Mikan Dialogue vol.1 Text Archive (Part 2)

This is part 2 of the text archive for the online talk session “Mikan Dialogue vol.1 ” held on April 8, 2022.

4. The Social Turn of Art

Beyond this trend, the term ‘art’s social turn’ has emerged since the 2000s. This refers to the process by which art shifted its focus from the ‘aesthetic’ to the ‘social’, a term proposed by art critic Claire Bishop. This is a reference to the ‘relational aesthetics’ proposed by curator Nicolas Bourriaud in the 1990s, the concept of ‘socially engaged art’ by Pablo Helguera and others in the 2000s, which refers to artistic engagement with social issues, and the various socially engaged practices advocated by Shannon Jackson in the 2010s.

[Background to the Emergence of Socially Engaged Art] 

This background is the history of various student and social movements, particularly in Europe and the USA after World War II, and the accompanying involvement of artists in social and political activities. It is also underpinned by the exploration and renewal of approaches to society through art and culture in the context of the shift in social structure in the late capitalist era (‘from production to consumption’ and ‘from industry to the information industry’).

For example, the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, using the aforementioned term ‘Relational Aesthetic’, states that aesthetic activity can include ‘creating a “relationship” between people and people, between people and objects, rather than between works as objects in the process of production, appreciation and experience’. 

For example, Untitled (Fortune Cookies on the Corner), a representative work by Cuban artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, consists of a pile of fortune cookies in a gallery, which visitors take home one by one. The work can only be considered a work of art from the perspective that the pile of sweets alone is not enough to be considered a work of art, and that the artistic act is found in the relationship that includes the audience picking them up and actually putting them in their mouths.

This is a representative work by a Thai artist called Rirkrit Tiravanija, who serves Pad Thai, a Thai-style fried noodle dish. In this way, instead of ‘looking’ at the work in the gallery, a series of relationships take place within the art space, such as ‘making’ something, offering it as a gift and receiving a meal, which is itself a work of art.

However, there have also been criticisms of this ‘relational art’. Criticisms include: ‘art’s very involvement in society places more emphasis on social morality than on the quality and critical nature of art’; ‘art exploits social themes and communities’; and ‘art becomes a tool of political ideology’.

Here are two brief discussions on ‘Socially Engaged Art’.

Claire Bishop, who discussed the ‘social development of art’, was in fact critical of the ‘social turn of art’ itself. The social turn of art means that art and artists are no longer autonomous from what has previously been political and economic. It is argued that this makes art subservient to social values, resulting in the loss of art’s critical power and fundamental radicalism*.

*Radicalism – Radicalism is a political principle in political science that focuses on changing social structures and fundamentally altering value systems by means such as revolution.

Reference: Wikipedia.

The other argument is that of Grant Kester, an American art critic. According to him, the autonomy of art like Bishop’s, i.e. that art is free from the social, is actually an illusion, saying that any art cannot escape from its social context. The autonomy of art was only protected by daring not to look at that fact, but rather the process of the social turn is a way of ‘democratising’ creativity, which until now has been the monopoly of some artists, through the practice of ‘dialogue’ with people or ‘collaboration’ together, as opposed to a kind of self-indulgent talent or genius. We argue that this is a way to ‘democratise’ creativity in a different way from the monopoly of a certain kind of self-indulgent talent or genius.

5. What is the Art Collective?

The idea of ‘collectives’ has attracted attention in recent years against the backdrop of discussions on the ‘social turn of the arts’. The English word ‘collective’ means ‘people working together’. Art collectives have recently become something of a fad, but it is not uncommon for artists to come together to work, and in the first half of the 20th century artists came together in a variety of ways.

Let’s consider here for a moment the difference between an ‘artist collective’ and an ‘artist group’.

For example, the term ‘artist group’ has the connotation of ‘a group of artists who come together and work under certain ideas and values’, meaning that the group is formed on the basis of principles and values. It means that even though they are a group, as artists they are still working individually. In a sense, there is a ‘strictness of joining and leaving’ the group.

‘Art collectives’ can be seen as ‘a group of artists as an active entity’ or as ‘a place for collective production by a group of artists’, a loose relationship to do something together.

Characteristically, rather than being based on ‘principles’ or ‘values’, they are temporary gatherings based on a relationship, or ‘co-operative relationship’, when doing something together. In this sense, a loose, non-hierarchical membership, where you can leave at any time and come back again, is fundamental.

