Fieldtrip Project is an artistic intervention in response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Used and donated Japanese backpacks (randoseru) travel around different locations on the backs of artists, drawing local people from each region to participate in discussions and interact with the memories held by each backpack. This project started from Japan, and has gone to Canada, and Singapore before reaching the Philippines.

Owing to the fact that we were unable to make a recording, the following excerpt is not verbatim. It is part of a longer feature in BrackMag #4 The Energy Issue.  Purchase the issue here.


KF: Could you tell us more about how the Fieldtrip Project brings to light the need for talking about the trauma?

DT: Often, the artists [participating in the project] realise they would not stay there in the trauma-affected areas [in Japan] for long. These interactions, between artist and children, tend become shallow. Kids learn to smile in front of cameras, in front of adults who have trauma, to [pretend to] be happy. Kids try to hide their true selves.

[Yet] using these backpacks–everyone has one in Japan—the children come to help to open the exhibition. For them it is not an art exhibition or project, but a place they feel safe in and they feel happy to hang out. They have nothing, all their playgrounds, their toys are gone. The backpack is something they can relate to. This project draws the community together: children hangout with their grandparents who bring tea, we started having conversations, with a coffee-table in between as we talk.

The artwork by itself didn’t create this situation: the way art works is interaction, and children and local people decided how to do things, the exhibition itself did not dictate how it played out. Interaction with communities is very different from my work as a painter. As a painter, I am like a god, deciding what goes on the canvas. Instead, this project was more similar to when I was teaching art in elementary school… Going with the unknown possibilities in the communities is interesting. This sort of creativity can happen when under special circumstances—such as disaster –communities will go beyond standard expectations, with different possibilities. This amazes and surprises me every time.

[On dealing with trauma in Japan through the project]

DT: In different parts of Japan, they did not feel much for the affected areas after a few months. At first, they had been talking so passionately about it, but over time their activism died down. So I wanted to connect these two different [types of] communities. After disasters, it takes much time for recovery and the survivors need outside support for a sustained period of time. If the news doesn’t talk about it anymore, people forget about it. My project aims to remind people about it.

Moreover, kids will have difficulty releasing their trauma now. There is the issue, of course, of whether we should use this project to help kids move on from the trauma, or whether the trauma should be exposed and dealt with.

KF: How are the logistics, you show up with backpacks and then?

DT: In Japan, these backpacks are used for 6 years beforehand and donated to relief for earthquake. But since these backpacks are so old, the government didn’t want to give them to relief. The project got them for free. The community sets these backpacks up in a space [in each location]. I then commission artists to transform these backpacks into art. Each artist’s interpretation is different. […] Sometimes, there would be a few backpacks left, and I would offer them to community members to make them into artworks too. Surprisingly, their concentration time is short—synthetic leather backpacks are hard to manipulate. Audiences respond better to already-made backpacks, made with special skills and aesthetics. Questions are asked: Where did these backpacks come from? It starts important conversations, creating awareness of and preventing the weathering of the occurrence of a disaster.

The project is casual enough to make people accept it and take a backpack home. Adults using the backpacks look silly, so people laugh. In projects like these, there is the risk that the purpose is so big, that having fun and being engaged gets left behind. My aim is to make a project like this as fun and free as it should be, despite its important aim. 

KF: So you choose lightheartedness over solemn, sombre messages, in order to engage audiences. At those times, or about this issue, people don’t need severe reminition of what happened.


[More on the multi-locational nature of the project]

DT: I have two field trip groups: one in north America, another in Asia that actually started in Singapore (at the NIE Art Gallery). Singapore has not been facing or faced any major natural disaster, yet I found that Singapore-based artists are very sympathetic to the situation faced in Japan. More love has been directed to Japan. The motivations of how to deal with disaster differ… If you haven’t experienced it, it is very hard to imagine how it is. The projects did something, then, to connect these two different groups of people. High school students in Singapore also participated in creating these artpieces, such that participants in Leyte in the Philippines were connected to them through these backpacks. So it is so interesting now, that these backpacks are part of a permanent collection in an elementary school in Leyte! It is interesting that there is no critical connection between them… I artificially connected them and created a link between elementary school students in the Philippines and high school students in Singapore.

Maybe indirectly we should remind the youngest survivors of the disaster so that they remember how they should act again if it happens again. We need to educate them gently but not by hurting them. There must be some diverse approach to it, multiple layers and ways to go about it.

KF: Regarding the communities that spontaneously form around the fieldtrip project (such as the impromptu tea parties with the grandparents), do you also see communities forming around these in other countries as compared to the disaster spaces?

DT: Now there is a selfie-culture. Just viewing in museums is not exciting enough for audience. [In Fieldtrip Project], the viewers are able to carry [the artwork], and they take pictures with it, and converse with and about it… The audience becomes part of the artwork and the artwork was created by someone whom they don’t know, and owned by someone before whom they don’t know, such that all these different layers become part of the project. As the project travels to more and more locations, the experiences derived from these locations make the project richer.


(Featured image from Field Trip Project in Baguio with students, source: