Let’s talk:
Koki Tanaka & Kai van Eikels on how to live together

What attracts art fans from all over the world to the SKULPTUR PROJEKTE MÜNSTER is that there is a chance to witness bold aesthetic experiments— such as the project by Koki Tanaka, the Deutsche Bank “Artist of the Year” 2015. His video installation is about how people from different cultures can coexist peacefully. Living together was put to the test in a workshop for which Tanaka cooperated with experts including the philosopher Kai van Eikels.
ArtMag: Koki Tanaka, the working title of your contribution to Skulptur Projekte Münster is programmatic: How to Live Together. You asked eight participants with totally different backgrounds to spend over a week together working on various tasks. As the location you picked Aegidiimarkt in the center of Münster. What was so fascinating about this location?

Koki Tanaka: The place I picked informs the whole project. When I first came to Münster, I decided to focus on the Aegidiimarkt—a seventies/eighties shopping mall next to the Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kultur. They have a nuclear bunker in the building that is ten stories down under the underground parking. There used to be a convent and a barracks here. Today it is a shopping center. Because of the Cold War, they built the bunker underneath.

Kai van Eikels: The bunker offered space for only 3,000 people in a city whose population was 270,000 in 1978 when it was built.

KT: I used this place as a starting point to think about the idea of how we can live together. Nowadays we are facing many difficulties in living together as mixed people who have different backgrounds and thoughts, because people are probably tired of having to deal with differentness. The world is divided into different parts. When the bunker was built, they were thinking about the future after a nuclear war. They wanted to restore humanity after the disaster. Even though now it is no longer functional, there are still certain hopes embedded in this place. So I see this bunker as a kind of metaphor for building possibilities in which we can rethink how to live together.

ArtMag: How did you choose the participants for this, let’s say, utopian group?

KT: My first idea was to try to find people with different nationalities and cultural backgrounds. I asked the curators to contact various small institutions and cultural centers in Münster. We tried to get as many participants as possible and then we had an orientation day. I think maybe twenty people showed up, which eventually turned into a group of eight. I didn't actually choose anyone. Only eight people signed up in the end. Mostly Germans, but with different cultural and family backgrounds, and there were also age differences. One of the participants/actors was Turkish-German, one Moroccan-German, and there were French, American, and Palestinian participants.

KvE: I think one reason for this turnout is that there was no fixed goal for the participants. Usually when you participate in a workshop there is a goal. You think: “I will spend one week doing this workshop and I will learn to achieve this or that,” while in this case it was completely open.

ArtMag: So what was the structure of the event?

KT: It was a one-week workshop including the two weekends. Each day there were different activities. For instance, the first day we came together the activity was to cook a wartime recipe. We made simple German food from World War II and a soup from the Middle East. One of the participants/actors said every recipe from the Middle East is a kind of wartime recipe. This was only one of nine different activities. Each of them touched on something different: cooking, discussions, interviews, and even a film workshop.

KvE: Over three days, the participants interviewed each other in pairs, sitting in a car parked down at the former bunker level. In these videos you learn a lot about their personal history. We had a very interesting mix. Some of the people were born here, had been living here for a long time, while others grew up here but come from migrant families. Some had just arrived here to study. So there are different relations to the city of Münster and the history of this place.

ArtMag: However, this was not a sociological but an artistic project.

KvE: I hosted one day of the workshop, and this day was about using techniques from dance and performance for political purposes. But the function of the entire workshop was to produce footage, which Koki could use as material for the work he will contribute to Skulptur Projekte. He told us that we should think of ourselves as actors, playing the role of participants. All the time, there was this kind of double reality: We were performing as participants in a workshop. But at the same time we were actually doing a workshop.

ArtMag: Koki, you rarely appear in the films about the workshop you initiated. How much did you participate in the workshop? Do you see your role as that of an observer or a participant?

KT: My role has been very similar to the role of a curator who invites artists to create a group show or a thematic show. My role is that of an organizer, not an observer, because I am highly involved in the process. As for the day Kai facilitated, he could decide everything as long as his idea was in the framework of the project, and of course we discussed the practical issues for his day. When I organize these one-week workshops, I try to invite each facilitator to reflect on the place—the nuclear bunker, or/and my theme of how to live together—and develop their own idea, like an artist. In this sense, I organized the whole week and was responsible for everything in a way. If something happens, I am the one to blame. In the end, people will say this is Koki’s work, but at the same time this is not really clear. I am the artist/the organizer, of course, but maybe not in the conventional sense.

ArtMag: But, regarding authorship, it is not a collective work?

KT: No, it’s not a collective work. I think what they did during the workshop week in reality was collective work, but the documentation of the workshop is not. I edit what the film crew captured based on how I see the workshop from my point of view. So the responsibility of the result is mine. 

KvE: Participation and authorship is always a problematic issue. But it usually makes matters worse, not better, when artists have the idea of “collective creativity,” because they want a more equal form of doing something together. This means that they expand their own status to the entirety of others. It takes for granted that all participants want the same deal, trading in the pleasure of practice for the more radical freedom of aesthetic production. And it fails to take into account how participants can help art to acquire a political dimension precisely because they are not artists. If people who participate in art projects make helpful contributions to collective political action, they do so insofar as they are taking up, continuing, furthering, and thereby slightly bending and turning something conceived and initiated by someone else, and not by trying to position themselves as the one with the idea. They are ready to react. And only through reactions will an artistic project, whatever its initial idea, become political.

ArtMag: What kinds of reactions did you train?

KvE: For example, we tried a game Koki and I had nicknamed G8. I told the participants to think of themselves as eight sovereign rulers of the world, and whatever they decided would become reality. However, all eight of them were equally powerful. We selected a couple of important political topics, the big issues of our time, addressing one after the other. Everyone could make decisions, going on for as long as they wanted, but you could only react to a decision with another decision. Objections and critical comments as to why something was not a good idea, why it wouldn’t work, etc. were excluded. If you were not satisfied with a decision, you were free to annul it with your own decision—but you had to be prepared for the others to strike back, or for a third party to chime in with a decision that neutralized or altered your decision. Despite the unlimited power, the structure was calling for cooperation among equals.

ArtMag: You also added a special technique to the game.

KvE: After a first round with many difficulties, I suggested that every decision be made in the form of a “Yes, and…” “Yes anding” is a technique in improvisation theater. It means that whatever your response is, you start with an acknowledgement of that which you are reacting to before adding something. And if you are not okay with what the other person has just said or done, your own reaction will have to redirect it. Negation is possible, but it cannot consist in a mere rejection. You react kind of like judo or aikido fighters, who never go against their partner’s movement but use its momentum for accomplishing their own goal. Playing our game with ”Yes anding,” we got into a kind of flow. Objections would interrupt this flow less often, and the overall tendency was to become more cooperative and concentrate on modifying a measure rather than trying to disable it.

ArtMag: Koki, how optimistic were you after the workshop? 

TK: Of course at some point there were tensions because the participants/actors had different opinions. But once they stayed together overnight and had some workshops together, they developed a certain level of trust between them and also toward the film crew and the organizers, including me, I think. We became a kind of temporal community.

This dialogue was assembled from parts of an interview with Koki Tanaka, a public conversation with him and Kai van Eikels, and excerpts from a talk given by Kai van Eikels.