Artist profile: 66b/cell – Mariana Verdaasdonk & Tetsutoshi Tabata

66bcell living lens

Living Lens. Image courtesy of 66b/cell

It’s a real treat for me to be able to introduce you two very creative forces: Mariana Verdaasdonk and Tetsutoshi Tabata, who together are 66b/cell, a Tokyo-based creative collective working in theatres, galleries, museums, and beyond.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mariana and Tetsu when they began collaborating with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney. They were working on developing an extraordinary immersive digital installation which is now complete and part of the current Annette Kellerman exhibition. Go see. It’s spellbinding. You can read more about how 66b/cell created this work here. Having witnessed what they can do and having spent time talking to them about many things creative I knew I had to profile them here.

But first, some background about both artists.

Dutch-Australian, Mariana Verdaasdonk, based herself in Tokyo in the 1990s to study the martial art Aikido and the Japanese dance-theatre, Butoh. She co-founded collective 66b/cell as a result of work combining body movement and multimedia. Investigating the fusion of art and technology at a deeper level, she completed a practice-led PhD at Queensland University of Technology in 2008. Mariana has presented many performance and installation-based works in a range of sites, including Ars Electronica, Tacheles Theatersaal Berlin, Japan Virtual Reality Society, Glow Festival Eindhoven, Sydney Powerhouse Museum, Seoul International Dance Festival, Brisbane Festival, as well as at various media art and dance conferences in Australia, Japan and the USA.

Tetsutoshi Tabata, co-founder of 66b/cell, is a visual artist and artistic director working in the area of dance, theatre and installation. Previously also working as an invited researcher investigating visual environments for dance performance, his ongoing work includes image creation for large-scale projection systems, as well as architectural mappings of visual images to building surfaces. Performances and presentations include media arts festival Ars Electronica, The Japan Virtual Reality Society, All Korea Sports Festival, the Seoul International Dance Festival, the Adelaide Festival, the Brisbane Festival, Sydney Powerhouse Museum, Miraikan Science Museum Tokyo, as well as various stage performances and installations in Australia, USA, Europe and Asia.

The responses below are captured in Mariana’s voice but include Tetsu’s comments.

Why does art matter?

These four words of a seemingly simple question provoke a complexity of others: Does art matter? And if so, then why? Or that eternally confounding one, What is art? Or the often quizzical query in reference to contemporary art, What makes that particular thing a work of art? And further, what of art’s importance in a world where so many other things, issues, problems — indeed other ‘matters’ — most certainly do ‘matter’? So many threads unravel from the original question that it is simply not possible to unwind them here at length. So broad brushstrokes are called for… Art, that is: literary, fine art, visual art, dance, theatre, photography, film, music, design, artisan art-crafts… are all, needless to say, a plethora. Already so woven and integrated into our lives that, by sheer fact of their entanglement, they do matter. They are integral. A means of aesthetic, sensory or even utilitarian experience; a way to escape, inspire or entertain; a vehicle for respite or contemplation; a channel for social, political or institutional insights. Works of art can uplift and galvanise, displace or shake us from held beliefs. They can induce a sense of unease, pleasure or wonder. From the monumental to the less imposing. Even in simple, everyday objects. Something speaks. If you listen. All of this is why… art…does… matter.

Tell us about your art practice. What does it consist of now? How has it evolved?

Our practice is hybrid, interdisciplinary: dance, movement, visuals, sound, theatre, installation. It emerged initially through inquiry into projected visual media and body movement, specifically inspired by the Japanese dance-form called Butoh, which uses an image-based sensory approach to devising movement. Our ‘group’, 66b/cell, is a loose project-based collective working in theatres, galleries, museums, outdoor and in-between fluid spaces. Work has run the gamut from spectacle performances using extreme costuming and lurid visuals performed in nightclubs, to minimalist black and white, to large and small-scale projection mapping, to organic textures and sculptural installations.