A UK art website states that an ‘art collective’ is ‘loosely defined as a group of artists working together to achieve a common goal’. So this is not so much a philosophy as a group of people who have a common purpose and come together temporarily to work on something together.

Here I would like to present two examples of ‘art collectives’, one in Indonesia and one in Hong Kong.

[Taring Padi]

Taring Padi is a woodcut collective based in the ancient Indonesian city of Yogyakarta. “Taring Padi” means “the tip of the rice plant” in Japanese.

The group was formed in 1998 by art students and other young people at the time, many of whom were involved in the opposition and democracy movement against the Suharto dictatorship at the time. They occupied art school buildings, lived together and engaged in artistic activities such as woodblock prints, poster making and theatre. Their activities were characterised by the fact that they positioned their own expression as a tool for ‘awakening people’s consciousness’, encouraging people to take action for democratic values, rather than art as an expression of their inner selves.

The first generation of ‘Taring Padi’ artists made woodblock prints mainly on themes such as ‘anti-dictatorship, democracy, peasants, workers’ movements and sexism’. The style of expression is not abstract, but follows ‘socialist realism’ and conveys the social and political messages of the things and people depicted in the prints in a way that everyone can understand at a glance.

In the second generation, the artists began to produce large woodblock prints on larger issues such as ‘environmental issues and globalisation’. This is a way of showing how Indonesia’s society and economy are connected through the destruction caused by the global economic system. The woodcuts produced are also used as a tool to directly link to social movements, such as rubbing them on cloth and having them used as banners for protests or distributed as T-shirts.

They are characterised by the fact that all production is carried out through collective collaboration rather than by a single artist. Thematic setting, image creation, the process of production, and participation in the production process are all examined and practised in a more open, collective way. For example, when drawing lines in painting, it is often a question of how good you are at it, whereas lines engraved in woodblock prints are less likely to show differences in technique and more likely to have a certain ‘flavour’ to them. In the process of rubbing the ink onto the cloth after carving, the ink is rubbed off as if everyone were dancing on the board at the end of the process. In this process, it does not matter how good or bad the technique is, everyone dances to complete the work. So in the collective production of woodblock prints, it is not necessary for everyone to be a professional artist, but the involvement of many different people democratises the artistic production itself.

This democratisation of production includes elements such as ‘socialising creativity’ and ‘sharing knowledge and skills’. And the works produced can be transmitted as a kind of ‘educational tool’ or have a role in communicating the current social situation.

There are various artist collective groups throughout Indonesia. This is a picture of the former studio of the most famous collective, Ruangrupa, where they used to have a room where they used to get together and enjoy playing football games. For them, this is the most important place in Ruangrupa because they get a lot of ideas when they play here (laughs).

Indonesian art researcher Midori Hirota says that “the wild mechanism of contemporary art in Indonesia” is the reason why such art collectives are flourishing and attracting so much attention in the country. The artists themselves spontaneously created the infrastructure of art and culture in a D.I.Y. way because the system was not sophisticated. The wildness, flexibility and spontaneity of the system, which was not sophisticated enough to allow them to do many things, was a factor in the creation of the collective. 

I was also impressed to hear from Indonesian artists that the English word ‘collective’ is not familiar to their language, but rather that collectivity is already present in the traditional values of their society and is not something new. It can be said that there is no need to use the foreign word collective in particular because there are already indigenous concepts/words in their everyday life in Indonesian society, such as ‘hanging out and talking (nongkrong)’, ‘sharing with others (benin)’ and ‘helping each other (gotong royong)’. This spirit of mutual help in rural Indonesian communities has been revived as something contemporary in the collaborative production of woodblock prints, and there is a movement in which it is spreading to East Asian woodblock print groups as a fresh concept/expression.

Of course, collectives are about sharing certain values, but it is not a principle or a strong one. Rather, what is important is their careful distance to the ‘hierarchy’. It’s not about having a boss and subordinates in a certain collectivity, it’s basically a friend-based relationship. Another point is that it is not limited to artists. It means that a lot of different people are involved. And it is characterised by the fact that we are simultaneously creating a place where the relationships between these people can be freely demonstrated.

[Kai Phong Pai Dong]

I would like to share another example from Hong Kong. A designer friend of mine, Michael Leong, is working to transform Hong Kong’s food stalls into community places.

