国際交流基金 The Japan Foundation Performing Arts Network Japan

Artist Interview アーティストインタビュー

May. 25, 2020
Akira Takayama
Photo: Yuji Oku

With コロナの視点


An Interview with Akira Takayama
Revealing a new “With Corona” Perspective

Akira Takayama is known for the way he reads the life of urban landscapes, perceives things seen and heard on the streets from a perspective of theatrical physicality and turns them into performance works to tour the theater scene. Now, with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic spreading worldwide and driving people off the city streets, and with the risk of infection connected with events where people gather having led to the adoption of a new “with corona” lifestyle, Takayama has introduced his new Heterotopia Garden project that embraces the “Stay Home” spirit in a positive new light. In this interview, he speaks about the vision behind this new venture.
Interviewer: Masashi Nomura [Theater producer, dramaturg]

In Japan, the arrival of the Diamond Princess cruise ship in the port of Yokohama on the 3rd of February brought the country’s first large-scale cluster of coronavirus (COVID-19) infections, which immediately heightened concerns about coming pandemic. On March 2nd a special closing of all elementary and middle schools nationwide was announced, and on March 18th a special directive demanding that travelers entering Japan from some 38 overseas countries undergo a 14-day quarantine was instigated. Finally on April 14th the Japanese government issued a declaration of a state of emergency. We hear that you were residing overseas in February.
In February, I had an exhibition that opened in Hong Kong and then traveled to Brussels in Belgium and Bochum in Germany. It was just around that time that the growing number of coronavirus infections was getting serious in Italy, and it was announced that a large number of infections had occurred in Land Nordrhein-Westfalen where Bochum is located. I came back to Japan via Frankfurt, where I got a fever, and when I returned to Japan early in March, I still had a fever, so I went to a hospital.

When I was in the quarantine section and I was asked by a nursing technician and when I said that I had been traveling in Germany, I was told that I might have a coronavirus infection so I had to leave the hospital immediately and report to a (public) health center. I kept calling the local health center but I had trouble getting through. And when I finally got through they told me to go to a hospital. Eventually, there was no health center or hospital that would see me for two weeks, so I had to just wait at home. My symptoms were not very bad, but in the meantime I got news from a person involved in the Bochum theater festival that someone got a corona infection. And although I hadn’t met the infected person, I was a suspect as the cause because I had just come from Hong Kong, so everyone I had met in Bochum had to quarantine themselves for two weeks.

So, I was the subject of suspicion and idle fears from all sides, being blamed for spreading infection in Germany because I had come there from Hong Kong and in Japan because I had come from Germany—I felt like I was being treated like a criminal. What that made me feel was that in times of crisis was the tendency to think that threats always come from the outside, and never from within one’s own group or community. I felt a strong sense of alienation and of being discriminated against, and that was a very disturbing feeling. Until then, I had been working with immigrant and refugee people and groups, so this experience of being alienated myself gave me a bit more empathy and understanding of what they must feel like.
So, you had a personal and physical experience of the coronavirus pandemic, didn’t you? Did that experience bring you any new realizations?
From this kind of experience I began looking for hints that could lead to new understandings, and what I became interested in was the traditional concept of the Marebito, the traveling performers of the middle ages who could travel around and visit the common people who were unable to move around freely by themselves. So, I began to study about the Japanese traditional arts and traveling performers of the middle ages. For example, In a short novel titled Shintoku-maru by Nobuo Origuchi, which is based on the ancient Japanese tradition of Shintoku-maru (a mythical character that appears on Noh and Kabuki plays), we find the son of a performer the ancient ritual music and dance performed at shrines and temples who has a chronic illness and sets out on a long pilgrimage. The concept of a person whose body contains a “poison” (shintoku literally meaning a poison of the body) that appears in the folk morality tales recited by traveling storytellers was now something I read with deep, first-person interest after my experience with the coronavirus pandemic.

