Simo Kellokumpu in conversation on “choreography as reading practice” and Japanese manga

Born in Lapland, Finland, Simo Kellokumpu is an artist, choreographer, and researcher based in Helsinki. He received his DfA (Doctor of Arts) from the Performing Arts Research Center, Theatre Academy Finland in 2019. His artistic works examine the choreographic relations between corporeality and materiality in various scales and contexts. His work operates in the entanglement of contemporary speculative fiction, interplanetary culture, and queer(ing) space. Kellokumpu has been collaborating with the French artist and researcher Vincent Roumagnac since 2010, and he is a founding member of the Q̶͈̬̿͝l̴̛̬̝̒o̵̰̍̔ǘ̴̼ḓ̷̟̓̅s̷̻̦̆Q̸̠̿͒u̷͓͚͊̽A̸̛̘͝r̷̖͈̀͝ṭ̶̏͘z̶̩̩͛  research cluster with Outi Condit and Vincent Roumagnac.       

    Currently, Kellokumpu is working on his ongoing project Astrotrilogy (pompom, Tokyo, 2017/8,  ri:vr, Paris, 2019 / åstra, San Francisco, 2020) in collaboration with Vincent Roumagnac and Nao Yazawa. Our conversation started when he recently presented its second episode ri:vr in Paris in December 2019 and Multiple Spirits invited him to take part in the exhibition “When It Waxes and Wanes” in Vienna. The following is based on a correspondence by email where we discussed his practices and works in context of Japanese manga and its potentiality.

Mika Maruyama (Multiple Spirits:):  I want to start by getting into the theoretical background and choreographic practice of your doctoral research project dealing with “choreography as reading practice,” which includes pompom that you made in Tokyo in 2017. Especially in this work, you work on choreographic movements and bodily tensions within your own body through your experiences and interpretations of the space of Tokyo and its temporariness, producing a performative installation consisting of films, performances, and Japanese manga. I couldn’t see your performance in Tokyo, but my colleague Mai Endo describes her experience of the work as witnessing your existence multiplying into different levels at once. To her, the work demonstrated the choreography/body as a conduit for transformative reactions to space. At the same time, how you use Japanese manga inside the installation sheds light on the contemporary choreographic practice from a different perspective. This is because it seems that the bodily expression in the manga deals not with artistic expression or movements but with bodily transformations happening inside your body. Could you tell me about the basic thinking behind the work as well as how you came to use Japanese manga in terms of “choreography as reading practice”?

Simo Kellokumpu: pompom is a collaborative work by three artists: myself, French director and artist-researcher Vincent Roumagnac, and Japanese manga-artist Nao Yazawa. The work brings together my choreographic reading practice, Vincent’s visual staging, and Nao’s practice as a manga artist. The project filters experiential movements of Tokyo by compounding my Western, site-specific, and context responsive choreographic practice with contemporary science fiction and Japanese manga. The starting points for the working plan of the project lay in questions such as: How, as a guest, does one embody contemporary Tokyo through the lens of movement? How does Tokyo and its moving spaces, mobility systems, and transforming materiality shapeshift the choreographer’s body? How do these movements produce Tokyo? What kind of choreographic art emerges by inhabiting and translating these massive movements with Japanese manga? What kind of critical and material encounters, parallel interests, translations, transpositions, paradoxes, and tensions are emerging when intimate Western practice meets the megalopolis of Tokyo through a dialogue with Japanese manga? In short, the scale of this choreographic installation work complements the other works done in my doctoral artistic research project, namely in examining the choreographic embodiment of the relations between movement, place and material surroundings within the framework of the hyper-mobile megalopolis Tokyo. Vincent and I spent three months in autumn 2017 in Tokyo at Tokyo Arts and Space (TOKAS) residency to process this work.
    I am interested in contemporary science fiction as a critical backdrop to the questions concerning embodiment, movement, and corporeality. Japanese manga has had a big impact on Western science fiction. I am interested in the visualization of the movement dynamics in Japanese manga and the way manga is viewed. While working with Nao, I also learned that working with the movement of the eye while looking at manga is important. And manga is one of the Japanese cultural fields in which all kinds of imaginary embodiments take place. These reasons made sense to my research questions, and to move in this direction in this project felt like the right artistic choice.

