Dialog in Common

Motoko Uda: On Menaningful Participation

Motoko Uda [MU] is a painter, curator and writer based in Tokyo.
pressInterview with Markuz Wernli Saitô on April 23, 2007.

The Dream Collector

The Dream Collector (2006) Motoko Uda curated a public art project where two artists buy 150 meters of bed linen...

How did you arrive in Vietnam and establish the a little blah blah (albb) art initiative in Saigon?
MU: I came to Vietnam in 2000. Before that I was in the States studying art and art history as well. My subject was contemporary art history in Southeast Asian countries with focus on Vietnam. That was my initial reason why to get involved with Vietnam. I came to Vietnam first time in 1998 for my research and sight seeing as well. I met some local artist friends. Back in California I was in Mill Valley, which is like 20 minutes from San Francisco. There used to be a gallery called Pacific Art Village Gallery run by Beth and Jeff Basinger. They have this fantastic loft gallery space and they run like an artist in residency program there. In the late 90s they were inviting a lot of Vietnamese artists there. So they definitely helped me to connect to Vietnamese artists. Then I finished school in 2000. I went back to Vietnam for the next couple years to work with local artists and crafts people in Saigon. Then here I am still after 7 years.

How does your art initiative albb participate in its community and interface with its neighborhood context?
MU: At the moment, our initiative is not linked to an exhibition space. There are many ways of looking at it.

So are you working with other galleries?
MU: Yes, but it depends on the specific project. We have a small office/library space where we conceptualize the projects and depending on the nature of the project we select venue. So albb could be in another gallery in town... it could be a night club... cafe... someone's house...

You mentioned that you aren't a commercial gallery...
MU: We are NOT. "Working with" other spaces does not mean that we generate any income...

The Dream Collector

...cut the fabric to fit the size of 41 participant's mattresses...

How do you stay affload?
MU: Both Sue and myself have other income sources to support ourselves, so when we organize a small size event, such as a talk, etc. we use our pocket money.

You also have interns helping you out?
MU: Yes. We currently have one Russian intern who has been in Vietnam for 15 years with her family. Also we have two local girls who went to high school in London and Perth and have an international attitude. But if the event is big enough and when we can obtain a grant or cooperate sponsorship, etc. we are able to pay ourselves. But that's not all the time.

How did The Dream Collector project come into being?
MU: I heard about the A+A Public Art Unit (the artist collaboration between Ayumi Matsuzaka and Alba Salmerón) from my art writer friend in Taiwan when A+A did the so called Soap Project there. Lucky enough, a few months later, I happened to meet Ayumi Maysuzaka in Berlin where she is currently residing.

What interests you in such kind of kind of participatory projects?
MU: In Berlin, we just talked about general stuff... and we started communicating right away by email about a more concrete public art project in Vietnam. Because here in Vietnam the distance between art and local people is still so wide...

Public art in Vietnam must be a pretty foreign concept...
MU: People think that they have to "dress up" in order to go to an art space (not that there are really any professional spaces anyway...) just to look at "paintings on the wall"...

How did you bring The Dream Collector project to the people?
MU: I was looking for artists who can "penetrate" the society and grab locals for an art project (it does not matter if the locals are aware that they are being part of art project).

The Dream Collector

...have the people sleep on it...

So you didn't mention that this is art?
MU: Not in the beginning, for two reasons: First, the artists and I didn't want to intimidate the locals. People here tend to react strongly to a big word such as "art". Secondly, if we declared that we are doing and "art" project", we would actually break the law here. We need a special permission to do any kind of cultural event in public.

How did you introduce this project among the locals? I mean not everybody accept a stranger's sheet to do some sort of dream project...
MU: I was the curator, so I did not directly communicate with locals until the very end. But A+A (Ayumi and Alba) basically went out to talk to people on the street, in the cafe, or whatever public place, telling them: "We want to be friends with you and we have a gift for you here (in the form of a bed sheet)."

The artists and you were able to convince 41 persons (and their families) to sleep and dream on your sheets...
MU: Yes. In general people here are friendly to foreigners...so Ayumi and Alba built personal relationships on a very small scale it was a this inter-personal communication to begin with. That makes me now wondering if Vietnamese artists did the same thing what the reaction could have been...

There is maybe a foreigner's advantage?
MU: I think so and can't deny that.

What was your role as a curator, how did you endorse the artists?
MU: One of the biggest jobs as a curator, is securing money for the project like the artist's airline tickets, day-to-day fees, material expenses, it keeps piling up.... Somebody has to do the fund raising [ha, ha, ha], that is not the most pleasant way of participating [ha, ha, ha]... I wish I could have slept on the sheet and just told my dreams to the artists.

