A Seventh Impression of Kamepao, 8/02/99
After waking again at 5am, breakfast and more free play, including attempts to make the largest soap bubble in the world, by 9:30am, we were free for a day to rest. Most of the time was spent writing reports, lounging around and snoozing. One of the members who participated last year and this year left at the completion of the camp. A curator from a museum in Hiroshima came to look on, but, through a case of miscommunication, missed the camp. Unfortunately she only saw the empty shell of Kamepao. Discussion center around the objects, their shapes and materials. After all, isn't that what art is anyway? My question, which may have been answered, is "What would the Kamepao Project Team want with a museum anyway?" And at the same time, "What would a curator want with Kamepao?" Certainly there are advantages in terms of exposure for Kamepao, but then again, a museum has never really been a place to set things into action. Unfortunately a museum has adopted the stagnant role of being a place in which objects are safely looked at, and once seen they can be simply thought about, rather than acted upon. Does Kamepao have an interest in that reception? Despite the members' previous artworks often set in that environment, Kamepao, as well as some of their personal future works, seems to be moving away from this stagnant environment. My personal impression is that just seeing is too safe. Seeing and buying are the markets of entertainment and commercialism. I would hope there could be more involved with art.
The specific case of Japan, in terms of language and culture, adds another dimension to the case of Kamepao which is of particular interest to me. Imbedded in the language of Japanese is an hierarchy of address. Depending on who is speaking to who, in terms of social position, age, sex, and number of times met, the form of address is different. In this way, one of the most complicated things, at least for a non-native Japanese speaker, is trying to decipher what form to use in every situation. Each conversation always seems to be a living moment: you can't just speak, but have to take multiple things into consideration, and then decide how to make your phrase, request, or statement. This mostly concerns a certain amount of humility in which the speaker expresses and a certain amount of honor in which the speaker offers to the person spoken to. Much of this is determined by a person's position in regards to a group - those within the group tend to speak more casually with others, while those outside the group, when speaking to those within the group tend to speak more formally. On top of this is also simply the natural tendency to be polite. Since everyone is inside and outside a group at the same time, everyone has the same issues to contend with in simply making a sentence. For the native Japanese speaker, this probably comes naturally. I am envious and impressed when I see native Japanese speakers who are so versatile in speaking to a wide range of individuals, freely switching between different forms of address.
Although it could be argued that these issues don't exist for children, they certainly exist to a lesser extent. Children are too young to have to be conscious of so many cultural and social customs. Children also are excused for making slip ups in address, simply because they are children. I also, as a non-native speaker of Japanese, am often excused for making certain slip ups. Sometimes this is obviously helpful, but in terms of learning, it may be more productive on occasion to swallow the bitter medicine.
Watching this difference made for an interesting lingual, social, and cultural cultural study. The parents, in speaking with each other, used certain forms of address, seemingly layered with customary phrases which often seem artificial. When parents speak to Kamepao members there seems to be a similar quality. This is not to say that their appreciation is not sincere, it was obvious that most of the parents sincerely acknowledged what was being done for their children and were deeply grateful. Still, these customary phrases are things that should be said and therefore are. Yet many other things are said or otherwise expressed that show sincerity.
There seems to be a social rule that if certain things are not said, or certain behaviors are not met, there is a lack of appreciation. But often also if all of the rules are followed, the same could be deducted. I mention this all by way of pointing out the difference when it comes to children. For an adult to speak to a child, there seems to be a freedom from many of these social codes. First of all, the position of the adult is higher hierarchically than the child, so "talking down" is acceptable socially. At the same time, children tend to speak directly about what they want or like or don't want or like. For adults to express these personal preferences, it is much more complicated, always taking into consideration the feelings of the person spoken to.
As Kamepao is a way for children to unwind, it is also a way for adults to set aside this complicated decision making and simply express themselves openly. I found it enjoyable to talk to children, but then if I turned to an adult who was next to me, I found all of these social responsibilities rushing in. I found myself hesitant to speak to adults. It also seemed that, if I was working with a child, and a parent was working with the same child, we would speak to each other through the child. The parents seemed just as hesitant to speak to me. It was as if we didn't want to break the protective bubble we were playing in. In this way, Kamepao does not only exist for the psychological maintenance of children, but also for the psychological maintenance of adults.
This is not to say that these social language customs are a negative thing. Languages in all cultures have similar codes of address. These may in fact be what makes language interesting. Communication is not just the application of words to an idea. And even if it was, the simple gap between words and ideas alone seems a huge valley to try to fill. It seems only natural then to fill it with other means of expression. In this way, what is said is not always what is expressed or meant. In speaking to someone directly, many things can be guessed through body language and facial expression alone. Which makes speaking on the telephone or communication through e-mail or letters a challenge of spoken language in its raw state in the former, and written language in its raw state in the latter. In all cases of communication, the instance of misinterpretation has consequences. To repair in the aftermath of those consequences is also included in the role of language. With every word spoken, a series of words is needed to define the previous. This is how I would define Jacques Derrida's writing - a backpeddling to define a word previously used until the next new word can be used. One word launches a paragraph about that word, while that one paragraph alone launches several paragraphs, one for each word. One can quickly see how endless writing can be.
Yet how could anyone speak or write within such a complicated impossibility of expression? In the same way, James Joyce packs one word with multiple meanings yet still manages to express something, so too can all people use language. The use of customary expressions or cliches often seeks to avoid this backpeddling by trying to apply single definitions to phrases. Yet an overuse of these phrases tends to point to an insincerity by way of not choosing a personal way to express thanks, for instance, but instead relying on set phrases. But even with customary phrases, when one is 'supposed' to say something and does so, they may feel a gap between what is felt and what is said. So the customary phrase itself then needs additives. These two things together, the ease and social necessity of the use of customary phrases, plus an attempt at an individual definition of one's own feelings seems to be what language, in a cultural context consists of. Yet the context of language is culture itself therefore saying that language cannot exist out of its own context.
Although this exploration of language and meaning, especially in the Japanese context is a personal interest of mine, I hope that my thoughts inspired by what I observed during Kamepao can somehow contribute to thoughts about how Kamepao is also an impossible escape. To play within the metaphor of a turtle for a day can never erase the aftermath of an earthquake or everyday psychological turmoil. Nor is this its purpose. Only by using Kamepao within a context that it is inherently a component of can it be productive. To view Kamepao as if it were an object alone, as a shell or as an artwork, would be similar to trying to view language regardless of its meaning. The objects of Kamepao would be randomly assembled letters, where maybe by chance something interesting could appear, but its simply not the point.