This is how we “gathered” this year
Fumitoshi Kato (Keio University)
Returning the research results to the local community
At the end of each school year, we hold a small exhibition to introduce our year’s activities. The original impetus for this exhibition dates back to 2003. I learned that voluntary design and architecture students were planning a “graduation project exhibition” through students' information. It seemed that most of the entries were from individuals, but I decided to apply to exhibit as a “research group.” The venue was the Red Brick Warehouse (Aka Renga) in Yokohama, and we had a great time. Naturally, I don’t get to meet all the students when I work as a professor, so I could meet many people when I had this opportunity.
Above all, it was a great stimulus to see the students taking the initiative in planning, liaison, and publicity for the exhibition. It is not uncommon for art and art-related universities to have “exhibitions” (so-called “graduate exhibitions”) as part of their academic schedule. In some cases, it is part of the curriculum, or there is financial support or the creation of the exhibition itself as part of the educational programs.
On our occasion, this is not the case, and when there is a student who is the “initiator,” the group is organized, and the event becomes a reality. If the event is successfully taken over, it becomes an annual event, but that doesn’t always happen (more often than not, it seems to disappear without continuing). I had expected this, but the following year, I didn’t hear much about the project. So, we thought, why don’t we rent a gallery and hold an exhibition ourselves? Since the first exhibition in February 2005, we have continued to hold this exhibition every year while changing the venue. It is the 17th exhibition this year. (List of past Fieldwork Exhibitions: https://fklab.today/exhibition)
Our research is often carried out using fieldwork and interviews, which naturally brings us into contact with people “outside” the campus. We start by meeting the people who live in the local community and building a relationship. When we acknowledge this, we cannot keep the results of our research at the campus. The purpose of presenting the results outside the university campus is to express our gratitude to the people who have helped us. If we rent a gallery in the community, we can present our work to passersby as well. As a professor, I do not have to be the sole evaluator of students’ research results. Since we are dealing with a subject for which there is no single “right” answer, it is essential to look at it with many eyes and reflect and talk about it with many voices.
The “Fieldwork Exhibition” has been held for several years and has become an important event that marks the rhythm of the year. The exhibition opens at the beginning of the year, just as the final exams and reports are due. It can be a hectic time, but when the exhibition is set up, displayed, and taken down, it feels like the school year is finally over and a milestone has been reached. Since the exhibition is held around the same time every year, the graduates visit the exhibition site. It’s like a little “reunion,” and for me, it’s an opportunity to get to know each other’s recent activities once a year. Although I had not imagined it at first, I found out that the students’ families also came to visit the exhibition by holding the exhibition outside the campus. Indeed, if we had kept the debriefing session on campus, it would have been a “closed” gathering of faculty and students only. In this sense, we have realized the importance of opening up to the community and returning the research results to the community.
Exhibition in communication
By the way, there are many ways to do an “exhibition.” We have been holding this exhibition under the title of “Fieldwork Exhibition” for some time now. With each successive exhibition, it has become more apparent to us what kind of exhibition is desirable.
For example, when we visit a museum or art museum, we often read the explanatory panels and follow a predetermined “route” to each exhibit. There are also caption panels that provide additional information. Sometimes we take a guided tour, and sometimes we listen to an audio guide as we walk around the venue. In any case, in the “exhibitions” that we visit, we often meet the artist himself at the venue (although there are talk shows, and if we are lucky, we may exchange words with the artist while he is in the gallery).
In the first place, it is not always the case that the artist is living simultaneously, but in an exhibition, we can meet the artist through the work, transcending time and place. I guess that is the value of an “exhibition. In fact, we have encountered many “masters” by visiting the exhibition halls.
In the exhibition, we learn about the artist’s thoughts through the works. Confront the work while imagining the process of trial and error that led to its completion. You will feel as if you are being taken on a short journey, experiencing the artist’s worldview and the times’ spirit. The works on display in the “Fieldwork Exhibition” are fieldwork results conducted by individuals and groups. Fieldwork is made up of an on-time, single “site.” In other words, only the researcher understands the “field” through direct experience. The rest of the visitors can only know the “story” of the fieldwork indirectly. That is why it is crucial to observe, record, and describe the “things” in front of us during the fieldwork. After completing the research, the students write, illustrate, map, and chart the scene while reconstructing it based on their photographs and field notes. Fieldwork conducted as part of seminar activities can last from several months to nearly a year.
In the “Fieldwork Exhibition,” we will display a compact summary of the experiences we had during our fieldwork, using various devices. To do this, they are required to have the sense and ability to select, edit, and process the data they have collected by themselves. The results will be displayed in the form of panels, booklets, videos, and models.
In fact, what is important is what happens next. Our exhibitions are made possible by talking with visitors on the spot. Fieldwork experience is not as simple as “seeing is believing,” no matter how meticulously the data is compiled. The meanings and interpretations of the researcher are constantly being rewritten by telling the story to someone else. In a complex field, our understanding shifts with communication. Of course, there are many ways of thinking about this, but our exhibitions are designed not to separate the artist from work as much as possible. We believe that understanding the complexities of the “field” can be created sequentially through communication. In this sense, we do not know when the results of the fieldwork will be completed. That may be why “Ken Kato’s exhibition” is different from the public image.
