Thought For The Day

Thought For The Day
Roomic Cube

It's 1998, and I'm visiting New York, unaware that in a couple of years I will actually up sticks and move here myself. I'm in the apartment of Howard Greenberg, a journalist who will shortly switch from Raygun (where he covers Japanese and neo-lounge music) to Elle Decoration (where he will write about interiors).

I love to visit people's apartments, it's one of my favourite things to do. I take out the little Panasonic digital camera I've just bought up at Times Square and start snapping away like an industrial spy.

Howard's place is in the East Village. It's two flights up a grim communal stairwell and tiny, but you feel at home. There are deep blue walls, Tintin models, and acres of industrial-style shelving. Clothes are folded into white plastic milk crates. But what makes the ambience welcoming isn't anything to do with the hardware -- the physical structure of the building or its accessories. The magic is in the software, the connections to other people and other places the apartment evidences. It's mind over matter: Howard's mind successfully imposing its worldview on the unpromising material of a cramped, rented New York apartment. The flat is a secure place, a filter for taste choices, a cluster of invisible fibre optic tendrils reaching out across the world. But mostly to Tokyo.

Howard is tied into the Trattoria family, contributing English language reviews of Trattoria's releases to their website. So he has all the latest Cornelius videos, along with intriguing Japanese Playstation games like Vib-Ribbon. His record collection is rich in disks which seem to straddle the boundary between music and design, made on computers by people who, it seems, could just as easily be architects or art directors as musicians: Arling and Cameron, Pizzicato 5, Takako Minekawa.

A Cube Of One's Own

'Have you seen this?' asks Howard, putting into my hands a CD. It's 'Roomic Cube' by Takako Minekawa. At this point I've never heard her work, I just know that long ago she was in a band with Kahimi Karie. 'Roomic Cube' is produced by Buffalo Daughter, whose records I've enjoyed since first hearing 'Captain Vapour Athletes' in my tiny Paris apartment in 1996. Howard puts Takako's record on and the room is filled with the slowed-down, fat and chunky sounds of Moog, drums and bass. It's quite a rough and physical sound, with Minekawa fluting girlishly over the top: 'I am in the white room, whiter than white'. As it plays, I'm enjoying the artwork: greeny plasticky interiors appropriated from early 70s architecture catalogues with, superimposed in white sans serif type, the question Does your way of life need a room?

It's a startling question, somewhere between Zen and Japanenglish (the weird and often illuminating way English gets used and abused in Japan). It seems to put the cart before the horse. There are reversals of common sense and suggestions of alternative ways of living built into it. It's one of those very simple, yet very liberating insights. You twist the cube, you change the colours.

In the normal way of thinking, life is a struggle to achieve food and shelter. You arrive in a city, rent a room, find a job to pay the rent. Only then, with these basic securities established, can you think about lifestyle. A personal 'way of life' is, at this stage, a luxury tacked on in what leisure hours you have. Most of your actual life is dictated by the necessities of its own perpetuation. You wake, eat, take public transport to your place of work, eat, drink, socialise, then go home, eat, sleep, and do it all again the next day. You're free to develop interests and cultivate a personal style only in your few hours of leisure, or when you're on holiday. Even then, your freedom is solipcistic and meaningless if you can't muster, at 11am on a Tuesday, any interesting people to interface with.

But Takako's slogan seems to put things the other way round. It addresses people born with a vocation, a personal style, people who are prepared to rethink, in the most radical ways possible, the material conditions of their lives to make them fit who they are, rather than let them dictate who they become.

Maybe your way of life doesn't need a room? Maybe there are ways to avoid getting caught up in the rent trap? Here are a few of the strategies I've discovered:

Hikki The Japanese call kids who cut themselves off from the world, staying at home with their parents rather than going out into the job market, Hikikomori (it's abbreviated to Hikki). In times of recession, many young Japanese simply stay home. They personalise little rooms at the top of milquetoast suburban houses in exaggeratedly eccentric ways. (You can see pages of photos of these rooms in Japanese magazines like Zipper.) They retreat into the deep virtual spaces of music, the internet, magazines, mangas and video games.

The Guest You move around the world staying with whoever will have you, for as long as they can bear it. This is often a preferred route for people who have more kudos than escudas, more charm than cash. Artists like Rilke, D.H. Lawrence and Yximalloo can spend their whole lives going from one invitation to another, wherever in the world they come from.

The Dole This is how I won the free time to start making records. I was on the dole for most of my 20s. The British government paid for my university education, then for my rent and board (I lived in a broom closet just off the King's Road in London's Chelsea). I treated the dole like a modest annual Arts Council award. It's a lot harder now, I hear.

Writer Nomad If you live on your wits, live on the revenues from copyrights for intellectual property (art, music, journalism) you don't have to stay in one place to collect your income. In fact it really pays to be peripatetic and global. Not only will your life be more interesting (and being interesting is directly related to your income in this line of work), but you'll make lots of new contacts in each new place, people who may well commission you to write for them.

