A Methodology for the Future
Koki Tanaka’s art activism

Koki Tanaka transforms daily life into art. Now, the 2015 "Artist of the Year" is honored with a major solo show at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. In an interview with Britta Färber, he explains why he gives his audience tasks and why even drinking green tea can be political.
The Japanese artist calls his work “art activism.” A Vulnerable Narrator, his exhibition as “Artist of the Year” at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, is akin to a workshop linking projects, ideas, and documents spanning nearly a decade. It documents the path from Tanaka’s early experiments with mass products and materials to his later collective actions and performances. Videos such as Everything Is Everything (2006) and Walking Through (2009) recall a series of experiments. In them, he subjects cheap products from household goods and hardware stores to various tests. The artist, born in 1975, is interested in how sensitively and openly we perceive everyday things and how we can develop a new relationship to them. In 2012, he extended this issue to human relationships in collective actions called Precarious Tasks. The participants receive poetically evocative instructions to perform simple activities as a group. With these tasks, Tanaka continues to explore the possibilities and impossibilities of collective action. But after the Fukushima nuclear disaster had shaken the world in 2011, daily life took on a political dimension. Whether he asks participants to brandish flashlights in the dark, or to spend 24 hours in a gallery together: Tanaka interrogates how we behave in emergency situations, what we do when situations become “precarious,” when technical and social systems fail and we can find a solution together with others or must fail. Therein lies the utopian potential of these tasks—not only dreaming of alternative, more social forms of community, but actually experiencing them.

Over the last few years participatory art has gotten really big, but a lot of people still have the feeling that they are not able to participate in political, economical, and ecological processes in their everyday lives. Do you see your works as political actions or statements?

KOKI TANAKA: I’m still learning about participation, and am on my way to understanding what “participation” really means nowadays. I started the first sort of participatory project around 2010, when I organized a project with nine hairdressers who were performing a haircut together on one model. I would say that it was more of a film production, a video documentation of how people work together. But the most relevant works in this context are the Precarious Tasks, that I started in 2012. These were a response to the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. Precarious Tasks basically create a platform to meet people.

BF: Why do you call your tasks precarious?

KT: This has several meanings. I just started these types of collective actions without thinking too much about whether they could be art projects or not. I wanted to respond to the disaster situation in Japan, but I didn’t know how. So I set up loose frameworks for people, so that they could gather. I wanted to learn about what was really going on in Japan from them. Because of the loose framework, the participants feel slightly uneasy. In open-ended situations we don’t know where things will end. The situation is temporary, and yes “precarious,” like precarious labor, temporary contracts, and basic day-to-day situations. And such temporal and precarious situations are also based on the uncertain nature of the situation in Japan, because Japan is an island of natural disasters. Additionally, Japan has been in a continuously uncertain situation since the 2011 nuclear crisis.

And your tasks reflect this …

KT: In the first Precarious Tasks in 2012, I asked people to bring tea bags from their kitchens. Then I put all the tea bags and tea leaves together in one teapot, and we drank this blended tea together. On one hand, sharing tea is like creating a community, but it was just a year after the Fukushima disaster so we were still in a moment of nuclear crisis and very aware of radioactive substances. If the teas were grown before 2011 they were totally fine, but after 2011 they might be contaminated with radioactivity. It was a tense moment when we looked at where those teas came from and when they were grown. Suddenly, simply drinking tea became about touching on a social problem. There is nothing like a middle ground, the entirety of everyday life has become political in Japan. I have been focused on the everyday as my starting point for thinking about art, but at the same time the meaning of the everyday in Japan totally changed after the disaster. Relational aesthetics may still be important, but my work could also refer to the recent development of “art activism,” even though my practice is rather soft and modest.

BF: In what way?

KT: Relational aesthetics were probably relevant around the time that they were addressed. They had been around for twenty years already, since the beginning of the nineties. Nicolas Bourriaud wrote his text on relational art in 1996, and all the protagonists of Relational art, like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno and Carsten Höller have become established artists since. My generation is influenced by their ideas, but at the same time we are aware of the problems with those ideas. It was said that in most cases relational art was limited to specific people from the art world. Now, twenty years later, I think it has moved more towards activism, because activism is also about participation. We had big antinuclear demonstrations in Japan in 2012, and demonstrations against changes in defense policy are becoming really big too. Many young people participate and are involved. Some of them use video, posters, and music as key elements of their approach. I think one of the good things about such new types of activism, or social movements, is that they really affect things, and we can already see that happening. From my point of view art is always slow. Political action is a quick response, but art is slow, it takes time. I think art activism is also slow because it is more like a symbolic action. It can’t change or effect situations immediately. But at the same time it lasts longer than immediate action. So this is probably one of the reasons that I am interested in participatory art in the sense of art activism.

BF: Why does art last longer than political action?

KT: The purpose of political action is to try to change specific issues and solve certain problems. If there is another problem, it needs another political action. Art practice is rather ambiguous and symbolic. It can touch a wider range of things in a way, even if that was not the original intention of the artist. Artistic practice has more staying energy because of the system, because of archives like museums, we can see many artworks from the past. It means we can see into the future, at least 10, 20, or 100 years from now. There may be no nuclear reactors or antinuclear demonstrations in hundreds of years, but art could last. Look at Group Material, one of their most famous projects was the AIDS Timeline which showed AIDS-related social events in the US in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But if you look at how they presented related objects and images in the timeline, they didn’t solely focus on the AIDS crisis. They also focused on how people and artists react to social issues. They included activist-designed T-shirts, movies, music, and so on. A timeline format not only informs people about what has happened, but also about how people dealt with it. The project was like a future donation for us, we can learn from what they did. So in this sense, art is also about preserving a methodology for the future.

BF: What is the general idea for your exhibition at Deutsche Bank KunstHalle?

KT: I titled the show in Berlin A Vulnerable Narrator, this does not just refer to me, it is also about all the participants in my projects. They are in a difficult position sometimes, but they try to achieve something, they try to say something. In a way all the actions that I organize are related to how we can share our experiences with others. We are all vulnerable when we are confronted with people with whom we are not sharing anything, but we continue to narrate our stories to others.

BF: Your series of drawings History Is Written from Someone Else’s Perspective, Someone You Don’t Know. Making Our Own History Requires Each of Us to Rewrite It from Our Own Point of View from 2010 illustrates iconic events and progressive artworks from Japan’s postwar era. How is your own work embedded in this tradition?

KT: Honestly, I’d say I am not really influenced by postwar Japanese art. I am more influenced by American conceptual art. However, through looking back at postwar contemporary art in Japan and making drawings from it, I have started to understand that there was also a certain link that spread out globally in the 1960s and 1970s. Artists were somehow sharing ideas about political and social agendas, as well as artistic practices. So my journey to understanding contemporary art history was kind of a detour that first took me outside, and then back to Japan.

Koki Tanaka – A Vulnerable Narrator
Deutsche Bank “Artist of the Year” 2015

3/26/2015 – 5/25/2015
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin