Ritsu Katsumata and Stafford Smith do not collaborate. At least that is what they will tell you. The reality is that the creative couple has their hands in everything, from performance art and mixed media to photography and videography, often creating in tandem and sometimes as a team.
Their partnership began 22 years ago in New York City. "We met at a butoh/flamenco interpretation of Jean Genet's The Maids
at the Kitchen Theater," says Katsumata. "It was just a total disaster. He and I happened to be sitting next to each other and we both started laughing. We've been together ever since."
Smith came from upstate New York and Katsumata grew up in Philadelphia. "We both moved to New York to be artists," says Smith. The realities of New York led them each into corporate work, with long hours that stifled creativity. During the early years of their courtship they "ended up just eating Chinese (food) and watching videos," says Katsumata.
Eventually, they moved to Grand Rapids, Mich. and quickly became fixtures of the art scene. By day, Smith is a photography professor at Grand Valley State University and Katsumata is Business Innovation Lead working in communication design at Amway. In off hours, Smith works on personal projects and Katsumata is known for her innovative violin performances. It's during these times that their work collides and sometimes their ideas are intentionally interwoven. "We do work together," says Smith.
"We are constantly bouncing ideas off each other," Katsumata adds.
The first time Katsumata and Smith's work blended was some time ago, when the couple lived in Portland. While Katsumata began her musical career as a child prodigy classical violinist, in her 30s, she began experimenting with electric violin, creating soundscapes that combine classical methods with postmodern sounds. "When I wrote that first song…we weren't collaborating intentionally, but he was painting while I was writing and realized afterwards that we had kind of inspired each other," she says. The piece was called "Gato Negro," (Black Cat) based on the sounds of urban things. Incidentally, Smith was working on a commissioned mural for a shop called Urban Jungle that sold gift items created from up-cycled and recycled materials. "The pictures he was making was kind of altering what was inspiring the sounds I was making. It was an unintentional collaboration," says Katsumata.
Years later, in preparation for the inaugural ArtPrize in 2009, Katsumata's music helped unite their work on an installation project called Fearscape, their first true collaboration. "It had to do with how images are sort of hoisted onto the general population through mass media," says Smith. "We had a pile of 50 televisions we amassed and projections. It was about how fear is used to keep people glued to the TV." Layered atop the visual elements were sounds from garbled 911 tapes along with live performances by Katsumata. "The violin was the voice of humanity," she explains. When Smith first approached her with the idea of using her music, coincidentally, he had the "Gato Negro" piece in mind.
The pair also worked together for the annual OddBall gala at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA), putting their minds together to direct the entertainment for the event and also creating a gently subversive video installation piece unofficially called "Foodie Fiasco." Individual, framed screens hung above a hors d'oeuvres table featuring people dressed in formal wear, dancing, eating, and eventually spilling and smearing food all over their clothing. The short videos were looped and extended so viewers would only catch a quick glimpse of the mess. "You might see a splatter and say ‘hey, look at that,' and it would be gone. I don't know what (our individual) roles were," says Katsumata.
"I think it was more my idea," adds Smith.
"I think it was your idea," she says.
"And you were producing," he concludes.
And so it goes. The pair finishes each other's sentences and help flesh out creative thoughts and concepts together. "For example, I'll create images," says Smith. "And Ritsu is actually very strong at putting them into context." And she helps refine. "He's more content and I'm more context," Katsumata says. "(Although) it's not like we sit down and say, 'let's talk about art.'"
"One thing we noticed about the collaborations (is) it can get skewed towards one person or the other," says Smith. "So if Ritsu is playing violin, it becomes the Ritsu show." She laughs. "Fearscape was the closest it came to 50/50," says Katsumata, although Smith disagrees, saying that a true collaboration would require neither playing to their respective strengths.
While Smith and Katsumata each work in different disciplines, and in many ways are opposites, they balance each other out in a complimentary way. "Making art is about understanding the human condition. That's what we do… it comes naturally to us. That's what we are always doing," says Katsumata. "We are always observing and trying to understand. We express it in our own methods. Mine is music and Stafford is photography. I don't think we create in a vacuum. What comes out is a synthesis of all those observations."
The most recent collaboration is their new book Butoh & Burlesque
, which in many ways returns to what united them in the first place -- performance art. The book focuses on the many faces of the self. "There are those two realities of your real self and your social self that you basically construct to be able to function in society… Butoh and burlesque seem to be physical manifestations of that," says Smith.
Katsumata explains further, "This is your life, this is persona. There is no edge. There is no different personality. We are these complex people that have lots of facets and it you don't have to distinguish really."
While the book contains a philosophical element which Katsumata helped shape along with other contributions like layout and design, overall, the lush art book focuses on Smith's photography. "There is collaboration, but in this one I think I am dominant," he says.
"People ask us if we collaborate and we always say, nah. But, we are always talking and always influencing each other. (Often) we are not collaborating intentionally," says Katsumata. "It's kind of like being the President's wife. You're not in the cabinet, but you have a lot of sway."
"Who's the wife?" Smith laughs.
Audria Larsen is a freelance writer, entrepreneur, and professional entertainer. Her work has published in Rapid Growth Media, Revue Magazine, Michigan Blue Magazine and Hooping.org. She is the founder of Audacious Hoops, Grand Rapids' original "hula" hoop company and produces a myriad of art and entertainment ventures. In full disclosure, Larsen appears in Butoh & Burlesque, by Smith & Katsumata.
Photography by Adam Bird