Mika: Could you also tell me more about how you worked with Nao for pompom? I think your collaboration does not take the form of simply asking her to make a manga. Instead,  you needed to communicate with her to allow a deeper understanding of each other’s works since you have worked in different fields and have different backgrounds or perspectives. And for you, this also entailed a deeper understanding of manga and its embodiment, movement, and corporeality within it. At the same time, Japanese science fiction has also developed historically with the influence of Western science fiction. So how do you position contemporary compounds of Western practices and Japanese culture that you encountered during the production in your choreographic practice and in contemporary science fiction in general?

pompom, Tokyo, 2017
Photo: Vincent Roumagnac

Simo:  In the beginning, we, me and Vincent, created a queer manga character called pompom and shot five videos in five different Tokyo locations in which I experimented with the choreography as reading practice. In the videos of pompom, I work with the sensitivity to the movements that constitute the chosen place from everyday perceived movements to planetary and galactic ones. Due to the idea of the whole work, in the videos, I stay in one spot and do not move around. It is important to note that in the videos, I do not try to become a manga character, but the decision to wear a blue wig is a visual component and prop, which points to a negotiation at the meeting point with Japanese manga culture. It is obviously impossible to embody a cultural environment in a short period of time when you do not have socio-historical or linguistic experience and understanding. This ‘mission impossible’ was one of the motivating factors of the project, and it also functioned as a catalyst for learning about the cultural tectonic movements and different artistic practices that were at stake.
    The installation is based on setting the videos and manga parallel to each other in a space where the viewer can experience the work by forming a dialogue between these two mediums. My embodied live-performance complements this by being an experiment in and with the gallery space and the movements opening in and through it. In each scene of the manga, pompom connects with the location in a specific way – either by his own actions or by meeting an active agent or entity in the location. The connection causes the location to transform into nebula, so each scene combines a micro-scene with a galactic one by extending movements at hand towards the cosmic scale. When pompom crashes back to the Earth from the space-trip, one body-liquid leaks out and the manga finishes with a specific affect. Teleportation, anti/superheroism, and shapeshifting were part of our vocabulary during the process, for example from the viewpoint of being able to be in many places simultaneously. During the work, I also wanted to find out more about the independent queer manga culture. And I studied the history of Japanese science fiction in parallel with having great discussions with Nao. 

From the manga pompom, 2017

    We found a common ground quite easily, and working together was also really fun. In the beginning, we showed the videos to Nao and I explained how I was interested in the notion of movement and how I was experimenting with reading in terms of embodied practice. We discussed how working with manga would make sense within the context of responsive practice, and in the end, Nao asked us to write a detailed storyline for a manga to work with. The storyline of the manga panels is based on the experiments in those five different locations where we shot the videos. We met regularly during the working period and processed the storyline together, and in every meeting, Nao brought sketches for the manga to be discussed. We agreed that my role was to work as the choreographer of the manga, in the sense that I set the framework, the basic dramaturgy, movements, and expressions of the character in a detailed manner, and Nao worked in dialogue with those artistic directions.

Mika: How did you create the queer character pompom with Vincent, especially in relation to Tokyo and the notion of queer(ing) space?  As a person coming from a Japanese speaking context, who has always read manga, I sometimes have difficulties to work on that notion in relation to manga, and therefore I’m really interested in how you read these contexts and formats of independent queer manga (if this genre exists… ). Also, the first time I read the manga of pompom, I immediately noticed aspects of teleportation as the character’s body undergoes space-trips between various spatialities and temporalities with different movements, transformations and affects. But at the same time, the narrative (what, in your words, could perhaps be called anti/superheroism) of the repetition (but in a different way) happening in each space shows another ‘mission impossible’, not in a negative way but as something closer to what feminism/queer discourse and practice have done so far. Because reading and writing (and making of choreography in your practice) always involve a certain impossibility.  Could you elaborate on these aspects in your practice?

Simo: For me, these embodiments in the manga perform and destabilize the particular outlines of something that I might call a ‘normative subject’. This kind of embodiment that we worked with, performs, for example, displacement as a state of being and the process of deviance from my perspective, while it also materializes the question of how the relation between the unknown and the familiar unfolds in these surroundings. It was my first time in Tokyo ever, and of course, there were many obvious cultural movements at stake in the beginning, but my role as a guest was to embrace all that. This does not mean to accept my position as ‘a tourist’, but to work with my place, and how to take place, in cultural and social between-spaces. Actually, this is how I work all the time. The cultural context here amplified this process, and manga is a way to respond to these intimate questions with the awareness of such particular cultural context that I was, at the same time, learning. For me, the manga portrays these deviations, and it functions also as an attempt to alter the parameters between the intimate and the normative. Science-fiction and fantasy are fields, which portray alternatives for prevailing conditions and that is why I gravitate to those fields.
    The character, or silhouette, of pompom emerged at the intersection of various intuitions when we were preparing the residency project before coming to Japan, and then it solidified during the first days of work in TOKAS. The initial motivation of the project was to be in physical contact with the hypermobility of Tokyo, but with the wish not to enter into direct impact, but rather via fictional leverage, a space/spacing of/through characterization, of detachment from the raw cultural face to face. We thus thought of creating a ‘character’. Earlier we had pondered the possibility of working from the figure of the astronaut, but we abandoned the idea quickly because it was historically and culturally too charged. In parallel to the research prior to the residency on Tokyo urban infrastructures, I began to take an interest in the representation of the city in Japanese painting, cinema, and manga, in order to collect various modes and regimes of representation of the megalopolis’ movements. It was at this point that the idea of ​​addressing/citing/approaching manga culture came to the fore. We then had to think of the character design in terms of soft encounters, not appropriation. We also wanted to work on the cloudy, the hybrid, the androgynous, on the floating and moving. Finally, we went to buy a wig in Akihabara for a test. And pompom appeared. That was it, in the western normcore contemporary clothes and only with the addition of the blue wig, in a state of becoming, almost manga… The simple gesture was enough, the wig operated like a touching point.  
    In the same idea of implementing a cautious, soft, wishfully subtle, and non-intrusive encounter with the city and Japanese culture, Vincent proposed to shoot the videos with a lens that would permit the environment to be slightly indirect, a bit out-of-focus. It was intended to address at the same time the awareness of the ever-present risk of colonialistic capture but also the uncertainty and fragility, maybe the promise-to-fail of the encounter. It would also trigger a dreamlike ambient that would allow the poetics of multitemporality and diffraction of the here-and-now-ness of the performance.

