Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Failure of Kyoto Motors

Kyoto Motors was originally an artistic project conceived of in the spring of 2006 that set out to critique the pervasive inaction vis-à-vis the global problem of climate change, as was evident by the daily habits of motorists all around. From the outset, the project involved two areas of focus: one being a web site designed to appear as a commercial automobile manufacturer’s site, but really of a satirical nature; the other being a public-space intervention involving the tagging of automobiles with alternate (phony) brand-name labels that were to be manufactured to mimic authentic labels (i.e. made of moulded plastic with a chrome finish).

In my mind it was this latter part of the project that was going to be the main focus, and the triumph of my ambitions. It was all about the public intervention aspect of “tagging” cars with names such as “Denial”, “Obligation”, “Excess” and “Priority” as well as the name “Kyoto”, each of which had been designed in a 3-D format for the purposes of having them cast in plastic. And I did indeed have them cast in plastic – by the thousands. This in turn set me on a course of onerous studio production that was supposed to transform a set of unfinished plastic units into shiny, chromed, sculpted labels.
Sadly, I was just not up to the task. In hindsight the few miscalculations regarding this technical production proved to be all but fatal to the project as a whole. Certain unexpected expenses ruled out some desirable outcomes, and some major expenditures had me committed to a particular path that led to a herculean amount of painstaking labour that I tried to share among volunteers that supported me. But we were no match for the industrial production that was clearly lacking – the very methods that were now out of reach. The original vision was slipping from view. Instead, all subsequent alternatives ended up being secondary: the scale of the project dropped from broad to artisanal, and the deployment of the tags only ever saw limited success during the summer of 2007. By this time, I was proceeding with some very mixed feelings about the whole project, not only because of some of the design and production compromises I had made, but because I had begun to question some of the fundamental assumptions that this intervention had been built around.

Unexpectedly I came to see the real Achilles heal of Kyoto Motors was in the materials I had chosen to convey my artistic, ecological vision. By this time, after weeks of clipping and trimming the moulded plastic labels I had had manufactured, my studio was littered with bits of black plastic to an astounding degree. Something struck a nerve. I knew in the back of my mind that plastic was derived from petroleum, but I hadn’t acted on any of my misgiving surrounding that fact. So I began to look into plastic and the pollution associated with it, and I soon realised that I had made a grave moral miscalculation.

Kyoto Motors was fundamentally hypocritical.

I had chosen to take up an environmental cause by leveraging the very industrial practices of manufacturing that I was effectively criticising. Granted I wasn’t driving a Cadillac Escalade around town to implement my plan, but the distance between the global impacts of the disposal of plastics and the consequences of widespread dependence on fossil fuels was too close to ignore. I was thoroughly disheartened, albeit reluctant to scrap the whole plan. Instead, I shifted my focus to the web-based aspect of Kyoto Motors, and allowed the implementation of the car-tags in my neighbourhood to grind to a halt.

This allowed me an escape route, since I was running up against the reality that the collaborative participation of the project’s implementation simply wasn’t taking root anyway. I learned that it’s hard to get volunteers to work til they have blisters on their hands. The moral appeal of “combating climate change” is not always enough compensation when it comes to unpaid labour – which I totally understand – though at the time I suppose I overestimated the appeal of the project. The satire of Kyoto Motors, with its pointed criticism of the status quo, may have been too negative and confrontational as an effective tool. Its appeal as a cheeky and amusing jab against SUV and other car culture was likely only ever going to entertain a select few, and fewer still were in a position to get involved physically. Already with the technical setbacks I was overwhelmed by the scope of the project. Now I was also learning a lesson in how complex a collaborative project can become. By the time I put this studio project to rest I happily realised that the website was another story altogether.

With almost all creative control at my fingertips, the Kyoto Motors website grew to become the crowning achievement of the whole project. Not only did it force me to learn new things with the computer, but I also needed to do quite a lot of research
This is where my focus remains. Of course that was several years ago, and the money for websites like that has evaporated

 about global warming, the science surrounding it, and the politics surrounding the science. It wasn’t long before I found myself looking at economics and ecology as well (including the look at plastics as mentioned above). Studying the history of what we some times refer to as the “love affair with the automobile” has been a real eye-opener. In turn, my attention has been drawn toward urban planning and where the car figures in our future plans. This has got me thinking about public space again, which has begun to inform new artistic endeavours, and new community collaborations. This research and this learning has for me been the real lasting success of the Kyoto Motors story.

So Kyoto Motors has all but fizzled away. What remains is a good name and a potentially great platform on which to discuss many relevant things vis a vis energy and carbon emissions. I hope that it may fulfill this purpose in the wake of my initial failure to poke and stir the public about climate change.
As mentioned elsewhere, the spirit of Kyotomotors lives on in other projects I am now involved with, particularly with Rue Publique. Meanwhile the blog soldiers on. There is a certain literacy about energy and fossil fuels in particular that needs to be developed if we are to move forward in a progressive way. I hope Kyoto Motors can contribute to this.