Takahiro Yamamoto: What I love about Portland is this sense of community, this artistic community. Everybody's so invested in it, even without the lack of funds, so they show up at events. So I, as an audience member, feel like I am a part of it. Also, it is a small enough of a community to integrate artists from different mediums: musicians, visual artists, writers, dancers and video artists. So it doesn't feel like your audience is just performance makers and performers.
David Thomson: Great, that's the biggest thing, because I think that changes the whole dialogue, you know and sometimes I go to shows here and in a lot of cases, because there's so much going on in New York, the audiences tend to be specialized. And so you're like "Oh, the same dance audience usual suspects" and after a while you can get tired of seeing them but the good thing is that they're there to support but also... I would imagine that the dialogue is different when you have a lot more cross-pollination and that kind of pushes things in a way that in looking at the work you've done. I got a lovely chance to look at the work and there are a few interesting surprises. I didn't realize that you had been working with Ben [Evans]. In watching certain things I felt small bits of kinship or connections through Ben. We shared an apartment in Angers (France) while I was teaching there and he was part of a festival. He was there with Jennifer Lacey and it was lovely fun. I didn't really know him before so we got to know each other a bit. Intriguing individual! So to stumble upon him in your work, see him in a different light, and see you years ago and seeing younger versions of you two made me think about this sense of history and of time encapsulated when you look at these works. Seeing your younger selves and looking at what you did then and how that compares to what you're doing now. But that's kind of like the seedbed of things in a way? I don't know if you see it that way. For me just looking at that and going, "Oh, wow," it’s a whole other connection. I remember there's a picture that you did of Julian, in your photographs, and he's sitting in chairs and, actually, I have one of those chairs. It’s an odd coincidence as I have never really seen those chairs elsewhere. I'll send you a picture, even though it’s on your website. And then there's the Joseph Cornell related work, who I actually adore and I create little things in my house related to Joseph Cornell. And what was really funny to me is that when I was watching one of your videos and I think it was... I'm sorry I have to read this - it was either - the one where you used "pump it up."
TY: Oh! It was In Traveling.
DT: Yes, In Traveling and it reminded me of Steve Paxton's Satisfying Lover.
TY: Oh, yes!
DT: And what was even stranger, was I was thinking about it while I was watching it and I started looking through the other stuff and then I saw your Joseph Cornell and it was titled Satisfying Lover.
DT: So I was going, wow that's interesting, going through these sites and seeing these random small connections that sort of wove me together with you, and then also looking through the work itself and wondering… I don't know if you consider yourself more a visual artist or a performance artist, or both, you're an artist.
TY: Yeah, I think I am more of a performance… umm… an artist who makes performance. I feel more connected to performance as my primary medium. That is because most of visual works that I make, either photography or sculpture, come from... umm… I don't know… I look at them and I think wow that's so performative.
DT: And that's a question I have for you too, you know the pictures you had of Love and the City.
TY: Yeah, yes.
DT: And I'm not sure if you did that before the performance to In Traveling or after?
TY: It was during the process of making.
DT: They're quite beautiful. Their backs are turned towards the camera in these locales that are very striking, and I guess you can say they're performative and in a certain way. Do you consider those performative?
TY: I think so. Love and the City has 7 images of performers that I worked with in In Traveling. I asked each to take their shirts off in a very particular way as they face the direction of the city that they like. I was interested in the action of revealing themselves in one quick motion, and the act of witness from my end (the camera). I shot repeatedly as each executed the action. Afterwards, I ended up choosing ones that were right before they are done with the act.
DT: They chose those locations?
TY: Yeah, they're facing the locations they chose. I think what I said was, “Which part of the city (Portland) do you like the most? Show me your Portland.” I wanted to look at the community in Portland that I was a part of. I did this project about 2-years after I moved there. So, through this project with these prominent performers in Portland, I wanted to experience, from a different route, what this community is like. My interests were this community aspect as well as this specific action of them taking off their shirt in a public environment. So the image itself is its fragment or its evidence of that. In that sense, there is a performance quality to it.
