Kerogen Voices is a music theatre piece exploring the phenomenon of man-made earthquakes caused by fossil-fuel extraction.
In this collaborative work, the voices of science, of myth, of workers, of engineers, of Earth and of folkloric entities coexist and are in dialogue. These voices are suspended in an immersive soundscape of elementary flux. Dense strata of text, vocals, and enveloping sound invite the audience to listen to the movement and signals of our planet and to imagine its subterraneous fossil guts as a giant sentient body – responding in a multitude of ways to the interference of mankind.
In September of 2019, Jimmy Grima began his research into the phenomenon of man-made earthquakes after learning his home country of Malta imports liquefied gas from his adopted home in the Netherlands. The gas bubble under Groningen in the Netherlands is the largest gas deposit discovered in the EU but is also one of the most studied places for induced seismicity.
In recent years, the Gas Molecule, a sculpture commemorating the discovery has been repeatedly vandalised with red paint, and campaigners claim that gas is a curse rather than a gift.
Grima began envisioning a live performance with a cast of actors, singers; a choir. He imagined live music and visuals. A libretto. Adopting a name from the organic matter found in sedimentary rocks that forms the basis for petroleum and natural gas, the Kerogen Voices ensemble came together.
They began to build the work, a collective, immersive, listening experience for an audience in a theatre venue.
In the spring of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the Netherlands, making a public performance impossible. Over months of quarantine, the Kerogen Voices continued to develop the work remotely. They worked on texts and music, and recorded their voices onto different devices from different cities and continents – some stuck in their homes, others seeking deserted public spaces, such as underneath bridges, to create their sounds.
The pandemic continues to prohibit large public gatherings, and in response, the Kerogen Voices made the sounds of the project available online for one day on www.kerogenvoices.club
Work is ongoing to ultimately produce a CD of the soundtrack; able to travel through the private spaces of hosts who are able organise safe listening sessions of the piece.
The practice of extracting gas from the Earth was previously unknown to me, and moreover, I had no idea that this can cause earthquakes. Adding to our list of follies, it seems that humans are now responsible for seismic activity. Throughout my research, I collected scientific data and European folklore alike, urgently seeking to intertwine fantastical threads with the reality of artificially-induced earthquakes.
I developed the idea of presenting my findings as a music theatre work. I wanted to transform the theatre into an auditorium for visitors to experience a pulsating, geological opera.
by Jimmy Grima and Ira Melkonyan The Kerogen Voices: Cheyenne Stutzriem, Joey Frankland, Billy Mullaney, Jimmy Grima, Irene Sorozabal Moreno And Matar Pershitz The Human-Induced-Earthquakes* Voices: Ira Brand, Juan Miranda, Noah Voelker, Isobel Dryburgh, Paride Piccinini, Erin Hill, Abhishek Thapar, Melih Gençboyaci, Ira Melkonyan, Sasha Melkonyan Libretto Jimmy Grima Composers Jimmy Grima and Irene Sorozobal Moreno Lyrics Jimmy Grima and Ira Melkonyan Choir Leader and Arrangements Irene Sorozobal Moreno Sound Design and Mastering Mario Sammut Sound Recordings Justin Schembri, Jimmy Grima, Tom De Ronde Research Dramaturg Billy Mullaney Production Dramaturg Maria Rößler Advisors Joachim Robbrecht, Florian Malzacher, Lara Staal Thanks to John Meijerink, Juul Bereen, Yolanda Van Gemert, Ruth Borg, Harco Haagsma, Maaike Boot And Udo Akemann, Das Theatre. * list compiled through The Human-Induced Earthquake Database (Hiquake) www.inducedearthquakes.org.
In October of 2020, the Kerogen Voices project travelled to Austria to form part of a group show entitled Debatable Land(s) on view at the Kunsthalle Exnergasse of WUK in Vienna.
Bringing the audio of Kerogen Voices together with a sculptural plinth representing an abstracted bedrock slice, visitors could listen to the sounds of the choir performing while also reading the piece in libretto form. Collaged photography work and a map pinpointing the sites of man-made earthquakes in Europe between 1868 and 2010 complete this densely woven experience; the story of an ominous human vision of infinite growth and activity.
Debatable Land(s) is a project by Grammar of Urgencies Collective (Maren Zazek Richter and Klaus Schafler) in collaboration with Margerita Pulè and Greta Muscat Azzopardi, and part of the Fleeting Territories series. The project is supported by Arts Council Malta’s Project Support Grant. Images: Debatable Land(s) installation view. Wolfgang Thaler, KEX 2020.
With an ‘island consciousness,’ looking at the world from the shoreline of Malta at the Southern margin of the EU, Jimmy Grima & the rubberbodies collective set out to a transnational artistic exploration of European identity in the year 2020, which draws connections between man-made earthquakes, continental European folklore, myths of entrepreneurial spirit and economic growth, and the geological consequences of human extractivism.