Smart Homeless Media creator Tsuyoshi Takashiro lived for four years in a car after graduating from university. For showers he used friends' apartments or the public bath houses which are so plentiful in Japan. He jacked his laptop into the car's electric system. Before that, as the head of the student entertainments committee, he'd been using a campus office (quite illegally) as a living space, plumbing in a private phone line. Now he's rich, but hasn't been able to develop attachments to material things. He wears clothes -- usually T shirts people give him to advertise stuff -- only once before throwing them into a recycling bin.

Squatters and Eel Houses Foundation BAD are a group of Rotterdam squatters who specialise in making gardens in neglected parts of the city. They put up signs saying This garden belongs to no-one! Please use it! Japanese architecture group Atelier Bow Wow recently published a book about Eel Houses, the odd structures which get cobbled together organically and haphazardly in the gaps between more designed buildings. (Eels, being long and thin and slippery, can curl themselves into just about any shape.) These houses use temporary materials like polythene, clear plastic corrugated sheets, plyboard. In Japan, where planning permission and crime are not such big problems as they are in the west, you can quite happily live in an Eel House.

Hay Balers and Self Builders The average house in Britain now costs about 120,000. That's just the average -- in a city like London you're talking double. For that money -- only accessible to most honest people by decades of meaningless drudgery, of which several years will be spent sitting on Britain's underfunded and non-functioning public transport -- you get an ugly lump of bricks and mortar. Thanks to the archaic and feudal nature of English law, you don't even get titular ownership of the land your house stands on, which is leased to you for a limited period by The Marquis of Nibbsworth, Prince Charles or the Church of England. So it's not hard to see the appeal of getting the hell out of the city and proving with bare hands and hay bales that a feasible and even loveable dwelling can be erected for a few thousand pounds. Japanese magazines like Studio Voice and Relax now regularily feature 'Self Build' pages showing all manner of hi-tech igloos and nissen huts erected by amateurs and otakus. Sure, you might get electrocuted, but you'll never throw yourself under the 5.23 to Croydon (delayed).

Cockpit Living In Tokyo, where apartments are as tiny yet high-tech as the flight deck of a 747, people hunker down quite happily in the clutter, surround themselves with remote controls and the virtual space of electronic gadgets. But unlike a 747, which is a sort of flying prison far from earthbound amenities, the Tokyo apartment tends to be very well connected to the city around it, with all its choices and joys. It's easy to start thinking of the city itself as your apartment. Why have a study when there's a library nearby? Why have a sorry little patch of private garden when you can mingle in the public park? Who cares that the bathroom is just a moulded piece of plastic (the same putty-coloured mortuary plastic they use in capsule hotels) when there's a big outdoor swimming pool five minutes away? Who needs a master bedroom when you have a roll-up futon and a love hotel up the road? Who needs a big fridge when the conbini (convenience store) is cool at all hours? And who can complain of claustrophobia when the Yamanote Line -- and with it all of Tokyo -- is just five minutes up the hill?

Data Clouds And The Cut-and-Paste City

Personally, I prefer to build my utopia in cities. Since you can't do much about the housing stock (unless you're very rich) or the urban infrastructure, the best and most radical thing you can do is 'find yourself a city to live in'. Find the one that's right for you, one that shares your rhythms and tastes. Does your way of life need a room? Well, perhaps. Does your way of life need a city? Absolutely. I've tried London, Paris, New York and Tokyo. I like elements of all of them, but my ambition now is to spend several months each year in New York and Tokyo. Those two are my favourites. That's where I can be me.

I'd like to see cities covered soon with data clouds -- permanent free wireless internet access for all citizens. Tokyo has the beginnings of such a system with its iMode phones, which are always, at no extra cost, logged onto the internet whether you place a call or not. But for laptops there are only modem jacks in public phone booths (although that's still ahead of public internet provision in most other countries). Data clouds would cost the government something to install, but would pay for themselves quickly by increasing commerce.

The nation is dead. Visas and customs and border guards are already anachronistic. I hope they wither away this century. I find my 'nationhood' in odd places. My nation is the internet, or the Mac OS. Wherever I am physically, my 'roomic cube' is the sharp bright plasmic rectangle of an Apple laptop screen. It's odd that I should feel an almost nationalist loyalty to a set of in-out routines and a graphical user interface, but I do. I recently bought a new iBook, and within two days had customised it so that 'my world' was all there on the desktop, ready to spring to life at a click.

Now all I need to do is download my soul into a fresher, faster, smaller, more intelligent new body. I'm sure that will be possible too one day. Probably the day after they bury me under a chopstick in the Aoyama Cemetery.

Some of the ideas in this essay were inspired by the exhibition My Home Is Yours / Your Home Is Mine. This exhibition, somewhat similar in its mix of urbanism and art to Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rem Koolhaas' Cities On The Move, started in Seoul and is currently showing in Tokyo at the Opera City Art Gallery. It continues to Europe and the US in 2002.

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