Dialog in Common

Stephan Köhler: On Meaningful Participation

Stephan Köhler [SG] is a media researcher, photographer, and creative agent based in Berlin.
pressTranscript from telephone interview with Markuz Wernli Saitô [MWS] on April 13 and 29, 2007.

Make It Everyday

Rain is Heaven on Earth (1991) public installation in Tokyo and Colorado with 1,001 floating paper umbrellas [photo Henry Haneda]

Stephan, what are you currently doing?
SK: Since 1999 I am attending to an artist from Benin named Georges Adéagbo whom I met at the Biennale of Sao Paolo in 1998. Adeagbo does exciting installations made from objects that he collects and he has created in relations to specific themes. He cross-links a cultural dialog between his home country and the specific place of exhibition. He doesn't work in a studio but composes and lets his work evolve on-site with things he finds and thereby enables a dialog of cultures.

Does Georges Adéagbo also involve individuals in his projects?
SK: Oh yes, in Benin he employes several craftspeople who paint or carve for him. For example, newspaper snippets from Germany are being transfered into paintings that are exhibited back here in Germany. This is like a see-saw, a ping-pong between two worlds that you also can see on our website jointadventures.org.

What is your role in this? What is your profession?
SK: That's not so easy, because I am neither a curator, nor a museum agent, neither a pure artist. I find myself in the function of a middleman, a catalyst so to say. That implies that I am assisting to implement the artist's exhibition as authentic as possible, so the work is not realized to his disadvantage, and allows him to reap some financial benefits. I make sure that the representation of the work is accurate, so when there is a mistake in the newspaper article I ask for rectification... It is like a type of archiving work. In certain aspects I have the function of a gallery but without the exhibition or office space.

That sounds like the role of an agent...
SK: You could say that. Worth mentioning in regard to our project in Benin is the fact that we actually employ people there, not in big numbers but at least three persons which has a direct impact on three families. Many appeal for more help in Africa by sending more humanitarian aid. My suggestion to somebody who wants to do something for Africa is different: just go there, spend money in Africa or create jobs and deal with the community on a personal level. A number of benefit concerts like Peter Gabriel's are an ongoing attempt to bring Africa and its poverty into our awareness. But granted one is committed to a specific country in Africa the alternative to donating money to some organizations is to simply go there and start to engage hands-on with the respective reality.

That sounds like a call for taking actively part ...
SK: I got to admit that the beginning was really hard. On one side is the bureaucracy of real estate transactions and land registration in Benin, a bureaucracy that functions on an astonishingly high and sophisticated level... I had some experience from buying real estate in Japan and dealt with land registration and surveying which can be a chaos in rural areas. In a small village like Mino nobody really knows the exact border lines between the lots of property. But in Benin where we bought land things are handled very meticulously. On the other side the construction was a big communication challenge.

I am not talking about the abstract, general terms, but problems arose in the one-on-one collaboration with the people. To build tangible models and to render two-dimensional plans into three-dimensional walls was an inconceivable demand for the common workman. In this respect I resorted to the writings of Walter J. Ong who wrote on the relations between societies that operate based on either orality or literacy. Learning comes from the frustrations of development workers in partially alphabetized countries, where the anticipated process of remembrance or routines does not gain a foothold. Here one is advised to look deeper into cultural studies and their implications, like the notation of a culture and the paradigm of scripting is formatting and our perception and thinking. Cultures that are based on oral tradition are by no means inferior, but just work differently.

Is there a process from written plan to realization in Benin?
SK: Of course there is an alphabetized elite there, but the illiteracy rate is around 65 percent. It is a big problem that the alphabetized elite rather profiteers at the expense of the illiterate instead of spreading knowledge. Theories on the development of many African countries confirm that the majority is being repressed by its own elite. Solidarity among Africans is not something we can take for granted. The upper class strives to stay on top and even basic education remains limited to a few. However, after a few years our collaboration has become fruitful despite a difficult start. As for me the ongoing exchange in this project is fairly well-rounded. We have now guards on staff, people looking after the garden, craftsmen building furniture for us, people making the household etc.

