MY HUSBAND IS A SPACEMAN
"When you meet someone else, when two creatures meet, and have a relationship, it's a cultural clash. Always. Whether it's a different species of spacemen or Englishman or whatever. And it's about that. You find your culture with somebody else. It's about what happens when people of different cultures meet. It's a very profound show."
My husband is a spaceman: Frank Chickens' Kazuko Hohki, Mark Wu and Stefan Woelwer interviewed by Richard Marshall
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
KH: I liked England since I was very small. I read The Borrowers in Japan. I was born in Tokyo. The Borrowers is big in Japan. I made lots of little books for them because I use to believe that they really existed and that they lived in my house. So I made these books for them to help them. Tiny books. Actually, I knew that they lived in England, but I wrote them a letter saying that if they did live in my house they could use anything they liked. I was eight. All the books I read seemed to come from England. Then I started to listen to other things from England. David Bowie, punk and all of that. Everything I liked was connected with England. In England it seemed that children were supposed to behave like children whereas in Japan children are supposed to behave like adults. It's all too much. So I first came to England as a tourist. I thought I was just going to stay here for three months. My father asked me to bring back some duty-free Scottish whisky. But I didn't go back for four years!
3AM: He had a long wait!
KH: I brought him some after four years. It had matured!
3AM: So what took you so long? What were you doing for those four years?
KH: I was fascinated by the English lifestyle. I arrived in the 70's. I wanted to be a creative artist but in Japan to do that you have to work to create whereas here things were so cheap I could just create. It was great. England made me an artist. It was like kindergarten!
3AM: And this was when punk was taking off?
KH: Never Mind the Bollocks was just out. I'd bought it in Japan and thought: wow! In England they can do anything. They think about something and do it. So that's why I wanted to come to England. Anyone can do anything there, I thought, and I wasn't disappointed even though it was the end of the Labour Government there.
3AM: Is that when you started up your band?
KH: No. I joined the London's Musical Collective. It was into experimental improvisation. I wasn't intending to become an artist then but because when I arrived I joined this organisation and they were the only friends I had at the time. . . . I became a performance artist then. I enjoyed the performance aspect. Then I did something called the Japanese America Touring Theatre of London inspired by Victorian Toy Theatres. Victorian middle-class families used to have these model theatres. They had no TV or Internet, of course, so they used to have these model theatres. You can see them if you go to any museum of childhood. They used to make up plays and perform them using these mini theatres. I was fascinated by these mini theatres. My friend, a carpenter, made me a little miniature theatre, but I didn't use any of the cardboard figures. I had so many wind-up toys. So that was my performance art. I would perform using my miniature theatre. And two of my Japanese friends saw me doing that and they said that they could do some backing singing. A karaoke for toy theatre! So we formed a band and that was the beginning of the Frank Chickens thing. But we thought that just singing was boring. We weren't playing the instruments. So we thought we should dance. We had to make our own costumes and everything. We had no help. So we were doing everything ourselves. We were changing a jacket into a hat and things like that. And people became interested in us. We were invited to do a warm up act at the ICA. Somebody saw it and they came on stage and invited us to come on TV. And we made a single using the London Musical Collective. It was quite a nice pop ride!
3AM: How long did that go on before you decided you had to move on?
KH: We went on tour. Five years. More than five years. We were constantly doing a tour somewhere. America. Australia. Europe. Then Frank Chickens went from being three people to two. One dropped out because she thought me and this other girl were playing around too much and she didn't like that. So she left. We kept going. But after five years the other one was getting fed up. She wanted to be more serious. She wanted to be a student at London University. Then somebody else joined. And we kept on until we had a TV show. I presented it. It was like a chat show. People would come onto the show and talk about what they were going to promote -- new books, new records. But at the end we'd have them do a karaoke of their own choice. That was 1989.
3AM: Who did you have on?
KH: Spike Milligan. Sandy Shaw. Ruby Wax. Some I didn't know. Michael Winner. The weatherman Michael Fish. It was a show idea we proposed to Channel 4. We made a pilot programme -- it was a Christmas special -- and then they commissioned eight programmes. After that I started working with an English filmmaker. We made a documentary for Channel 4 about my mother. We interviewed my mother and all her friends. We were doing this but my mother took over. She is a religious preacher and a brilliant entertainer. She was a priestess preacher and she told jokes. The religion was a new one called House of Development. It began in 1940 in Japan. It's based on Christian science and Buddhism.
