An Interview with the Participating Artists of the Tour Performance 『Kawalala-rhapsody』

Mika Masuda (dancer, writer, poet) and Kei Bito (sculptor)
Dancer, writer, and poet Mika Masuda and sculptor Kei Bito participated as artists in the tour performance 『Kawalala-rhapsody』, a project sponsored by the Kinosaki International Arts Center in August. Today we wanted to sit down with them to have a chat about the process.

Based on the short novel 『Kawalala-rhapsody』 written by Mika Masuda, who acts as a ghost writer for Mikako Saga, various artists including Bito created original pieces of art. Keep reading to learn more about these two artists and the inside scoop behind the collaborative efforts of how the city of Toyooka was transformed into a stage for their artwork.

(Source: Toyooka City Municipal Office Secretarial Public Relations Division, Naoyuki Kitamura)

-To start, could you please tell us how you came about participating in this project?

MASUDA: I was motivated to do this when Mr. Yoshida from the KIAC came up to me and asked “why don’t you try doing a tour performance piece in Toyooka?”. I previously participated in a similar project in Maizuru City, Kyoto (2016, Special exhibition “Forest of Paraperiod”), so he reached out to me after it debuted. I first began my flow of research a year and a half ago in February of 2017. I heard of the name ‘Toyooka,’ but I didn’t really know much about the town itself. Even things like the area’s main industry or the importance of the oriental white stork were completely unfamiliar to me. When I visited for the first time, I was still in a position where I didn’t know what kind of place it would be.

BITO: When everyone was going around town to do research, I heard that artists from Toyooka would be allowed to participate in the project as well so I got in touch with the videographer Shimpei Yamada, who Mr. Yoshida introduced in March, the cultural anthropologist Takashi Todohira, and Ms. Masuda, and they all came to my workshop. As soon as I heard that people from outside of Toyooka wanted to undertake such a project, we talked about what I could do to contribute. It was already decided that the theme of the project would be Toyooka’s river. I did a piece on clouds. I thought that, since water evaporates and turns into clouds, I could add this segment to the existing image of a coursing river.

-So, the river was at the center of your research then?

MASUDA: Yes. While I was researching during my stay, I would dash back and forth from Kinosaki to Toyooka by car and I thought the view of the Maruyama riverside was really beautiful. But once you enter the city itself, suddenly you can no longer see the riverbank. Afterwards I listened to a long historical account of the river, which talked about flood control or ikawa (abandoned rivers) being at the center of the town’s development, and I was quite moved by it. I came up with the idea to write a short novel based on the river.
At the same time, I proceeded with my research on Toyooka’s industries, such as Toyooka handbags. However, one thing continued to puzzle me — why handbags? When I went to investigate, the first thing I came across was a wicker trunk with a handle attached to it. I was told that this trunk’s creation led to making all the other bags. Consequently, I toured a great deal of factories where bags are made, such as a tiny one being subcontracted by a large factory. There’s a chapter titled “The Cloud Craftsman Subcontractor Worker.” Mr. Bito had already built the cloud sculpture, so we somehow or another decided to associate that with a hand bag craftsman and in a sense created a new fictional occupation. The so-called subcontractor worker does not look like a traditional craftsman, but rather resembles a worker on the path to becoming a product manufacturer. To be honest, the ambience and workers at the factory I visited left an impression on me, and I ended up wanting to keep the term ‘subcontractor craftsman’ in my writing.

-Did you really canoe on the river for the sake of your research?

