To Our Shaking Worlds
The ground is shaking.
It’s the energy of the earth; it’s the destructive energy of dropping bombs. And at every moment, somebody stands upon this ground, shaking. They are shaking from cold, shaking from hunger. They are shaking in anger, they are shaking in grief, they are shaking from all the indescribable feelings bottled up inside. Life itself is shaking.
According to a report by UNHCR, the number of refugees and people forcibly displaced worldwide surpassed 100 million for the first time in history at the end of 2022. This is a shocking statistic: one in 74 people, or 1% of the global population, has been forced to leave their homelands. Looking back at these first two decades of the 21st century alone, we find countless conflicts, persecutions, and disasters around the world. The war in Afghanistan; conflicts in Syria, Somalia, and Yemen; the Myanmar civil war; the Russian invasion of Ukraine; the Israeli military’s invasion of Gaza, Palestine. Even in Japan, many continue to live in shelters after relentless natural disasters, including the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent Fukushima nuclear accident, as well as the most recent and pressing Noto Peninsula Earthquake.
Above all, the Israeli military’s invasion of Gaza, triggered by Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, has resulted in the deaths of nearly 30,000 civilians and children, with tens of times more injured, without family members and homes, forcibly displaced, and barely surviving in refugee conditions. International law is deemed useless, and while demonstrations and protests have erupted globally, they have been unable to stop the structural violence, in which neighboring countries have now also been embroiled. Amid this extreme tension, the world is tearing apart everywhere, inflamed and shaking in severe pain.
In Japan, numerous natural disasters have been literally rattling the country’s ground, leaving us without reprieve to heal from the aftereffects of the pandemic that continued from 2020-2023. While hollow, large-scale projects from the Olympics to the World Expo plow ahead as if there were no state of emergency, we are lost in a limbo, thrown into a visionless era of crisis.
It is virtually meaningless to pat ourselves on the back by asking what art can do in the face of unstoppable structural violence and catastrophe. However, we can still harness the wisdom (commons) of theater (spaces) to continue opening imagination’s door for these realities, while also realistically accepting the fact that we are at a loss. From ancient times, the theater has provided windows into different times, places, and livelihoods through the fictions that have unfolded on stage. Despite being fiction—or precisely because of it—these stories have allowed people to see their own realities in the tragedies of strangers set in distant places, long ago. They have been able to analyze and empathize with them. If all we can do now may be to helplessly imagine other places and people, we must continue to open this door, solely relying upon the power of imagination that theater (spaces) have accumulated as collective wisdom.
I served as Program Director for Theater der Welt 2023, held in Frankfurt and Offenbach, Germany from June 29 to July 18, 2023. This year’s Theater Commons Tokyo program centers on works that were created for this festival or presented there. I planned the program based on a simple desire to share these highlights with audiences in Japan. After October 7, 2023, however, the festival’s vision—“pluralizing the world”—took on a completely different meaning. While a slew of controversies at 2022’s Documenta 15 had already thrown into sharp relief the potential impact of feared antisemitism, since October 7, many artists and cultural figures in Germany have faced career penalties for criticizing Israel. In turn, they have accelerated movements to boycott public cultural institutions and art festivals in Germany, leading to a dire situation. In retrospect, below the surface of these festivals—which aimed to generate plural worlds, disrupting Western-centric views of the world as well as history—similar contentions had already been causing deep internal fissures.
For this year’s Theater Commons Tokyo, we invite you to leap into the respective worlds of five artists, as a way of continuing to open imagination’s door amid an increasingly unpredictable and chaotic world that has entered an era of deeper division since the pandemic.
In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s A Conversation with the Sun (VR) we seem to dive into a cave, or the furthest reaches of a vacuum, with bodies and perceptions augmented by VR technology. Cinematic poetry that transcends words, ripples created by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music, light particles that float in space––there, our sense of time shifts, and a series of singular occurrences that could be described as both dreams and near-death experiences invite us to another world.
