This article was originally published in the Japan Times on September 29 2022.
The Japanese government’s plan to ease visa restrictions for independent tourists and abolish the daily arrival cap by early October as well as the prospect of a nationwide travel discount program in the autumn are all welcome news for the country’s pandemic-stricken tourist hubs.
None more so than the city of Kyoto, where the financial shortfall due to the pandemic laid bare a number of long-standing fiscal problems, prompting the city’s mayor, Daisaku Kadokawa, to declare at the beginning of the year that there was “the prospect of bankruptcy within a decade.” Kadokawa’s statement was followed by the announcement of a major cost-cutting plan in June.
One of the sectors that has felt the full force of the city’s funding cuts is the arts. Kyoto Experiment (KEX), a leading international performing arts festival that will open its doors on Oct. 1, had already been struggling to maintain operations during the pandemic when it was handed a cut of just over 50% in this year’s financial contribution from Kyoto City.
“It’s the biggest cut the festival has faced in its 13-year history,” KEX co-director Juliet Knapp tells The Japan Times. “It affects the basic operation of the festival, from our offices to our staff. For any NPO, not only in the arts, securing this kind of core financial contribution is crucial, and it has to be sustainable. So we’re looking at different ways of gathering this funding over the years ahead.”
One of the funding sources the festival organizers pursued this year is crowdfunding with a successful campaign that surpassed the initial goal of ¥4 million and raised ¥5.1 million. Knapp clarifies, however, that crowdfunding was more an emergency solution to offset the immediate funding deficit rather than part of a long-term plan.
“While we haven’t ruled out doing it again next year, we have reservations about it, because it’s taking funds from a network of people who are very close to us — our colleagues, our audience,” she says. “I’m not sure that’s a very sustainable way of thinking about the festival long-term.”
Another new source of funding for KEX is a collaboration with French luxury jewelry company Van Cleef & Arpels. Since 2020, the fashion brand has been supporting contemporary dance projects internationally as well as commissioning new works through a project called “Dance Reflections,” directed by Serge Laurent, the former performing arts director at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Through this collaboration, KEX will bring Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal’s live art piece, “This You,” to the Japanese gardens of Kyoto Kyocera Museum of Art. Sehgal’s works consist of what he calls “constructed situations,” which often take the form of instructions enacted by performers who create irreproducible experiences for audiences. In “This You,” a performer will sing to visitors one-to-one.
Knapp points out that KEX was given free curatorial rein in the collaboration and sees it as a positive example of how an artist might be privately sponsored within the context of a performing arts festival. Whether or not collaborations like the one with Van Cleef & Arpels can be done with other businesses with the same level of transparency is unclear. But given the current state of dwindling financial resources in the arts, the prospect of a shift toward a U.S.-style corporate sponsorship model of arts funding, in which art institutions have to pursue individual philanthropists and corporate sponsors, seems increasingly real. This raises the problem of the extent to which for-profit private interests might infringe on the freedom of experimentation and creative expression that runs at the very heart of a festival such as KEX.
The three co-directors at KEX are all too aware of this problem, which is why flexibility is key to the festival’s new direction. Flexibility with funding, however, is only part of KEX’s plans for the future. Flexibility in thinking about access to art is equally as important, particularly as the world comes to terms with post-pandemic constraints.
It is no coincidence that the KEX co-directors chose the expression “new teku teku” as the keyword for their festival this year. Like many onomatopoeia in Japanese, “teku teku” has a range of meanings and nuances. Perhaps the first among them is movement: Plodding, trudging or rolling along like a curled-up woodlouse are all possible usages of teku teku.
“In discussing the program, we thought a lot about different ways of walking; partly because a lot of the artists’ work is based on research that uses their own feet,” Knapp says. “To go somewhere and explore the locality. Walking is almost a narrative but not quite; there’s the idea of going for a walk to organize your thoughts, or walking for a political purpose. We decided to add the word ‘new’ because we want to invite people to think about new interpretations of walking.”
Among the works that feature walking as a motif is Mischa Leinkauf’s exhibition, “Encounter the Spatial.” The collection includes the video pieces, “Fiction of a Non-Entry” and “Endogenous Error Terms.” The former is a documentary film that features Leinkauf walking on sea floors between Israel and Jordan as well as between Morocco and Ceuta, trying to locate the invisible borders that separate these territories. The latter work explores the silent mass of urban infrastructure, from waterways and sewers to underground shelters, in a topology of dark spaces from Russia to Austria and beyond.
Jarunun Phantachat’s new theater piece “I Say Mingalaba, You Say Goodbye” began by exploring shared personal histories along the Thailand-Myanmar border. The project took a new turn after the military coup-d’etat in Myanmar in February 2021, which restricted entry to the country. Instead, Phantachat began to research remotely, constructing a comical and also politically poignant play with four actors on the relationship between individuals and the state.
Also on the program are “To Move in Time” and “Real Magic,” two works by the long-running U.K. theater ensemble Forced Entertainment. Both pieces invite audiences to travel in the space of imagination. “To Move in Time” asks what you might do if you could travel back in time, whereas “Real Magic” invites a blindfolded participant to try to read one of the actor’s minds. Both pieces draw on the company’s trademark deadpan humor to ignite flashes of insight into the unspoken rules that structure the social mind.
Iranian artist, Azade Shahmiri, writes, directs and performs in “Voicelessness” a play set in a dystopian future in which the protagonist tries to uncover the truth about her missing grandfather — an event, like so many, that is undocumented. The play questions the construction of narratives on events without evidence.
Among the artists from Japan, Ayaka Ono and Akira Nakazawa, the duo behind the company Spacenotblank, present “Views,” their fourth collaboration with Kishida Prize-winning playwright Shuntaro Matsubara. The piece experiments with film and theater conventions and attempts to create a movie from a play in real time.
These are just a sample of the festival’s 12 different works, not to mention the program of panel discussions and screenings that runs alongside the shows. New teku teku, or new modes of moving is a chance to think through the new historical juncture we find ourselves in. Public forums for discussing how we move forward as individuals or organizations are crucial to a sustainable future. Kyoto Experiment puts that particular question of the future front and center.
Cover photograph copyright © Aiko Koike for Kyoto Experiment 2022.