Is there any money for public art in Vietnam? Is there any foreign support?
MU: Domestically there is absolutely no funding available. There is the Ford Foundation in Hanoi, but they only support big projects and Rockefeller stopped funding on art and culture all together! There is institutional support from the Goethe Institute or French cultural centers, which let us use their space but have no cash support.

Can you do you make any fund raising events like flea markets or so?
We haven't really organized benefit events yet.

Since The Dream Collector project depended on participation in its very creation, did this change the way you worked as a curator? What does it take to invite good participation from artists and community? How do you get the goodwill?
MU: Well, when the success of the project depends on its participants, as a curator I cannot control everything. The artists and I had to sort of enjoy what comes out. There was some spontaneous outcome.

Where you prepared for the case when nobody would participate?
MU: I don't mean to sound "too Asian", but goodwill brings goodwill.

When a project fails to attract participants, what concepts still can work?
MU: As long as the "documentation" of the project itself (documenting the struggle of not being able to find participants) can somehow fill the gap...then the project can still stand on its own. But if the documentation is not important and secured then the project fails. In the case of The Dream Collector A+A were quite flexible about "slightly" changing their goals.

The Dream Collector

...discussed with participants the dreams which came up in the course of a week...

Do you know why individuals participated in The Dream Collector?
MU: I can think of several reasons. Some are simply very curious about what is going on. Some liked either Ayumi or Alba (if not both) and wanted to become friends with them... Currently I actually have one project in the works with Japanese artists based in Holland whose project might run the high risk of not attracting enough participants... There was absolutely no sense of "obligation" when the artists approached the locals for the first time on the street. After they agreed to participate, this kind of "obligation" (to be responsible towards A+A) emerged. According to the artists, all the Vietnamese participants were faithful and loyal to their obligation, a fact that was surprising to A+A. Ayumi and Alba told me that in other countries, there were always some participants dropping out in the course of the project, but nobody in Saigon...

So the participants did in fact influence the project's concept to a certain degree...
MU: Different countries, different participants, different audience. What artists want to show is up to them. They can be as flexible as their strategy permits. At the same token, they have the total freedom to be stubborn and show what they always show, regardless of where they are. In A+A's case, they seemed to enjoy being flexible. Nonetheless their characteristic flavor strongly remains even when they change the "forms" of the project.

Did the locals always 'play' their part like you imagine? Were there any surprises?
MU: Surprises were always a part of it. I am not saying that I doubt people's loyalty, but in many instances (e.g. in working situations) I doubt their sense of "responsibility". Therefore I was actually most surprised when A+A told me nobody had dropped out of the project and that all participated in the project as if they were doing some kind of school assignment.

Were maybe some of the participants more 'creative' and went beyond the original "assignment"?
MU: Well, in The Dream Collector's case, the assignment was fairly simple: They just needed to sleep on the sheet and tell A+A about the dreams they had while sleeping on it.... That leaves not much room to be creative. But during their communication (due to the language barrier), some of the participants started playing the piano to express their dreams. Stories like that came up.

The Dream Collector

...and visualized the dream's stories and symbols as embroideries on the fabric.

Did any of these encounters around The Dream Collector expand into lasting relationships? How?
MU: I heard that some of the participants wrote letters to the artists after they had left Vietnam. At one time I asked both Ayumi and Alba about how important it is for them to keep a more long-term relationship with the participants beyond the project. Ayumi was much more keen to continue building on the relationship (only if she is approached by the participant) and Alba was rather ambivalent and cool about it. Both artists seem to draw some kind of line between their art project and private lives. Of course, I included all people in albb's mailing list, so now they are receiving invitations to other art events of ours.

Besides the immediate artist-participant relationships, did the locals themselves create connections that didn't exist before?
MU: I believe so. When we did the final installation and invited all of them, some dialogue seemed to be going on among the participants.

Did the locals realize at the end that this was an art project? Did it broaden their view on art? Did this project maybe empower the locals in some way?
MU: They all learned that they were a part of "something called art" and I do hope that it broadened their point of view on art at some level.

Can you consider inviting these 41 local families again for a follow up project?
MU: Why not, but only if the artists intent to create something out of it. As a curator I don't want to interfere in the relationship between A+A and these 41 participants.

Maybe whenever the local participants go to sleep from now on they are reminded of summer 2006...
MU: Some sort of memories perhaps...

What was the learning for albb and yourself as a curator?
As a curator you have a responsibility between the art initiative and the community...

...especially since you are interested in inviting artist that "grab" the locals in their projects...
MU: Yes, but these are not the participants that I pulled in myself. Only through Ayumi and Alba's presence, this relationship was completed. When we specifically talking about "follow-up" project related to The Dream Collector, A+A's presence is a must. I am staying now in touch with these 41 participants as the co-director of ALBB, not the project curator of The Dream Collector project.

