Dialog in Common

Ichi Ikeda: Aspects of Collaboration

Ichi Ikeda [II] is an artist and cultural practitioner working with water and communities based in Kanagawa, Japan.
pressEmail conversation with Markuz Wernli Saitô [MWS] from April 18, 2006, translated by Yuka Saitô.

For the Human

For the Human (1999) Water Relay Station was constructed in a rice field as part of the Manosegawa River project.

What does collaboration mean in the context of your work?
How do you see your role and the role of participants in the process?

II: Collaboration is like a telescope for our complicated society to put in perspective. Despite or because of increasingly invasive information systems and intertwining human relations, society becomes more and more superficial. In this context the artist can penetrate society with 'openings', by congregating people and expanding their roles. Revolving around the collaborative process – which I ignite and guide – it's the participant who is the relay person with expanded personality. In this cyclic process eventually someone else becomes the initiator. In that sense, collaboration becomes the telescope, moving and zooming.

In the eighties I participated for some time in contemporary arts exchanges between Japan and Korea. Due to our varied cultural backgrounds and lifestyles it was substantial to confront the very differences among us. You can do something I can't; I can do something you can't. It's the dynamics of differences – synergetic employed – which create the context of art. This is where collaboration begins for me.

1987 when returning from a performance in Seoul, the surgical wound of my recent femur fracture was so painful that walking became extremely difficult. I was supposed to be hospitalized but because I had an important exhibition going, I went back to work walking with a crutch. The large-scale project called Water Mirror was only made possible with the support of many helpers who pitched in last minute. This was a revelation to look closer at collaboration.

Through collaboration I encounter the outlook and experiences of individuals I could never access on my own. This is the telescope, which pierces the uniformity of our complex social structures. It carries the past to the present and lets us peek into the future.

On what levels does collaboration take place in your practice?
How does it influence your work?

II: There are several stages in collaborative work. The earlier we enter a process, the deeper collaboration becomes. In case of site-specific work I invest a lot in the initial research. The following example is from 1997. My outlook on life changed while doing an artist residency in Vermont, US – which was really cold – when Kaseda city in in Kagoshima Prefecture invited me to do an outdoor project. In Kaseda – a comparatively warm place – I met with local people and asked them to bring me to the highest and lowest place of their city. The highest being Mount Choujha where I could see the entire city below. The lowest being the river where expansive growth of algae in heavily polluted water was visible. We share the same environment, but we're looking at things from the fixed, insulated perspective of our daily routines. We don't notice the obvious anymore. So when I addressed the algae issue many people were greatly surprised which helped to get the dialog and collaborations quickly going.

The other example demonstrates the making of a 'place for memories'. In 1999 I tried to find a suitable ground for my exhibition in Chiran-cho. Local people showed me places, where to show my works. But all the places we went were rather touristy and uninteresting. They were 'already satiated spots' leaving no room for creative outlet. We went around the city when a man pointed out a place where he used to play as a boy. Eventually we found there a collapsed green vinyl house, which had been destroyed by a landslide in torrential rain. We decided to set up the exhibition in this bamboo forest that required a lot of hard work. Through that we built a powerful collaboration and a collective memory.

In the first stage of collaborations I encourage involved parties to obtain the joint ownership of a plan based on my vision. Each person brings in unique professional abilities into the whole spiel. The architect draws a plan, somebody collects artifacts, another lends us tools and machinery, etc. The more levels of connecting I have, the more interesting my work becomes. One person helps me from inception to the end, another contributes along the middle phase, and another helps out in the very last bit. I am not saying this in the role of an organizer or participant. Collaborations are about these various living relationships, which appeal to me because they reflect in miniature form our society.

How collaboration influences my artwork depends, among other things, on the work's scale and the level of accomplishment during the mutual time of creating things. Most remarkable, the more locals participate, the stronger artwork and environment connect. In other words, the artwork gets better rooted in its environment. Chiran-cho and its neglected bamboo forest comes to mind. Originally it was just reclaimed for my artwork but eventually it turned into a spacious park with access to the river bank. Consequently we planted a tree and named this collective work of love Water Park, which greatest merit is the feeling of belonging together.

Where do you see possibilities and limitations of collaboration in the everyday context?
II: I am constantly looking out for possibilities to collaborate. Simply because water is a universally concerning subject matter which makes i.e. water shortage a serious social issue. Water represents our social consciousness not just a daily property. Many associations come to my mind like "21st century is the water century" or "water is a basic human right". I like to recite the saying "everyone owns water and passes it on to future generations," which certainly expands the perspectives on collaboration.

Can 'art in life' have a sustained impact beyond awareness, and inspire learning or even knowledge?
'Primary action' is part of my art philosophy because it's essential to try and make things happen early on. In the later stages the method becomes more complex where competitive dynamics kick in that impair the possibilities of working together. To exemplify this 'primary action' I did a 365-day activity in 1980. I am convinced that the artful practice centered in daily routine holds a lasting impact.

Currently I am working on the pollution issue of Shibakawa river, which runs through Kawaguchi city. Many efforts are done regarding landscape zoning, hydro-engineering, etc. But the approach from the level of daily live was missing. I suggested to realize the Water's Eye View to introduce the perception of ordinary life instead of relying on aerial mapping, which looks at things from above leaving out people's perspective. The reason why we can't solve the pollution of Shibakawa river is not so much the failing of technology or politics but rather the lack of cultural-artistic consciousness in our way of living. That's why I realized the Shibakawa Eco Tour providing learning opportunities on the basis of daily habits.

'Art in common life' harbors new currents in our daily habits, maybe we can call them alternative currents. Not only do we place artwork onto locations, but we move around them and tie them into our routines. It's a learning through integrated discovery.

