Visions in the Crucible
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Niamh Schmidtke 0:11
Hello, you're listening to Future Artefacts FM radio show hosted by Niamh Schmidtke. And Nina Davies.
Nina Davies 0:19
Earlier this year, several radio frequencies were discovered airing a collection of broadcasts. At first they sounded like regular news stories and interviews. They felt familiar, but also not quite belonging to our present. Slowly, the listeners came to believe that what they were listening to, did indeed belong to their world, just not their time. They were looking into the future through the mundane edges of radio recordings and public service announcements. While this material is still being meticulously studied by researchers in various universities and museums, your hosts have managed to gain access to this collection to air a selection of these broadcasts for you, our listeners.
Niamh Schmidtke 1:00
For full disclosure, we will not be sharing this collection with you, as this introduction is based on a fictional event. In this monthly broadcast, Future Artefacts FM, we will present speculative fiction pieces by artists and writers, followed by conversation with hosts Niamh Schmidtke and Nina Davies. The programme will focus on fictional works intended for broadcast, such as radio plays or fictional interviews, to carve out a better understanding of the now by exploring various interpretations of the future.
Nina Davies 1:35
Welcome back to our fifth episode of Future Artefacts. So today we are joined by artist Nikolai Azariah. He is a Finnish/ British video and installation artist whose practice delves into memory, place and poetry. Navigating myth to make sense of the world. His recent work investigates salt as material and manifestation of poetic meaning, as a juncture of opposites and the essence of corporal reality, salt is taken as both subject and framework for his practice. This is viewed through the lens of alchemy, a deeply material and profoundly spiritual practice combining thoughts of the human soul with experimentation in the laboratory. Restructuring, possibility and transformation are inherent in the alchemical processes he uses to uncover salts hidden virtues.
Niamh Schmidtke 2:30
Welcome to the show, Nikolai. Today we're really excited to listen to the audio version of a video and installation work called Visions in the Crucible. It is a 10 to 12 minute audio track and involves a narrative that was written by Nikolai for this work
Nina Davies 2:51
Great so we'll probably we'll play the work now and we will as per usual, see you at the end of it for a little chat with the artist.
Niamh Schmidtke 3:03
See you soon guys
Nina Davies 3:05
Visions in the Crucible work
Just below the crystal casing, you could see her eyes flitting this way and that, unable to focus on anything in the immediate, lost in their own world. The shape on the floor was barely discernible as a body with the salts spreading like two forests from where her eyes were. Unwiped tears eventually lead to crystal growth, consuming the face and body. As horrific as it was, we had learnt not to disturb them. I had been with a group of paramedics who cracked open one of the shells, pulling the inhabitant out of her stasis. As the elderly woman came to, she let out a piercing wail and flew into a frenzy, breaking free of the paramedics and diving back to her translucent casing. Eventually she was restrained and placed on a stretcher, her cry only covered up by the blaring siren as they sped her away.
“Love still unknown, why do you leave me?”
09.05.2021 / 12:06 - At 829°C the salt is bubbling with the largest chunk in the middle having melted away, crucible glowing orange in the heat. As I remove the lid to the furnace, a thin silvery layer forms on the surface of the molten salt. I grab the crucible with the tongs and pour the shimmering liquid into the oil-sand mold, which catches fire in the process. The newly formed cast begins to emit a pinging, crackling sound.
The salts have taken their time, encasing buildings, plants and people in their white shimmering embrace, anything exposed for several days gaining a crystal armour. The ceaseless nature of the growth has led to containment efforts being quickly overwhelmed with a call for evacuation now in effect. Edith turned back several days ago, wanting to return home and I am now searching for him.
Limbs trembling, I arrive at the top of a hill in time to see the city bathed in the setting sun. The nearby oak trees have an ashen hue, their branches weighed down with saline stalactites. The air is heavy with sound, the salt shifting, cracking and falling off every time a strong breeze blows. Here the crystals are translucent and shimmer in the orange glow of the fading light. I lay down to rest and gaze across the shrouded city, barely recognisable amongst all the varied crystalline growth. Twisting columns emerge from the distant buildings, congregating on rooftops as crops of hair. Only then do I see I am joined by a petrified couple entwined beside me. Envious of the peace on their frosted faces, I close my eyes.
“I come to my love as dew on the flowers.”
Waking up, I cannot move my arms. My eyes do not open either and a wave of panic comes over me. Pinned down by a blanket of salt, I rapidly twist my torso and pry myself from its grip. My encrusted clothing cracks and loosens from the salt generated by my sweat, shards falling all over the ground. I should have wiped myself down and covered myself before resting. Mercifully, the salts are nowhere near as aggressive outside of the city. After scrubbing away the growth, a sudden thirst comes over me and I reach for my water canteen, draining most of my remaining supply.
20.05.2021 / 11:41 - The dead sea salt was a mistake. The fumes have a horrible, acrid scent that makes it hard to stay in the workshop. More than half of the salt has burned away, turning to liquid form at only 608°C. The oil-sand mold falls apart as I pour it in.
