Overview of the Promise Park Project

Kumiko Idaka

“What will parks be like in the future?” This question was the starting point for the Promise Park Project (PPP), which has been undertaken by the artist MOON Kyungwon, in partnership with the Yamaguchi Center forArts and Media (YCAM). The creative process has involved the formation of an interdisciplinary working group consisting of experts from a variety of fields, including artists, researchers, city planners, and engineers, who have produced collaborative works while engaging in research and discussion concerning the parks of the future. The group held research showcases and workshops, culminating in the presentation of the fruits of their work in the form of an exhibition. This book is a compilation of the project’s output over the three years from 2013 through 2015.

What kind of parks will people create in the future? And what if this were a future in which a major catastrophe had occurred? What would people need from parks in that kind of situation? These questions concern humanity’s relationships with nature, cities, art, technology, and the media, raising issues that cut right to the heart of human existence. Above all, it is a very real question for Japan, which experienced 3.11 (the Great East Japan Earthquake, which resulted in unprecedented damage on a scale said to be experienced only once every thousand years) in 2011, and MOON shares a profound awareness of this reality. The PPP is not focused on designing and proposing a specific, constructive town plan, nor does it seek to provide new definitions as an extension of the developmental view of history that has underpinned modern thinking. Rather, the PPP approach adopts an anthropological perspective, looking at various cities and civilizations in the course of research examining why the spatial/temporal concept of a park was needed in human history and ecosystems, and going back to the significance of gardens as the predecessors of parks, highlighting things that had been obscured by modern parks at some stage in the past. Based on this, the project examines whether parks can once again engender new focal points for and organic relationships with cities, and whether they can become the starting point for identifying the potential for a new dimension in the concept of “publicness” in the future. We believe that, rather than sinking into the background as one of many city functions, parks are places that will spawn something.

Examined through the prism of media history, parks as an entity are regarded as a kind of cryopreservation device, so one would like to try imagining them as having some new kind of integrated archive function in the midst of a city. The nature of parks as a barrier (kekkai) between two realms. Might this not reveal the long-term preservation functions of a city, which do not emerge from a short focus perspective on history? In an age in which media technology and networks have seen extraordinary development, a metamorphosis in the significance of cities is already underway, so we must ask ourselves what will serve as a special space, filling the role once played by parks and gardens. As this shows, the questions raised about the parks of the future are many and varied. Even for YCAM, which routinely invites a variety of artists to undertake research and has an ongoing longterm research, development, and production program, this project is extremely ambitious.

The first output from the PPP, Promise Park, was presented at art and collective intelligence, an international group show held at YCAM in 2013. In this exhibition exploring collective intelligence and artistic expression, MOON chose “park” as the keyword, as an example of sociality that is an aggregate of “collective intelligence,” since parks have existed in cities of every era and culture. In 2013, a two-channel video installation contrasting actual images with computer graphics (interestingly, no human figures appear in either of the videos) was used to show the concept of nature that a future civilization might hold and a prevision of a park in a future city after a catastrophe.

With a view to presenting a large installation with a more advanced version of Promise Park at YCAM two years after that, Promise Park Project [Research Showcase] was held the following year, featuring research undertaken by researchers from a variety of fields, including Japanese garden history, urban theory, architectural history, landscape architecture, and fine art. Rurihiko Hara presented a study tracing the lineage of park-like spaces in pre-modern Japan, with a focus on the keyword “stone” (St 1.0 ─ From «Niwa» Stone to Park). The Millennium Village Project presented a multi-perspective study exploring villages across Japan that have survived for over a thousand years in the face of natural disasters and environmental change. Tsubasa Nishi discussed the problematique in respect of New York’s Central Park, the apotheosis of a city park, and the activities of the contemporary artist Robert Smithson (Central Park, New York, back in 1973). Kazunao Abe offered a study providing a saltatory overview of the role that parks have played across the broad expanse of art history (Fine Art History and Park in the Air / Drifting Space). And YCAM InterLab provided a demonstration of new senses that could become reality in the course of technological development (Future sense ─ the boundaries between mankind and technology). These could be described as answers by researchers from various fields to MOON’s question about future parks, which opened up more diverse horizons in the problematique of “future parks.” This research formed the basis of several rounds of discussion aimed at the exhibition of new work the following year and MOON proposed two new keywords for presentation as installations: “ruins” and “carpet.”

