Tokyo’s Artist Run Spaces Part 1: XYZ

The first in a series of profiles of Tokyo’s alternative art venues.

In Features by Emma Ota 2014-05-26

XYZ co-director COBRA

Artist run space. This term has become synonymous with cutting edge experimental art which reaches beyond the confines of institutions and commercial systems, and has been seen as the life blood of any healthy art scene particularly in Europe, America and Australia. Emerging from the model of the shared studio and artistic movements which gathered in the 19th century, artists mobilizing themselves to promote their particular form of expression and establish a set artistic identity beyond the control of the gallery system, the roots of this phenomenon may perhaps be traced to the exhibitions of art societies such as Société des Artistes Indépendants and the various Munich, Vienna and Berlin secessions. The artist collective can also be observed in Japanese art history with the 1898 formation of the Nihon Bijutsu-in and post war favorites such as Jikken Kobo, Gutai and the artist organized “Independent ’64”. But looking internationally the actual establishment of artist run art spaces seems to have come to fruition from the 1950s onwards, with Chicago’s Contemporary Art Workshop seen as a pioneer in the field, and it has since developed into a global trend where often the next step for young artists recently graduating from art school is to find an old warehouse and turn it into studio and exhibition space. And this has come to form a model which has now been recognized for its economic value in revitalizing the culture of a run down part of town and has gone as far as becoming a method exploited by city governments and corporations in pushes towards gentrification.

So how is this playing out in Tokyo? With such a plethora of art schools and artists surely there is a thriving artist run space movement? We would like to think so but this presence is not immediately visible and we have to scratch the surface a little deeper to find the rousing initiatives being led by artists in the city. While artistic presence is being harnessed in areas of Kanda as part of corporate redevelopment plans and the examples of Central East Tokyo, Sumida and Katsushika wards indicate how the gathering of artists might help revive areas suffering from rapid aging and depopulation, it still seems the concrete presence of artist run spaces has yet to make itself felt. This series of articles hopes to uncover the diverging practices of artist run spaces across Tokyo, highlight their various contributions to the wider art scene and examine their contextualization within the economic and social context of contemporary Japan. We kick off the series with an interview with XYZ Collective’s exuberant director COBRA.

“Hey, this is just my hobby,” is the greeting I am met with as I arrive at XYZ as co-director and artist COBRA is trying out some posters in the gallery space, perhaps setting the scene for a certain spontaneous sensibility towards this artist run space. Consisting of a generously large gallery space, record shop, artist studio, residence and project space, XYZ is a hub for young artists and creatives which has been making waves since its opening in 2011. Based in a warehouse building 20 minutes from the nearest station in Setagaya ward, it is not the most accessible of art spaces but each event continues to draw an impressive audience and has placed XYZ firmly on the art map.

The beginnings of XYZ took their root when in 2010 COBRA joined the artist in residence program in Melbourne, Australia through the support of Tokyo Wonder Site and here he became a regular visitor to the various artist run spaces which have built up a strong presence in the city. “It was the first time for me to encounter artist run spaces and they seemed really fun places for people to gather. There would be a BBQ going on in the garden, an exhibition in the gallery, someone DJ-ing on the balcony, it was like a small festival each time,” COBRA commented of his experience. And it was this encounter which inspired COBRA to gather together with other artists and establish XYZ.

Opening night at XYZ

But what is XYZ collective? Is it a place? Is it a group? Is it a concept? COBRA explains that it can really not be defined by any of the above, it is more a relationship of collaboration. Consisting of 4 directors the collective is not a fixed body as such but a process of cooperation in which the directors take it in turns to pursue the lead while others lend a hand to realize their projects. Their activities center on the production of lively exhibitions and events, aiming to present high quality engaging works which will grasp the audience’s attention. With titles like “Imprisoned, Jailbreak”, “Pandemoniumu” and “Ménage à Trois” the exhibitions of XYZ suggest a certain raucousness and anarchy but the curation is carefully considered and features leading artists from some of Tokyo’s top galleries including Ota Fine Arts, Tomio Koyma Gallery, Misako & Rosen and Aikowada gallery, reflecting a particular mix of wildness and energy with a strong discerning eye of professionalism.

