Communal Tea Drinking

RELATED TERMS: Tripartite Model;

Contributed by Federica Mandelli

The communal tea drinking is one of the Precarious Tasks designed by Japanese artist Koki Tanaka for the Japan Pavillion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, curted by Mika Kuraya.

Precarious Tasks is a series of projects where participants are invited to gather and experience specific and weird situations aimed to share uncertainty and collective acts.

It is based on the idea that every human experiences the world differently, the project attempts to answer the question “How is it possible to take on the experiences of others as our own?”.

The big frame is the Japan’s post-quake, where after a few years is all the way urgent a re-contextualisation of the reality: not behaving in a totally new way, but reading the background in a different way so that problems of a specific area become more generalised until no one can ignore them.


BACKGROUND: After the earthquake followed by the Fukushima accident, Japanese people have developed a different awareness of the land in which they live and the soil itself. People started developing a new sensitiveness for their nutrition: drinking from bottle instead of tap water, buying food choosing by the farm and the land the products come from.. they fear radioactive materials, people started to measure themselves the radiation level of food.

THE TASK: The artist asked his friends to bring their favourite tea. The tea is not conceived here just as traditional Japanese ritual, but it entails thinking about different regions and the physical act to connect body and land.

THE EXPERIMENT: The artist took a large kettle and he put all of the 50 teabags collected.

Many of the people around the table had never met before, but asking each other about the tea they brought made the conversation start.

The act and the process of making something differently and without expectations triggered the conversation and let people affirm a view of the act itself.

PERSONAL REFLECTIONS: The communal tea is a narrative environment that arises when people meet and gather in the same place and are joined by the same task. The space is meaningless without the interaction of people in it.

The narrative appears in the space with a sense of surprise created by the act of blending all the teabags in the same kettle, sparking the attendees’ imaginations. I would say the teabags are the agency, alongside the crucial mediation of the artist. Together they create a heterogeneous system or assemblage, formed by human and non-human entities.

If the artist is the author and the participants are the audience, the network is activated by the teabags that entail the power to connect people together, shifting the focus from the space to the gathering itself, breaking the barrier between artist as author and attendees as audience, creating a prticipatory event.

The teabags are the tangible elements that trigger the narrative which starts in people’s minds and ends in the telling and sharing of all their stories.

CONCLUSION: The power of a narrative environment doesn’t necessarily lie in a place itself. In this example the space plays the role of intermediator which make no difference (the experiment could have done everywhere), but it allows something to happen. The power lies within the object (teabag=agency) and the author (artist) that activates the entities.

The simple act of making tea in an uncertain way causes a change in minds and emotions, the stories start to be constructed individually to be subsequently shared together. “There is no place without people in it”.

This brings to attention the mutual dependence of the three major elements of the design of narrative environments: people, story and place. Each one depends on the two others for its emergence.