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Living in an alternative daily life: the #unrealcityestate project

What is it like to live in an imaginary city?

Through IOWA I was involved in a project called Unreal City Estate, created by Jun Kitazawa and curated by Sara Black. This was a satellite project as part of the 2015 International Award for Public Art conference (IAPA 2015), hosted by the Elam School of Fine Arts, the University of Auckland, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and the Shandong University of Art & Design.

The Unreal City Estate in Albert Park, Auckland was a place where people get together and create an imaginary citythat could exist alongside the real city we live in today. Anyone is able to lease out their own plot of land on Albert Park and respond to their chosen site how they wish. It was a city within a city, in the public context of a park between 11 am and 3 pm on Sunday 5th July.

Kitazawa’s practice primarily involves working with small communities and revolves around the idea of the small festival, following studies by scholars such as Yanagita Kunio. All across Japan small towns celebrate festivals that are undertaken by members of the community, for the community. Therefore, these festivals are events that are held for themselves, not necessarily for others. However, due to a recent spike in art festivals and larger festivals in general, these smaller village festivals are dying out.

Japan, like many other countries, is currently undergoing a climate of change. While people traditionally lived in smaller communities, this way of living is slowly dying out as people move to more urban areas looking for work and other reasons. My own personal experience of this is through my grandmother’s town of Kikonai, Hokkaido (木古内町 Kikonai-chō), which was once a relatively active and thriving town of around 12,000 people, but now has a total population of approximately 4800 as of 2015. The total population has been reduced to less than half of what it once was in the space of roughly 50 years.

Kitazawa’s projects are spread across various small towns in Japan. Each project takes years of preparation and organisation, through public funding grants, close collaboration with other artists and members of the respective communities. Once started, the community could then essentially take ownership of the project and decide whether or not they wished for it to continue. He believes that if Japan’s traditional cultural belief which has existed since antiquity, held by the people who sustained these smaller festivals are lost today, it is our duty (or the artists duty) to recreate them.

Over time Kitazawa wanted the community to truly build and take over these projects from the very beginning. Some projects, people have assembled on their own accord, with no prior advertisement and/or information regarding the project. Through this community initiative projects such as Kitazawa’s Living Room project have sprung up all over Japan.

While previous projects have had years of preparation, Unreal City Estate was given only one month. The majority of Kitazawa’s projects have also been based in Japan, making the project unique. This imaginary city was limited to Albert Park.


Kitazawa’s practice somewhat parallels to that of IOWA; there are no social hierarchies and anyone and everyone is able to participate. Through negotiation with everyone involved in the project, IOWA decided on leasing three spaces in Albert Park and chose activities for each. These activities were:

  • A bubble-bath space
  • A hairdressing space
  • A koha space

On the day of the project 7 members of IOWA, including myself, responded to each site and attempted to make something out of this alternative daily life. From the onset our planning was sparse and we were unable to fathom how the project would turn out. Given that it was a Sunday morning during winter, with the weather looking precarious, we were also uncertain about how many people would arrive.

To initiate the bubble-bath space, approximately 20 balloons were blown up and placed in the Albert Park fountain. These balloons acted as “bubbles”, and each contained a small amount of water to weigh it down and prevent it from flying away. This amount was then increased to approximately 60 balloons. Actual bottles of bubble soap with wands were also placed around the space, open for people to use and take home with them if they wished.

The hairdressing space, also known as the “Unicorn Horn space” was undertaken by IOWA member Joseph Durana. People could come and receive haircuts, free of charge. Across the course of the day 2 people had their hair cut, both of whom were connected to the project. Nevertheless, the sight of someone getting their hair cut in a public space created an interesting and unusual spectacle for the audience, this being an underlying motif in all of Kitazawa’s projects.

A koha space was set up near one of the main entrances into Albert Park. This space contained many relics, strange objects and materials which people left behind or could take home for free. None of the activities for the Unreal City involved money and were done out of the good will of various people. Because of this, the project as a whole could be perceived as an act of koha, since people are giving up their own time and energy for the sake of others.

Things were initially slow to get going across the whole park. Windy weather conditions meant that the balloons were having to be constantly re-installed as they would be blown out of the fountain space. It also meant that any members of the public who passed through the park would not sit and relax, as the constant winds prevented them from doing so.

However, from about 2 pm the weather conditions began to calm down, and more people began interacting with the bubble-bath space. Children were the first to react to the space, with the adults reluctantly following them. Kitazawa explained that in previous projects children were always the first to take initiative and react with what was happening, possibly because they are less self-conscious than the adults. Ultimately, the simplicity, ambiguity and initiative of the children are what I believe kept the bubble-bath alive, despite the fact that the people who participated may have not even known it was an artwork.

More and more people began to engage with the space, to the point where we were no longer needed to keep the space alive. We were able to successfully fulfill one of the project goals; creating something for the community which they can take ownership of. Even after 3 pm people were still engaging with the space despite our absence. While the hairdressers and koha space had been cleaned up, the bubble-bath continued to attract members of the public.

It was fantastic to see what other participants of the Unreal City created and how the public reacted. In that respect, as students of fine arts it was a highly rewarding project to be involved with, but also taught us a lot. My own feeling is that some aspects had been left too much to chance, but it would be interesting to try and recreate the successful aspects on a larger scale.

Thank you everyone who participated in the project, it was a lot of fun to be a part of. Jun Kitazawa, Sara Black, Vân Anh Trần, Bella Sun, Aya Yamashita, Eason Xu, David Zhang, Yasmin Waiching, Wade Wu, Mano Rankin, Kit Keung, Tommo Jiang, Yona Lee, Kathryn Aucamp, Mandy Chan, Abbey Gamit, Christine Meow, Liu Yuan, Kaoru Kodama, Frida Keegan, Rosza Majsa, Joseph Durana, Taipari Connelly, and anyone else I may have forgotten.

Tom Hackshaw


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