Places, Japan, Acсess

Yukiko Kaneko on Arts in Aomori

Contact Zones: a series of interviews with cultural practitioners

Top: Exhibition hall and arcade
Bottom: ENDO Kaori’s rooftop farm

All photos courtesy of Aomori Contemporary Art Centre

The Aomori Contemporary Art Center, located in the eponymous city in the very north of the largest Japanese island of Honshu, has been cooperating with the Golubitskoe Art Foundation and the Zarya Center for Contemporary Art in the framework of the program Contact Zones: Far East Exchange. Artist Ulyana Podkorytova was the first ACAC resident from Russia.

Anastasia Marukhina, curator of the Foundation’s research program, spoke with Yukiko Kaneko, the former chief curator of the Aomori, about building international ties and the potential for collaboration between the art scenes of Japan and Russia. With this material, we continue our series of publications in partnership with the Golubitskoe Art Foundation and the Contact Zones project.

Anastasia Marukhina:The new history of the global pandemic forced us to change a notion that was already rooted in us, the idea that every corner of the world is always accessible to us for the purposes of new personal experiences. While before the pandemic an international art community traveled to new places for exhibitions or residences and brought their experience to the local context, now, due to the expansion of online activity, many institutions deliver their local context to the most remote and unexpected places in the world while staying in local isolation. We are called to return to the mode of collecting information about places and traditions from online events, announcements, and articles. I would like to talk here about the possible value this experience has for institutions and the international art community. Perhaps only a few people know where the city of Aomori is in Japan. Could you please tell us a little about the historical, cultural, and geopolitical background of the city and the region?

Yukiko Kaneko:Aomori is located in the northernmost part of the main island of Japan. This is why it snows heavily in winter and the city planning, architecture, and lifestyle of the people in Aomori is organized in order to survive in large amounts of snow. Aomori is also a part of the Tohoku region. Some may know Tohoku from the earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Historically, since the nation was formed, the center of the country was Kyoto or Tokyo and Tohoku was considered undeveloped land from the point of view of those in the center. Due to this understanding of the region, plenty of political issues,including those related to nuclear power plants, have continued to occur in Tohoku. On the other hand, Aomori is known for a large Jomon archaeological site dating back to 16,500~2,500 years ago. It was recommended by UNESCO for world heritage status just this year. Also, there are many traditional crafts such as sugaru nuri (a Japanese lacquer technique), Kogin (embroidery), and Saguri (weaving). Also there are many local cultures and customs—there are different dialects, festivals, and religions that are distinct from other regions.

Furthermore, Aomori has a strong connection with the Hokkaido area because it is very close. Actually, you can see a part of Hokkaido if you go to the very end of the northern part of Aomori on a sunny day. And there are many remains and evidence that people were going back and forth between Aomori and Hokkaido very frequently even before modernization. 

In addition, Aomori and Russia, especially Vladivostok, has had connections in terms of trade and cultural exchange after modernization. In conclusion, you can say both that Aomori is the entrance to the Northern world and the end of the main island of Japan. Some may see the sign of the North as an end, but some may think of it as an entrance to the Northern world. 

Left: School program day. In the background one can see two sculptures by WAKAE Kanji, The wall in woods, 2004 (left). Lee Seung-Taek, Artificial nature, 2002 (right)
Right: AOKI Noe, Moya –Ⅰ, 2002

All photos courtesy of Aomori Contemporary Art Centre

AM:Could you please tell us about how the ACAC was founded? What were the initial aims and how have they changed or adapted with time? 

YK:It was established as a project to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Aomori City—the ACAC opened its doors in December 2001 and is currently run by Aomori Public University.

The ACAC is committed to fully supporting creative pursuits regardless of the artist-in-residence, whether by nomination, open call, or paid residency. Our aim as an institution is to further communicate excellence in contemporary art, construct international networks through these connections, and provide new encounters and learning opportunities between artists, residents, and students in the local community. 

The biggest change in ACAC was that the administration changed from Aomori city government to Aomori Public University in 2009. Because of this, ACAC started to focus on higher levels of engagement with the university students although ACAC has involved the students in its project from the beginning.

Second, we changed the condition of the residency in 2020. The past open call residency program asked artists to participate in a group exhibition during the program period. But starting in 20202 we removed this condition for participants. By doing so, it made it easier for dancers, singers, novelists, curators, or researchers who don’t typically present their work in an exhibition format to participate in the program. This change follows the overall situation of the art scene in that a lot of artists collaborate with artists or researchers from other fields. 

Of course, there are many small changes depending on the conditions, however we could say that ACAC’s core feature is the Artist in Residence program. The reason for that is its building, which is designed for the residency. Our building consists of the Exhibition hall, Creative hall, and Residential hall, and we can say it to lead the path of the artist’s stay and towards them creating new works. 

AM:Why did the museum choose to have a residency program? What expectation did you have when opening your residency program? 

YK:ACAC is not only a museum but also an art center (Kunsthalle), so from the very beginning of planning the concept of ACAC, the residency was at the center of its program. This is why the building was designed for it. 