If you could start the The Dream Collector all over again, would you do something differently?
MU: Not really. Artistically The Dream Collector was successful as it was. But in more realistic/logistics terms I have some advice for artists. There is the preparation time that shouldn't be taken too easy here, especially the "heat" in Vietnam is often underestimated. Artists from overseas tend to think that they can get many thing done within a short period of time. But in a climate like Saigon they have to allow themselves more than enough time.

Was there any collaboration between A+A and local artists?
MU: In some ways, yes. "Collaboration" can be a bit tricky here. The average artists' level of thinking (critical thinking) can't match with that from artists trained overseas. So when foreign artists "collaborate and co-create a project from scratch" with local artists, it will be a bit difficult to maintain the quality of the work. I recognize that the communication with local artists through workshop itself can be in itself an art project, which was not the case with A+A.

But I imagine that there was some sort of exchange between A+A and local artists...
MU: As a curator I brought in young local artists to be A+A's project assistants. "Assistant" here goes beyond the usual definition of the term. By assisting and working with Ayumi and Alba, the young artists learned how artists think, how artists act according to their thoughts, and how to transform raw materials (in The Dream Collector's case, a sheet of fabric) into material of art, etc. As a matter of fact, some of these "assistants" started planning their own public art project after working on The Dream Collector. This is remarkable because there is the problem of "self-censorship" in Vietnam...

So the assisting local artists were maybe empowered to start something on their own...
MU: Yes...empowering in the sense that they do not censor their own artistic ideas before they give it a try. Vietnamese artists tend to give up on their ideas because they think "hmm, I have this great idea, but there is no way that the government will grant me a permission for this". When the young artists looked at how deliberately Ayumi and Alba were working, they witnessed one possible way of making art in this country, without necessarily applying for a license, etc. This confidence left a big impression. The "social expectation" is not as much of a burden as this self-censorship issue.

Do all "public events" need an official permit in Vietnam?
MU: Any cultural event (art, music, etc) has to go through censorship and need a permit from the Ministry of Culture and Information. Vietnam is still a communist country! They worry about "new" ideas to entering the country...

Can you circumvent that by doing rather private, personal exchanges as seen in the The Dream Collector project?
MU: Often yes.

Or do you work in secrecy like your albb partner Sue Hajdu seems to utilize in her projects?
MU: We try every way to bring "cutting-edge art" (in relation to Vietnam) events to this country...

What are you working on these days? Are you continuing with participation-based projects? Where do you want to go with albb from here?
MU: I have been actually busy writing lately...

Do you have any advice for somebody who wants to do a participation-based project?
MU: Advice for artists. I think it is important for artists to always question themselves why and for whom they are doing the project, especially if is a participation-based project. When it comes to art, it is not about who gives what and who takes what, it is not that simple like that. But i think it is important for artists to know where they stand in society and stay aware of whom they are dealing with. When participation is required in the project, artists cannot be as selfish and egoistic like in their "solo" projects. Not everyone wants to see artists masturbating in person!

So participatory art is not necessarily good by default...
MU: Artists have to be simply aware of the involvement of their participants (participants in this case are not people who interact with "finished/semi-finished" art works, but people who participate in the process of the art project together with artists).

Motoko Uda is a painter, curator and writer born in Tokyo. After graduating from Mills College, California, she moved to Vietnam between 2000 and 2007 to open and run Gallery MOCO. Over an 18 month period, she showcased 14 exhibitions by 22 Vietnamese and international artists. In 2002, she closed the gallery in order to focus on her practice as an artist and curator. Uda was co-founder of the Saigon-based experimental art initiative a little blah blah (albb). This artist-led initiative provides a platform for interactions in contemporary visual art and other creative practices, and is engaged with networking and forming collaborative projects throughout Asia and the world in order to promote exposure, connections and information-flow in and out of Vietnam. Uda has delivered numerous lectures, study reports and TV programs on Vietnamese Contemporary Art. As an art writer she contributes to major international art magazines like Bijutu Techo (BT), ARTiT and AART publication in Ho Chi Minh City.

Motoko Uda curated on behalf of the art initiative a little blah blah in Ho Chi Minh City part in Summer 2006 Ayumi Matsuzaka's & Alba Navas Salmerón's public participatory art project The Dream Collector as part of the Japan Festival in Vietnam. The artists Ayumi Matsuzaka and Navas Salmerón purchased 150 meters of bed sheet fabric and searched for Saigon residents to sleep on the linen. The artists cut the fabric to fit the size of each of the 41 participant's mattresses. The week after Ayumi and Navas met each participant again to discuss their dreams, using pen and paper to visualize the stories and symbols that came up. At that point the participants returned the bed sheet and didn't know the next steps. Consequently the artists embroidered each bed sheet using the particular images expressed by the dreamer. Hence the embroidery on the bed sheet personalized and captured the physical traces of each dreamer. The essence of the dreams received gravity on the sheets that was returned to the dreamer in the end.

externalMotoko Uda's online blog