Fig. 5 Ningen Restaurant (Human Restaurant), Chim↑Pom, 2018

I just miss contact Gonzo’s performance at Ningen Restaurant, (fig.5) which took place two days before I arrive in Tokyo for the end of my research trip. The restaurant is set up in an old book store in Kabukichō, Tokyo’s entertainment and sex work district. Chim↑Pom, the art collective responsible for this, have previously adopted soon-to-be-demolished buildings as pop-up performance venues, So see you again tomorrow, too? (Kabukichō, 2016) and Paving the Street, (Koenji, 2017). They hold an odd position within the art scene in Tokyo, where their risk-taking is trusted by civic and private authorities, signalled through the repeated gifting of these buildings to the collective. Alongside contact Gonzo, Chim↑Pom have put together a programme of performances by established and emerging artists. To the back of the space, artist Makoto Aida dresses as Osama Bin Laden and invites members of the audience to drink sake with him in a Karaoke corner; upstairs, framed photographs of Hermann Nitsch’s Orgien Mysterien Theater, 1962-1998 hang on a side wall; downstairs, you can order the last meals of some of America’s most infamous serial killers at a pop-up cafe. Of the artists on show, I’m captivated by a relatively subdued and quiet work by artist Yuka Seki.

Seki-san kneels in a corner by a small pile of glowing steel wool. As I get closer to it, I notice it’s lit, and as it sizzles, she breathes in and out to fuel it once more. In doing so, she inhales some of the ghostly white smoke, joined, unknowingly, by everyone in the room. It’s a drug that we’re sharing, an ether filling the space with invisible, metallic scent, the occupation of a mood that we’re all collectively experiencing. It’s very simple, but it feels like an appropriate and contrary response to the conditions of the event. It’s reactive to the event’s lack of framing, which confuses the individual performances taking place, reducing them to decorations towards the overall chaotic mood. In some cases, this was to the detriment of the artists who dealt explicitly with more serious subject matters. A separate performance about the many recent suicides of sex workers in the area, isn’t given the space or time necessary to really open up these conversations.

As much as I praise Chim↑Pom for wanting to platform invisible social problems like the exploitation of sex workers, suicide, and homelessness, I am concerned that the way they’ve gone about it makes it very difficult to tune into the multiplicity of intentions in play. Most significant of these intentions that I’m left most confused about is trying to understand why they are collaborating with so many other artists in the first place. I ended up spending a lot of the night wondering whether the event was not really about giving opportunity to these artists or the subject matters, but about seizing cultural capital in the guise of altruism. Maybe it’s too simple for me to think in these terms, and to reduce individual actors within a collaboration on a sliding scale of capital. I also don’t think it’s fair to judge Chim↑Pom this simplistically. The collective have been developing their provocative and subversive work for a long time, and are more recently rising to international acclaim. I think maybe one of the ways they are dealing with the institutional trust they’re suddenly receiving is through re-distributing the cultural capital they’re in receipt of, and platforming other artists.

Seki-san holds her own territory within this complicated dynamic, a social contract we are forced to sign when we breathe. Extending from her small gesture is an intoxication of the invisible, systematic collaboration present in the co-ordination of Ningen Restaurant.

A different approach to working collaboratively is present in the practice of Bontaro Dokuyama, an artist I meet at the gallery Aoyama | Meguro in the south west of Tokyo. He and Aoyama Hideki, the director of the gallery, are incredibly generous with their working methods, and unwavering in their belief for the political potential of art. It’s really exciting to talk with them. The two have previously worked on Public Archive (an exhibition in the gallery in 2018), and the distribution of a 3D scan of the figurative, public sculpture outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, Korea. The Statue of Peace (Ianfu-zō), which sometimes goes by the name ‘The Comfort Woman’, is a memorial (and reminder) to the Korean women who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese military before and during World War II. Sitting opposite the embassy, the sculpture and its custodians demand an apology from the Japanese government for the crimes committed against these women.

Public Archive was constructed through dialogues between the artist and the activists protecting this sculpture, and aimed to share these struggles with a much broader, international audience beyond the embassy. Through a successful sharing of the digital file on social media channels, Dokuyama-san’s project confronts, and provokes, the dark colonial, history of Japan. It’s a very complicated issue, and it’s a relief to hear the story from both the artist and Hideki-san, who share it with real conviction and care. The boundless energy Dokuyama-san radiates in our meeting, no doubt, depicts the approaches he has to working with and for his collaborators. It’s an incredibly sincere act, and the more I learn about: the intergenerational dialogues he is holding with people displaced by the Fukushima nuclear disaster; his work with Taiwanese people who lived through Japanese occupation; and the activists protesting nuclear power outside the financial ministry in Tokyo; the more I understand his practice as an amplification of these struggles. As a counterbalance to national picture-making, it offers stories beyond the local to a transnational art world.

I’m left at the end of my trip looking back at the three kanji for Kyōdō in my notebook. It seems so funny to think that three different ways of writing the word might, when spoken, sound exactly the same. There is of course the potential to speak at cross-purposes here, to promise a different kind of Kyōdō than the one that is being received, and to make a faulty transmission. Collaboration works like this in English too, with the word being so ubiquitous it has lost all specific meaning. I start to write down a list, a thesaurus, for collaboration based on my experiences here:

Co-operation, participation, instrumentalisation, accumulation, association, competition, solidarity, protection, support, exploitation, institution, legitimation, negotiation, partnership, reciprocation, representation, networking, submission, visibility–

—I’m interrupted by the alarm I’ve set for the airport, and the realisation that this list isn’t going to end any time soon. If English was more like kanji, with a sonically malleable alphabet of letters imbued with meaning, maybe we’d have multiple ways of constructing the word collaboration to allow for the many nuances that it hides. Maybe it could allow us more shades for nuance within the word that we have, as simple as the difference between working-with-each-other, and working-for-each-other.

Fig. 5 follows an encounter in Aoyama | Meguro with Bontaro Dokuyama and Aoyama Hideki (30th October 2018) and in Kabukichō with Tomoko Kuroiwa and live works by Yasuyuki Nishio, Osama Matsuda, Makoto Aida, MEGANE, Yuka Seki and Tokyo Shock Boys on 28th October 2018 (Tokyo, 28th October 2018)

Many thanks to the Creative Scotland-British Council partnership for funding the research trip to Japan, and to MAP Magazine for commissioning this series of texts.


Gordon Douglas works in close conversation with organisations and groups towards deconstructing the acts of collaboration and performance. He is a performance artist and curator currently based in Glasgow.