“It’s not really about me, it’s about how we can organise things” – Koki Tanaka, on his approach to Liverpool Biennial 2016
Liverpool Biennial opens to the public a month today, and we’re obviously pretty excited. If you’re lucky you’ll already have seen the first decorated Arriva bus driving along route 79. So Art in Liverpool are incredibly excited to bring you this interview with Biennial Artist, Koki Tanaka. Last Sunday he marched through the Liverpool, form St. George’s Hall to the Pier Head in response to a photographic project by Liverpool Based artist Dave Sinclair.
The project was a documentation of the 1985 Youth Training Scheme strikes, which involved thousands of children and their parents against the Thatcher Government’s scheme which saw children across the UK being put into placements as free labour. His response to the project looks at contemporary issues, including the Work Experience scheme that developed out of YTS in the 1980s.
We met at the Biennial Offices, and I wasn’t surprised to find them in a frantic way. Boxes of new work strewn across the office, and giant placards awaiting their marching orders from Koki piled up over meeting tables. Just to get into the building I had to step over a few cardboard boxes, and jump away from a reversing van. It’s only a festival as big as the Biennial that gets to call that organised, with very good reason.
With a clear head, and a thinly veiled giddiness, Koki Tanaka talked me through his reasons for working so intimately with the history of Liverpool, as well as his reasons for being a little wary.
In an interview with Akiko Miki, from 2006, you described how your work drifted from “how the exhibition is structured to the ordinary process of making of the work, to how the content is developed”. That was ten years ago now, is that still true?
Yeah, maybe. I don’t immediately remember what I said… but maybe I can say in this way: In 2007 I was somewhere more related to architects, and recently I’m curious about how people interact with each other in a way. And also, quite recently, I’m finding some references in history. Not only looking back at the history but at the same time trying to recall it in the present context.
In the same interview, you talked about editing. I thought that was really interesting, especially since the project now is based on historic facts, so there’s so much more information there already. How does that feed in to your work?
Yeah, I used to be an editor, so it was just one of those things. I used to be working as the editor at University Press, which puts the focus on – well it was art school, so it’s all focus. Not only contemporary art, but ancient art as well. What I learned from editorial experience was how an editor is kind of like a curator. You think about a theme or find the people to just meet and create something different or something like that. It’s all about the organising or coordinating things and I think all my practice is somehow related to that. It’s not about me expressing something, but instead of doing that, just finding something. In recent times, it’s more to find some historical facts and find something related to the present and try to connect them. And also organising the film crew and coordinating the people so it’s not really about me, it’s about how we can organise things.
What is it in particular about the 1985 children’s strike that caught your interest?
Maybe I should talk about the process of how I became involved in Liverpool Biennial. They invited me almost a year ago last summer, so then I checked their website and also some videos they had uploaded. I found the curatorial practice very interesting, because it’s quite different than any other Liverpool Biennial. They somehow focus on the community based projects, but usually those projects want to make it easy for the audience to understand things. But, when I read the idea from the curatorial team which was quite complicated – because they were focussing on the episodic structure, to find some sort of episode in Liverpool, like China town, ancient Greece. I like this kind of a contrast between a community based project and curatorial practice, which are usually not really connected to each other but at the same time I feel like: How can I do anything in Liverpool? I’ve never been here. Even so it seems really interesting just thinking about these two different contrasts.
So then I came over to Liverpool and the curatorial team were talking about these different episodes; about software; about children’s biennial; or things like that. So they were ideas, which all sound great, but it’s difficult for me connect these things. They also brought me to different spaces like Cains Brewery, or Granby Four Streets, or, of course, the Maritime Museum. So yeah, I was thinking, they have history, they have a current situation, but I was always thinking, it’s not really for me to relate, but Rosie the curator, told me about News From Nowhere. I was curious to visit some book shops, and she just mentioned that one. It’s kind of a leftie-radical book shop, and when I was browsing all the books I found the one corner dedicated to Local History. I found Dave Sinclair, the photographer, who has a photobook. There was two, one was the Dockers’ strike, and the other one is Liverpool in the 80s. All those books, when I look at the photographs, they all look at the images from depressed moments. In the UK there was the miners’ strike, and all sorts of problems, but when I finally found out about these students strikes, it was a totally different feeling, because all those kids were of course serious, but at the same time they were quite happy to do that, because it’s a day off.
