Synthetic sensations: an interview with The Word Radio manager Mika Oki

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After a decade of providing Belgium of alternative art content, The Word sadly pulled the plug on their paper magazine in March. Luckily, the platform is far from dead, albeit in a new form: radio. The Word Radio was launched almost 2 years ago by Nicolas Lewis and Quentin Materne and it proudly broadcasts heaps of homegrown, alternative artists and DJ’s from their Brussels studio on a weekly basis. Right now, the radio is co-managed by Mika Oki, a Parisian who’s been living in Belgium for 5 years. Other than a radio manager, she also hosts her own show, DJ’s across the world and exhibits her own (audio)visual installations. In this age of ever-shifting cultural trends, we sat down with Mika for a chat about the online radio phenomenon, an outsider’s point of view on the Belgian scene and the ways artists can express themselves with modern tools at hand.

Hi Mika! What brought you to Belgium? And how did you end up at The Word Radio?

I moved to Belgium five years ago to finish my masters in sculpture at La Cambre, although this was just an excuse to move to Brussels. One of my earliest memories of this city was Bozar Electronic’s 2015 festival. This was my first experience with the local nightlife scene and even though it’s not a venue I would normally hang out, I was having a party in an open exhibition space, forgetting all the conventions this institution normally represents.

As a Parisian, how do you experience the Belgian music and nightlife scene?

As an eternal nightlife kid, I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out in Paris’ various hangout spots. So to me, the Brussels nightlife scene felt completely new. The real charm of the local artistic scene is its authenticity: alternative and underground venues remain authentic, keeping its regulars attached to something they like, being genuinely creative without falling into expected hype.

The real charm of the Brussels artistic scene is its authenticity: alternative and underground venues remain genuinely creative without falling into expected hype.

Many say the online radio landscape is saturated. With the rise of stations like NTS, Red Light Radio or Kiosk Radio, we can see why. What makes The Word Radio unique?

Due to the internet, I feel that the cultural landscape is saturated in general. Back in the days, certain media platforms, especially print, determined which scenes people followed. Nowadays, it’s up to us to educate ourselves by choosing the media we feel related to. I also think that there are two types of web radios that can be complementary. Radios like Red Light, The Lot or Kiosk operate as a window front, showcasing continuous live streams and offering a way to greatly promote on the act and moment of the performance. Meanwhile, ‘community radios’ like LYL in France, Dublab in Spain or NTS in the UK are based on a network, a common field where, as a listener, you can pick what interests you most. Therefore, it’s not so much about the live moment as it is about the narrative and story behind every podcast. The Word started as a free cultural magazine 10 years ago and it launched its radio last year in order to highlight the Belgian music scene. Each of our 100 monthly residents nourishes a show centred around a topic, story or atmosphere. It’s a place of experimentation where they can do live performances and collaborate with visual artists as well. Because of The Word’s editorial nature, we also organise events and work with institutions like Wiels, De Singel or CIVA. Since the paper magazine chapter is over, the radio now tends to become a digital cultural platform of its own.

Your own radio show is called Waking Life. Is that a reference to the 2001 animation film? What’s the mission of this show?

Yes, this show is a reference to the animation that movie by Richard Linklater. In my mixes, as in my installations, altered waking states are a big inspiration. It’s all about creating oneiric landscapes with abstract narrations that can shoot in our imagination dealing with the difficulty of being tied up to reality, as well as the risk of living an ethereal existence. One quote from the movie I really like is, "the worst mistake that you can make is to think that you’re alive, when really you’re asleep in life’s waiting room".

DJing, producing, video, sculpture, visual art: you’re basically an artistic centipede. Do you feel like using different ways of expression makes it easier to articulate your message?

In an age where artists are becoming more multidisciplinary, the different mediums become infinite ways to materialize ideas. As images and narratives are always linked in my creations, the choice of materializing them depends on which senses I want to trigger. My video, sculpture and sound practices have merged spontaneously. Maybe because, whether by listening to music or playing it, I often see forms and colours moving through space. These are synesthetic sensations. I compose my music in the same way as I create my installations, by sketching lines, forms and textures moving as narratives.

When I present my installations in a gallery or mix a DJ-set in a club, I want to immerse bodies and trigger physical sensations.

In general, my work is based on unconscious and altered states. But in my opinion, illustrating the sound with visuals can spoil the experience sometimes. That’s why I only use light and abstract images in order to keep the visuals as physical as the music itself. Also, what I find most interesting about working with light is that it’s intangible. And so ‘reflection’ is essential, but the most important thing is the space in-between: time and energy. It’s also a way for space to become a sort of container of light. When I present my installations in a gallery or mix a DJ-set in a club, I want to immerse bodies and trigger physical sensations. However, my radio shows or electro-acoustic productions are lingering soundscapes with abstract narrations that the listener can use to feed his own imaginary space.

You travel around a lot for your art and DJ-sets. What have been the most memorable touring experiences for you this past year?

My most memorable experience was performing at Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Festival, mostly in terms of the general musical and human interactions. Despite the external image and the hype this festival received, what was most striking was seeing African youth and local artists meet up and dance together. And I mean really dancing! Nyege Nyege is doing great things for the East African music community, trying to offer real music experiences. I got quite upset when I saw a certain French media platform publish headline stating that “a local DJ was killed because the public didn’t like his music”. This was a copy-paste story lifted from a Ugandan newspaper without taking into consideration the fact that the government’s stance towards nightlife is condemning to say the least.

You’re also part of the SHAPE platform. Could you describe what that is exactly and what it did for you?

Yes, I was part of SHAPE’s 2018 selection of artists. Every year, SHAPE selects 48 musicians, DJs, audio-visual and sound artists - made up equally of men and women - and offers them opportunities to perform around Europe. It’s thanks to SHAPE that I was able to play at TodaysArt, Sonica and Schiev. The project has been extended till 2021 and you can apply for it every year. It has been a wonderful experience of travel, visit unconventional festivals and interacting with brilliant artists.

Are there Belgian DJ’s or artists you think should get more attention? If so, why and why?

So many great artists and musicians to focus on these days... The Belgian music scene has always been effervescent but it’s on going increasingly well because of resonant record labels like Ekster, VastesChoses, Stroom. I’m also starting the co-curation of a project with the Air Texture and Kompakt record labels. We’ll select some favourite Belgian producers to make a track for a charity compilation. All the proceeds from the release will go towards a local human rights charity (more info soon). Meanwhile, you can listen to The Word Radio to discover some of them.