The street has a muffled silence broken up only by the crunching of the everforming crystals beneath my feet. A few of the mangled rooftop pillars have fallen to the ground, crushing both crystal and concrete beneath. They twist in the awkward, divergent manner of pubic hair, forming a forest amidst the street. The road itself looks akin to a translucent lava flow. These salts by the bridge look like spores, clumping along the sides of abandoned cars. Completely white, they let no light through. To my left, another jewelled sarcophagus emerges by a bench, their left ankle still rotating. Leaning closer, I hear a high pitch cracking noise emanating from the shell, indicating this body has only recently been encased.
24.05.2021 / 15:03 - The sculpture has broken into several pieces, coral-like structures forming on the surface amidst the cracks. It is delicate to touch, soft as wet chalk.
The majority of the preserved bodies I have found so far have been sitting, leaning, or lying down but as I walk up the steep hill, I see an upright pillar before me. Two branches rising above, their hands are evidently lifted up and facing the sky. A few bodies seem to have been “salted” far more rapidly than the rest. I approach to see some detail of the person, wondering if it could be Edith. Too short. Unlike the previous shells, this salt has lost its translucent shimmer, a dull white and grey is all I see. As I wipe the surface with my jacket sleeve to peer inside, one of the hands cracks off and smashes on the floor. I leap back as the rest of the structure topples down the hill, creating a small avalanche. At first I do not look, expecting blood and gore but find none, their body having completely vitrified.
25.05.2021 / 10:55 - The salt has eaten through the ceramic blanket, transforming the normally spongy material into a crusty, meringue-like texture. The furnace does not hold heat like it did before, climbing slower and topping out at only 912°C, not enough for the ceramics. We pause for the day and order more of the blanket.
Unsure of where he might be, I enter the old school. The building courtyard has layers of glimmering blue crystal fanning out like torn sheets on each floor. Their webbed structure looks so prone to shattering that I barely breathe as I pass through, sidestepping the fallen diaphanous sheets and smaller blue shards rising up from the floor. He is not here.
18.07.2021 / 10:14 - On the surface, the salt has done very little. Perhaps the amount, the heat and darkness have curtailed its growth and possibility. Instead of growing here, the salt has decided to expand into an adjacent room. I try to cover this up, painting it over.
“By virtue of love is the lover transformed in the beloved and the beloved transformed in the lover.”
From among the crystal pillars he appeared, silent and still in the middle of what would have been a field. I rush forward and press my face up to the salt, seeing his likeness beneath. Body twisted, his eyes are fixed towards the old school. I feel the rough grains of the shell drying my teary face as I embrace him and kiss his preserving husk. Slumping down next to him, I notice a crack in the side of his crystal casing, no larger than a finger. At first I press my ear to the opening but hear nothing. I try to peer inside, I shout until I grow hoarse but see nothing and hear nothing in return. Can he hear me, feel the tremors of my footsteps? Does he want to move his toes? As the sun rises, can he feel the light changing?
I stay kneeling in front of his pillar, my mind sifting between past regrets. My hand keeps tracing the edge of the opening and picks up a piece of the fallen salt. Gingerly I place it on my tongue and let it sit there, savouring what little I have of him. Perhaps I did not believe I would find him and I do not know what to do now that I am here. No water for some time now (or food for that matter) and my body is starting to make it evident, head ringing with pain. My eyes shift in and out of focus, the white landscape now blinding me in the bright sunlight. Are my eyes tricking me? Has the fissure in his side grown or have I shrunk?
I push myself into the cleft as far as I can. Every now and again I can feel my blood pulsing throughout my body, throbbing louder and louder. The salt stings my eyes as they open, gazing into the crystal shimmer.
Nina Davies 15:05
Like, I need water
Niamh Schmidtke 15:11
Welcome back. We all hope you really enjoy that work Visions in the Crucible by Nikolai Azariah. And I guess before we delve into questions, is there anything Nikolai, you would like to talk about or say about the work before Nina and I start, I guess asking or prompting you?
Nikolai Azariah 15:31
I guess just throw your questions out.
Niamh Schmidtke 15:34
So the first thing I wanted to kind of talk about is the fact that this audio work also exists with a visual component or exists in an installation. And I first encountered this narrative, as an audio attached to casted salt, it was kind of a hand that was casted. And afterwards, I read it as a text. So kind of almost as like a kind of short story. Do you think there's a difference or that the narrative changes based on kind of how you're encountering it? So if you're encountering it, as most of our listeners will be now, purely through audio means or if it's attached to an object? Or if it's something that is on a page?
Nikolai Azariah 16:19
Yes, definitely. I think there's something really special about how in a spatialized work that you can encounter the piece when and where you happen upon it. And just, you enter in the middle of a story, and just try and piece together what's going on. And you get all these bits of information slowly fed to you. And I guess this is far more linear, which is wonderful, you get the full story straight away.
Niamh Schmidtke 16:46
Yeah, cause even in it, because I think it was part of an exhibition by Deptford Creek and the piece had lots of kind of space for the viewer to or the listener rather, maybe to kind of interact with it. And yeah, there was a sense. I remember when I arrived in the gallery, I was like, oh, I I'm not really sure which part of the story I'm at, if I'm at the ending, or at the beginning. And there's kind of this looping sequence and this non linearity. Does, is it important to have kind of a linearity in this narrative, do you feel? Or is there an openness that...?
