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Feb 22 2019

Vulnerable Histories: Interview with Koki Tanaka

by Becca Voelcker

Portrait of KOKI TANAKA. Photo by Daifu Motoyuki. All images courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo.

Artist Koki Tanaka, who is best known for his videos, installations and performances probing the radical potential of mundane objects and actions, completed his first feature film, Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie), in 2018. Originally shown as an installation at Zurich’s Migros Museum of Contemporary Art, the film proposes a patient, discursive form of activism to confront racial discrimination in Japan. Combining documentary and essayistic modes, the film stages a series of conversations between Woohi, a Japan-born, third-generation Korean (zainichi) woman living in Tokyo, and Christian, a half-Swiss, half-Japanese-American man. The pair, who have never met before, discuss discrimination from several perspectives, drawing from legal sources as well as their own experiences to explore identity politics rarely discussed in Japan. Consensus is questioned by the film’s multiple chapters and reflexive ending.

Vulnerable Histories had its cinematic world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January 2019, and will be presented in Japan for the first time on February 22nd at the Goethe Institut, Tokyo. AAP spoke with Tanaka in Rotterdam to discuss his artistic process and the making of his new film.

You’re known for a workshopping process in which you engage participants in discussions and activities. Was that also how you developed Vulnerable Histories?

Yes. We discuss this in the film’s epilogue, in which Christian, Woohi, Han (a lecturer and the adviser for the film who is also zainichi) and I sit at a bar and reflect on our process. I see workshops as akin to temporary communities. Unlike previous projects, such as [Provisional Studies: Workshop #7 How to Live Together and Sharing the Unknown], which I made for Skulptur Projekte Münster in 2017, Vulnerable Histories involved the entire film crew in preparatory study groups and discussions. This inclusion made a huge difference. After we finished filming, we had a party to celebrate. Someone who had been involved in the project but not present in the workshops and reading groups turned up and happened to sit beside Woohi, not knowing who she was. He greeted her in Korean and said he enjoyed K-pop. Witnessing this, the rest of the crew froze. It was precisely the kind of treatment of zainichi that we had been learning about for its othering effects. And here it was happening! That was a pivotal moment for me, illustrating how important workshopping is when it involves everyone—crew and cast. 

It seems like the crew is often neglected in preparatory work for films and dismissed as being solely “technical,” as if people operating lights or mics do not have anything else to contribute. 

I was thinking of the film crew as being a form of temporary community itself. It was important in forming this community that we ate, socialized and read together. Woohi and the sound engineer remain good friends since we made the film.  

Production still from KOKI TANAKA’s Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie), 2019, single-channel film, 4K, 16:9, with color and sound: 78 min. 

The film’s epilogue takes place in a bar, with you serving Woohi and Christian as they reflect on their experiences making the film. You then sit at the bar with Han. Watching this, I was reminded of French filmmaker Jean Rouch’s reflexive method, particularly in his documentary Chronicle of a Summer (1961), the ending of which portrays the film’s subjects reviewing the footage and discussing its realism. 

Rouch interests me very much. It’s hard to find his films with Japanese subtitles but I have seen The Human Pyramid (1961). I chose to film the epilogue in a bar because I see my own position as akin to a barman’s. I’m present in the film, sometimes visible or audible, but am more of a facilitator than a protagonist. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) was another inspiration (the lengthy discussions in which the protagonists reflect upon their relationship), and—as unlikely as it sounds—The Avengers (2012). In that film, after saving the world, the heroes have a pizza party and reflect on what they’ve done. 

The idea of preparing and sharing food seems important in Vulnerable Histories. We see Woohi and Christian make lunch together, for example, and sharing snacks in the epilogue at the bar. Do relational aesthetics play a part in this?

They do. Less so because of Nicolas Bourriaud’s book Relational Aesthetics (1998) and more my experience in a residency for international artists at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, in 2005–06. The collaborative atmosphere of that residency influenced me, especially our lengthy discussions around a big table. When these discussions would switch from English to French, I would stop understanding the words and focus on people’s body language. This was very interesting and has affected my work ever since. 

