Magic Hour at the Nikkei National Museum
Magic Hour is the time just after sunrise or just before sunset, and is also the name of the latest exhibit at the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby. A product of the Instant Coffee Artist Collective, Magic Hour takes an unexpected and innovative look at the gems from the Nikkei National Museum collection, teasing out the magic hidden in the archives.
Asked about the aim of the of the exhibit, Director-Curator Beth Carter says, “Many museum exhibits can seem a bit static or regimented. We wanted to do an exhibit focused on the permanent collection, but with a twist. So we invited Instant Coffee to work with us and bring their collaborative, interactive and often mischievous approach to make the usually-hidden activities of collection management into a publicly-accessible event.”
The Nikkei National Museum is the only dedicated national repository of collections relating to Japanese Canadian culture and history. Says Carter, “Even though the museum is based in Burnaby, we serve all Japanese Canadians across the country. Hundreds of researchers and scholars visit or contact us each year to learn about the Japanese Canadian experience. We have a fascinating and unique collection of archives and artifacts which has been donated by community members which we carefully preserve and share through exhibits, publications, and programs.”
Currently the collection includes over 10,000 photographs and digital images, over 450 oral history recordings, over 25 metres of archival and textual materials, and over 2000 artefacts. Many of these collections can be viewed online at www.nikkeimuseum.org.
Instant Coffee is an artist and curatorial collective founded in 2000. It is currently based in Winnipeg and Vancouver, and the current members are Jinhan Ko, Khan Lee, Kelly Lycan, and Jenifer Papararo. They are invested in combining the social with the aesthetic, and have worked in public spaces to engage larger audiences. Instant Coffee has shown internationally and exhibited in many prominent art institutions as well as produced numerous Public Art projects. More information about their work can be found at www.instantcoffee.org
Instant Coffee previously had their artist studio in the Ming Sun/Uchida Building on Powell Street, adjacent to Oppenheimer Park. Through the process of trying to save the building from demolition, they became more aware of the history of Japanese Canadians. This is the first time that Instant Coffee has been afforded the opportunity to work with an historic collection. These collections are the legacy of the many people of Japanese descent who have made Canada their home since the 1800s.
The exhibit will continue to change through the course of the show, with a series of events which will invite interaction and intervention from the community. The public is encouraged to visit and revisit the exhibition to help provide direction or to see the changes made.
The NNM gratefully acknowledge the financial assistance of the BC Arts Council Innovations Fund, Province of British Columbia, and the Deux Mille Foundation.
Instant Coffee Collective: a collective interview
On January 31 I sat down with Instant Coffee Collective members Jinhan Ko, Khan Lee and Kelly Lycan (who arrived towards the end of the discussion). We were joined by Nikkei National Museum Director-Curator Beth Carter and Project Manager Sherri Kajiwara. In the main gallery the musical group Holy Hum were doing a soundcheck, providing an ambient soundtrack to our wideranging discussion of the current exhibit Magic Hour. The fourth member of the collective, Jenifer Papararo, was back home in Winnipeg and unable to participate.
JOHN I’ve been a part of a collective and I know it can be rewarding, but also a bit frustrating sometimes too.
JIN Well, it’s true that working in a collective manner is different, but I think it’s quite meaningful in a sense that one of the things we talk a lot about it is, like, nobody works alone, right? There’s this illusion of the hero, that people do it alone, but the reality is it’s actually always a team work. So in a way we sort of try to address that . . . you can’t build things alone. You need people who help you. It’s difficult, but it’s part of the process. Often the outcome is quite different than how I might imagine, because my conception is really different, and then when people come together to work together on a project, it often picks up some other sort of form or shape.
JOHN So you have to be willing to give over yourself to the collective, be willing to negotiate and maybe modify your original vision?
JIN I mean, you have to be open to aesthetic, right? But also this is something that I’ve come to really appreciate, this idea of how aesthetic can actually hold things together. We share an aesthetic, and therefore we can rally around it somehow.
KHAN Not everything is based on negotiation. Sometimes we do what we want to do, and unless there’s a problem it works really well, and it’s kind of like a festive way of working together. I used to be in a collective where we discussed everything, and came up with ideas, which were good, but it ends up taking so much time that sometimes you have a hard time actually getting things done. But the model that they (Instant Coffee) were taking on is slightly different, and I think it works really well.
