The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
Art bringing hope to Echigo-Tsumari  The ongoing journey of Fram Kitagawa
Art bringing hope to Echigo-Tsumari  The ongoing journey of Fram Kitagawa
James Turrell
House of Light

House of Light
Christian Boltanski + Jean Kalman
The Last Class

(2006 – 2009)
The Last Class
© H.Kuratani
Among the “supporter” were many art university students making up the Kohebi-Tai that went to Echigo-Tsumari from Tokyo. Based on the records, there were about 9,440 people in all (800 registered).
From the beginning it was my intention to work with young people and I thought that having these young urbanites, who were so completely opposite in background from the elderly people who had been farming there in the hills of Echigo-Tsumari all their lives, would actually help things get moving more easily. For that reason I wanted to bring these young people, who were involved in these strange activities called art, and place them at the forefront. Again it is like the analogy with the baby. Because these two groups of people were so completely opposite in terms of experience, there were inevitably some collisions at first, but having in front of them these “babies” in the form of art works in the making, gave them a common goal that helped get them over their differences. Being different types of people from the beginning also made it easier for the two groups to voice their differences and complain when they needed to, but we found that once the young people came into the rural community they “do like the Romans when in Rome” and that became a point of connection that helped everyone create things together. Thus, they achieved things that I believe would not have been possible were it two groups that were more similar in nature from the beginning.
 By the way, at Echigo-Tsumari it became natural for these unknown young people to assume roles like moderators at meetings attended by the prefectural governor or senate representatives simply because they were members of the “Kohebi” group. The name “Kohebi” virtually gave them a free pass to go anywhere and go anything for the projects. Because they were there as supporters, they were welcomed. In time we even found local merchants beginning to target business efforts at them (laughs).

Ten years ago it was rare for students to do fieldwork like this, but today students are almost always an important component of art projects everywhere. Universities today have opened themselves up more to the communities and are aiming to incorporate practical learning experiences within the society, and regions faced with the issues of depopulation and aging populations have come to look to student groups as a vital source of energy. In the Chiba New Town community, you have linked about 40 seminars and the like in a project you call “Art Universidad.”
Professors say that their students who have experienced participation in Kohebi projects gain a much clearer sense of purpose. The reason is that they are working with adults. From the 3rd Echigo-Tsumari festival we had adult supporters we called the Oohebi (oohebi = big snake, kohebi = baby snake) who would come to Echigo-Tsumari on the weekends when they didn’t have work and they would work together late into the night with the young Kohebi groups and teach them new skills. This is the true form of education. Lately we have supporters coming from overseas as well, for example, we have a group of 30 students coming from Hong Kong University for three weeks.
 Even for people whose feet are firmly planted in the locality, art opens up a window to the world and international consciousness is born naturally. That is an interesting aspect that comes into play when art is involved.

Your efforts with the vacated house and closed school projects have produced especially important results.
Now we are in an age when the focus is no longer on making new things. However, there are still many buildings that can useful in the true meaning of the word. It is a process of making use of existing things to produce new value. We also took advantage of the fact that the big 2004 earthquake left a lot of newly vacated homes in the area. When you seen an abandoned home it is truly like a light has gone out. And having a school closed down is even a more disheartening thing for a community. So I wondered if there wasn’t something we could do about them.
 With the Echigo-Tsumari festival, our artists focused particularly on “place” and made efforts to bring alive the temporal qualities of the places they worked with. Probably the most definitive of these works was the work led by Yoshio Kitayama for the 2000 festival using the old Kiyotsukyo Elementary School Tsuchikura Branch School. In this work Kitayama gave form to temporal involved in voices of children, their play and the feelings of the local people watching them. It was very clear to me that this was the kind of work the artists were doing at Echigo-Tsumari.
 For the 4th festival [this year] we have artists including Antony Gormley, Claude Leveque and Chiharu Shiota working hard on empty house projects. In the case of vacated houses like these they are still the private property of someone, so we can’t use public funds on them. We have to buy the properties in order to use them in our projects and then we have to get back our investment by finding someone sympathetic with our project who will buy the property. We are still looking for prospective owners for some houses. So, if anyone is interested, please contact us (laughs).
 For this year’s festival, it is the closed schools that are the most important focus of our program. We are going to renew all 13 of the remaining closed schools in the area. We still only have long-term projects begun for about half of them, but eventually we plan to get the assistance of the people in the local communities and revive all of these school facilities as permanent spaces.
 In the 2006 festival, Christian Boltanski teamed with Jean Kalman to create a permanent work using the old Higashikawa Elementary School, and this year new aspects will be added to it. Next year, as a project on the island of Teshima in the Seto Inland Sea, Boltanski will create a new project employing the sound of heartbeats that have been recorded all over the world, and his Higashikawa Elementary School site is one of the places that the heartbeats will be recorded. As other new developments this time, Seizo Tashima will work with the people of the Hachi community to create a “Museum of Picture Book Art” and there will be an installation by concert pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama using 10,000 pieces of silk clothing at the old Tobitari Daini Elementary School. Also, Tadashi Kawamata will create an archive of projects where art is used for community renewal/development called “Inter-local Art Network Center” at the old Shimizu Elementary School. There are also many universities involved in the Echigo-Tsumari festival, and this year Kyoto Seika University will be joining us for the first time with a long-term project dedicated to development of hill country village communities using the closed school at Karekimata.
 Also, there is a crisis right now confronting the Matsunoyama Branch School of the Niigata Prefectural Yasuzuka High School. If they don’t get a quota of 30 students registered to enter the school, it is going to be closed down permanently. There is no time to waste, it is a do or die situation. So, we got the idea that if we all registered to enter as high school students, we could support the school and keep it alive. It’s an interesting proposition, isn’t it? It would create a connection with the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial and our Kohebi and Oohebi members could all become high school students (laughs). We are now in the midst of concerted negotiations.
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