An email —interview— conversation with James Gibson & Maebayashi Akitsugu.
December 2020, Japan.
Read Japanese version.

The Making of Joy

(Maebayashi — James)

First, I was interested in your 2019 exhibit "archetypal". This piece struck me as a thoughtful arrangement of natural and man-made objects (tools?) and photographs, what was the idea behind it?

Invited to join the Minokamo Marginalia event by a leather craftsman and friend to hold an exhibition in his studio/house (an old kimono shop situated next to the Kiso river on the Nakasendo).
Yes, you are right it was an arrangement of objects and photographs. Some of the objects were clearly ‘tool-like’, whereas the function of others was less obvious.

I will try to explain.

For a long time I’ve been questioning our relationship as humans with material possessions. How we seemingly follow an endless spiral of overwork to earn money for more things to justify why we overwork. Our collective illusion of happiness & success in the possession and display of material wealth.
The other side of our desire to own, and as artists & designers, our desire to create, is the environmental impact of making, displaying and disposing of such things. Being an artist, designer or student doesn’t excuse us from this responsibility. In fact I believe we have a greater responsibility as teachers to be guiding examples to our students. Everything we make and every action we take has an impact on our environment —and a reciprocal impact on us— so we should take great care to understand the implications of our desire to create and own.

I myself have been a victim, but from research and personal experience I came to understand my own predicament, subsequently deciding to make change in myself. Trying to understand my relationship with the things I need, want and use, and to discover my purpose —the purpose— of being an artist.

Before I created this exhibition I wrote these words:

The things I need, the things I want and the things I use.
I need the things I need, without then I can not live.
I don't need the things I want and can live without them.
The things I use, I need to live, but don't want.

I want the things I want, sometimes for reasons inexplicable.

The ultimate act of freedom is to effectuate action on your world, simply for the joy of doing so and for no external reasons. A lesson we learn at an early age, the pure act of creativity. In an attempt to understand my relationship with the things I need, want and use, I will endeavour to make a collection of archetypes, exploring my emotional connection to each and every one. Some may seem to have a clear function, while with others, their purpose may feel ambiguous. Yet in all cases, it is an expression of joy.

Story Behind the Photographs.

Having had the lucky opportunity to hike in the Lesser Himalayas with a group of young Indian Gorkhas. I was struck by their tenacity, ingenuity and mostly by their simplicity. Apart from carrying a couple of cooking pots and food (fresh vegetables, spices, meat and homemade alcohol) they had nothing except the clothes on their backs, a Kukri (A traditional Gorkhas knife) and smartphones on selfie-sticks.

Each using their own obviously treasured knives —not the selfie-sticks— wood was collected and cut into various sizes. From large logs for the fires where our food would be cooked, to thin needles used to stitch huge leafs —gathered while walking— together to make bowls or plates. Again using the very same knives vegetables were cleaned and cut and placed into pots for cooking or for salads placed in the leaf bowls. The meat was prepared and cooked in 3 different ways; curry in one pot (the other pot cooking rice) spiced and wrapped in leaves placed within the fire and finally over the fire itself.

The quality of the food, experience and human connection had nothing to do with the quality, quantity, newness or how much the gear cost. The very use of a few simple tools and of collected natural materials, juxtaposed with smartphones and selfie-sticks, was the inspirational starting point for this exhibition and displayed as a series of anthropological style photographs alongside my own objects.


Re-examining my own life, use of the tools and possessions. I endeavoured to make a collection of provocative objects made predominantly from bamboo. Choosing bamboo for its strength, manipulability, low environmental impact and inherent mingei characteristics. (other materials used included: found stones, rope, waste fabric and found objects)
As you pointed out some objects were clearly tools, such as chopsticks, spoons, cups and bowls. These could be described as things we use in modern society, but don’t necessarily want.

Others were tools such as tent-pegs and walking-stick/tent-poles which are needed to make shelter from the elements, otherwise life could be in risk. These fall under things we need, and are necessary for living.

Finally there are a series of sculptural objects with no clear practical function. Yet these objects bring forth in the viewer an emotional reaction. An impulse to own. These are objects of desire, of want, often for reasons we cannot logically explain. Of course all the objects are made with care and have an inherent beauty in their craft-like appearance, clearly taking a certain amount of skill and patience to make. The bowl or walking stick are in themselves sculptural objects of desire, thus making one’s relationship with them even more complicated. This was no accident on my behalf, an intentional misdirection of one’s understanding of these objects.

