“What I most remember about the exercises is that everybody took the simulated disaster very seriously but at the same time enjoyed it,” writes artist Nile Koetting about the school evacuation drills he remembers as a child growing up in Japan. He’s discussing his performance and installation ‘Remain Calm’ via email ahead of its latest iteration, taking place at Creamcake’s second of three Paradise Found music and performance events at Berlin’s Klosterruine on July 27. “There was no simulation of collective panic or excitement; it was a case of immersion in the same situation, while maintaining a sense of distance from others,” the Berlin and Tokyo-based artist adds about these emergency exercises that were a major source of inspiration for the work. “We were also able to act out the scenario of ‘remaining calm.’”
Koetting’s practice combines installation, performance, light and sound in a manner that considers the connections between artist and audience, drawing from the tropes of theatre with an interest in technology, human solidarity and crisis. As he notes: “I have always been interested in space[s] that can be redone or changed in the context of the connectivity arising in the work.” Take, for instance, his collaboration with Tokyo-based electronic musician Nozomu Matsumoto last year at London’s Somerset House, ‘Climatotherapy’. In this project, electric blue carpet, lighting, ambient sound and an Alexa smart home device set the stage for guided listening sessions by Matsumoto that evoked contemporary wellness culture as much as technological over-saturation. This theatrical approach—that Koetting describes with the term ‘scenography’—points towards the strange sense of passivity and confused collectivity in the present day, where human agency is rethought in the face of technological extensions and environmental unpredictability. It’s an approach that’s reinforced by a Bruno Latour quote sent to me by Koetting from 2018’s Down to Earth, which poignantly raises such questions through the language of theatre:
“Today, the decor, the wings, the background, the whole building have come on stage and are competing with the actors for the principal role. This changes all the scripts, suggests other endings. Humans are no longer the only actors, even though they still see themselves entrusted with a role that is much too important for them.”
With this in mind, Koetting took the time to talk about the aestheticisation of disaster, elevator music and the role of the artist in the age of algorithms.
**‘Remain Calm’ is inspired by nationwide fire and evacuation drills in Japan. Is there a particular cultural history regarding disaster and risk that’s specific to Japan in the project? How does this translate globally?
Nile Koetting: The disaster-prevention exercises I experienced in schools in Japan are a major basis of ‘Remain Calm’. The Great Hanshin Earthquake, which did great damage to the city of Kobe, occurred when I was five years old. To raise awareness of the need to prevent disasters is an extremely vital part of school education.
In the evacuation drills at my school, we were informed of the day on which there was going to be an exercise but not the time when it would start. So that day we were in class as usual when suddenly an announcement came over the PA system that a major earthquake had just occurred. For several minutes the speaker emitted recorded rumblings and the sound of buildings collapsing. During this time, we students stayed huddled under our desks. Then came another announcement that a fire had broken out in the science room. A fog machine made it look like smoke was coming out of the doorway there. We held hands with our classmates and evacuated to the playground outside, making sure not to go down the corridor by the science room. It was very easy to understand and like a little play.
This odd group performance was not put on for a certain audience. At the starting point of its creation we were students and felt a vague solidarity in the environment surrounding us. How can we find a solidarity of the sort needed to confront intangible crises such as climate change in the post-globalism age? This question is of keen interest to me in my production of works. ‘Remain Calm’ grew out of my experiences in Japan but I think at its core is something very fundamental, something deriving from physical commonality.
**Do you think much about the aesthetics or aestheticisation of disasters and risk? For instance, I feel like airline ‘in flight safety demonstrations’ are almost a genre of video in themselves.
NK: That’s a very interesting question. I have put a cabin safety instruction in some of my works.
Actually, Air France has recently been using a safety instruction video that is choreographed like an upbeat ballet performance, and I hear Virgin America is producing one that will look like a musical. As I mentioned earlier about my experience of the disaster-prevention exercises, serious actions do not have to be boring. They can be charming because of the serious nature and just about anything can have a playful element, I believe. Under capitalism, all sorts of things are converted into value. In this situation ‘safety demonstration aesthetics’ somehow strikes me as a term in touch with life.
** Is there a relationship between your work and any of the discourses around ambient music?
NK: I have never felt any relationship with ambient music as a genre but I am highly interested in music existing within a relationship with place, and its psychological and physical action. I am thinking of [Brian] Eno’s ‘Music for Airports’ and [Erik] Satie’s furniture-like compositions.
In my university days, I researched the history of elevator music. I read that it began with music that was played in the elevators going up to the observation deck on the Empire State Building in the 1930s. Those elevators moved at high speeds, which was very rare at the time, and they played waltzes to allay any fear that might be felt by the passengers. In a sense, it is an act of choreographing people. In my art as well, I handle sound as that kind of linguistic material. I think ambient music provides an example that is readily comprehensible.
** Do you have any particular thoughts on smart home technology? I know you’ve used Amazon’s Alexa before in your work. What are your thoughts on our behaviour and domestic experiences getting guided by algorithmic suggestions?
NK: I think of smart home technology as something like friendly aliens. Even more than the newest technology of other types that has still not taken shape, smart home technology is being animated and finding its way into our lives. Like microbiomes, it is melting into our lives as a kind of alien companion.
Animism is not something confined to the Orient or indigenous cultures; I sense a connection bearing a strong resemblance to it in new technology, and especially the commercialised variety.
On the subject of algorithms, I would like to mention my work ‘Sustainable Hours’. I created it with products that were suggested to me by the algorithm on Amazon, with the idea of using ready-made objects in the Amazon Age.
So we are in transition from the paradigm of artist as agent to that of artist guided by algorithms. As I see it, acceptance of this will allow a mirror-like reflection of the circumstances around our present and the environment we inhabit.**