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Participant and Audience: A Conversation with Koki Tanaka
by Allyson Parker

New York, May 2014: This weekend New York’s Randall’s Island becomes a contemporary art mecca as Frieze New York kicks off for its third iteration. A troupe of black sedans will storm the RFK bridge (while the rest of us take the ferry) to an onslaught of gallery booths, lectures, performances, and installations that capture the contemporary art market’s voracious appetite for the new and the now. The fair features a specially curated program of contemporary artists working at the intersections of performance and installation. We got a chance to sit down with Japanese social interventionist, Koki Tanaka, who is creating a site-specific installation/performance celebrating the invisible communities of Randall’s Island.

 Koki Tanaka, precarious task #0, Communal Tea Drinking, 2012, tea leafs, tea bags, pot, boiled water and other participant: friends and colleagues;  © Courtesy of the artist and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo

Allyson Parker: How would you describe your upcoming performances at Frieze?

Koki Tanaka: I invited five people to spend the whole day at the fair but couldn’t say it’s a performance piece because these people are also audience in a way. I’d prefer to say it’s a happening or activity because they are not following a script.

AP: So there’s a healthy amount of improvisation?

KT: It’s open ended. There’s a lecture by firefighter [Marc Gallo] on May 8th that occurs every one and a quarter hours but I don’t know what happens in between. Maybe he gets a coffee and has a conversation, I don’t know.

AP: So would you call these acts disruptive or are they intended to tie into the social fabric of the fair?

KT: It’s difficult to say. In the very beginning I wanted to make these acts [totally] invisible, and still there is a sense of this invisibility even within the installation. There are signs, but each day there are different levels of visibility for each participant. For example, May 9th will feature poet Jane Lecroy rewriting Samuel Greenberg’s book, who died in the island’s mental institution in 1917, as Hart Crane did in 1924. She’ll probably spend most of the day writing so maybe no one will notice her. Like Greenberg, her presence and her legacy will largely be influenced by the environment.

AP: So what role do you play specifically in the creation of your work?

KT: It’s tricky to say because I’m not creating things like painters or sculptors so I’d probably say I’m more like a coordinator or maybe an organizer in a way because it’s a different way of art production.

Koki Tanaka, process of blowing flour, 2010, photograph, 70” x 48”, set of 4; © Koki Tanaka


AP: I saw your role as somewhat similar to a film director. It seems like you’re pulling a lot of strings while simultaneously relinquishing control to your performers.

KT: Ah yes, yes that’s true. During the film process I am the director but at the same time, the outsider.

AP: And how does this role translate in the outcome of your work?

KT: I learn about my projects step by step. People would probably call it Participatory Art since it needs participants or audience to be involved with the project itself. This act builds the community and that’s a large component of the work. My main focus is the process. For my project at Frieze NY, it’s contextualized to the site of Randall’s Island and I tried to present a relevant relationship to the art fair context. Art fairs in general are a place where the audience is either buying artworks or meeting other people and I think that sounds pretty limited. Of course that’s how the art world works right now; it is a capitalist haven and that's why New York is still one of the art capitals, but I wanted to insert an alternative function of art to the fair context. Therefore I invited participants who are given an unexpected reason to be at the site.

AP : So you would say the island itself is relevant to your project in terms of social context?

KT: I think so, yes. When I googled it, I found the Island had sort of a negative history. In the 19th century it was a place for Manhattan’s outsiders like a poorhouse, “idiot” asylum and homeopathic hospital. By now it's been gentrified and it has sports facilities, a stadium, and a Fire Fighting Academy—but there is still a homeless shelter and mental institution. All of those facts were unknown to me and my colleagues so I decided to invite these outsiders and invisible communities back to the island. So the five people—firefighter, poet, jazz player, jogger, and historian—are representing different aspects of the island.

AP: And where did you get your information?

KT: The internet. Of course some artists emphasize this relationship but we’re all already affected by the internet. It’s become fundamental [to] our lives.

AP: Where do you see your role as a Change Agent in your piece?

KT: There are different elements, for example the shape of a table can affect the relationship between audience and participants. The structure affects their mind too. What I’m doing is finding the appropriate framework or arrangement to facilitate this experience. I’m kind of a skill-less artist; I can’t create and perform these acts myself so my participants’ presence are very important to the piece.

Koki Tanaka, UNTITLED, 2007, mixed media,14m for the raft; © courtesy of the artist and La Chaine Bank ART Studio NYK, Yokohama


AP: What is the social utility of your work?

KT: I guess it’s more demonstrative and performative in an alternative way. It gives the idea of looking at a social movement in personal perspective. The most important part of the social movement is to change our minds not to change [the] social system.

AP: Were there any limitations when creating this piece?

KT: I was free to create anything, but when Frieze said I didn’t need to think about a commercial component, even that affected my mind. If I didn’t need to care about that then I needed [the work] to do something else.

AP: So what’s your ultimate goal with the piece?

KT: It’s a modest insertion because it’s invisible, so people may not find out what exactly my project is about during Frieze, but maybe some might notice something’s happening. Even the smallest trigger is okay.




May 8: A firefighter is talking about fire related stories and the Randall’s Island Fire Academy.

May 9: A poet is rewriting Samuel Greenberg's poems, as Hart Crane did in 1924. Jane Lecroy.

May 10: A jazz player is whistling a jazz concert that happened here in May 29, 1938. Bill Todd.

May 11: A jogger is spending time inside the fair. John Honerkamp.

May 12: A historian is giving a lecture about the history of Randall's Island.


Allyson Parker 



ArtSlant would like to thank Belinda Bowring and Koki Tanaka for their assistance in making this interview possible.

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