Art and Regeneration; Koganecho Bazaar and Digbeth

So, you’ve clamped down on the prostitution, human trafficking and violent Yakuza gangs and now you’ve got 150 vacant shops and a vacuum in the community. What are you going to do about it?

Some people in and around Yokohama decided on building some new artist studios and holding an event lasting nearly 12 weeks – the Koganecho Bazaar – as a means towards reconstructing a sense of place in a small river-side area that had previously had a national reputation for being a hotbed of illegality.

…If our efforts can lead to the revitalisation of the area, we will have taken the first step in a longer process. We will have also provided an example of city revitalisation that is unprecedented in Japan. The Koganecho Bazaar will not be successful if only the event itself is successful. Rather, it has the greater goal of being the first step in recreating the area. As director Mr. Yamano has pointed out, a relationship between art and community is not quickly created in a short amount of time, but slowly over a long period of time. For the future of this town, I would like to make the Koganecho Bazaar the first step in that process.
Nobuharu Suzuki, Organising Committee Chairman

I find the openness of the Bazaar’s organisers towards the shortcomings and limitations of their actions very refreshing. In an essay that also describes the importance of having lived in Koganecho during the planning of the event (something the event’s director also chose to do), Kazuki Saito reiterates an ethos of changing the area from the inside out:

we don’t intend to reshape the town, we can only hope to gain the attention of the various people gathering here and to mold that attention into a certain form.
Kazuki Saito, staff

I spent a few hours with the curators of one of the venues involved in the event; an afternoon exploring the area; and have also been reading various articles relating to the project. My knowledge and perception of Koganecho is sparse and highly mediated (not least through translation across languages and cultures). That said, it instinctively feels that there is much here that is not only worthy of mention in itself, but that also resonates strongly with various conversations going on here regarding the regeneration of Digbeth (Birmingham, UK).

Geography

map

Koganecho area, Yokohama
[click on the image above for a link to Google maps and zoom in!]

I suppose the comparisons inevitably start with the two geographies: Koganecho and Digbeth are comparable in size and both located just outside of the main focus of the city centre (although I find this concept is less applicable to cities in Japan and I imagine Yokohama is on a much bigger scale). Is it worth also mentioning here that both Yokohama and Birmingham are/were/might be second cities? Not sure…

Where Koganecho has seen the decline of its, um, ‘entertainment’ industry (the area is cited as having hosted some 250 brothels in its heyday), Digbeth is home to many empty factory units caught between industrial decline and the promise of better property prices ahead in the wake of the area’s transformation into the Cultural Quarter.

back street

Both are, to their own extents, suffering from a decline in their economies and the loss of the communities that thrived off these. What generally remains are people without the links to, and vested interests in, the infrastructures and interactions going on within the area. Given the population density of urban Japan, that’s a lot of people that don’t really care that much. Imagine if you could mould just even a tiny fraction of that attention!

apartments

There are exceptions of course, and, not surprisingly, artists and entrepreneurs started to move in and take advantage of the available space. It’s my feeling that in Digbeth’s case, this has come down more on the side of the entrepreneurs and large institutions (the Custard Factory empire, colleges, universities and media companies) and artists have found either the rents or leasing terms to be difficult to work with. (Again, a mediated perception…)

My major concern about the regeneration of Digbeth/Eastside is that it always seems to be so incredibly top-down: funders specify what they want in return for their money and the appropriate components are parachuted into place. I’ve already highlighted that my perceptions of Koganecho Bazaar are highly mediated, but I came away from it with the overriding feeling that it was very much bottom-up in its approach. It felt like it was providing spaces for people to get on with their thing, rather than shaping and controlling what that thing might be.

Space to be

The flagship venues for the Bazaar are two brand new studio buildings built under the arches of the railway line that runs down the axis of the redevelopment area: Koganecho Studios and Hinode Studios.

Kogane studios

Kogane verandah

Kogane corridor

The photos above show the rather lovely Koganecho building (more about Hinode later). Here there are 5 small ‘studio’ spaces linked by a spacious corridor and verandah. There is also a central café area. The building can be accessed from a number of different doorways, from either the road or river sides.

I’m not sure how practical this would be as an actual working art production space, but this is a seriously nice piece of architecture and it seems to work well as a combination of both showcasing and social spaces. It even looked good in the edges of a typhoon when I first encountered it!

Kogane studios at night

Returning a few days later, in more agreeable weather conditions, I gently quizzed one of the resident artists (Ayumi Fukumoto) to try and find out more about the space and the way it had been set up.

Ayumi Fukumoto - nani mo nai mono

From Ayumi we learned that the artists, projects and designers in the spaces had been curated in some fashion (I don’t know if people had to submit a proposal or whether they were approached by the curators). She didn’t have to pay any rent on the space for the duration of the Bazaar, although she was presumably having to man it every day.

Ayumi’s work was predominantly ceramics-based (a museum/shop of plausible, yet completely useless, objects) so I asked her where her actual studio was. She told me it was in Yokohama and this led me to wonder what balance the curators had struck between locally-based artists and those from elsewhere. For reference, the others in the building were: THE GOLD Arts & Designing (design), Katsuko Ishigaki (artist), Tetsuro Kano (artist), Wit Pimkanchanapong (artist) and Shichoshitsu ver. 2 (food and drink).

One group involved in the Bazaar very obviously not originally from Yokohama is O.F.F. – the O-sotoria Freespace Foundation. O.F.F. is a multi-purpose space “based on the idea of art- and knowledge-transfer between Japan and Europe”.

Georg Russegger took part in Dislocate and a few of us from the symposium braved the weather to visit the O.F.F space one evening.

O.F.F. is one of the 4 venues in the 2-building Hatsune studio complex, each venue comprising of what used to be two properties combined into 1. Sounds grand, but as you can see from the photos below we’re still only talking about a couple of rooms about 2 metres wide. (…or, as one article puts it, just wide enough for a double bed!) O.F.F. is located in the front part of the front building, with an okonomiyaki restaurant in the rear part. Behind that is a second building housing a shops and what can perhaps be best described here as a site-specific installation with plug-holes and showers.

Hatsune

Hatsune

I think I’m correct in saying that these spaces are rent free for the duration of the bazaar and then the rent is incrementally increased over the remaining 3 years of the lease.

Whilst the size might be small by UK standards, they’re fairly typical for what I’ve come across in Japan and the lack of space certainly didn’t seem to be cramping anyone’s style or ambitions. Bringing the 4 venues together into one ‘studio’ group also helped to amplify what was going on. Again, here was the strong impression that people had been provided with space to conduct their projects as they see fit.

Commerce

Commerce forms a key part of Koganecho Bazaar, indeed part of the reason for naming it as a Bazaar was to seed the idea of lively trade.

There are two Bazaar shops selling artwork, art books, the Bazaar’s own brand and locally made goods. In addition to this, the second of the new studio buildings – Hinode studios – houses some more obviously commercially orientated tenants, including a collaboration with me ISSEY MIYAKE.

Just as a minor digression, the architecture of the Hinode building is similar in feel to that of the Koganecho building, although the design is quite different.

Hinode studios

Again housed under the railway arches, rather than the different spaces being linked internally via a corridor and verandah, here the public can go up one of several stairways to a promenade that winds around the different shops and cafés at just below ceiling level.

Hinode studios

Hinode studios - steps up to the promenade

View from the promenade into one of the shops

This forms an interesting inside/outside space where you are essentially still in the open air, but also in the enclosed space between the promenade walls (glass, so you can look down into the public and private areas of the shops below) and the railway arches just above.

As you can just see in the second of the photos above, this space is currently being used to show a video work on several large screens located across the rooftops. (Try that in Digbeth!)

The final thing I want to say about commerce here is to point out how the Bazaar has linked with other local businesses.

The Koganecho Bazaar is running a ‘coupon collaboration program’ with about 20 local businesses ranging from restaurants and cafés through to barbers, toy shops, book shops, paint shops and paint shops. The Bazaar’s map/leaflet acts as a giant coupon you can take to any of these places (all marked on the map alongside the art venues) in exchange for free side dishes or discounts etc. My favourite is a 50% discount on selected dog clothing!

I’m choosing to read this as a sign both of cooperation with the existing businesses located within the area (thought to self: I wonder if any new businesses have moved in to take advantage of the footfall from the Bazaar?) and of the huge amount of leg-work the organisers must have done to build relationships with them.

