Q&A: Spatial Poetics XIV
Powell Street Festival Society presents Spatial Poetics XIV on July 9th at the Vancouver Japanese Language School at 487 Alexander Street, Vancouver. Now in its fourteenth year, Spatial Poetics invites artists of different backgrounds (visual art, theatre, performance art, music, etc) to collaborate in the creation of a new, multi-genre artistic work. This year we asked Makiko Hara, former curator of Centre A, the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, to assemble a team of artists to explore the theme of Edo-period Japan. Thursday’s event will feature two new performance works: “How to Dig a Hole” by Stacey Ho and Julia Aoki, and “In the Shadow of This Archive” by Cindy Mochizuki and Maiko Yamamoto. As they busily prepare for this Thursday’s event, the artists and curator took some time to talk about their work with Powell Street Festival artistic director, Mark Takeshi McGregor.
Mark McGregor: Makiko, as curator for Spatial Poetics XIV, how did you come up with the theme of Edo-period Japan?
Makiko Hara: Actually the Edo aspect of this year’s Spatial Poetics wasn’t my idea idea — it came from the artists. It was a coincidence that two of the artists, Stacey Ho and Cindy Mochizuki, were both interested in aspects of Edo culture as a starting point for developing their works: Stacey is exploring the subject of Sangaku, a traditional custom in Japan that emerged in Edo period, literally translated “calculation tablet”. Cindy Mochizuki proposed to explore a personal story of her uncle who was a Kendo athlete who participated the Osaka Expo in 1970. Kendo was also one of the most popular martial art forms to be established in the Edo period. However, their artworks will not be about examining Edo culture, but using these “traditional” cultures for creating contemporary interpretation, and presenting new ways of story telling through their visual languages.
To the artists, how would each of you define your work or artistic practice?
Maiko Yamamoto: I’m primarily an experimental performance maker. My main practice is in making new works of theatre, although I make a lot of work that crosses into territories of live art and performance art. I tend to work interdisciplinarily as well, and through collaboration.
Cindy Mochizuki: My artistic practice is quite interdisciplinary – I would say it’s becoming harder and harder to define only because I find some of the fields of research or interest that intersect are no longer limited to artistic disciplines. Having said that I think that there is a core, through-line in most of the work I make.
Stacey Ho: I start with something that really interests me. It could be something material, or it could be another artwork, or a moment from the past. And then this thing invariably leads me to a whole bunch of other stuff that I am interested in or become interested in. All of these things, taken together, start to take a shape, form a constellation. Lately, that shape is often a narrative. I am very interested in narratives, stories, the experiences of other people, telling narratives in non-linear and non-hierarchical ways.
Julia Aoki: I am doing my PhD in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. I’m not an artist, but I have developed something of an experimental academic practice. I have worked collaboratively with Ayaka Yoshimizu, another PhD candidate in the program, for a number of years on a project that considers how the embodied role of the researcher can engage with marginal histories, in our case the history of Japanese sex-workers in Canada over a hundred years ago. Given the lack of existing documentation of the women’s lives, our practice has involved going into “the field” to encounter absence, the absence of this history in landscapes or the collective imagination. I’d also characterize my interests as guided by social justice issues.
This event explores certain aspects of Edo-period art and culture within a contemporary frame. Stacey and Julia, you chose to focus on sangaku. For the uninitiated, can you briefly explain what sangaku is?
Stacey Ho: Sangakus are mathematical puzzles that originated in the Edo era. During this period, reading, writing, and arithmetic were taught to “commoners” in terakoya schools, so many people knew basic mathematics. Japan was mostly closed off to outside influences during this time. Consequently, wasan, a culturally distinct and sophisticated form of mathematics arose in Japan, and this became a pastime all over the country. Math enthusiasts would take their most interesting problems and copy them onto wooden panels, then hang them as offerings in temples all over Japan. These sangaku problems would usually be illustrated with beautiful geometric designs. Then, other members of the community could try and solve the sangaku puzzle when they visited the temple.
Cindy and Maiko, can you briefly describe kendo?
Cindy Mochizuki: Kendo is a Japanese martial art – the actual word means ‘the way of the sword’. It was dated back to the 1900s originally developed as a safe form way of sword fighting for samurai. Contestants would use a two-handed shinai or bamboo sword, gloves, armour and mask. The practice actually integrates a high importance to etiquette to the teacher but also to the opponent.