pompom, installation view of “When It Waxes and Wanes” at VBKÖ
Photo: Miae Son

Mika: After seeing your performance in Vienna, it is remarkable that, like pompom in the video, your performance/choreography doesn’t present your face. Your eyes are covered by the wig too, and therefore the gaze doesn’t work properly. People see your performance, but it seems that they don’t see your presence or they try to ignore it more or less. One of the audience members put it as frictions of presence happening in between fiction and reality. At the same time, for me, it is very interesting to see how you come back to ‘reality’ by taking off the wig and smoothly mingling with the crowd. But, inside the manga, we see pompom’s face and communication with a small creature. So, I want to hear more about the collaboration with Nao since, as far as I know, you are the first one to work with a professional manga-artist to produce an actual manga in relation to your choreographic practice.

Simo:  The performance is part of the work but the work can be shown also without it. In Japan we received the feedback that the work opens a new kind of way of looking at manga, because of how the material relations between the video, manga, and live performance are displayed. This kind of feed-back felt very meaningful for the whole project. For me it is a continuous dialogue and an experimentation of those relations, which can be also frictions.
    During making the manga, my role was to choreograph it so to speak. Nao responded with sketches to the script, which I made with Vincent, and through the sketches, which we then discussed in more detail. I especially remember the discussions on how we could portray that kind of experience and perception of movement, on which my choreographic thinking is based. These questions allowed our dialogue to go further, for example to the history of how manga-artists have responded to the development of cinema when it comes to capturing movement. Our collaboration with Nao continues; we are now working on the second episode of the Astrotrilogy and I have already received some sketches. It is always exciting to open those images and to see how the project is moving.     

Mika: I’m very curious that you are still collaborating with Nao for other episodes of the Astrotrilogy and I’m looking forward to seeing how the collaboration will develop further from the first set in Tokyo. Could you also tell me about the two other episodes in Paris and San Francisco? This conversation also reminds me that girls’ manga, which especially in the 1970s incorporated Western aesthetics and narratives of homosexuality or transsexuality often within a science fiction grammar, developed through representations of other cultures, as I imply in the exhibition “When It Waxes and Wanes”. Your starting point is the place, Tokyo, which has been represented in different media. As you relate differently to different spaces, how are you dealing with Paris and San Francisco as a specific space in your choreographic practice and collaboration with two other artists?

ri:vr, Paris, 2019
Photo: Vincent Roumagnac
åstra, San Francisco, 2020
Photo: Vincent Roumagnac
åstra, San Francisco, 2020

Simo: I work with context-responsive or place-responsive starting points, which in the following episodes of the Astrotrilogy has meant to take in and examine the places in which the process ‘takes place’ where we’ve been working. In Paris, the second episode was made in the residency in Cité internationale des Arts and then the third we processed during a one-month trip to San Francisco and California. In Paris, the piece called ri:vr emerged through the entanglement of planetary movements, torrential satellite-bound data flow, and cellular becomings conditioned by algorithmic wire-speed. In other words ri:vr presents an altered body as an incoherent place produced by the collision of various streams, fluxes and flows in presence: those aquatic and glaucous beings along the riverbank near the residency, and those running through the surrounding and incorporated electrical and algorithmic systems. The project also weirdly revisited the myth of a monster with living venomous snakes in place of hair.
    In San Francisco, the project called åstra dives into the history of planetary dances transforming them towards interplanetary dance and åstra incorporated the queer place-specific histories and computational components of Silicon Valley as well. In all these episodes, I work from the position of a guest temporarily visiting certain conditions, so I’m always trying to find a way to inhabit the contextual material circumstances by being critically aware of that position. This examination of the contextual and material circumstances many times produces traces, documents, and gestures that can be processed into an artwork. I have worked in these places with Vincent and we keep the dialogue open with Nao via emails. I will meet Nao now in March in Tokyo, and we will go through the manga for the second episode, which is exciting. So in the end, we will have three manga books in the Astrotrilogy project. We are looking for possibilities to install all three parts simultaneously and expose and share the project with the audience like that. Tokyo, where we started the project, would be a meaningful place to do that.

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