Community art projects in the time of COVID-19 and beyond: Shift Operation Tokyo (Part 2)

Shift Operation team in Tokyo. Image courtesy of the artists.
Shift Operation team in the process of making the exhibition. Image courtesy of the artists.
Installation view of “Shift Operation: Tokyo Workflow” at CAVE – AYUMI GALLERY, 6 – 15 March, 2020. Image courtesy of the artists.
Installation view of “Shift Operation: Tokyo Workflow” at CAVE – AYUMI GALLERY, 6 – 15 March, 2020. Image courtesy of the artists.
Mind map in the process of making of “Shift Operation: Tokyo Workflow” at CAVE – AYUMI Gallery. Image courtesy of the artists.
Shift Operation team in the process of making the exhibition. Image courtesy of the artists.
CoBo Social Design and Architecture

In the times of the pandemic the future of art projects that require collaboration and active participation ambiguously remains open. How do community-based art initiatives operate and can they survive?

TEXT: Julia Tarasyuk
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists
B&S: Esther Brakenhoff and Maarten Schuurman; A: Ayumi Suzuki


In the second part of the interview artists Esther Brakenhoff and Maarten Schuurman, as well as their Tokyo gallerist Ayumi Suzuki, speak about the challenges of their recent collaboration with local artists in Japan and the future of working together.


Shift Operation team in Tokyo. Image courtesy of the artists.


Why did you choose Japan for the second instalment of the project?

B&S: In 2017, Ayumi Suzuki, the founder of CAVE-AYUMI Gallery, visited our studio in Amsterdam. We spoke about the first Shift Operation project. She was interested and asked us to do a project in Tokyo. We kept in contact and in 2017, we travelled to Japan and met Ayumi again. From then, we developed plans and ideas for “Shift Operation: Tokyo Workflow.”


Did you know anything about the local art scene before coming to Tokyo?

B&S: We had been on two short trips to Tokyo. We visited museums and galleries, but that was just a first impression, rather superficial. This time, we did research before coming to Tokyo. We knew about some art initiatives and galleries we wanted to visit. It was not easy, however, to develop a bigger picture of the art scene beforehand. We didn’t know how people and places were connected, networked, or organised.


Ayumi, how did you first hear about the project? It must have been a brave decision to introduce a project with “lost in translation” elements at its core to both the Japanese public and local artists.

A: I first met the artists in 2017 when I visited their studio. They showed me some works and projects they had collaborated on, and I was immediately drawn to “Shift Operation.” Since I have always been interested in researching the meaning of “a gallery space,” I wanted Esther and Maarten to break its conventional concept. I wasn’t worried about anything and was excited about the new ideas that could come out of [the project]. The artists had good energy and the project was process-oriented, but with sculptural and superficial aesthetic elements. I was convinced that if they could collaborate with Japanese artists during their stay, it would be mutually beneficial.


Shift Operation team in the process of making the exhibition. Image courtesy of the artists.


Please share your strategy in looking for local collaborators. Were you looking for any particular type of artists?

B&S: Preparations for the project started in the Netherlands. We thought it would be a good plan to make an open call to find artists to participate, which is common in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out in Japan. We got some reactions, but only from Europeans, while we were interested in working with and getting to know local artists. A Japanese friend in the Netherlands and Ayumi also tried, but both told us that most artists are very busy and personal contact might be important. We did not manage to find any artists to work with until after we stepped onto the plane.

Through Ayumi and Kim Dang from the Dutch Embassy in Japan, we came into contact with Nick West, an English artist who has worked for many years in Tokyo. He is one of the organisers of “Artist Talks” at Good Heavens, an English pub in Shimokitazawa. We were invited to do a presentation about our work and the project during one of these talks. There was a big, international crowd of interested people. That was how we found our first participating artist: Thomas Gillant, a French artist living and working in Tokyo. He was interested in the concept of collaboration as experiment, which is very different from his normal individual practice. We also met artist Jaime Humphreys, who is very well known in Japan and teaches at Geidai, Tokyo University of the Arts. He told us about the upcoming graduation shows at the art universities, which provided a good opportunity to see work by recently graduated artists.