On the other hand, fiction itself, which humans have created since times long past, can inspire imagination’s door today. Satoko Ichihara draws from the legend of the Blind Weakling (Shuntokumaru), an ancient tale in Japan, and creates a contemporary puppet show that incorporates the Bunraku format while reinterpreting the narrative’s structure and tragedy in today’s context. Through a queer lens, she fundamentally reinterprets the tragic motifs of the original story, including child abandonment, discrimination against the ill, parent-child strife, and redemption, carrying audience members away to a truer state beyond good and evil.
Uzbeki artist and filmmaker Saodat Ismailova creates parallel worlds from Central Asian myths, folklore, and rituals, as well as found footage from the past. The deserts and ancient ruins of the Silk Road, the cities and people of past and present Islamic worlds, buildings erected in the Soviet era, animals—here, the boundaries between reality and parallel worlds blur and collective memories emerge and vanish, inviting viewers to an astounding level of cinematic beauty.
Nastaran Razawi Khorasani, who emigrated to the Netherlands from Iran as a child, created the solo performance Songs for no one based on phone calls with children who live in her home country. The invisible children on the other end of the call appear on stage just through their voices, connecting our imagination to daily life in Iran. Relentlessly harnessing the power of imagination amid restricted freedom, the voices of the children and the artist’s vocal performance will surely empower people towards liberation.
Minouk Lim, one of Korea’s leading artists, will present a tour performance on a yakatabune (a traditional Japanese leisure boat) on the Sumida River and Tokyo Bay, and a simultaneous corresponding exhibition. Participants’ bodily sensations and perceptions of boundaries will surely be rearranged through the interplay of music, audio guides, and riverside happenings.
In addition, we will delve into these artists’ artistic practices as well as their ideas and the worldviews that inform them through three forums. In Commons Forum #1, we invite two artists who have roots in Islamic countries to discuss artistic approaches in relation to people made invisible in the past as well as the present, while taking into account the current state of the world. In Commons Forum #2, we hope to deepen our understanding of the relationship between gender and performance as well as society and performativity, bridging the gap between the latest creative practices and theories. In Commons Forum #3, we approach the philosophical and scientific question of “What is reality?” through a conversation between Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose VR work is included in the program, and neuroscientist Naotaka Fujii.
For this year, we also prioritize conversations and connections that come from gathering and sharing time and space, making up for lost opportunities during the three years of the pandemic. As a new endeavor, we will offer the “Commons Tour,” a tour in which participants collectively experience the festival’s performances and artist talks. In addition, the tour will provide an opportunity to actively enjoy Theater Commons Tokyo in a range of other ways, including conversations with the guides and fellow tour-goers before and after the performances, as well as photo ops. We hope you will join us in this program.
To be honest, I am struggling to organize my thoughts and feeling resistant to doing so, no matter what I write here now in mid-January 2024. In a world where people’s lives tremble in fear and the earth shakes, we stand in a daze, at a loss what to do. What will the world look like in two months, when Theater Commons Tokyo opens? In a world that is far too unpredictable, this year’s Theater Commons Tokyo emerges as a humble common land that, despite the situation, continues to open imagination’s door. All I can promise right now is that I will keep that door open.
Before establishing Arts Commons Tokyo in 2014, Soma was the inaugural Program Director of Festival/Tokyo, where she served from spring 2009 to 2013. She has produced or curated global projects that transect categories of theater, contemporary art, and community-engaged art. She was the recipient of the Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France’s Minister of Culture in 2015. Since 2017, she has served as the Chairperson of the Theater Commons Tokyo Executive Committee, as well as its Director. She was the Curator for the Aichi Triennale 2019. She is the recipient of Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs’ 71st Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology’s Art Encouragement Prize in 2021. Since 2021, she has been the General Producer of Toyooka Theater Festival 2021, the Curator of Aichi Triennale 2022, and the Program Director of Theater der Welt 2023 in Germany.