Mushi and Alex Nichols met on the streets of San Francisco, through a single Japanese sentence written in Alex's journal. Mushi walked by and recognized the hiragana characters and stopped. An entire collaboration began from a single sentence.
わたしはとてもはずかしかったのでかおがあかくなりました。I was totally embarrassed and so my face turned red. It’s grammatically complex and the vocabulary of the day was ‘hazukashi’ from an Aida Mitsuo poem. “When I hold my brush I am terribly embarrassed.” His poem is on the wall of a museum in Tokyo. In a a small room thirty poems hang inked on rice paper, a tall Japanese man is moving slowly through the room, we are the only ones in the room and a strange sound causes me to turn toward him. His face is wet, he is not speaking and what I heard had escaped his mouth. He bows. We know that every mark is a beginners mark, even after years of practice. We are always beginning.
That’s how Mushi and Alex feel every time we drag a giant white box out onto a street in San Francisco and even more in a foreign country where we cant speak the language. We do it anyway. This great white box is the The Portable Studio and it started as a project about human communication on the streets of San Francisco. Clarion alley was the first location and as the portable studio took off like a kite in the winds funneling down the alley off 17th street in the mission district, a drunk man wove through the alley looking for a place to take a piss, and our box looked like the place of choice.
The inspiration for the Portable Studio was the Porta Potty--after losing a studio in SF to a new tech company along with 80 other artists, I thought, “if a toilet can be anywhere on a street in SF why not a studio!”
The thing about the Portable Studio is that it started as study of human communication. Placing two people in the box with two objects. We were two artists working like anthropologists, looking at how people would interact in this isolated white space with only two objects, with only each other. Two rules: no talking and no touching, people were nervous, really nervous, ‘What should we do in the box?” “Anything, there are only two rules.” “but maybe we have nothing to do” “Just play.”
At Pier 96 the sounds were deafening and we were given strict instructions to watch out for the bulldozers and heavy machinery. “You can get decapitated in seconds if you step in the wrong direction, you need to be looking 360 degrees at all times.!” ‘OK” So how do we invite people off the street into the box. We’ve learned a lot. Rarely will a total stranger step in. We need a go-between, somebody in each community who is trusted. If they step in others will follow.
In Berlin on the Templehof airport strip the box had to be physically held down. People tell us stories of their neighborhoods. Murals painted and then painted over. Buildings coming up, people burned off their lands. Whats happening in SF is also happening in different countries for different reasons. People trying to make homes and losing homes.
Our background is in photography, painting, film. Through photographs and films we catch this active language between people. This is not body language it is about space about that critical space between us, and that is why we call it critical contact art.