DT: Yeah, that question: What is the ephemera or the residue of things? But what I appreciate about it is that in the process there's an alternative building process. It’s not just I'm making a dance – I go in a studio and that's it. No, there's ephemera to the process that's making it, and that's something I feel akin to when I make work, at times of creating these other images or objects that are related to the work I'm doing, whether they're cards or texts or writings that are framed in a certain way. Because I'm not a trained visual artist but I create objects that are based on ideas for me.
TY: That's one of the questions I had about this process of Love and the City. In this case, I have a specific image in mind. What remains is the image, the residue of an action. But what matters, the residue or the ephemeral action? I was wondering about your process in relation with the visual aesthetics to your piece, and how in the process you incorporate that. Specifically, I’m talking about the cards thing... Do you draw?
DT: I draw, but the card thing was from another piece I had made stumbling towards babylon… (2011). Part of the process was about the creation of narrative, and all of these other levels of narrative and so there were three... Okwui [Okpokwasili] was in it and this woman Ogbitse [Omagbemi] and myself. When the audience entered, on their chair there was a small card that had a short fragment of story. It was this kind of takeaway, and I liked the idea of having this as evidence of being at a place. But it also was something that activated your mind. In that performance I asked them to write a word or something on the back of it that I later used as I was improvising a story. I had parameters about what the story could be about, what it was supposed to do, and the form of ending. During the creation of this story I would pull cards from individual people and use whatever word they had on the back of it as a prompt to change, shift, or activate the story in some way. That became this interaction between myself and the audience and hopefully something they're weaving into it. In The Venus Knot I used a lot of rope. I was using it as a set and playing with it. What I did during the course of time was... did I tell you anything about The Venus Knot?
TY: I saw the video of it.
DT: Oh no, that wasn't The Venus Knot, what you saw was another version of Venus. The Venus Knot was a very specific installation I did this spring at the Invisible Dog, which is part of the ongoing Venus project. I'm sending you the picture. We would have these intimate conversations negotiated through a mirror, and during the course of this conversation I was making a unique knot for each individual using this rope. Over the course of the interview we talked about identity. We were examining ideas of how people form their own identity or how they perceived it or didn't perceive it, what the contradictions were. In this short period of time, some people, we were immediately present, some cried and just in the nature of how... because part of my goal was really to excavate and challenge people to think about: Who are you? What do you recognize of yourself? And, How much do you surrender to yourself? How much do you stop yourself from being who you are and why? To me this is related to questions of ideas of race, gender and sexuality. When I think about three-year old or five-year old kids saying "Oh, I'm a boy born into a girl's body." What do you know about that? Where did you get that information? You only know about being a boy based on what you're surrounded by? So if you can change your gender, can you change your race? And then there are these questions of who's going to accept you? I mean you know this because Japanese culture is so highly regimented in terms of who is Japanese and who is not, and it’s an extremely racialized and prejudiced society in its own way and it’s very protective of something that's not necessarily pure in its own way, you know?
TY: The social pressure that you're talking about is tangible and often very visible: the social, national pressure... Yeah, I feel that.
DT: And what is the realness of that identity? Of being Japanese? What is the realness of that? Yes, you can identify as Japanese but you can also put on this moniker of being a hip hop star and still be Japanese. Is it just bloodlines? Is it identity? Of this black woman who is now the Miss Universe for Japan, she's half-black half-Japanese.
DT: Yes! She's gorgeous. You haven't heard about her, you'll have to read about her. I can't remember her name off the top of my head.
TY: I'll look it up, wow!
DT: And she talks about the prejudice she's gone through… "I grew up in Japan, I am Japanese, I'm half black, I'm half Japanese," and what is the idea of purity, in a certain way? And so, anyway, I think there are all of these questions of identity I'm playing with that started out in one way and go into another and the reason I’m saying this is that in The Venus Knot I'm making these knots and at the end I give these to the individuals as a memento. So they have their own unique knot that I made out of this rope. I like that. I like the idea of a) it’s a gift, and b) it’s a memento. I'm curious right now about looking at different paradigms of performance and interaction and how we're trying to create experiences for the public. How do you change or amplify those moments and the memory of the event? I don't know, I mean it's a complex…
TY: It sounds like the memory they will take home would be its conversation about identity they have with you. So the memento contains that. It may trigger the past conversation with you as well as how they feel about it now as they look at it. Experience...