“We don’t really work together as a group,” COBRA says, “if we tried to curate something as an equal team then it just wouldn’t work, it would probably end in an argument,” he admits candidly. Each director holds their own stance, drawing on a different skill set and COBRA avoids talking for them as an overall representative but emphasizes his own personal perspective which may differ from that of the other directors. Having said this COBRA works very closely with Soshiro Matsubara who has taken a lead in curation of the exhibition programs, with the two both having studied at the same time at Tama Art University and working together as part of the artist unit MIHOKANNO, such affinities have formed a shared vocabulary and a particular intuition between themselves. The other two directors help to expand and diversify this relationship with artist/photographer Futoshi Miyagi adding his own poetic wit and designer and promotion specialist Madoka Hattori acting as PR manager and connecting what is happening inside XYZ with the outside world. With such a wide set of experience and talents among the directors COBRA jokes, “Yeah, I’m probably the most disorganized of all you know!”

COBRA himself is an artist in high demand, represented by Talion Gallery and enjoying a string of solo and group exhibitions around Japan and internationally. He is an artist of an extremely playful persona whose installations and video works become stagings of absurd narratives which dissect the very construction of fiction. COBRA is an art work in himself, a creation and presence which are enacted within the art scene. He is an artist always taking the lead role, embodying an array of characters, and whether in act or not he states “I made this space for me, I wanted to go to the US so I thought this would be a good way of building up my name in some way, I have no interest in local community or helping other artists.” This is no philanthropic initiative then, and certainly dismisses the usual associations of artist run spaces and community development programs. COBRA does not have time to waste with such considerations and drives directly towards a straight artistic practice. But as an artist with such a busy schedule isn’t it rather a burden to run an art space? When asked where the line exists between his personal practice and the work of XYZ, COBRA explains he doesn’t place them in separate pigeon holes and they naturally overlap and become difficult to divide, as a creative process this is a productive relationship. Perhaps his approach may be in keeping with the anticipation of the artist run space “where art, production, life and the pursuit of currency meld together into one endeavor.” (1) But in any case both artist and curator have elements of “office work” which can be tiresome and get in the way of art-making, he admits.

Seeing the space as a steppingstone to international engagement COBRA and the other directors took the decision to create their website almost entirely in English. “I want to get rid of the distinction between Japan and the rest of the world, we’re not making an exhibition just for a Japanese audience, we’re looking at an international stage.” This is a refreshing sentiment, especially in contrast with a rather internalized art scene which may sometimes be observed in the city. But for someone who admits they have no command of the English language it also seems to pose quite a challenge, yet something must be working as XYZ already have two curated shows lined up in the US for this year and have already joined in a number of collaborations with Australian and New Zealand art organizations.

Many artists have the dream of creating their own creative space outside the pressures of the commercial system and with a flexibility to experiment and challenge towards new directions but often the biggest squeeze is how to fund such an initiative. XYZ works on a model popular amongst art organizations in Tokyo based on a tenant system. Renting out at a reasonable rate XYZ provide space for young artists in the form of rental studios while also leasing to the record shop PAXrecords. What is of particular note is that XYZ also leases its space to a commercial gallery SNOW Contemporary which appears to reverse the tables on the established art hierarchy. SNOW Contemporary rent the gallery space for fixed periods each year to present the work of gallery artists and curated exhibitions. When asked about the relationship between XYZ and SNOW Contemporary, COBRA is very clear cut; “We are not in collaboration, I am the landlord, they are the tenant.” Perhaps this is a rather dispassionate way of putting things but it clearly reflects the empowerment of artists who have historically been slave to rental and commercial galleries, and points to a new set of relations made possible through artist run spaces.

Furthermore, counter to the non-profit image of artist run spaces, XYZ is also keen to sell the work featured in exhibitions and has also begun to actively promote its work in national and international art fairs, showing no aversion to the art market and recognizing this as an important means of supporting artistic practices. Having said this COBRA asserts that this initiative itself is not about making money, and all the directors work without a regular fee, fearing if they turned it into a full blown business then the actual creative process would be lost and more tensions created.

