Koki Tanaka: Pt I

By Andrew Maerkle and Akira Rachi

A Piano Played by Five Pianists at Once (First Attempt) (2012), video installation with HD video (57 min), two drawings (approx 50.8 x 48.26 cm each), temporary walls, dimensions variable. Created with University Art Galleries, University of California, Irvine. All images: Courtesy Koki Tanaka, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo.

ART iT: You make installations that incorporate both video and sculpture; you also make sculptural installations, as well as paintings and photographs, and in a sense your exhibitions are works in their own right. I thought we could begin our discussion by focusing on the medium to which you most frequently return, video. In recent years there has been an increase in artists making high-production video works that evoke the aesthetics of music videos and films, as well as those exploring online media platforms. To what extent are you interested in pushing the possibilities of the medium further?

KT: When I entered university, I had no knowledge of the technical aspects of video, and no knowledge of the history of video art. I originally enrolled in the painting degree, but in one of my courses the students were asked to try working with a medium other than painting, and I recalled how I had used to play with my father’s Hi8 camera. So I borrowed a video camera from school and tried all kinds of things with it, like filming while running in the mountains. It’s been 10 years since then, and my concept of video has certainly changed over time. Knowing both the technical and art historical aspects of it, I can no longer look at video art they way I did then.
Now I understand video as the medium that is best suited for me. Video accommodates a certain distance, and, along with photography, it provides the most flexible means for documenting my projects. In my student and early works I was concerned with formal questions about video such as “What is a video work,” or “What is editing,” or “How can video be incorporated into the format of the exhibition,” but I have gradually moved away from those questions and now essentially use video as the underlying element for documenting my activities. If the early works addressed all aspects of its specificity, video is now something like the backdrop to my production process. I am more interested in the formal aspects of “documentation,” so if there were a different medium for documenting the process in one of my projects, I would certainly try it. For example, maybe it would be interesting to use painting to document an outdoor performance.
Issues related to documentation appear in recent works such as A Piano Played by Five Pianists at Once (First Attempt) (2012), for which I filmed five pianists as they went through the process of figuring out how to play the same piano at the same time. What happened on site with the live event and what happens in the edited video that constitutes the final work are completely different. You could even say the effect is similar to recording an event through writing. There are necessary gaps between what happened and what is recorded. The finished work reflects the process of editing the video recording based on my own views on and impressions of what took place. Whether using photography, writing, sound recordings or film, each method results in a different perspective of the event. So what I am interested in with regard to issues of documentation is exactly this difference between the experience of an event and the recording of an event.
Conversely, my interest in discovering new aspects of video art, such as thinking about the specificity of video or exploring new ways to film and edit video, has lessened. But in comparison to using language to record things through text, video offers a more physical way to think about how to record an event and then reconstitute it, because everything is viewed through the eye of the machine.

ART iT: But for example when you make an installation of video works integrated into a sculptural environment, such as your presentation at the Yokohama Triennial in 2011, what do you expect to happen?

KT: I think there are multiple experiences of a work that are possible between viewing it at an exhibition and viewing it on an online platform like Vimeo or YouTube. For example, when I show works produced in different contexts, such as A haircut by 9 hairdressers at once (second attempt) (2010) and Showing objects to a dog (2010), I think of both the exhibition and YouTube as two different sites. Even if the content is the same, the work changes in relation to the site – and beyond the Internet, obviously there is also the possibility of screening the work in a cinema; there are times when I adapt the presentation to the site, and times when the work determines the site; there are works that are best viewed from beginning to end, and there are those that are best viewed in a museum-like situation where people freely come and go; there are times when I make a work with the idea that it will be viewed on the Internet. I think from showing what I have across all these different sites, I can learn from the differences that emerge from each experience.
For the installation at Yokohama, the main idea was to show videos and photographs that were produced over the past several years in the US in a site constructed from the spare fixtures and furniture lying around in the museum storage. Because so many people were visiting the exhibition, some of them could have thought the sofa in the installation was simply a place to sit and relax, and might not have looked at the video. However, the video works were just one aspect of the overall installation, and I treated them on the same level as the furniture – it was not necessary to view the videos in that moment. I included in the installation the URL info for the videos on Vimeo and YouTube, and people who wanted to see the videos in their entirety could have watched them on their computers at home. Inevitably at a large international exhibition, few visitors have the luxury of time to watch an hour-length video in its entirety. Of course it’s not ideal, but it’s not like my goal is for people to watch the entire video. Even if viewers only watch a part of the video, I think there is something there for them, or rather something that I provide. I want for the experience of the work to be open to both people who view it on site and those who view it at their leisure at home.

