The Work Quartet – Xenon

Mikhail Karikis


2011 | 23:31 | 16:9 | stereo | HD

December 18 2015 – January 7 2016



Xenon opens with a vision of a zombie beating a drum, the scene shifts to a blistering figure in a basement. Meanwhile, in an austere office upstairs, the unusual absence of a colleague (who haunts the film in the figure of the zombie)  trigger unlikely reactions in seven characters working in the claustrophobic routine of an austere office. Yearning to overcome their oppressive circumstances and pursuing the impossible, each character enters an imaginary space where s/he battles with self-censorship, frustration, high aspirations and failure. The bare banality and bleak automation in the office are juxtaposed with striking dream-like sequences staging each character’s quest, including an office worker’s attempt to flee from his chair, the recitation of the Declaration of Human Rights from memory and an encounter with the Ferryman of Death.


The film Xenon is based on an ambitious performance project entitled Xenon: an exploded opera. It is a critical political allegory reflecting on the global economic upheavals post-2008 and the state of human rights, and explores the politics of work, notions of censorship and freedom of speech. The piece is set in a fictional professional context of an office and explores notions of freedom of expression and self-censorship, asking ‘under what conditions of pressure do we forget our human rights?’

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood…

Article 23: (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment; (2) everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work; (3) everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection; (4) everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24: Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25: (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control… [read the whole document here].



Written & composed by: Mikhail Karikis
Directed & edited by: David Bickerstaff & Mikhail Karikis
Costume and sets by: Mikhail Karikis
Produced by: Mikhail Karikis & David Bickerstaff
Second Camera: Uriel Orlow
Cast: Maurice Causey, Amy Cunningham, E.laine, Conall Gleeson, juice, Mikhail Karikis, Jade Pybus, Monica Ross
Funded by: Art Council England
Support in kind by: University of Brighton

Mikhail Karikis

Mikhail Karikis (b.1975, Thessaloniki, Greece) studied architecture at the Bartlett School before completing an MA and PhD at the Slade School of Fine Art. He lives and works in London. Selected solo and group exhibitions include British Art Show 8, Leeds Art Gallery, UK; Art in the Age of Energy and Raw Material, Witte de With, Rotterdam, Holland (both 2015); Listening, Hayward Touring, UK (2014-15); 19th Biennale of Sydney, Australia; Inside, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France; Assembly, Tate Britain, London, UK (all 2014); Aquatopia, Tate St. Ives and Nottingham Contemporary, UK (2013-14); SeaWomen, Arnolfini, Bristol, UK (2013); Manifesta 9, Belgium (2012); and the 54th Venice Biennale, Italy (2011). A more detailed cv can be found here.


The Work Quartet

Karikis began the Work Quartet in 2010. Each work in the series explores similar issues; the relationships between voice and specific communities, between subjects and work contexts and the possibility of alternative modes of organisation, of a new political imaginary. The series is made up of: Xenon (2011) – exploring frustration, self-censorship and sense of failure in office work environments; Sounds from Beneath (2011) – 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; SeaWomen (2012) – a body of works focused on a community of Korean female fishers and on their specific vocal practice; and Children of Unquiet (2014) – a collaboration with a group of 45 children, aged between 5 and 12 years old from the Devil’s Valley region of Tuscany, Italy, in which the children ‘takeover’ an abandoned industrial village, the children’s speculative and playful interventions challenge narratives of a failed human project and evoking different possible, desired or imagined futures.

Mikhail Karikis - Children of Unquiet (2013-2014) video still-2

Mikhail Karikis on The Work Quartet – from an interview with Digicult

“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 neo-liberalism in UK and Europe was celebrated, before the 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) where 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 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.”

The full interview can be found here.

Courtesy of Mikhail Karikis, Elena Biserna and Digicult.

“What do we leave to the next generation, how do we empower them to change things?” Mikhail Karikis

Love as a political force?

“Love is an institution of revolution.” Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth, 2009

“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.” Mikhail Karikis in an interview with Elena Biserna in Digicult.  The full interview is available here.

Mikhail Karikis - Children of Unquiet (2013-2014) video still-4

From Children of Unquiet, Hardt and Negri on love

Love is not a spontaneous or passive experience.

Love doesn’t just happen to us.

Love is an action…

it’s a biopolitical event realised in common.

Love is a productive force.

In love we produce a new world, a new social life.

We exist in relation to others and we constantly have the power to intervene.

Here is a puzzle about love:

it shatters the structures of the world you know and creates a new world.

In love, you gain a new body, a new being.

But love also has another, seemingly opposite face.

Love binds you in a way that feels it will last forever.

So, we are left with two notions of love that are equally unlivable.

One: that love is all about change. Two: that love admits no change.

The two faces of love pose a problem when considered in political terms.

On the one hand, a political love must be a revolutionary force…

Overthrowing norms and institutions.

On the other hand, a political love must provide mechanisms of lasting association…

And table social bonds to create enduring institutions.

Love is an institution of revolution.

A transcript from Children of Unquiet of children reading from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s, Commonwealth, 2009.

Simon Critchley on love as the faith of the faithless

“In a word, the institutions of secular liberal democracy simply do not sufficiently motivate their citizenry… one might go further and argue that modernity itself has had the effect of generating a motivational deficit in morality that undermines the possibility of ethical secularism.” Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding – Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, verso books, 2008, pp.7-8.

“Politics is always about nomination. It is about naming a political subjectivity and organizing politically around that name.” Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding – Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, 2008, verso books, p.103.

“The massive structural dislocations of our times can invite pessimism, even forms of active or passive nihilism… but they can also invite militancy and opitimism, an invitation for our capacity for political invention and imagination, an invitation, finally, for our ethical commitment and political resistance… It is time we made a start.” Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding – Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, 2008, verso books, p.131-2.

“If political life is to arrest a slide into demotivated cynicism, then it would seem to require a motivating and authorising faith which, while not reducible to a specific context, might be capable of forming solidarity in a locality, a site, a region… This faith of the faithless cannot have for its object anything external to the self or subject, any external, divine command, any transcendent reality.” Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless, 2012, verso books, p.4.

“A faith of the faithless that is an openness to love, love as giving what one does not have and receiving that over which one has no power.” Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless, 2012, verso books, p.7.

“[A] politics of love, in which love is understood as that act of absolute spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate existing conceptions of identity in order that a new form of subjectivity can come into being.” Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless, 2012, verso books, p.12.

“For reasons that are still slightly obscure to me, but which this book begins to clarify, the question ‘how to live?’ has become the question ‘how to love?’ Love is not just a s strong as death – it is stronger.” Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless, 2012, verso books, p.20.


The use of sound in The Work Quartet

“Sound is our guide; it choreographs the filmic sequence, our visual experience and our attention.” Mikhail Karikis.

“A distinctive and original dimension of this body of work [The Work Quartet] is its audiovisual methodology which combines social engagement and community performances, moving image and sound installation creating immersive displays. The works in the Quartet centre on distinct auditory concepts and focus on sound as a vehicle of human memory, imagination and action. They explore the voice and communal sound-making as agents connecting people to specific sites of production, asserting human dignity and purpose through work, as well as highlighting alternative models of existence, activism and industry, evoking both past histories as well as different, probable or imagined futures.” Mikhail Karikis.

“I’m very interested in nonsense sounds because they seem to break free from the rigorous structures of language and make us think about vocal communication in a different way.” Mikhail Karikis.


Artists website.

Interview with Yvette Greslé in FAD Magazine.

Interview with Elena Biserna in Digicult.

Children of Unquiet website.

Mikhail Karikis at British Art Show 8.

Interview with British Art Show 8.