Unmapping Tokyo

Between March-June 2018 I worked on a project based at Kosaten community centre, Tokyo. My aim was to explore subjective and embodied narratives in the local area, particularly focusing on people's stories and the relationship of those stories to particular places. This artistic research project gave me the opportunity to develop both a piece of work (an audio-visual installation) and to develop the Unmapping project as a research methodology through a series of workshops.

I was interested in finding out about this neighbourhood from a subjective perspective, looking for stories that would give an intimate insight into this place that I was alien to. With the help of Kosaten members Emma, Midori, Ion and Jong, I set out on a task which at first seemed to be impossible given my lack of Japanese language skills, and because of another important element, that until this point, many of the projects I have done regarding stories, people and place have relied on meeting people by chance. One of the first things I noticed about Tokyo was how difficult it was to meet people. Luckily the support I received from the Kosaten team in terms of being introduced to the various community groups in the area, and the absolutely vital translation, meant that bit-by-bit, I managed to meet people and was welcomed to the neighbourhood.

Nishiogikubo is a place in-between, quite literally a place between two major established neighbourhoods; Ogikubo and Kichijoji. It came into being in the early 1920's after the construction of a train station along the Chuo Mainline in the space between the two towns mentioned above. The Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, led to a massive influx of people migrating to the area from central Tokyo and other areas that had been affected by the earthquake and the resulting fire. Since it's creation as a town, with a name dictated by its geographical position (West-Ogikubo), it developed into a place with it's own specific identity, which many of the people that I met would testify to. Nishiogikubo now is also home to various new migrant communities, and has effectively become a sort of melting pot, again quite literally in a culinary sense. There is a blog article written by urban sociologist James Farrer on his blog 'Nishiology' that gives an interesting account of this.

I was interested in this notion of being in-between, and how this relationship between space and lived experience might play out. Particularly how I might be able to experience it through my interactions with people.

I began to look at old maps of the area; aerial photography from 1920's - 1990's which showed the change from farmland to urban grids, but also that this change was relatively slow, and that some of the houses that were built to house refugees from the 1923 earthquake still existed today. Using the aerial photographs, which I loaded onto my phone, I attempted to walk the streets using these black and white images as a guide to see if I could find any traces of what was there before.

Aerial photographs from 1945 and 1990. Source: maps.gsi.go.jp

While walking though these streets, as if walking through an acquired memory, I was thinking about the relationship between depicted space and lived experience. About how space can be represented in different ways, through a map, photo or a drawing. How the physical representation (photography/ map making/ drawing) is trace of the lived experience of the person who made that representation. Drawing is perhaps the more visceral form of representing this lived experience, due to the intimacy, and inaccuracy of the act of drawing a representation of a place by hand. I visited the National Diet Library to look at old 'Ezu' Picture maps of Japan from the Edo period, and although I could not find anything that related directly to the area I was based in, I did find some interesting examples of hand drawn maps of Edo (Tokyo), and the surrounding area.

What I found striking about these hand drawn maps, was the way in which they organised space, along horizontal planes and from an angle looking as if looking down from a hill, or from the sky. Space is organised in horizontal layers, divided by drifting clouds. The view is not as a bird's eye view, or a vertical down satellite view, but more at an angle. This is also common of landscapes depicted in the Ukiyo-e woodcuts of Edo by Hiroshige; the viewer looks down on the land, as if they are standing on a hill or looking from the window of a tall building. Given that Tokyo does not have any hills or high vantage points, nor were there any tall buildings at the point these drawings were made, means that these depictions of the landscape are imagined.

Another fascinating map I found was a route map of the Tokaido highway, from Kyoto to Edo, which was spread along a horizontal plane along a scroll folded into rectangular panels. The map depicts the journey that a traveller would take, if they would journey along this particular route. The geographical placement of space, in terms of cardinal points, is not considered an issue in this map, whether the road went North, East, changed direction etc, is not indicated. Rather it shows the progression of the route in a straight line and depicts situations and things you might encounter along the journey; river crossings, temples, markets and geographical features such as lakes, mountains and forests. Looking at the map, you might imagine yourself stepping into that journey.

Taking inspiration from these 'Ezu' maps and the satellite images I wanted to see how create my own maps of the experiences that I was having, and how I could use the physical act of drawing as a tool for others to join this process in a more collaborative way. I started by making some simple drawings and thinking about the act of erasure. I bought an amazing pen that acts like a pencil, with a special eraser that can erase the ink. I was thinking about how land and landscapes are erased through human intervention. How the looming image of mount Fuji disappeared from the city skyline as the city grew. In Tokyo, you rarely see the horizon, if ever, and your horizontal view is masked by buildings in almost every direction, unless you are high up in a building or if you are in a park. I made a series of erasure drawings, and then I started looking upwards, walking around with my videocamera facing the sky.