We “gathered” online
The past year has been a cramped one, with COVID-19 taking its toll. We were not allowed to go “outside,” and fieldwork and interviews were no longer the norms. Although the future was uncertain, we wanted to hold the “Fieldwork Exhibition” in a real space, so we booked a venue with that in mind: a gallery that we had used from 2015 to 2017. It has a good amount of space, so we will be able to devise a good layout and “route.” We can try to limit the number of people by making reservations in advance to avoid “crowding” as much as possible. The students formed a “Corona Task Force” and started thinking about this and that.
Creating an exhibition requires close communication during the exhibition period and during preparation, set-up, and tear-down. Because the students hardly had a chance to meet until early fall, they were happy to gather again and tried to get close immediately. I realized this when I saw them up close when I opened the fall semester classes on campus. I understand the feeling, but I don’t want anything to happen to them during the preparation and set-up.
Towards the end of the year, the number of reported infections increased day by day. While we were considering the possibility of holding the exhibition online, we were still preparing to keep it face-to-face. The exhibition was to be held for three days, from February 5 to 7, 2021. At the end of the year, we released the exhibition’s official website to the public with a link to the reservation form.
On January 7, “The State of Emergency” was reissued. Along with this, the university revised its “Activity Guidelines.” For university students, the opportunity to report their research results at the end of the academic year should not be “unnecessary and urgent.” Still, more importantly, “The State of Emergency” would not be lifted until the exhibition we were planning to hold (in fact, “The State of Emergency” was later extended for another two weeks). After considering all the possibilities, I decided not to force the exhibition to be held at the gallery. In the first place, I don’t think they would be too keen on it under these circumstances. It would be uncomfortable to ask people to come to the venue, as well as for us to prepare for it.
Do we have to “gather” online this year? While I was ready to give up on holding the exhibition face-to-face, I was not willing to hold the exhibition online. It is because, as I already mentioned, we created our exhibitions through communication. It is not a “look, and you’ll see” way of organizing the results. Live streaming or teleconferencing tends to be a one-way “transmission” of information. In the first place, a tiled screen with faces lined up in a row is suffocating. It is the landscape of a panopticon, utterly different from the sensation of walking around the gallery while looking at the exhibits. When slides and videos are displayed on the screen, we are forced to stare at the presentation intently.
Isn’t it possible to create a more relaxed online time? I didn’t know how to do it.
Then, a colleague introduced me to Gather.town. I heard that it is already being used for poster presentations at academic conferences. It looks like a game screen from a previous generation (which is more familiar to me), but we can move around on the screen with a small avatar. It’s still a flat display, but it seems to be a system that considers the nature of human communication very well. Intuitively, I knew that I could use it.
On January 16, I had a meeting with the senior students and decided to hold this year’s “Fieldwork Exhibition” online. The exhibition will be held online in less than three weeks. From there, we decided to create a venue for the exhibition in Gather.town. Since it was an online space, it was pretty flexible, but I started to develop the “Fieldwork Exhibition” venue while learning how to use it. From mid-January to February, Gather.town itself was being upgraded little by little, and there were some changes to the specifications along the way.
As a result of a year’s worth of activities, including the display of senior students’ “graduation projects,” group work, and fieldwork conducted by all the students, the contents of Gather.town have been enriched to a certain extent. Each day, we adjusted the venue’s layout, made a video to guide visitors, and created a website to sell goods and souvenirs. There was no packing, unpacking, carrying in, or setting up, so it was different from the usual.
I was pretty depressed when I decided to hold the event online, but as I saw the venue being decorated, I gradually became more positive. The day before the event, the venue was set up, and we all took a commemorative photo together.
Then, the “Fieldwork Exhibition XVII: Tsukimiteiten” started without a hitch. It was the first time to hold our exhibition online. People gathered from the morning of the first day, and although they were a bit confused at first, they began to walk around the venue. Again, Gather.town is very well designed. Although it doesn’t allow for complicated movements, wandering around the venue while controlling the avatar was more connected to my body than expected. The closer you are to someone on the screen, the clearer the video becomes, and the more clearly you can hear their voice. If you move away, the video becomes translucent, and the voice becomes distant. If I stayed at a subtle distance, I could vaguely hear the conversations of those nearby.
There was a physical sense of communication in the exhibition space. As a result, it turned out to be an excellent exhibition, with about 280 people coming to see the exhibition over the three days. To a certain extent, we were able to reproduce our ideal of communication in the exhibition space. We were able to take our time and talk with people while showing them around the exhibition space.
I hadn’t thought about the fact that I didn’t have to clean up space. We removed some of the links after the exhibition, but the exhibition site and the exhibits remained. When I visit the site now, I feel a bit like I’m in a “ghost town,” but perhaps this is a hint of a new kind of archive. There is neither a catalog nor a webpage with an overview of the exhibition, but the venue remains intact. As you move around the empty exhibition space, the memories associated with the place come back to you.