In addition, the way these simple objects and photographs are displayed as an ‘exhibition’ by an ‘artist’ are also ways an ‘audience’ or ‘customer’ are emotionally and subconsciously manipulated.

A Question of Value.

As the artist protagonist, I challenged the visitors further. All objects and photographs were for sale, for a price they wanted to pay (reassured that I, the artist wouldn’t know how much). Some paid as little as ¥1,000, others several ¥10,000. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say that I sold my artwork, but the exhibition sold out.
Value, need, and want, are nothing more than stories we tell ourselves in order to justify our own actions and desire. If we don’t understand this for ourselves, someone else will decide these things for us.

Thank you for your very thoughtful response. I think that the division of use/necessity/desire is highly dependent and fluctuates with the environment and context in which they are used, so they may all be "necessary" to humans.

Yes, our relationship or agreement with such things is complex and one which is often given to us, or passed on/passed down, first from our parents, then schools and finally society at large. Therefore these relationships most often go unnoticed by the individual… or if they are noticed, they are unable to make change as peer-pressure, social conformity and simple modern convenience -or the dopamine spikes- are hard to escape.

Significantly, your exhibit is an attempt to interrogate that framework of thought itself and take out the "archetypal" in our time.

In the design world, there is always talk of the Archetype. It is often the search for the purest form/function of said thing. Then once that is found, we —for various reasons— add complexity, which can be said to be style. Most of what society believes to be ‘design’ is actually ‘style’ which is very different and should not be mistaken for design. I think a similar argument could be made for Art?

The Joy of Making

Now, I have another question for you. How can the "joy" of making be re-embedded in us today? What does it seem like your other activity, One Tree Academy, would be involved as a challenge to that?

A seemingly simple question, which of course is very complex. To answer we may need to question the current way society views the function of work — and the meaning of joy or happiness.
The short answer can summed up by the words of Masanobu Fukuoka from his book: The One-Straw Revolution:

“One loses joy and happiness in the effort to possess them.”

If we can detach ourselves from the view that the purpose of work is for future happiness or future material gain —be it wealth, power, position, recognition or material pension etc. If we can accept the perspective that the reward of work, is the work itself. Perhaps then we can find joy in whatever work we do with our time, and perhaps then we would better choose what type of work we accepted.

I’ve said before, but consider this; if your answer to doing any work isn’t a “HELL YES!” – then you should say “NO”.

Unfortunately, we have been born into this materialistic society having not experienced any other viewpoint. Therefore many of us fall into the trap of selling our time in the pursuit of false values or false dreams (which is perpetuated by all media, entertainment and institutions). We pass the decision how that time is then used over to the rule, opinions and values of someone else. Often finding ourselves doing unessential tasks, which don’t align with our personal ethics, for the sole purpose of filling time. —The job requires the need for filling time and filling time justifying the need for the job.— This all gives a false sense of productivity and value, but deep down we sense that there is something fundamentally wrong.

In this situation finding lasting meaningful joy from work is very difficult, if not impossible. And if we hope that working hard now, in the future we will achieve fulfilment, happiness and joy, we are gravely mistaken.

New values?
  • Fulfilling work, in harmony with one’s own and nature’s own natural rhythms.
  • Responsible work, aligning with personal ethics.
  • Essential work, with a clear purpose.
  • Rewarding work, giving a sense of meaning and accomplishment to one's life.
  • Focused work, one task at a time.

Let go of this imposed value of hard-work-more-work, and making changes towards natural-work-essential-work.

My personal daily intention is: “The way you do anything, is the way you do everything”. From this perspective “everything” we do is work; reading a book, hanging the laundry, guiding a student, cooking a meal, caring for others and creating works of art... and so on. If we approach all tasks with the same intention, with a clear set of personal ethics, there is no need to prioritise one sort of task over another. Essential work will be done first and unessential work... well, is unessential, and should be ignored.

When we consider personal time and health as the most valuable assets we own, there is no need to do as much work as possible, as quickly as possible. As there is always work to be done and no matter how hard we may try, we will never be able to complete it all.

Accept this, align your personal ethics and simply be present with one essential task at a time ...and the joy will find you.

One Tree Academy.

One Tree Academy came about towards the end of another project: ‘Notes on Living Outside Cultural Norms’. An experiment where I questioned my/our accepted view of living and working by removing the majority of standard comforts. For example, I moved out of my apartment, which disconnected me from all the utilities, possessions and contracts which it necessitated. I also did the same with my office. For two years I lived, worked and traveled in my car, writing and taking photographs as I went. During this time I renegotiated my relationships or made new personal agreements with ‘normal’ society.