At the time that ACAC was opened, it was the last period of the art museum construction boom by the local Japanese government. So, Aomori city decided to open an alternative art institution that shows new ways of making relationship between art, artists, and local people, and creates a place where art is born from the unique nature, culture, and history of Aomori.

This is why, during the residency period, artists are encouraged to communicate with local people through collaborative production, workshops, performances, school visits, artist talks, etc.

AM:What are the main challenges for an art institution working apart from the main art centers of Tokyo and Kyoto? What are ACAC Aomori’s strategies or methods to resolve these challenges?

YK:To be honest, intrinsically there are no difficulties caused by the distance from the big city, and there are many difficulties which each depend on an institution’s situation. This is a really difficult question because we can say that every issue is due to the distance from the big city and vice versa.

If I could say something:artists make an impact and bring new life to a society. So, if many artists live in Aomori, the community may change toward something interesting.

Of course there are artists living in Aomori, but not so many because there is no art university and there are only a few art related jobs in Aomori. This is why ACAC tries to prompt artists to be involved in the community at residency programs instead of just living in Aomori. 

Ulyana Podkorytova recording interviews and folklore songs by Aomori citizens
Copyright Ulyana Podkorytova

AM:What new and unexpected aspects did you discover while running the residency? What did you learn? 

YK:Thanks to the artists’ activities such as research, production, and their artworks, ACAC and local people keep finding a lot of new issues in culture, geography, history, and other realms in our community. We keep learning alternative aspects of things in our society through the artists’ perspective.

In addition, artists create alternative ways of utilizing the ACAC building. For example, Nomura Makoto, who participated in the program in 2012, started farming on the roof of a residential hall. It is covered by soil in order to fulfill the concept of “buried architecture” by Anda Tadao, and many wild plants thrive there naturally. In his residency, Nomura cultivated a part of it and made a vegetable field as his artwork. After that, the students of Aomori Public University have been looking after it for the last five years. And last year, in 2020, the artist Endo Kaori created her own field for her production there. She grew cotton and indigo there. This is one of the most interesting stories in which the artists showed new ways of utilizing ACAC’s architecture.

AM:What role does the Aomori community play in the development of your art institution? Could you give an example or case when the community influenced a decision making? 

YK:For ACAC it is very important to collaborate with the local community. This should be mentioned in particular: there is a volunteer support organization called “AIRS” (Artist in Residence Supporters) which supports artists’ activities at ACAC. It was established in 2003 though core members have supported pre-opening activities since 1999 when ACAC was in its planning stages. The members help with research, production, or even everyday life tasks for artists in Aomori. ACAC conducts exchange meetings between artists and AIRS in the beginning of residency. Thanks to that, artists can have access to a wide range of information at the meeting and this information leads the artists’ activities. Where the artists go and who they meet shapes the artists’ production, so we can say it has an influence on decision making.

AM:What do you find interesting about the format of the exchange program Contact Zones: Far East? What is innovative and what is challenging? How is this program different from others? What expectations do you have for the collaboration? 

YK:Since Aomori is located in the northern part of the main island of Japan, historically people in Aomori and Russia have traveled and made exchanges with each other via the sea for a long time. You can find some stories or remains that relate to Russia and items that were brought from there. And you can find some similarities in regard to the climate. So Russia has been a neighbor to Aomori and there are strong connections.

This is why it is meaningful to build a relationship and develop a cultural exchange between ACAC and ZARYA CCA / Golubitskoe Art Foundation that is based on this history.

On the other hand, the area where the Golubitskoe Art Foundation is located is on the western side of Russia and next to the eastern side of Europe. ACAC expects to find some of the cultural diversity of Russia through geological differences and to start a dialogue about it. Also ACAC expects to build good relationships with ZARYA CCA and Golubitskoe Art Foundation through the program. The relationship between each institution will create a new cultural sphere that serves as a network.

Score 1 and 2 by Ulyana Podkorytova
Copyright Ulyana Podkorytova

AM:Do you think it is important to have interdisciplinary research about the region of the Far East? 

YK:Yes, because in recent years artists’ interests have become broader, moving beyond fine art and their expressions don’t stay within those parameters. This is evidenced by the applications of artists for Contact Zones as well. Some are interested in the historical links between Russia and Japan/Aomori and some are interested in anthropological matters. Nowadays, everyone knows that everything has a sort of link with other topics. 

In addition, the biggest reason is that there has been strong economical, historical, and political connections within the Far East region because we are neighbors. Owing to this, each country has experienced a lot of conflict. However, we can build good relationships with other countries because we are neighbors. Art can be one of the tools for it. Art can illustrate a lot of aspects that people don’t recognize in our history, economy, and politics. This is why ACAC believes that interdisciplinary research gives us new perspectives and helps to deepen our understanding of the Far East region, as neighbors who create a future together.

AM:Could you describe your experience with Uliyana Podkorytova, the first resident from Russia, and tell us a little about her project? What was challenging about it? 