Nikolai Azariah 17:22
I guess this, this particular narrative, could be a lot more linear than other works? Like, I've done quite a bit of writing this year. And there is a certain circularity in the work, in this destruction and recreation that's inherent in like these alchemical processes that I explore.
Niamh Schmidtke 17:42
Yeah, it's really interesting, what you bring up about this kind of alchemical process of salt as being kind of a cycle of, like birth and death is what we were talking about before, but also crystallisation. Also, kind of a process of keeping things intact, stopping death in a way like the, like salting meat as a way to, you know, carry it through the winter. Yeah.
Nina Davies 18:07
Yeah, I was wondering whether you could tell us a bit about some of the things that you were thinking about when you were making the work. From previous chats we've had and looking at some of your research, that you're heavily influenced by alchemy, and mysticism, and I'd love to get a little, I guess, like, just to kind of a little bit about what you're interested within those kind of, and then salt. Sorry, so is the obvious the obvious one? Yeah, just like a little overview, would be, I think it'd be really great for our listeners.
Nikolai Azariah 18:42
I've been fascinated with the processes of alchemy and how these materials are explored, and particularly, particularly exploring salt in a very robust way. And I've been throughout the year, I guess, trying to understand the material in a very subjective manner, like so almost as if a painter with their paints, trying to know exactly how it works. What it's like, when it's melted, when it's heated up, when it's dry, how it crumbles, how it collapses, how it deals with moisture, like it. It's all been very, very interesting for me, I guess.
Nina Davies 19:25
Is there a, I guess just when you make the connection to paint or working with paints, I guess there is like, there's a whole history of loads of people working with paint that you can kind of like have a base level to start with. And have there been any people that work with salt that you that you look at I mean, I'm sure not in terms of art, but I guess looking at the history of alchemy might be sort of in the same way a painter might look at the history of art.
Nikolai Azariah 19:58
Yeah, there's salt plays a really prominent role in alchemy, like especially from the 15th century, and it's really tied to the body and being representative of the body, or the 'body', and alchemy has a really rich and complex language talking about material and spirituality, and...
Niamh Schmidtke 20:25
it's kind of interesting what you say about kind of alchemists in terms of looking at salt as being of the body and kind of the body I do you mean this in like a spiritual religious sense, or?
Nikolai Azariah 20:39
I mean, in a very material sense in the way a blood, a sweat, a tears, a urine, it's all part of our body, in it's very physicality.
Niamh Schmidtke 20:52
It's interesting relating that back to the narrative that we've just listened to, because the story kind of follows salt taking over the body and becoming a shell, that then transforms it into something which can be cracked and broken, and in a way solidifies you know, the blood, the sweat, the urine. What made you want to, I guess, play around with that relationship that's salt has with the body in an alchemical sense?
Nikolai Azariah 21:28
I suppose salt has a wonderful preservative function, like uncovering the body and salt was also seen as the shell. So if you, so you, you'd have categories in alchemy for the body, the soul and the Spirit. And that would be broken up at like an egg, almost like the shell of an egg, the yolk and the white, and salt would be often seen as the shell. And then this covering I've, with my written work before, I've been looking at different recipes. And there's one particular recipe I've been looking at with meat, which is covered in salt and fabric and as it's thrown in the fire, the meat creates the salty crust covering it, which to to get the food at the end, you have to crack it open to reveal the meal inside.
Niamh Schmidtke 22:23
How old is this recipe? I'm curious.
Nikolai Azariah 22:25
I mean, I'm not sure it was given to me by a friend. Like we had it for New Year's one year. And I've kept it in one of my sketchbooks somewhere. And I go back to it every now and again when I buy a fire. But I think recipes is one really important for me, I love cooking, but it's also really tied to alchemy, in many ways, I guess.
Niamh Schmidtke 22:50
Yeah, maybe it'd be interesting for our listeners, then, when in previous conversations with you, you talked a lot about the significance of alchemical fiction. Can you maybe talk to us about what that means for you? And then also a little bit about how that relates to the work we've just heard.
Nikolai Azariah 23:09
I mean, I guess, I guess this work could be categorised in many different ways. I mean, you could look at it as like a pulpy science fiction piece really, or it could be like part of this new-weird genre of writing. But I guess I chose the term alchemical fiction because it, I mean, this work really deals with process and materials. And especially because the setting is informed by my alchemical processes from from my desk. So a lot of the growth that you see in the story is something that I've had growing on my desk at one point or another, and have just found fascinating, and how they just take very different forms.
Nina Davies 23:54
I think that's really, I mean, I love this kind of idea of like, thinking, I guess, the fiction I'm interested in, like, what leads the work? Is it the experiments that are making the fiction or is it the fiction that is kind of like making the experiment - making the experiments if if you know what I mean? I'm sure it goes both ways.
