Interview: Rie Nakajima

Interview: Rie Nakajima

It was fantastic to see your performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall; it’s rare to see experimental sound on that sort of scale. How was it for you?

It was quite tough. The space was big. Everyone who knows my work was worried about if my object sound is loud enough in the space or not as I decided not to use any amplification. I thought it was important to perform alone and not to use any amplification this time to emphasise the sense of size and scale. The decision led me to perform in the auditorium. I wanted to make the performance sculptural. I didn’t know what it was going to be like, but I prefer to keep some space for unpredictable happenings. I had some worries but also thought it should be ok.

I heard an old interview where you mentioned the fact that you don’t play live too often.

I do play more often now. Before, I didn’t want to perform as I didn’t really know what it was in my practice. Also I don’t particularly like to be in front of people much. Sometimes people see something in you that you can’t see by yourself. I think I have continued as I have been curious to know what people see in my work.

Not only is the QE Hall quite large, but it’s also quite a formal concert situation: low lighting, all eyes to the front. I feel that your performance made quite an impact for breaking this “formality” up.

There are several contexts in this situation. One is the context of my own practice. Then there’s another context: Queen Elizabeth Hall, which is recognised as one of the important concert venues in UK – I understand this context but I am more interested in the third context, which belongs to the space itself – the high ceiling, stairs, the wooden stage in front, carpets on the aisles, fixed seats and so on. I try to find the relationships of these elements and bodies in my performance.

So you think of the space more architecturally, rather than in the form of its presupposed context?

I think it is important to understand the context you own. Then I can measure the distance between my context and the other context. Performing in different types of spaces has been very good practice for me as it tells me how open and not open my work is. It helps me to think how to develop further.

Is part of your practice to explore as many different types of venue as possible?

Yeah, I think so. It’s like with human beings; the more you meet…[laughs]

I don’t know what I want in the space. My attitude is very loose…so I found it difficult often to say what kind of place I want for my installation and performances. I find interesting characters in most of the places so. I feel that it’s so difficult to choose. I am not good at choosing generally as well.

I’m surprised that I haven’t come across more artists that question the stage as the focal point.

When I performed at Cafe OTO the first time in 2012, I did not perform in the stage area. I brought a table and chair next to the mixing desk. I was not trying to avoid the stage or anything, I was just thinking of the most interesting position to perform in the context. After someone told me musicians don’t choose where to be much…I didn’t know that. I like to decide where to be, where to put my sounds by myself.

Sometimes I need an idea or concept as a starting point. For this one, I thought about the space as a timeline: the stage could be the future, the back could be the past and the sides could be the present. My interest is in space and time, and I’m trying to find a point where space meets time and time meets space. That’s the main interest for me. By thinking in such a symbolic way, I tried to neutralise the context of the concert hall. You try to get something but you don’t reach it; that’s like the future. When you don’t see it but you feel it from the back; that’s more like the past. And then the sounds come from the back to front; that’s present. It’s passing; the moment you see it and start to hear it, it’s the moment that it’s past through future, and sometimes future through past. So that’s what I was thinking to develop the piece.

And was that particular symbolism unique to this space?

Yes. What is particular in that space of QEH is the fixed seating. Because of this, it was really hard for me to imagine how the audience was going to experience the space. If you’re fixed you really cannot move – if you can move, there is less notion of front and back. So first I have to deal with the character of ‘front’ and ‘back’ in this particular space.

Do you have much awareness of what the audience is doing while you are performing?

All my friends were explaining their experience during the concert to me, but I was too busy to observe people. It sounds like people behaved as I expected. It was interesting; I wanted to see that.

Despite the fact that the seating is fixed, it was interesting to see people turning their heads to see where you were heading next.

All these stories from the audience…I don’t think anybody experienced the same thing, in terms of the sound but also the environment. Some people saw the argument, or some saw the stuck kinetic device on the toy piano, apparently someone fixed it…I hear these different stories from people after the performance, which is really nice.

I think it obtained a particularly potent reaction from the audience.

This is what I really wanted to do. I didn’t want the piece to be completed only by me – somehow we have to meet in between, between passiveness and activeness. The audience perceives my performance, then they have to activate themselves…well, they don’t have to, but that’s ideal for me if the audience tries to see something or hear something.