There was a special set of rules by which a community would traditionally receive a Marebito traveling performer, with sayings like, “It is OK to allow them to approach as far as the other side of the river,” or, “It is OK to allow them to approach to just short of your house.” In these ways, each community had its own system of skillfully dealing with the outside world or people who were different or foreigners, while making sure that they are successfully excluded afterwards.

In the book “Termini Della Politica” by Roberto Esposito it says that the words community and immunity have the same entomology, and I thought that is really fascinating. It is said that the new coronavirus intensifies excessive reactions by the immune system, and if compared to that, if a community isn’t skillful in their handling of outsiders, it can lead to excessive reactions such as rejection of other races or fascism that can lead people to kill themselves. If you take the bodies of individuals and the communal bodies of society and treat them all as one monolith, an excessive reaction of the immune system breaks it down. Everyone will last longer if we take others and those who are different from us and interact with them to discuss ways to settle our differences. The performing arts have functioned as a medium for helping to work out differences in that kind of way. In that sense, I thought it would be bad to just eliminate all interaction or just put everything online, or essentially to overreact.
In May, you introduced your online project Heterotopia Garden (*1). And in its description you used the word vaccination, so it looks like there is a connection with what you have just been talking about, isn’t there?
In short, a vaccination is giving the body an injection of a very weak virus to allow it a chance to practice battling the virus. This is a time when we are staying enclosed in our homes or our communities to avoid contact, but when the time comes, how should we reconnect to the relationships that have been cut off during this time, or contact with others in general, and with foreign things and the like? I got the idea that I would like to create a piece that would serve as an exercise in re-establishing those severed connections. Unlike with the threat of true disasters, the [performing] arts are not an enemy with vicious intent. And in that sense, I thought that the arts could serve a role similar to a vaccine.
What kind of process or circumstances led up to the birth of your “Heterotopia Garden” project?
I was asked by the Onassis Culture Center in New York to think up within 120 hours a project for creating works of an artistic nature in the home, and the idea I came up with was the “Heterotopia garden.” Although I use the word garden, the object is not to create a real garden the general meaning. Rather, this is a creative exercise in which you use a framed board and arrange in it things from your immediate surroundings like toys, or things like souvenirs containing memories of a trip you made to look like a model for a small garden. The point is that most of the things you will arrange in the frame have come into your house from the “outside,” for example a souvenir that you received from so-and-so in Greece, or a stone that you picked up in some particular place, so the “garden” becomes an arrangement things that differ in origin.

“Heterotopia” (generally meaning things that are different (other) in origin from the things in one’s everyday life) is a term coined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who gave numerous examples of things that are heterotopias. Some of them are movie theaters and theaters for drama and the like, and they are characterized as a sort of framed space (world where different things are arranged together at the same time. And in that sense, he also says that the “garden” can be a translation of heterotopia. Also, he says that a garden can be seen as a miniaturization of the world and that in fact a carpet can be seen as a copy of a garden, and by extension, a carpet can be interpreted as a garden that can move to different spaces. I though this was a rather interesting idea, and it became the hint that led me to the idea of the Heterotopia garden exercise.

Alone in their room, people can arrange in a framed space things that originated in different times and spaces, things that came from other places, or they can take a picture of a rug from their house. Then they can take a picture of the “garden” they make in that way, and maybe create a story to go with it, and then I have them send it to me. And if they include in those stories the historical trails of the things in their garden, that can give a degree of ‘outside’ aspect to the things around them that they had become used to. For example: “Now that I think of it, this came from Fukushima,” or, “I got this from a person I met in Greece.” I defined the making of such a garden or such a story in which you can recall circuits to the outside. And in that way, doing this exercise can help to some degree in not forgetting about the outside world.

