I’ll be honest.

The moment I saw Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media (YCAM), I cried. Despite my extreme fatigue, reality caught me off guard. I knew I was about to experience a high point in my career.

There was a forest of rooms inside the building, connected to the city library. I pulled myself up to the lady at the front desk and glanced towards the staff huddled behind their computer screens.

I nodded and spoke softly, “Konichiwa, can I please meet with Idaka-san?”

Before the receptionist could reply, I heard a loud, vivacious voice from the back of the room.

“Suzy! You’re here! We thought you got lost.”

Testing colour-tracking software created by YCAM Interlab for visual artist Fairuz Sulaiman’s cardboard wayang performance/presentation (credit: Fairuz Sulaiman)

Humble beginnings

The idea of having a media arts center in Yamaguchi began in the late 1980’s. Back then, youths and college graduates left the city for Tokyo and Fukuoka in search of better jobs. This resulted in a growing senior population. Faced with the imminent death of a city, the city council scrambled to make a revitalization plan. One of the bold steps in the plan was to create information zones in the city. They believed that, with the existence of telecommunication & broadcasting hubs, more youths and young professionals would be attracted to the city.

In the beginning, the media art center was met with heavy criticism from the local residents. They feared that this would turn out to be another white elephant. Instead of a futuristic, sci-fi museum, the local residents preferred a big public bath house. Yamaguchi is well known throughout Japan as a bathhouse Mecca and the Japanese take their onsen very seriously.

YCAM showcases cutting-edge artwork that can be viewed only at the center itself. I think any creator (artist, producer, designer, etc.) would immediately fall in love with this place, not because of how it looks but what it does to your ideas. Your wildest creative ideas can come to life because there is a dedicated R&D team called YCAM Interlab, working with you to make it happen. And best of all, money isn’t a factor.

One curator said, “YCAM is a type of geek heaven.”

Indoor bamboo installation by DOT Architects, part of a lab project that explored ways to use local bamboo as new construction materials

Workshop as artistic experiences

Back in the staffroom, I sat with Kumiko at the discussion table. She gave me a piece of paper that itemized my schedule for the next few weeks. Under the invitation of YCAM’s education lab, I was tasked to run a community-based workshop for the local kids. My workshop would then become part of the YCAM education syllabus and be shared online. I was there to lead this project so that the YCAM education team could learn from my way of handling a community-based project for kids.

Despite the language and cultural barrier, the project was one of the smoothest productions I have ever worked on. I experienced first-hand what a near-perfect production feels like, with a dedicated and committed support team that won’t rest until they fulfill all of your requirements, with almost unlimited resources to realize it. YCAM places such value and respect on artistic vision turning futuristic scenarios into tangible realities. Every time I catch an exhibition at YCAM, the artwork are nothing short of spectacular.

A photo of the Millenium Project exhibition, a show about the results of a site study of an area in Yamaguchi

The price of being avant-garde

Of course, this obsessive pursuit of technological vision and perfection has a price. The most immediate would be the centre’s relevance to the local residents. Some of the people I talked to said that they couldn’t understand a lot of the art YCAM produces. They describe a sense of disconnection between what goes on inside the center and what’s going on in their neighborhood. Another citizen boldly commented that YCAM is another excuse to waste taxpayers money.

Geek heaven don’t come cheap, apparently.

A Malaysian curry workshop Suzy (third from the right) facilitated for Yama Kitchen, a section that explores biology & food interactions

The heart of YCAM is people

It’s an unofficial tradition for YCAM staff to throw a welcome and farewell dinner party every time there is a guest artist or researcher. There’s a lot of laughter, sharing, eating, drinking and smoking, and by the end of the night, the bill would be split equally. I pulled out my share.

“Oh no, Suzy. You don’t have to pay. You are our guest,” Kumiko said matter-of-factly, as she continued taking money from the others.

 

Strength from the struggle

Working in what I would describe as the best production environment ever (where technical know-how, resources and money are no problem) brought me to a big realization about myself, I would die out of boredom if I lived and worked at YCAM. It dawned on me that I am a person whose creativity is a result of swimming against the current. In a near-perfect environment, I wouldn’t have a reason to be creative.

YCAM is a place you won’t be able to shake off. It leaves a remarkable impression on you and before you know it, you’ll yearn for more!

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