BETH I was pretty impressed watching you guys work, because when you created the gallery, you obviously all know each other so well, there was this unspoken, “Jin’s going to go do that, and Kelly’s going to go do that,” and I think some of it was discussed in advance, but other parts you could just tell that you were happy to let a different person take the lead.
KHAN For example, Kelly does these things, and 90 percent of the time it works just fine, which would be no problem. We can focus on other things. But when it doesn’t work, then we all come up with a better idea or try to come up with a solution to make it work, which kind of works great.
BETH And then there were times where it was quite far along that once you saw the direction it was going, somebody had a problem with it, so you’d just sit around and stare at it. And there would be this long silence, and then a few ideas would come forth, or somebody would move something. It was pretty interesting to watch you working.
KHAN So as long as it’s working, there is no need to say anything about it, but when it doesn’t work then we discuss it and try to find a solution.
SHERRI The one thing I really appreciated also, watching your process, was the humour you had with each other when it came to, as you say, the tough decisions. There were a lot of moments where some of the best ideas were born out of your collective sense of humour.
JIN Well, I mean, it’s absurd, yes. It’s very existential, maybe, yeah.
JOHN So is this show representative of what your collective does?
JIN I would say no, like, hardly. We’ve actually never done an archive show before. It’s something that I’ve always been interested in, as an artist, And Instant Coffee actually had a really great studio in what was former Japan Town, on Powell Street.
SHERRI The Ming Sun-Uchida building.
JIN Yeah, so we were pushed out. Because there’s a whole series of development going on in that neck of the woods. That was how we got to know these guys, and it kind of seemed appropriate to explore that history a little bit, and work with an institution like this. It has an archive, and has a very interesting history, and it’s something that we’ve wanted to do. Because it kind of challenged us to look at history and look at object and look at design and display and all these things that we do all the time, but in a different way, and it challenges us to focus and find some new meaning.
KHAN We do have some kind of curatorial elements in a lot of exhibitions that we create, but mainly by other artists that inspire us. So we have a little experience bringing in objects or art work from outside of ours to be part of our show. I had a lot of fun.
BETH And from our perspective, we gave these guys basically a 100% access to the collection, and I really only had a couple of criteria in that we had to be respectful of the artifacts and the fragility of certain artifacts, and then that we did have some sort of labelling process. And they’re interested in labelling and text, so just even what it is and the family it came from. Kelly became quite interested in the family collection idea and the links through the collection by the family joining those links.
SHERRI And then when we started working together, you were looking back at Instant Coffee’s history and all the exhibits you had done and how you actually had your own archive of elements that you were able to bring in to build some of the furniture and the display and the sort of interactive experience that is pretty signature of Instant Coffee and bring it into the museum collection.
JOHN I saw Magic Hour the other day for the first time. I just walked in cold, and I thought it was fascinating, because there were all these objects that are normally stuck in the back of the museum, on the shelves. It often seems a shame to me that they’re so inaccessible, and to see them brought out in the open like that, rather playfully, I thought it was great . . .
JIN For sure. I mean, it’s a fine balance, because I realize, you know, as an artist, you’re always sort of concerned with objects, but what I like about the things in the archives is they actually have a narrative and there’s a significance. So you try to draw out some of that. It’s a real interesting challenge. I mean, I’m not sure if we’re entirely successful, but certainly it’s a challenge for us. And it allows us to look at the history differently somehow.
KHAN We also found out that quite a few articles in the collection, the family who donated those articles are actually living at the Nikkei Home. So in a way, I would love them to come and see what we have done and if there’s anything wrong with it, they should tell us!
JOHN The butsudan (Buddhist altar) was donated by Min Tanaka, who is the husband of the first Bulletin editor, Mickey Tanaka (nee Nakashima). She started The Bulletin in 1958.
SHERRI And it’s also the Tanaka tofu family.
JIN Oh my God. That is funny. That is great.
BETH We did have a senior from the community come to the opening a couple of weeks ago and I showed her some of the suitcases that came from her dad, and she was thrilled.
KHAN That’s good.
JIN That’s lovely.
