An interview with Shock Forest Group

Written by Callum McLean
Photos by Boudewijn Bollmann

Interdisciplinarity, emergence, embodied practices – in the arts, these buzzwords can sometimes wear thin. Not so for the Shock Forest Group, an artistic collective whose work vigorously embraces uncertainty, radical empathy and conscious practices of listening. Formed in 2019, their early work centred around the ‘Schockbos’ after which they named themselves: originally a testing site and dumping ground for the former munitions factory in Zaandam, now the cultural space Het Hem. Including designers, coders and linguists, the collective has since morphed and grown to include current members Katya Abazajian, Sheryn Akiki, Axel Coumans, Susanna Gonzo, Daria Kiseleva, Jelger Kroese, and Nicolás Jaar, the prolific producer known also for musical side-projects Darkside and Against All Logic. 

Now, for a residency in Eindhoven, their project Cosmic Radio has been tuning into a range of interconnected histories: from the natural world to colonisation. As they prepare to present the latest part of this project – a series of workshops – most of the group gathers around a laptop to discuss their work. What emerges are not only compelling insights into violence past and present, but also a collective that practices what they preach: multiple voices carefully attuned, listening together for the roots of a better future.

How is your early work in the Shock Forest at Het Hem still foundational to your approach today? 

Daria Kiseleva: I think the fact that we’re still named after that forest already speaks volumes. We keep coming back to that forest and what we’ve done at Het Hem.

Axel Coumans: As a methodology from the get go, we said we’re gonna look around and not ahead. A lot of boxes were opened up back then: about relations between technology and ecology, institutional power. We saw that all at Het Hem, and a lot of our work still deals with how to respond to that – not as an outcome, but a way of working together.

That way of working has often been described as like “free jazz improvisation”. Is the keyword here “improvisation”, or is it mostly about bouncing off each other?

Katya Abazajian: It’s improvisation but also emergence, which is a core part of our practice. None of us feel inclined to drive the research in a specific direction. Such an act of pushing a certain agenda or message could stifle the opportunity to let things emerge from others. As someone coming from a more academic research space, I’ve seen how that direction can be very restrictive. We’re trained to look for answers, when it’s the question we’re asking that’s wrong. Our approach prevents that from happening, in that things have to be deeply felt by everyone and have to emerge from the process itself to be understood and communicated in our work.

“As a methodology from the get go, we said we’re gonna look around and not ahead.”

You mentioned at an earlier stage of the Cosmic Radio project that you were finding more questions than answers. It seems anxiety inducing, this struggle to tie together all these endlessly emerging questions. How do you stay grounded?

Axel: We have to learn to trust the process, that some things might really stay with us throughout, whereas others might fall away when they don’t resonate in that moment. So we try not to hold onto everything all the time but instead keep that open.

Susanna Gonzo: We’re trying to find ways of staying with complexity, confusion and uncomfortable feelings. When we get scared, our minds want to over-simplify, to find answers, to attach to some kind of certainty – but instead we try to develop an embodied practice that is made of listening, exercises and experimentation. Right now as we’re doing these workshops, we’re a total of eighteen people, which makes it even more complicated to hold in the same space all these questions, so that everyone can share it. But it’s been very beautiful and surprising how it still happens: we can still find comfort despite all these questions and the anxiety to act immediately and find solutions.

How does that go down when you’re working with others?

Katya: We often deal with institutions who don’t work in this way: they need answers about what’s going to be shown, how much money we need, what we’re going to buy. So for us to come in and say, ‘We don’t know yet, we’ll let you know the week before the opening’ – that creates challenges for people! We try to be sympathetic, but it’s also part of our process. This has also been happening during the workshops, but we’ve found it productive. Leaving space for that tension is something that’s really important to us, to create these embodied spaces for listening. A lot of conflicts in the world we’re living in are due to a lack of listening and empathy, to an inability to inhabit collective spaces and hear each other with respect, to resolve complex challenges and let tension exist. 

Introduce us to the Cosmic Radio project.

Katya: We were originally invited to do a two-part residency to study the history of radio in Eindhoven. Our process allows invisible traces of memory or history to emerge, so we were already also thinking about radio in a broader sense: about how humans and scientists have used it not only to communicate with each other around the world but also to look to the cosmos for answers. That search for answer and desire to communicate resonates deeply with us.

“Too often we’re trained to look for answers, when actually it’s the question we’re asking that’s wrong.”

Axel: We first started talking about the project back at Het Hem, but the pandemic delayed this for several years.

Jelger Kroese: In that time it shape-shifted completely. The topic of radio and cosmic radio was like finding a doorway that enables us to land somewhere else – a multiplicity of paths and directions to explore.

Daria: We tried out a lot of these divergent paths, and many have ended up reconnecting. They took us to Eindhoven and other locations in the Netherlands, but we also wanted to think of radio as a medium – as a space for connection – and also as a natural phenomenon, something that exists beyond human intervention. Cosmic radio on the one hand speaks about the cosmos, but also the very grounded, earthly elements and questions close to what we had explored at Het Hem. So as with every topic, this one is a doorway, but it also leads us back to some of the same topics.