In the [stay home] situation we find ourselves in today, we can become too comfortable in our homes. There have been a few moments when I have felt inside that my home is the safer place to be, like when the arrival of a package raises the suspicion that it might have the virus on it and I go to sterilize it. Even though I have gone through the experience of being alienated when I first came back from Germany to Japan, when I am isolating myself at home, I am tempted to alienate others threaten my security when they attempt to come in from the outside. I got a painful awareness that this is a natural physical reaction by human beings, and that is why I thought this exercise could be important to help keep our homes ‘hetero’ instead of closed off from the outside.

In German there is the word “Heimlich” which has a positive meaning of familiarity or homely, but when you attach the prefix “un-” you get the negative term “unheimlich” which has the negative meaning of eerie, or uncontrollable. Besides Heterotopia Garden, I thought it would be necessary to have a number of other exercises aimed at turning things that became Heimlich into things unheimlich.
Before the effect of the coronavirus pandemic emerged, you had introduced your exhibit work “Tokyo Trunk Room” (*2) in February of this year. The Japanese title Mokei Toshi Tokyo uses the word mokei which means a model of something, and it seems that this concept connects to the model garden concept in your Heterotopia Garden project.
The truth is that the similarity is complete coincidental. “Tokyo Trunk Room” was the result of a request I received from the ARCHI-DEPOT MUSEUM, which is a museum for architectural models that are made in the building design process. The request was to plan and exhibition of such models. That gave me the idea to focus on models that become originals of something new in the urban environment.

For example, if the individual customer cubicles in a Internet café are made as private rooms [that can be completely closed off] a notification has to be filed with the authorities because they them have the possibility for use in restricted businesses like the sex industry, for which other regulations apply. To avoid this inconvenience, a new format was adopted in which the upper part of the walls are left open just enough to prevent the cubicles from qualifying as closeable rooms. In other words, the Internet café cubicles became “models” of closeable private rooms. There are many examples of these kinds of “models” in the cities, such as convenience stores, rental storage trunk rooms, and even shopping malls [with their partitioned shop spaces]. And in fact, Tokyo is a city where many people take completely unoriginal models and make them original because of the strangely original ways that they use them. So I got the concept that one big originality of Tokyo is the way users make skillful use of such models.

So I proposed that “Tokyo Trunk Room” use as its exhibit spaces same-scale models of the trunk rooms of Warehouse TERRADA, which is run by the ARCHI-DEPOT MUSEUM. Then I asked for the cooperation of some actual trunk room customers to move their storage items to one of exhibit rooms temporarily and made it so the exhibit visitors could see the items on display from the outside. There were also cooperating users who came during the course of the exhibition to remove some of their storage items. For each of the trunk rooms in use, I also set up headsets on which visitors could listen to short interviews of the trunk room users. There are also a few people that I have asked to deposit storage items in one of the display trunk rooms in a fictional context. Since I became interested in people who have no permanent address but instead are constantly moving from place to place, like so-called “address hoppers” who are traveling around the world, or people like travel brokers, people who live a mobile life traveling around and building themselves small shanties to live in wherever they want, and I got artists who are often traveling to overseas venues to leave the things that they don’t use often in my trunk rooms.
I feel that the way the storage items in these trunk rooms were shut off and away from the world also seemed to carry a premonition of society since the coronavirus pandemic.
Yes, it does. So, I started thinking about why that was, and if their might have been some sign [of the coming pandemic]. In a similar coincidence, I introduced my “The Complete Manual of Evacuation (Tokyo Version)” (*3) just three months before the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami struck. If it had been after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, I don’t think I could have given the project this title.
I also feel that there is a frame-like similarity connecting the trunk rooms and the gardens of your two other project. In both cases there are arrangements of things with different histories that connect to the ‘outside’.
Yes, there are. There were ten participants in the “Tokyo Trunk Room” project, and I had them all keep a “travel log” in the form of a blog during the project that served as a window to the outside. One of the address hoppers would report, “I am in Nairobi now,” and then, “I am moving to Sao Paulo,” and there was a marathon runner who exhibited a collection of 50 pairs of sneakers in the trunk room and on his blog he wrote about the marathon races he has entered around the world. Another participant who builds small shanties to live in each new location uploaded a live video on YouTube while building a shanty. In the trunk room exhibit spaces there were a variety of things gathered together, and the way the project was structured to have the things then going out again was also something that indeed linked to Heterotopia garden, I believe.
This time, in addition to the serious spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the Internet is full of uncertain fake news to the degree that it amounts to an “infodemic” that people are overreacting to, causing panic throughout society. Meanwhile, on a variety of media and from figures like university professors, we are seeing in recent months a situation that can only be conducted online. Even though it is something that an infodemic can’t solve, we are frustrated by the fact that, currently, the discourse can only take place online. Would you share your thoughts with us about this situation?
Entering the 20th century with the new media of photography and film, which represented reproduceable art, the arts of “aura” such as theater (arts that can’t be reproduced, which draw their roots from sacred [religious] rites) led to the birth of a new type of “non-aura based art” based on the idea of artistic value that could be reproduceable displays of art. This concept was put forward by the German thinker Walter Benjamin in an essay he published in 1936 titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and this concept has always been something I am aware of as I plan my projects. But, since that line of work was brought to a stop with coronavirus pandemic, I started to think again about aura-based art anew.