Still image from KOKI TANAKA’s Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie), 2019, single-channel film, 4K, 16:9, with color and sound: 78 min. 

With discussion comes disagreement, an experience your projects frequently explore. Is Jacques Ranciere’s idea of dissensus an influence?  

Yes! One video I made in 2012, A Piano Played by Five Pianists at Once (First Attempt), puts cooperation to the test. So does Vulnerable Histories, in the way that it raises questions about racism and identity that have no simple, univocal answer. The challenge we all face is how to live with people whose opinions differ radically from our own. We are living in a moment of dissensus and cannot ignore people—as marginal, right-wing or inflammatory their ideas might be. I’m interested in pitting Bourriaud’s happier form of relational aesthetics against Claire Bishop’s idea that antagonism is a vital force in art. Art is precisely where utopian ideas can intersect reality. 

KOKI TANAKAA Piano Played by Five Pianists at Once (First Attempt), 2012, still image from video documentation of performance: 57 min. 

Whether it’s five differently trained pianists playing one piano or people of radically different politics living in the same country, sharing and negotiating space seem pivotal in your work. 

The title of Vulnerable Histories nods to Judith Butler’s idea of cohabitation. Communities are vulnerable, precarious networks of relations. It was also important for me to use the plural of “history” in the title to acknowledge multiple interpretations and experiences of identity. Christian and Woohi’s connections to Japan are very different. But at the same time, they are able to share experiences and find parallels. Christian mentions racial discrimination in rural Switzerland, for example. 

Did you script any of Woohi and Christian’s conversations?  

I prepared some questions—not a script but a set of triggers.  

Where does the bracketed subtitle, “A Road Movie,” come from? 

The scene in which Woohi and Christian drive is pivotal in the film because it’s on the road that they talk with the most emotion and vulnerability. They talked for four or five hours that day. The title also signals this project’s transition into cinema. It was originally a commission for the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art, where I installed it on multiple screens in several rooms. In the feature-length version, these rooms have been converted into the film’s titled sections. 

Partial installation view of KOKI TANAKA’s Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie), 2018, film: 78 min, installation: three single-channel videos on monitor with color and sound; three single-channel video projections with color and sound; two-channel video on monitors with color, no sound; inkjet print on paper, UV-ink on craft paper, inkjet print on wallpaper, movable walls, second-hand sofas, carpet, at the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art, Zurich, 2018.
Partial installation view of KOKI TANAKA’s Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie), 2018, film: 78 min, installation: three single-channel videos on monitor with color and sound; three single-channel video projections with color and sound; two-channel video on monitors with color, no sound; inkjet print on paper, UV-ink on craft paper, inkjet print on wallpaper, movable walls, second-hand sofas, carpet, at the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art, Zurich, 2018.
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Installed first in Europe and funded by European grants, the project is nevertheless rooted in Japanese issues. How do you work between Japanese and European platforms? 

Working in this way afforded me great freedom because my funding was not tied to Japanese interests, and yet, working in Japan, the curators were not present to look over my shoulder although I was closely working together with them for the idea of the project. After I represented Japan in the 2013 Venice Biennale, I undertook several site-specific projects in Europe. But now that I’m in my forties, I’ve realised I want to make more work in Japan, and tackle issues there, including racism and potentially the problem of nuclear energy. 

Why is Vulnerable Histories in English?

It’s in English to add distance. English is not the first language of any of the participants or crew. English is therefore a shared language that none of us can really claim as our own. It’s a levelling and distancing device. 

You’ve lived in Paris and Los Angeles for residencies, and led workshops in many other countries. How does it feel to live in Kyoto, where you are currently based? 

Kyoto and the wider Kansai region are experiencing a flourishing of underground art, independent publishing, and interdisciplinary activity. It feels like a good place to be right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Theater Commons Tokyo presents Koki Tanaka’s Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie) at the Goethe Institut, Tokyo, from February 22 to 24, 2019.

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