Everyday Life as Art: Naho Iguchi's Yearlong Happening in Berlin

Top image: Naho Iguchi at TEDxKyoto 2012. Photo credit: TEDxKyoto.

From 2009 to 2012, Naho Iguchi was the Director of TEDxTokyo; in 2010, she created the spinoff event TEDxTokyo yz to gather and create a network among younger Japanese innovators and leaders. In 2013, she decided to leave Tokyo and launch a new, more personal project: living in Berlin for a year without holding a job, supported by the love and trust of community members who are financially sponsoring her for the project's duration.

In Berlin, Iguchi is exploring questions like "What would happen if a person is free from the 'employment' that usually occupies one's time?" and "What does being 'independent and autonomous' or 'contributing to society and nation as an adult' mean?" and "What could happen if a person completely follows her intuition and five senses when making decisions, without worrying about income or rent or about social expectations -- in other words, the sources of fear and anxiety that drive people to stick with the current economic system?" She blogs at communicationprocessdesign.com.

A: What is your project in Berlin?

N: There are many aspects, but simply put: There are 22 friends, coworkers, and clients who gave me money ($1,200 USD each) as a gift -- without any obligation, responsibilty, or expectation of a return. They simply, purely wish me to be Naho. This allows me to explore what my capacity is, what one human being can do with her life when she is free from social constructions or things we believe we should do.

A: Specifically, when you say "free from social constructs," you mean like a job and income.

N: Yes, a job is one thing, and income. But also cultural constraints, people's expectations -- like, at this age, people are supposed to be doing this or that with their life. In Japanese, there is a word "Shakai-jin." Shakai=society. Jin=person/human. We become "shakaijin" after graduation of university/college. If you don't, you are called NEET (not engaged in education, employment, or training), Freeter, or simply an outlier of society. Professionally, socioeconomically, and in terms of etiquette, Shakaijin are pressured to behave in a certain way that "Seken" expects from you. Seken means literally "in-between society" -- it's not a personal pronoun, but implies that everybody in society watches you.

Another thing I mean to be free from are the psychological constrains that come from inside oneself.

A: The voice inside you that says you should be doing this or that.

N: Yes, or that I need to worry about this or that. Fear, concerns, inferiority, even superiority.

A: So 22 people agreed to participate as your supporters; how did you find them and what was your pitch?

N: I had one-on-on meetings with 60-70 people whom I picked based on my intuition, feeling they were trustworthy and would understand what I wanted to do. I told them I wanted to go to Berlin and explore just being me, Naho. My work in Tokyo for the previous four years had been about weaving networks from among people in different disciplines and industries, to make an ecosystem.

To me, the definition of "community" means being deeply integrated into each other's lives; it's not the common jargon of "community" meaning people who are all interested in, for example, wine, or who join an online group.

A: So your definition of a community member means, what -- you can knock on their door and ask to borrow butter? Or that they're there when you're sick? That level of intimacy?

N: Not necessarily. I guess the people that I take into consideration when I make a life decision are my community members.

A: Okay. So the ecosystem metaphor is a good one. All the beings that are impacted by a move you make.

N: Yes. Nowadays there are so many occasions where people with shared vision, passion or goals come together, but just doing an activity together or working on one project, that's just a team, or a network, in my mind. It's different from community. I had spent four years building networks and when I decided to leave Japan, I wanted to take some of those people to the next level: community. I asked myself: how can I get these people involved in my personal life.

My background is organizational psychology. It gives you the tools to gather people and to make that group or organization function. The field was developed around the Industrial Revolution and the two World Wars, and it was specifically about making humans function together for the sake of productivity and efficiency.

I ended my studies and jumped into implementation, experimenting with organizational models as I got involved with TEDx Toyko and developed TEDxTokyo yz. I could sustain myself because my dad passed away some years ago and left me money. For a long time it was very hard for me to face that money and accept it. My dad had purchased a life insurance policy, and I had complicated feelings because of how the insurance industry works. It's based on fear.

A: And lack of real community, right? Your dad was sold on it because he was afraid no one else could take of your family financially, so he invested in this scheme. It's like a lack of faith in humanity.

N: Yeah. I don't blame my dad, though. It was because of his love for us that I got that money. In the end I decided that rather than keep that money for something in my future, such as my retirement, I would use a portion of it like seed funding, like an investor, for my own personal development and life and work.

As a Communication Process Designer, which is what I called my work, people kept saying: your work is amazing, but it's ahead of its time; how do you make money?! I told them sometimes I get money for it and sometimes I work pro-bono; but it's working out, because here I am alive. I didn't mention it to people when they asked because I still felt conflicted about it, but the truth is my freedom to work as I did was funded by my dad's love. I realized that my work, and the value of my work, was totally unrelated to the money earned through it.

That made me start thinking about what work really is, and how does it relate to value, and to the money that a human being needs to survive in this world. Humans are just one species on this planet. What the heck are we doing with our lives? If we look around at the other creatures alive on this planet, they do life so differently. Is this socioeconomic system the only way we can survive and contribute? Is this the only way?