KEROGEN VOICES starts out as a research into man-made earthquakes and, with it, the question what happens to human identity in a world where ominous events such as earth quakes and floods are no longer natural hazards reserved exclusively for superhuman forces, but also calculated risks of capitalist production. What used to be read as an ‘act of God’ beyond human control and possibly feared as an act of geo-planetary self-defense and anti-human revenge, is now humanly reproduced and integrated into a set of predictable side-effects of advanced engineering.
KEROGEN VOICES tells a multi-layered story about (hu)man’s obsession with the insides of the Earth, through a musical sound scape and a blend of scientific and historical data, fantastical legends and dream-like visions. It invites us to imagine the Earth’s “subterraneous fossil guts as a giant sentient body, patient, but agitated.”
This vitalist image resonates with Reza Negarestani’s apocalyptic vision of an incapacitated Earth “charged with […] a worm-infested body exhumed by worming processes and vermiculating machines.“ In Cyclonopedia (2008), Negarestani invents the geo-philosophical concept of “Tellurian Insurgency,” describing “Oil as the Tellurian Lube of all narrations traversing the Earth’s body.” In this speculative fiction, humanity obliviously participates in a fateful project of a mysterious dark energy working from below. Increasing the porosity of the planet’s surface through digging, drilling, pumping, and the building of more and more tunnels (pipelines), humanity industriously contributes to the burning of the Earth from the inside out, leading to its ultimate fusion with the Sun.
Jimmy pays attention to the material currents in his own particular way: He tracks the route of liquified petroleum gas tankers from the island of Malta back to the North-West of the European continent, he follows the trace of Neolithic dolmens (‘hunebedden’), which lead him to the largest gas field within the EU, and he listens out for the mythical whispers of the trees of the forest, which become the meek material of human productivity and which, over periods of time that stretch beyond human comprehension, will eventually end up as a sediment of continental crust: kerogen.
KEROGEN VOICES offers reflection on analytical fascination and the desire to know and to appropriate every thing. It refers to a Western history of tireless efforts to access and explain (or mythologise) the enormous potency of the Earth. In the performance, human speakers gather around a table with installed microphones – like in a multi-national conference meeting or a radio podcast studio. They represent the talking; humans talking, then and now, about numbers, about the Earth. A familiar constellation, the “narcissistic reflex of human language and thought,” that also raises questions about the possibilities and the limitations of theatre in times of planetary crisis, when what is at stake in representation may be the de-centring of the human figure in favour of the non-human. How to convincingly deconstruct the self-appointed supremacy status of (the Western hu)man as measure of all things, fundamental power and shaper of the world?
Jimmy and his team use the theatre in the function of an auditorium: a space set up and dedicated to listening with others. As such, it allows space for human self-reflection in relation to their material environments and calls for a new social sensibility towards non-human entities. These are powerfully imagined by association of human concepts of intelligence, bodily sentience, and potency.
The audio performance revives fairies and kabouters in the role of accomplices to the human project of utilising the Earth’s energy resources. In a psychedelic vision, the blue planet is evoked as a heavy floating body, pregnant with a turbulent future which is heralded by smelly farts and leaking dark fluids. Yet, we know that this compound body has the strength to survive ecological damages, epidemics, and the climate catastrophe – other than the many species that it has generously been hosting on its itchy litho-skin, including the human animal.
Jane Bennett, author of Vibrant Matter (2009), suggests the cultivation of anthropomorphism as a valid strategy to counter human narcissism. Exercises of radical anthropomorphization may produce a physical sense of empathy and help dismantle the perfect picture of a human-centred world.
Thus finally, what seems to matter more than a consistent post-humanist re-centring of terran metabolisms in this work is its post-anthropocentric attitude of representation that critically engages human frames of perception and imagination regarding the planet. When and where does a re-fabulation of man-made Earth phenomena become necessary? For whom is this bloated Earth staged to be perceived as a speaking vibrant insurgent creature? What difference does it make when we collectively imagine the Earth not as a collection of inert geological matter but as a giant body with wounds and bruises, whose skin is violently poked and penetrated, squeezed and pushed without cease? How does this affect our human self-image, and more precisely, how does it re-position Western capitalist civilisation? With this, dear human reader, I invite you to complete the work with your own associations and considerations, and with receptive generosity.
“The self is surrounded by mystery, the way an island is surrounded by the vastness of the ocean, a domain that connects you with every other part of the earth. It can, of course, be experienced as a separation, but the mystic doesn’t experience nature or the ocean as something that separates you, it’s a reminder of our connection with the universe. And island consciousness does that.” – David Weale, Shore Walkers: A company of friends, 2011.
 Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Melbourne 2008.
 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham/NC 2010.