3AM: Wow! So where did the comedy come in?
KH: When she was preaching she had a great talent for telling jokes. And dancing too. So whilst she was preaching she would make people laugh. She would entertain. She had a comic dance. It made her more popular than the leaders of the religion. People loved her performances! It meant that at the end of her life she was treated quite badly by the leadership because they were jealous. My mother died in 1995. So I decided to make a solo show about her. In the meantime, Frank Chickens kept going. Sometimes it became three, sometimes it became twelve! Now it's maybe about 6 or 7. But because of all these people involved in Frank Chickens if I wanted to make more intimate work I needed to make solo work. I always wanted to make a multimedia work telling stories. And my mother gave me so many stories and there was such a big drama when she was dying and I made a multimedia show out of that.
3AM: So how did you meet Stefan and Mark?
KH: They came to see my show My Husband Is A Spaceman.
3AM: A great title.
KH: Yes, I like the title.
3AM: What goes on in that show?
KH: All my shows are based on what goes on in my life. This is about a Japanese lady who marries a Japanese artist and they go to England to live. But every night he locks himself in this room and doesn't come out. And eventually he discovers that he's an alien duck.
3AM: An alien duck?
KH: It's based on a very old Japanese folk tale which we all love.
3AM: About spacemen and ducks?
KH: In the folk tale, the man is a peasant who is really a beautiful crane. And is using a feather. So I'm using that. But in my version he's a duck.
3AM: And a spaceman.
3AM: I get it!
KH: It's about identity.
KH: Because you are basically a human being -- English or American or Japanese or whatever. And when you meet someone else, when two creatures meet, and have a relationship, it's a cultural clash. Always. Whether it's a different species of spacemen or Englishman or whatever. And it's about that. You find your culture with somebody else. It's about what happens when people of different cultures meet. It's a very profound show.
3AM: Spacemen. Ducks. Profound. I'm with you. Now, you did something before that didn't you?
KH: You've done your research, haven't you?
3AM: Oh yes. I'm well informed.
KH: Good boy. Well done. Thank you.
3AM: My pleasure.
KH: I did this work on this old Japanese folk tale about a moon princess. This moon princess appears one day and she is brought up but she is always crying because she is longing to go back to the moon. Now, in my story I am a megalomaniac who thinks she is a moon princess. I'm longing to go back to the moon. I think my identity is there. I'm believing that I'm living in a different culture and that my culture is there instead. It's another story about identity.
3AM: So do you have a sense of dislocation, of being apart from where you ought to be?
KH: People can't always be happy with their identity, wherever they are. Living means that you are always going to be dislocated. Living is in a way about trying to find out who you are. Some people will blame that dislocation on cultural difference or geographical difference, but it's inevitable. All my pieces are not about cultural differences but about the more profound you, as a human being. Cultural difference is a very handy tool to exploit as a manifesto but it's actually human life.
3AM: So is this new project with Stefan and Mark linking up with this?
MW: We've already done one project based on My Husband is a Spaceman. It was more or less a synopsis of the play itself. It incorporates a lot of the acts that Kazuko does in her stage show. Animation, film -- it's quite a nice way of using different vocabularies. She had a live camera and she tells a lot of stories and they're projected onto the screen. So we put a lot of that on the CD Rom we made. It's a shorter version of the show itself. We hadn't got a clear idea of what it would look like when we started it. We initially thought we'd do something that would support the show. It took off in its own direction after we got started.
SW: We couldn't just make a copy of the show. It would have been boring. The point was that the live show is interactive with the live audience. So we had to think about that.
MW: We have a dark screen with a passage of text and in a corner a little Kazuko. If you roll the curser over her body her head will nod, she'll wave her arms and so on. And if you click her arms it'll take you to different places. In the live show she's there to feedback to the live audience and obviously in the CD Rom she's not there. So we've provided a little Kazuko so users can interact with her themselves. We've put in lots of elements to help them do this.