a whole museum could be used at once (2011), installation of five video works, 18 mono-prints on tracing paper, museum furniture and leftover supplies. Made for the Yokohama Triennale 2011, Yokohama Museum of Art.

ART iT: Does this idea that viewers can get something even in viewing only a part of the work have any connection to your use of looping in your early video works?

KT: It’s possible. I started making the looped videos right when there was a rise in artists making long-format videos that were more or less cinematic productions – the prime example being Matthew Barney. But my early videos were cheap and simple – like Vito Acconci’s Digging Piece (1970), in which he digs himself into a hole in a beach – with a really fast, direct correspondence between conceiving an idea and then turning it into a work. I felt that works requiring a fixed amount of time for viewing were not suited for spaces like a museum where viewers can freely come and go, and I wanted to make videos that could be understood almost instantaneously from even just a partial viewing. I still think that way. When I show a video in an exhibition, I know that not everybody will see the whole thing, so I want to include something in the work that can be communicated to those who watch only a part of it. That’s the kind of work I hope to make.

ART iT: Aside from the looped videos, you also have a video documenting a cook working in his kitchen, each and every (2003). What is impressive about this piece is that it shows how these different temporal axes, from preparation to cooking to cleaning, and from one moment or one day to the next, are all layered upon each other in the cook’s routine. Did this work have anything to do with thinking about the time structure of video? Do you continue to think about the temporality of video?

KT: The early works were made to be self-contained loops. But because I now use video wholly as a means for documenting events, my recent works generally have a beginning and an end. Even so, what we experience in our daily lives is actually a much more diffuse time. For example, this interview basically began when we started the recorder and will end when we stop it, but we of course exist continuously before and after the interview, and the next time we meet we might continue our discussion. This is what I mean by diffuse time, without a beginning or an end, and with various elements all stuck together in a messy way. It’s only when we momentarily extricate our experiences from this messy, sticky time without beginning or end, and fit them into some kind of special format, that we can have some kind of objective confirmation of those experiences. Time is not straight and direct but rather complexly entangled across parallel dimensions.
This understanding of time has become important for me. I used to think that experiences of the world could be understood in the moment they happen. I thought that things appear momentarily before us and point us in some kind of direction. But the world is not that simple, nor can we easily recognize that fact. That is why, in order to show some complex experience through a fixed structure, it is necessary to create a simple timeline, and, just as with this interview, it is necessary to edit everything to fit that structure. Through editing, a complex and atomized event can become a streamlined and readable “text” – as long as the messy time in the background can be somehow smartly preserved.
In that sense I consider each and every to be the most important early work in relation to my current practice. Before I met the cook, I imagined that cooking involved a straightforward timeline from preparation to cooking and serving. However, once I started filming, it became apparent that this is not the case. With no chance to talk and no explanations from the cook, all I could do was film him engrossed in his work. Working in a small kitchen, the cook would start preparing one thing, and the next moment cook another, which he would then pass to another cook, while putting everything he had prepared into the refrigerator, and then heading to another room to look for some ingredient, only to wash his chopping board as soon as he returned. Once I finished filming and had a chance to talk with him, I learned that he was working across multiple layers of time that he had ordered into a linear progression, moving between preparing the next day’s ingredients and staff meals to passing off a dish for another cook to complete. I felt as though the complexity of the world was concentrated there in his movements.
When I was editing the material I first thought of deconstructing the cook’s routine into each different activity, with the idea that I could turn the linear flow of cooking into something more complex, but then I realized that his movements were already so complex that there was no need to alter their progression. I learned so much from that experience. Reflecting on what we were just saying about the specificity of video, video documentation makes visible those routine and yet overlooked complex experiences of the world, and this is even encompassed in the actions of the cook. It was this experience that led me away from thinking about issues within the medium of video toward learning from things that were happening before my eyes.

