Tuesday, 12 January 2010


A point of inspiration for this part of the project is TV footage of Western reporters and journalists reporting from war zones. There tends to be a jarring juxtaposition between the reporter facing the camera and the devastated cities burning behind their backs, and a contradiction in the refined language of the message transmitted while its content is severe and violent.  

I called upon artist Monica Ross whose recent work features the recitation of the 30 articles of the Declaration of Human Rights. I have witnessed this work by Monica Ross in various stages of development and in different contexts. In the most recent performance of the piece in London in Autumn 2009, Ross, dressed in black with her long grey hair tied back, stood in a loose circle with a group of people in a gallery space. She began reciting the Declaration of Human Rights and pausing after each article, at various points, members from the people congregated in the circle stood forward to recite one of the articles. The recitations were in English and other languages. Given that the style of language used in the Declaration is formal and somewhat legalistic, that it is several pages long, and that the recitation is by heart/from memory, there are a number of factors that render the performance of this text difficult. In addition, given that the voices of the performers are not amplified and the clarity of each word is important for the coherence and comprehension of the rather difficult text, there is an element of fragility to the performance, which is exposed both to noise and the mechanics of memory operating under pressure. It is the combination of vulnerability, dignity, and seeming oscillation between mental absence (when trying to recall the text) and pure physical presence of Monica Ross’s recitation that transform a formal document (the Declaration of Human Rights) into a moving and a thought- provoking experience.

Behind the cool presence and serious tone of the recitation, Monica Ross’s subtle ‘struggle’ with endurance, concentration, memory and vocal delivery against ambient noise make a battle of her performance. And this is precisely what I wish to highlight and experiment with in collaboration with Monica Ross in the context of XENON. I'm interested in placing Monica Ross’s narration in a different sound-context which shifts the work radically. On one level, random loud sounds create distractions and prevent concentration. On another level, Ross's vocal delivery must adapt to its surrounding and fluctuate in relation to its sonic context. There is something about the ‘purity’ of the sole reciting voice and its utopian declarations of our fundamental rights as humans that is challenged when the voice has to rise itself above the ‘noise’ to be heard. In our experiments, I found it difficult witnessing Ross's struggle to concentrate and recall her text while trying to be heard and hear the sound of her own voice. 

The ‘noise’ is produced by a choir. The word ‘noise’ is not to be taken literally – it refers to material I have generated with a group of vocalists, all of whom I have collaborated with on numerous occasions over the years, and whom I have brought together especially for XENON. The group consists of: Juice – a female vocal trio, doing exciting work in contemporary music in the UK and abroad. E.laine – avant-jazz singer, a classically trained soprano with a lot of experience in contemporary music and improvisation. Amy Cunningham – a visual artist and a soprano with experience in Early Music and folk. Ben Crawley – a young tenor, recent graduate from the University of York. The group includes Conall Gleeson, Irish contemporary composer and viola player.

In November 2009, the XENON group of vocalists, viola player/composer Conall Gleeson and I went on an intensive 3-day residency in Kent (UK) during which we generated material for the project. In preparation for the residency, I handed out a score/set of instructions for 10 different vocal studies, which I named ‘Vocal Impossibilities’. Each one of the ‘Vocal Impossibilities’ imagines a series of circumstances which disable or render singing near-impossible. For example, ‘Vocal Impossibility 1’ instructs the singer the following:

You suddenly realise you have lost your voice: ‘sing to me’

Therefore, the piece begins with the assumption of the loss or destruction of the medium of singing, that is the voice; the performer must face and overcome this difficulty in order to perform. In fact, the entire performance consists of this overcoming. The seminal film ‘Persona’ by Ingmar Bergman has been a point of inspiration and a reference. The movie begins with the depiction of the destruction of celluloid film as a projector becomes jammed, the celluloid catches fire and burns the image away; the destruction and absence of the medium of representation (film) finds expression in the main character’s condition which renders her voiceless, in other words, in that her voice as the medium of her speech, itself a representational medium, is lost.

‘Vocal Impossibility 1’ continues with more detailed instructions to the vocalist re breath, gestures, sounds and actions. In our XENON residency in November 2009, each vocalist was invited to perform each of the 10 ‘Vocal Impossibilities’ by interpreting the score imaginatively, individually and freely. We all presented our own versions of each of the ‘Vocal Impossibilities’ to one-other, providing critical feedback and giving suggestions to develop the work. All this work was recorded for me to go through, assess and continue the compositional process. 

