A dialogue about the benefits and dangers of emptiness with the co-founder of the Japanese performance collective Dumb-Type, before their show REMIX in the Goldoni theatre in Venice.
On November 30, 2022, The Japan Foundation presented a unique event of great international importance at the Teatro Goldoni in Venice: the live audiovisual performance of DUMB TYPE, the multidisciplinary artistic collective that represented Japan at the 59th International Exhibition of ‘Art The Venice Biennale. The work created for the Japan Pavilion at the Biennale di Venezia, in fact, referred to the drastic transformation of the ways in which people communicate and perceive the world, mainly determined by the evolution and growth of Internet, social media and the effects of the global pandemic. The new partner for the soundtrack of the installation was Ryuichi Sakamoto, one of Japan’s most acclaimed musicians, author of well-known film soundtracks, such as Furyo, The Last Emperor and Tea in the Desert, who achieved worldwide fame and prestigious awards. The performance in the Teatro Goldoni, the song of the famous composer has been re-mixed and enriched with new sounds by the other members by the DUMB TYPE collective – Ken Furudate, Takuya Minami and Satoshi Hama – transforming the Goldoni Theater for one evening into a single large immersive installation, in which the utmost care has been paid to the rendering and sound quality of the project, using a technological apparatus of avant-garde. We spoke with Dumb-Type’s co-founder Shiro Takatani before the show:
1984, the year of heavy snowfall in Japan, the Otaki earthquake near Nagano with 29 dead or missing, and MacArthur's Children by Masahiro Shinoda won Best film at the Blue Ribbon Awards. And you co-founded Dumb Type - how do you remember that year leading up to joining forces with fellow students, and forming Dumb-Type at that moment of time?
S.T.: In that year I just joined the university. Already a theatre group has got formed – and Teiji (Furuhashi) performed a theatrical play. I was not so much interested in theatre things, I was learning about design & architecture, which I enrolled in at the Kyoto City University of the Arts. But when seeing that theatre play making a welcome performance at my university, already starting to transform theatre to performance art, I got hooked. In that moment in time Laurie Anderson, Bob Wilson, etc. those American performers were coming to Kyoto. They saw that something may diverge from the normal theatrical performance, that the approach was changing, widening. That got me interested in theatre in terms of architecture: we can change the light, shapes on the stage, put things in this angle or that angle, etc. So I tried to join them. Half a year later, we were creating sets for performance pieces further away from theatre – and that called for changing the name of the group: finally, as a collective choice, we found the name “Dumb-Type”. We discussed almost half a year! We were all university students and while there was “high art” and “low art” in Japan, we most certainly were against “high art”, so you can say we were rather “low” – or kind of “dumb”. Now these distinctions developed to have different meaning over time.
What changed, what was it then, what is it now?
S.T.: For me its not so much of a big change. I couldn’t recognise changes inside of the group. But, when we formed the group, video technology still was difficult to manage, very expensive and complicated. In our equipment we had slide projectors, film projectors etc. Those media types we were using and only some years later video projectors were available. In a way, technology was “growing up” with Dumb-Type’s history. Of course some technology was around for longer, but very expensive and unreachable for art students and only available for commercial projects.
You were the artistic director of the group from 1995 on…
S.T.: I was not really having a position like an “artistic director” – because Dumb-Type is “no hierarchy”, we define our structure as “flat” – but when we are creating a performance someone needs to choose the “last idea”. Otherwise the discussions would go on forever… I am doing the video part, that means that I am sitting in the operation booth, overlooking things. For people on stage it is much more difficult to control and manage everything, they may not fully grasp how it looks for the audience. So I have the honour to do the choosing…
Your base is Kyoto - tell us more about the changes of the local art scene there since the inception of Dumb Type
S.T.: We were starting at the university of arts, but many people think about Dumb-Type as a theatrical or performative group. We also do not think so much about our place in “fine art”, actually, because performance art is more…
First of all, the focus of the Dumb-Type was on being a collective, this is a strong emphasis. And therefore one cannot speak of individuality, but one can speak only of a group. Additionally a very important condition was that we imposed on us to cooperate with the fine arts. If you ask me what changes in the art scene of Kyoto there has been after the foundation of Dumb-Type, I really don’t know what to answer. Surely there were some mutual influence
Surely, our field is art, but not the art that is shown in galleries or museums, but the art that marries the city, that moves, meets people. Therefore we went with this concept. It is very interesting for us to develop form the observations in academic circles to the street perspective as we collected debt for our university enrolment. That also meant, that first of all this art needed to be a performance and therefore live. Then surely the Kyoto scene in comparison with the Tokyo scene was a help, because the Kyoto scene was less chaotic, smaller, so we could concentrate without having a complicated life of the metropolis and we worked more quietly.