3AM: So who is going to get this CD?
KH: It was for the promoters of the show but it's too beautiful just for the promoters. But I'm a bit confused because the story is incomplete because initially it was just to promote the show. So I don't know. It's quite difficult!
SW: Yes. A lot of people have seen it and said they like it but they want to see the whole show.
MW: Maybe we could make a longer CD with the whole story on it. At the moment it's to get people to go see the show. Making it longer and so on, that's one option. Another way of looking at the project is to say we'll leave it as it is because it was a testing ground to see how we could collaborate, as we're coming from different fields. We quite like how it turned out, anyway.
KH: Collaborating was interesting. When I do animation for my own show it's always very low-fi. I'm not trained in any of that stuff. So working with these two was very new and different for me. I like being low-fi because it's a very direct way of communicating.
SW: As a designer there's always a tendency to polish things up and there's a danger that you forget what it was you were trying to communicate.
MW: Yes. Kazuko has a very interesting style because she works in very low-tech media. Some people, when we've shown them the stuff we've done, they've asked us whether we're going to leave it like that or whether we're going to polish it off. They wondered whether it was a draft version. And when we've said that it's more or less the final version, they've said that they're glad because they like the quality.
3AM: So how much did the punk do-it-yourself ethic contribute to the way you work?
KH: I'm not sure whether it was the punk thing that did it for me or whether it was the English thing! I think when I started off I was just a tourist going around the usual tourist places: going to look at Buckingham Palace and stuff like that. There was punk about of course but I wasn't very conscious of it as punk. I think I just thought it was what English people were like!
3AM: I guess your mum was a bit of a punk with her do-it-yourself religion and stand-up comedian routine.
KH: Yes. She would have done very well in 1977 here in England. I grew up watching my mum doing her performance and being happy. She was a big influence on what I do.
3AM: You like having an audience?
KH: I don't think of an audience when creating a piece of animation. I make it for myself. I want to make something that I think is good and, in its own way, beautiful. The audience comes later.
3AM: Tell us about your book.
KH: It's about what it's like living in England amongst the English. I was writing for a Japanese magazine for five years every month. These are essays about living in England. I like the English because of their non-conformity. Eccentrics are accepted here. That's so different form Japan. Japan's changing, but people are very conformist there. People who don't behave as they are expected to behave get left out. Whereas England encompasses all the strange elements.
3AM: Interesting. When you were talking about your Spaceman project I was thinking about those Japanese people that go to their rooms and just stay there for years.
KH: The kids, yes. I think it's a communication problem. I don't know anyone like that in real life. I just read it in the newspapers and I thought: wow, that's strange!
3AM: So, do you have new stuff coming up?
KH: I'm doing a show on The Borrowers. I'm doing something with Andy Cox of Fine Young Cannibals. He's very interesting. He makes sculptures. He likes Joseph Cornell who makes little books of sculptures. My show about The Borrowers is based on my relationship with the story when I was a child. The character is a chemist who keeps making something and it keeps going missing. She thinks The Borrowers are taking them and she wants to prove that The Borrowers exist. And during that process she meets a Borrower on the Internet who makes a book of mini sculptures. And that's where Andy Cox comes in. He makes them for the show. That's what my show is about. And there is a song linked with the book that Andy is writing. I don't know yet how it will end because it's still in process.
3AM: Is this based on an earlier story like the other stuff?
KH: Only The Borrowers.
3AM: Well, you should write a book of your stories. They're great.
KH: You think so? I fell in love with The Borrowers.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Otherwise known as: Frank Chickens
Daytime job: Performer
Age: No answer!
Describe your act: Pop performance group
Biggest influence: Marcel Duchamp
Worst stage moment: February 26th, 5.30pm, 2001
Best thing that's ever happened to you: I was born!
Weirdest thing that's ever happened to you: I'm still performing!
Favourite famous person: Ridiculusmus!
Where do you see yourself in five years' time?Not enough space to day!
Advice for other performers: Be a Japanese woman (a good-quality one!)
Picture taken by Andrew Gallix at 3AM's summer 2003 bash.