Dialog in Common

Titus Spree: On Menaningful Participation

Titus Spree [TS] is an architect and educator for art and regional design based in Naha, Okinawa.
pressInterview with Markuz Wernli Saitô on April 17, 2007.

Can you please introduce yourself?

Wanakio (2002-5) Project for revitalizing Okinawa's contemporary urban culture

TS: I have a background in architecture. Originally I wanted to be a designer, so I went for one year to Italy and attended the post-graduate Domus Academy in Milan. Several designers I met there told me it would be better to study architecture first before going into design. They suggested to study something prudent before, slumping into something feathery as design... I enrolled at the Berlin University of the Arts (formerly HdK Berlin) and studied architecture and worked after graduation for about a year and a half in an architectural design office.

Participation is a theme that is very relevant to me as well. I have connections to a number of alternative art initiatives amongst them the The Art Autonomy Network [ANN], a Yokohama-based organization that attempts to set up a network and an archive of alternative art initiatives. Emiko Kato is very active there. It is a kind of hub and they hosted an forum event where various Japanese and international independent art initiatives introduced themselves last February in Yokohama.

How did you arrive in Okinawa and how did your Wanakio project come into being?
TS: Back in 2000 I realized a project in the urban public space of Mukojima a neighborhood in Tokyo. Here I met an artist from Okinawa, who is also a professor at the University of the Ryukyu's in Okinawa. One day he called me because his university was looking for a professor for the Regional (Chi-iki) Design seminar at the educational department. That aligned with what I had realized in the Mukojima project. I accepted the invitation and since teach the Regional Design course in the fine art section of the educational department. On my third day in Okinawa I connected with the Maejima Art Center at its inaugural opening in April 2001. In November the same year I organized an intensive seminar and invited a photographer from Tokyo to realize a photo exhibition in a vegetable market in Naha. It was a photo project on and about this market.


Wanakio (2002-5) Often had its location rooted in the central market of Naha

The director of the Maejima Art Center that also aimed at making projects in the urban context saw this and so we got into a conversation. We decided to work out the upcoming project collectively and unite our efforts to establish something bigger. It was a great kick-start for me as a relative outsider in Okinawa at that time. Early on it was evident to me that for setting up projects in the future I was in need of local partners in Okinawa who know the situation and are part of a network. In 2002 we got together and started the Wanakio project concluding in the first exhibition in November of that year. This was a collaboration between me, people from my university and the Maejima Art Center. The objective was to realize art, design and architecture projects in the urban public of Naha through a one-on-one interactive process with the population. The projects were meant to be conceived, implemented and presented at their specific location. A following project took place in November 2003. An annual art event proved to be straining on all of us so we skipped Wanakio in 2004.

Why was it such a strain?
TS: The Okinawan art scene is, to phrase it politely, of rather intimate size, especially in regard to contemporary art. There is not much of a local contemporary scene or a network thereof. Unlike to Tokyo hardly anyone among the young students here wants to be a curator or make art projects happen. When I did the Mukojima project in Tokyo I only had to tell few people about it and right away around 50 interested people showed up to cooperate. In Okinawa it's quiet the opposite. You can inform hundreds of people and in the end three or five potential participants might come by. This concentrated, annual event within the Wanakio series was just too strenuous and ambitious.

How do you overcome this certain resistance and relative lack of creative networks?
TS: Well, there are always a few persons who actually are interested. In our context the main trajectory is to keep building a network that links overseas and involves individuals from abroad here in Okinawa. We are striving to establish a global component here. There is a fertile gap between the local and the trans-local. Reaching out beyond the local periphery demands capable human resources, for example people who speak English and are able to help and collaborate with the foreign guests. Here lie the main challenges. How does one go about this? Well, it is important to utilize the given infrastructure to the best possible degree and it is also a question of education. Confidence in one's own energies can go a long way.

Despite the challenges it sounds like you have a certain backing from the school you're teaching.
TS: To some extent yes. Though there is no institutional support from the university, there are professor colleagues who are interested in Wanakio and who actively take part. There are students who join in as well. So there is also support form the Maejima Art Center that brings together many stakeholders for whom the existence of these projects has relevance. Unfortunately not all of them can (or want) to allocate the time for active engagement.