Nikolai Azariah 24:15
But yeah, absolutely goes both ways. Like it kind of they each build each other up. As I go on, I find that a really interesting process. And there was, I mean, there was part of the work, where I was, I had these grand ideas of like, the salt growing in these fantastical ways, and it did nothing. It was in some ways very, so very disappointing, but also very much a part of the work like and
Nina Davies 24:42
Yeah, I do. I do feel like that sometimes with like, a lot of like artistic processes where like, I mean, maybe if the work is sort of, I've had that where you do an experiment and you have this idea of what you think it's going to be and you're kind of like planning the work, knowing that it might like it might not go to plan but you're kind of like in the back of your head, it'll probably get a plan. And then it doesn't. And you have a moment of like crisis where you're like, oh my gosh, it's not it's not doing what I want to do. But then you have like, then you kind of like sit with it for a bit, don't you?
Nikolai Azariah 25:13
Actually, there's I mean, in the work, there's so many points of failure. They're, like this, this crumbling this falling apart. And I think it's just really wonderful to..
Nina Davies 25:27
Yeah, has it sort of like made the story kind of go in directions that you didn't think it was gonna go? I mean, like, it's that sort of, it's almost like exquisite, the game Exquisite Corpse, isn't it where you like, draw a head, and then you fold it over and someone draws a body and you don't
Nikolai Azariah 25:43
Is that the name of the game?
Nina Davies 25:45
I think that's what it's called, Exquisite Corpse. Yeah. So like someone, yeah, we fold up and pass the paper around. You don't maybe this is a really bad example. But you don't know where like, where
Nikolai Azariah 25:54
Where it's going to go?
Nina Davies 25:55
But you end up with this, like, amazing drawing of this really weird kind of person or not person?
Niamh Schmidtke 26:04
I mean, it feels like that kind of splicing, the way you're talking about using these experiments, like these very physical experiments that are literally on your desk, and then implanting them into this world. I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about the world that the story is set in? I mean, I kind of love the fact that it comes from your desk. But is there anything else you'd like us to know? Or maybe can you talk about? Yeah, I guess that process of almost like magnifying and like, changing scale from like, this kind of small space of like a human desk versus this vast expanse that it feels like the narrative is set in?
Nikolai Azariah 26:43
Yeah. So in alchemy, I guess the ideas of the microcosm and macrocosm are really important and then reflecting each other. So like in the alchemical experiments, you'd be able to, I guess, pull out some some truth of, some truth or some reality of the macrocosm. I'm not sure how to phrase it. Let me try and think for a second. You'd be able to pull out some spiritual truth from it.
Niamh Schmidtke 27:17
What do you mean by that?
Nina Davies 27:20
Yeah. Expand, please.
Niamh Schmidtke 27:23
I guess I love that there's all these layers in your work. And I'm kind of I'm just curious to like, unwrap them a bit more, if that makes sense. So like, when you talk about the, the microcosm to the macrocosm within an alchemical process, and how that kind of relates back to the spiritual. What does that mean for you?
Nikolai Azariah 27:48
Nina Davies 27:49
maybe, I guess, like maybe sort of like the defining like, what, maybe a good place to start is like defining how you your definition of spiritual I guess, because that's, that's such a, yeah, it can be quite a broad term.
Nikolai Azariah 28:03
If we can take a couple steps back because I feel like I... I'm trying to think how to answer that question, because it's layered and I do have,
Niamh Schmidtke 28:15
Nikolai Azariah 28:15
Yeah. Yeah. It's big. What's a spiritual? Well.
Niamh Schmidtke 28:20
Well, I think it's what? What does it mean for you in this context? So if you're taking if you're taking these experiments from your desk, and turning these kind of micro, microcosms, microsystems, expanding them out into this whole world, this narrative, this alternate space, speculative fiction? What does having a spiritual component mean in that instance?
Nikolai Azariah 28:50
Yeah, so I guess the microcosm and macrocosm was really important for the laboratory because that was essential for alchemists it was the site of engagement with actual substances taken us the only way in which deeper meaning might be revealed.
Niamh Schmidtke 29:10
And deeper meaning is this mystical meaning?
Nikolai Azariah 29:15
I guess there was, like a really speculative theology that alchemy developed, they'd have a complex language combining research of materials, with writing on the body, soul and spirit. The human microcosm.
Nina Davies 29:34
Is this, I've got a.. is this because also, I guess were you saying 15th century this was happening? I guess, like, was it because science and religion like weren't necessarily like, sort of two? I mean, they're still not two separate forms of study, but there wasn't. They were much more like married together.
Nikolai Azariah 29:58
Yeah, exactly. So it's So this these forms of investigation would be spiritual processes for, for many of the alchemists, and you'd have, specifically, you'd have mercury and sulphur becoming emblematic of the spirit and soul. And in the 16th century around then the notion was popularised that salt was the body, and the principle of fixedness and solidity.
Nina Davies 30:31
It's interesting that there was like, sort of these, I guess, like, sort of symbolisms and iconography behind behind these materials, as opposed to science where it's, there is sort of, I would say, like now- nowadays, like, there's less iconography or symbolism in in the sort of, or maybe there's not, I don't, I'm not a scientist. But yeah, this sort of like, salt is the body. And like, I think all of these because, I was looking up a bit about alchemy before we recorded, and I realised I just thought alchemy was like a word, another word for science, and then came across it. And it was like, there was this whole thing that I had no idea about where they had, like, I didn't go super into it, but they had like secret languages and like, the way that they like, recorded stuff that there are certain symbols that still some people can't read, and they don't know what it's like, oh, very, like, inconspicuous as to what they were trying to achieve. Oh, that's what some people do think.