Also this is my criteria when I’m seeing art. If I try to see something or listen to something, that’s kind of okay. It’s okay art. [laughs]

The applause at the end of your performance was ecstatic, but I also saw some people leaving before the end. Even in that case, they were stirred by the performance enough to want to act on it. It wasn’t a courteous applause at the end either – people wanted to express their enjoyment of the piece.

I thought it was a total failure! Towards the end I was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” I learned a lot from that. I’ve never performed to that many people, and just it’s impossible to hold all the tastes and behaviours…

I stayed until the end, by the way.

Where were you sitting?

Right next to the tin foil that was rolled down the steps.

Ah, okay.

One thing I noted in my review is how I felt that I could mentally place the sounds in space to begin with, but I lost that ability as the volume increased; I ended up just absorbing sound from all directions and lost the distinction between each component. It started to sound quite symphonious near the end, which was great in that venue.

Yeah, that was really difficult. I had two tests in the venue and then a one-hour soundcheck – that’s all. When I did the second test at site, I noticed I had to prepare my objects to be louder this time, because the instruments I brought with me weren’t producing enough volume for the space. Then I had to prepare and push myself a little bit more than usual. I don’t really push myself much in that way; I try to edit out my excited ideas for my performance normally.

Why is that?

I don’t know. If you really try to do something, I feel it’s going to go wrong; you’re so focussed on it that you don’t really hear the sound. I have a memory from when I was small, and my piano teacher was telling me to “listen to the sound! Listen! Listen!” Whenever I tried to listen she always said, “listen!” And when I didn’t really listen, she said that it’s okay. So I don’t know what the balance is. I try not to listen too much.

So it’s a way of preventing yourself from immersion beyond the point where you can properly perceive what’s happening?

Yeah. But the performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was an exception. That’s the most sculptural performance I’ve done actually. But I thought I could do it more; I mean, it could be better. That’s why at the end I was a little bit depressed!

The conclusion to the piece happened quite suddenly; the lights of the hall just came on again. Was that where the ending was for you?

Yes. For me it was. I had decided how to start and how to finish this time. What is important in my solo performance is to articulate the relationship between your body and the space in experience. When I did a performance in Bologna last October at Raum, I built up the sounds with kinetic devices and then switched them off gradually.

When it was finished and then there was no sound but I could clearly feel a shape of the space. It was really three-dimensional. The bodies of the audience and the space became together in the shape. It was a very good experience. Sometimes I decide whether I switch off all devices or just leave them on during my performance. It depends on what kind of shape and impression I want to leave.

It’s interesting to hear someone questioning how a performance should end, instead of simply fading out or falling silent.

Yes I think this happens in my solo performance more than collaborations. In solo, how to end is more like how you relate to your time and space. The question is intense and isolated. In collaboration performing together with someone is more like having a conversation. Everyone has different way to respond, it’s quite amazing.

So you enjoy collaborating with others?

It’s so nice.

I guess it’s interesting to see how others respond to your sound musically, as opposed to just playing out into the space.

I thought that it wouldn’t work at first. The first musical instrument I performed with was the guitar of David Cunningham at Slade School in 2011, I think. I was surprised how my object sounds could go well with his guitar.

So what’s coming up next for you?

I’m going to perform at Audiograft in March and now organising Sculpture3 which I curate with David Toop. It is an event that doesn’t have any forms. We are inviting artists, musicians, lecturers, writers and random people to realise an event. We’ve done two so far. The next one will be at Central St Martin on 31 March. Then I have some more exhibitions and performances in France, Japan and Italy this year.

I’m intrigued by that project with David Toop. I like the idea of just bringing in anyone to take part.

It’s really open. For the first one I didn’t know what it is going to be like yet so I wasn’t sure who to invite, I was just nodding to what David said…and then he said, “Rie, you should invite some people – this is our collaboration!” So I mentioned names of my friends Marie Roux, David Cunningham, Keiko Yamamoto – people who I enjoy collaborate with. Keiko and I have a band now.

A band?

Nothing has been done yet in public. We are trying to make songs. Everyone around us knows we are doing something but no one knows what we are really doing, as we also don’t really know either. I don’t know anything about bands anyway.

Have you played in a band before?

No, I think I like involving people – I get bored easily doing all by myself. I think it’s healthy to do both solo projects and collaborations.


ATTN review of The New Experimentalists:

Rie Nakajima’s website –