Tea and Sugarcane
An interview with Tomoko Freeman.
Can you please introduce us to your process as an artist and how working in the medium of the moving image has evolved?
I started working in moving image/artists’ film when I lived in Japan, just before I relocated to the UK in 2013. Primarily performance art had been my main practice for over 15 years. I think my circumstances at that time came in a way and my artistic practice needed to be adapted as well.
Often my work is made as a response to a particular place and community. Therefore, firstly I visit a place for reconnaissance. During the research, I stroll the area to learn the characteristics of landscapes, and visit libraries and museums to gain understanding of the local history and industries. I then speak to those who are engaged in the industries and from all that information I gathered I start thinking of project’s ideas and also the appropriate medium for the project.
Would you agree that In many ways these artworks explore physical and symbolic borders and surface many invisibilities within cultural systems?
Yes, on a conscious level I agree that’s the case in Tea and Sugarcane and in Wind, Land and Sea. In Tea and Sugarcane the focus was on stories about marginalised people and borders. In Wind, Land and Sea, there is a reflection on the tragedy that happened in Morecambe Bay in 2004. More than 20 Chinese cockle pickers were killed by the incoming tide while harvesting cockles. They were illegal immigrants and exploited by a gang. One of the people I interviewed in Barrow said, as a local resident, she’s been feeling a sense of guilt about the disaster and moreover, in her opinion, the local community holds a communal guilt.
For Echo Tides, exploration of such themes were not in my mind when I made it. It was an experiment of abstract, inexplicable feelings and I simply responded to the place using cinematography and a series of performative acts. I grew up in a small fishing town in Japan and I remember my Grandfather used to grow the nails of his little fingers very long to use them as a tool to fix broken gill nets at home. Strangely, I only recalled this memory much later after I completed the work.
Echo Tides and Wind, Land And Sea are films about food production and harvesting, industries that sit between ancient traditions and industrial scale extraction, how far do you think these attitudes nationally defined?
Since ancient times humans have gained food by foraging, hunting and farming. Such food was mainly used to be consumed in the local area. However, as our society has developed and industrial scale extraction has commenced, products are now distributed beyond countries as is the distribution of cheap labour forces.
Our food supply is largely contributed by these workers and we are part of a chain of supply and demand. A cycle that has itself become a nationally defined way of sourcing food. This can go both ways, the fishermen I met in Folkestone said a large amount of their seafood is distributed to Asia, such as Japan and China.
The relationship between performance and documentation has been the subject of much debate, how as an artist have you explored this issue?
The attempt to document performance often doesn’t work, especially by video. Performance is live action and in some performance works audience members even become part of the art piece. Documentation of performance means we viewers see the performance through a lens in an observational style. By doing so it destroys a sense of real tension between the performer and audience.
Having said that I have used video documentation in the past. For Demolition Memorial Keepsake I made for LightNight Liverpool. Burning rituals were held with local participants. They donated an object which had sentimental value were then cremated using primitive fire-making tools. As the outcome, I made a five-screen video installation composed of documentational of the interviews by participants and the burning ceremony. This was displayed as part of a wider installation of objects and traces from the process. Due to its context it lost its documentary feel and worked as a video work. But usually I’m not keen on showing documentation by itself.
In reference to your films such as Lone Orchestra and Pleana Rondo - Leaving Language, is transformation through ‘learning’ key for creativity?
In Pleana Rondo -Leaving Language, I tried to master a constructed, man-made language called Esperanto in 60 days using only free learning tools.
And the other work Lone Orchestra is a series of collaborative projects with four bands playing different genres of music, a pop band from Belfast, a punk band from Montreal, Canada, a rock band from Glasgow and Twoubadou influenced by voodoo from Haiti. They all play their original songs. I picked one of their songs and in three weeks learnt all the instrument parts and copied their stage personas. I then performed and recorded each part in front of green screen and merged them into one. I used the recorded materials, no cheating in the sound material. The final outcome is a multiple of myself playing the songs.
Learning is an effective agent and it allows me to set a goal, for example trying to master some process or skill within a limited time frame. During the time I was working on Lone Orchestra I immediately came up against a series of cultural and social barriers. I had to let go of my own cultural references and social unease to fulfil the goal during this process of learning. Basically I had to get rid of my own sense of limitations to become invisible and free.
These films all trace subtle political subtexts, Tea and Sugarcane explores in a very direct way the question of human rights, can you explain why you decided to work on this subject?
There are mainly two reasons. Firstly, In 2018 I completed a film titled On Returning which explores migration from the opposite end and tells the tales of British families, separated or disrupted from living with their non-British family members by current immigration policies. I had similar experiences myself so I had an urge to explore this subject matter. During collecting materials, I heard stories of contemporary slavery in the UK. Moreover, that the UK is a hub for the illegal transportation of exploited workers to other countries after they’ve come to Britain. My initial urge to make the film came from my own experiences as a migrant and the almost impossible financial restrictions that separate families and divide the rich and poor.
In terms of human rights, through talking to people such as those in the film I learned that it is as basic and as sad as this, if money and cheap labour are to be had, human rights no longer exist. My frustration at this the became the real reason for wanting to make this work.
Secondly, as an artist who lives in Liverpool, I’ve been interested in making artwork which reflects the local history. Liverpool was one of Britain’s main ports during the Transatlantic Slave Trade and although this is a highly sensitive topic I decided to use such references in the work. These issues are integrated into the historical landscape as is the later exploitation of the working classes during the Industrial Revolution. In the film these elements are signified through the use of imagery of a specific Liverpool based slave ship, and imagery of the Manchester to Liverpool shipping canal. Through this project, I realised the exploration of such political landscapes and their histories have become an essential part of my work.
In the ongoing debate on the impact of intellectuals and creatives in the development of consciousness and the social, do you think the role of the artist is specific?
The role of the artist depends on each artist and also changes from time to time. I undertake collaborative projects which are often artist-led. One of my specific aims is linking people in multiple cities and hoping to resonate with viewers/audiences. For example, Wind, Land and Sea was made alongside a film project in Aveiro, a coastal town of Portugal with local farmers and members of the community. There are some similarities in Aveiro and Barrow, the sea plant Samphire is available and they have the history of salt making. Final outcomes were shared to the public at exhibitions in those two cities with a hope to rediscover their cultural and environmental heritage and connection to wider communities beyond countries. So you could say the role of my practice is to break down social and cultural borders.
Finally humour and irony are ever present in your artwork, is humour culturally specific or transcendent?
While the works shown here tonight may be about serious subjects, humour is a universal language that we look to when things are seem difficult or impossible.