Nikolai Azariah 31:41
Yeah, I mean, I really love the cryptic languages around it. Like there's, I guess it was a very subjective practice. And like, in terms of spirit, like, I guess, spirituality and theologically, like they, okay,
Nina Davies 31:57
They were, they were intertwined. They were just..
Nikolai Azariah 31:57
They were so intertwined. Whereas like, maybe, well, not maybe in science, you, you're making universal claims, these..
Nina Davies 32:08
Well there's a separation of the mind and the body with science now. So like, the idea that the body like the soul is, is something separate. So like new, medicine that started in the 17th century, the dissecting of the body only came around from like, concepts of mind and body should be separated. Because if they're separated, there's no moral, there's no moral problem with like, opening up a body as if it's like a, you know, a car, you know, like, you're just you're taking a look at the mechanics of a, whereas I guess, before that where we're looking at alchemists work is that those things are working together. The science of the body is a sacred thing. And we're not so sure about where the spirit and the body divide, or if they do divide,
Nikolai Azariah 32:57
Yeah and it was just wonderful, investigative practice. And I mean, because of its obscurity, like it would, I guess, it was a lot more experimental and often treading the line of heresy. And it was only the obscurity that really would keep the alchemists safe from religious authority.
Nina Davies 33:23
The obscurity so, what like, sort of like?
Nikolai Azariah 33:25
Like the cryptic languages and so on that are, built into it.
Right. So, had to be secret
Niamh Schmidtke 33:30
I mean, what you're saying there Nina is making me think of this really incredible story you told us about this woman who was kind of drowning her children in blood? No, sorry, I've got the story wrong. But it was kind of the idea was that the blood was Christ. And it was kind of there was no separation between the body being just a body it was a body in relation to mystic practice can
Nina Davies 33:31
Tell us the story.
Nikolai Azariah 33:35
Okay, so the there's one. One mistake that who I focus on Angela of Alinea. And she has this I mean, she her writing is wild. And there's a lot to do with the presence of gods and so on. But a lot of um around the 12th and 13th century, in Europe, there were a number of female mystics focusing on the body and somatic experience, and there was often a particular focus on the fifth wound of Christ, which was where he was pierced before, to kill him through his ribcage. And this wound was I guess, seen as a point of death but also a point of birth, birth for the church and so on in this. A lot of depictions in mediaeval painting, would depict it as a vulva, or vagina and yeah, further in answers to this, this birthing point. And she, she writes, writes in it several times about Christ, visiting her in visions, and showing her his wound, and then asking her to drink from it. And finally she enters his wound. And this this idea of entering the wound, and that that keeps coming up as a motif.
Niamh Schmidtke 35:30
Like as entering the wound and in a way, like entering a womb like a space of birth too.
Nikolai Azariah 35:35
Yeah, exactly. And then then, there's one particularly grim section later, where her, she imagines her readers as entering Christ's womb, and she writes about their blood covered faces and how filled with joy she was and
Niamh Schmidtke 35:54
It sounds like the beginning of a horror story in contemporary society.
Nikolai Azariah 35:57
Yeah, exactly. And I get I mean, for contemporary readers, it would have a very different effect. But I guess the, or the spiritual language from that time would point to like, the blood as a salvific medium, I guess, like this cleansing, cleansing power it had?
Niamh Schmidtke 36:20
Yeah, absolutely. I guess it's making me think as well in, at least in Catholic sermons, kind of you drink red wine as you drink, you drink the blood of Christ, you drink the body of Christ. It's kind of gone through these. It's become a much more, I don't want to say diluted version, but I guess more palatable for like a contemporary church going public, but.
Nikolai Azariah 36:43
I mean, I guess from what I understand, no one was ever drinking blood.
Niamh Schmidtke 36:49
That might have might have been a bit too gruesome.
Nikolai Azariah 36:51
Yeah. But yeah, definitely this, like very physical practice was predominant, and would have informed a lot of this thinking as well.
Niamh Schmidtke 37:02
Yeah, it's making me think as well, it's quite interesting that this is a female mystic. And in your research, you focus a lot on female mystics as usually part of society that is kind of has less access to, let's say, more traditional or male dominated education of the time. So the ability to kind of read and write. And so they have this embodied kind of experience of that. I find it quite interesting that you parallel this or kind of you juxtapose this with alchemists who, as far as I read from your research, are predominantly men. I guess, how do you, for you was that connection mainly through through salt, or I guess I'm wondering like how you made that connection point? Because then you have this kind of very strange like crossover of gender, but also kind of, in a way, it feels like gender becomes both very important, but both in a way, at least in my reading kind of insignificant?
Nikolai Azariah 38:04
I suppose like, the the modes of research that they share, would be like, there's this very embodied research of, for female mistakes. And then, generally, the alchemists were working in the lab, and you'd have, you'd still while it would be separated, in many ways, it was still a very physical research as opposed to a more philosophising idea. That some half of alchemy, and this I think just this connection to the body, they form like with, I guess, language around around faith and religion, sorry, faith and religion. Faith? *laughter*
Niamh Schmidtke 38:52
This is for this is where the female mystics, this is how they form, their kind of interpretations of, of this bodily, embodied knowledge is through their, their faith?