Washi Survival School

Washi Survival School offered workshops and training to students from Japan and abroad in the traditional paper making skill in Gifu, Japan.

Do you have any financial support for the upkeep of this center?
SK: We didn't receive any funding for land purchase or construction. In the beginning it was me who financed the initiative and now the artist I am working is contributing as well through his sales of artwork.

I saw that you are renting out space at your center in Benin...
SK: Exactly. We simply need to generate income for the upkeep of this estate that also has e.g. its own generator for electricity supply.

Are you a bridge builder?
SK: Yes, partially.

Earlier this year at the Ehon Japanese book art exhibition at the New York Public Library your Washi booklet was on show as well...
SK: Yes, three of us realized this handmade book including Tobias Lange, art book editor and publisher in Hamburg, and poet Yoko Tawada. I realized the project in Mino, Gifu Prefecture. This book was already in the collection of the New York Library. Robert Rainwater bought this book many years ago. His successor the new curator of the rare book collection brought about this Ehon exhibition.

How did you come to Japan?
SK: For some time I worked with the artist James Lee Byers who told me many things from his time in Japan. He lived there for 10 years, even in Kyoto and taught at Doshisha university. This way I arrived for the first time in Japan in 1987. Though various acquaintances I travelled around the country and ended up in Gifu prefecture because I find a great hospitality among many generous individuals, artists and curators there who let me stay for several months. I found myself in this kind of people to people network that was foreigner friendly and where affluent host families would take in an exotic 'parrot' like me... Afterwards I lived for a few months in a Zen temple where I made installations and took photographs that are in the book mentioned before. Whenever the priest was not in the temple I created my installations there. At that time I couldn't really speak Japanese so I transposed my rather romantic notions of Japan though various objects and installations that I took pictures of.

Did you participate in the temple's daily routines?
SK: Yes, but I have to say it was a very easy going temple with just two or three inhabitants. In the morning I swept the gardens and sat in Sazen position, walked the dog and could do whatever I wanted. In the rare instances that the monks actually noticed my self-indulging artistic activities they seemed puzzled. Later on and by chance an acquaintance who worked with Enku wood sculptures and had a vacant house in Mino brought me to this traditional paper making area. Once a year the country fair would take place (sanchosai) where the biggest pumpkin and carrot is on display. There was also a stand for manual paper making where I got in contact with this craft for the first time. The paper maker left a particularly broad-minded impression on me with a very different mind set compared to salary men for example. I realized that only few young people were interested in going into the paper making profession and so we initiated the first paper workshop in 1987. The workshop took place in a traditional community center (kouminkan) in the neighboring municipality of Mugigawa-cho.

How did you realize this workshop?
SK: The event came into being through a collaboration with a person working at the local chapter for tourism and industry (kankouka) and locals from Mugigawa-cho. It was not an official event but privately sponsored. We publicized the workshop in the Japan Times and so many participants came.

Were you the initiator of this?
SK: It has been a long while but I believe so. It is not that my Japanese friends said "let's make a workshop" but rather out of an information deficit I felt it was meaningful to get something started...

How concretely did you involve others?
SK: It was relatively simple. I suggested, to make a good workshop for three days that included a home stays where the guests lived among the local residents. There was an immediate enthusiasm in the community. It made sense to do an activity that is not a long-term burden for the people or community involved. If you came and do this the first weekend of each month it would imply a constant commitment. But the singleness of the event invited the deliberate participation.

On what levels was the Washi Survival School [WSS] open for participation?
We made announcements in English in the Japan Times. Reporters from local papers loved to pick up the story of the foreigner in the Washi paper workshop so Japanese responded to these articles as well. But for Japanese participants it was difficult to get off from work for the consequent three days to attend these paper workshops. Therefore Japanese requested a quick one-day course.