Erasing the mountain

I walked a lot around Nishiogikubo, trying to get a sense of the place, trying to familiarise myself, and trying to make connections with local people by myself. It was rare that I would meet people on these walks but occasionally I would. Those people that I did meet, turned out to be amazing, and were my gateway into another side of Nishiogi. "Are you looking for something?" asks the man sitting outside one of the Izakaya's near to the train station, as I am standing around fumbling with my audio recorder. "Maybe", I say. He looks at me with a kind puzzlement and offers help if I need it. I ask if I can join him, and he pulls up a chair for me to sit down. It's the beginning of a friendship, across cultures and ages. Steve is in he 80s and has been coming to this same Izakaya for the past 40 years, he says it has barely changed in that time. We drink shochu together and talk for a couple of hours. He tells me I should come back and meet his friends next time.

Another case is Toby. I am walking through one of the narrow streets near the station, filming the overhead cables. "Ah you're filming?", "Yes, erm, I'm filming the cables", "Ah, you like cables!??, hmm very interesting...".

I could say that I did this project as an excuse to make some friends, and it would actually be true. Doing this research became more of an exercise of really getting to know people, and the area than making an artwork. The process overtook the product, and the process also became my experience of my time being there. Ian and Minako, who I found by following their instagram hashtags invited me to their home, and played a fundamentally important role in helping me discover Nishiogi and meet various people.

Something I discovered through this process was the importance of community or communities, having a place to come to where you can meet people that you do or can share something with. Whether its a community centre or a bar, people need a place to come together. I also think that this may be something very particular to this particular in-between neighbourhood. It has it's own village like feeling, where people know each other, and look out for each other, support each others businesses, and help each other's projects.

I led two workshops at Kosaten, which explored drawing and sensory communication as a tool for connecting to memories of places, and experiences in places. The first workshop was about giving and responding to touch, drawing from what participants saw and felt. Initially focusing on the immediate space around us, and later moving on to places that existed in their memories. Places that the wished to go (back) to, either literally, or emotionally. Using these sensory, give and response techniques, we built up an abstract drawing/ map of our combined experiences and memories. In part 2 of this workshop a few weeks later, we cut out sections from the maps and used them to go on mini- expeditions around the neighbourhood, searching for relationships between the drawing and the reality, trying to follow lines that participant's found in the drawing, as if they represented the streets that they were walking along. Participants went out in small groups, and the person reading the map would tell the group to stop at certain points based on where they thought the map told them to stop. At these spots, the groups were asked to think about 4 points: What does this place remind you of? , What do you know about this place? , What do you think used to be here? and What do you think will be here in the future?. The groups went out (in the rain) with video camera's and documented their journeys. These videos were then used as part of the final installation at the end.

Part 1

Part 2

My project developed into collecting stories from the people I had met. I asked people to share a story about a place in the area that was important to them, or where they had some kind of strong emotional attachment. I then went around, generally by myself, to those places that they had talked about to make a video recording and/ or audio recording of the place itself. I collated all the stories and video clips, together with various other field recordings of sounds I had encountered in the 2 and half months I was there, into a multi-channel video installation with the images of places, and the stories relating to those places. It felt strange sometimes, after having heard an intimate story about a place, to then go there myself and try to capture something of that intimacy. I felt that it did not really work. For example, I recorded one story from one man about his journey from home to school, and about all his friends that he would have met along that journey to school, about the things that had changed since he was a child, and about how he felt to revisit that street recently after not having been there for many years. As I cycled slowly though that street filming it, I felt a sense of detachment, and alienness to it. This was not my memory, I was trying to live someone else's. It was strange, I did not have the memory of which street corner it was that he found the injured bird that he once found and took home and cared for, I did not know the feeling of those memories in relation to the street. To me it was just another street. This idea fascinates me, this flickering in and out of intimacy and detachment, connecting, not connecting, relating, not relating.

The installation was shown at Kosaten, with the videos projected on the walls and ceilings and the audio, split into Japanese and English translation, playing simultaneously from different channels. Entering the room, you might have felt as though you were walking into a room full of people talking, where you could choose where to sit and which story to listen to. To some extent, this was like my experience of Japan. A lot of information, a cacophony of sound, some things that I could hook onto that I recognised, other things that became a blur.

I am currently still working on a condensed version of the the 4 videos and 6 audio channel installation to view online and an audio version for radio.