Maps are always very useful (read: necessary) for finding places in urban Japan’s maze of streets and the Bazaar’s map also shows a range of establishments not connected with the event. This could be interpreted as providing navigation marks for visitors, but if you look carefully at what has been chosen to go on the map you can see that they are all places with cultural connections (bookshops, shrines, designers), more cafés or practical things such as convenience stores and the post office.

This is a really nice, subtle way of underlining the cultural wealth of the area and presenting it as a vibrant place to be.

I’m aware that the issue of lack of mapping and signage around Digbeth has come up a few times recently and I’m curious to see what a cultural/art map of Digbeth would look like, not to mention these other ‘value-added’ shops and services. Do any exist and whose culture is it aimed at (art venues? music venues? design venues?)?

Kogane Cider

Oh, and at the café we stopped at, we both had a bottle of the locally-produced Kogane Cider! (Non-alcoholic, sorry but that’s just the way cider is in Japan!)

Publicity, Marketing and Tying it all Together

As I’ve just indicated, I thought the mapping of the Bazaar worked very effectively, but can I just point out here that it worked very effectively in two different languages at the same time. Although English was the secondary language used (and that’s how it should be) I did not feel that I was being starved of information and found it very easy to navigate the contents of the Bazaar, both in terms of the literature and interacting with the works and venues.

This has got me wondering if I’ve ever seen any bilingual publicity for art events in Birmingham, where I can imagine there’s also a strong argument for text both in English and Asian languages.

The Koganecho Bazaar website is the one place where for some reason I feel I might be being short-changed on information, although in reality there’s all the information required for visiting and quite a lot of background information too. I notice that there is also a blog run by the staff that looks very active (although it’s in Japanese so I can’t really comment on what the content is like).

Contact with the staff also comes from the centrally-located Bazaar office and an information centre located opposite one of the train stations (there’s a station at either end of the Bazaar area). Both of these also house artworks and, in the case of the office, this goes a long way towards helping to identify the nondescript building!

bazaar office

bazaar office

Another signifier for the venues were the many banners around the streets (you can see them in some of the photos above). I think these were mostly being used as general decoration in the area (and, I have to admit, they did kind of brighten the place up a bit!) but were useful to mark out the more remote venues. The use of banners and pennants like this reminds me of some open studio events I’ve been to (site in Stroud, Hampshire Artists) and it seems like a simple but effective way of declaring venues spread around a large area. In the case of Stroud’s Site event, it’s also worth looking at their use of different routes to link places together.

Is there anything Digbeth can learn from this to highlight venues down different alleys and hidden in different warehouses, or am I fooling myself about the number of small, independent spaces in the area?

More on mapping…

In addition to the area maps in the leaflet and on the website, the studios had their own maps too.

niceries - studio plan and stamp

There are various clusters of studios around Birmingham, but do they have maps or alternative signage that you can use to see at a glance who is there and what they are doing? Maybe this only applies to the sorts of studios with public access, and I’m not sure if we have that here?

The photo above shows a map of the Hinode building, but another thing worth mentioning is the chair in the background. On the chair is a friendly note and a rubber stamp. These stamps were available at several of the Bazaar venues and it’s something you see at practically all tourist spots (and sometimes even railway stations!) in Japan. I think the core idea is you go around and sort of collect the different stamps/places in a sort of (postage)stamp-collecting/trainspotting/I was ‘ere hybrid. Once you’ve got someone to one of your venues, how can you actively encourage them to stay on the trail and visit other venues?

At several of the places we went to – and I think we pretty much went to them all in the afternoon we were there – staff and artists apologetically explained to us that since it was a weekday not many people were about. I don’t know what sort of visitor numbers they have on a weekend, or whether they were concerned that the artists weren’t all there to talk about their work, but we still saw a pretty impressive number of people wandering around the Bazaar area with their leaflet guides.

Not bad for a former red-light district…

Practically all the publicity for the Bazaar starts off with a sentence that includes the phrase “former red-light district”. At first I thought this was too gimmicky and that the Bazaar should be selling itself on its artistic merits rather than on the seedy history of the area, but eventually it dawned on me that what they were really saying was “FORMER red-light district” and what they’re actually doing is planting the message in everyone’s head that it no longer is a red-light district! Regeneration by NLP?!

I don’t know what the area looked like when it was a fully operational red-light district, but the Koganecho of today is not an overwhelmingly pretty place. Neither is Digbeth.

back street at night

I have however seen a few pictures of Koganecho in the Springtime when the cherry trees along the river blossom. Very popular, apparently – there’s even a festival to celebrate. On the map, the river is also included within the Bazaar area. I’m trying to imagine a cultural map of Digbeth that includes the canal.