Is the Wanakio project still ongoing?
TS: Currently we are putting together a publication. An intricate process as the Wanakio activity spreads over three different projects and exhibitions, including all the bells and whistles. There is this huge archive of material that needs to be processed. Up to now we missed to work on a decent documentation, which is important to build up future projects. We used to just migrate from the previous to the next project without proper closure of the accumulated material.

Tadej Pogacar

Wanakio (2002-5) large-scale portraits of people working in the market displayed on location

Are you saying that proper documentation is important to tie in the previous with the oncoming?
TS: Right. Most of the Wanakio projects evolved very process- and location-related. Based on my original intention and in order to work closely in relation to the location we worked with the least possible conceptual or theoretical overhead. In establishing these projects it was important to us to remain very responsive and open. We intended to let the project find its shape as much as possible from the input of the location and tried to remain true to its source and atmosphere by embracing not only the urban context in special terms but also the human component. Working in such a way we, the organizers, often found ourselves in this flux where decisions are made very intuitively, or reactively and therefore a proper documentation makes an important tool to reflect and reconsider.

Are you talking here about collective decision-making?
TS: For the Wanakio project I always worked closely with Jun Miyagi the director of Maejima Art Center. From the get go we set out the collaboration to be an open communication process. When we decided to organize the wanakio project, we talked to friends and people associated with the art center. We established a kind of open planning session where everybody was invited to give one's input and opinion. In this inclusive discussion the first principle decisions were being made. In the following phases and especially when the project was being concretized, responsibilities were assigned and some things needed to be decided on individual basis.

Anyway we attempted to keep the process very accessible and approachable at each stage. We never excluded any participants from this permeable communication so it was difficult at times to convey and sustain the fundamental idea. The aspect of contemporaneity regarding the creation of art is always a challenge to communicate in Okinawa because there are rather different ideas about the definition of the term contemporary. The art scene here seems to work on a different timeframe for example with art coalitions that are mainly preoccupied with things like abstract painting.

Communication seems to be key. How do you go about this?
TS: It is all important that there is an eagerness and interest to make certain experiences. Certain individuals in Okinawa clearly possess this interest. For example Jun Miyagi has his very local Okinawa background, but was always eager to learn from me what's happening in the world out there, which lead us to build a network beyond Okinawa. Jun is a key ‘translator’ in this trans-local communication process. Without his particular interest it wouldn't make much sense for me to contribute as well. Because Jun saw the need to open things up I was able to unleash my personal connections in Tokyo and overseas in order to bring people over here. The basic requirement is the interest of the people around you in order to make things happen. There are people here who want to know what's going on in the world and reflection on that goes beyond the singular project. The next step is, to link people in real terms and create opportunities via personal contacts that mutually broaden one's horizon. It is about connecting persons from Okinawa with engaged and competent people that pursue a practice that is relevant for the context in Okinawa.

It looks like you are talking about relations in and outside of a given group.
TS: Yes, this is indeed important. To a certain degree this depends also on the location. The reality in Tokyo is fairly different from Okinawa. But even in Tokyo I worked within the local context as seen in Mukojima. Many people of that neighborhood perceived and responded extremely local which can cause many problems. They are not aware of the fact that the immediate local problems they are confronted with in fact are problems that take place everywhere in Japan in similar ways. Often locals don't know how to resist and what could be done because they feel like fishes in an aquarium at the mercy of higher powers...

Sounds like a feeling of isolation and retreat...
TS: Yes, it is this missing competency of putting local problems and conflicts in perspective and to acknowledge that the reasons for these conflicts are on a higher level and that they can only be tackled when relating with like-minded on that higher level. We see this also in Okinawa. This issue is acute in the art world because all kind of influences enter from outside no matter if one wants that or not. The question is, how are these influences converted and processed. For example how does the cultural, the creative world respond to the ongoing situation. In the beginning I got the impression that Okinawa is extremely cut off from what's happening in the rest of the world, extremely introverted. Looking from outside at the art world of Okinawa, what is being discussed and of relevance here must appear extremely antiquated. The ongoing debate on oil painting genres and specific painting styles is exemplary. These are themes that were dealt with abroad already 30 years ago. We experience these enormous simultaneous disparities that are unhealthy. On one hand the life realities resemble Tokyo, in that we have convenience stores, malls, TV and high speed internet. On the other hand all this influx isn't being tackled and processed properly in cultural creation terms and the art world lags behind in the pre-computer age.