Ruins are also an important subject in the Western picturesque aesthetic, among others, but MOON focuses in particular on ruins as relics of early modern industry. These are places that are the remains of human attempts to dominate nature and create a utopia from the perspective of the developmental view of history, which were discarded after they had served their function and ultimately linger on as relics of an age. Now, those ruins are being eaten away by nature (the automatism of revegetation). Looking back over the history of the development of early modern parks, we can see that parks became institutionalized as man-made spaces for solace and catharsis in the face of the growth in urban populations, massive industrialization, and economic development based on the gold standard taking place at the same time (the first Universal Exposition in 1851 ─ the occasion that made Hyde Park famous across the globe as the world’s first park ─ could perhaps be described as a fusion of both extremes, combining the promotion of industries that happened to enhance national prestige and demonstrations of the latest industrial technology with the creation of an open recreational space for the public that offered a diverse array of spectacles and shows). However, now that the heavy industrial facilities that underwent massive development between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries no longer have a place in society and are becoming ruins, they might fulfill something approaching a cultural purpose by being reused as park-like spaces. Today, we see worldwide calls for a move away from heavy industry, while reliance on the information and communications industry is growing rapidly, in tandem with the march of globalism. Creating a gap in this developmental view of history, MOON chooses to examine the past of ruins, without erasing the memory thereof. This might be where we will find the common aspects of future parks.

The introduction of “carpet.” Carpets, which define the floor, consist of various patterns. Those patterns are symbolic representations of what one could describe as prototypes of the collective intelligence of a nonlinguistic gestalt mixed and refined by the accumulation and filtering of history. Indeed, one could interpret them as a kind of morphological code. Carpets, in which multiple patterns-as-collective-intelligence exist together, are portable items, which are rolled out when needed and rolled up and relocated when not in use. This truly is a “moving garden” as described by Michel Foucault, something that is highly suggestive for contemporary media expression.

Taking these keywords as their starting points, the project members undertook fresh research aimed at producing and exhibiting new work. It should be emphasized that, as part of their research, they actually went to a variety of places to conduct fieldwork. In addition to viewing numerous parks both within Japan and overseas, their travels brought them closer to YCAM’s home, visiting both several relics of early modern industry closer to YCAM in Yamaguchi City, which was one of Japan’s foremost coal-producing areas (and has strong links to the neighboring country of South Korea), and. In contrast, spots in which stones had been placed in various public spaces, in a practice common since ancient times. Particular mention should be made of the Mundaneum project, which was conceived in the early 20th century by the Belgian Paul Otlet, who helped to establish the League of Nations and is considered to be the father of information science, with Le Corbusier commissioned to design its spatial structure. Otlet formulated his magnificent urban planning project, which sought to bring together every single piece of human knowledge, in Brussels and Geneva. Our fieldwork took us to the small Belgian city of Mons, where the facility that continues his legacy is located. The Mundaneum project by Otlet, who is also described as the father of the Internet, provided a key point of reference for the PPP, which was exploring parks as a form of collective intelligence.

This culminated in the presentation of two new installations at YCAM’s 2015 major exhibition of new work, Promise Park ─ Rendering of Future Patterns: a huge jacquard weave carpet with images generated from multiple images of ruins woven into it, and a video piece incorporating drone footage of ruins and computer graphics. The textile installation was created in collaboration with a Kyoto Nishijin weaving company with a history dating back 300 years, which produced a massive carpet with a multitude of multi-layered digital images woven into the two-dimensional surface. (This also involved joint research into the development of digital software that could be adapted for use in Nishijin weaving.) The previous year’s research showcase was developed into Park Atlas, an installation that consists of a visual archive of parks from macroscopic and microscopic perspectives, bringing together case studies of early modern parks and the results of fieldwork conducted in Yamaguchi City alone, based on an approach that regarded stones ─ the key to the public nature of urban spaces ─ as archives from the viewpoint of human history.

