‘The Chalk Factory’ (2017) is an audiovisual installation by Mikhail Karikis comprising 10 video channels and 10 audio channels. The installation creates an environment which superimposes onto the exhibition space the layout of Rikagaku Chalk Industries, which is a chalk manufacturing plant that employs almost exclusively workers with learning disabilities.
Built in the dense industrial outskirts of Tokyo, Rikagaku Chalk Industries offered temporary employment to two teenagers with mental disabilities in 1960. The last day of the youths’ employment was marked by a little-known but extraordinary event that changed the factory’s identity and Japan’s labour history. Workers reacted against the dismissal of their disabled colleagues, requesting the extension of their contracts and emphasising the benefits of including them in their team. Inspired by the workers’ historical protest, which addressed labour rights for workers with disabilities, Karikis developed a relationship with the factory, gaining access to its unique production processes.
‘The Chalk Factory’ observes the rhythms of a day at work, the transformations of materials and the vivid colour changes of the workspace. In this environment, we see the employees starting their day with balletic exercises, followed by the coordinated production choreography of workers and machines, and their mesmerising performance of repetitive and highly specialised tasks on specially modified equipment. The soundscape ranges from factory chimes which conduct the day’s activities to industrial beats accompanying the workers’ murmurs, their involuntary vocalisations and repeated soliloquies. These are interrupted by the cheerful dissonances of the workers’ karaoke and communal leisure time.
The overall project foregrounds disability’s own cultural history. It observes productivity, the body and social function and raises ethical questions about disability and labour, and the dignity of work. Created in collaboration with workers with disabilities and featuring their empowering work environment, the immersive installation proposes a model of inclusion and difference.
Commissioned by European Capital of Culture 2017 Aarhus, Denmark. Supported by Arts Council England.