Art, Advocacy, & Accountability

Recently I was given the opportunity to speak at the 5th Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN) conference “mobilities” (26-27 Nov 2015) at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne as part of a panel entitled “Creative politics, political creations”. Chaired by fellow artist Asian Australian artist  Owen Leong.

The talk was about ethics and social responsibilities of an artist, using examples from my theatre work Yasukichi Murakami – Through A Distant Lens. I would like to share it with you:

“When you have art, you have a voice. When you have a voice, you have freedom. When you have freedom, you have responsibility.” 

This quote by Indigenous artist, activist and leader Richard Frankland is what inspires my talk today. Using examples from my recent work, Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens, I will discuss some of the issues that an artist may face in regards to our social responsibilities.

Here are some areas of my ethical concerns of late.

Identity, diaspora, imagined borders

  1. Story-telling and its limitations
  2. Historical or factual accuracies and theatrical licences
  3. Archiving and documentation
  4. Audience, stakeholders and authenticity
  5. Publicity, media and advocacy

I will go through each one of them.

  1. Identity, diaspora and imagined borders

I am a migrant artist. I was born in Japan and I’ve been telling stories about Japanese diaspora in Australia for some time. I can’t help but to wonder about the ethics of this.

Are we now not transnational / transcultural / trans everything, transcending those imaginary borders nations, heritage or ethnicity? I know it is my condition that I am of Japanese heritage, but do I need to keep making art about this? My ethics tells me to be inclusive of all people and not to draw borders between you and I, us and the other. To rise above those boundaries that keeps us separate.

Yes, my art is political…. But I actually believe that political leaders shouldn’t be divisive.

How I address this particular question is to believe  – this is a belief – that I am being of service to communities; to perhaps vainly believe that I am making some sort of a contribution. Firstly to the Japanese diasporic community by giving a voice, then to the wider Asian Australian community to speak as loudly as I can. And then contributing to a even the wider community; to tell a part of little known Australian story for all. And then finally, telling the kind of story that would unite humanity in resonance instead of that which would divide us.

For those who don’t know my recent work Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens, it’s a story about a contemporary Japanese Australian photographer, Mayu, a character based on me, searching for the lost photographs of a historical Japanese Australian photographer, Yasukichi Murakami. It combines narration, documentary photographs and interviews, live music, dramatic action with actors and scripted dialogue between Mayu, Murakami’s ghost and ghost of Murakami’s first wife Eki Nishioka, who taught Murakami how to take photographs.

Murakami is not a fictional character. We know that he came to Australia in 1897, lived in Broome, then in Darwin as a photographer, inventor and entrepreneur. When WWII started, he was interned as an enemy alien, and died in the camp. And because of that, his life time worth of photographs have gone missing.

Before I made Murakami, I worried about telling stories about the war. Actually, I worried even more about not telling stories about the war. Since the year 2000, I had created several performance works to do with the Japanese diaspora in Australia… and so, then, I ask myself…. how could I keep avoiding telling stories about WWII?

When it comes to things Japanese… WWII is a major subject. A subject that cannot be ignored.

It isn’t easy for someone of Japanese diaspora, especially today with the current Japanese government and their ideas on the past  – conservative, divisive and alarming.

Making Murakami was a social responsibility I had to taken on. To be of service to the world I live in, I had to engage with the war without making heroes out of soldiers. Murakami was a civilian, like you and I – his life in the hands of people who wish divide us.

  1. Story-telling and its limitations

I call myself a story-teller…. yet I’m increasingly suspicious of story-telling.

Story-telling has become a major force in our times. You go see a counsellor or read a self-help book or a blog on how to become happy or to be rich or whatever. They all tell you to write your story or rewrite your story. That story-telling is one the main ingredients for positive transformations to occur in our lives. Even the corporate sector now talks of story-telling through its content on social media as the key to successful brand loyalties.

But there is also problem with story-telling. Because although often stories carry moral and ethical codes that appear universal, often they also carry messages that can and should be questioned. Sometimes it carries out-dated and out-moded narratives.

As a woman of Japanese heritage… the story of Madama Butterfly for an example.

And in reality, not everything fits into the format of hero rescues damsel in distress or rags to riches. There is something wrong about trying to fit truth with a capital T into a story format, acceptable and accessible to all.