DT: Also when some left they said, I had to go think about, I had to go gather myself again. These are questions most people don't think about. You run into a range of smart alecks or people who are totally not connected to themselves and it’s very cerebral in how they perceive themselves. It's much more heart-based and opening. It’s different for each one and how they relate to it. For other people I think it’s a moment to revisit. To me it’s also the knot of our own struggle. Of how do you actually untangle the knot of who you are. That struggle of contradiction, of frustration. Then also the rope was this idea of the DNA and this line of the fates, of the strings of the fates, this getting knotted up, it’s...
TY: I’m starting to think that identity basically… Well, if I want to talk about my identity, I have to face myself - myself as in my emotion, my history, what I look like, and this body itself as opposed to thinking about what I thrive for, what I want, what they want, what friends need, what my art can be. I don't do that often, and I don't think people do that often. I’m infamous for avoiding to look at myself and talk about myself actually.
But there's also an easier way, a superficial way of dealing with identity where you just look at the check boxes and categories. "Asian, check! Male, check! Japanese, check! Gay, check! Dark skin, check! you know? In spite of these categories of things where you list what you think you know of your identity, what you are interested in sounds like an embodied sense of identity, an experiential aspect of identity. You know what I mean?
DT: Yes, because one of the things I want people to do is... One of the questions is: What do you really know about yourself? It's funny, a lot of people create their identity based on exterior pressures. One person said to me, “well, I curate my identity accordingly with my friends,” and I thought, "that's an interesting way of looking at it, you curate your identity." I thought, wow that's interesting but then what is the real essence of who you are? And do you recognize that? How do you recognize that? I mean, you've been with yourself for how long? And you know what's going on in your head more than anyone else, but, what do you recognize and what are you scared of about yourself? Or not. I don't know, it's an experiment.
DT: So, Male-identified, (TY: Yes) speaking of identity, a few formal questions, the background sound, is that recorded or is that live?
TY: It's live.
DT: Ah, where was that?
TY: That was in the artist's studio.
DT: Because I could hear the a lot of traffic, or stuff…
TY: Yeah, does that bother you?
DT: No, it was interesting in framing it and I was wondering if it was purposeful or by accident.
TY: It's by accident. I noticed that when I watched the video. But the performance is completely silent.
DT: Oh, interesting. So, do you want to talk about that piece a little bit? Because there's an interesting reduction about it and…
TY: That's the piece that I want to rework recently. My next project will be to look at that piece and make that again. The project came out of the fact that I have a bad gaydar.
DT: (Laughs) Oh is that right?! (Laughs)
TY: What came into my head is that I actually don't know how to connect the masculinity and femininity to homosexuality. So people's gender identity. When I look at a person, I can't figure out well if a person's straight or gay.
DT: And isn't that a sad problem? (T laughs) Damn it! Can I hit on you or not?
TY: Yes, exactly. So, out of that ridiculous epiphany I had, I decided to go out on the street and observe people that I identify them as male on the street and I basically write down what kind of pose they make such as sitting on the chair, sitting on the ground, and standing. These are the three positions that I decided to look at. So I observed how seemingly male-identified are making those poses, and I compiled them together. Out of numerous poses, I organized in the order from closed-in to out and open. For example, crossing legs is in, but opening legs with slouched back is out.
DT: Closed in to out...
TY: I wanted to look at it in the most pragmatic researcher view.
DT: Did you identify with any of those characters?
TY: Yes, and I think... most of them I do. So I feel like wow I feel comfortable with most of these poses. There is no one set of poses that I only do, you know? In terms of the question of gaydar... that piece did not really help me with that. The perception of gender quality and its identification is so complex because it not only involves social pressure and media but also subjective insecurity and personal background.
DT: I would be curious how it would have helped you, but do you find that when you're walking down the street others can tell you're gay? Or do they just think you're Asian?
TY: That's a good question. I think they think, "Is that a foreign quality or is that gay?" (Laughs) Actually, a few people have told me this. Yeah, it's like "I wasn't sure if you were being foreign, or if you were being gay."
DT: It's interesting how one can put those two in the same room. Are you Japanese or are you gay? Because of what you do. It's interesting, because I don't think people would say, "Are you black or are you gay?" (T laughs) Very different iconography. Oh, that's interesting.