Dumb Type is known for portraying a dark, cynical, and humorous world in which technology is a way of life - how has the approach to technology changed within the work of Dumb Type over the years?
S.T.: Our creative process goes step by step: first of all we think about what we want to do, what we want to represent – then we choose the technology that comes into play here, and what it may express, and then we figure out together how to use that technology in what we want to express. A sculptor does a little bit like that, who first chooses the stone, then understands the technique, and then refines, optimises the sculpture with the technique. I look for foresight – because, when we create a work, we think as a sculptor thought of his work, of how it looks to the spectator who will see it in a hundred, three hundred, four hundred years. The difference between cinema and photography, video and video art is, that I photograph or film a moment, crystallise it. Then I use it as an art object. This cuts it, arrests it in the moment, practically cuts the time, and becomes the frame that he wanted to show and represent. We work for the future, where everything comes together in one moment, during a performance.
Is the work still as political in nature, as the late Teiji Furuhashi put it?
“Something Japanese theater never does. Japanese audiences don’t want to see that. They want to avoid it. They just want entertainment. Yes, I think we should always have a political view. We should represent that this is Japan.”
Teiji Furuhashi, co-founder of Dumb-Type
S.T.: Of course Japanese do not like so much to talk about political things in the artwork, but some Japanese artists do really very political things. Now in Mirano we had a group exhibition, so there were a lot of political artworks involved, and it was a Japanese group exhibition. It was slowly, slowly changing. I think that Dumb-Type’s aim is still somewhat political.
Ryuichi Sakamoto, your “new” member and partner for the Biennale work “Playback 2022” has a very political side, too…
S.T.: I am an artist, but an artist is based on a human being – so there must be a political side. We are living all in the same world, so we have to think about the political layer, too.
How is your Biennale work for the Japanese pavilion connected to this performance at the Teatro Goldoni?
S.T.: It’s decisively different. The soundtrack created by Ryuichi Sakamoto for the installation is of course not a full, complete “score”. He gave us sound elements, and our members arranged the soundtrack for the installation. This “Remix” is really remixing this for the theatre context here.
The Biennale installation worked with liminal, laser-projected text, and had at the center of the room, an empty space - a void. The action and reflections were on the walls. Is there an equivalent of emptiness to be found in the “Remix”, here, too?
S.T.: Yes. The concept of the installation was void. That is why we were presenting an empty space – of course with some equipment, but still almost nothing in the space. Also here we bring some “void” in, on the stage. You will see…there is a correspondence.
What emptiness did grow by the evolution and growth of the internet and social media, and maybe by the global pandemic, in your view? What empty spaces got created - or do we clutter everything with information, etc.?
S.T.: I think the internet space offers much information, too much. But, let me give you an example. While traveling to reach Venice we went through the Venetian countryside, passing e.g. Mirano, and we were using the navigational system to orient ourselves. So the important information was there, and we can drive very easily. But I saw just the few hundred meters of the moving map, which gives you direction. Where is Venezia? We don’t know, but we can arrive there, through the help of technology. Many people are using the mobile phone for orientation and directions, but with the maps they depend upon, they don’t get to “know” Venezia, they even get told where panoramic viewpoints are to be found, but you do not find your own like that. There is indeed a lot of information, but I also feel a lot of emptiness, in the world, a kind of “void” through technology…
The book you based your Text fragments for the installation upon is a curious choice - a 1850s geography textbook, posing simple yet universal questions (First Lessons In Geography, by James Monteith 1856). Why did you choose this book as a base?