The “aura” that Benjamin speaks about is connected “breathing together,” but this is exactly what the virus has forced to be banned. I believe that the issue that theater faces now, at least for me, must be to connect “aura” and “breathing” and to think again about this value. And as an extension of this, perhaps we can even find ways to inhibit the infodemic problem.

In short, information is spread by being reproduce, but when you introduce the experience of actually breathing together or living with the people involved, you find that the reality can be completely different from the information you had heard. I have been to areas that are said to be dangerous, like Bogotá (Colombia) and Beirut (Lebanon), but when I actually went there I saw things like young soldiers maybe 15 or 16 years of age are eating ice cream bars as they are on guard. But when you are there breathing the same air, the semblance of “aura” that you grasp reveals the lies in the reproduced information you thought you understood in your mind. So, I started to think about searching for ways to make theater a medium that could function in that way.

Therefore, in terms of contents, I thought it might be good to change the direction of the last 15 years or so when the direction was toward documentary theater that took “the real thing” (reality) as the main material for its subjects. So, I began to think that this may be a time to use a poison to counter a poison [as in vaccination] by deliberately returning to fiction.
Much of the criticism of the exploitation of “aura,” including the aura that Benjamin wrote about, can be seen as a reaction to the way groups like the Nazis used it to draw in people and were able to start World War II. In the meantime, the trend toward “anti-aura” thinking, including in the theater arts, became excessive to the point that people whose resistance to aura began to weaken seemed to be exceptionally caught up in the reproduction and transmission of information.
Well, yes. There is a feeling that makes us think about how it became that way. At the Nazi party conventions, the efforts to create a compelling atmosphere of a need to “live together” with the same goals reached an intense level such as never seen before. In the large squares where the party members gathered, searchlights were used to create a “cathedral of light” and a Wagner prelude was played on the sound system before Hitler made his dramatic appearance to speak. The sense of aura created by that staging put everyone in trancelike state. It was against the background of that era that led thinkers like Benjamin and Brecht to turn their hopes to things free of that kind of element of aura. It was an era that left them no alternative but to seek a new direction. But, because things eventually went too far in that direction, we reached a point where people are easily fooled by conventional, outdated information. So, this led me to think that re-discovering the arts of the Middle Ages and aura and storytelling might help us to become masters of utilizing a “poison” to prevent [infodemic] infection [through the effects of a different type of infection] in a sort of vaccination process.
In your projects until now you have built relationships with foreign residents, people from foreign countries who live in Japan. Hasn’t the COVID-19 pandemic put many of them in very difficult situations?
I have been in contact particularly with Kurdish people, and indeed things have gotten more difficult for them. It is normal I think for people to make use of a number of different faces, or persona, in their daily lives, but when people are subjected to too much oppression, I think that becomes solidified into a single identity. In today’s conditions, I feel that the identities of immigrants and refugees are being solidified as a single “refugee” identity. In more peaceful times, there are cases where younger immigration officers and refugees can get to know each other a little better, and when they do, they can forget their respective positions and interact for a moment on a friendlier level. But in today’s severe conditions, there is more pressure on both sides.