So in January, while building the installation, we spent time going to graduation shows at the Tama, Musashino, and Geidai art universities. We were impressed by their size and facilities, and it was interesting to see the different ways of working and presenting projects. Most European academies focus on the idea or concept. In Japan, most attention seems to be paid to materials and techniques. Among the huge number of students, we found some very interesting artists with outside-the-box ideas. We recognized in them the ability to adapt to situations and a spontaneity in dealing with materials and space. We tried to contact them to see if they were interested in participating in the project. Although their level of English differed, it was usually enough to explain the project and what we were looking for. Not everybody replied or understood, but in the end we found four very talented graduate students: Yui Nagashima, Rie Shinno, Shiori Ukishima, and Jin Yeowool. They were all women and we still wonder if this was coincidence or a cultural issue.

Together with Ayumi, we also went to an opening at Sprout Curation, a gallery in Kagurazaka. There we met Asayo Yamamoto and Mio Hanaoka, two artists who went to the art academy in Amsterdam and had worked in Europe. They were immediately interested and wanted to participate in the project. Soda Noriyasu, an artist, teacher, woodblock printer, and friend of Ayumi, completed our Shift Operation team.

A: There is very limited information about the international art scene in Japan, so almost no one knew about the Shift Operation project or Esther and Maarten’s work. Many Japanese artists are very busy because they live in the suburbs and have side jobs. It really was not easy to find artists who would agree to collaborate. I suggested that Esther and Maarten go to exhibitions at galleries or art school graduation shows, and advised them to actually see the work in person and talk to the artists.


Installation view of “Shift Operation: Tokyo Workflow” at CAVE – AYUMI GALLERY, 6 – 15 March, 2020. Image courtesy of the artists.
Installation view of “Shift Operation: Tokyo Workflow” at CAVE – AYUMI GALLERY, 6 – 15 March, 2020. Image courtesy of the artists.


Give us a glimpse into the regular Shift Operation Tokyo open studio day. Did you lead the process of community art making or let it go with the flow?

B&S: In February, every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday we held open studio days. On these days, the invited artists could come and work in the installation while it was open to the public. Most artists were not able to join every day, so there were shifts of three, or sometimes seven, people.

Very noticeable was everybody’s productivity and dedication. From the moment the first two artists came in, materials were bought, workplaces arranged, and works made. We did not want to immediately impose too many rules and tried to give everybody the freedom, time, and space to adjust to the place, to each other, and to the public. The only thing we told artists from the beginning was that everything made during the project was part of the installation and would be dismantled afterwards. That meant a different mindset and way of making works, not aimed at producing finished individual products for display, but focused on trying out, exchanging techniques, and experimenting within this new environment.

After the first two weekends, everybody was familiar with each other and making works or elements for others to use. There was not, however, much direct collaboration or exchange of works occurring, so we felt we had to take the lead and stimulate collaboration by proposing joint projects and building “games.” In the third week, a lot of collaborative ideas were put forward and works were made. Although we could not always find the right words to explain what we meant, we managed to understand each other very well, especially when creating together. We all spoke the language of forms, colours, and spaces.

In the fourth week, we assembled all the elements together in one big Gesamtkunstwerk to present during an exhibition after the open studio days. Before we had to take a lead in the collaborative process, but now it was taken over by the whole group. There was a shift from individual production to collective works and decision making. The artists became spokesmen of the group, explaining the project to visitors. We spent every day together, adding, shoving, de- and re-constructing till we reached an agreement on the way every element should be presented in a final work. After four weeks of working together, we became a group with our own dynamic. It felt strange and a bit sad when it finished.


Mind map in the process of making of “Shift Operation: Tokyo Workflow” at CAVE – AYUMI Gallery. Image courtesy of the artists.


What were the main challenges of working with Japanese artists and within the local cultural framework?

B&S: The first challenge was to find artists to work with. We noticed that everybody is very busy and doesn’t have much time. There also seemed to be a reluctance to jump into something unknown, undefined, or insecure, like our project. The project focuses on the process of collaboration and we didn’t know the outcome ourselves. We came to understand that these kind of art projects are not common in Japan, and therefore are also not easy to explain or understand. We think it was brave of Ayumi to program such a project within her gallery.