MASUDA: Although the canal runs below the schoolgrounds of Toyooka Elementary, I wondered what was going on down there. Everyone who came out to help with research ended up saying that they’d like to try going there, so with Mr. Yoshida’s help we asked to borrow canoes from some folks who had them and they were happy to oblige us. However, they did warn that we ought to wear some outer gear because the water is stagnant and smells terrible, so much so that if water gets on our clothes it will be impossible to get the smell out. I thought that it couldn’t be that bad, but I still put on extra outer clothes and went. It turned out to not smell as bad as they were saying, so I happily rowed my canoe along the canal. When I lit a flashlight, I could see the cover of the manhole from down below. Since the manhole leads to the school field it felt a little disturbing to me knowing that children running around up there could easily climb down here. There was a black clump wriggling around on the ceiling. To my horror, once I fearfully rowed closer it turned out to be a colony of bats. Everyone let out a shriek. There were also a lot of bats flying around the schoolyard where a canoe was displayed as an art piece once evening fell. There was a recording of our voices shouting “ahh, bats, bats!” coming out of the speakers next to the canoe display, and it was funny how that matched the real bats flying nearby. It was totally unintentional, but the bats were flying with perfect timing.

-If you were to represent Toyooka with a color, which color would that be?

MASUDA: Since I picture it as a cloudy place I would probably say gray, but it isn’t quite as dark as an ashen gray, and it isn’t a bright white either. Perhaps I cannot shake the image of the project’s artwork from my mind.

-What kinds of places demonstrate the charm of Toyooka?

For example, after the 1925 Kita-Tajima Earthquake there are still remnants of town rebuilding in the form of alleyways called zoning lot lines, or sewarisen. When you walk the streets you can directly experience a vibe of people living without pretense. There are a lot of old buildings (which have since been reconstructed on the inside) left over, but there are constantly new buildings being created as well. I visited these abandoned rivers and sewarisen. Walking along the street you see traces of days gone by here and there, and locals feel that’s one of the highlights of living here. The modern day landscape is littered with traces and remnants of long ago, and together the new and old contribute to the town’s current state of affairs. For example, Kyoto — where I’m from — has transformed into more of a sight-seeing area, and there’s this sense that the town is ‘performing’. Toyooka has not been compelled to act in such a way, so I think that people are able to see how genuine its transition has been in that regard.

-Mr. Bito, what color is Toyooka to you?

I would have to say not a distinct one. Perhaps somewhat of a gradient, changing from blue into orange? I think the base color is white, but since it’s a valley between mountains and you can see the sky wherever you go, it turns into the color of whatever time of day it is. A white place gradually turns blue and orange. Nonetheless, I definitely think Toyooka is like the sky. Or, rather than having its own color, I think the town mainly resembles the sky’s changing hues. I love Maruyama Ohashi Bridge, and I stare at the hue of the sky whenever I cross it. You’re surrounded by it 360 degrees all around and it’s the widest thing in sight, and when the river and sky are both there the river is dyed by the sky’s pigment. So I feel that the color of the town looks like the color of the sky overall.

-What’s unique about living in a place like Toyooka?

I picked Toyooka mainly because it’s where my parents are from, but there are many things that can be done by virtue of Toyooka not being a city. For example, a lot of people came out to this tour performance and were walking around the streets, which people thought was amazing since so few people actually regularly walk around, making it a rare sight. However, if you were to do the same thing in Tokyo, you’d accidentally get sucked into a crowd of people at the event and the overall surroundings probably wouldn’t change much from what you see every day. On the other hand, if you do such a project in a quiet town like Toyooka, you suddenly get a flow of people and you can see the whole bird’s eye view of the town changing, which I also think is interesting. Furthermore, if you try to set up an event where you need to form huge crowds in a big city, then you would have to go through various precautions such as closing off roads, while in Toyooka you don’t have to do much. You could completely change the entire ambience of town simply through being granted access to the downtown area’s sound equipment or a means to illuminate the back alleyways. It’s like painting a picture on a stark white canvas. Since it’s completely white, I’m able to paint a clear picture. If I try to paint on top of a canvas cluttered with old patterns, I won’t be able to see a thing. The canvas becomes too busy, and I become unable to tell apart what I painted from what was already there. Toyooka has many sections which can act as a blank canvas, and I think there are various ways in which you can paint them.

MASUDA: I borrowed the street speakers in the Daikai Street downtown area in order to let the acoustics of the project spill onto the streets, and I was told by a visitor from Kanto that it would be completely impossible for me to do something like that in Tokyo. They were surprised over how I was granted permission. Consistently being able to hear the sounds from so far away was really great.