Looking back, one could say that, following 2014’s Research Showcase, the PPP acquired the locality of a proper noun, as well as developing a substantive materiality. In 2013, Promise Park was a two-channel video work that contrasted scenery from a “non-place” that exists nowhere (in a sense) with views of a non-place created using computer graphics. In 2015, these were incorporated into the work in the form of aerial video images (actual footage with the addition of computer graphics) of Yamaguchi and Nagasaki that survived to the present day, given physical form through the contrast between the woven carpet that visitors could actually touch and the carpet of moving images. As a result, Promise Park would seem to have acquired a more powerful universality. The realization that the real-life images closely resembling the computer graphic image of a hanging garden in a future city presented by MOON were obtained from high-definition drone footage of the ruins of mines between Yamaguchi Prefecture and Gunkanjima in Nagasiki City startled all project members and was proof of the power of MOON’s foresight as an artist.

Between the two installations was positioned Park Atlas, showcasing project research. The 2015 exhibition ultimately had an extremely simple look, but the research and thought process behind it was elaborate. Keywords for Promise Park depicts the overall picture, but this book drills down into each topic in greater detail, with a paper exploring the significance of carpet as a medium, the new possibilities that it offers, and its historical background (“A Carpet as an Artistic Medium”), as well as an essay on the validity of examining parks by focusing on the locality of Yamaguchi City (“Yamaguchi: The City as a Park”) and another on the process of producing Park Atlas, its content, and the concept behind it (“Six Chapters toward Park Atlas: For the reminiscence of Parks as Archive Space of the World”).

Although the PPP took shape through interaction with various park-related fields, it merely seeks to present a vision of the parks of the future based on a quest within the realms of art. Accordingly, the term “park” here is looked at from a different angle than that of ordinary town planning, the approach adopted in landscape design, and the practical design of evacuation spaces in the event of disaster. The outline of the unique concept of a park proposed by the PPP has at last begun to emerge clearly after three long years, brought forth by the intersection of imagination with the results of research in a variety of realms.

The most ambitious aspect of the PPP is the fact that it will not end with the presentation of the exhibits. MOON and YCAM are keen to devise and propose a role for arts centers as public cultural institutions of the future, serving as places for producing work + experimental research + holding workshops + generating composite group work that educates talent, rather than being restricted to displaying works of art. The PPP is a practical experiment in achieving this. This book simply presents the processes undertaken over the three years from 2013 through 2015, but the PPP is set to continue going forward, so this is intended to serve as a proposal, providing an introduction to the thinking behind the project. The next step has already begun; the epilogue to this book touches upon further development in 2016 and beyond, focusing on the relationship of space and land to “Scent.” In 2016, a workshop and discussion, entitled Promise Park ─ Suggestions for Future Park: Scent, were held at Culture Station Seoul 284. Workshop participants carried out fieldwork involving the application of biotechnology at Seonyudo Park in the Han River, collecting yeast in a practical attempt to get to know the park from the viewpoint of its ecosystem. In addition, this book also contains a study of parks in Seoul, as an example of applying and developing the vision for future parks in a variety of cities (“Parks in Seoul”, “Post-industrial Ruin to Sublime Park: Seonyudo Park”), along with an essay on Meiji Shrine in the heart of Tokyo, which is an example of a unique Japanese park (“A Brief Consideration of Meiji Shrine ─ The Unique, Dualistic ‘Park’ Connected Behind It”). These are bound to serve as the prologue to the next stage.

Kumiko Idaka

Born in 1982, curator, Kumiko Idaka holds a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Film and New Media at Tokyo University of the Arts. She works primarily in film and video, engaging in digital device development as well as production and workshop planning. She has held her current position as a YCAM curator since 2012. Her notable exhibits include MooKyungwon + YCAM: Promise Park ─ Rendering of Future Patterns (2015) and Media/Art Kitchen Yamaguchi: Open Call Laboratory ─ An Exploration into Social Anthropology in Asia (2014). She is currently working with local communities to research regional resources and plan projects from a media technology perspective.