A few weeks ago I had the amazing experience of volunteering at Japan’s huge open-air art bash, Setouchi International Triennale. My experience was made possible by volunteering with the Koebi Tai.
Koebi Tai, which means ‘little shrimp squad,’ is a group of dedicated volunteers that go above and beyond in supporting the Setouchi Art Triennale from start to finish. They support artists from around the world prepare for the art festival by assisting in the production, installation, and maintenance stages of their projects, as well as supporting venues, performances, and local events during the festival. They are a huge part in publicizing the events and helping the public understand and connect to the artwork by working as art site receptionists, guides, even publish their own Koebi-Tai newspaper.
As a volunteer you get the chance to be a part of something special, an event that brings people together from around the globe with the common interest of seeing contemporary art. Its one thing to visit the festival as a bystander, but being part of it elevates it to a whole new level. The community feeling was so strong – volunteers all meet up in Takamatsu every morning for the daily news and agenda, take the ferries in to our specifically assigned art sites, help each other throughout the day, and along the way we make friends, discuss the artwork, meet the artists, and enjoy giving back to the arts community of Setouchi.
During the festival’s open seasons, the volunteers are busy doing all kinds of interesting work – mostly work at the art sites as reception, welcoming visitors from all over the world, facilitating tickets and keeping track of the headcount for each day. By volunteering through Koebi-Tai during the Triennale, you will get to see the artwork up close and personal, and might even has a chance to see some behind-the-scene art festival magic. I got to operate the Storm House on Teshima, setting up the art site so that it was working properly for visiting audiences, as well as experience it firsthand in a private showing!
Koebi-Tai welcomes volunteers from all over the world to help the Setouchi art festival- and if you can’t speak Japanese, don’t worry. While I was there (about one week), I met plenty of volunteers that couldn’t speak a word of Japanese and did just fine – its a great learning experience. You can pick up the phrases you need as you go, and thankfully one language exists that binds us all together – body language! Believe me, even just a smile can go a long way.
Here are Setouchi International Triennale‘s remaining open seasons:
Summer Session: July 18th – September 4th
Autumn Session: October 8th – November 6th
Even if you aren’t visiting Setouchi during these intervals, Koebi-Tai needs volunteers for the rest of the year as well. They prepare the islands for art installations, clearing old artworks, and helping artists install the new ones. They maintain and man the reception desks at the permanent art sites as well as staffing certain island cafes and restaurants. While I was there I worked at Shima Kitchen on Teshima – it was an action packed day as I worked as a waitress for the first time in my life at the busiest cafe on the island – I learned a lot of keigo, (formal Japanese) connected with the local people on the islands, and even got a delicious free meal!
If you have a chance, check out Koebi-Tai and consider giving back to the art community in Japan by volunteering. for the festival. Often, they can accommodate you on Takamatsu with a free lodging, so its perfect if you are backpacking through Japan or the like. The website is a bit difficult to navigate as their English site hasn’t been brought completely up to date, but if you’re determined like me and can use the browser Google Chrome’s handy translate feature, its not too difficult.
In addition, you can just send them an email suggesting that you’d like to volunteer, and they will respond to you in a timely fashion. If you do decide to volunteer, set it up in advance; there are 12 different art islands, and they will assign you to a specific one based on your experience and level of Japanese. As you spend more time, you will be sent to more interesting places. I started out working at the cafe, but by the end of the week, I was manning art sites by myself. On my last day, I worked at Naoshima Hall, and welcomed more than 500 people to the site, met the governor of Okayama, and got interviewed on Taiwanese national television. One for the books!