Essay

Director’s Statement 2019

Échos-monde: The Age of Ecology

Kyoto Experiment has reached its tenth edition. Based on the theme of “Échos-monde: The Age of Ecology,” this festival features a main program of eleven productions and projects from six regions around the world including Japan.

Our awareness of the environment is increasing year by year as the news fills up with reports about ecological problems and the related issue of climate change, with the result that the environment has now become an incredibly important concern for artists today, and something about which we, too, cannot help but be conscious. However, when faced with this present crisis in the relationship between humankind and the environment—that is, the things that surround us—in order to make a genuine cultural and political response, ways of thinking that interpret nature as an objective phenomenon are surely no longer effective. This idea is one that emerged during the course of last year’s festival.

The 2018 main festival program showcased a lineup with a focus on the work of female artists or artists and companies that identify as female. What this foregrounded was the makeup of our society in which gender is not only cultural but also political, where the body is seemingly controlled by the nation-state and other power structures. Moreover, the program formed what we might call an introspective gaze on how Western modernity codifies the world through the perspectives of the “self” and the “Other,” or “center” and “periphery.”

Following this, I considered focusing the new festival on the East (as opposed to the West) or on the natural (as opposed to the artificial), but any such approach seemed in and of itself a prisoner of dichotomies, effectively yet another perspective born from the principles of Western modernity, and so I gradually came to realize the necessity of looking beyond this.

How possible is it to awaken a composed sense of the world in which we are part of it, rather than of the environment as something objectified and detached from humanity? I have prepared a series of encounters with works that lucidly express doubts about our lives that are so monopolized by subjectivity determined in the name of globalization or a way of thinking centered on human existence and reason. These will surely give us a new sense of the world as something in which various subjects resonate with one another. Several of the works suggest rich possibilities for moving back and forth between fiction and reality, or regarding the unstable nature of identity. And then we will be brought back to what is actually very obvious, a sense of the subject itself as something interwoven with multiple layers. By presenting several artistic practices that draw out this kind of vision, I hope to help audiences to reach realizations about the coming age.

But how has the environment surrounding the performing arts changed over the past ten years? Around the year 2010 was a time when people talked about a boom in arts festivals around Japan, and Kyoto Experiment was inevitably considered part of this wave. Successes in a few regions eventually paved the way for arts festivals including theater and dance to come into the limelight as a way to revitalize a particular place. The result is that today, cultural festivals are shamelessly utilized as a means of promoting the nation or local government, with their capacity for dissemination having become the sole yardstick for success or failure, and culture and the arts on the verge of losing
their autonomy.

I would venture that culture is not something that is disseminated but rather something that is received or accepted, and moreover, since this was the thinking behind the original establishment of Kyoto Experiment as an international performing arts festival, it is not contributing to this current trend among festivals in Japan. Culture is fundamentally something that exists attendant on the people who live in a certain place, not something peddled to them by someone else. First of all, just because an already known, archetypal form of culture is disseminated, it does not mean that that place’s creativity or value will necessarily increase. On the contrary, it is the degree to which one can accept outside cultures and produce self-reflective perspectives that shows the vision or tolerance of a place, and then subsequently leads to the generation of value.

To me, moreover, while “cultural dissemination” may well sound like an active phrase, it nonetheless feels passive, like something without agency. It is the manifestation of a desire to receive someone’s recognition, something where the evaluation criteria are not your own but rather lie outside. It’s the desire to receive approval from Tokyo in the case of regional Japan, or Europe and America if it’s Japan. How can we have respect for culture disseminated by such a lack of self-esteem?

In the first place, thinking of one’s own national culture as special or taking a self-centered view on the world indicates the very absence of an international sensibility. Anyone has the potential to descend into egotism, of course, but I think international exchange should take place precisely in order to free us from this temptation. And this year’s lineup and theme are ideal for thinking in a way that takes us back to the starting point.

On the other hand, I know full well that life is not so simple that the programming for a festival or individual works alone can solve social problems, and there are certainly times when I feel powerless in the face of our harsh reality. That being said, we can’t then merely give up on the festival and I believe my peers around the world feel the same. This is because, even if making an objection to society tentatively by means of artistic expression does not have the capacity to change social systems directly, I do think that developing a forum for expression has great significance in and of itself.

Assuming a belief in a democratic society, few would disagree that freedom of expression is the most important right a citizen has. If another right were infringed, for instance, we would be able to address that injustice by voting in an election, by taking part in street demonstrations, or some other kind of so-called “expressive activity.” But once that right to free expression is restricted, then the act of expression for correcting this no longer becomes possible, and we then lose the ability to restore that infringed right by democratic means.

Whenever my thoughts turn to this importance of freedom of expression, I perceive the current state of Japanese society as one that prevents a sanguine outlook. But that’s exactly why Kyoto Experiment, this festival that has continued to secure a forum for expression over the past ten years, has served a rare function and must be continued in the future. Freedom of expression is only ever maintained as long as we carry on expressing ourselves.

Along with conveying my sincere gratitude to all the dear artists, audiences, and peers who became my “accomplices” in securing this forum, I would like to finish with my hope that everyone truly enjoys this year’s festival.

Yusuke Hashimoto
(Program Director, Kyoto Experiment)