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Two On Kawaras: Yuki Okumura on the Artist and his Twitterbot

Actually, there are two On Kawaras. One is the conceptual artist—or rather, a concept—whose large-scale retrospective is currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The other is a Twitterbot—or, rather, a programming code—which has been tweeting “I AM STILL ALIVE” every day since January 2009, even after the artist’s passing last June. […]

On Kawara, "TODAY series," 1989. Collection: Walker Art Center

On Kawara, “TODAY series,” 1989. Collection: Walker Art Center

Actually, there are two On Kawaras.

One is the conceptual artist—or rather, a concept—whose large-scale retrospective is currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The other is a Twitterbot—or, rather, a programming code—which has been tweeting “I AM STILL ALIVE” every day since January 2009, even after the artist’s passing last June. Neither of them belong to, yet both are in some way connected to, physical human bodies. I am one of the luckiest people in this sense: I am perhaps the only person who has directly interacted with both of them.

The reason I say the conceptual artist is a pure, immaterial concept himself—or itself, briefly speaking—is not only because he never presented himself publicly between 1966 and his death, but also due to the fact that On Kawara is his artist’s name. The body Kawara was using—or his/its ghostwriter, I would say—had a different, legally registered name, which is most probably Atsushi Kawahara. For more on this point, please read this text I ghostwrote for Lei Yamabe, a fictitious critic.

In February 2012, I went to New York to meet Kawara—or, actually, Kawahara. He had liked Yamabe’s first text, in which I attempted to bridge his early body of work, executed in Japan in the 1950s, with his “Today” series, which he started in New York in 1966, as well as his other conceptual projects, including his series of “I Am Still Alive” telegrams. Kawahara was going to put it in Kawara’s then-upcoming book, and on this occasion he invited me to visit his place for a chat. It was just amazing. He was an elderly, yet extremely vigorous guy, whose topics of discussions ranged from conceptual art to human civilization to quasi-scientific supernatural phenomenon.

On the other hand, the reason why the On Kawara Twitterbot is immaterial is, I guess, very obvious. It is a programming code, not analog at all but purely digital, which posts an automated tweet once a day, at 17:00 GMT, carrying one same message claiming his being “alive.”

Screen shot 2015-02-23 at 11.24.18 AM

Around the time I first got to know the Twitter account, many people actually thought it was really Kawara doing it. However, as an artist so deeply into Kawara’s practice—which I consider an extremely long-duration performance where the performer remained invisible for nearly 50 years—I knew it wasn’t him. Indeed, I soon discovered this post by Pall Thayer, the Icelandic/American artist who maintains the Twitterbot.

While I appreciated the honesty and sincerity in his post, it did not make me like @On_Kawara because I found it a bit disrespectful: considering the nature of all of his work, Kawara would never disclose his bodily state in real time. But when I noticed that it was still running even after the artist’s “death,” I became fascinated. It now seems to fully represent how he, as a pure consciousness, still conceptually exists, having been disconnected from the body and literally “passing” away from the physical world.

My interest in Thayer grew so much that I traveled all the way from Europe to Connecticut to meet and interview Pall in person. On my journey from New York City, I recalled my meeting with Kawahara—because once again I was going to meet a physical body behind yet another immaterial concept called On Kawara. The biggest difference between the two, however, was that Thayer was totally happy with being filmed and having his interview shared among people, unlike Kawahara, who stayed hidden in order to devote himself to maintain the conceptual structure of the artist.

Here’s my film, which shares Pall’s ideas behind and stories regarding the On Kawara Twitterbot, as well as his own background, while you will also get to know a bit about who I am.

In closing, I’ll quote from my conversation with Thayer about the most compelling aspect, for me, of his Twitterbot: his decision to keep @On_Kawara “alive” after the artist’s reported passing:

Do I stop it? Or, do I keep it running? I spent a good few hours kind of thinking about which to do. Basically what it came down to was, for me, the statement, at least after his passing, referred not to himself but to his body of work. That was my original decision for keeping it running. Even though he has passed, his work is still alive and remains alive.

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