In Tokyo, The streets have no names. The city is divided into wards, which are further subdivided and numbered in the order of construction. The buildings within these areas are also numbered. While this system is quite understandable to the locals, most Westerners find it difficult to navigate. Aleksandra Mir has a plan to make that easier.
Mir has never actually been to Tokyo. Her project, Naming Tokyo, was proposed for 'GNS-Global Navigation System' - a group show in the summer 2003, curated by Nicolas Bourriaud, director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Mir conceived the idea of having Western friends and colleagues prepare lists of names for the Tokyo streets. After studying maps and guidebooks to familiarize herself with the terrain, she designated neighborhoods for the person providing the list and assigned their street names according to her own logic.
Nicolas Bourriaud introduced her to Japanese map publisher who sponsored the Paris project. "I was really interested in producing this work as I was always struck by the topologic system when visiting Tokyo", said Bourriaud. "Actually, her work superimposes an occidental frame of mind upon an oriental one: it is a postproduction of Japanese urban life".
Officials from the Maison de la Culture du Japon were invited to attend the opening and Mir ceremoniously presented them with a map. She also asked the French Minister of Culture to provide names for a new area. Bourriaud, himself, had contributed to the project from the get-go by suggesting a list of imaginary important people - artists, writers and philosophers who never actually existed. Pierre Menard was one. According to a story by Korge Luis Borges, Menard rewrote Cervantes' Don Quichote .
The initial 37 participants ranged from Mir's Paris gallerist Philippe Jousse, who chose furniture designers such as Charles Eames and Charlotte Perriand, to Index magazine editor, Steve Lafreniere, who selected celebrated New York drag queens including (Joey) Arias and (Amanda) Lepore, to Los-Angeles based artist Jeremy Blake, who picked the 18 songs on the Rolling Stones album Exile on The Main Street , to Eli Sudbrack, the artist better known as Assume Vivid Astro Focus, who named everything under the sun from his native Brazil that was on his mind at that moment. "I finally went to Tokyo last September and was surprised how true it was that streets aren't named', said Sudbrack, "I got lost so many times".
Another traveler who's never been to Tokyo, Marc-Olivier Wahler, artistic director of the Swiss Institute in New York, arranged for Mir to stage Naming Tokyo (part II) for a fall 2003 exhibit. "At the Swiss Institute, we produced an updated version of the map, plus the street signs," said Wahler. "The signs were fabricated by the same company that produced the real ones for the streets of New York."
The maps were set in a central stack and visitors could take them away. The multicolored street signs were posted on poles and spread throughout the gallery. The forest of signs sampled from the various lists, created a form of concrete poetry. The colors of the backgrounds and shifting font sizes of the type added aesthetic appeal to the otherwise bland aesthetic of the conceptual project. "One of my favorite contributions is by Teresa Duncan, a screenwriter from L.A.," Mir recently told The Believer, a San Francisco publication. "She made up fake Japanese names, and, when she gave them to me, said, 'This represents my misapprehension and total ignorance of Japanese."
Following a successful run at the Swiss Institute, Naming Tokyo (part III) opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in late January 2004 as the fifth installment of ICA's adventurous Ramp Projects. Here, along with the street signs, Mir produced a massive wall mural of the designated map, decorated with flags marking every art museums and McDonald's in Tokyo. Additionally, she obtained the assistance of the Philadelphia-based, Tokyo native, Yuka Yokoyama, to gather information about places teenagers go to make out in Tokyo and plotted those points on the maps with hearts.
Choosing street names was the easy part: "I have asked people to follow their fancy and stick close to their hearts," said Mir. Assigning the names was a greater challenge for the artist. She started by applying scientist Gurvan Madec's oceanography terms to the major highways and artist Craig Kalpakjian's moons sea titles to the bodies of water. "DEATH is the first street I placed..." Mir said, "it intersects with BEAUTY and cuts right into the main railway link LOVE..." - contributions from Sigrun Hrolfsdottir of the Icelandic Love Corporation.
Growing in scope with each new venue, Naming Tokyo seemingly has no boundaries. "Now one part of the project is to expand on the city itself," reported Mir to The Believer's Christopher Bollen. "But another is to figure out how these names can become used and indispensable to culture." With a guidebook now in the planning stage, Mir's dream could one day become reality.