I’m in the process of compiling my notes and photographs from this project into a book as we speak. Through this project two things occurred, which lead to creating One Tree Academy. 

The first being, people started to join me and before I knew it I was holding impromptu classes in natural settings. This was happening in a learning/sharing situation round a campfire and healthy food. People opened up to talk and listen in such enthusiastic and empathetic ways, creating a very different learning experience. I thought: Could I actually formalise this in a way that doesn’t undermine the spontaneous sharing phenomenon?

The second occurrence was meeting Tsuchikawa-san, a local shop owner and unofficial hub for the local Ikeda community. He offered me the use of his land for free, as to build an outdoor space for educational, cultural and community activities.

So this was how we ended up making the alternative outdoor classroom/camp space: One Tree Academy. Where we usually hold one or two events a year. Each event is held over two days —everyone camps the night— with a focus on four guest speakers & four workshops. These are loosely categorised into four key factors of well-being and longevity (introduced in the research & book The Blue Zones by Dan Büttner) which included: Nutrition, Movement, Purpose and Community. Without going into too much detail, these are the four pillars for supporting a long, healthy, happy, and fulfilling life. Now who doesn’t want that?

Back to ‘joy’. In our current normalcy, we tend to work & live the complete opposite to this. We overwork in unhealthy environments, eat food void of nutrition, isolate ourselves behind black-mirrors and have confused the purpose of our lives. Now I ask you, how are we as supposed to do our best work, our most creative thinking or be the best version of ourselves under these conditions?

In opposition, if we are healthy in mind and body, having the support of a community, are creating meaningful work —or leading meaningful lives— with purpose. Then wouldn’t this be more conducive for achieving a higher level of both work, life and subsequently society... full of joy? At One Tree Academy and through my work, I try to show that we can renegotiate our preload agreements and give permission to choose a different path. I curate the series of activities, workshops and guest speakers in order to do this. Inviting different guests to share their live/work lifestyles. To talk about the decisions they made both successful and unsuccessful along the way, always asking one final key question; “What is your definition of success?”.

The guests are often regular people doing very modest activities/work, but who have found level enjoyment and success in their lives. Their views of this are often very personal, and sometimes rebellious, thus showing us there are any number of different ways to design your life. Giving us permission, motivation and support to make better choices for ourselves and ultimately better choices for society and the environment at large.

During the two days the other activities included; tent sauna, live music, food & drink market, and the most important is the night-time Campfire Social. This is where the real magic happens, as we all relax around the campfire in the heart of One Tree Academy sharing stories, bonding the community together. The presentations and activities of the day fuelling the fire of conversation. Actually all the activities are so planned as to stimulate a neurological & physiological response in the audience. An open minded group flow state where new ideas and concepts can be easily understood and initiated.

In addition this project affords me the opportunity —excuse— to travel, meet and interview some very interesting people. This has been a great joyful learning experience for myself. I wouldn’t have reached out and learnt so much if I hadn’t made the physical space. If things continue to improve in regards to the pandemic, hopefully we will hold an even next spring. I’m already very excited about the guests I have lined up.

What is design? In today's world where things are becoming more diverse and complex, it's important to make a distinction between the archetypal (necessity) and the stylistic (style), isn't it? Also, maybe we need to reconsider the frameworks of design and designer or art and artist.

Yes, I think so, these frameworks have become very confused. We don’t necessarily need to call one good and the other bad. More importantly we need to be honest about the difference and the implications of our actions. Awareness and responsibility is what is needed. Even in our current academic environment the boundaries are confused around these issues of design and designer or art and artist etc. Unless we meditate on the true purpose of what we do —be it art or design, or something else— we will be stuck chasing personal fantasies led by false values and value systems. These are neither art or design. What is design? Design is finding responsible solutions to real problems in —global— society.

Now, I think your point "the reward for work is the work itself" is really important. We tend to confuse the necessary "work" with the obligatory "job" at times, so we have to be careful about that.

Very much so, work is a choice not an obligation. Our societal image of work and what constitutes as —valuable— work is also confused. The social hierarchical structure based around the job type/title is also misunderstood. In a society like Japan this has a great impact on how people —automatically— interact with each other. It can be very damaging to both society, culture and one's own mental well-being.

Question: Is the purpose of education to ‘get a job’?  We could argue that if one becomes fully ‘educated’ then a ‘job’ is the last thing one needs. Controversy, I could easily say that I don’t need a ‘job’, I need food, shelter and time. Add to that health, community and purpose and we are really getting somewhere.