Originally, there were small food stalls all over Hong Kong, but they have become more and more strict over the years, with licences becoming more and more difficult to obtain. Michael and his colleagues have been looking at disused stalls and doing various activities there.

Generally, rents are higher in Hong Kong than in Tokyo and it is very difficult to rent a place in the city, but stalls can be rented at relatively low prices, and this is an attempt to make the stalls a place for their own activities. Of course, there are people who have been doing business for a long time, so instead of being their business rival, we are trying to create a stall that dares not to do business, and we are doing a variety of activities. they have a gallery, a recycle shop, a barber shop, a bookshop, and the stall changes from time to time. Basically, their main activity is not to make it a place for business, but to make it a place where all kinds of people can get involved.

They have meetings where they listen to stories about the area they live in, or they hold screenings. And they build relationships not only with the people who come to the stalls, but also with the people who work and live around the stalls. Their work to create community from the streets of Hong Kong through ‘transforming stalls into community places’ is influenced by the Hong Kong concept of ‘Kaifong’.

This concept of ‘Kaifong’ was originally used to demarcate cities in the southern part of China. Hong Kong, in particular, was also a city of immigrants after the war, when many evacuees arrived from mainland China. The displaced people had to settle down in new places and live without government support. Mutual assistance in such a situation, the relationship of helping each other, was called Kaifong.

However, as time has gone by, government welfare and social security systems have gradually improved, but the people who lived there in the past still cherish the sense of the township, and Michael and his colleagues’ activities can be seen as a way of connecting the local community concept of the township, which is disappearing, with the modern world.

5. What is Art and Activism?

I’m interested in contemporary art, but I’m also interested in getting involved through culture and art in our own neighbourhoods and communities. I feel a great affinity with a certain kind of activism*, an attitude of taking action and changing things.

* Activism – Positive activism is a form of behaviourism and refers to deliberate action based on specific ideas in order to bring about social and political change.

Reference: weblio dictionary

I am very interested in the activities of such people. In this context, I think artists have a role to play in giving form to creativity that is dormant in society, and in presenting a slightly different perspective on social movements and how to solve current social problems and solutions.

I think that a collective is the relationship itself, where people temporarily come together to work together for some purpose, but not the goal. I think that first of all there is an awareness of some problem, and then how to work together to tackle it.

When thinking about collectives, I think it is better to start thinking from our own footsteps in life. In that sense, I think that the word collective can lead to one direction by exploring it from within ourselves.

6. Is Agriculture an Art or Is Art Agriculture?

Thank you, Mr Egami.

We would be happy to take any questions you may have, but Yabumoto, the Kinan Art Week organising committee chairperson, is itching to ask you something.  (laughs).

Good evening. Thank you, Mr. Matsuzaki and Mr. Egami.

We also had the opportunity to participate in the Art Week last year, but it was a little too formalised in some areas, so we were able to hear about some useful practices. Thank you very much.

When I spoke to Mr. Matsuzaki once, I thought he had the atmosphere of a South East Asian art collective.

I also read what he wrote about collectives in South East Asia and thought it was interesting, so I contacted him this time. I am also a collector of ukiyo-e prints, so I feel that there is a strong relationship between prints, agriculture and collectives. I learned a lot from his theoretical talk today.

First of all, the relationship between art and agriculture: while we are working on the Mikan Collective, we keep thinking about whether agriculture is art or art is agriculture, or whether Mikan is art or art is Mikan. Of course, it’s hard to find an answer, but I think that artists and farmers are close in their thinking and characteristics.

I think it’s about being natural and not taking it too far. We often see people enjoying themselves at the meetings of Mikan farmers, and we often see them talking together. Were your parents originally farmers?

Right. My family has always been farmers . My parents were school teachers, and on the fusuma of my grandfather’s house there is a signature of an artist who stayed there in the past. I was moved when I found out that there had been artist-in-residence programmes like this for a long time and that they were involved in art.

In that sense, farmers and artists may not have many boundaries to begin with. Can we think of it that way?

I think you could.  (laughs).

In fact, it occurred to me while listening to Egami’s story of the social turnaround that the activities of Itoshima Arts Farm with the farmers themselves can now be described as artistic activities. In the context of contemporary art, too, I think that the boundary between farming and artistic activities has almost disappeared. Mr. Egami, what do you think?

