in the same receptacle at a more agreeable water temperature and then start to ratchet up the heat, and it almost certainly won’t notice until it’s too late. Comfortably numbed or increasingly stunned by what is happening around us, humanity may be approaching a similar point of no return. After a summer where scientists recorded an unprecedented rise in ocean temperatures, potentially imperilling a huge range of precious marine life, that point may already have been reached.

In Ted Hughes’ story ‘The Iron Woman’, the metal giantess of the title alerts a group of children to the unheard cries of pain and anguish of creatures living in the polluted rivers and marshes close to a factory in their hometown. As well as gifting them a secret super-sense of heightened environmental awareness, she equips the children with a knowledge of the power of sound as a force for change. Exposure to the keening noise made by the beleaguered local wildlife is not only contagious, but transformative to adults who had previously turned a deaf ear. The background howl of suffering that adults have created can, it appears, be turned against them to make them see the error of their ways. As if tuning in to a pre-Thunberg spirit of affronted generational outrage, the children band together and decide that the onus is on them to take action if their future is not to be blighted by environmental breakdown and impending catastrophe.

In his video No Ordinary Protest (2018), Mikhail Karikis introduces the ecological parable of the story to a class of seven-year-olds at an East London school, and watches as they confer as to what they might do in similar circumstances. Sitting in on the class and its round-table discussion, it is beguiling to observe the children debating key episodes in the narrative, and the entangled philosophical issues it raises. ‘Humans are animals as well,’ declares one child. ‘No, they are not!’ declaims another. ‘Yes, they are!’ another replies. The children argue, until one concludes, intriguingly Zen-like, that the question has no definitive answer. ‘We are a type of animal,’ she says. ‘But we are different from how we think animals are.’ That sophisticated formulation sounds semi-scripted, but it is entirely unprompted. As in many of Karikis’ works, especially those involving young people, a mysterious magic happens when participants are left to their own devices, and are directly, emotionally invested in a task at hand. Although the scene of group protest at the end of the piece, where the children swarm, dressed in colourful masks, as if at an imaginary barricade, is deftly choreographed and staged, you can almost believe that it is an act of spontaneous uprising.

In between are a number of sequences which continue a recurrent motif in Karikis’ practice in their experimental focus on the creative properties of sound. The children squeeze an array of animal toys to generate a cacophony of squeaks and screeches, accompanied by musical notes on rudimentary instruments. This wave of noise, while haunting and unsettling, is in itself only a prelude to an instructive lesson in ‘cymatics’, an area of scientific study that illustrates how different sounds and their vibrations are made visible when passed through liquids, or other viscous or granular materials. Water, powder and paint, the basic ingredients of any infant art class, colliding with the uninhibited joy of junior music making. No wonder that the children respond with a look of utter absorption and an infectious spirit of glee. 

The objective of all this noise-making, of course, is to echo something of the sound-world evoked in the book. And the aim of the cymatics footage is to help to materialise, or at least visualise, these surging sonic forces and their ripple effects. What is interesting is how much these sequences suggest the outline of miniature, microscopic landscapes. Landscapes of a dreamlike, fantastical imagination but also those that are often encountered in the real world. Landscapes that are porous, provisional, precarious. Landscapes newly flooded by water, or made treacherous and unstable by thawing permafrost. Landscapes whose shifting, uncertain boundaries are what the children might come to inherit. Sound rips through these landscapes like a tornado – an augury, perhaps, of a turbulence on the horizon in the years ahead. But sound, in Karikis’ video and in the story from which it draws inspiration, also betokens another kind of tumult: a rising tide of dissenting voices demanding action and change. If the events of this extraordinary summer are destined to prove a depressingly regular occurrence, these calls to action will need to be repeated, over and again. 

Steven Bode is Director of Film and Video Umbrella.

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