Having said that, Murakami’s story is a typical quest. Like Homer’s Odyssey, Mayu goes on a search for Murakami’s photographs, meets up with a mentor – the ghost of Murakami and Eki, encounters mysteries and struggles, then returns from her journey having found some of Murakami’s lost photographs, and in the process, learns some valuable life lessons.

All neatly fits into a quest format. But I worry about the ethics of this.

On her quest to find Murakami’s photographs, she found some in Japan.  They were Murakami’s family photographs he had sent to his mother in Japan during his lifetime in Australia.

Thus one of the lessons that Mayu learns from her quest is the importance of family and that family photographs are a key to immortality of his photographs. Family photographs – its heart warming lesson….

But, well, nothing in reality is so clean cut.

What I left out in the play is that Murakami’s most important photographs –  important to him – were not his family photographs, but a set of photographs he took whilst conducting experiments for his ground breaking diving suit design.

He actually had the foresight to take a photo album of his diving suit experiments with him to the internment camp. After the war, one of the family members kept the album, but was lost in Darwin in the 1970’s. Some say it was the cyclone, others tell me that it was lent to a researcher – a some what well known person in Darwin – who I won’t mention the name –never returned it to the family.

But this didn’t fit into our one hour story.

This brings me to my next point of discussion:

  1. Historical or factual accuracies and theatrical licences

I worried a lot about not including what happened to Murakami’s diving suit album in the play . To me it felt unethical.

But then again, its been like this all along – from the beginning – I wrote in the script that Murakami and his family moved to Darwin circa 1935. But of course by the time we had creative development workshops everyone told me that I can’t use the word circa in a script … So in the play, Murakami’s ghost tells the audience, “… in 1935, we all moved to Darwin!”

Who cares about facts… really, I’ve got a ghost in the play!! But I worry about my social responsibility.

So… I actually saw a channeller…. To me…. It somehow felt more ethical to hear Murakami speak through a channeller than to put words in a dead man’s mouth.

So I guess it makes my feel better that I’m telling you all this today. And I’m hoping to put today’s talk up on my About Murakami process blog so its all on record.

Which brings me to my next point of discussion:

  1. Archiving and documentation

My process blog is where I write things that get sieved out of the actual artwork outcome. It includes process videos, photos and written thoughts during the entire process of the project. It also includes a full bibliography for future researchers.

I am also now preparing captions for the 200 or so photographs I found for archiving by the State Library of WA. If I don’t do this, Murakami’s photographs will be lost again.

My sense of social responsibility says I’ve got to do these things in service and contribution for the good of wider communities.

  1. Audience, stakeholders and authenticity

Social responsibility includes the audience. This means certain decisions need to be made which takes the audience into consideration… whether it be entertaining or inspiring or educational, I feel that audience needs to get something out of my show.

I also think that my creative collaborators need to get something out of it. As well as the Murakami Family – the descendants need to get something out of my arts practice.

So I think about what this something may be – but of course, it means for different things for different people.

The result is that best I keep good for all in mind, and that means that as long as universal values – what I believe are universal – of that which is to be human being are strong and constant enough – then the specifics should takes care of itself. And that means universals values throughout – not just in the art work itself, but in the process of creation and all other work I do, creative or other wise, that pertains to this project – and not just this project – but to live authentically in all that I do.

I know this sounds all airy fairy and unrealistic – nor am I perfect. And when conflicts arise, which inevitably it always does at some point, the only way to be is to refocus on higher ground, then let go.

  1. Publicity, media and advocacy

As artists we have a chance to talk to the wider world with help of media, traditional or through social media. Although often the immediate reason behind this is to publicise a show, I see it as a chance express higher thoughts and ways of being for the betterment of the whole.

To advocate being in service for humanity.

I’m just an independent artist. I’m not even a scholar…. But with my tiny tiny tiny being as an artist, I’m going to be the political leader – starting with my constituency, then extending wider – I am going to be the political leader I want all our politicians to be.

Thank you!

Mayu Kanamori Nov, 2015

More info: mobilities conference: https://aai5conference.wordpress.com/

More info: AASRN https://aasrn.wordpress.com/