TY: But, I think that Asian bodies have some connection with sexual or gender expression, socially and historically, in relationship with the American or European idea of gender. The perception of Asian male is different from the states to Asian countries. When I go to Japan, some people can be very effeminate and it's totally fine. It's not really fine here in the States.
DT: No, and there's a beautiful ability and I think there's the sense of softness that is accepted as a quality within. I think the softness is also a kind of humbleness within the world... I don't have to push to get what I want. We're just all going to fit in together. And it's a curious way to socially bind each other, versus here, say, in America where it's much more of a "Cowboys and Indians." People have to bust out and be individual and make their way and be assertive to get what they want. Still I can remember when I went to France, I couldn't tell, "are you gay or are you French?" (T laughs) My language for "gay" was stereotypical in a way and that's the whole issue of it all... how do you... what are the ticks of your identity that define you and what are the ones that you curate and what are the ones that you can't control. When I was looking at your piece, one of the things I appreciated was the timing of it, you allowed the audience's eyes to really settle, so it changed the whole active quality of performance into something much more visually oriented of... let's just sit here and look at him. Let's really look at this person, because he's not giving us action to read, there is action, but... It's a question of when do you truly allow your eyes to rest on something to take in more and more information, actually take something in versus feel rushed. Did you run into any of that at all?
TY: I remember comments about tension and minimalist aesthetic, and I think they are specifically talking about the quality of time. It is similar to what you're talking about - your experience of it makes you sit down and really watch it. Also, this is related to what you said about "Are you gay or are you French?" story. This piece produces a sense of receptivity or receiving. I impose the audience to receive it. And I'm also receiving their gaze. I wanted to evoke this sense of receiving because the whole process of my observation implies that the public was receiving my gaze. So, this was an opportunity for the audience to receive the information rather than interpret the information. Interesting. In a very subtle way, receiving is a very active act.
DT: Oh, totally.
TY: Just receive to be active. Just to go back a little bit about the "Are you French or are you gay?" or "Are you Japanese or are you gay?" idea. American culture perceives receiving as an effeminate quality. I don't think this connection is inherent.
DT: No, I don't think it is inherent, and I think that's the problem. I shouldn't say it's a problem, for me it's always a question of this is how I feel, and it's not to deny that of people. And so what is, how are we mediating this experience of observation, or... the democracy of perception. You'd said something else... because one of the things I'd thought about when you were performing was the length of time, and I'd imagined you taking a lot more time in each of those moments. And again that's me and my relationship of "what is the tension created in this audience-performer relationship when you're walking into a performance space, what are the expectations and how does that get shifted?" I look at Maria Hassabi and what's remarkable about her work is that she's really pushing this boundary of impatience and observation and intention and time, and how it is so rigorous for the performers but also for the audience to sort of begin to question: What am I seeing and how do I shift my temporal space? How does that get shifted?
TY: I don’t remember exactly how I did it but I wanted to have this consistency in the pause. So the time signature is more of a rhythm. So each pause is in the same length. Maybe seven seconds, or eight seconds.
DT: How did you time it?
TY: I counted in my head. So the experience of it has more of a repetition, pulse, I can’t think of the exact word…
DT: A meter, it had a meter to it.
TY: Yeah, so does the experience. There's an intention to the pause and the experience of time also gets heightened when they repeat it. You experience the time ticking.
DT: There's an unconscious clock, internal clock of timing and proportions that you're embedding into the piece so that maybe that resonates with people going oh okay, that's that time again and that's that time again.
TY: Yes! At the same time, I do appreciate Maria Hassabi's work and the fact that it doesn’t have the time signature. I mean, maybe she might have it, but I didn't experience that.
DT: No, I don't think it's a time signature I think it's a concept. And I don't know how she negotiates this. I'd be really curious, how things shift on a very tectonic time scale. And it's very sculptural. You're really shifting in a sculptural fashion.
TY: Yeah, I remember thinking, what is the cue for her to shift? What is the speed of shifting she's playing with? And the exciting moment is when you don't see the actual shift, and you realized that it's been shifted.