This way of working marks a change in my compositional approach. Although my approach to working with my own voice has been referencing the very materiality, plasticity and sculptural properties of the voice as a medium, as well as its relationship with my body and subjectivity on a psychic-socio-political level, my approach to other people’s voices has usually followed musical rules of harmony, referencing music history in a direct, albeit de-constructed way. This suggested however, not only that I had taken the voices and ways of singing of other vocalists for granted, but also that I imposed a composition authored by me upon them, while the singers themselves would tend to use modes of vocal production un-reflectively, ‘quoting’ specific music genres and histories out of habit and as a result of formal voice training. For XENON I asked the singers to take nothing for granted – breathing, posture, vocal production and presentation were all questioned. As a result, we became uncertain yet inventive with our voices, coming up with a variety of new techniques of vocal production.

To summarise, this far, ACT II includes a narrator (Monica Ross) reciting the Declaration of Human Rights from memory, while a group of vocalists (Juice Ensemble, E.laine, Amy Cunningham, Ben Crawley) and a viola player (Conall Gleeson) perform material (Vocal Impossibilities) which highlights and challenges the acts of voicing, speaking and singing.

The above sets a sonic stage for a dancer’s performance. I have been working with Amsterdam-based dancer and choreographer Maurice Causey (former principal dancer for W. Foresythe and a ballet-master at Nederlands Dans Teater). Maurice’s work is intensely visceral, and informed by classical ballet and avant-garde dance. We are developing a choreography based on the ideas of inhibited and impossible movements. A visual element with which I have been experimenting for Maurice’s dance costume is that of inflatables. In addition to air being the element that the vocalists struggle to manage, contain and shape in their ‘Vocal Impossibilities’, it is the element that, when contained in inflatables and placed in specific points on the body, inhibits and deforms movement patterns performed by the dancer. In other words, the dancer tries to negotiate his compromising physical limitations and changed bodily condition imposed by volumes of air on his body which appear like enormous blisters. There are of course secondary readings in the use of air contained in balloons to inhibit movement that might have to do with the invisibility of obstacles, but I am still in the process of meditating on that.

In addition to the performers negotiating and coming to terms with their own physicality and personal limits and abilities, in ACT II I wish to change the boundaries of the space inhabited by the performers and the audience. Two actors in the role of officials or soldiers redefine the boundaries of the performance space and the auditorium with the means of police/hazard tapes or partitions. Performers and audience continue doing what they do, while at any point they may be spatially divided or united, dislocated, and their views rendered limited or restricted. 

Monday, 11 January 2010

Duet for voice and stars

As stated in an earlier post on XENON’s ACT I, I have been experimenting with the sounds of pulsars (which are dying stars emitting radio waves), which we receive from space. I’m planning to create a duet for voice and stars. While this intergalactic soundscape possess qualities which reference sci-fi movies, I'm employing the voice in an expressive manner, beginning at the very top of a male falsetto register to create an eerie effect of overstretching and yearning. I am also employing a historical instrument, the harpsichord, which is usually associated with the Baroque and the age of Enlightenment, a period of great progress in science, including astronomy. In addition to the harpsichord manuals (this instrument has 2 keyboards), I’m using the body and strings of the harpsichord as a sound effects unit, with electric-bows, drum sticks and weights. Jane Chapman is a pioneering harpsichord player, with vast experience in historical, avant-garde and new music; she is an accomplished free-improviser and unafraid of pop. J. Chapman really is the perfect partner for this.

XENON definition & etymology

Xenon = (anc. Greek) foreigner, stranger, guest, strange-looking

Contemporary usage in English:

Xenon is also a chemical element represented by the symbol Xe. A colourless, heavy, odorless noble gas, xenon occurs in the Earth's atmosphere. Unable to determine its nature initially, the element Xenon was coined by its discoverer, Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay (1852-1916)

Xenophobia = xeno (a combining form meaning "guest, stranger, person that looks different, foreigner") + phobia, ("fear, horror or aversion")

Xenophilia = in common usage it means an attraction to foreign peoples, cultures, or customs. For example, a person may date someone of another race simply because they are different. Xenophilia is a theme found in science fiction, primarily the space opera sub-genre, in which one explores the consequences of love and sexual intercourse between humans and non-humans, including extraterrestrials.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

XENON logo

In collaboration with British graphic designer Hugh Frost, I have developed a logo for the project. Referring back to the central theme of the ‘stranger’, we drew inspiration from VISA stamps on passports and official 'entry permits'. In the logo, the word XENON is surrounded by 6 dots, which refer to the constellation of the 6 commissioning festivals. The dots are tied together with a wavy line which is an abstracted fence or barbed wire with spikes. The smudged look is a further reference to official stamps and was achieved by physically printing the logo and subjecting it to various distressing manual processes. Visitors coming to see the events receive a XENON entry visa stamped onto their hand or ticket, as is customary in some clubs and festivals.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010