If there is a similarity between growing one’s own food and expressing oneself, it is that both would be done without the exchange of money. People have been doing this all over the world since before the use of money, and in terms of activities where the results and outcomes can be felt and felt on the ground, they may both be similar.

Do you mean to say that essentially making is universal, or that it can be thought of in a way like survival, making?

I think that’s part of it.

Agriculture and art will not have easy answers, but we will continue to consider this in our projects.

7.Is Itoshima Arts Farm an Art Collective?

Another point is about collectives, and I would like to ask you what kind of collective Itoshima Arts Farm fits in with the classification given by Mr. Egami earlier. Would it be an art group or an art collective?

Many different people are involved.

Yes, I think that’s right. Many people are involved in the creation of the arts festival, but I don’t think it is about everyone creating the artwork. However, if it is also art to think about the concept of the festival and what to place where, then it could be said that everyone is creating artworks.

By the way, are you free to join or leave?

It’s  free. Everyone is involved in their own tension.

So there is no separate compulsion.

No, but it’s like a village rule, they come together on their own, like ‘it’s about time’.

Collective sounds like a good image of ‘fluidity’ and ‘collaboration’, but it doesn’t work that well. We all have fights and disagreements. How do you deal with and overcome disagreements?

Is it that we all go to eat ‘Maki’s Udon’* together? We all cherish going out to eat ‘Maki’s Udon’ (laughs). We don’t talk about art, but we go to eat together. Sometimes we have heated debates. We have totally different themes!” And so on. But we all forget about art, eat Maki’s udon and talk about it again.

* Maki’s Udon – chain restaurant “Kamaage Maki no Udon”, operating mainly in Fukuoka and Saga prefectures. The head office is located in Itoshima City.

Reference: Wikipedia.

I see. Incidentally, do you feel that these ‘principles’ and ‘values’ are not so strongly asserted?

They’re not. We’ve already decided on the direction we’re going to take, that we’re not going to do it with a big budget. The only other thing that has been decided is that we will invite one person we want to invite. However, I feel that everyone has the feeling that they don’t like big art festivals.

I see. What you are doing seems to be a free initiative that does not involve the state or government too much. This may have something to do with the fact that you are not a very dexterous person, but isn’t one of the reasons that you are building a team at the citizen level? It’s like people with minority opinions are not weeded out, and decisions are not made by majority rule.

It’s the same there as with Mikan. The roots supply nutrients and water, and the rest grows freely, so in a way it’s like a perfect democracy. Does your place have majority decision-making? How is decision-making done?

We haven’t had a majority vote. So we’ve been talking about it for about six months now. Really (laughs). It’s like, “We didn’t get anywhere today either…”. It’s like we’re talking all the time until the concept is decided.

Well, that’s interesting. In terms of sustainability, Mr. Egami, what do you think of this way of being?

Anthropologist D. Graeber states that indirect democracy, where decisions are made by majority vote, is actually an exceptional method taken in times of military crisis, while more direct consensus building was common in most societies and in many places in history. Even in Japan, as Tsuneichi Miyamoto records, village gatherings would go on for days. I think it is important to focus on that kind of consensus-building itself.

When Mr. Yabumoto mentioned earlier that Mikan are another form of democracy, I thought it was very interesting, although I don’t know the detailed history of the spread of Mikan in Wakayama.

Someone brought a Mikan tree and planted it on the mountain, and then the people next to him probably started planting too. I think that sharing and helping each other took root, and the result is what we have today. At first, ‘Mikan and democracy’ seemed out of the ordinary, but I think the reality that has taken root in Wakayama, where Mr. Yabumoto grew up, is important.

Thank you.

We are also thinking about sustainability, and now we are saying that we worked too hard because it was the first time, so from now on we don’t want to push too hard (laughs).

I intuitively thought that Itoshima Arts Farm is an art festival that will last forever, because it is flexible and has a different way of thinking from the state and the government. Today I think I saw a little bit of the reason for that.

I would like to ask you many more questions, but it is almost time to go, so I will ask Mr Matsuzaki one last time. Are there any plans yet for the next Itoshima Arts Farm?

Not yet.  We will discuss it now, we do it every two years, so come and visit us when it starts again.

Yes, I am looking forward to it. Thank you for your long-standing support.