Process of Crystallization: an interview with Aki Sasamoto on process, practice, and presentation

by Daisy Nam*

Since 1976 when Brian O’Doherty’s essay, “Inside the White Cube” was published in ArtForum, artists and curators continue to discuss the ramifications of an artwork’s content relative to its context in gallery spaces and systems. On a balmy day this April, I met with artist Aki Sasamoto in her studio to speak with her about “in and out of the white cube,” the topic for this issue of Interventions.  I was intrigued by her take on the topic, because her performances have taken place in various contexts, always managing to be engaging, challenging, and thought-provoking.  Over green tea we talked about her process, practice, and presentation.  The interview is divided into four topics:  Intentionally Switching Sites; Process & Lifespan of the Work; Objects and Performance; and Tools.


Daisy Nam:  Do you think about the “white cube” when you are conceptualizing your work?

Aki Sasamoto: For me, it’s still important to work off of definitions. It seems useful especially when you hop around different mediums like I do. When you’re working in a new way, you start with the definition and then how to get beyond that. So the theater has the black box as something to work off of and in visual art it’s the white cube.  But before, it used to be the proscenium theatre or the salon.

DN: Do you, and if so, how do you alter the content in relationship to these formats and modes of presentation?

AS: I like to work both inside and outside simultaneously, not in the same given time but with the same piece.  Moving between different sites makes the content of the piece crystallized.  What’s the difference between a poetry jam or a performance in a gallery? I intentionally try to bring out the essence of the piece in these contexts.

DN: That reminds me of the piece I saw about mosquitoes, Skewed Lies. I saw one version in that exhibition in Miami that Rirkrit Tiravanija curated and the original version in MoMA PS1’s Greater New York. In Miami, the audience was a lively but odd mix of people – artists, curators, collectors, a lot of just partygoers (it was during Art Basel Miami Beach) – but they collectively understood and connected with your work even though it was a different context from PS1.

AS: For PS1, I had to make the work site-specific because the site, which was a basement, was so strong.  I made a choice: I had to either serve the site or just delete it and pretend it was a white cube. In the basement, I used the physical site to talk about “underground” vs. “above ground” worlds as topics in my performance.  Even though in the Miami space, which was in an office building, I could still talk about underground activities or darkness conceptually, “underground-ness” divorced from the literal relationship to the site and stood alone conceptually. It’s an example of crystallization of work. The content gets clearer, when you switch between sites whether inside or outside the white cube.

I need to create that distance.  I need to be a stranger to the work to notice.  I need to intentionally switch the sites, the background. And if I do the same things in the street, it will still work. In that sense, I’m performing like a street performer in the gallery space.

DN: Do you perform on the streets still?

AS: Not so much anymore, but I occasionally do neighborhood open mics and Sunday poetry readings. The point is that nobody who knows me is there. When I travel, I really like these kinds of places or just joining people who do perform on the streets.

DN:  Going back to the audience, what’s your relationship with the audience?

AS: I do notice that I don’t perform for them or to them. I’ve had a couple incidents where I accidentally bumped into people with my objects while performing; it made me realize that I’m not focusing on them. I just exist as an object and they have to go around me.


DN: Is there a final work when you have multiple performances with the same topic?

AS:  I’m not doing works in progress towards a finished piece and there’s no final work. I don’t really have an epiphany or a peak. But when the concept gets crystallized or crystal clear, I get bored.

DN: And do you come back to the piece years later?

AS: That’s when it gets interesting… the life of the piece.  I just made a book, Molasses. It’s another medium I’m working with that exists beyond the theater space or gallery space.

DN: I just read it online!

AS: Nice! I’m interested in the medium because with a book you can come back to the work. You’re not going to read the book repeatedly in one year. With “masterpieces” like Shakespeare (for me, it’s Camus) you read it as a teenager and then as a 20-year-old and it’s completely different.  I want artwork to be like that too.

DN:  I noticed that too when reading your new book. I remember talking about certain things and then seeing them within the context of a book – the eyeglasses, for example.