Top: Grace (2001), DVD, color, sound, endless repeat. Bottom: each and every (2001), DVD, color, sound, 30 min.

ART iT: With your early looped videos, it seems as though you did not apply any value system to the actions themselves. To use your own word, it’s as though you approached them as “samples.” Would you say that this sample-style approach to presentation is what connects your past and current works?

KT: Possibly. Certainly, with my project for the Gwangju Biennale, physical test (2008), I became aware that I avoid applying values such as “good’ or “bad” onto what I do. I made scores of small objects to be included in the installation, but because I have absolutely no sense for figuration, there was no way for me to tell whether what I had made was good or bad. When I finished making an object I would think it was good, but then the next day I would think it was bad. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to scrap anything, because it had already been created. Of course I have some sense about what is good or bad, but regarding creation – or indeed the results of actions – good and bad do not apply. I ended up making some 300 hand-sized objects, and the only judgment I applied to them was that I would not judge them based on the values of good or bad.
With my recent projects such as A Piano Played by Five Pianists at Once (First Attempt) and A haircut by 9 hairdressers at once (second attempt), the idea is to start with an activity that can potentially be repeated numerous times. Fundamentally, anybody could just do it: the process of each attempt is openly structured and each attempt produces a unique result. In other words, each attempt becomes a sample. Maybe the individual participants have their own ideas about failure or success, but the overlying framework goes beyond failure and success. Thinking of the work as simply one sample of multiple possible outcomes is perhaps what led to this framework of “having multiple people do the same thing.”

ART iT: You mentioned earlier the possibility of screening your works in a cinema. Have you thought about doing this with your long-format works such as the piano piece or the haircutting piece, so that viewers could fully appreciate the way they are constructed as events?

KT: Actually, A Piano Played by Five Pianists at Once (First Attempt) will be screened at a cinema in Tokyo, Eurospace, as part of this year’s MOT Annual exhibition organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art. At first I planned to make an installation in the museum with a projection and texts explaining the rules that I provided the pianists. But then I decided that rather than presenting the work at the museum, I’d rather do a two-day screening at a cinema.
This is just part of my project for the MOT Annual, which is exactly about creating a presentation of samples. An artist does not necessarily have to produce in response to the institution of the exhibition. While partly conforming to convention, it’s also possible to step out of those restrictions. So this time there won’t really be any work in the museum. Along with the screening, I will also produce an unannounced performance-talk on one of the trains on the Yamanote line, distribute a calendar of my activities during the exhibition period, contribute a text to the exhibition catalogue, and host a critique of the exhibition. While doing the minimum it takes to maintain my status as a participating artist in the exhibition, I want to invert the usual division between “presenting a work in an exhibition” and “exhibition-related events.” Beyond that, I am thinking about the most effective ways to present or realize my ideas. In all my activities as an artist, I have come to realize that different activities apply to different environments, and that, depending on the content of the work, the museum is not always the best place for these activities. The institution of the exhibition is just one format for representing an artist’s activities, but it is not the ultimate format. At first I was hesitant to challenge the existing framework of a group exhibition like the MOT Annual, but I felt this was a good chance to create that kind of situation. My ongoing column for ART iT, “Shitsumon suru” (Correspondences), will also be presented as a work in the exhibition, with the exhibition curator Mihoko Nishikawa joining as my latest correspondent. In order for people to realize that it is an artwork in the exhibition, I will even add the museum’s work description to the column webpage.

Top: Physical Test (2008), mixed media, approx 300 objects, six tables (140 x 70 x70 cm each), six photographs (103 x 145.6 cm each). Installation view at the 7th Gwangju Biennale, Uijae Museum of Korean Art. Bottom: Someone’s junk is someone else’s treasure (2011), HD video, 11 min.

ART iT: In your “Correspondences” column you previously addressed the idea of breaking through the pre-established conventions of presenting art, and I’m curious to know more about your thinking on this topic. For example, the gallery space is one of the frameworks for presenting art, and you make works that move between the frameworks of art and of the world. In projects like everything is everything (2006), made for the Taipei Biennial, you film yourself interacting with everyday objects in ways that go beyond design and utility, but it also seems that this is possible precisely because it takes place within the frame of art.

KT: You could say that with a work like everything is everything, the framework of art makes it easier to question how we use objects. But I think that before people recognized it as art, they first understood my interaction with the objects as a strange way of using them. Maybe the people in Taipei appreciated the work as coming from a place within their daily lives.
For example, for Someone’s junk is someone else’s treasure (2011), I took out a booth at a flea market in Pasadena, where I tried to sell palm branches. In California, palm branches fall everywhere, and have to be gathered up and thrown away, a bit like shoveling snow. I wanted to know what would happen if I tried to sell such a completely useless thing at a place like a flea market, and planned to film the reactions of the people I met. Of course there is an art historical background to this idea – in drawings I made for the project I reference David Hammons and the manga artist Yoshiharu Tsuge – but there were all kinds of responses from the people. Some thought it was an art project, others thought that maybe as a newly arrived immigrant I actually valued the palm branches and was seriously hoping to sell them. But whether they thought I was serious or joking they all were a little taken aback. So I feel that this project touched upon a category that is broader than art itself.
The idea of holding a talk on the Yamanote line is also intended not for the people who come to museums and galleries, but rather for whoever happens to be riding the train at the time. This kind of off-site happening used to take place frequently in Japan. Specifically, my project is modeled on Hi Red Center’s Yamanote Line Incident event from 1962. The group used the station platforms and the Yamanote line itself, which circles all of Tokyo, as the stages for their performances. It seems that they originally planned to complete an entire circuit of the line, but around the time they arrived at Ueno station everybody got split up. In my project, I plan to engage in discussion with art historians and critics over the course of an hour as we do a circuit of the Yamanote line, in some way touching upon the historic site of the railway line and the art historical importance of the Yamanote Line Incident.
I think it will be difficult for the passengers who end up with us to understand exactly what is taking place, and I doubt there will be anybody who hears the entire discussion. But I don’t think it’s out of the question that those people we encounter who would not usually go to a museum might be able to have some kind of idea about what are discussing in the train. And I plan to make a sound recording of the discussion that will then be turned into a publication, as an additional measure of the multiplicity of the experience. There will certainly be a big difference between the fragments of the talk experienced by the people who end up on the train, and the talk that is presented in the museum as a publication.

ART iT: But with works like Someone’s junk is someone else’s treasure, are you trying to shift the frame of art further out into the world, or are you actually trying to step completely outside of the frame of art?

KT: I think that whatever an artist does will eventually end up in the frame of art. My goal is not to step outside that frame. What I am concerned with is how shifting between multiple values enables us to discover the possibilities that are overlooked across different fields of experience and perception. I am thinking about what methods are effective in achieving this in the relations between art history and its institutions, and the world and society. On my way here I was listening to music, but with regard to pop music, for example, we generally don’t question whether it has any social function. Everything has some kind of fixed role, but there also areas where that role functions and areas where it doesn’t function. I would even say that art has a place where it functions and a place where it doesn’t function. But I think the zone of uncertainty is quite broad. As an artist, I want to make art that can function somewhere. I think one of art’s functions has always been to interact with the world.

ART iT: However, in a sense the gallery provides art with an empty space where anything is possible. For example, the moment you enter that empty space, doing something like throwing a bunch of oranges down a flight of stairs has value, whereas in the broader world such an action would generally be considered wasteful. At the same time, once they step inside that empty space, maybe artists find it hard to get out. It’s contradictory and ironic. 