The project begins with a poetic gesture of singing a duet with the stars – an allusion to a yearning for the beyond and a search for existence beyond Earth. For this part of the project I have been developing a character: a suited male City office-worker who is secretly obsessed with the idea of making contact with aliens. In my research I have accumulated information on issues of territorialism in space and on the alarming facts of space junk produced by humans, and I am fascinated by the effects these have on our shifting perceptions of the celestial sphere, and our shattered poetics of the heavens. There is great complexity in the changing role of the sky as a projection screen of our aspirations, mysteries and dreams, and in the position it holds in visual culture as the home of bizarre strangers (from mythical monsters, to heavenly angels, gods, aliens, extraterrestrial parasites etc).

Building on a recent project entitled CONTACT, commissioned by Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne in Switzerland, in which I began thinking of the voice and sound as perpetual immigrants, always traveling away from their place of origin, I am employing sounds of pulsars (stars in their last stages of their lives), which are received from the heavens with radio telescopes, to create a soundscape. I process very little and structure these celestial sounds, allowing their inherent structure influence the shape of the composition. I’m developing a part for voice (my voice) which duets with the star sounds, and a performance which dramatizes the character’s attempts to make contact with strangers from the heavens. He measures the distance between the earth and the sky, grows ear extensions to listen to the sky, he grows hand extensions to climb onto the moon, jumps and flaps his hands to fly, until eventually, unable to free himself from gravity, he records his song onto a device which he attaches to a bunch of helium balloons to send to the sky.

The element of releasing helium balloons carrying the voice away and up into the sky possesses poetic and spectacular qualities which I aim to expand in ACT I. For example, I have been playing with the idea of having multiple speakers hovering on balloons in the performance space, thus creating a floating choir above the audience. Furthermore, I have sourced LED lights for balloons, which when inserted into a balloon, they make it glow. Apart from resolving a problem with lighting (which I have encountered in an experiment) floating illuminated balloons, used in big numbers, give rise to a haunting visual event meditating on the poetics of flight and weightlessness. In addition to voice and sounds of stars, ACT I includes a harpsichord section. The cool, bright and transparent sound of the harpsichord acts as a musical narrator, commenting on the exchanges between the voice and the sounds of stars.

I experimented with sections of this performance at Tate Britain in December 2009, when I was invited to participate in Extraordinary Voices, an event curated by Home Live Art.

At present I’m also exploring the role of XENON’s voice group in relation to the rest of the material in ACT I. Additionally, I am experimenting with visuals (collages and drawings) which combine Renaissance figure charts of constellations, contemporary photographs of space junk and abstracted images of satellites.

The stranger in XENON

XENON the project draws inspiration from the baroque excesses of traditional opera which often feature life-changing experiences and encounters with gods, devils, unborn children, the dead and other strange beings and manifestations. In my investigations of the theme of ‘the stranger’, XENON identifies three key manifestations of ‘the stranger’ in:
1. death (one’s ultimate stranger of the existential beyond),
2. foreigners and aliens (strangers from different geographic or cosmographic locations), and
3. the unconscious (stranger within us that hides the complex unknowns of our psyche and reveals itself in dreams).

The literature on these themes is enormous, but amongst other sources, specific reference points for this project are Ingmar Bergman's film 'Persona', Julia Kristeva's book 'Strangers to Ourselves', Jean-Luc Nancy's philosophical autobiography 'L'Intrus' (The Intruder), Carl Sagan’s science fiction novel 'Contact' and French philosopher's Michel Serres's book 'The Parasite'.

XENON: an exploded opera


XENON expands my work in the areas of performance art, music and design, and I think of it as a response to seminal figures of 20th-Century music, John Cage and Pierre Boulez; Cage regarded opera an anathema whereas Boulez has suggested repeatedly that ‘the most elegant solution to the problem of opera is to blow up all opera houses’, explaining that ‘opera is the area before all others in which things have stood still.’ Boulez’s idea is intriguing, only the suggestion is based on a fundamental misplacement of intention: blowing up a building would not necessarily result in the termination or change of an entire genre of music, and there are operas which are regularly performed outdoors or in regular concert halls.

In XENON I take Boulez’s suggested act of ‘blowing up’ but apply it on the actual cause of his reaction: the opera. Therefore, I propose a neologism for XENON, that is an ‘exploded opera’.