Even the original participants told me it was like a carnivalistic moment. It was all joy. So then I somehow found out that that energy’s quite important for one to revisit. We need such an optimistic protest to look forward to, because we need to change the world, but we’re always too serious. All those school student striking, they of course cared about the future, but the future is unknown, so they don’t really have a fixed image of the future, which I think is important to revisit. So that’s one of the reasons why I’m really curious to do this project.
Looking back at the history of the 1985 strikes, what do you think the big impact of the strike was?
As you know, it was about the Youth Training Scheme, which close to the work experience scheme right now. Sort of like an internship. Sort of like cheap labour in a way, so the company or factory, wherever they can get the kids as internships to work. Of course maybe some of them had a good experience, working for a good company or factory or whatever, but I heard some of them just go there and spend some time, and after that, they didn’t get any job. Which was kind of a very scary model of the future, where you just go there and work, and don’t get paid. They just don’t want to see the future. I think that had a huge impact, to not go that kind of direction.
What are you expecting your project for the Biennial to do?
It’s not only about the nostalgic recreation of the original strike, its more about the current situation and also the future, so I’m looking to find the original participants, but at the same time I wanted to bring their kids. So they might be at that age where they participated in the original strike, and also inviting current school students and university students to join the march. We’re not really sure how many people can participate, but even if it’s not big, there is no main target for this protest recreation. At the same time if people gather in maybe 1500, or maybe 1000 then it becomes a real protest.
I’m going to extract original sentences from the placards in ’85, those are from the photographs, but I didn’t take any specific things because in the original placards they’re against the YTS or against Thatcher, but those things don’t exist anymore. So instead of using those specific terms I just used sort of a general, or even ambiguous terms for the march.
On your website you talk about breakfast almost as a metaphor for understanding life, so what metaphor is there for the coming Biennial strikes?
The recreation of the historical fact is already a popular methodology for contemporary art, after Jeremy Deller did The Battle of Orgreave in 2001, many artists somehow became interested in the recreation of historical fact. But, I mean, it’s still a relevant method, and it could be a sort of metaphor of our time. We were always facing the present moment and we are always thinking we cannot change the world and it’s kind of like we are facing so many really complex worlds. It’s really complicated to do but, once you are looking back to the past you can, or someone can, experience the feeling of revolution. When looking back, the past is always behind the present moment, so all the past is somehow fragmented but related to the present. I think the recreation or the historical moment is a reconstruction of the present.
Have you had a chance to speak to any of the original participants yet?
Yeah, Rachel. She’s not really the leader, but everybody remembers her. She did a speech for the TV, and they got the full interview first, and everybody thought she was reading a script or a text or something, but she was just really good at talking about what they were doing. Of course it was not scripted. Even when I was meeting with a couple of the participants, or the original photographer of the march, they would all mention her. Yesterday I met another original participant. But not in Liverpool, she was form the midlands, she also remembers Rachel, but she didn’t remember her name. She remembers the same episode, and it all related to her talk.
Have you met any of the original participants’ children yet?
Actually, I’m going to organise an interview with the original participants, and also with students at the Studio School [Greenland Street, Liverpool] and it is by chance, but one person who agreed to do it as an interview told his mother about this project, and his mother was an original participant, so both of them are coming to the march now.
This is all going to be one film in the end, yes? What’s the aim of the film?
I think the film, the documentation, is the only way we can have a different time, and a different place. It could be just a live event or something, but a live event is only for the person who participates, or the person who sees, so it could be a one hour event, but one hour is quite a short time for all of us to just forget, but it’s actually quite important. Through Dave’s photographs we can see what’s happening, so the filming and documentation is important to the audience to understand what was happening.
Other than your film, what else are you exciting about during Liverpool biennial 2016?
Actually yeah, they are going to show the art work by all the artists, but made in their childhood, so I just gave them this strange drawing form my childhood, but there is no connection between that and practice right now. And I’m having a show soon in a show room in London so if people want to see my other work they can go to showroom.
Koki’s current exhibition is on display at The Showroom, London on June 8th http://www.theshowroom.org/events/koki-tanaka-night-market-revisited-from-19th-century-to-take-a-stand
His work in Liverpool will be on display at Open Eye Gallery between July and October 2016, as the result of this project.