In respect to this, I realized once again the potential importance of hip hop. In my “Wagner Project” (*4), I focused on hip-hop, and last year we did performances of it in Frankfurt as well. In Japan, hip hop has a street image and is often associated with young social dropouts, but in Germany, hip hop is mainly an art performed by the immigrant youths. The children of immigrants study hard to learn German and it is those young people who lead the hip hop movement. They also perform in their native languages, but they are really good at performing in both languages.

Down to things like their special handshakes, their style is the same as the original black hip hop performers. When I saw that, I immediately thought of Brecht. As you know, hip hop is an art born in New York’s South Bronx in what you could call another defiant face of the bright American societal image. It began in charity concerts for the poorer class who wanted to buy nicer clothes for their young sisters. That movement was carried on by the children of the parents who had participated in the Civil Rights Movement (1960s to 70s). And didn’t this hip hop art spread to other cities and countries because it was a style that could be borrowed to communicate similar messages? I thought it was a really great discovery that the body language of this most discriminated group of black immigrants could be referenced and copied to link together other immigrants and refugees and help create community layers in other cities and countries.

Since hip hop is a composite art form, it includes dance a DJ performance and graffiti. It can thus succeed as a form of expression and communication without a common language. And it doesn’t need to be completely original, so in that sense it can also reproduced art. All you need is one radio/cassette player to bring together existing [reproduced] elements to create new music for example, and in that sense it also adapts very well to drawing from [quoting/referencing] other material in the creative process. For me, it was in Frankfurt that I realized anew this important potential of hip hop.
In your writings introducing your Heterotopia Garden concept, you include a reference to the concept of utsushi (*5) in Japanese culture. This utsushi can also be thought of as a form of referencing/copying things.
Exactly so. You can see the old practice of making “Fujizuka,” which are mounds made in the image of Mt. Fuji, and in olden time when it was difficult to travel in Japan, you had Douchu Sugoroku a board game composed using cards decorated with pictures representing the 53 Stations [famous views] of the Tokaido Highroad [linking Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto]. Then there was also an Inu no O Ise Mairi service where you could stay at home and hire a dog to make the famous but difficult pilgrimage to the great Shrine of Ise. I decided I wanted to learn more about those types of ideas people had until the Edo Period. And when I thought about it, I came to the prospect that these various types of utsusu (transferring/copying/reproducing) were one method that was used in a time when the performing arts or theater could not move around. I think that is fact quite important.