Nikolai Azariah 39:05
Yeah, exactly. And there's a lot of crossover with the language of these mystics and the alchemists in the way that like salt forms, this particular meeting point between the two practices. I get, I guess, gender in this in this investigation is really important. There's this, like, I guess, also avoiding an essentialising of gender as well, which is like Amy Hollywood, who I reference quite a lot she she talks about how there's this rejection of these gender essentialisms in these female mystical practices.
Niamh Schmidtke 39:51
Yeah, which even feels like when you're speaking about this fifth wound on Christ also being portrayed as a womb. It becomes this combination of of the two, of the two genders kind of a man who also has a womb but not, or a man who also has a vulva. It's quite nice to hear that there, I guess right now this is like super strict idea of kind of what gender can mean. I mean, you see that collapsing at the moment with more and more people coming out as trans and non binary, but it still feels very like you are this or you are that.
Nina Davies 40:30
I think there's also something which I found really interesting when I was reading about your work, which was, you talked about how salt is sort of given a, sort of gender property, depending on whether it's combined with sulphur or, was it, sulphur and mercury. So like this kind of going back to that those conversations about binaries, like salt is both preserving and what was the other word like, corrupting. Yeah. And how salt can be either, either gender, your work, your interest in gender is not necessarily about this interest in gender specifically, it's sort of about these binaries and breaking down of these...
Nikolai Azariah 41:06
Yeah, and they I mean, I guess there's this gendering of substances in alchemy would, would often be in flux in the alchemical tradition, with the, I guess, the hermaphrodite as a central component to their research, and I guess how they'd see a lot of elements.
Niamh Schmidtke 41:28
I'm curious, then. So salt is a preservative versus salt is a corrosive and how that's gendered? Which one is masculine and feminine?
Nina Davies 41:38
Oh not the not the, sorry I'll answer for you not, be quiet Nikolai. Not the corrosive and, and preservative neccesarily. It's when salt is, is combined or paired with sulphur or mercury,
Niamh Schmidtke 41:57
It switches gender.
Nina Davies 41:58
Yeah, so salt is sort of, like can be both genders.
Niamh Schmidtke 42:02
Okay, so it's the sulphur or mercury, that becomes a gendered substance. Okay.
Nina Davies 42:08
So this is kind of maybe like going back a bit to talking about the world, that that you that you write about, and you're experimenting with. And I know, it's not like the, it's not the main point of your work. But at the end of it, I'm left sort of fascinated and questioning the characters. And I'm sort of wondering, like, who is the main character? Cause, I mean, not to go back to the gender conversation necessarily. For a bit of it, I was unsure whether the protagonist was a woman. And I guess, I know that you don't necessarily have an idea of where she's come from, and who she was before the story started and who she'll be after. But I was wondering if you want these characters that you've written about, come from anywhere?
Nikolai Azariah 43:02
Yes, yes, they definitely do there. I guess that's the difference with seeing it written down and having it spoken, I guess, you make assumptions on gender a lot easier when hearing a audio work. And I guess in my mind, that I mean, the, the main character is, is many things. They are, they're an alchemist or the alchemist. They're, I mean, there's, there's so much tied in the writing, but there's a lot of personal anecdotes that come out, and so on, and then these larger um myths that are entwined. So there's a few characters entwined in that and...
Nina Davies 43:51
How did you like, did the, maybe did it sort of just come to, in the same way that like, you're responding to the experiments on your table? Did this character just sort of like, did the character just sort of come to you, as you were writing it? Are you the character like?
Nikolai Azariah 44:08
I guess I've been writing this year, um, quite quite a lot. And there's been a lot of twisting narratives around salt and bringing, collecting all these different stories connected to the material. And I think I've been trying to tie them together in different ways and having them follow a certain path. And I think a lot of that has informed the story, so you've got...
Nina Davies 44:36
Would you say that the salt is a character in the story?
Nikolai Azariah 44:39
Yes, very much so. I mean, influencing everything really. Some of the mystics who I've researched, also portrayed in the narrative.
Nina Davies 44:50
Yeah. Are we seeing the piercing scream of the old? The old lady?
Nikolai Azariah 44:54
Yeah. And that's connected to Angela of Foligno. Again,
Nina Davies 44:59
Who we just who we were just talking about, yeah.
Nikolai Azariah 45:01
She had this moment when, entering a church, she felt the presence of Christ leave her. And it was this, she lets out this absolute piercing, mournful wail, filling the space. And a lot of people felt that was demonic possession. But it was this intense experience of loss.
Nina Davies 45:27
We were talking the other day about how the story feels like, really dystopic. I'm linking this to I guess fiction or like normal sort of speculative fiction or just fantasy. But usually we think about like aliens coming down to like, there's always a sort of intent. And this is sort of evil, something that wants to take over, annihilate, destroy, or whatever. Whereas with your work, the salt isn't, it's ambiguous. It's definitely a sort of dystopic world that you've created. But it's we're not so sure whether like the salt has any intent behind what it's doing.
