A Festival as Infrastructure
“Man lives within 100-year time limits arbitrarily assigned to certain eras as an absolute condition, though in the infinite scale of the universe this is equivalent to merely a grain of sand. Awareness of the eternity of time and the infinite size of the universe allows us to sense the momentary tremors of the here and now as the manifestations of precious life. Even in the everyday that is not ‘dramatic’ at all, if we release things from their social structures and teleological ideas and take a microscopic view, there is always something taking place at every moment, always something changing, something vanishing...”*
This was the vision of Shogo Ohta (1939–2007), one of Japan’s most important postwar playwrights and directors, about human life. Receiving the news this past year of the loss of great artists who had appeared in Kyoto Experiment and gave so much to so many audiences, Ohta’s words took on a fresh meaning. Indeed, it was Ohta who once encouraged me to start an international—and decidedly experimental—festival in Kyoto, and he made many contributions to the development of Kyoto Experiment.
On the occasion of this year’s festival, the eighth since we began, I would like to assert that Kyoto Experiment should not be simply an event but rather a kind of infrastructure—and is indeed becoming this.
A festival is certainly an “event” in the sense that people congregate and things take place. But when it is something that is held every year at the same time, in the same style and with the same intention, sharing ways to participate in it with artists and audiences, can we simply call this an event? Let’s take a little detour to think about this.
There are several annual events in Kyoto; some are actually labeled as a “festival” (matsuri) while others have only the appearance of one. For example, events like the Gion Matsuri or Gozan no Okuribi (Daimonji) attract many visitors from around Japan and overseas. For sightseers, these events are very specific to their location, but for the residents of Kyoto, they are not things to ponder over. People take the existence of these events as a given in their daily lives and are reconciled with their social function.
But that’s not all. Those who participate as members of the community are aware of the significance of the event, even if it is just for sightseeing, and think about the place where it happens. The Gion Matsuri, for example, can trace its roots back to prayers for warding off disaster when pestilence raged in the Heian Period (794–1185) and the parade of giant wooden floats—generally regarded as the highlight of the festival—that are steered around perpendicular street corners by human strength alone, despite weighing over 10 tons and having no rudders, remind us how Kyoto is structured like a chess board. Gozan no Okuribi, which takes place the day after the Obon festival, is meant to help send off the spirits of our ancestors as they return to the afterlife. But as the bonfires on the mountains around Kyoto are lit up one by one, we are made aware again of how the city is surrounded on three sides (to the east, north and west) by mountains; how it is a place almost embraced by nature.
Both these festivals achieve a sense of time that transcends the length of a single human life by engaging in dialogue with such things as gods, nature and the dead—things that exceed the very scope of mankind. In the sense that they make us think about the kind of place where we currently are, these festivals are surely not events so much as types of infrastructure. The annual events that exist in areas, handed down in uninterrupted chain, undoubtedly function as infrastructure in this way.
Comparing Kyoto Experiment, with its history of less than 10 years, to these annual events is the height of hubris, but, depending on the way the question is raised, our festival can also be regarded as infrastructure in how it achieves a sense of time that transcends the length of a single human life and makes us consider the nature of the place where we currently are. And that is why from this year we are adding an overall theme to the festival for the time being.
This year’s festival theme is “Encounters with the Inner Other.”
It relates to how Kyoto is the Japanese host city for the 2017 Culture City of East Asia program. We regard this dialogue between people who share the mutual history of East Asia not as something for merely discovering our minor differences but as a good opportunity to convey that there is an “inner other” within us all, that we shape ourselves by incorporating others. In our increasingly complex world today, there are no fully consistent individuals, let alone nation states, and excluding those who are different will eventually just lead to the denial of who we are and end up causing our own suffering.
“We must consider the range of our perspective, where we define the ‘universe,’” as Ohta once said. We hope Kyoto Experiment can be a place for experimenting with ideas as well as for creativity and exchange.
Kyoto Experiment started without any connection to events like the Olympics and will surely continue its work even after such temporary events are finished.
Yusuke Hashimoto (Program Director, Kyoto Experiment)
and the Kyoto Experiment team
*From Shogo Ohta’s Stage of Water (1989)
Program details here