The Chalk Factory

The Chalk Factory (2017) is a project by Mikhail Karikis created with a group of factory workers with learning disabilities in Japan. 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. Karikis was inspired by the workers’ historical protest, which addressed labour rights for workers with disabilities. Fifty years on, the facility has a workforce almost exclusively formed of people with mental disabilities. Karikis developed a relationship with the factory, gaining access to its unique production processes.

Karikis created a ten-channel video installation which transposes the chalk factory’s architectural layout onto the exhibition venue and observes the rhythms of a day at work, the transformations of materials and the vivid colour changes of the workspace. 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. A separate film, ‘Hyottoko the God of Fire’, provides a prologue to the project’s theme of disability and labour. It features a performance of the ancient Japanese legend of Hyottoko by the bamboo flute player Kiku Day. Recently rediscovered by Dr Nicola Grove and analysed through the emergent field of the cultural history of disability, the Hyottoko legend centres on an ‘odd-looking’ character who fails at every job he tries until he is asked to blow the village fire through a bamboo stick.

The Chalk Factory by Karikis foregrounds disability’s own cultural history. The project observes productivity, the body and social function and raises ethical questions about disability and labour. The immersive installation (alongside the public events and workshops organised by Karikis in collaboration with street-performers, disability activists and local politicians for the project’s premier in Aarhus, Denmark) propose a model of inclusion and difference.

Commissioned by European Capital of Culture 2017 Aarhus, Denmark. Supported by Arts Council England.