by Devanshi ShahAug 19, 2021
The Constant Gardeners, presented by Jason Bruges Studio, uniquely combines the idea of sports, Japanese culture, and technology, all thrown into one immersive work of art! The large-scale, performative robotic art installation in Ueno Park, Tokyo, is part of the Tokyo Tokyo FESTIVAL Special 13 projects. Exhibited as one of the core cultural programs held on the sidelines of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the work involves complex computing for the ancient tradition on the Japanese Zen gardens. The work aims to celebrate athletes and their physical prowess while representing patterns in sand.
The artwork was commissioned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Arts Council Tokyo (Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture) and is delivered in partnership with the British Council as part of their UK / JAPAN bilateral season.
I speak to Jason Bruges over an exclusive conversation on this work and the objective of his studio through artworks in the public realm.
Rahul Kumar (RK): It is intriguing how technology is layered along with the idea of the culture and heritage of Japanese Garden seen through the lens of sports. How did all this come together as an idea at The Constant Gardeners?
Jason Bruges (JB): The original brief for the Tokyo Tokyo FESTIVAL Special 13 was to develop an artistic commission against a backdrop of sport for a series of cultural interventions set against the Games. The studio and I had just finished Where Do We Go From Here?, an urban spatial media artwork in Hull for the UK City of Culture 2017, which used a cast of robotic performers to transform the urban environment. It was a great opportunity to use sports data from the Olympics to create an original work, which reflected this activity within a performative artwork.
Once the studio was shortlisted for a robotic performative artwork, which utilised games data for its choreography, we needed to develop the physical manifestation. We remembered the way that the ‘karesansui’ Japanese rock garden was crafted by the gardeners or Buddhist monks’ daily routines. We liked the way this was a recording of a movement to create the artificial water courses. We liked the analogy between the movement of the monks crafting, honing and perfecting their skills and the athletes similarly mirroring this in preparation for their events.
RK: In continuation, the robotic intervention takes away the very act of creating the patterns on sand. The images that are traditionally calming patterns in the Zen gardens are replaced with sport graphics. And these induce a sense of action, quite contrary to meditation. What purpose does it eventually serve, then?
JB: Although the actions of the athletes themselves are energetic, the way they are depicted by the artwork is tranquil and considered. It is about offering a different experience of the Games. One that appreciates the athletic movements in a calm, considered way that is more akin to a Zen garden. It takes somewhere between 40 mins to two hours for the robots to craft a complete performative illustration. When you experience the artwork, the robots look thoughtful, immersed and anthropomorphic in what they are doing. They have a meditativeness about them that is also inherent in the way an athlete carefully refines their skills.
Traditionally, the lines monks meditatively rake into the gravel represent moving bodies of water and forms found in nature. We thought it would be fascinating to apply this to the dynamic movement of athletes to somehow transform the electric buzz of the Olympics into something calm and reflective. There was a lot of trial and error to determine how we would capture and translate the athletes' movements to ensure the marks in the gravel are in keeping with the traditional aesthetics of a Zen garden. Eventually we settled on two main techniques that rely on a combination of computer vision and artificial intelligence.
RK: At a macro level, Tokyo Tokyo FESTIVAL Special 13 celebrates the “new normal” owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, while “placing trust in the power of art”. Please elaborate this view in the context of your project.
JB: I am not sure I am qualified to talk about the entire Tokyo Tokyo FESTIVAL Special 13. However, besides the basic prevention measures (e.g. wearing masks, using disinfectants, etc) in place for all visitors and staff, the studio’s work often sits within the normal day-to-day experience of a city and we find ourselves creating a media artwork in Ueno Park, where the city is operating in a ‘near normal’ way. There aren’t crowds, however there is footfall, there is interest, people are engaging with the art world within their daily lives and interacting with it, perhaps with more curiosity than they would normally – keen for the distraction.
Usually, the studio and I would develop works which encourage interaction, collaboration and act as an attractor. So, to do this within the restraints of the pandemic is unusual, however the outdoor setting and context seem appropriate.
I believe as we move towards a ‘new normal’ we will see people rekindling their curiosity in work that calls for audiences, physicality and presence.
RK: You are educated and practiced as an architect, and then with a design firm. After setting up your own studio, you have primarily focussed on creating artistic installations. What remains at the core of your practice? Are there recurring themes and concerns that you wish to convey through your work?
JB: The core of our practice is working on commissioned artworks for the public realm. I conduct a team of creatives and technologists to create ways of imaging works which add to and animate the built environment. I am looking at improving the environments that we encounter in our daily lives through the lens of artistic intervention and exploring narratives which interrogate at our relationship with the world around us.
The works act as site-specific ‘sculptural barometers’ that tap into the emotional tapestry of a community or place by translating live feedback into living, breathing, spatial interventions.
Themes that I am keen to explore include visualising the invisible, observing and being inspired by the natural world. The studio uses readily available data to inspire and fuel the artworks and the audience is a core part of the work, without them the work would cease to exist. So, the return to the physical and to people congregating and enjoying our public realm is something I will really relish.
I hope that The Constant Gardeners offers the people of Tokyo a respite from the slow return to ‘normal’, an oasis, a moment of reflection, an object of curiosity, a catalyst for discussion and a positive outlook.
The Constant Gardeners - as part of the Tokyo Tokyo FESTIVAL Special 13 - is on view until September 5, 2021. STIR is a media partner of Tokyo Tokyo FESTIVAL Special 13. You can visit the official website here: https://theconstantgardeners.art