This reminds me of a great moment from your Cosmic Radio broadcast during STRP Festival earlier this year. You describe arriving at Radio Kootwijk [a disused transmitter station in De Veluwe] to the sound of gunfire from a nearby military base – an eerie echo of your origins at the former munitions factory in Het Hem. You asked yourselves:

“why every time we pursue listening – to really try to listen – to nature, to the world around us, we find in places of infrastructure the presence of an industrial military complex that will not leave us alone”. 

On the one hand, this seems sort of funny, like a curse or cosmic joke. But does it also represent for you a darker realisation: that you don’t have to look – or listen – very far to find violence, and industries of violence, beneath the surface? Histories of violence, and the industries of violence, recur across your work. How do those connections keep cropping up?

Katya: We often ask ourselves why these questions of imperialism, colonialism and state oppression continue to emerge in our research, but that often feels directly connected to the fact that we’re listening and paying attention. These are realities in the world! As that coexists with us, there are also opportunities for spaces of healing and connection, allowing us to find freedom in some sense. These elements all feel connected, even when at first they seem like rude interruptions.

Daria: It also relates back to your earlier question about what grounds us. We always go back to these spaces and relations that we create, which helps us reflect.

Susanna: And this also allows us to approach those topics that are violent and painful. Otherwise it would be very difficult, if we didn’t feel connected, to be able to welcome this heaviness into the research. Every time it’s a challenge, but we keep looking for ways to proceed.

Jelger: Listening and opening up our attention to notice violent histories is an important element of healing, of re-sensitising ourselves to be able to receive them instead of blocking them out.

Collectively at this moment we need for more people to find ways to care for each other (…)”

This brings us to the elephant in the room: what’s going on in the world right now: the war in Gaza, the recent Dutch elections. In much of your work, you’ve had to listen closely to uncover hidden threads of violence, but how does that change when today we’re constantly bombarded with very present horror?

Susanna: When we met about a week ago, we were already exhausted and feeling a lot about what was happening. It’s been harder this time to deal with the situation, although of course there’s always something horrific happening. It’s still been hard to digest.

Katya: In a way, the violence against Palestinians being broadcasted across social media is connected to a lot of the other forms of violence we’ve already been seeing and feeling. Because these are topics we’re not afraid to engage in, it gives us some space to actually observe and examine how they’re showing up for us. Even though we have very different and diverse relationships to various global conflicts or displacements of indigenous peoples around the world, we also feel that grief. It’s very important to let that in. But if you don’t make space to then transform that grief into something else and imagine different ways for our societies to be structured, then it results in this type of lashing out that I think we’re seeing: a lot of people who don’t know how to process the changing climate and world, and are acting that out through their reactions to migrants in Europe and other issues important to them.

What can you tell us about your upcoming “antenna installation” in the Van Abbemuseum this coming Saturday 2 December?

Susanna: We don’t really know! We’re still figuring out exactly what we’ll do…

Jelger: I think this is a good example of our practice. We can have all these ideas beforehand about what would be nice to do in a certain space, but we don’t want to put an idea out there and just say let’s build it.

Katya: You will at least be able to see a window into our process. Whatever we show will be created by all the participants of the workshops, and will be a result of our weeks of conversation and embodied research.

Axel: There will be a sonic installation.

Susanna: It can be anything!

Axel: Sound will be very important.

Susanna: There will be sound.

Axel: The human body will be very important.

Susanna: There will be sound and people in the room. And a kind of conversation – verbal or nonverbal – through sound that we produce, as part of the process we are sharing right now. It will emerge in that moment as a kind of improvisation.

It seems that what’s really important for you in these workshops is the process, not the product. This resonates with one of your stated aims in the workshops to “oppose neoliberal practices, while working within contexts that are shaped by capitalist forces”. How is that political dimension taking shape so far?

Daria: Part of this relates to those topics that keep re-emerging in our work: colonialism, oppression, etc. But for me personally, creating these spaces in the workshops is itself a political act. They allow for connection and reimagination. The other part of it is thinking how we embody these toxic narratives that we all have, to acknowledge them and find ways to deal with them personally and as a group. 

Katya: This work really requires an incredible amount of empathy: learning to care for each other in this way – really making space for everyone’s ideas, interests and curiosity. But also valuing our own curiosity and joy – that really is a radical act. This has implications for how people move through the world. Collectively at this moment we need for more people to find ways to care for each other, and to build systems and structures that aren’t rooted in colonialism, racism and oppression. Almost all of our economic and social systems, at least in the West, come from these harmful origins. We really do need to build a new world, and in order to learn how to do that we need to get better at this practice. 

Susanna: There’s also an ecological dimension to this. We can’t think about ecology without thinking about how we relate to each other – that’s the first form of oppression and violence. If we treat others in an oppressive way, that’s how we’ll treat nature. 

Katya: Ultimately our desire is for more people to share in this process. It’s not about our ownership of the process. We just found something that’s really beautiful and we want to continue to share that with others. This is just our first step in learning how to do that.

Shock Forest Group and the ‘New Temporary Shock Forest Group’ of workshop participants will present their recent work on Cosmic Radio at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, on 2-3 December. Saturday 2 December from 12.00-17.00 will present a sonic installation revolving around the building and switching on of antennas. Recordings and reflections on that day and the workshops will be presented in a live radio broadcast the following day, Sunday 3 December.

Read more about these upcoming events in our focus piece about the programme.