Then there is, of course, the language challenge. We unfortunately don’t speak Japanese, and not everybody in Japan speaks good English. This was a barrier for some of the artists we tried to contact. Dutch people can be very direct and have little trouble saying no. It is quite the opposite in Japan. Instead of a “no,” we often got a “maybe” or silence. We needed to learn to read between the lines and understand unspoken words.

But we believed, and still believe, it is not just the level of English that helps us understand each other; it is also about openness and curiosity. Most of the artists who joined the project spoke English well or well enough that it wasn’t a big problem. They, and also other artists we met, were happy to talk to us even if we needed to search for words. We sometimes tried to start a conversation or discussion about art subjects and collaboration, and that worked most of the time. To talk in a group, however, was more difficult and could not be forced. Maybe it was insecurity about language, a reluctance to express an opinion, or maybe they just needed more time. We are not sure. But there was a common understanding when talking about art, music, creation, food, and humour.

Although the project had many challenges, some things went really smoothly. Putting common interest before individual need seems to be easier for Japanese artists. There were no issues about sharing materials or space, and there was a lot of respect for each other and the project as a whole.


Following the two editions of the Shift Operation project, do you feel that community-based art collaborations have an ability to transcend geographical borders and overcome cultural differences?

B&S: It mainly asks for curiosity about the other, and to be open to different ways of dealing and working with new situations. Generally, artists have these abilities wherever they come from. Maybe working together takes a bit more time when you come from different backgrounds, but it also makes it more interesting. 

A: Cultural differences are always inspiring and push toward innovation. Wonderful things happen when knowledge from various cultures is combined.


Shift Operation team in the process of making the exhibition. Image courtesy of the artists.


Maarten, Esther, what were the most surprising and perhaps exciting things you learned about the art scene and beyond while spending time in Japan?

B&S: During the three months in Tokyo we mainly worked hard on our project, so we did not have a lot of time left to see exhibitions elsewhere. Therefore, we were not really able to get a grip on what the art scene is about in Tokyo or Japan. To know what is going on, you need to hear from others who know. So you need to build up a network or know somebody who takes you around. But we think this is similar in every place, including Amsterdam.

Before we went to Tokyo, we tried to research the presence of artist groups and initiatives, but there is no single list or exhibition schedule for these kind of places. There is a list of gallery shows in Tokyo, but it doesn’t include all of them, and almost no alternative places. We went to galleries, but also accidentally found interesting exhibitions in the strangest places. What we really enjoyed is that restaurants, in every alley, basement, attic, or closet, could turn into an exhibition space. Shows are put up and disappear very fast, like everything in Tokyo.


Ayumi, is there something you re-discovered about the Japanese art scene while working on this project?

A: Through this project, I discovered that Japanese artists are very co-operative. Of course, personal production and collaboration with others are different, but it was impressive that everyone worked very productively. And the artists learned a lot from Maarten and Esther. If local artists broaden their international perspective, the art scene in Japan will improve dramatically. To facilitate that, it is crucial to participate in artist residences overseas and to actively engage with international artists coming to Japan. It takes effort, but it’s also important to maintain the relationship after that.


In the wake of the global pandemic crisis and social distancing, what are your thoughts on the way artists could continue working as a community without actually physically being together?

B&S: The interesting thing about this crisis is the general sense of a community spirit. People seem to be more aware of this than before. Thanks to digitalization and social media, we are at least able to stay in touch and meet online. Artists created digital communities before, but it looks like this is a growing phenomenon now. We do hope that the times when we could physically work together return soon, but it is possible to create new forms and environments to work together digitally. Maybe the next Shift Operation will be online.

A: This is a very difficult time for artists and galleries. However, we also need alone time. The current situation is thus not entirely negative. I feel a certain enthusiasm now as various artists and galleries are organizing online viewings and projects. During these challenging times, artists will hopefully create new work and try out new forms and media. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the future will bring for the artistic community.



Click here for Community art projects in the time of COVID-19 and beyond: Shift Operation Tokyo (Part 1)



Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply