11. Interview with Sakiko Yamaoka: An ambulatory, gestural conversation, or, “I know her, but I don’t know her.”

One of my favourite ways to talk with someone is while walking together. The shared forward momentum almost automatically generates an intimate connection between the walkers, attuning their moving bodies in a rhythm of complicity. That same momentum can also propel the conversation, contributing a sense of flow.

Walking together is often an important part of the process of producing site-specific performance art. As an organizer, I often find myself wandering various neighbourhoods with visiting artists as we scout possible locations for their work. Physically—which is to say animately—experiencing how an artist moves through an environment and noticing what details capture their attention gives me a great deal of insight into their artistic intentions and aesthetic temperament. I usually come away from these walks with a much more informed understanding of their practice and their project needs.

Sakiko and I did quite a bit of beach walking along Lake Ontario during her KinesTHESES residency, because she thought she might want to do some additional projects to her Body Maintenance performance and her public intervention with Stephanie Marshall, Step 2. Although another suitable project did not materialize, the walks did allow for many fascinating conversations. Our last walk together took place on the final full day of her residency. We went to the Toronto Islands at the invitation of Johanna Householder, who was staying at Artscape Gibraltar Point as she engaged in Site + Cycle, the F4A (Film for Artists) Collective’s 16mm and Super 8mm filmmaking residency. While we were at Gibraltar Point, Tobaron Waxman also invited us to drop into the studios of some of the artists in that year’s Intergenerational LGBT Artist Residency.

After our time at Gibraltar Point, Sakiko and I headed toward the Centre Island Pier, and Sakiko graciously agreed to allow me to record an interview with her as we walked. Our conversation, like the walk, was intentionally rambling, touching on personal histories, previous conversations, events during Sakiko’s residency, and what was unfolding before us as I showed Sakiko a bit of “the island.” Our talking reflects multiple points of view—sometimes intuitive, sometimes observational, sometimes experiential, sometimes philosophical. That we can hold so many different and even contradictory perspectives, melding scientific, rational ideas with magical thinking, is for me a reflection of the human tendency and ability to think in movement, following trajectories that branch out in myriad directions. Even when we sometimes mishear or misunderstand each other’s point, these wayward tracks get woven into the complexity of our dialogue to form a complete but always still porous and open whole.

Initially, I pointed the camera to the view in front of us, but soon became interested in recording the gestural dance of her hands, which were very animated as they helped her to express herself and find the right English words for her ideas and thoughts.

I have excerpted here some moments from our longer conversation that for me seem relevant to the KinesTHESES project and to an understanding of Sakiko’s work.

We started with a question I wonder about for almost all the artists I work with, which is how they came to take up performance art as a practice. Like many performance artists, Sakiko began her art career as a painter.

Paul Couillard in conversation with Sakiko Yamaoka, August 15 2019: Part I (Origins)

At one point, I began to ask Sakiko about a work she had proposed to do in Toronto on one of our previous walks. I hadn’t thought that work would fit well with the themes of KinesTHESES, but I wanted to explore with her something she had said about beams of energy that come out of our eyes—a classic experiential notion but one not supported by scientific evidence. Before she could answer, however, our attention was captured by a plastic bag, which added an unexpected tactile-kinesthetic presence to our conversation. As lively matter, the bag had its own pace of conversation, and its intervention brought the surrounding sounds and activities into a different alignment with our exchange.

Paul Couillard in conversation with Sakiko Yamaoka, August 15 2019: Part II (Lively Matter)

After our interlude with the bag, we returned to my question about eye beams. The project Sakiko had proposed was for a café patio. She had suggested that some tables could have a sign placed on them, the type that restaurants often use to publicize their daily specials, but this sign would invite patrons to gaze uninhibited at the people around them. This exploration of the human gaze is related to a series of silent video works she has created in several countries under the title Sculpture of eye contacts, including Heartbreak #1, Heartbreak #3, and Heartbreak #4.

Paul Couillard in conversation with Sakiko Yamaoka, August 15 2019: Part III (Body Experience)

Eventually, Sakiko and I reached the pier. We walked out to the end, where we spent some time staring out over Lake Ontario. Thinking of our earlier encounter with the plastic bag, I was curious about Sakiko’s thoughts on the animateness of water.

Paul Couillard in conversation with Sakiko Yamaoka, August 15 2019: Part IV (Lake Ontario)

Our discussion eventually turned to performance art’s openness and unpredictability, the tension between the urge to control the outcome and a willingness to allow things to change in ways we may not have expected. Sakiko shared with me how her interests, intentions, and expectations as a performance artist have shifted over time.

Paul Couillard in conversation with Sakiko Yamaoka, August 15 2019: Part V (Movement of Energy)

Sakiko told me that she did not make works that had a particular “message,” but at the same time, she acknowledged that using one’s own body in an artwork—not the trained body of an athlete, or the beautiful body of a fashion model—is in itself a political act. In this final excerpt, Sakiko talks about a new project that she was planning to organize in the context of an international biennale scheduled to take place in Japan two months before the Olympic games. Of course this was before the pandemic disrupted so many activities around the world.

Paul Couillard in conversation with Sakiko Yamaoka, August 15 2019: Part VI (Politics)

By chance, just as I was reviewing my interview with Sakiko and selecting excerpts for the KinesTHESES Digital Toolkit, Out of Site Chicago happened to stream their Artist Focus with Sakiko Yamaoka, a conversation between ieke Trinks and with Sakiko, focusing in particular on Sakiko’s early performance work in public spaces. I find the two conversations to be very complementary. One moment that stands out in both conversations is when Sakiko talks about her first experience improvising performance in front of a video camera. Watching the video afterward, what struck Sakiko, and, if I understand her correctly, one of the reasons she was drawn to continue making performance, was because of a surprising feeling she had watching herself:

“I know her, but I don’t know her.”

Video still from Paul Couillard in conversation with Sakiko Yamaoka: Part I (Origins)

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