Nikolai Azariah 46:06
I mean, it definitely has intent, what that intent is, and how we can measure that? I don't know. What that is, I guess, in some ways is so beyond our comprehension and maybe leaving as that like, I think it's very easy to, I guess, put it in one camp or the other. I'm not sure where...
Nina Davies 46:28
I know but I guess it's sort of interesting with your table. So there's sort of still this kind of like, I guess you are not that I know much about the divine or religious stuff, but you were sort of kind of this divine agent in the in the process. Like you're making the you're sort of making the experiments happen. And everything's, I'm sure, that's not what you're trying to do.
Niamh Schmidtke 46:54
This is making me think back to the beginning of this, how you were talking about your research and the combinations of things. So of kind of salts, and alchemy and mysticism as being subjective, as well. And I feel like starting to write a story from, or a narrative from your desk is one of the most subjective things you can do. Because it's all your own observation. In that way, I mean, it's not. I mean, also, I guess this going back to like subjective kind of embodied knowledge too of course, would be under the alchemists. I'm curious, was there any sense of them trying to make objective knowledge? Because, I mean, at least I'm thinking about a distinction between alchemy and science. Because science is attempting to be objective? Or is assuming that it is.
Nikolai Azariah 47:44
Yeah, I think those assumptions, I guess, towards the end, when it started to shift into chemistry became a lot more important. And I guess that would signal the divide. Really, when you'd have more of these, trying to make these empirical truths.
Niamh Schmidtke 48:02
Yeah, I guess having the subjective space gives more room to think about the divine or the mystical, or the embodied as well.
Nina Davies 48:11
Just loving the term, new-weird, but this idea of like using sort of like normal science fiction, but not stuff that would happen in this world, so it can kind of go beyond our current conceptions of science or like the limits of of our knowledge, basically, it can go beyond that.
Nikolai Azariah 48:29
I mean, I guess that's the wonderful role of fiction in the way that it can approach these ideas of the unknowable, which I find so interesting, and why, I guess I've used it as a tool. I think fiction is such a perfect tool for this, like to unpack these ideas and approach it sideways.
Niamh Schmidtke 48:51
One thing that we're kind of following up on a lot in this show is both this idea of like a near future, or like a future that is kind of ambiguous as to when it's going to happen. But, so I guess I'm curious to ask you about, do you see this as being a future world? Or is this just an alternate version of the present? And then on top of that, is it, it feels quite dystopic. But also, there's that question of intent and it's kind of how can it feel this topic if the intent is not clear? So I guess I'm curious about kind of what kind of future or alternate version do you see this as being set in?
Nikolai Azariah 49:34
Well, I suppose the world only appears dystopic to those who aren't covered by the salt. The people in the salt generally seem quite happy about it, but I'm not I'm not sure where this world occurs. I think nothing. Yeah, that wasn't a particular concern of when this occurs, like there's particular locations that I, I know, and I've, I've travelled and are particular to me, but I wanted to leave it as open as possible. Like it's..
Niamh Schmidtke 50:14
Yeah, because I guess that's what, that's what I was kind of curious about in it, like, it feels like this space to explore salt in, within your research, within its connection to, to speculation and to mysticism, but also in this kind of very strictly alchemical kind of quite literally inspired by and coming from actual observations, which in the, in the text version, at least, is really interesting to read. It's kind of punctuated by kind of alchemical notes in a way from May of 2021. Even though this world is like, this does not feel like our, our present it, I don't really want it to be our future, either.
Nikolai Azariah 50:57
Yeah, it's funny, because I was thinking about how much detail to include, and there's like this very, like clear in my head like this, I guess. Walking through Greenwich, coming down, walking past the creek, Deptford Creek and into into New Cross throughout the story, but that that's important for me, but not necessarily for the audience. But there's like, particular journeys on that that are very important to me.
Niamh Schmidtke 51:30
So is the narrative almost, in a way kind of constructed through this walk?
Nikolai Azariah 51:38
Niamh Schmidtke 51:39
Nina Davies 51:40
Niamh Schmidtke 51:41
Nina Davies 51:41
I didn't know obviously, I didn't know about the what but it's really interesting to access some parts that I think in my head, it was maybe like sat in New York, because I feel like so many dystopic things are always set in New York. But like, I felt like some of the vistas that you create are like the same. I totally got that picture in my head of like, you know, Greenwich being able to look at Canary Wharf and over, which is kind of a very New York thing, because you're seeing like all these all these big buildings. I could have been in Greenwich. Actually, it didn't it didn't have to be not Greenwich, New York, Greenwich, Greenwich, Greenwich (London).
Niamh Schmidtke 52:15
Yeah, I didn't, because I guess it becomes quite interesting then when the speculative fiction is, or the alchemical fiction is, quite literally a vehicle towards exploring salt in its multiplicities, in a way. I'm curious, then, when we spoke previously, you're kind of you weren't interested in what happens to the protagonists after this end point of the story. It's kind of it's happened, it's, it's done. Do you want to continue to use this world for other...? In a way I'm always considering, like, an experimentation with, with what salt can be?
