Saturday, April 30, 2011

Evil's Advocate: Why Nike's Miyashita Park is a Good Thing

I consider myself a leftist, but there are a lot of pieties and givens on the left that I don't quite swallow whole.  In fact, I sometimes find myself sketching positions that are at least contrarian, if not retrograde.  The thing is, I wish someone would convince me that I'm wrong about these fleeting hints of conservatism.  This is the first installment of a new occasional series, Evil's Advocate, in which I invite friends of the blog to tell me exactly why my thought crimes against progressive ideology are misguided.

After years of organized opposition to its extensive reconstruction, Shibuya's Miyashita Park has finally re-opened.  It's a tiny strip of elevated land parallel to JR Shibuya station.  Prior to the renovations, the park was a typically depressing Japanese park, not much but packed dirt, some playground equipment so dilapidated I wouldn't let any child of mine within ten yards of it, and about two dozen permanent homeless residents.  Now, it has become . . . this:

So, how could this transformation from moribund and dreary to active and useful be a bad thing?  The root problem for hundreds of activists who have spent a lot of energy opposing the changes seems to have been that they're all planned and executed, not by Shibuya City, but by Nike.  Initially, Nike was to pay the city a large sum of money each year for a decade for the right to officially rename it "Miyashita Nike Park."  Through demonstrations and direct action, the activists seem to have successfully stopped the renaming - when I went yesterday, there was no Nike branding on any signage, all of which simply said "Miyashita Park."  Even though this seems to have been the activists' only real victory, it's not a small one - for park users and residents to have it constantly shoved in their faces that Nike had essentially taken over a public park would have certainly had insidious long-term effects on whatever slim awareness of the idea of public space may remain in Tokyo.

But without the imposition of corporate ownership, what impact does this reconstruction have on the idea of public space?  In the pictures above, you'll see a healthy mix of people of all ages enjoying themselves, and most importantly, interacting outside of the confines of traditional work or school settings.  It may not be explicitly politicized, but as anyone who lives in Tokyo can tell you, this is still deeply political.  People from different walks of life are almost never brought together in relatively unstructured play environments, and it seems certain that the new Miyashita Park will act to strengthen social ties among area residents.

And the place truly is accessible to all.  There are fees for using the facilities, but they're almost nominal: 200 yen for skating and 350 for climbing, about $2.50 and $4.50 U.S. respectively.  Futsal court rental runs from 4000 to 6000 yen per hour, but with two sides of five players, that breaks down to about 600 yen, or seven dollars, per player.  Especially in Tokyo, these are truly trivial amounts of money, just enough, I would say, to guarantee that those using the facilities will take some responsibility.

A second major issue for the activists was the forcible ejection of the homeless during construction of the park, and the suspicion that they would not be welcome in a new, corporate-sponsored park.  (This complaint might be hard to understand from an American perspective, but here in Japan it's quite common for homeless residents in parks to be tacitly or even explicitly tolerated by authorities).  I have mixed feelings about anti-camping laws: at least in the U.S., many homeless people truly need help, either with mental illness or substance abuse, to the extent that they're dangers to themselves and others.  This seems to be slightly less true in Japan, mainly due to stronger familial safety nets, but it's nonetheless the case, particularly in a space as small as Miyashita, that campers made the park less usable for other people.  In other words, homeless or not, they were using more than their share of a public resource, and using it in a way that interfered with others' enjoyment of it.  While for the homeless, living in the park is probably nicer than being in a homeless shelter, I think that in this case it wasn't fair to the general public, and the park is now a greater public good.

Finally, activists objected, over and above the naming issue, to corporate control of the park.  This is where I am likely to really clash with some of my friends - I think that it's great that Nike took the initiative to make this space more usable.  This is especially true since, generally speaking, Tokyo's wards and the Japanese government are extremely bad at maintaining parks.  Their manufacturing practices may be traditionally abhorrent, but Nike as an entity and a culture clearly has a far better sense of what people want to do for fun than anyone in any branch of Tokyo's metropolitan government, most of whose idea of fun is probably getting shitfaced in a no-panties hostess bar and charging it to public accounts.  Japanese people have a huge love of outdoor activity, and cultivate it despite the almost uniformly lackluster provisions for things like soccer in Tokyo's public parks.  If it takes a corporation to come in and do a better job, then so be it.

Just to reiterate, whatever good I think has come of this, the role of the activists was crucial.  Everything good about the new Miyashita Park would have been rendered bitter and destructive by having Nike's name plastered all over it, and it's hard to say what the park might have ultimately looked like without their pressure.  But now that it's quite literally a fait accompli, it's not fair to hold a grudge and completely deny the possibility that something good resulted.  After all, I'm willing to bet some of those protesters like to skate.

Strotter Inst: Turntable Beatboxing tonight at Soup

Last night I dropped by Superdeluxe for nine dollar beers and Jim O'Rourke, who turned out to be a little more than a decade older and schlubbier than I remember and playing some not enthralling Japanese-style noise.  But what was hamazing was this guy Strotter Inst from Switzerland.  You can't entirely tell what's going on from the photo, but in essence he has devised a very lo-fi drum machine by re-shaping vinyl, cutting discs so the stylus bounces or, more exciting, adding protrusions to discs that rhythmically slap against rubber bands stretched across the decks, on which the stylus is resting.  This video has terrible sound, but should make that awkward description clearer:

The output is almost as amazing as the setup - pulsing, ultraprimitivist dance music.

Strotter plays again tonight at Soup in Koenji/Nakano:

This is a must-see.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Cool in Tampa: Gettin' Ready

So, it looks like in a couple of months I'll be moving from Tokyo to Tampa, Florida - I've landed a pretty sweet gig at the University of South Florida.  But of course, man cannot live on work alone, so I'm also trying to find out what's going on there artistically/socially.  If there's one thing I learned from living in Iowa, it's that there are creative types everywhere - you just have to find them.  I started searching knowing only that there's some sort of noise festival in south florida every year . . . and it took me about two hours to discover that there's a LOT of weird art happening in central Florida.

Last year's Tampa stop of the post-noise conference tour featured several bands from Tampa. Here's T-Func, Slave Scene (promising), Neon Blud (seem serious, touring), Tyger Beat (opened for Matt and Kim), Haves and Thirds (likes beats!), Father Finger (actual songwriting! Worth another view), Skeleton Warrior (blog's not updated . . . defunct?), Boulders (I think this is their blog? or at least their label?)

This year's edition, in Miami (Which just happened in February), also featured a ton of FL bands, including No Milk (Really great, and her blog is a gold mine of Tampa information) and Alien Overmind (electronic noise!).  Good writeup of top picks at Miami New Times.

Most exciting, Lazy Magnet is from Tampa, though may now live in Nashville (?).  This guy used to come through Iowa, though I can't say I remember seeing him.  Sadly, his Myspace (which has a friggin' great track on it) says the project is dead, but noise acts are like superhero sidekicks. He seems to really share my aesthetic - low, slow beats, heavy synths, and distortion.  Russian Tsarlag is also from Tampa, but doesn't live there anymore, and was never quite my cup of tea.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these bands don't have much web presence. I can't find anything else about Body Rot, Craow, Outmode, or Brides of Borg.

There seem to be at least a couple decent venues.  Events have been held at Cafe Hey, so I have a feeling I'll be spending some time there, though Google shows it's in a pretty bleak part of town.  The Czar Bar displays good taste in booking and Soviet design (twitter: @czarnation).  Iowa City's Supersonic Piss is apparently playing someplace called Heinrich's Workshop in a week or two . . . the only people listed.  I'm guessing it's a warehouse/house, always promising.  Seems there's a second house called the Branch Ranch Pervert Pit.  Proper.


Florida Experimental blog Terminal Beach Party

Ordinary Hungry - Warded Halls label and show listings

Cephia's Treat - Haves and Nots Label

Something called Auf Bees.  I have no idea what it is, but it's cool.

Civic Media Center, an infoshop in Gainesville, about two hours south of Tampa.  Apparently one of the U.S.'s largest collections of 'zines.

St. Petersburg Institute of Noise - St. Pete label

The Black Box Theater at New College in Sarasota, FL (one hour south of Tampa).

Also in Sarasota and NCF affiliated, the Four Winds Cafe

Action Research, concert series in Gainesville, many hosted at The Lab

There does seem to have been something called Tampa Noise Fest at some point, but I'm not sure whether this is just another name for the after-shows of the International Noise Conference in Miami.

WMNF Community Radio Tampa - Puts on some fringe shows. group Experimental Southeast

Bicycle Scavenger Hunt sponsored by a vintage scooter club? I'm there.

Re/Creating Tampa: A fellow former UT Administrative Assistant blogging about Tampa.

Naturally, I'm also finding a lot of good stuff in Miami.  It's four hours from Tampa, but unlike my days in Iowa, I'm actually going to have time to make that trip.  So:

Churchill's Pub

Sweat Records store

Roofless Records (label?)

Squelchers (Miami Beach)

Bruise Cruise! Rock n' Roll Cruise taking off from Miami.

So, all told, it may not be Tokyo, but it's a great step up from Iowa - a close-knit network of towns within driving distance.  Anything else great in Tampa and/or Florida that I'm missing?  Of course, I'm not just into the noise/freak scene -  I'll also be digging into the rap scene, and FOOTBAAAALL (I'm gonna meet Josh Freeman, I swear).

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Situation: Ishinomaki and Touhoku Relief

I've just gotten back from a week doing cleanup and recovery work in Ishinomaki, a mid-size coastal city in the Touhoku area, north of Sendai.  It will take some time to process the experience, so the following notes will be fragmentary, but the most obvious thing I learned is very simple - while financial contributions are vital, what Ishinomaki and cities like it are most badly in need of is boots on the ground.  After the tsunami deposited thousands of tons of (probably toxic) mud throughout even the buildings it left standing, the amount of labor required to get even the relatively undamaged part of the city back to a state of usability is mind-boggling - and this is just one city out of dozens or hundreds so affected.  Peace Boat is currently the only NPO accepting international volunteers in the affected areas, so if you can spare a week and have a tolerance for camping and hard labor, please contact them.

The Peace Boat deployment center is currently located on the campus of Ishinomaki Senshuu Daigaku (Ishinomaki Professional University).  Conditions were cold early in the week, but they're warming up day by day and were fairly comfortable by the time we left.

This is what the upper part of Ishinomaki looks like three weeks after the Tsunami.  The roads are cleared, but there is still debris everywhere.  The wave entered every building, destroying furniture and fixtures and saturating every first-floor shop and residence with mud.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hard In the Paint: Interview with Live Paint Team Doppel

One really distinct thing about Japanese hip hop shows and parties is the frequent inclusion of a live paint, which is just what it sounds like - painters producing art live.  Most often, the painting takes place over the course of three to five hours, slowly progressing, and giving things a real three-ring-circus feel, especially in certain of Tokyo's big clubs.

Doppel is a two-man team, Baki Baki and Mon, who have been doing live paint events together (as well as separately) since 2001.  I saw them in March at Superdeluxe, where they did an unusual and compelling timed paint – they gave themselves exactly 20 minutes between acts to complete what turned into an elaborate, Ainu/Inuit inspired painting of a rearing horse-like creature.  The timed element made it even more entertaining than the live paints usually are.  The questions here were answered by member Mon (Koutaro Oyama) on behalf of the group.

Q: Were you originally inspired to do art by graffiti or hip hop?
A: The motive to start painting was separate from hip hop.  Basically, we were both mostly inspired by Japanese manga and anime.  But after starting, hip hop has had a huge influence on us.  At the beginning, more than American graffiti, we were really influenced by KAMI and DELTA, graffiti artists from about two generations before us.

Q: Is Live Painting mostly done at hip hop shows?
A: We do it at shows in all kinds of genres.  The first thing we did was a Drum and Bass party.  Of course, we do a lot of hip hop shows, but also a lot of techno, house, and other kinds of dance parties.
Q: Have you ever done street graffiti?
A: Yeah, we do all kinds of tagging and stickering.

Q: Have you done other ‘timed’ events like the one at Superdeluxe?
A: Yeah, we did a 20 minute set at a party called HUOVA.  As far as we know, that’s the first party to use that sort of time limit.

Q: I’ve seen similar Live Paint events happening in Cali.  But it started in Japan, right?
A: We’re not sure whether or not it started in Japan.  Graffiti artists have probably been writing at parties for a long time.

But our genre isn’t graffiti per se, it’s live painting [specifically].  After we started doing live paints, we met this guy named Heavyweight from Canada, and we were really influenced by his style.  As far as Japan, Live Painting is a scene that started from the clubs and spread out.  That’s why we use brushes and paint instead of spraypaint (spraying in a club can get rough).  Now there are live paint artists all over Japan.  We got started very early in that history.  As far as artists doing live painting specifically, we were really among the first.

Q: Before a show, do you practice? For example, in circumstances similar to the show?
A: Almost never.  Even when we practice, it’s not really connected to a [specific] show.

Q: At Superdeluxe, you painted together.  Did you have a plan?
A: To a certain degree, we had a course of action.  That was for the series called “Chimera.” At the Superdeluxe show, we’d only chosen that the lower half of the body would be a horse.

Q: At that show, the picture eventually became a horse [My mistake – a horse-like chimera].  It was suspenseful, though.  Do you do things that way for the enjoyment of the audience?
A: Exactly.  Depending on the order you lay down the details, a live paint can be dramatic, or it can be boring.  Our ideal is that watching our shows will be just as exciting as watching sports.

Q: Is acting or performance important to the Paint?
A: It’s not important.  We’re never acting.  Sometimes we’ll shout or throw our hands up to get the crowd going, but it’s really not important.

Q: After the event, what happens to the paintings?
A: We keep them, and put a protective coating on them or frame them so they can be put on display.


Information about Doppel can be found at:

Friday, April 1, 2011

Adorno on Culture: Soundscapes Resource

Was just referred to this nice selective overview of Adorno's writing on music, sound, and culture.

International Transport Volume 4 - Black Music

Sometimes we need fantasy and sometimes that fantasy can be pretty and heroic and help us forget our problems by pretending to be someone we aren’t, doing something else.  But sometimes we need to deal with a reality that’s pretty dark – and maybe then, too, fantasy can help, but it’s a darker fantasy we need, something murky and menacing, something that might itself kill us if we’re not careful but that may also help us see a way out.

Tracklist after