DT: I ran into this recently with Eiko [Otake], when she performed at Fulton Street Subway, it's part of this project (A Body in a Station). What was really fascinating to me was how she would move so slowly and yet somehow I missed it. I mean, you're getting under this cover and it's so slow, but wait a minute! How did you get so much of yourself in there? And there's this amazing magical aspect of so slow that it's hypnotic that maybe you're not seeing something and it made you question: What am I seeing and how present am I when I'm seeing this? And where are we when we're in the midst of this? I love going to shows and at times allowing my mind to float away from the performance. It's kind of beautiful because sometimes I'll end up being inspired by something else, and I'll walk away with a great idea, or a solution to something else that I've been working on unrelated to what I'm seeing. It creates this other space of being, so that maybe the attention is not always necessary, but it becomes a trigger for something else. As in, surrounding yourself by forests and greens and trees, it triggers something else internally within you. So what are those spaces that that can happen with, and how do...maybe...how does the work you do or I do promote that? I wanted to jump to madhause because I find... I was thinking, you have this interesting concept of foreignness on two sides and it's this binary thing that you're playing with and you have a history together obviously but now you work in this collaborative fashion. So I wrote down these words: madhouse, process, paradigm, principles, problems, possibilities. What has this been for you? How has this been... how has madhause served you artistically, in an interesting fashion? Or not? And as a paradigm of art making? Big question.
TY: But madhause hasn’t been active since 2012. And around that time, we are talking about what is madhause to both us. We agreed somewhat that it is a company that is based on a friendship, and a friendship in the form of performance company. So, we will do whatever our relationship calls for.
DT: So it's a beautiful other layer to your friendship as well as artists, and another means of negotiating communication and ideas between you two, so its like this beautiful container. (T: Yeah, I think so) And you've invited other people to participate in this container as well, yes?
TY: The very first one we did.
DT: Yeah, those two artists, the Japanese woman and...
TY: Oh, oh, oh, she was the film editor for it, and then the musician Janet Feder who did the video. Oh my god, thank you for reminding me. (Laughs) Yes, we did! But I must say Ben has been a huge influence on my artistic practice. When we started the company, I didn't really have my own practice. But he did and he went to Europe a few years after we met. So he was feeding me all this information about artists he would encounter in Europe and I would be curiously researching and looking up artists, their works, and European dance theories. Also, from the beginning, we both agreed that besides madhause being a long-distance collaboration but it was important for us to both have our own individual practice. So madhause is the meeting point of two practices, rather than an entity that we are solely investing in. So, the company, the identity of the company also changes depending on each others artistic practices. When two artistic practices intersect they'll change naturally. It will also change over time, and we are very sensitive with that.
DT: That's a beautiful fluid way of activating thought and process, because I'm curious about, you know, we live in two different cities. And energetically I feel very blessed, but one of the things I feel is overwhelmed because I'm working on a number of other jobs. I long for down time to digest and really see and feel the sands settle. You have to generate stuff yourself. And so this idea of an outside force and having this container that continually activate and becomes this dialogue is a great resource.
TY: What is your ideal solution to the overwhelmed-ness?
DT: That's a good question I'm trying to negotiate this concept. I have friends who have houses in the country and I use them to escape and to work. Because I find sometimes if I work in my own house I'm bombarded by what I have to do, and there's always something needing tending to but when I go to somebody else's house like, say, a friend of mine, Glen, I am freed. I love going to his house upstate because he has a lovely space and I feel like I can actually breathe there and I don't have to worry fixing that little thing or other. He has a fabulous library, so his books start inspiring me. It's a great place to find a little bit of rest and repose while also having the space to do some work, and find other points of inspiration. And so, I did that for a few days in May before I did The Venus Knot just to sort of help gather my thoughts. I'm hoping to do a retreat to another friend's place in the Berkshires. And when I leave I feel like I've rested and I've done what I needed to do or as much as I've needed to do. But I think the other quicker answer to your question is just saying "No" to projects. I take on some projects to pay my bills, but I need to rethink the value of my time. And partially, one of the things that made this come to the fore even more is I recently lost a very close friend of mine. His name was Earnie Stevenson, and I've known him since the mid-80s, and we became quite close, like brothers to each other. And he passed away two weeks ago, primarily due to cancer. It made me realize that I spend so much time working, that I don't have much time to see my friends. Maybe I'm just not managing my time correctly or maybe I'm just doing too much. I still need to be alone to regenerate my energies. But I think, as an artist, it's about what is feeding your work. And if, in one way, I'm spending all my time working which is great, in another way, where's my inspiration?