Another important aspect of XYZ is its residence program. This is essential to its international vision and an important means of widening its global presence and exchange. It also forms part of the business model of XYZ by bringing in an income from visiting artists. It is interesting to note that such AIR are becoming increasingly prevalent in Japan, a presence highlighted by such initiatives as Move Arts Japan (http://movearts.jp/) and the Microresidence Network (http://www.microresidence.net/), of which XYZ is a member. To date, XYZ has welcomed artists from countries including Sweden, Australia and the US, successfully building ongoing dialogues with many of the participants which it is hoped will lead onto new projects and collaborations. The residence encourages a new wind of ideas and stimulations which benefit both XYZ associates and the residence artists alike, whilst also feeding into the increasingly international face of the city on a one to one basis.

Artist run spaces are commonly drawn under the title of “alternative art spaces” and posited in opposition to commercial galleries and institutions like art museums. Yet COBRA asserts that XYZ is not a countermovement to the mainstream and does not exist due to a perception of a particular gap in the art scene which it aims to fill, rather it is adding their own unique voices to the already diverse landscape of the Tokyo/international art scene. And in this manner it is not a distinctly critical approach built on historic reference to artist run spaces, which COBRA admits he has not researched outside his experiences in Australia. This is perhaps a testament to the independence and single mindedness of XYZ motivated by a passion to show exciting art work which reaches beyond simple catergorization. This is not fringe culture and is not to be satisfied with the confines of the margins.

With the cutting edge exhibitions and events held in the main gallery it would seem XYZ enjoys a free reign upon its programs of choice, but COBRA comments that already this is becoming a pressure to one up on the latest show, with this anticipation becoming a restriction in some way and searching for an even more experimental format he is just launching a project space within XYZ, Steak House Doksoi, with his partner Yui Yaegashi. Based in the kitchen, it is a space for “cooking up new recipes” with spontaneity and fun at its core. COBRA is clearly seeking always to push things that little bit further and maintain a raw energy which is not to be decelerated by too many contrivances.

When asked about the future vision of XYZ COBRA stresses that sustainability is important but also the ability to move. And looking at XYZs series of initiatives, one after the other, its seems COBRA and his colleagues can’t afford to sit still. As previously observed XYZ is not about physical space or local relations, it is about a platform for the latest shoots in contemporary art which are not to be defined or restricted to place in any way. In the age of connectivity and mobile technology, mobility is increasingly essential for artists, curators and organizers alike and in this way art spaces may become further detached from physical spaces and become more about a set of relations and ideas. And so, after 3 years since its inauguration what has been XYZ’s biggest success? COBRA graciously points out that the next thing is always the best and if you don’t keep that mentality then there is no point in carrying on.

XYZ Collective is a space which challenges our preconceived notions of the “artist run” and takes its own unique way which straddles different models without contradiction. It is a space that perhaps proves that it is still possible to create a stir through contents and personality rather than PR ploys. Working outside the frame of the usual politics of artist run spaces XYZ focuses its energy upon creating lively exhibitions of engaging work, promoting the careers of its members and joining an international network with a certain pragmatism which refuses to be pinned down by utopian associations. XYZ is an initiative which attests to the ability of artists to create their own spaces beyond the expected formula and we can only look forward to their next move!

(1) Applied Aesthetic Index – Artist Run Spaces of the Future – Research Paper 2012
An informative paper on the models of artist run spaces and case studies from the USA/Canada (http://www.applied-aesthetics.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/artistrunspaceofthefuture_lores.pdf)

Emma Ota

Emma Ota. First coming to Japan with the ambition of decoding the blackbox of Japanese media art, Emma soon realized there was more to life than programming and GPS and started out on an ongoing art adventure around South East Asia. Between flitting from one country to the next she has found time to work with various Tokyo based galleries and art centers, with a keen interest in alternative and artist run spaces, as well as running the art project Dislocate. www.dis-locate.net » See other writings

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