Three years have passed since the onset of the pandemic. It seems that we are finally moving to the phase after the “age without touch” that limited travel and contact. Borders and places for gathering have gradually reopened. People have started to travel and be in contact with each other again, and the clocks that were forcibly synced to pandemic time seem to slowly be ticking at their own pace. At the same time, we have seen an increase in global-scale anxieties such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent energy crisis and inflation; the question of how to survive amid uncertainty increases in urgency every day.
How do we touch each other in an “age without touch”? We have imposed forceful management measures and limitations to control the uncontrollable––an invisible virus. How can the arts overcome these hurdles to expand the contact zone between other people and places? How can it create organic interactions between that which is divided by physical distance? For the past three years, many of us in the arts have grappled with this proposition. Of course, Theater Commons Tokyo is no exception.
The word “theater” derives from the Ancient Greek “theatron,” meaning a “place to see,” which shows how theater has always been an art form meant for viewing. In addition, the Latin-derived “auditorium” stems from the same root as “audition,” auditory; it refers to a “place to listen.” In other words, the theater is a space to “see” and “listen,” undoubtedly a site where one’s vision and hearing is prioritized. That is, the discussion of touch within this context has, with the exception of a few examples, historically and theoretically remained non-existent.
However, experiencing the era of no-contact triggered by the pandemic, I feel the necessity of repositioning the potentiality of touch within theatrical practices. The goal, however, is not some humble self-affirmation, arguing that the true joy of the performing arts lies in a sense of “unity between the performers and the audience,” or “liveness,” framed by physical touch. Rather, it is based on a strategic intent to develop ways of coming into contact again with other people and places amidst the paradox of attempting to touch in an “age without touch.” I would like to use the phrase “rebooting touch” as a positive declaration. To go as far as to “reboot” touch––a sense that is extremely subjective––is not an attempt experienced solely by the hand, skin, or mind that perceives it. To come into contact with the pain of others, history, memory, future lives and existences, or to use imaginary touch by way of the latest digital technology––in these instances, we must freely expand our sense of touch and radically update our existing physical senses. This connects to empathizing with other people and places. By incorporating its potentiality into artistic practices, might we be able to open a new door towards tactile dramaturgy?
For this year’s Theater Commons Tokyo, four artists respond to this question through different approaches and methods to develop a tactile dramaturgy.
For the past five years, Meiro Koizumi has been working on creating performances that utilize AR and VR technology. This year, he presents the culmination of his explorations with the final chapter of the Prometheus trilogy, Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, following the VR theater piece Prometheus Bound (2019) and the VR sculpture Prometheus Unbound (2021). The myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the heavens and bestowed it upon humanity, symbolizes the tension between humans and technology. When the bodies and knowledge of the human race are actually altered by genetic engineering, what kind of pain or pleasure will the “new human” feel, and how will they reconstruct their relationship with nature and the universe? Using this query as a departure point for exploration, Koizumi creates a neo-futuristic mythology that can only be experienced through the world of VR. Specifically, he uses a method that directly works upon the VR participant’s hand and sense of touch, destabilizing human perception.
Saeborg is an artist who creates and performs in her self-made latex bodysuits that serve as an extension of her skin. In this new work commissioned by Theater Commons Tokyo and the World Theater Festival (Theater der Welt), Saeborg produces a metaverse space in which her signature animals live in symbiosis. The “Soultopia” is accessible from anywhere in the world, a space where anyone can freely transform/mutate into livestock and vermin, or even microbes and plants, and frolic together under non-human rules. By intentionally choosing the digital world of the metaverse as a play space, what kind of tactical communication will Saeborg generate?
Filmmaker and artist Yuko Nakamura explores unique expressions using both film and text that tangibly capture subtle movements. For this year’s Theater Commons Tokyo, she shares a workshop with participants using the cine-essay method to explore the idea of a gentle gaze and touch that illuminates the untouchable. The cine-essay, in which one creates film as if writing prose, does not require specialized techniques; it comprises a set of methods that allows one to document the contours and textures of everyday images. By passing on cine-essay methods to the younger generation that are living through the pandemic and channeling their gaze and touch, Nakamura revisits the suspended sensations of the pandemic.
How can we come into contact with the accumulated histories and memories of the cities that we inhabit? Tomoko Sato has been consistently grappling with this question by tracing history and the city on her own body and creating lecture performances. For this year, she attempts to access unknown histories/narratives by touching on the documents of the Sogetsu Art Center (1958-71), where numerous historical performances by the likes of Yoko Ono and John Cage took place. Through Sato’s body as a live performer/narrator, these documentations will surely create new ruptures where they meet history.
For this year’s Theater Commons Tokyo, in anticipation of Theater der Welt 2023 (held from the end of June to July 2023 in Frankfurt and Offenbach in Germany and for which I serve as Program Director), we will hold forums based on three overlapping themes. The curatorial concept for Theater der Welt originally developed from the theme of Theater Commons Tokyo ’21, “Bodies in Incubation,” and multiple works and projects that were envisioned during the pandemic in Japan will be presented in Germany. We hope to deepen discussions with artists that will be presenting works in both locations under a perspective that connects the practices in Tokyo and the challenges in Germany, making theoretical preparations for the presentation six months ahead.
Theater Commons Tokyo has fast approached its seventh year. Since its inception in 2017, it has operated as a Tokyo-based, sustainable, and independently run project model. Every year we start from point zero and fundraise across public, private, and foreign cultural institutions to consistently, at times unsteadily, continue our project. Out of the seven years, over half of them––2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023––have been held under the pandemic. In that sense, we could say that, whilst affected by the pandemic, Theater Commons Tokyo gained new ideas and resilience through this adversity and continued to evolve. As we gradually reboot our sense of touch and perception through the pandemic, how will the “commons” continue to expand? This year’s Theater Commons Tokyo will also remain variable and temporary, quietly taking place in Tokyo after the trauma of the pandemic and the empty festivities. We hope you will join us from wherever you can.
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, and the Curator of Aichi Triennale 2022. She was appointed as the Program Director of Theater der Welt 2023 in Germany.