SHERRI Each time there is a “treasurers of the collections” type of an exhibit it reminds other families that they might have collections that they should be donating also. So it’s interesting how just having that opportunity, as you say, to take it off the shelves or off the back storage and bring it out, and shed some new light on it, inspires people to think about their own family collections.
JOHN So how did you actually decide what objects to bring out and display? Was it based on the meaning of the objects or was it based on the objects’ aesthetic qualities?
JIN Definitely the latter. Because obviously we’re artists and we’re drawn to things, and colour, shape. So, you know, we didn’t pretend like we’re historians or anthropologists. We sort of did a tour of the archive and then we were just, like, “maybe we can do something with that,” you know. That was very much the approach. So that’s part of the reason I’m still not sure how successful the exhibition is in that regard, because there’s limitations to what visuality can present, just based on the look of things. Of course it has its own sort of poetry, but is that enough? Because it’s without the narrative. I feel like the meaning is sort of lost a little bit, or it becomes too much like a store display. I mean, I’m sort of on this kind of anti-capitalist kick these days, so I’m very critical of things that are just beautiful. You know, like, empty, and just kind of there to be consumed.
SHERRI But in addition to that, the one thing that I was really impressed with was with the performative elements that your collective brought out, especially with our first opening and then with the programming that’s going to happen throughout this exhibition, where you have live archive unwrapping, and that wasn’t something that was in the original plan, but it was born out of the process of deciding what objects to bring out and how to present them.
KHAN And that idea sort of came from the fact that there are a lot of boxes of smaller items, which are not necessarily accessible, unless you actually open up the box, and unwrap each and every object just to see what it is.
SHERRI So what started out as unwrapping a box and displaying things became something that you decided to unwrap in public and let the audience or the people at the exhibition share in that discovery.
KHAN Yeah. And then it also mimics the process that we had to go through going into the archive and trying to see what is more interesting to us, and rather than keeping it to ourselves, we kind of wanted to share it with the audience, yes.
BETH So you’re not then just choosing the aesthetically-appealing pieces. You’re putting them all out. And we had some questions after the first unwrapping, like, that’s kind of a weird assortment of things. How do we choose what we put in the museum, and why is it important to preserve some of these things that might look kind of junky? But actually when you find out who owned them like, we had Joy Kogawa’s collections out . . .
KHAN And for example things like the suitcases.Individually each carries a lot of personal history but what was interesting for us was the sheer volume of suitcases, and then when you stack them all up it kind of becomes a little more interesting that way. And then later Scott told us that the Centre’s not accepting suitcases any more, because there are so many people who have that personal item that want them to go to the centre, but it’s just a little bit too much sometimes.
BETH We have nowhere to keep them.
JOHN So I’m assuming that none of you had any real background in Japanese Canadian history when you started the show.
JIN Yeah, not in a specific way. But, I mean, what was interesting for me, despite the fact that we have no direct connection, through this process I have also personally learned so much about local history. So that kind of stuff has been a real eye-opening experience, and kind of amazing. For example, even before we took our studio, I mean, I knew that it was the former Japan Town, but really, you know, what’s the word, I felt like we were new SETTLERS in this kind of decrepit, sort of falling down area. And I still think my favorite object in the archive is the boat ledgers. Each page represents the fishing vessel, and it’s so beautiful. And in the red pencil it says “sold” and it has a date on it. And it’s all sold in ’42. And it’s so interesting to me, how the history is kind of tied to the object.
JOHN So this was a record of what, of the boats that were sold?
JIN Seized and sold, yeah.
BETH The fishing vessel distribution committee records.
SHERRI And that original ledger is in our archive.
BETH So, Khan, you were the one who came up with the replicating the desk idea, right?
KHAN Jenifer. It was Jenifer’s idea. We all instantly agreed.
BETH What I’ve been wanting to ask you, is where that came from, and what that meant to you, the replication.
KHAN The desk itself was really interesting in they way they were not a mass-produced item, but were produced in such a volume that it became sort of like an iconic item of that era. So we sort of wanted to give a little credit towards the builder of these desks and chairs…
JIN This idea of mimicking is really interesting to us. Because, I mean, it’s a literal copy. It’s a process of learning. So, I mean, that’s also how we learn, right?
JOHN So to be clear, you’re talking about the desk and bench that was from Tashme and then you made a duplicate of it out of plywood.
KHAN Yeah, we thought we would give credit to the original builder by sort of mimicking their process, with a limited amount of tools, which kind of made my arm sore for couple days. Very satisfying.
JIN We have Japanese pull saws that we use. So we did all the cutting by hand, even the length, actually.
SHERRI The exhibit itself is process-based, so it’s shifting and changing constantly, but in your first performative event you brought out a toolbox in the collection, with all the unique little secret drawers and unusual tools…
BETH It’s Jiro Kamira’s box, Frank’s dad. He lives next door, and he’s 104 years old. One of the reasons we wanted to ask Instant Coffee to work with us is because they are so process-based, and because, like you said, most museum exhibits tend to be quite static and . . .
BETH Precious, static, serious, and, you know, isolated somehow, and we want to try to flip that all on its head. We wanted something that was more fun, that had action, and utilized other senses, and was more process-based, wasn’t so static, had some movement, had some colour, had some life to it. So even playing the records in the gallery, changing the artifacts up . . . it’s the only exhibit I’ve had so far – and I can’t see myself using it too often – is the mirror ball, I just don’t know when else we’ll get to use it!
JOHN Well, the other difference is not only the end result, it’s the process. Generally when you put together an exhibit you bring in an expert, someone who knows a lot about Powell Street or the internment camps for example. And here you’ve brought in a bunch of non-experts.
BETH Right. And so then the exhibit development too was about as opposite as possible to how we usually develop an exhibit. Usually we start with an expert, they come up with the story line, they then select the artifacts, and then they decide how best to display them, to try and share that story. And these guys are about space and environment, and they came in and created the space and the environment, and then started selecting things that would fit within that space. So it’s really the complete opposite. We just wanted to try to get some new items out so people could see them. So in a way we didn’t have to be too careful about what we were choosing. We were happy to choose just about anything . . . (Kelly enters the room) This is Kelly.
SHERRI Kelly is another important member of the Instant Coffee Collective.
BETH And Jenifer’s here in spirit. Kelly, because you’re joining us late, we’ve been talking about sort of what struck you the most or what you learned from actually working on this sort of exhibit.
KELLY I guess it was an interesting project because it created this different platform. Usually we’re creating this platform for events, and it was a really nice opportunity to create this platform for objects, which I think amongst us we all have that appreciation for, and then to also use an archive. Then there’s these parameters that make the project interesting too. Because we had some of these platforms already, but they were more for bodies than for objects, and so to take the platforms and then use them for objects, I think was really an interesting way of repurposing them. But still very aligned with the way that we work, too. And then just revealing some of the artifacts and how humble some of the artifacts are, and we use this really humble material, plywood, it ended up being this really nice complement that was really enjoyable.
JOHN The platforms were used for live bodies or dead bodies?
KELLY Well, drunk bodies.
KHAN Unconscious ones.
KELLY Dancing bodies, kids.
JIN The word that we often use is around this idea of social sculpture. And it seems kind of passé now, but, you know, it’s trying to bring these sort of different ideas together. So I mean there’s definitely a carryover from those ideas, to be at an archive show or pure sort of sculpture.
KELLY We have had similar institutional encounters, invited to create a social installation, but this invitation was very rewarding to be actually working with a collection, and it would be nice to do it again.
JOHN I mean the fact is you were starting from an aesthetic viewpoint when looking at the exhibit but actually each object did have meaning already within it.
KHAN Well, I was going to mention while we were selecting the items, Scott from the Centre helped us so much trying to understand where it came from or how it got here, and then why it’s here. And it really helped us to understand the value and meaning of each object.
JIN It’s true. Certainly we couldn’t have done this without Scott the archivist working with us, and sort of pointing us in the right direction.
JOHN There’s another Bulletin connection in your exhibit. Those paintings on the far wall are by Shizuye Takashima. She was the sister of one of our long term volunteers, Mary Takayesu.
KELLY We’re going to do a talk for the next event, we’re going to put more of her paintings up, and do a talk about her work, and sort of try to spread the word, you know, I think, she’s an amazing artist.
JOHN She wrote a book too, A Child in a Prison Camp.
KELLY Yeah. I’m just starting to go through the material.
John It sounds like the band is finished their soundcheck, you guys better get in there to start the show. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Magic Hour . . .