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Waiting for Diogenes

Yoi Kawakubo

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Yoi Kawakubo, Waiting for Diogenes (still), 2020.

Artist Cinemas presents Waiting for Diogenes
Yoi Kawakubo
2020

74 Minutes

Artist Cinemas
Week #2

Date
April 26–May 2, 2021

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Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Yoi Kawakubo’s Waiting for Diogenes (2020), on view from Monday, April 26 through Sunday, May 2, 2021.

An artist embarks on a research project to raise and live with an octopus as a partner for a year, by way of exploring the body-mind relationship and the political and social implications of alternative modes of consciousness. As the project develops, it takes an unsuspected turn when a global pandemic engulfs the world and most art projects are forced to stop. Unwillingly, the project evolves into research about a different matter.

The film is presented here alongside an interview with Yoi Kawakubo conducted by Julian Ross.

Waiting for Diogenes is the second installment of Faraway, So Close, a program of films and interviews convened by Koki Tanaka, and comprising the sixth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

Faraway, So Close will run from April 19 through May 31, 2021, screening a new film each week accompanied by an interview with the filmmaker(s) conducted by invited guests.

Yoi Kawakubo in conversation with Julian Ross

Julian Ross (JR):
Could you frame Waiting for Diogenes (2020) within your broader artistic practice? I am aware it’s part of a tetralogy that includes your other recent video work. In some ways, this echoes the subject of your film—the octopus—where your various projects can be seen as tentacles that are connected to each other but also scattered, much like the dispersed neurons of an octopus.

Yoi Kawakubo (YK):
My artistic practice began with a focus on photography and, after a few artist residencies, evolved into a clatter of sound installations, neon texts, performances, architectural interventions, perfume, and found objects. But I hadn’t explored filmmaking until recently. When I began experimenting with film some years ago, it began as an extension of my performance work, as documentation, and so it made a lot of sense for me to start with a focus on my body and physical existence. For this film tetralogy, I began outlining my ideas and recurring motifs in the form of a mind map, and I realized that it might be interesting to focus on several themes at the same time with a different structural premise for each one, all centered around the axis of the personal, but also universal, question of identity. I borrowed the structural framework of “three tragedies, one comedy” from ancient Greek drama to develop the material. This work, Waiting for Diogenes, was meant to be the last and therefore comic part, where I become friends with an octopus. But because of the series of unexpected and uncontrollable events that the COVID-19 pandemic brought about, it became more of a failed tragicomedy.

JR:
While the subject of failure appears to slowly creep into the film as a possibility, and arguably, a reality, I have a feeling it was present from the outset and that in some ways you were prepared for it. Here, I’m referring to your proposed project of living with an octopus for a year in order to better understand this sentient being, said to be the most alien on earth. Are we, humans, capable of letting go of being human? Could we ever become octopus?

YK:
In the early stages of this work, I was trying to focus on the neuropsychological and philosophical aspects of humans through finding the octopus-ness in us. But at that time I was also reading some books about Sufism and Zen, and became very interested in what the Andalusian Muslim scholar Ibn al-Arabi points to as “reenacting the Elias-Idris experience” that appears in the Old Testament. It involves becoming an animal, or “descending the ladder” of cognition in order to reach a higher plane of consciousness. This kind of paradox is very common in Zen practice: to break the limits of logical thinking in order to explain the unexplainable or to speak the unspeakable. As you interestingly commented, perhaps the project was doomed from its very inception. Had I succeeded in completely understanding the octopus, I would not have been able to return to humanness and probably this work would have never been finished.

JR:
The subject of the octopus reminded me of Wrong Revision (2018) by another Japanese contemporary artist, Yu Araki, from a few years ago. In this work, he refers to Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short story The Devil and Tobacco (1916) that suggests “the devil” was introduced into Japan by the Roman Catholic missionary St. Xavier in 1549, where the devil transformed himself into an octopus to oppress Japanese Christians in the seventeenth century. Seeing as you grew up in Spain, and some of your other work engages with how ideas and stories travel, I was wondering if this iteration of the octopus—as the devil—figured in your work in any way.

