On a whim, I went by myself to Onomichi City, Hiroshima on a scaldingly hot summer’s day in 2017 for a day trip. (I hadn’t even begun my doctoral studies yet during this time.) I walked its docks, trekked its hills, and visited its temples and shopping street. I noted its retro architecture and thought it charming, but didn’t make much of it. After drinking a glass of cold hassaku orange juice in the only department store in the city, I boarded the train back to Hiroshima City.
Figure 1. Onomichi / Photographed by Laura Cabochan
But Onomichi stayed there, deep in my unconscious, and emerged during my Qualitative Research Methods class with Dr. Elizabeth Norman during my first semester in NYU Steinhardt. Our final requirement was to write a research proposal and, because I thought then that I would be doing my dissertation eventually in Japan, I remembered that day in Onomichi City and, for some mysterious reason, unquestioningly chose it to be my topic. I read more about it and designed an ethnographic research proposal about the role the arts is playing in its revitalization efforts. (In spite of the word “city,” Onomichi City is seen as the inaka, the countryside, and like many of Japan’s inaka, it’s facing a number of problems ranging from a decreasing and greying population to abandoned houses.)
Through that project, while I was searching for a theoretical framework, I came across Anne Gadwa and Ann Markusen’s white paper on creative placemaking, a partnership between arts and non-arts organizations that leverages the power of arts and culture. It “animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired” (Markusen and Gadwa, 2010, p.3). Since learning about the field, it’s been one of the main focuses of my doctoral studies.
The following semester, I took a creative placemaking course under Steinhardt’s Visual Arts Administration program, taught by Sarah Calderon, the managing director of ArtPlace America, an organization that aims to position the “arts and culture as a core sector of community planning and development” (ArtPlace America). Her class introduced us to the field: its origins, its strengths and challenges, the ethics surrounding it, etc.; we also read different case studies based in the United States. That summer, I took a week-long workshop at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago with Sojourn Theatre and the Center for Performance and Civic Practice. Our time was divided between learning Sojourn Theatre’s theatrical devising techniques and reflecting on and dialoguing about the different ways artists and non-arts organizations can collaborate.
I’ve been pursuing creative placemaking projects, or activities related to it, since then:
That same summer, I returned to Onomichi City and volunteered for a non-profit organization called NPO Onomichi Akiya Saisei Project (Onomichi Vacant House Renovation Project). For three weeks, I worked in a building that they have restored into a hostel as well as participated in community activities, like a machiaruki, a city walk, and visiting many of the abandoned buildings in the area. Later that fall, along with a group of Filipino and Filipino-American artists, I designed and facilitated a walking tour of Little Manila in Queens, New York City. That winter—which is this winter—I interned for Sengawa Theatre, a public theatre located in Chofu City’s Sengawa District. I was an assistant stage manager for their community-based staged reading festival as well as a co-facilitator for some of their community-based theatre workshops.
Given how I intend to return to Asia, I want to deepen my knowledge about creative placemaking in the region and connect more with fellow Asian practitioners. I am applying to the ADAM Artist Lab in Taipei, Taiwan (Asia Discovers Asia Meeting for Contemporary Performance). This July to August 2019, a group of artists from all over Asia will be reflecting on the theme “Performing (with/in) Communities: Relations, Dynamics and Politics;” I believe I’ll learn a lot of valuable things from this experience. I acknowledge, however, the possibility that I may not actually be able to attend this because I am in the middle of my doctoral studies. I will consult with my advisor and proceed from there.
The collaborative nature and hyperlocality—focusing on a small, specific geography—of creative placemaking resonates deeply with me. I suspect part of it is because, as an international student, as someone who is an amalgam of different cultures, I don’t feel rooted to any place, but long for it (like a romantic). But more than that, I believe engaging in place, in all its materiality, can help strengthen human connections as well as the earth. Applied theatre scholar Helen Nicholson writes, “For applied theatre, sensory attentiveness to different forms of ontological encounters suggests that affective experience may prompt a disposition towards the political by recognising that human agency and non-human actants are mutually embedded” (Nicholson, 2016, p. 253; emphasis mine). In this age of great human division and ecological tension, creative placemaking, which is connected to applied theatre, has much to offer.