PSi 2015 Tohoku: Beyond Contamination, a performance studies conference in north-east Japan exploring corporeality, spirituality and pilgrimage

PSi 2015 Tohoku: Beyond Contamination is the first Performance Studies international (PSi) conference to be held in Japan and it boldly takes the north-east of the country as both its setting and subject.

Hosted by Keio University Art Center and Aomori Museum of Art, the conference promises to deal with “corporeality, spirituality and pilgrimage” — issues very far removed from the Mecca to hyper consumerism that is Tokyo. There will be three programmes spread across August 28th to September 1st: a research programme with plenary and panel sessions, and working groups; a study programme, including a kick-off tour to Mt. Osore, the mountain that is a bridge between the worlds of the living and the dead, as well as other performances and screenings; and a “communication programme” of parties and gatherings to foster exchange between participants and locals.

psi tohoku 2015 beyond contamination conference

PSi 2015 Tohoku: Beyond Contamination is the tenth part of the PSi year-long decentralised “cluster” of events held around the world in 2015, Fluid States.

The organisers say:

Tohoku is a “fluid” site. It is the northern region of Japan, which lies between the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean. It is also a site of pilgrimages to Mt. Osore, which is located on a far north-eastern peninsula and known as a place of passage between life and death. Our event focuses on this “between states” of crisis and passage. Among the questions we wish to address are: What is the relationship of specific geographies to the identity of a nation? How do certain regions become marked by strange or otherworldly qualities? How do these myths of place contribute to the expansive history of a nation and the local history of the inhabitants? What happens to the cultural ecology of a place when it is irreparably devastated and indefinitely quarantined? When disasters strike, whether slowly or suddenly, human induced or nature driven, what are the ways we deal with the immediate and long-term repair and change? What role have the arts played in this and other fluid states of crisis and recovery?

Following the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear melt down, Tohoku experienced increased economic hardships, which added to its spiritual burden of being a place of aversion. At the same time, the commitment of the local population to recovery has gained increasing momentum. The concept “Beyond Contamination” in our title is pivotal to many aspects of our gathering. Our themes of corporeality, spirituality, and pilgrimage interact in many ways with traditional and contemporary ideas of contamination and its memorialization in Japan and elsewhere.

Participants and presenters include Marilyn Ivy, the Columbia University anthropologist and author of Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan, and Peter Eckersall, the researcher who has written much about Japanese angura and its relationship with post-war history and the urban space.

The conference deliberately highlights two of Tohoku’s sons: Shūji Terayama, one of the leaders of the 1960’s and 1970’s experimental theatre scene, and Tatsumi Hijikata, the Butoh pioneer. Aomori is now home to a Terayama museum and Mt Osore famously features in a typically hypnotic sequence in Terayama’s dream film Death in the Country (1974). Terayama’s films will be screened during PSi 2015 and several Butoh events are also planned.

Although Aomori, where the conference is taking place, was not directly impacted by the 2011 tsunai and earthquake, the disaster’s proximity was obviously felt much stronger than in Tokyo, not to mention the fact that Aomori itself hosts several nuclear power sites, including a reprocessing facility (and in spite of all that happened that fateful March, a new plant is currently under construction). As such, the shadow of Fukushima will hang over the conference as it explores “place-based crisis cultures, locally and globally”.

In what ways does local geography and its memorialized histories become part of national consciousness? In what ways does disaster, human-made or otherwise, shift values and needs in the moment and over time? How do these shifts change our ways of being in that place and in the world? How do artists respond to large-scale disaster and its aftermath? What can art making do in the continuing crisis of disaster? How do national enterprises use or abuse the arts in times of devastation?

Timely questions, as the arts in Japan still continue to process their responses to the trauma.