But I'm not interested in living without money and leaving the economy behind, because I live inside it. And frankly I enjoy some luxuries too. I'm not interested in going back to primitive society or becoming a farmer and self-sustaining. I wanted to stay in an urban area and still experiment with living more like an animal. To utilize my body and senses in making decisions.

I want to develop an eye to distinguish where money is truly needed for me to survive and where isn't. The current economic system lays the big underlying assumption that money is necessary in all aspects of life and on all occasions to survive in developed urban society. But I believe there are areas that money should take part in, and there are other areas where money is not needed. I want to deconstruct these things.

With all of this, I didn't want to be writing and theorizing. I wanted to realize it, to live it.


Berlin at night. Photo credit: Robert Debowski / Foter.com / CC BY.

A: So that's what the time in Berlin is for you.

N: Yes, I decided not to do the experiment in Japan because there I have citizenship, family, home, friends, so it would be much easier to live alternatively, without making money. I thought I needed to leave my country to truly experiment with self-reliance.

A: Why Berlin?

N: I had visited once and felt strongly I wanted to live here at some point. So it was like an intuition. That intuition turned out to be very practical and logical because the cost of living is low and the visa policies are very welcoming to foreigners and the definition of what you can do with your life if you call yourself an "artist" here is broad.

A: Your residence visa is based on your project here being an art project.

N: Yes.

A: So you have this sum of money, taken from these 22 people who are supporting or sponsoring you being Naho, and you don't have to worry about income.

N: Still I have worries, actually. It's interesting that I still catch myself feeling anxiety and fear about money and my budget.

A: Can you talk about what your daily life is like, living like an animal, in the experiment? I'm imagining the fox in her cozy den who looks outside to see if it's sunny or raining and then decides whether to stay in and sleep or go out. Or depending on whether she ate a duck or a mouse the previous day, the level of hunger in her belly, this prompts her next action.

N: Yes. How I consider my options, how I use my time, is how I am being an animal. I plan my days very spontaneously. It's interesting to see what arrives in my life. Offers and invitations to do things come, and I accept them. I'm not in a hurry. I don't make plans for the future, just for the next day or two.

A: And none of the plans or choices have anything to do with strategic economic gain.

N: Right.

A: Living this way, what do you notice, other than the observation that the anxiety about money still comes up?

N: I have space to process almost immediately during or after each experience. I can extract so much from tiny but precious experiences in day-to-day life. My life is becoming more meditative. I'm more conscious of my breath and my posture. My inner muscles, when I move, as if I'm doing yoga: my body is changing too, even though I'm not exercising.

Seven years ago, when my dad suffered from an illness that eventually caused his death a year and a half later, I developed this pain along my left side. It started around my heart and then it pierced towards my back, and then it ran down the whole side of my body. I tried so many things to deal with the pain, and now since moving to Berlin it's just gone. I let myself feel everything I have to feel, right now. The numbness left.

So many people cannot feel their emotions and body sensations in the moment. They don't notice; that's why they get diseases. They can't react or express themselves as things happens. That happens to me less and less, because I have the space to experience everything right now.


Standing at the intersection of life, art, and money. Photo credit: EricGjerde / Foter.com / CC BY-NC.

A: Has your sense of time changed?

N: Time moves slower.

A: That was my guess. We've talked before about the experience of Burning Man, how when you're there just for the sake of being and experiencing the wonder, an hour can be like a whole day, and at the end of the day, it feels like a week. That's sort of the life you're living.

N: My sense of chronological time has also been shifting. I realize I didn't leave anything behind. The past is here. And this now will also be here in the future. It's all connected. I'm also very attracted to exploring dreams now, as another kind of consciousness.

A: Do you have any thoughts yet about what would happen if everyone could live like an animal? Say the movement for guaranteed minimum income were to succeed? How would you guess society would change?

N: I don't think it would work via guaranteed minimum income, because of the meaning attached to money in that scenario. How do recipients feel about the money they get in that situation? Once it's systematized, a social program. We humans attach psychological and spiritual meanings to money.

A: You're saying people wouldn't be able to accept the money as a pure gift, given to them just for being, because it's still set in the framework of "income."

N: Right. The paradigm doesn't really shift. The way my project operates is money circulated with love and trust. That's why I didn't use crowdfunding. With a guaranteed minimum income program, there is no love and trust between the giver and receiver. Without the love and trust, the receiver feels guilty and thinks: oh, I have to do something in return, I have to perform, I have to show results.

A: You feel no such obligations?

N: I know it's strange, but I don't. That's why my friends can give, because they know I will not feel guilty.

A: So what would you say to someone who wants to reenact this project in her or his own life?

N: When I started talking about the project with my community, we talked about whether the project should be replicable, a prototype, but that's not my goal. It's my question about how one person, me, how I can live. A question about existence, and I am both guinea pig and researcher in the experiment. And when we explore life, we can't ignore the socioeconomic system in which we live. But if people are curious to do something, I'd say-- just build love and trust with all the people with whom you interact. This project is the revelation of how much love and trust I built with my community.

A: I also think one clue lies with what you said about deciding to do this project not at home in Japan, because there it would be easy, or easier, to rely on the benefits that come as a citizen and the strength of your family and friends. Which means that people could stay at home, and experiment with relying less on income and more on those resources and relationships, which is really the heart of the sharing economy.

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