And thank you for explaining the One Tree Academy. I remember, when I walked into this event, I certainly noticed a change in the relationships between the people who were attending. You could call it the power of place and the set-up for the occasion.. The place is surrounded by nature, the relationships between people, and the interaction between them creates a unique atmosphere. You say that the design of such a "place" is a learning experience and a pleasure for yourself, and I think that's very important.

Yes, in a time where we still have unhindered access to just about any piece of information we want, somehow we still overlook/ignore the majority of it. If this was not the case, then why do we still eat Mcdonald's? Clearly just access to information isn't the issue, it’s the acceptance and implementation of information which is in question. I’m exploring ways of creating a conduit between information, understanding, acceptance and implementation. The outdoor learning experience is one of those.

Now for the last question. What is your cherished concept of "Rejuvenative Design", which translates directly to "incomparable design" right? How do you personally view it in light of modern trends (in design) and why are you paying attention to it?

Rejuvenative or Regenerative Design is still in the early stages of understanding itself and mostly concerned with designing new biodiverse environments for human habitations. Environments or systems which move our present situation of ‘quantitative-conventional-degenerating’ forward past ‘sustainable’ towards ‘qualitative - rejuvenative - regenerating’ design, living systems and most importantly social consciousness. Designing, producing, using, and disposing in a way that requires less energy and cost, which is as close to nature or ‘natural’ as possible.

Learning from the book I mentioned before: One Straw Revolution. The further we move from ‘Natural’ for whatever reasons we imagine, the more our ecosystem struggles. This is subsequently reflected in our own state of health (physically and mentally).

If we consider Fukuoka-san’s example of growing mikan. We all know that a processed mikan in a tin can or pet bottle with added sugar, colouring and preservatives is unhealthy not only to eat, but to produce. A real mikan is much better, but has it been sprayed with artificial fertiliser and pesticides? Is it out of season and had colour enhancing chemicals added or been polished with a paraffin wax solution for added shine? Eating a fresh mikan is the healthier option, with organic better still. Yet these mikans have been transported in boats and trucks to the supermarkets, to where we drive in cars to buy. Yes, this real mikan is still better and much healthier than its processed or enhanced relatives from another country, but there are still consequences to the simple act of eating a mikan.

I suppose that the closest we can get to a natural mikan, would be to grow one in a regenerative-organic way in your own garden, picked by hand and eaten fresh & ripe.

It was Alexander von Humboldt who said: “Everything is interaction and reciprocal”. Some 200 years ago he observed, recorded and started to understand the negative consequences of our human actions on the environment. He described the Earth as a “web of life” (ecosystem) where the state of health of each and every living organism is dependent on the next.

I can’t emphasize this enough, there are reciprocal consequences to everything we humans interact with (including what we designers make).

I’ve been researching about Regenerative Farming practices, which currently illustrate how moving closer to natural systems of growing and providing food are not only qualitative, but also equally, if not more quantitative.

Our topical system of growing crops is in a downward spiral of degeneration. Every time we grow a crop we deplete the soil. Moving away from natural we looked towards invention & innovation in the form of pesticides and fertilisers to solve our problems. These not only didn’t come close to solving this problem, but actually accelerated and increased it. Whereas Regenerative Farming practices do just that: regenerate the land as we grow crops. Regenerative Design would do the same. Improving the environments where we live and work subsequently improving our general state of health both physically and mentally, supporting improved social relationships. Thus creating an upward spiral of regeneration.

Sadly, our current trend in ‘design’ practice and education reflects the current state of farming. Chasing invention & innovation for quick solutions, results, and spectacle, for rapid economic, political and personal gain. This selfish way of using design has the reciprocal effect of degeneration which will no doubt come back to bite us in years to come.

I think design could be, should be something more.

A responsible way forward would be to renegotiate our understanding and definition of design (or that of success), forming a new responsible code of conduct and education. Making it harder and less-rewarding to produce or buy things degenerative and more easy and rewarding to produce and use regenerative designs solutions. To Re-Design our lifestyles with emphasis on healthy natural responsible value systems.

Why am I paying attention to it?

We humans are operating at an environmental deficit, each year going further into debt and dis-ease. We need to reach higher than ‘sustainable’, we need ‘regenerative’ practices to repair the damage already accumulated.

Quite frankly, a closer to natural approach is the type of healthy ecosystem/society-system (planet earth) I would like to live in.

Read in Japanese.
Photographs of James courtesy of Masaki Yokoyama (TAB, Inc.)