66 bcell Kyoto Jellyfish

Kyoto Jellyfish. Image courtesy of 66b/cell

What ideas are at the heart of your art?

I suppose a fundamental idea is that to be human is to be in relation to; it is contextual and interrelated. Whether this is to the natural world, to other people, or to objects; indeed, to all of the these. The “I”, then, is a plural “we”. Another idea is the Japanese concept of “ma”, which uses the Chinese character for sun, hi, shining through a gate, mon. In Japanese art traditions, among other things, it is the empty space in an ink painting or the suspended pause in comedy. It is a spatio-temporal moment, or space in between. Here it shares similarities with, yet is not adequately conveyed through, the Western notion of ‘negative space’. A phrase I initially coined to describe the sensory connections between dancers, visual images and sounds in our work, is ‘poetic felt space’, and I continue to explore this through movement and imagery. An idea, or rather an image, that my partner, Tetsu, keeps in mind, is the rather Zen-like moon shining in a pond of water. A fleeting moment that if scooped by the hands, slips and dissolves through the fingers. So when he experiences a moment, or an image that he’d like to capture, create or manipulate, he tries to be mindful of the potential for dissolution: if the image is too forced or ‘over processed’, the result could be contrived and loses integrity; while if the treatment is too little, on the other hand, the outcome could be too raw, and again might lack the quality of the preliminary idea or impetus.

What motivates you to create?

Curiosity, the imagination, the need to inquire and to express. Motivation, linked to inspiration, takes on a shimmering quality. Something is triggered, sparked, activated. From a word, line of text, or philosophical concept; from an image, dream, feeling, texture, movement, or a vision in nature. Animals, plants, rocks, textures, patterns, the Australian landscape, other art works, dancers, people, news, social conditions — all inspire and provoke. For Tetsu, in making a new piece, it is the starting of a new journey leading to new knowledge and learning, that he finds particularly motivating. For me, it frequently derives from the need to move my body, to express an upwelling of emotion. An impulse to create, or recreate, in tangible form. And often an urge towards a collective intelligence. To share all this with others. We are motivated to continue when we get feedback from collaborative partners, from audience members, and when we see the playful interactions of children in our installation.

What advice would you provide for someone who told you they really don’t know how to go about understanding art?

As art covers an array of mediums and genres, I’ll use broad brushstrokes again to answer this one. To ‘understand’ implies an attempt to ‘get’ or ‘grasp’ an art work. Some people may feel intimidated by, or wonder at, the obscure or abstract nature of a particular piece. So perhaps one thing to do is to keep an open mind, to hold back or let go of immediate judgements of the cerebral kind. One could appreciate the formal qualities, the colour, texture, shape, movement, light. Or maybe ‘enter’ a work, ‘dance’ with it. Become aware of any visceral, kinaesthetic sensations or emotions that may arise — feel and experience the work. Listen to how it ‘speaks’, its rhythm, mood and voice. Then consider its wider context, the artist and the artist’s oeuvre, the conditions of the work’s existence.

What are your top tips for getting into the creative zone?

The creative zone is all around. Personally, it’s not something I distinguish as being in or out of. Though often there’s a distinct feeling of being in a state of flow. Having a sketch pad on hand is always helpful! Becoming aware and mindful of the things, the small moments, the details, around you. Or sometimes a soft focus is in order. Letting things be. Being open to an impulse, an urge to ‘make’ something, be it a mark or a movement; then slowing down, allowing things to emerge. So a balance, an interplay, between ‘making’ and ‘letting’. This is something impressed upon me by past Butoh teachers.

A heartfelt and joyous ありがとうございます (thank you) to Mariana and Tetsu for their words on why art matters. If you’re in Sydney, pop into MAAS Powerhouse Museum and see 66b/cell’s work in action. Or check out more work by 66b/cell via their website.

Annette Kellerman installation 66bcell

Annette Kellerman Installation. Image courtesy of 66b/cell.