Is this where you see your responsibility?
TS: That's maybe a bit far fetched. The fact that I have my background and live in Okinawa inevitably brings up this challenge. Just by being here I am intuitively hooking up these different worlds. It is a given that connecting these worlds is fun and relevant to me.

Is this where you see your responsibility?
TS: That's maybe a bit far fetched. The fact that I have my background and live in Okinawa inevitably brings up this challenge. Just by being here I am intuitively hooking up these different worlds. It is a given that connecting these worlds is fun and relevant to me.

That requires that you're staying in touch with the outside world...
TS: That is of course implied by that. Losing these outside connections would make it very difficult to remain in Okinawa, because I would negate a good part of my background. But who knows it might happen some day.

You sound like a bridge builder...
TS: Yes, you can say that.

By infusing a given situation as outsider where lie the challenges?
TS: Certainly there is a distance I experience as an outsider that gradually diminishes the longer I live here. At times this distance is a problem and there are situations when I hit a wall – or it appears like that – because I don't have the full cultural background. The upside of being an outsider is that I don't take realities as a given, and through (more or less) accidental ignorance certain things are put in motion. Since I sometimes don't understand the full context and gawkily run things over, processes that got stuck or should have been activated can break open, happy accidents so to say. It is the typical experience of a foreigner in Japan that also takes place on a micro level in Okinawa.

Wanakio contained an "educational platform for children in public workshops" called Trans-Academy. Can you tell more about that?
TS: The initiative to work with children stems already from my work in Tokyo where we organized such kind of workshops. We did something similar for the first Wanakio project because it is astonishing how open children are and with what eagerness and joy they adopt new forms of creation and discovery. Something much more difficult in adults because they live already in their setup world and as an artist you can soon bump into barriers when working with a contemporary art concepts.

Tadej Pogacar

Wanakio (2002-5) Workshops for children that let them experience the immediate environment in an open-minded, creative, and sensual way

What's is specifically happening at those workshops?
TS: Within Wanakio we worked on a variety of different concepts that are principally driven by the respective location. The workshops let the children work and experience their immediate environment in an open-minded, creative, and sensual way. This is also a certain form of participation in the alive urban environment. Discovery is followed by direct interaction. This can start out very straight forward by talking the kids on a walk around the market in Naha. This place has this impressive relief in the concrete floor or on the wall that invited to do extensive pencil rubbings. We are talking about very obvious forms of exploration. Further we had several versions of a kind of interaction game where the kids receive assignments that instigate the communication with market people, or the making and trading of things. There were also riddles to solve or funny tasks like making someone in the market laugh out loud... Furthermore we had artists coming from Tokyo and other places who worked with the children. We did an interesting project called Noren Market Short-Term Art University where two artists utilized this large vacant space within the market. They re-functioned the space into a kind of playground/workshop space and provided an art school for kids for the duration of one month. The idea was to integrate the children who regularly hang out in the vicinity in creative activities. Within this framework we also had Okinawa art students participating who organized one-day projects for the kids.

How did you invite the kids to participate?
TS: The kids were directly addressed. The artists simply asked the numerous kids who roamed in the proximity of the market to join the fun and they usually responded very enthusiastically. The kids have few adults that engage with them in such a concentrated and dedicated manner. The kids even received a student ID and a graduation document at the end to give the workshop a slightly winking official touch.

How can you accomplish more of this depth and continuity?
TS: In the succession of Wanakio I imagine something maybe on a smaller scale. Activities where we have maybe just two or three artists, instead of 20 or 30. That would allow to work on the same themes with more time and intensity. I imagine a kind of residency program where we have artists staying here for two or three months that can make for a thorough engagement with the place. Hopefully that would also accommodate more cooperations with local artists. I strive to have future activities spread throughout the course of a year — instead of one big tour de force. I believe this would work better for us.

How can you accomplish more of this depth and continuity?
TS: There are various aspects to be clarified like financing, the organizational structure, and locations. Our biggest problem at the moment is that the Maejima Art Center was forced to move at the end of last year. From its start it had been located in a really interesting building which used to accommodate a wedding hall and a bunch of typical Japanese hostess bars. The owner of the building was kind of sponsoring the art center as he didn’t ask for rent. Unfortunately he kind of went bankrupt and had to sell his property. Besides that the director of the notoriously underfinanced art center decided to resign to take a breadwinning employment as the ongoing financial pressure was accumulating. One could say that this situation is kind of symptomatic for the Okinawan art scene. With all the structures shifting there is not much room currently for getting these things organized. So now I am thinking of getting started on my own for the time being. I believe that it is manageable when I really start to grapple things. There are plenty of outside artists interested in coming to Okinawa and even willing to be bring their own funding. The problems are rather here in Okinawa to properly organize and coordinate such a residence and exchange program.

What framework is needed so that an artist from outside finds entry points to the community?
TS: Essential is to go and lead the artist into the community. Introduce them to individuals and give them first inputs and points of reference. The direct relation to the place is important. Concretely in my projects I usually take the artists on a city walk where we make take as much time as possible for conversing with the people. The first step is to show the artists the local particularities and characteristics, like hidden backyards, and give them a tangible input that is linked to place and population. In the next step when the artist is working on his or her project idea then hands-on support is demanded. For example we had a case where an artist was interested in doing something with the monorail here, so we got in touch with the authorities acting as a mediator. Whenever materials or resources are needed we have advice.

What artists are suitable to work within Wanakio?
TS: Ultimately it is important to meet the artist in person so we get a feel for how he or she is dealing with situations. Looking just at a portfolio doesn't tell us how suitable an artist is. Several times I experienced that the work looked interesting in our context but when meeting the artist I found a discrepancy between the manifested pieces of art and the working mode of the person. The process is important and its evaluation is based on intuition rather than catalogue of criteria. There are some pointers that help scrutinize this like the ability to communicate with people which is essential if working in an urban context. Artists who are willing to respond to the people and the context instead of insisting on a preconceived notion fit best for a wanakio-like program. We are talking about ability to absorb immediate circumstances and work within them. This is not everybody's taste and some artist either can't or don't want to enter this responsiveness and reactivity. At the same time an artist who works in such complex situations needs to be good at concluding and articulating things. It is this challenging duality between openness and determination as social and urban situations entail the risk to fritter and lose focus. Too much openness and reactivity can bring a loss in clarity. So it is important to be able to sum and tie things up as well.

Do you have advice for creative people who want to build up an initiative like Wanakio not mentioned before?
TS: The foundation of projects that work with and within a community is the affection for the place, the personal relationship to its populus. That is where the initiative should start and end. The question always is what do you sense from the place? A theoretical or remote relation doesn't have much meaning. Based on this sensibility one should develop the concept and framework of the project instead of applying superimposed methods. In general it is better to stay away from applying imported methods or concepts from one place to another. In my work the place determines the concept and the community becomes the bases of it.

This implies that critic is part of this relationship?
TS: Oh, certainly. I am usually drawn to places that are desolate or in critical condition. Being an outsider I must have a reason to get engaged. I personally can't imagine that it makes much sense to launch a project at a place that is in total balance and harmony. Usually I enter into a place that is part of a bigger conflict that I want to get involved with where my role and my contribution has meaning. A conflict is one motivation to participate because it calls for an impetus. The other is my devotion to the place that stems from its energy, potential and significance that has implications beyond this very instance. A good sample is the Mukojima neighborhood which I see as an antithesis to what's generally happening in the Japanese urban context, something that can be very inspiring and stimulating.

Anything else you would like to add here?
TS: I don't have a clearcut definition for "participation" but the key factor is that individuals are willing to take part. If you come up with a so-called participatory project and nobody is really interested in participating it questions the meaningfulness of the incentive. There needs to be some kind of impetus to build on.

But I think that participation starts with the initiator...
TS: That's true.

Titus Spree is associated professor for art and regional design at the University of the Ryukyu's in Okinawa and cofounded with Jun Miyagi Wanakio, a project for revitalizing Okinawa's contemporary urban culture. This trans-disciplinary project that deals with Okinawa's contemporary reality and the topic of the transformation of local culture and urban environment triggered by globalization and the ubiquitious process of modernization. Artists, art curators, architects, town planners, inhabitants and local authorities collaborate in order to revitalize Okinawa's contemporary urban culture. The title "wanakio" results from reading the Japanese Hiragana syllabary of "o_ki_na_wa" vice versa and gives a hint to the Wanakio strategy of redefinition of the existing qualities. Starting from a careful reading of the urban and social environment art and design projects are created in a direct interaction and communication process from within the urban reality.

externalWanakio project website
externalMukojima Networks project website
externalThe Moving Micro Office project website