On the other hand, with the coronavirus, the meaning of utsusu became the fear of being infected. Words like hyoui (being possessed by …) and kansen (being infected by ….) are important aspects of utsusu, but how do you reflect that utsusu with other utsusu meanings like the acts of “referencing/quoting” and “substituting” something for another thing? I believe that is another issue that I have to deal with going forward.
In Frankfurt a production of your “Hoelderlin Heterotopia” (*6) project is scheduled for September. It is a project in which a person walks the long 22 km road from Bad Homburg to Frankfurt while listening a recording. Does it look like you will be able to hold it as scheduled?
It is possible because it is a very sparsely populated area with no fear of contact and infection. It is very tough to walk 22 km, but I believe it is doable if divided over two days.
When did you start planning this project? This is also a project that seemed to anticipate the later developments these days, isn’t it?
I started on it almost exactly a year ago. Until now, I have long questioned what it means when I say “us” with regard to the groups of people I work with. For example, in the last dozen years or so I haven’t done any projects where I gather people [an audience] and made them watch something. Rather I have gone out to interview minorities or to create environments where I (or people) could listen to voices that are not usually heard, but that is something I can do that is not really related to the coronavirus, so there hasn’t really been much effect on my work. Compared to the projects that I have done in the past, this may look like it anticipated the future because we are now in a time when we are prevented from gathering people together. Conversely, however, people like refugees who are not accepted even when they apply for asylum, are people who are excluded from gatherings in the first place. Since they are prevented from entering the group that is “us” in the first place, being in a situation where they are unable to gather is nothing new to them.
By the way, are there any projects of yours that have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
There are. Art Basel in Hong Kong was cancelled, and the Kunsten Festival des Arts and The Ruhr Triennale festivals that I was invited to participate in were cancelled. Our group exhibition at Hong Kong’s Tai Kwun Contemporary opened once but then ended up closing again. The “Wagner Project” in Oita and Tokyo Biennale projects were postponed.
Due to the risks of travel and gatherings, international arts festivals were cancelled or postponed one after another. In recent years, international artist-in-resident programs for procuring new works have become popular in different countries as a means to promote mutual understanding among artists, but now it has become difficult to conduct such programs in the corona environment. Would you tell us your thoughts about the present state of such international art festival programs?
More than with the international arts festivals, I feel that it is theater that are now in the more difficult position. Theaters are gradually returning to performance with reduced numbers of seats in use and greater distance between members of the audience, but I wonder if that is a good thing. I don’t have an answer, but I think that as long as they are going to return to holding performances, they might take this as an opportunity to think about different new alternatives.

What I have been interested in and doing until now is exploring ways to “install audience seating” in different urban spaces, and how to direct “audiences” in various spaces around the cities. One of the cases where I tried to do that in a theater was the “Wagner・Project” I did at KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theatre. At theaters, besides the facilities and the contents they provide, another important factor influencing how the audience behaves is the rules the theater sets (prices, whether drinks and food are served or not, whether the audience is free to go in and out of the theater during programs, availability of Wi-Fi, etc.). What I wanted to do was to install audience outside, where they would not be influenced by the theater rules.

