In March 2017, Whitechapel Gallery hosted a workshop-roundtable discussion with artist Mikhail Karikis and Whitechapel’s head of education and public programmes, Sofia Victorino. Organized by Dr. Rebecca Coleman, the workshop offered a glimpse into the process behind Karikis’s latest work, “Ain’t Go No Fear,” which is currently on display at the gallery. The ten-minute video serves as the culmination of Karikis’s time spent on the Isle of Grain, an isolated peninsula 40 miles southeast of London.
Commissioned by the Whitstable Biennale to create a project focused on the region, Karikis organized several digital-music-making workshops on the Isle of Grain in autumn 2015 after learning about how youth raves — the only source of recreation in the cut-off region — were being shut down regularly by police.
In this sparsely populated region that ranks in the 40th percentile of the most deprived areas in England, there isn’t much to do and, with all public transportation shut down after 6 p.m., there are very few places to go. Grain’s young people roam through the marshlands and old oil refinery sites on bikes and on foot, fooling around, playing, hanging out. According to Karikis, there is a sense in the community that young people are perpetually up to no good. All too aware of this sentiment, the kids wanted to develop a project that pushed back against their community’s low expectations of them, says Karikis.
Thus, “Ain’t Got No Fear” — a kind of experimental, longform music video set to the beat of Grain’s nearby powerplant — was born. In the video, Karikis asks Isle of Grain’s young people what futures they envision for themselves, and each response, about jobs and expectations, moving or staying put, becomes a verse, creating a layered portrait of tomorrow grounded and temporized in the kids’ own line of sight.
As Karikis recalls, the kids originally wanted to make a documentary from their own perspective, a tell-all to the outside world, and so he is granted access to all the places where adults aren’t allowed: the underbelly of Grain, the spaces of adolescent wandering, the remnants of military tunnels, and the community’s post-industrial carcass. The kids inhabit their environment and inhabit the roles dictated to them; they know exactly how they are seen, as ne’er do wells, as ‘monsters’ even. Karikis takes these imposed identities to a surreal level, having the kids invert them and claim them through the production of abstract, demonic masks. A small-scale rave in the woods, the kids playing instruments and dancing with the masks, throws the image of ‘diabolical’ teens into stark relief: They are shown in all their real innocence, navigating the identities dictated to them.
It is in this way that Karikis shows the true potential of participatory art-making and the profundity of stories, filtered through performance. The resulting piece is a dialogue between producer and participant, mirroring the relational, flexible nature of identity-formation. Here, the inventiveness of Karikis’s methods, and its nod to participatory sociological research, strengthens the work. Sound and voice form the narrative foundations of the video piece, out of which the lyrics and visual elements flow. Karikis refers to this process as following a “sonic logic,” and the video, as a result, pushes at the edges of genre, lingering in an aesthetic and sociological unknown. As students investigating this grey area, we’d do well to recognize Karikis’s “Ain’t Got No Fear” for what it can offer us — namely a reference point for what we can produce via inventive methods, a blueprint for our visual-sociological future.
Originally from New York with a background in writing, editing, and digital marketing for arts organisations and media companies, Meredith Lawder is a student on the MA Visual Sociology program at Goldsmiths. A budding filmmaker, Meredith is currently interested in using the techniques of experimental film and video art to explore areas of classical sociological research. Twitter @meredithlawder;