YK:Her project in ACAC was based on the concept of homonyms and homographs. Her plan included: 1. interviewing three Aomori residents from across three different generations, 2. tracing their words with her own voice to compose a song for her performance, 3. utilizing printmaking techniques learned in Aomori to document the score. It was an attempt from the artist to connect with the people of Aomori through sound since both have different mother tongues.

In 2020, she interviewed three Aomori residents, whose ages were seventy five, nineteen, and nine via the internet. Her questions ranged from basics like name and age, to urban legends, Aomori rumors, local gods or hero—the inspiration for the motifs of the local Nebuta festival, to things often seen here and there across the internet. The interview concluded with the participants singing their favorite songs for the artist. Moreover, Uliyana held an artist talk and presented a voice performance as an online public event after her interview.

ACAC was not able to invite her but asked her to participate remotely in 2020. We hope to invite her in 2021 once COVID-19 is over. According to this condition, she proceeded with her project with the hybrid of online and offline modes in which she interacted with ACAC and Aomori over a long term period. Despite the fact that she participated in our program during the latter half of her work and she didn’t have enough time, she made powerful progress in her research. It is the first time we have had this format. This is why these are challenging and interesting tasks for ACAC. Her way to proceed with the project shows us how we can adjust our way of programing in this period of the “New Normal.”

Score 3 by Ulyana Podkorytova
Copyright Ulyana Podkorytova

AM:As part of the new working conditions due to the pandemic, all of us art and culture workers, as well as cultural organizations, have had to master new skills and knowledge, to adapt and open up to the prospect of working online. How does work within the local context take place in terms of this new format of “online residencies”? And how do you see the development of an art residence in the context of a pandemic and restrictions on movement? How did this affect your program and how do you plan to proceed in the future?

YK:For ACAC, involvement with the local context is one of the most important issues. But it doesn’t always mean the artists should collaborate with local people or research local issues. It means if the artists stay at ACAC, a wide range of exchanges spontaneously occurs with the local community. As I mentioned earlier, ACAC has a volunteer support group (AIRS) in addition to the students of Aomori Public University. They help with the production of the artworks and the exhibitions and even help support the artists’ everyday life in Aomori. Some drive the artists to the supermarket and the others provide box lunches for them. ACAC believes these kinds of face to face interactions helps artists to know Aomori deeper and makes their residency fruitful. It also helps the local people to understand artists themselves and it helps develop a better understanding of art.

In 2020, we tried “online” residencies with foreign artists. ACAC was able to conduct it thanks to the cooperation, generosity, and ideas of each of the artists. Not only Uliyana’s practice, but also other artists tried a lot of ways to reach the local community. For example, Amélie Bouvier (France) and Sara Ouhaddou (France/Morocco) created a mechanism for gathering visitor’s comments about their solo exhibition and did so in a way that allows for offline exchanges. They will use the comments that they gathered in their new artwork. On the other hand, Alicja Czyczel (Poland) and local participants sent many texts, photos, and short movies to each other for about three months. It was like exchanging their diaries. Her practice showed that sending the messages over a period of time brings their friendship closer.

Based on these experiences in 2020, we are sure that artists’ practices are opening doors and pushing the limitations of being“online” and are going beyond our imagination, though of course there are still many disadvantages to an online residency. ACAC is continuing our “Remote Residency” through our open call program in 2021, and we are looking forward to creating new ideas with artists. We can use both online and offline efficiently even after COVID-19. So we consider this an opportunity to develop new ways of running a residency.

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Yukiko Kaneko
Art educator and curator. Master’s student of the University of British Columbia since August, 2021. From 2011 to 2021 she worked at the Aomori Contemporary Art Centre (ACAC), Aomori Public University. As a chief curator of the ACAC which mainly runs artists’ residencies, she was taking key responsibilities for managing curatorial team and all programs organized at the ACAC. Besides, she has been working as an art educator, planning and carrying out educational and exchange programs such as workshop, school programs, gallery tour, etc. Major projects includes ISHIDA Takashi solo exhibition “Light on the Arc” (2019, ACAC), Artist in Residence Program 2018 “Dynamic Garden in Full Motion” (2018, ACAC).
Anastasia Marukhina
Curator, researcher and cultural producer, currently based in Berlin. Currently together with the artist collective Slavs and Tatars she curates their new project space Pickle Bar in Berlin. Together with CCA Zarya Vladivostok she conceived and curated a research program Contact Zones: Far East (CCA Zarya Vladivostok, 2017-2020). She curated a number of exhibitions among which are Fabian Knecht. Zerbrechung (CCA Zarya, Vladivostok, 2017); Morse Code: Distress Call (Haus Der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2014); Chto Delat? Perestroika. Twenty years after: 1991-2011 (Kölnischer Kunstverein, 2011).
Ulyana Podkorytova
Moscow-based multidisciplinary artist. Through the field of inner/personal mythology and pseudo-folklore, she addresses the loss of identity in the face of globalization. The fruits of which can be seen encapsulated on video, voice performance and painting. Her recent exhibitions, among others, include “Ray’ok”(Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, 2020), Slash (Winzavod Center for Contemporary Art, 2016), Single Copy (Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, 2018).