Last year we did a “Wagner・Project” at Mousonturm in Frankfurt and the artistic director there, Matthias Pees, understood my intentions well, and in a space that was like an excursion type garden, I was able to do something very close to what I wanted in terms of everything from the space, the price and the architecture of the contents. But, the result was that the usual theater audience and the Mousonturm theater’s audience and the usual audience that goes to see theater productions there hardly turned out for the event at all (laughs). Instead, it was Frankfurt’s hip hop performers and audience that came in large numbers. So rather than a theater event, it turned out to be a venue that brought out the hip-hop crowd. And as a result of that, it seems that Mousonturm began organizing hip-hop battle events and concerts for rappers, until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In ancient Greece, it is said that the people who could enter the theaters were selected by their citizen status, so there were people who could enter the theaters and those who couldn’t. In that sense, theaters function as places that both gather people as well as places that exclude people, as you have pointed out.
The act of gathering people and excluding others are two sides of the same coin, and if you make the decision that this time you want to attract a certain kind of community, you can use things like the pricing scale and how you advertise, etc., to attract completely different types of communities. An event that take the kind of form the “Wagner Project” did temporarily attracts only an extreme type of temporary community, but due to its function as a system that both attracts and excludes different people, theater has the power to make such communities. Because the conditions dictated by system at any given time determines which people will be excluded. For example, rappers don’t go to the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. This is exclusion is done unconsciously, but I think the fact that everyone does this unconsciously, that absence of conscious decision-making, is not a good thing. Citing an extreme example, I think it would be fine to create a system that attracts only refugees. That would make the organizers to think about every detail, and change everything from the pricing scale to all the other criteria. And if you changed everything, not only the conditions of the space/venue but also the architecture of the system, that would completely change the type of people the event gathers. I believe that, conversely, this might be the real potential of a theater.
It seems to me that things like today’s concern about “social distance” and other factors brought on by the pandemic will have an effect on the “new normal” that is taking shape and how it will change our physical perceptions and consciousness. Would you tell us your thoughts on this?
Since the human body is smarter and more perceptive in some ways than our minds, it seems to me that we will go on to find things that define what might be called a new order or new physical disciplines for our physical behavior. When that happens, we may come to recognize that, conversely, theater movements have played a role in upsetting existing orders and disciplines, and I believe that it is well suited as a medium for instigating that kind of change. To some degree, modern theater has in its nature the ability to “install” the kind of strong discipline on the [mind and] body that was seen in the Nazi party conventions, but due to the harsh lessons of that era, all but the most unsensitive creators worked with an awareness to avoid that danger. However, there is no assurance that theater might not take on such a role again as the new order changes. It is frightening to think that perhaps our bodies today are even more receptive to fascist-like sentiments than they were before.
People who are involved is the performing arts have a highly developed sensitivity with regard to their bodies and the spaces around them. They are also quick to adapt to new orders or disciplines imposed on them, although they also may rebel against such change, it seems that at this point their reaction is still half-hearted.
I think what is involved here is the fact that it takes time to adopt new physical sensitivities. With regard to that, what interests me now is architecture, or things like urban development that are slow to change people’s sensitivities. For one of my next projects I will be collaborating with the subway company Tokyo Metro Co., Ltd. In this project I will be looking at urban infrastructure as architecture and trying to create theater that takes on a function in people’s daily lives.
What will the project consist of?
I will be collaborating with Tokyo Metro on a “Tokyo Heterotopia” (*7) project. If you have the time to take a ride on the subway and get off at a station that has a spot nearby that we have designated a “Heterotopia,” you can go there with your smartphone and listen to a [fictionalized] story of events that might have happened at that site sometime. That takes the theater aspect away and the experience naturally becomes less theatrical. As with the subway, it becomes like a functional part of the urban landscape, but I think that may be alright. Rather than being something that attracts audiences, I think my theater will become closer to something that changes people’s physical sensitivities slowly over time, a bit like architecture does.
Will the urban landscape change because of the current COVID-19 pandemic?
Because people want it to return to the way it was so much, I think that on the surface it will return to the way it was before the pandemic. But the coronavirus is so powerful that it has stopped the flow of the urban landscape and the economy and politics as much as it has. Artaud wrote an essay titled “Theatre and the Plague,” and this time [with the coronavirus] I felt the connection that he spoke of was indeed true in this way.
Are there any other projects that you are thinking about for the future?
I want to make a shift in the [number of] actual restaurants where the “McDonald’s Radio University” (*8) is conducted. This is another case where I am seeking to move in the direction of theater as a function of the urban centers.

There is a tendency to see my activities as getting “out of the theater and into the city” or “theater against the city,” but I think it is better to think of it as having “seats (audience) seep out into the city” or “expanding the number of seats (audience).” Audience seats are places where communities are created, and when the seats spread out into the city, I am thinking about just how small a community they can be used to create as a mobile venue. In that sense, what I am interested in now is convenience stores. Since about five years ago in Japan, the number of immigrants working in convenience stores has increased. And in the process, the stores have become a sort of practice ground for interacting with immigrants. Rather than striving to create things with new originality in theaters, I want to think about theater as a venue for rediscovering things that already exist but have gone unnoticed, like the way convenience stores can be used as practice grounds.

Due to the coronavirus lock-down, our relationships with people and things have changed, whether we like it or not. If you dispense with the idea that you would like things to return to the way they were before the virus, I think you can find this time to be a good chance to reconstruct or explore the possibilities of building relationships with things or people that you formerly though of as different or outsiders. In order to learn something in this time of the spread of the virus, you could for example rethink things in an area like natural philosophy. Instead of deciding to place priority of the economy, I think it could be good to rethink your position on things that are slow, or loose, or hesitancy or reluctance, etc., things that until now have thought of as bad.
Finally, I want to thank you for spending such a long time with us here at Zoom and sharing your thoughts on such deep and interesting topics.

