Kyoto Experiment Autumn 2021

This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on October 2 2021.

In these pandemic times, the digital tools that connect people in the absence of travel have, by necessity, led to our voices taking precedence over our bodies. Fewer domains have felt the effects of this disembodiment more acutely than the performing arts.

In Japan, as in many parts of the world, theaters are still struggling to find funding, facilitate live productions, run rehearsals, conduct outreach programs and fulfill the many activities that make up the community-based art form.

Despite these setbacks the Kyoto Experiment (KEX) performing arts festival is going ahead with its October program. With the pandemic as its backdrop and social distancing still in effect, the theme for its 12th edition is “moshi moshi?!” a common expression used to answer the phone in Japan. Moshi moshi is often translated as “hello,” though it can also mean “excuse me” when hailing someone from a distance. In both instances, the utterance signals a person’s presence acoustically, while the rest of the body remains concealed.

The theme was chosen by KEX’s three directors — Yoko Kawasaki, Yuya Tsukahara and Juliet Reiko Knapp — as a cue for attendees to think about the voices at work in the festival program and the wider world today. In their joint program message, the directors beckon the audience to pay attention to “unheard voices, be it the inner voice, voices of past and future, nonhuman voices, or the relationships between voice and the body or the collective voice and the body.”

This is the second iteration of KEX run by the trio; the first took place in February this year, a 2020 version that was delayed by four months due to the pandemic. That edition showcased three new festival programs including Super Knowledge for the Future, an ideas exchange program; Kansai Studies, a research program; and Shows, a performance program.

It also brought the trio’s curatorial concern with locality to the fore. “We made an effort to focus on our locality, on what it means to run a festival in Kyoto and more widely in the Kansai region,” Knapp says. “We got a lot of positive comments from audiences who said they felt that locality was reflected in the program.”

Much of the February event took place online and was generally well-received. However, as Knapp points out, the KEX team struggled to create genuine connections between the organizers, performers and participants: “When everything is live, you go to the venues, you can see the audiences and there’s more interaction there. Whereas with online audiences, although there is a chat function, they’re quite anonymous.”

By contrast, the October edition of KEX, which kicked off Friday and runs through Oct. 24, takes place almost entirely live in indoor and outdoor venues around Kyoto. The directors, however, have no intention to present a festival that is “business as usual.” Instead, the effects of the pandemic on performance practice, particularly voice, are writ large in a program with nine shows, nine talks and a report by the Kansai Studies research project, which has been exploring the region’s history through savory okonomiyaki pancakes.

In keeping with the theme of exploring different types of voices and communication, Indonesian musician Rully Shabara, in collaboration with director Jun Tsutsui, local performers from Kyoto and the experimental pop band Tenniscoats, will present an improvisational musical event called “Raung Jagat: Drone of Colours.” Unable to travel due to strict border restrictions, Shabara created the piece remotely from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, making use of his improvisational chorus system powered by artificial intelligence. The jam sessions, in which singers will perform without a conductor, will take place on Oct. 9 and 10.

Later in the month, French director Philippe Quesne will present a reworked version of his 2016 piece, “The Moles.” In the live satirical performance, staged with the arts group and long-time KEX contributors contact Gonzo from Osaka, actors don full-sized mole costumes to create a playful and provocative animal-centered world. As the moles and the audience interact without using speech, it becomes clear that the moles’ way of life is similar to that of humankind, bringing anthropocentrism into question. Afterward, there will be screenings of Quesne’s theater piece, “Crash Park: The Life of an Island.”

Meanwhile, Chinese artist Chen Tianzhuo, known for his visually striking video works that cut across media and performance boundaries, has created a new exhibition titled “The Shepherd,” which will be on display for most of the month. The large-scale installation, described in the KEX program as a work “where mystical religious ritual meets rave,” fuses elements of Chen’s past works such as “Ishvara” and “An Atypical Brain Damage” with his 2021 performance film, “The Dust.” The latter project, which does not feature any humans, explores ritual and worship by focusing on farming tools and ceremonial objects filmed in the remote village of Cuogao as well as Damu Temple in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Two of the works in this edition of KEX take place outdoors. The first is a new collaborative piece called “Moshimoshi City,” which invites festival attendees to “log off and go outside” to explore Kyoto. Armed with headphones and a map, participants head to designated sites where they can augment their surroundings with the sounds of fictional performance pieces by artists, including playwright and director Toshiki Okada, dancer Ayaka Nakama and filmmaker Takuya Murakawa.

The second outdoor work is a sound installation titled “Soundtrack for Midnight Tamuro,” by Kyoto-based artist and sound designer Masamitsu Araki. For this piece, which runs until Oct. 3, Araki has used cars with custom audio systems to create a “car audio orchestra” in a parking lot at the top of Mount Hiei, located on the border between Kyoto and Shiga prefectures. Close to Araki’s site is Hieizan Enryakuji, a Tendai Buddhist temple that was erected during the Heian Period (794-1185). Ryukoku University research fellow Takahiko Kameyama will give a talk at ROHM Theatre Kyoto on the intersections between Heian Buddhism and contemporary culture as part of the Super Knowledge for the Future program.

Another notable inclusion in the talk series portion of the festival is “Voice of Void,” an exhibition by Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen that was made in collaboration with the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media. Using video and virtual reality, Ho revisits a roundtable discussion by four “Kyoto School” philosophers, which took place days before the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The Kyoto School was a loose grouping of Japanese thinkers that revolved around Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945) and sought to separate East Asian philosophical traditions from that of the West. The group has been criticized for its alleged support of the government’s World War II ideology. There will be two talks in the Super Knowledge for the Future program devoted to Ho’s exhibition and the Kyoto School.

As this year’s KEX program shows, the festival promises to cast a critical light on the relationship between voice, stage and pandemic while continuing to engage with questions of locality, cross-boundary collaborative practice and performance in Asia.

Kyoto Experiment takes place at various venues in Kyoto from Oct. 1 to 24. For more information, visit

The cover image: VR映像の一部 Courtesy of Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media [YCAM] and Kyoto Experiment.

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