YK:
In my case I don’t think the octopus had any particular symbolism for me, but I felt an affinity towards it. I have a highly ADHD type of mind and, in some ways because of this, I have been meandering through different careers as a researcher in neuropsychology, a house husband, a financial trader, a commercial photographer, and finally, an artist. So it might be that this attraction to morphing might be what awakened my inner octopusness. You, too, have a mixed cultural background and ended up settling in a country that is neither your birthplace nor your parents’ place of origin. Perhaps this ambiguity in one’s own origins might be the seed for this whole series of reflections on identity, history, and disparate stories.

JR:
I’m half-Japanese and half-British and grew up in both countries, but now live in the Netherlands. A question people often ask me is, “What language do you dream in?” It’s a question I still struggle to answer: it’s not that I’m Japanese one day and British the other. This language disarray, or proliferation of words, comes across in your play on subtitling in the film, where you don’t stick to a strict format. You present them in such a way that the viewer can’t help but notice this disarray and recognize its existence. You speak Japanese at times, Spanish at other times, and subtitles appear in Japanese and English at different moments and different speeds.

YK:
In my case, I was born and raised in Spain, studied and worked in Japan, and now live in the UK. In fact, “What language do you dream in?” is a question I, too, am frequently asked. Speaking of dreams, if you search the words “octopus dreaming” on the internet, you can find amazing footage of octopuses sleeping and dreaming. It’s an absorbing sight to see how the color of the cephalopod’s skin rapidly and constantly changes, responding to whatever it is dreaming.

Your question reminds me of this psychology experiment where subjects were asked to hold a pencil in their mouths: some were asked to hold the pencil with their teeth, while others were asked to hold it between their lips, without letting the pencil touch their teeth. Technically, the former group were being asked to smile while the latter group were being asked to pout. In this experiment, those who were “smiling” reported feeling happier than the other group. Interestingly, not only does the feeling of happiness make us smile but the physical act of smiling also makes us happy—it’s reciprocal.

In the same manner, through the irritating experience of not being able to find the exact translation of an expression, or through the mind-opening experience of finding an expansion of the universe in a new translation of a particular word, I reached the conclusion that form is part of the content and that meaning can’t necessarily be extracted entirely from its form. So when I added subtitles, I chose a form that is impossible to ignore in order to counter what is usually not meant to be noticed, at least in a visual sense.

JR:
I was struck by your reminder in the film that the Olympic Games are a marker of time, as much as of success. In light of the pandemic that has disrupted many things that were expected to happen—including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed to 2021 and might be postponed yet again—could you reflect on these markers of time we hold onto? Speaking for myself at least, it’s been a tough year trying to juggle responsibilities when time seemed to be against me. Things appeared to go by slowly, yet it felt like I spent most of the past year scrambling to catch up. The sense of inevitability and guilt that you share regarding the situation surrounding your work is something that I deeply connected to, as I’m sure others have done and will do.

YK:
Yes, the pandemic and the circumstances it brought about have made it a tough year for everybody. When I first started discussing the project with Raqs Media Collective, the artistic directors of the Yokohama Triennale 2020 where I presented the work, our focus was more on shedding a critical light on the Olympic Games—exploring how the event is based on a capitalistic notion of success, and how cities (in this case, Tokyo) are an urban form of the power-focused social hierarchy. But a few months after I began developing the project, the new coronavirus began spreading globally, causing difficulties for all the projects. In this situation, where everybody was facing overwhelming frustration, this obsession towards being productive, creative, and finally, successful made many of us miserable. This fear of failure, of not being “higher, faster, stronger” as the Olympic motto states, became our “dog cage” (whatever that might mean), constantly undermining our nerves. Joan Didion wrote in the book Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968),“Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect.” Perhaps this pandemic has brought us a rare opportunity to experience failure and accept it. By accepting each of our traits, failed dreams, and by recognizing our existence as singular and irreplaceable, we can perhaps reach a reconciliation between our present self and our idealized self.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Category
Film, Language & Linguistics
Subject
Health & Disease, Video Art, Japan, Animals, Human - Nonhuman Relations, Humor & Comedy, Failure
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