Aleksandra Mir

Aleksandra Mir Interview: Naming Tokyo

By Christophe Cherix and Kim Conaty, Recorded Interview conducted June 20, 2011, New York
Print/Out: 20 Years in Print, MoMA, New York, 2012

19 February - 14 May, 2012
Print/Out: 20 Years in Print, MoMA, New York

Since the mid-1990s, Aleksandra Mir (American and Swedish, born Poland 1967) has developed a practice that merges cultural anthropology and fine art, investigating social structures, globalization, and the contemporary urban experience. Often realized in the form of participatory projects with nontraditional modes of distribution, many of Mir’s projects are ongoing, regularly re-emerging in slightly modified forms depending on the time and place. Her elaborate mapping project Naming Tokyo (2003–), for example, is organized around her solicitation from her friends and colleagues of street names for the otherwise-undesignated Tokyo streets. In Mir’s various exhibitions, this information takes shape alternately as printed giveaway maps, street signs, or perhaps, as envisioned by the artist for the future, guidebooks. Mir’s light-handed and witty approach to her material often belies the heavier cultural and political content that it invokes. The colorful maps and playful descriptions of Naming Tokyo mask its underlying critique of colonialism, while the soft, sexualized forms in the poster Please Be Gentle in Fallujah (2005) overshadow the swarm of bomber planes, referring to the United States’ previous military attacks on the Iraqi city. In a recent project commissioned for the 2009 Venice Biennale, Mir explored cultural geography and displacement. Venezia (all place contain all others) (2009) comprised one million fake postcards of Venice—10,000 each of 100 designs—combining stock scenic images with the city’s name. Functioning as free tourist souvenirs from the Biennale grounds, the postcards could be collected or written and mailed on the spot, using the two Italian post mailboxes in the exhibition space. As she has explained, “I think the optimal artwork is in constant circulation with the world around itself.”

CC: How did the Naming Tokyo project come about?

AM: The project started as a commission at the invitation of Nicolas Bourriaud for his exhibition called "Global Navigation System" [2003]. The show was about mapping and related concepts. I have worked on maps my whole life, so the theme was not new to me. I focused in on Tokyo as the exhibition was at the Palais de Tokyo [in Paris], but that was not the real trigger. A lot of my friends had started to go to Japan, and there was this moment when a lot of New York artists were showing their work in Tokyo, and I never got an invitation. I thought, "Well, I'm going to explore Tokyo in my own way." I bought all the guidebooks, and as I was reading, I became really good at the geography. I started to learn the neighborhoods and the significance of all the areas and where people would go and what the tourist attractions were. And then, of course, I learned this little fact—that Tokyo doesn't have street names. For a Westerner, this makes it very, very confusing to get around. I thought that this was such an interesting, subversive gesture towards tourists, like not giving them a key. So the point of the project was to give Tokyo street names from Western culture to help Westerners navigate, so we could move in and make it easier for ourselves to take over the city. The first step was to contact a map manufacturer in Japan. The Palais de Tokyo helped me find one that actually works with GPS systems, and they had this blank map, an exact representation of Tokyo without any signifiers whatsoever.

CC: Without any names?

AM: It was a clean, blank map with no text on it, and they gave me the permission to use this image. Then I contacted my whole network of friends, from Lithuania, Mexico, Iceland . . . north and south, but basically within the Western hemisphere. I picked their brains, and I asked them to send me a list of terms on any subject close to their hearts, a theme that they felt specialized in.

CC: Did they know how their lists would be used?

AM: Yes. I told them: "You will be honored with a neighborhood in Tokyo, and your list of names will be used for this neighborhood. The list should relate to a particular subject, and it must be a subject that you understand very well." The response was incredible. At that time, I was part of an extensive network of people extremely responsive to these ideas. We were always collaborating and participating in each other's projects. I got a tremendous variety of names and explanations. The list is just beautiful. Everything had some strange, subversive connection to the city or to geography or to power. It wasn't art about art; it was really about a Western understanding of the world. I spent time implementing these neighborhoods and street names on the map according to what I knew about Tokyo, so everything was linked. The text about how I assigned the neighborhoods is published too. KC: The designations, printed on the back sides of the maps? AM: Yes. Basically, I take each person’s list and describe my intention behind its designated location, and it becomes a guided tour, a walk through the city. I merge the Western names and subjects with what is physically there in the space and also the history of the space.

CC: We have two versions of the map in the collection. The second one was made for your show at the Swiss Institute [Naming Tokyo (part II), 2003]?

AM: Yes, Marc-Olivier Wahler invited me to do the project there, and we contacted the company that makes New York’s street signs. They’re still made in a workshop in Queens, and they also service the film industry with historical signs, because today they're all green, but originally each neighborhood in New York had a different color (I think the Bronx was brown, yellow was Brooklyn, and so on). The historical signs are incredibly beautiful as physical objects, and we commissioned the workshop to manufacture a series based on the Tokyo street names. I think I had about 700 names at the time of the first map, but, by the Swiss Institute, I had updated it to around 1000 names. We produced about fifty or sixty signs to fill the gallery space, and the signs kind of merged the project with New York City. Then we re-printed the map, with some changes in the designations, so this became the second edition of the map.

CC: In both of these shows, the map was shown in a stack, and people could take copies freely. Did anyone contact you? Were you looking for a further interaction, or was the distribution of the project more significant?

AM: I see this work as a lifelong project, and with each exhibition I build on the resources. I actually imagine the final conclusion of the project as having the street names up in Tokyo, for real. But that is such a utopian idea! Eventually, I might like to put out guidebooks and develop a situation where there would be a cross reference, so that suddenly these maps would be functional.