*1 Heterotopia Garden

*2 Tokyo Trunk Room
Feb. 8 (Sat), 2020 to Aug. 23 (Sun), 2020 (period extended due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic)

*3 The Complete Manual of Evacuation (Tokyo Version)
This work was first presented at Festival/Tokyo (F/T) in 2010. Based on the theme of “Evacuation from the timeframe of Tokyo,” it was a project that created a fictional new relationship between the metropolis of Tokyo and the individual. “Evacuation sites” were created in the vicinity of all 29 stations of the circular Yamanote commuter train line of Tokyo. The audience first of all visit the Complete Manual of Evacuation website and then visit the “Evacuation sites” (shelters) at the designated station, which consist of religious facilities, share houses, gathering places of the homeless, etc., where they meet and spend time getting to know the members of the various respective communities that are to be found in Tokyo.

*4 Wagner Project
After premiering at KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theatre in 2017, this product was recreated to appear at Frankfurt’s Mousonturm in 2019. Taking a hint from the singing matches of the common people in Richard Wagner’s opera "The Master-Singers of Nuremberg," the performances included a bold mix of hip hop culture including rap DJs, Cypher, graffiti and the like. It presented a questioning of the traditional functions, customs, spaces and time concepts of the theater.

Wagner Project Yokohama version

“Wagner Project” Yokohama version
(Oct. 2017 at KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theatre)
Photo: Naoya Hatakeyama

Wagner Project Frankfurt version

“Wagner Project” Frankfurt version
(Nov. – Dec. 2019 at Mousonturm)
Photo: Jeannette Petri

In traditional Japanese gardening, gardens are thought to be an うつし (utsushi), in which the “outside” scenery is compressed. The characters移 (move), 映 (reflect), 写 (copy), and 感染 (infect) are all read うつし (utsushi). How were the various items comprising the garden 移 (moved) to the house, and from where did they come? What do they 映 (reflect) and 写 (copy), and how? The items came to the house from other places, serving as traces of various people, and containing different temporal origins. If you pay attention to these aspects, the garden becomes a heterotopia in which various times and spaces are juxtaposed. Stories will emerge naturally.

*6 Hoelderlin Heterotopia
This project was presented in September 2020 in Germany during the week commemorating the 25th anniversary of the birth of the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin.

*7 Tokyo Heterotopia
With its focus on “foreign enclaves in Tokyo,” this project plotted a course of religious facilities, monuments, remains of former refugee detention facilities, ethnic restaurants and the like that have significance in the history of Japan and Asian countries and the present-day link for participants to tour. At each of the sites participants can listen to radio broadcasts of stories written by poets and authors based on ideas and impressions they got from the respective sites. The project premiered at Festival/Tokyo13 in 2013, and later a Tokyo Heterotopia iPhone app version was released in 2015.

*8 McDonald’s Radio University
This work premiered at Mousonturm (Frankfurt) in 2017. Likening the McDonald restaurants to universities for study and taking immigrants who came to Europe from countries in the Middle East and Africa as “professors” teaching classes for a curriculum of 15 courses that customers can order and listen to on radio sets. For details, see the previous Takayama artist interview here: (https://performingarts.jp/J/art_interview/1702/1.html). The project was re-presented in Tokyo in 2018 and ’19.
Tokyo Version: http://portb.net/mruroppongiartnight/
Frankfurt version: http://www.mru.global/
Hong Kong version: http://www.mru.global/hongkong/

McDonald’s Radio University Frankfurt version

McDonald’s Radio University Frankfurt version
Photo: Masahiro Hasunuma