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Performance art’s expatriate players push the envelope

Foreigners making their mark on stage, behind the scenes at events from Kanto, Kansai to Kyushu

by Peter Sidell

Exotic dancing. Nonsensical poetry. Harsh electronic noise. Doughnuts. These are just some of the manifold sights and sounds you’ll find on the bill at Paint Your Teeth, a bimonthly performance art event in Tokyo.

“PYT is billed as ‘a celebration of experimental music, literature and dance,’ ” explains organizer David Hoenigman. “I like the acts to be experimental in some fashion, so experimental writing or experimental music. I like acts that are visually dynamic — crazy costumes and whatnot, the more bizarre the better.”

Now approaching its “terrible twos,” Hoenigman’s brainchild was originally conceived of as a bit of fun.

“I started Paint Your Teeth in January 2009. I wanted to connect with people, I wanted to have some fun,” explains Hoenigman, a 38-year-old Cleveland-born novelist and Japan resident of 12 years. “But I wasn’t interested in roped-off English-speaker-only reading events. I wanted something that celebrated the character of the city — I wanted my event to revel in the weird Bohemian quirkiness and kinkiness that people associate with Tokyo.”

Over in Kansai, a similarly eclectic spectacle can be found at JunKroom, an event organized by Englishman Sean Roe.

“Broad descriptions don’t do justice to the variety at a typical JunKroom event,” says Roe, 47, who spent most of his first 20 years in South Africa and settled in Japan four years ago. “We’ve had noise musicians collaborating with butoh dancers, a gospel group from Doshisha University, a Norwegian sound artist called Jana Winderen playing recordings of melting glaciers, and Naked Mozart!

“From the outset I wanted to do something a little different. I wanted performers who were prepared to take risks and to collaborate with other performers.”

Electronic noise is a common element not only of PYT and JunKroom, but also at events organized in Fukuoka by Shayne Bowden, 39, a Sydneysider who’s been in Japan for 12 years.

“I regularly organize small tours and one-off shows for international musicians and sound artists,” he says. “It’s usually experimental music — improv, noise, performance — but also anything from jazz to grindcore. I also have an annual festival for extreme music that I created and curate called Against. The next one is planned for 2011 — it will be held at four locations in Fukuoka and feature concerts, talks and a documentary screening.”

In fact, it was noise — or rather, the lack of it — that led Hoenigman to get involved in Tokyo’s experimental scene in the first place.

“As a novelist, doing my art meant being shut up in my bedroom, distancing myself from humanity,” he explains. “I had had enough of distance. I had developed a desire to connect with other artists.

“I went to a lot of noise shows in Tokyo, and there was a sense of community and excitement that I like to think also now infuses every PYT. I guess those good experiences gave me the confidence to interact with a wider range of artists.”

The desire to network was also Roe’s motivation for setting up JunKroom.

“My main reason for wanting to start the event was to get to meet performers in Kyoto,” he says. “I felt that if I established some kind of event, it would be easier to meet like-minded people and it would help me connect with other organizers too. I was interested in seeing a process of cross-fertilization between different audience types and different performance types.”

For Bowden, the limited range of events in Fukuoka was one factor that inspired him to take matters into his own hands.

“Some friends and I founded an independent art space, and I started organizing exhibitions and music events there,” he says. “I was prompted to open a space in order to give an outside edge and more international perspective to the Fukuoka art and music scene. I left after two years or so and began curating and organizing events myself.”

As well as organizing their events, Hoenigman, Roe and Bowden all also perform in a variety of guises.

“I play records on stylus-free turntables, using only paper to carry the sound from the grooves of the record to the speakers,” says Roe. “The performances are quite slow and contemplative, and an exploration of pure sound. I collaborate with a Kyoto-based dancer called Misuzu — she constructs a dress made from paper directly before the performances.

“I’ve also collaborated with butoh dancers, and I perform as one of Amalls no Skcaj, an ambient drone improv unit that uses only Michael Jackson’s music as the source material for the sounds and images we create.”

In the last seven years, Bowden has performed over 140 times in Japan and overseas.

“I perform solo, mostly noise or power electronics, and also in bands with other local musicians, sometimes using analog electronics but also as a drummer,” he says. “I also release recordings of some of these projects through deterra, which is the name of an organization I started in 2003 for organizing events and curatorial projects.”

For novelist Hoenigman, reading is a key part of his regular appearances at Paint Your Teeth.

“Usually I collaborate with another artist or two,” he explains. “Since I read in English, I want the performance to also somehow engage Japanese audience members who may not be able to understand what I’m saying. So I want something visually stimulating going on while I read. Next time I’m going to play a recording of my voice while my lovely assistant stuffs a dozen doughnuts in my mouth.”

It’s this emphasis on reading that he believes marks PYT out from other events.

“I haven’t been to any other live performance events that so regularly incorporate works of literature,” he says. “Perhaps that’s my niche. I get the feeling that many Japanese organizers go for genre-specific events: a night of all noise bands or a night of all punk bands. Perhaps people are initially surprised at the eclecticism of the PYT lineup.”

Conversely, Roe feels that his “foreignness” has had little bearing on the events he manages in Kyoto.

“I don’t think it makes too much difference that I’m a foreign resident,” he says. “I keep a relatively low profile, and I’m not sure how many people in the audience know the event is organized by a foreign resident. I prefer to act as a catalyst, introducing people to each other and bringing them on stage together for the first time.”

Bowden, on the other hand, concedes that being non-Japanese may have helped him make his mark in Fukuoka, insofar as he is very open to promoting foreign acts.

“I think my projects are obviously more international, with many overseas musicians and artists playing,” he says. However, this doesn’t mean he can take it easy and let the events sell themselves.

“In Fukuoka attendances are small, and one has to work hard to promote a project in order to get lots of people through the door, even for internationally known musicians. I’m more laid-back than local organizers, perhaps, but I work hard to make sure that all goes smoothly.”

To a man, the three expat organizer-performers have found it a rewarding experience to collaborate with other event planners and players.

Bowden cites “meeting other individuals with interests from ‘the other side of the fence’ ” as one of the most enjoyable parts of the process.

But is it art? Find out

• The next Paint Your Teeth will be held on Sunday, Dec. 5, at Gamuso in Asagaya, Tokyo: see www.myspace.com/paintyourteeth for more details.

• For information on JunKroom, visit junkroomkyoto.blogspot.com Sean Roe will be performing with Misuzu at the event Schale Vol 6 (problematica.info/cb-colony/schale06.htm) on Friday, Dec. 3, at UrbanGuild in Kyoto, and with Amalls no Skcaj (amalls-no-skcaj.blogspot.com/) on Tuesday, Dec. 14, also at UrbanGuild.

• For deterra and Shayne Bowden’s events, see www.deterra8.com and inshayneinthemembraneous.blogspot.com/.

Roe adds: “I get to meet and befriend some truly talented individuals, and get greater exposure to their work. In establishing these friendships I’ve also found new partners to collaborate with, so these meetings are helping me develop as an artist.”

For Hoenigman, it’s all about the meeting of cultures.

“I’m always interested in reading the blogs of Japanese artists after they’ve performed at PYT,” he says. “They always mention that they’re really nervous because they can’t speak English and they’re not sure if they’ll be able to interact with people from various countries.

“But once the night gets going, and people start loosening up, the enthusiasm transcends the language barrier. It’s a buzz when you feel the barriers disintegrating, when you can tell that everyone’s really happy that they’re there. Many of the Japanese artists have become repeat performers and regular attendees.

“It makes me happy.”

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