KT: With an exhibition space like a museum or a gallery, the system of art is already there surrounding it. Certainly that is an empty, free space. You can do whatever you want there, and it allows for new values to be created. However, that space is also bound up by practical restraints and conventions that can be limiting. I feel there must be some space that has yet to be developed between the artist’s practice and the institution of the exhibition. Certainly this is somewhat different from stepping completely out of the exhibition format, but I wonder whether artists aren’t becoming too restricted in their activities by the institution of the exhibition, or whether artists themselves aren’t becoming overly responsive to the institution of the exhibition. That’s why I’m interested in the gap between practice and exhibition.

a haircut by 9 hairdressers at once (second attempt) (2010), HD video, 28 min, produced by YYZ Artists’ Outlet as part of its YYreZidency program.

ART iT: Up to a certain point your works were mostly disembodied, but with your recent haircut and piano pieces, not only are people present as agents in the works, they are also in a sense the subject of the works. Was there any reason for this shift?

KT: It’s only been about two years since I started working on this idea, but the inspiration came from my experience in the Palais de Tokyo artist-in-residence program, “Pavilion,” in 2006. The residency invited around 10 artists and a curator to work together on a project. Because the artists were all in their late 20s and early 30s, we were all quite ambitious, and there were all kinds of personalities among the group, from those who wanted to take charge of the project on their own terms, to others who set aside their personal interests and were ready to work collaboratively. Ultimately, we went through repeated discussions, and although I can’t say that we necessarily succeeded, the process itself was fascinating. As the different personalities became apparent over the course of this process, we came to understand how to realize the project.
From observing the different reactions of the participants and the breakdowns and reconstructions of our relations, the lessons from the project stayed with me, and now you could say that with time they are finding their way into my works. The first attempt to make a haircut piece came during a stay in Toronto. Toronto is such an international and diverse city that it’s almost as though there’s a different pocket of the world on every street, and this reminded me of the situation at Palais de Tokyo. I decided to see what would happen if I brought together several people from different backgrounds and had them work collaboratively on a project. But the project was a failure. I spoke to around 10 hairdressers, and all of them said they wanted to participate, but on the day of the filming only three showed up. I put myself forward as the model, and the hairdressers cut my hair, but because it was a relatively simple task to do with three people, there was no real sense of the complexity of the challenge. That’s why on my second attempt, in San Francisco, I increased the complexity by involving nine hairdressers.  

ART iT: Watching the haircut videos you can feel a kind of tension between the participants, as one hairdresser goes in one direction and then the next goes in another. In contrast to the piano piece, where you can hear the different ideas of the pianists coming together into a composition, these are all professionals who are used to working on their own and have their own tools and strategies for how to approach the problem of cutting hair. You feel the different methodologies, which are partially culturally determined, bumping up against each other in an almost disturbing way. But at the same time there is not so much psychological development in the work because everyone is focused on a concrete task. It’s almost like the participants themselves are objectified. 

KT: Having professionals who usually work on their own enter a special situation where they have to work together was one of the goals of the project. I also think it would be interesting to ask people who usually work in teams to try doing the same task on their own. In removing someone from their routine situation and putting them into an extreme environment, you can actually highlight the routine behavior. 
To a degree I dealt with the participants in an objective way, in that I put myself in the position of observing a kind of experiment. After creating the special situation I left everything to the participants. Even the decisions over when to take a break, or even the possibility of stopping the filming mid-way, I left up to them. I was willing to accept whatever happened there. Even the filming I left to a cameraman, so in terms of both what happened and in terms of filming I was watching from the background. Sometimes I couldn’t hear what was going on, and it was only when I looked at the video material that I fully understood the situation. With the piano work, I had no grasp of musical terminology, and I had to rely on the curator who was working with me on the piece, July Carson, to appreciate the quality of the music and also for advice in editing the footage into the final work.

ART iT: In that sense your recent works are not so different from your early works, where the action was often generated by some off-camera agent, like a fan that blows a roll of toilet paper around a room. You still have a hands-off approach to filming. 