Beyond the basic concept of kendo, are there more specific elements that inspired “In the Shadow of This Archive”?
Cindy Mochizuki: I would say now kendo isn’t the main element of the work, although it is based on a chance encounter at a kendo match in the 1970s Expo in Osaka, Japan, as remembered by my uncle. Earlier in the year I spent some time interviewing him about what he still can remember about the event itself. I had hoped he could train me but he was reluctant about it – said it would take years – but also that he hadn’t practiced kendo again since the 1970s. So the work evolved – it works with pieces he brought me both archival, personal, and what I think is the most important is the periphery. Much of what Maiko and I are building upon are from these objects of memory – these pieces are left for us to construct something fictitious but also bears a quality of ‘it really happened’.
Maiko Yamamoto: Definitely we take our liberties with fact to build a kind of fiction. We are blurring the lines between these two things and playing with the idea of recreation. I would say that both Cindy and my own individual work play with this idea a lot – taking truth or reality and then heightening that through fictionalizing or reimagining it.
Stacey and Julia, what else inspired “How to Dig a Hole”? Beyond the basic concept of sangaku?
Stacey Ho: The common thread throughout this performance is this made up idea of the Hole. A hole is a circle, something you can jump into or climb out of, and also a pun on whole, wholeness, completeness. I use holes to jump across fields and disciplines, finding them in Japanese sangakus, as well as in the European tradition of mathematics. Being a visual artist, I find them in the arts too. I talk a bit about Giotto and about Gutai founder Yoshihara Jiro, both painters. I also try to bring holes into a contemporary context by considering their possible existence in digital image making. Julia takes it into another direction. She speaks about mapping, navigation, and brings a subjective position into the work, whereas I pretend to be objective. We both enjoy writing I think, and want to try out many ways of writing creatively. So that is a strong element in the piece as well.
Much of the inspiration for “In the Shadow of This Archive” came from Cindy’s uncle’s experience as a practitioner of kendo. What were his experiences working with this martial art? What was it like to work with him in preparation for this event?
Cindy Mochizuki: He’s practiced kendo since he was 7 from the time he was in Japan. Our family repatriated to Japan after the internment so they grew up in Shizouka and Fukouka where he started kendo. It was a martial art that was practiced by some of the boys in my family (my cousins) and him. After the Expo and maybe a few more tournaments after he stopped his practice of kendo. I was hoping to spend more time with him and had thought (as I had mentioned earlier) to maybe get some basic training by him but he was shy. We spent a few days of where I interviewed him across the span of a few months. And although I thought it was fascinating, he didn’t think it was very special. And the piece is actually inspired from a moment off mic where he suddenly remembered one strange uncanny moment of meeting someone who he thought was quite famous in Japanese literary history. So the piece actually begins for me at this moment while I was driving him home one night and he suddenly remembered one detail of the Expo. I think this is reflected in the title of the work, in a way we focus on what’s in the shadow of the archive rather than the tangible and expected contents of one’s memories.
Stacey, Julia, what made you gravitate towards sangaku as the inspiration for “How to Dig a Hole”?
Stacey Ho: Because it is abstract, people often think of maths as ahistorical, or coming strictly from a European tradition. Really, it is influenced by many cultures, traditions, and philosophies including those of Iraq, Persia, and India. So when I was thinking about what I could present for Spatial Poetics, I began looking into Japanese mathematics and was excited to find that the Japanese had discovered many important theorems before or at the same time as their European counterparts. And that this was not the work of an elite, educated class, but rather something of a populist practice. Sangakus, resulting from this tradition, are very striking visually. Compositionally, they are mysterious, something to be deciphered. As an artist, I was immediately drawn to their beauty and this mystique. I wanted to highlight this practice of making sangakus, and link it to a larger conversation in mathematics, a cross-cultural and timeless dialogue of abstract ideas, numbers, and patterns.
Spatial Poetics has traditionally paired artists together, usually from different disciplines, to create new work. How have all of you found the collaborative process? Have there been any unexpected challenges or happy surprises?
Stacey Ho: I asked Julia to collaborate with me not knowing too much about her practice, so everything has been unexpected. A few months ago, she and Nathalee Paolinelli started a reading group: all women, talking about different forms of experimental writing by women. And they asked me to join. The group was such a pleasure: casual, intelligent, open. So from this I thought that Julia would be a good person to talk to and bounce ideas off of. And I knew that she likes books. That’s my idea of a good collaborator! I’d already been playing with some ideas around the performance, and Julia brought a criticality and a wonderful sense of poetics to these ideas. It’s been a happy and surprising conversation, which is really all I was hoping for.