BITO: We did a whole prep meeting and devised various ideas, but there was the sense that we could perfectly implement ideas that we came up with on the fly.

-Ms. Masuda, could you tell us your first impression of Mr. Bito’s work?

MASUDA: When I first saw it I thought it was cute, but there were strange things like a cloud sprouting from the statue’s head or different things stuck to its head and body, so the longer I looked at it the more I ended up thinking “what on earth is this?”. It’s not that there’s not a reason for those things, and ultimately when you look at it there’s a strange charm to it. It’s completely different from typical so-called “cute” things. Because of that, if you don’t take the time to carefully study the piece, you won’t be able to truly appreciate the art.

-What do the clouds that appear in the short novel represent?
According to the setting of the story, in this fictional world there are no longer clouds which naturally float in the sky, and instead people need to make them themselves. However, in the story I didn’t write anything beyond there just no longer being successful natural clouds. To elaborate, it’s also because clouds are suspended in the air and their shape keeps changing. I thought it would be super difficult to actually create something which had no shape, but I feel that I’ve still kept this part intact in the sense that the creation of art itself is like this. When thinking of a story where clouds are made by human hands, I thought that they might somewhat resemble work and art each one of us already creates. Initially, there is no form to it. You feel as if your hands are reaching out to grab pieces with no fixed form. For me as a dancer, the main representation of this is the stage, so when we’re talking about creating things with no shape there are components which start piling up. Even clouds created by a professional cloud craftsman will eventually disappear, so why would anyone continue working hard to keep making things which gradually fade away? Nevertheless, I think that when something is not concrete, understandable, and already wholly valued, even though it’s not physically useful it’s still something essential for humanity. Clouds are a symbol of such things.

-Could you tell us what inspired you when reading about the cloud craftsman in the short novel?

BITO: Being a craftsman is extremely delicate and precise work, but I relaxed the moment I convinced myself that its merely fictional and doesn’t need to be so serious. When you write about something in laymen’s terms, historical facts become a tale and even things that are difficult to comprehend become obvious. However, when all is said and done, you can’t tell the story without first knowing the historical background and facts it’s based on. This project was a first for me in terms of creating a whole entire space, including sculptures, based on a fictional story, so when I was gearing up to scatter around 100 components into one space I was just dumbstruck by it all. After taking in the whole sight I figured someone would only be able to grasp one or two things at a time. Eventually I thought, hey, why not just give it a go. It’s all relative; there might be people who grasp that the subcontracted craftsman story is about the handbag industry, and others might instead believe it to be about something related to the flow of the river. I simply stuck a diagram of a cloud to the wall of the gallery, but when trying as hard as I could to think up what to do about the cloud craftsman himself I started to fantasize about ringing up the Japanese Meteorological Agency for blueprints and delivery dates. Those daydreams played in my head over and over and subconsciously mixed with the reality of the town. I pondered things like the lifetime of clouds, and whether they fade away within 2 or 3 days, or maybe a week. We carried out this project after thinking it over very carefully, and thus a heavy flow of people arrived on the day of. As for the clouds themselves, they were only made to last for as long as the project. They flowed through town, frantically clinging to one another during their brief lifetime. Nevertheless, I did create this space with my own ideas, so it was definitely made with the hunch of where it would be nice to have audience members hooked and tugged in certain directions in mind.

-Could you tell us your thought process with this project?
It’s hard to sum it up briefly, but since it was a tour performance where audience members would be walking around a fixated space, I thought “I want them to walk around here longer” or “I want them to glance around here more”, and so I created a space for that.
MASUDA: At first, I wanted to assemble Mr. Bito’s studio as if it were the fictional cloud craftsman’s actual workshop. But right when I came to conduct our research, he ended up moving somewhere else.
BITO: I did. She came to do research right after I moved, so I suggested we do the project like this. We ended up deciding to make the whole thing within the setting of the cloud craftsman’s studio, and do various things with it. I’d be making sculptures, but we’d like to include as much as possible, including video, sound, and lighting. We’d want people to look around and experience all sorts of different things for as long as possible and, with those feelings in mind, we created this.