TY: In terms of the idea of saying "No" to things, I usually phrase it as “protecting my solitude.” I believe that's what you're talking about. I have mentioned about my boyfriend Jay who is an astrologer. He talks about moon time and sun time. Sun time has to do with your identity, ego, career and what you are passionate about. The moon time is more about rest, nourishment, eating food, etc. You're just recharging yourself. I hope I’m quoting him right, but I like this way of thinking because it helps me to think about how I am distributing my energy in a day. He also uses “moon” as a verb: "You should make time to moon now.” “Go get yourself a mooning time." It’s probably related to the yin and yang philosophy where you can't have the light without the shadow. The shadow or darkness or nourishment time is supporting the sun: the brightness. So, sometimes when you're working so hard, and you're excited about something, you neglect to reserve your moon time.
DT: But, of how do you really shape your life based on really knowing who you are and who you think you should be. Which is, I think another question of making art. Anyway, I want to... you know what, it's funny because this makes me just want to spend a week with you and hang out and make stuff.
TY: We'll find another way!
DT: We'll find another way, we'll find... I'll get a travel grant, or maybe you will. Would you ever want to come to New York, or is that something that's contrary to the way you think or... how did it feel when you were in New York working on a piece.
TY: Well Xavier's [Le Roy] piece was such a treat, because you get to work on one project, and dedicate your life around it. So that was a very special case, but what I noticed about it was there's a feeling of hustle. Which I knew or heard it before but I never experienced that firsthand. All the dancers I met there were such lovely people, and I am so lucky to have met them! But I didn’t really get to see them outside of the performance because they are all so busy. But I guess it’s the same if you are an artist in any cities, probably.
DT: And you could feel the energy that they are... it's like pumping.
TY: Two or three projects at the same time, working on applications, marketing their works, working another job, rehearsing, and… life. Jmy [James Kidd] from LA kind of mentioned that before, oh that's probably what Jmy was talking about.
DT: And that's something that's not really attractive for you...
TY: Well, that's a good question. I liked it. I usually feed off of that pumped energy, but... umm...
DT: Well, you also worked on one project, you didn't work on several.
TY: Right, so I didn’t experience that pressure. I just saw them. And it was not just the people I worked with, but also people I saw on the street. Since I got to live there for three whole months, I really got to observe what is around me in that city.
DT: You just saw the stress, you didn't know about it.
TY: But I think what I want to do is to have a long-distance relationship with other cities, with other communities. So then, my community doesn’t have to be in one place, Portland. I'm based in Portland but I can go outside. I would work in different cities and come back here and work, too. I would like to find a sustainable and productive way to travel. The question is how I can integrate the travel in the artistic process.
DT: I think it's a possible idea. The question of what are you making and how do you structure it so that you can plan ahead. Wally Cardona, are you familiar with the project he does with Jennifer Lacey? He works with different masters.
TY: Oh, he's doing that with Jennifer Lacey? Oh, okay.
DT: Yeah, she joined the project. So he works with different masters and then he makes this piece of his translation of that experience and so that's something that has facilitated his travel and study in a certain way beyond his home base here. I was trying to think about that as well. Is there stuff in Japan you would ever want to do a project with, or on or something?
TY: In Japan? I don't know, if...
DT: Because, ironically, that's where you're from.
TY: You know, I'm not too familiar with the performance community in Japan. Kota Yamazaki and Mina Nishimura introduced me to some people in Japan when I was involved in their festival Whenever Wherever Festival in 2013. During that time, I was introduced to several people but that was the extent of it. I would love to though. That sounds intriguing. I need to think about that a little more. But I think if I travel and make a piece, I'll probably travel because of the people, not the geography.
DT: No, but that's what I'm talking about. I feel like, maybe this is something we can talk about in the future, I had some idea, and then it might be interesting to actually work with somebody on it, as opposed to okay let me do it by myself. Which is okay but I think you'd actually be a really great partner. So, let me think about this. (T: Yeah, go think about it.) But I think it would be...
TY: But be careful because you are about to put yourself other project.
DT: It's research, it's research.
TY: Research! Yes, I like that. Research.
DT: It's called research so it's okay.
TY: I love that, yes.
David Thomson, PDF, Takahiro Yamamoto