Julia Aoki: This is my first time working in an artistic collaboration, and my first time in a performance piece. I was resistant at first, but I was taken by Stacey’s reading voice and her thoughtful outlook on the texts we were reading in our group. And I thought, why not? In my experience, in other kinds of collaborations, so much depends on personalities and the capacity for forgiveness and generosity in the process. I’ve been reticent in my contributions, but Stacey has been very encouraging and supportive. This wasn’t a surprise; this is just to say that for me it’s been a happy collaboration. The greatest challenge for me is loosening up my writing, since I’m trained to write in a tight, expository style. There is also the challenge of thinking beyond the text, thinking spatially, thinking about the utterance and the audience. I’s strange that I have thought so much about embodiment in my research, and yet the final creation in an academic project is almost always going to be a written text. Here the words come first, and now I have to consider how they will be delivered and received in a live performance.
Cindy Mochizuki: Though I have been close to Maiko and Theatre Replacement for many years, and I have worked on shows created by Maiko – I think this is our first collaboration. The collaborative process has been easy; I would say we have similar and yet different sensibilities in terms of making/thinking about work, but Maiko has a great openness to anything that has made it easy. She is someone that gives all ideas a chance. The piece has evolved – I think that is one surprising element for me. It took off in a direction that was unexpected which I think is a welcomed challenge and I’m looking forward to how it all comes together.
Maiko Yamamoto: I agree, it’s been very familiar and very new at the same time. Mostly I like the way our history has helped us be able to come up with ideas together very quickly, and then we have time to look at things again and see whether they are still interesting to us, or whether we see something else. It’s nice to be able to build so quickly. Better for editing and shaping.
Cindy, has working on the project changed anything about you?
Cindy Mochizuki: I did a few drop-in kendo classes at the Hastings Community Centre recommended by Russ at Kikkori who practices with that kendo club. It would take me years to really understand and get into the martial art but by about the second class I was starting to – rather surprisingly – take interest in it. So who knows…
Stacey & Julia, anything you’ve taken away from the project on a personal level? Has it changed you at all?
Stacey Ho: Practising calligraphy every Saturday at the Japanese Language School took me back to the Saturday schools of my own childhood where I learned how to write Chinese. That was a surprising memory.
Julia Aoki: I feel liberated in saying, I’m not an artist, I’m not a creative writer, but I’m going to play with text and performance for this project. I’m going to approach it with whatever set of skills and experiences I can draw on that I’ve accumulated in my life, not with a rigorous understanding of poetics or performance. I like being the non-expert, in a way. There is a radical feminist voice in me that says, the category of expert in any domain will likely always be placed out of your reach, so just try this, occupy space, occupy the position of ‘novice’ and see what happens.
Without giving away any surprises, what can we expect on July 9th?
Stacey Ho: Hmm! You can expect a kind-of lecture, a lot of reading, and some silly/serious poetic gestures. I do hope that people move around to watch the performance. There’s going to be stuff happening over here, then over there. It’s not supposed to be a fixed thing.
Maiko Yamamoto: I would say you can expect to see an artistic experiment of sorts — which is one of the reasons I love Spatial Poetics so much; it offers artists the chance to take a bit of a risk and really embrace the experiment.
Cindy Mochizuki: Our performance is also an installation and maybe tableau vivante – I think we suspend ourselves in a time period that we have imagined and we illuminate or cast some light onto the ‘chance encounter’ that my uncle talks about as one of the memories that resurfaced when he thinks about the Expo match, it literally cuts into the piece in many ways and hopefully creates another dimension or layer.
Makiko Hara: The nature of Spatial Poetics is “interdisciplinary” and “experimental” art practice. The two pairs of artists are keen for such practices. In every meeting, I have been amazed to see their unexpected surprise development of their performances. I believe that the event will be full of surprises.
Spatial Poetics XIV takes place on Thursday, July 9.
Doors at 7:30 p.m. Performance at 8:00 p.m.
Vancouver Japanese Language School, 487 Alexander Street.
Advance tickets ($12) can be purchased here. Tickets will also be available at the door ($15).