-Why is it that so many of your works contain a cloud motif, Mr. Bito?

BITO: Well first off, I have a bit of a soft spot for simple motifs. Whenever characters in comics are thinking, those thought bubbles take on a cloud-like shape. I managed to connect this cartoonish concept with the clouds I saw in Toyooka where I spent a lot of time looking at the scenery there, watching clouds float by in the sky. While I was standing there thinking, a cloud drifted by and it was like I couldn’t tell whether that was just a cloud or my own thoughts bubbling up – that’s the image I was going for.

-Ms. Masuda, what was your first impression of Mr. Bito’s cloud piece?

I actually initially commissioned him to make a big cloud sculpture for me. Mr. Bito has many works which can be seen at his workshop or around town, but none are quite as big as that cloud. Since I am normally doing more delicate, subtle work, I really couldn’t imagine how to go about creating such a large, solid 3D object like this. He sent me a photograph when it was done to confirm it with me while I was still in Kyoto, but I couldn’t visualize the true scale of it just then. I came to Toyooka in August and, once I got to see the finished product with my own eyes, I was thoroughly surprised. It’s assembled through a combination of clumps fixed together, but the individual parts are attached with seams, and there are also places which can look like a flat surface. When he listened to my description he also drew upon elements of the story for his constructing methods, and the piece really took off.
BITO: I ended up assembling some parts of it like bricks, the same as an igloo. I made piles of ‘bricks’, carved them, made one half at a time, and lastly stuck them together. When I tried looking it up, I found that there was a traditional construction method like this. However, I wanted to make the work a little more ‘rough’ looking. Initially, I thought I’d make the shape by carving everything out of a single block of wood, but the short novel uses ‘knitted’ to describe the clouds, so I wanted to illustrate sewing in the wood with weaves or stitches if possible. With that kind of design in mind, I put together the pieces through making things like crevices, crosspoints, and seams, and it came out roughly the way I envisioned.
MASUDA: I didn’t intend for the piece to be completed in such a way, and it’s like that every time. I find it interesting how various artists are capable of creating works using my writing as a jumping off point, and everyone ends up surpassing the scope of my own imagination. I can’t say that what has been created is ‘a bit off’ because artists come up with their own ideas from reading and visualizing the piece, and I cannot create such a thing on my own. I myself was completely unaware of these old construction methods.

-Mr. Bito, could you tell us your thoughts on producing something inspired by the works of other people for the first time?
It’s fun. It’s super enjoyable to break my regular habit of creating art just on my own. The same goes for knowledge and ideas; there’s such a great amount of things you can make when you collaborate on it with someone else. My creative process takes a long time, and in the midst of building I start to get the feeling that I’m doing too much, it’s getting out of hand, and I’m exceeding what was agreed upon. That’s when I think I overstretch my own limits. I think I have to do that once in a while.

-Do you have anything from your short novel which you would like to relay to readers?
There are passages in the novel written with the assumption that the readership will consist of mainly people from Toyooka, and, as such, it acts as a foundation on the town they know so much about. However, I think it’s possible that readers will not be able to find things they are familiar within the contents, or, precisely because readers are familiar with things, they will not be looking closely. You gain a somewhat different perspective through reading a fictional story, and I want people to take the time to once more reexamine that which they’re familiar with. I think that rather than simply enjoying reading the short novel it is really important for people to be able to see a different perspective on the familiar town they live in, and I think it would be wonderful if they could come to recognize things that they have previously overlooked and be able to take on that point of view.

※ This interview was carried out the day after the performance on August 26th (Sunday) for Toyooka City’s publicity papers.

・Artist Profile: Mika Matsuda
・Artist Profile: Kei Bito


Tour performance『Kawalala-rhapsody』
Date and time: Friday, August 24, 2018 (Saturday)
Venue: The streets of Toyooka City

© 2013 Kinosaki International Arts Center