Nikolai Azariah 52:53
Well, I feel like this, this narrative has changed so much. Like it's taken many different forms. And I think that's what's really interesting to me, and how that changes in each form. And like, how, I mean, the narrative changes, depending on location, and so on. And I've been building on it for quite a while and changing and, I mean, just editing it down. And I think there's like with each, I mean, with each version, there's like a particular new clarity that I get from it.
Niamh Schmidtke 53:26
Do you feel like it's like site specific then? Do you feel like it needs to, if it's following this walk from New Cross, Deptford Creek, Greenwich? Does it need to in some way, remain there? Or do you think this story will flux if it changes geographies?
Nikolai Azariah 53:45
I'm not sure, I'm gonna have to try.
Niamh Schmidtke 53:47
Yeah, that's more of a selfish question. I'm just wondering like, ohh you could?
Nikolai Azariah 53:50
I think so much of the work was developed in these areas, which is why it's so important, like a lot of the salt was, I mean, it was growing in the studio in Deptford. So, So I think that's so important and like a lot of the walks around there as I was developing it, and I think just picturing the world and that's why I built up there. And I think something very new would have to be created in a different space.
Niamh Schmidtke 54:19
It's making me think about Tolkien writing Lord of the Rings, and basing that around the hobbits.
Berming- was at Birmingham?
I think it was around Birmingham, but like it's based on a specific geography, but then it's also based on like, the hobbits being English and then the orcs being the Nazis. And Mordor being Hitler's bunker, I think? But kind of this very fantastical, obscure, weird world, fantasy worlds, based off of what was happening in his life at that present moment, but also based off of a very real geography I'm kind of in a similar way to how you're laying out this, these vistas and this kind of route and this travel through your own personal walks, objective walk. As Tolkein has done this as well, in his, in his stories, kind of had this geography that he knows so well, and then just built this whole other world. And when you're reading the books, or you're watching the films, you would not see it at all. I mean, the films are set New Zealand, they couldn't be farther from the UK. But there's that innate connection for the author.
Nikolai Azariah 55:34
Yeah, I don't know about being...
Nina Davies 55:37
Saying that you're like (Tolkein)? I was going to ask about whether you've come across fiction of being used in science before, like the likes, using fiction as a method within scientific fields? I've, I don't know whether I've come across that, if I have forgotten
Nikolai Azariah 56:01
In scientific fields?
Nina Davies 56:02
Yeah, sort of?
Nikolai Azariah 56:04
Expand on scientific ideas?
Nina Davies 56:07
Yeah, I guess like in or creating, creating new knowledge, not necessarily scientific.
Niamh Schmidtke 56:11
Fiction becoming a starting point for investigation or for research?
Nina Davies 56:15
Yeah or existing, existing alongside research. So in the same way that you are writing the story along alongside these experiments, the both are feeding each other, but they still are very rooted in what's physically happening in front of you. And I wonder, I mean, this isn't necessarily fiction, but I've always been interested in industries that have used art. So like anatomical drawings, using art, I mean, this isn't fiction, per se, but I'm interested in these sort of where the arts have or could work alongside different professions, so anatomical drawings, or I think about courtroom drawings before photography. Photography being used almost everywhere now. But em..
Niamh Schmidtke 57:04
I'm thinking of Anna Atkins cyanotypes, and how they're almost more, the cyanotype processes now are almost exclusively used by artists, not by scientists, but it was a process that came from the need to 'objectively' as we've kind of realised this, like impossible term, visualise plantlife,
Nina Davies 57:25
Sorry can you say the name again, just for people who might have missed it being me.
Niamh Schmidtke 57:30
Nina Davies 57:32
Anna Atkins, okay
Niamh Schmidtke 57:34
from the kind of the late 1800s, early 1900s, kind of using cyanotype. So this photosensitive material, laying plant life on it, and then using the sun to cast an outline of those, of that plant life on this photosensitive or light sensitive paper. But I guess maybe Nikolai going back to you, in your research and salt have you are in alchemy even? Was there a sense of like, I don't know, inspiration coming from...?
Nikolai Azariah 58:07
I mean, I guess like very directly in alchemy, you have these wonderful illustrations that are depicting these processes that they're working through, through these, I guess, allegorical visuals, but like very, I mean, again, very cryptic, and can have a multiplicity of meaning, which is also very important to alchemy. But I guess that directly answers your question there.
Nina Davies 58:33
Nikolai Azariah 58:34
And that would, and I think that plays a large part in my process as well. Having...
Nina Davies 58:42
Nikolai Azariah 58:44
Just cut the having! *laughter*
Nina Davies 58:47
Thank you so much, Nikolai, for joining us and sharing your work.
Niamh Schmidtke 58:48
And sharing your research. It's been really interesting to talk about the layers and how everything kind of collides.
Nikolai Azariah 58:58
Oh, thank you so much for having me. It's been wonderful.
Niamh Schmidtke 59:02
Yeah, it's been super lovely having you on the show. Really, really enjoyed the work as well. Visions in the Crucible. Yeah.
Nina Davies 59:10
And happy holidays, and we'll see you next year.
Niamh Schmidtke 59:15