I consider opera a super-genre in that it embraces many art-forms: music, performance, design, poetry, architecture, acoustics, visual art etc. In traditional opera, these art-forms usually coincide on stage during the performance of the work. XENON takes the shape of an ‘exploded opera’ featuring elements of an operatic performance, which however, do not take place simultaneously or at the same location – rather, its various elements are blown up, suspended. A deconstructed narrative, interdisciplinary music concerts, performance art events, video installations as well as elements of costume and set design are presented in an ‘exploded’, fragmentary form and across various locations, in concert venues, outdoors and online. The different specialisations and audiences of the festivals which host the project are also factors which point toward such a solution.

While the overall ‘shape’ of the work, referencing the shape of an explosion, might be relatively easy to imagine and determine for each of the festivals hosting the project, the content and relationships between the theme of the work and its form are complex.

This blog aims to present my work and ideas in process, and encourage a dialogue between the festivals and anyone interested in the project.

Background & Experience: Voice Sculpture

I prefer the term ‘voice sculpture’ to refer to my works for voice, as they follow principles of and are related to conceptual art and sound art practice, and their conception is perhaps less influenced by the history of music composition – although Greek folk music and composers Diamanda Galas, Luciano Berio, Geogres Aperghis and Gyorgy Ligeti have been big influences on me. In these works I use the voice in ways a sculptor may use plastic or metal; stretching, cutting, manipulating and shaping the voice. The processes the voice is subjected to tend to be ‘natural’ in that they are mostly achieved in the body (usually my body) or in the acoustics of a space and its materials, rather than through electronic means. However, I do experiment with electronics, which often inform and enrich my vocal palette.

The practical art work of ‘The Acoustics of the Self’ (my Doctorate, completed in 2005 at UCL) has had different lives: a substantial part of the sound works developed to a music album entitled ‘Orphica’ which was released internationally by Sub Rosa records in 2007 and gained critical recognition; some pieces were released by Björk on One Little Indian recordings, appeared in advertisements for Prada, were choreographed by Maurice Causey at Nederlands Dans Teatre, toured with international festivals and accompanied underground or cult designers’ shows (Rozalb de Mura, Ioannis Dimitrousis etc). The visual part of the project appeared in exhibitions and festivals in the UK and abroad (eg at BFI, Synch Festival, BAFTA, Tate Modern etc).

The theme of ‘otherness’ has infiltrated a number of my collaborations with visual artists (including Sonia Boyce, Zineb Sedira, Uriel Orlow, Oreet Ashery), choirs (including Alamire Consort with members of the Sixteen, I Fagiolini and the Hilliard Ensemble; Cantamus Choir; Juice Ensemble), and contemporary musicians (DJ Spooky, Claudia Molitor, Matthias Grübel, Gabriel Séverin, Leon Michener etc). A recent interdisciplinary project in which I explored difference celebrating ‘a common vision in uncommon ground’ is MORPHICA, which takes the form of a box-set of a music album, a selection of limited edition visuals, poems and essays. MORPHICA was released by Sub Rosa and has received enthusiastic reviews internationally and forms the springboard for the current project XENON.

Background & Experience: The Stranger

A prominent theme of interest and research in my work in its various manifestations in images and performance art, composition, music and various collaborations in the last 9 years has been the ‘stranger’. More specifically, I have been exploring notions of difference and otherness with a particular focus on the role the human voice plays in expressing, revealing, concealing, addressing, challenging or confronting difference. In addition to the politics and ethics of this subject, my project has been investigating its subtle and complex emotional implications.

Performances and collaborations in the context of the gallery/museum or the concert hall, have been thoroughly enriching, challenging and enjoyable ways to explore notions of the ‘stranger’. In addition, I started building a theoretical foundation between 2001-05, which culminated in a body of work entitled ‘The Acoustics of the Self’, which was awarded a Doctorate by the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London. One half of ‘The Acoustics of the Self’ consists of a doctoral thesis which investigates the male voice in relation to notions of male identity, focusing on the phono-centric part of the ancient myth of Echo and Narcissus, and studying contemporary texts on critical theory, philosophy and contemporary music. The second half of the project consists of a series of compositions for voice, or ‘voice sculptures’ as I prefer to call them, films, videos, and a series of drawings.

About this blog

This blog is written by artist Mikhail Karikis and provides information on the creative development and work in progress of XENON, an interdisciplinary project incorporating performance art, music and video installations.

XENON is a large interdisciplinary project on which I embarked in April 2009; the project will first be presented in Canterbury in May 2010, and will travel for several months in the UK until October 2010. I was approached by a cluster of UK festivals known as the East Kent Festival Cluster, which consists of Broadstairs Festival, Canterbury Festival, Deal Festival, Sounds New Contemporary Music Festival, Strange Cargo company and the Whitstable Biennale. All these festivals have distinct identities and audiences, and their areas of specialization vary from contemporary performance art, to experimental, folk and classical music, as well as carnival parades.