Over the period of three years I did an art project along the river of Kaseda in Kagoshima prefecture. Project curator Takashi Serizawa wrote the following: "There is a power which integrates all existence and opens it to another world for the variables of the future – unresolved at one place it's a transforming force which takes on different shapes in relation to place and ground – exactly what water is about. Ichi Ikeda is dedicated to this nature of water. I am not afraid to say that Ikeda created in three years not an art piece but a current."

What does transforming collaboration need and how do you nourish it? Are there collaborations you look up to and why?
LG: I ask myself what makes me feel elevated. It is a deep sense of longing and connection, the authentic yearning for exchange and reciprocity. In the book Art in Life Linda Morano prompts the question whether it is possible to have an intimate contact with a stranger. I am truly amazed about the short but profound deep encounters which are possible. E.g. in the project Make It Everyday individuals write back to me in all sincerity.

What does it take to facilitate deep interactions with strangers?
II: I see three principle factors, which are key to transforming collaborations: joining, expanding schemes, and respect toward the individual.

For 'joining' I often use the comparison of the transient ownership of water. Across boundaries of ethnicity, culture and religion we pass on water to future generations. The water is the most important resource on this planet and everybody is a stakeholder.

The 'expanding scheme' offers a social extension suggesting that things right in front of us can gain unknown meaning and scale. In 1987 I worked on an installation called Water Mirror in the entrance garden of Okurayama Memorial Hall in Yokohama. Several boys helped me and even after darkness fell they didn't leave to go home. I was worrying and upon my inquiry they replied: "We're making a Water Mirror which has been never created before in the world so we think we won't get scolded." Impressed by their answer I realized that the boys were looking to the future. Another expansion on a bigger scale became evident during the Arching Art project in 1997, a joint project between Kaseda city (population 20,000) and Taipei in Taiwan (population 2 mio.). While the participants in Kaseda worked on the river bank with little people around they connected to the big city of Taipei. The participants in Taipei began to care about the land of the other side of the strait they never had seen before by asking: "Is Kaseda doing well?." This framework of wider social implications in Arching Ark was crucial to sustain true collaboration. I think we could call it a partnership towards jointly fulfilling a dream. Needless to say that respect among individuals is important as well. It's dangerous to think that the more people partake, the better. I must keep in touch with all faces joining the collaboration.

There are many ways of bringing up issues on purpose, meaning, and process of an ongoing project. In the end, we either we do it together or not. These questions are resolved in explanatory meetings or one-on-one. It's my responsibility to ensure an atmosphere for collaboration. As a faciliator I ought to be right in the middle of the action. In case of the polluted Shibakawa river I felt like knowing more about the issue than locals did, even though it took me two hours to get there. Rather than watching the river passing by in agony, I confronted the river issue with concrete themes. Studying the drainage system of the upper river thoroughly, I learnt about the problematic. The answers usually lie where action is applied. True collaboration grows when we move beyond our thoughts. It makes sense to look closer at collaborative methods. I advocate a so called 'post object culture' where I make projects which leave no artifacts and traces behind. What remains are not products of art but a set of instruments, which make collaboration easier and offer connective links to the future.

I haven't encountered particularly meaningful collaborations I can look up to. Last year I participated in the group exhibit Groundworks, Environmental Collaboration in Contemporary Art at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh). It's understood that for resolving challenges in environmental projects I need to team up with many kinds of professionals. However, under the contemporary circumstances in Japan this convergence of specialization is not where the emphasis should be. My projects focus rather on the daily connection and expansion of life and encourage the participation of everybody. It's not about gathering special abilities. In the example of Shibakawa project we hope to establish a communal water trust where everyone is part of planning and communication exchanges.

For the Heavens

For the Heavens (1999) Water Relay Station was converted from broken hen-breeding houses and used for gathering the water from the heavens (rain) in three water cargoes.

Relationships are key to collaboration: how do you approach people and set up a system of responses?
II: Water Ekiden (water relay) addresses this question. While realizing the Water Market project in Kaseda city in 1988 people from neighboring towns came by and wanted to bring it to their towns as well. I proposed to expand the water project including the city and three towns surrounding Manose river, followed by this explanation: "If you want to have clean water supply on your ground it's a problem if polluted water comes down the upper stream. You better tell the people on the upper levels to help in the purifying efforts. If polluted water comes from a side branch of the river all efforts are meaningless unless the people living there join the effort. This pretty straightforward approach helped building relationships between four municipalities. Many previous plans never got very far. The relationship slowly starts to work carried by individuals, expanding to a regional collaborative system, and evolves naturally. Just saying "okay we do it together" won't really work.

Initially each area has their own soul searching to do, becomes self-absorbed and the confidence to act is gone. I proposed the "dynamics of differences" where we pursue ideas utilizing each respective cultural background. In high areas of Chiran village we chose Waters of the Heavens as a theme since it receives most of the rain water. Kawanabe town in the middle was themed Spring Water Area with its abundant wells. The urban Kaseda had the motto Purified Waters, and the farmlands of Kimpo carried Waters of Persons and Service aka Irrigation. This way each place got its position in the whole yet kept its own integrity. Connected though the chain of water, the Water Relay project exemplifies that collaboration systems work only if identity and joint ownership intertwine. The great learning potential among participants prompted a broad and positive response. This year I am going to start a collaborative art project at Kedogawa river in Kagoshima which builds on the fact that water relates directly to anybody.

Ichi Ikeda encourages people to think of the larger context in which they live and to see how our current actions as individuals affect the Earth's future. He views the conscious networking of concerned individuals as a key to sustainability. His art serves as a catalyst for change and an inspirational focal point for the exchange of water-related information. The artist addresses these important issues through both large and small-scale interventions.

externalIchi Ikeda's Water Art projects