KT: Yes. As long as you have the framework, even if the pianists weren’t able to complete a composition it still would have been fine. Regardless of how the participants feel, the goal of the project is not to complete the task, per se, but rather to visualize the creative process. You could say this attitude connects with the work that I made with toilet paper after I graduated university, Fly me to the moon (2001). Whether the toilet paper flew or did not fly was determined by the situation in that moment when I filmed it.

Top: Fly me to the moon (2001), DVD, color, sound, endless repeat. Bottom: Everything is Everything (2006), eight-channel HD video transferred to Blu-ray disc, color, sound, each film btw 1-2 min run time.

ART iT: This process of moving from a constructed set-up that you want to explore to the documentation of an actual event and then the reconstruction of that event through editing recalls the blurred lines between fiction and reality that you see in a lot of recent documentary film.

KT: The New York-based documentary filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda makes films based on Frederick Wiseman’s direct cinema method, without any narrative voiceovers or titles. For example, his film Seishin (Mental, 2008) was shot in a psychiatric clinic, but because there is no explanatory narration, it’s difficult to tell whether the people who appear in the film are patients or staff. In other words, the distinction is left entirely to the viewer. This is the extreme opposite of conventional TV reportage, for example.
Maybe A Piano Played by Five Pianists at Once (First Attempt) is similar in that regard. The participating pianists all have different backgrounds, from Jazz piano to Classic and composition, but that only becomes evident as you listen to their exchanges. Even each and every is quite different from television in the way it was filmed and edited. With, say, a TV cooking show there is always some kind of explanation so that viewers can follow what kind of ingredients are being used with what amount of seasoning and so on, but without any of that explanation you begin to approach observational cinema. Once I saw Soda’s films, it confirmed some of my ideas about my own work.  

ART iT: We started out talking about your approach to video, and although on a surface level your works do not share such an obvious relation to film, they actually employ a cinematic grammar in how they are edited, with multiple takes and angles of the same action, or the use of the long, static take.

KT: I would say that even more than art, I’ve watched a lot of film. In particular because the timing in editing film is a sensory matter, to the extent my approach is sensory I think that’s where the influence of cinema becomes apparent. When I first start thinking about the ideas and framework for a new project in relation to art history, the sensory aspect gets a bit removed, but it comes back once I get into the filming and editing.

ART iT: Seeing everything is everything, I had the feeling that the work is partly about breaking down our preconceptions about objects in our daily lives and giving them new values. These preconceptions may seem innocent at first but they actually dictate our interactions with something like a plastic cup, which are generally limited to drinking from the cup, or throwing away the cup or maybe washing it for reuse.

KT: When I showed the work at the Taipei Biennial, a lot of people who saw it there told me they felt the actions depicted in the work were similar to things they had done as children. As a child, the first time you encounter something, you have to explore what the thing is in a bodily way, because you are not aware of the conventional uses of that thing. Rather than conceptually, through language, children first comprehend and then develop an understanding of how to use an object through their bodies. So maybe that is similar to what happens in the work. It approaches those memories of being a child and experimenting through the body and not having preconceptions about things. Rather than searching for a completely new means of interacting with objects, it’s more about reconfirming an already known sensation. During filming we actually came up with many experiments with the objects, but in editing I removed the ideas that seemed overly thought-out or purposeful. I was looking for experiments in which the process from facing the object to coming up with an idea and carrying it out was relatively direct. Some of these actions include inconsequential actions like simply picking up a table and dropping it again. Regardless of whether the action had any purpose or not, the idea was to do the action before there was any time to formulate a judgment on its significance.

Works referenced in the interview (YouTube and Vimeo):

A Piano Played by Five Pianists at Once (First Attempt) (2012)

Someone’s junk is someone else’s treasure (2011)

a haircut by 9 hairdressers at once (second attempt) (2010)

Showing objects to a dog (2010)

everything is everything (2006)

Each and Every (2003)


Koki Tanaka: The Center Cannot Hold

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