I remember when you were figuring it out as a sculptural component in your   performance and you were wondering how you were going to make it.  And then I saw it as a photograph (the eyeglasses were wrapped around the punching bag) that accompanied text. It opened up a different dimension of the work for me.

AS: Ah yes. The boxing ring is amazing…


DN: Your work tells a story through a mix of sculptural and performative elements, especially movement.

AS: “In and out” is interesting not just when talking about a site, but in terms of medium too. I’m trying to talk about things that exist between human beings and objects.  I have to physically move in between them to make sure it exists.  And so it doesn’t get essentialized in one object and event.

Performance is often considered as an event usually, so I fight that. I have to perform a work many times so it doesn’t become just one opening night performance. I become part of the installation and need to perform multiple times.

DN: In your piece for the 2010 Whitney Biennial, some people thought it was just an installation – they only saw the objects in between your scheduled performances. The objects were active in a sense because the sounds of the rooms were picked up on microphones and recorded and then the live streamed in your performances.

AS: I think there has to be 100% from both the object and performance.  But when I see objects reminiscent of performance, I just feel left out. I’m not going to credit just the objects as a performance. I see it like this with performative work: if I didn’t experience it, I don’t want to be pulled in by the objects.  Those objects are not the art, it’s the art world or art systems.

DN: That reminds me of this exhibition I learned about at MOCA in Los Angeles in the 90’s, Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object.  The show presented the objects from and around performances – drawings; photographs; film and video documentation; and ephemera.  Value and emphasis were on the objects and not the performance itself. I didn’t see the show, but it sounds quite depressing… all these objects dead without action.  That missed-out feeling you were talking about.

AS: To me, it seems that the performance is better than the reminiscent objects. I don’t disapprove of exhibitions like the MOCA show, but it has to be excellent.  The objects in a sense have to function as a bridging medium to the imaginative world of the other.  It’s the same as the museum of natural history or anthropology.  For example, the tools that ancient people used in the Stone Age make me curious. When I look at the objects, I want to be taken somewhere far away, a different culture in order to stimulate the imagination.

DN: Could I ask what you would do if someone wanted to acquire your Whitney piece for instance?

AS: How I’m approaching it, if someone wanted to support the work, it comes with the whole installation with the performance.

DN: And what do you think about re-performance with actors, for example Marina Abramović’s MoMA show?

AS: It would be really hard to not have my personal experience and so I don’t think I could have actors. There’s no action without my experience. But I think that’s how the book can function – it gives the ability to come back to the work, and gives another point of access other than the installation.  But documentation and video doesn’t work for me since I’m not a video artist really.


DN:  Could you tell me more about Mexico where you just were?

AS:  Yes, l was there last month.  I performed in this funky gallery that’s in an exclusive club, kind of like SoHo House.  I did a TED-like talk to 100 businessmen. But it was still similar to a street performance, a shift in context, since I dealt with people I don’t know.  I know I really have to crystallize the content because they didn’t share a certain jargon or have common knowledge of what performance should be. In my performance I talked about how to use an idea to make something happen. I used myself as an example as an artist and how I make things; they could apply this example to their endeavors to succeed.

I talked about my trip to India as an artist chosen by the Japan Foundation.  The government official at the Foundation told me that he was in the culture department in foreign affairs just as a job and not because he necessarily liked art. He wanted to use art to make Japanese foreign affairs with countries run smoothly. He told me, “For me, you’re just a tool.”  I loved that idea! Because I wasn’t in the usual sticky conversations: “What’s the value of art?” or “What kind of art is cool or not?” so I just focused on becoming a better tool.  I could then face my process of making art more genuinely.  So that’s the discussion I had with the businessmen… ok let’s talk about tools. So I had real tools in my hand.

DN: What kind of tools did you use?

AS: Ice picks! I dressed up in a suit and in between my graphs, presentation, and discussions I popped balloons with the ice pick. This kind of performance I can do in the street too.  And I want the piece to be like that.

Aki Sasamoto lives and works in New York.  In addition to her art practice, Sasamoto co-founded and co-directs Culture Push.

*Daisy Nam is a first year student in the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University, and also organizes Public Programs at the School of the Arts.