It can make sense to make a manual for participation in art, although things in Japan are changing and are even improving in this regard. But I understand that there is passivity among many that goes beyond Japan. May I ask, in what sense do you use the word "complacency"? In the meaning of conformity, or passivity, or smugness? Like when people let their car run while they take a break in the parking lot even though they know that it is harmful to the environment...

How does inviting participation change the way you work, as a host, as an artist?
SK: Since my schooldays I initiated events like street festivals, fund raisers etc. I think that somehow runs in my blood. It took me years to notice that I missed a certain sense of leadership in order to optimally manage groups. Regularly we had difficulties within the group of about ten members with either extremely nervous or overambitious individuals who distracted the others.

What was your role as an organizer made this project happen?
SK: It was hard work because I organized, both the course syllabus as well as accommodation and provision. Generally everything was setup very low key. I never established an NPO or filed a tax return.

Do you know why individuals participated in WSS and activities like Rain is Heaven and Earth project?
It is boredom in their everyday life. Many people want to try something new, embark in some sort of safe little adventure.

Did the interactions go beyond the WSS? Did neighbors and outsiders get involved?
SK: Many neighbors, retired paper makers in particular came in order to assist the workshop participants.

What were the responses of WSS students? Did they always 'play' their part like you imagine?
SK: Some students were rather greedy to get the most out of the tuition fee. They weren't interested on the well being of the group.

: Did any of these encounters around WSS expand into lasting relationships? How?
SK: For example it lead into relationships with Lehan Ramsay or Veronica Schäpers, a book artist who resides in Tokyo.

If you would start the WSS all over again is there something you would do differently?
SK: Probably I would establish some sort of institutional structures and found a small NPO that would help to get the financing going. I also would 'outsource' many activities like providing accommodation and the cooking. Furthermore I would read a bit more into group dynamics and psychology.

What did come out of the WSS? What are the implications for the presence? For the community? For yourself?
SK: Possibly through my program the town of Mino was insipred to invite each year a few artists, who are able to do creative projects with Washi paper and who can live with local families. My friends from that time with whom I started the Washi Survival School aren't engaged in this anymore.

If you would start the WSS all over again is there something you would do differently?
SK: Probably I would establish some sort of institutional structures and found a small NPO that would help to get the financing going. I also would 'outsource' many activities like providing accommodation and the cooking. Furthermore I would read a bit more into group dynamics and psychology.

Do you have advice for somebody who wants to do a participation-based project like the WSS?
SK: Don't act like a saint instead become clear on what kind of learning process for oneself is to be accomplished. It is important to clearly and sometimes rigorously articulate one's own position. Assign the roles clear-cut rather than trying to act as a superman. Give out recognition and compliments generously.

Stephan Köhler is a very collaborative artists who spent many years in Venice and studied at Cooper Union Art School in New York. After traveling the Yucatan for several months, he moved to Gifu Prefecture (Village of Paper) in Japan where he studied the ancient traditions of handmade paper and umbrella making. Here he realized that the tradition was at risk since the aging craftspeople weren't able to pass on the skills to younger generations who mostly weren't interested. Stephan studied with papermakers and designated a Japanese Life Treasure. In negotiations with local craftspeople and the local governor, he was provided free housing and studio space. After several years he opened the Washi Survival School, which trained the younger generation in the old skill. The school attracted Japanese as well as international students. Stephan also learnt to make paper umbrellas and realized the installation Rain is Heaven on Earth in Tokyo and Colorado with 1,001 floating paper umbrellas. In 2002 Stephan moved on under the title Joint Adventures to collaborations with the artists Georges Adéagbo, James Lee Byars and Roman Opalka. In recent years he built up a residential community for artists, writers and researchers in Benin, West Africa.

Stephan Köhler's projects:

externalJoint Adventures
with artists Georges Adéagbo, James Lee Byars and Roman Opalka

externalArtist Retreat in Benin, West Africa

externalWashi Survival School in Gifu, Japan