S.T.: When we were creating the performance piece in Kyoto, calling it 020 then, one performer found the book on the internet. She is a dancer, and wanted to dance with the sound map – but when I read the book, the questions were really interesting. It was also easy English which I can read. “What is Earth?” is a really difficult question I could not answer easily. Still now, 166 years later, we do not know, what Earth really is. We still need to think more about nature, Earth, environment – everything. That is why we chose these questions which are still relevant, for us, the installation and the Remix here. We were just using the questions, not the answers, that is important – each person can make up their own answer. For me interesting questions were:”When the sun rises, what sea is before you?” Everybody on Earth can give an answer, but it will be different ones, depending on where you live. Indian people will say, the Indian Ocean, in Japan one might say the Sea of Japan or the Pacific Ocean etc. There are small human beings standing on the curvature of Earth, seeing the sun rise, but it means that the planet is turning while wandering along its path around the sun.
It would be nice if everyone entered into the same spirit as when the book was read, even in the installation and now here in the theatre.
Dumb Type`s partner for Playback2022 and its Remix work in Teatro Goldoni is Ryuichi Sakamoto, a reknowed musician – as an individual composer, but also as part of the influential Japanese electropop band Yellow Magic Orchestra. What quality does his music bring to the performance?
S.T.: When he was creating the sound elements and sending them to us, the first impression was, that he loved nature and Earth, that eople need to think and care more about these fundamental things. I get, that from the soundtrack.
This is a Remix and not the Playback installation, and certainly a Remix based on the sensations that we forget when facing this type of question, which are also connected to the soundtrack.
Is Sakamoto weaving traditional Japanese harmonies into the song or rhythmical changes like in Energy Flow or Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence?
S.T.: He is very well known in West and of course very famous in Japan, too. During my high school studies I really loved the Yellow Magic Orchestra. In 1990 I met him at a theatre, at a concert, the Beauty tour through Japan. A friend brought us together at his place and he turned out to already know Dumb-Type. For me it was a real surprise – why does he know us?
Is Sakamoto weaving traditional Japanese harmonies into the song or rhythmical changes like in Energy Flow or Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence?
S.T.: I wondered how Sakamoto knew about Dumb-Type and then found out the following: because we entered our video in a video contest he turned out to have been a judge on a jury. He’s a great expert on art, truly amazing, he knows more about it than we do!
You are collaborating very often with artists and musicians, which you bring into the collective. Did you work together with all types of music, e.g Jazz, Rock, experimental music, electronic music, etc. - are you open to all styles in the future?
S.T.: I am very open for the future. I am learning about teaching art – a video teacher is somebody who teaches film and video at the university of arts. This teacher at my university taught me about how to edit, basically a language, where sound is crucial. When I am editing a video and when I am directing – kind of directing when e.g in a theatre piece, the soundtrack is really important, because the soundtrack is setting the time. Video is essentially many pictures in a sequence, composed of still images shown again and again, a continued “still-image-time”, but where do we stop? When sound comes in, suddenly we can start to edit. That is why I always collaborate with sound artists, because they are really important for me. Ryoji Ikeda e.g. is really strict – and Ryuichi Sakamoto, he always manages to create such such an imaginative soundtrack for me – really interesting…
“Our idea was to combine everything, film, people, painting, sculpture, music—so it became like theatre. We named it Dumb Type because we didn’t want to use any dialogue in our performance… We doubted words were the main form of interpersonal communication, and we wanted to explore deeper levels.”
Teiji Furuhashi (1960–1995) (https://visualaids.org/artists/teiji-fhttps://www.kyotojournal.org/culture-arts/furuhashi-teiji-dumb-type/uruhashi)