A bit of green in Digbeth would be nice.

poster in the window of a local convenience store

The photo above is the last photo I took in Koganecho before hopping on the train and heading back to the central area.

It’s just one of the festival posters in the window of a convenience store. As I rounded the corner and climbed the steps to the ticket gate I saw three more A1 posters on the hoardings in front of some construction work.

I don’t know if any local residents or businesses are going to see the art, but it’s clear that they are making a contribution that will help promote the event.

In addition to all of this, Koganecho Bazaar has produced a guidebook and textbook that contains several essays on the festival and the history of the area alongside pages outlining the different participants and the buildings involved. ¥1000 (roughly £5) and utterly priceless at the same time. I bought a copy as soon as I saw it.

Koganecho guidebook and textbook

A really nicely designed, informative book about 150 pages long. That’s how you ensure your project has a life once the banners have been taken down and packed away. I also like the way they have documented the history of the area before coming in and trying to regenerate it.

Money and/or Success

Here’s a list of the main organisations that have supported the event: (taken from the website)

Co-organized by : 150 Anniversary of the Port Opening and Creative City Headquarters, Yokohama Arts Foundation
Patronized by: Kanagawa Prefecture
Sponsored by: Keihin Electric Express Railway Co., Ltd. , Morimoto Co., Ltd.
In cooperation with: Kogane-X, BankART1929, Kyunasaka Studio, etc
Granted by: Asahi Beer Arts Foundation,
Program to support ‘Creative Towns through Culture and Arts’ (Agency for Cultural Affairs), Fukutake Foundation for the Promotion of Regional Culture

Note that there’s no equivalent to the Arts Council in Japan!

I don’t know how the organisers of the Bazaar will judge whether the event has been a success, or on what timescale they will measure its effects. Likewise for the driving forces behind the Eastside transformation, although it seems likely it’ll be related to property prices.

Next year sees the big celebrations marking 150 years of the opening of the port of Yokohama to trade, so maybe it does just boil down to a public relations exercise in trying to shift the red-light district label? Maybe it’s just a bunch of artists wanting to cash in on the current Triennale? Having read the texts in the guidebook I sincerely doubt either of these are motivations for the organisers of the Bazaar. For what it’s worth, and going by whatever arbitrary internal scales I’m using to measure it, I certainly rate the event as a big success.

The Digbeth Bazaar, anyone?

Anyone could write a text on “why is art necessary in this town-restoration?” and while I agree that a project like this would also be useful in other places, unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. If the venue of the art and town were different, everything that would be produced would turn out differently, and no individual place could maintain its own identity. But, while proceeding cautiously, we can see the momentum of the town’s change as well as the art’s change, and finally we can make the argument of art’s necessity and the usefulness of art.
Shingo Yamano, director

the pictures are better on radio

Still working my way through the backlog – this time another attempt at documentation that doesn’t involve sticking a video camera or a telephoto lens in anyone’s face. Including mine. urgh.

Here I walked with a voice recorder in the side pocket of my rucksack and a camera on interval timer just held in my hand as I walked. The result is some fairly snap, crackle and pop audio and some blurry photos…

…I think it works quite well!

The images [portrait format, distorted horizontally to fit the video’s dimensions – apologies to the woman in the brown dress] appear at minute intervals so there’s a long gap in between them where you only have the audio. Initially I was planning to have the images on screen for longer, thinking that visual = interesting. What I actually found was the images became something of a distraction. Ideally I’d just plug myself into my headphones and settle back with my eyes closed, but here I have to stay mindful of the screen and a minute is a really long time

Instead we have flashes of imagery to act as sort of orientation for the sounds, but not until you’ve had a while between photos to imagine up your own images to accompany the noises. In this way I think I regard the white as a blank canvas to paint your own pictures onto. Maybe not being able to understand what the people are saying is another aspect to this too?

There comes a point when you just have to back off and leave space for people to make their own meaning.

The full walk lasts for over 1 hour and is not for the faint-hearted, so here is a 10 minute extract. I really recommend headphones; whether you keep your eyes open or not is up to you.

Oh, and I was also hooked up to a galvanic skin response sensor at the same time, but that’s another story.



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