AiR News
Freedom of mobility and AiR programs
By Ishii Jun'ichiro

Photo by Ishii Jun'ichiro

The origins of universities and freedom of mobility

Speaking on the web news site «» on November 20, 2020, University of Tokyo Professor Yoshimi Shunya commented that the origins of universities and freedom of mobility are closely connected.
In Europe in the 10th and 11th centuries, interurban networks became active, spawning a society in which various people including merchants, craftspeople and clerics wandered from city to city. According to Yoshimi, the origins of universities can be found in the gathering together of scholars to create places of learning in the context of such movement of people.

In other words, at the root of the development of universities and their intellectual creativity lie trans-local networks, a kind of globalization, the concept of “public” born out of points of intersection of different cultures and the “universal” exchange of knowledge, with the “freedom of mobility” that enabled all these as a basic premise.

If public or universal knowledge is cultivated where diversity is guaranteed, then an intellectually rich and diverse society is not one in which simple zoning is well-maintained, but a society akin to a melting pot that can support a kind of chaotic state. On the same show, sociologist Miyadai Shinji commented that one of the criteria for assessing online gatherings held for the purposes of exchanging information is whether or not they can generate this chaos through the screen.

So, from this “intellectual creation” point of view, might it be possible for us to project onto the origins of universities the current state of residency programs?

Microresidence and Y-AiR

Artist-in-residence (AiR) programs, which support the activities of artists during stays ranging from several weeks to several months, exist around the world and are operated on various scales and in various formats. Networks of these residencies are supported by the activities of such organizations as TransArtists, founded in Amsterdam in 1997, and Res Artis, conceived in 1992 and registered in the Netherlands as a foundation in 2003.

TransArtists functions as a database platform aimed at artists, while Res Artis supports a network of arts centers, residency program operators and other entities that host artists. It was at the Tokyo general meeting of Res Arts held in 2012 that the “microresidence” concept proposed by Youkobo Art Space attracted attention.

Operated by facilities that are relatively small in scale and on relatively small budgets, microresidencies today support an increasingly wide range of artists’ activities despite their small size on account of their adaptability and flexibility.

Today, the age when participating in arts residencies was an undertaking for whole countries has passed, and anyone can freely expand their opportunities for artmaking amid a different culture. Though small in scale (or precisely because of this), microresidencies have the potential to cater to a more diverse range of artists, influence a broader cross-section of citizens and form more open communities.

In 2013, Youkobo Art Space representative Murata Tatsuhiko identified as one of the functions of AiR programs the provision of “a space where artists can gain the experience and training they need to vigorously activate their practice as artists, members of society and internationally minded professionals.” At the same time he formulated the concept of Y-AiR (AiR for Young) aimed at young artists. Since then, AiR programs supporting young artists who have recently graduated from university have gradually been established, making an important contribution to the international careers of participants as artists and the creation of networks.

In a report on Y-AiR activities in 2020 published by Youkobo Art Space, Murata stated, ” We are keen about artists participating in production and exhibition at artist residencies at a younger age. We believe that these are experiences that artists should gain especially when they are young, to understand the realities of diverse societies, to cultivate the ability to demonstrate will through artistic practice, and create a foundation of thought that accepts differences.”
In the same report, Professor Hinuma Teiko of Joshibi University of Art and Design commented, “As a place of character building that comes right before stepping into the ‘real world,’ the responsibility of educational institutions, especially art universities, is not merely to produce ‘successful’ artists and arts managers.” adding that she believed that to be a “professional” meant not simply seeking to achieve this in an occupational sense, but rather described a person who used their “means” to try to develop their entire life.

Residency programs during the coronavirus pandemic

It is more than a year since WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced on March 11, 2020, that “COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.” Creative centers around the world are still being forced to engage in a hard-fought struggle.

In March 2021, Res Artis, an organization that maintains a worldwide network of arts residencies, and University College London (UCL) published a report of a survey examining the impact of COVID-19 on the international arts residencies field. This survey, which followed an initial survey conducted in May and June last year, the results of which were summarized in a report published in September 2020, received 611 responses from 441 artists in 52 countries and 170 arts organizations in 45 countries around the globe.

Conducted between November 24, 2020 and January 25, 2021, this second survey found that 65% of artists have been forced to pursue non-arts work, while 12.2% are considering leaving the sector entirely. 68% of artists and 61% of arts residency operators have been unable to access emergency funding.
In addition, 88% of artist respondents have had their mental health impacted by the pandemic, with 57% saying it has affected their ability to produce new works.

While many sectors in the creative arts have been able to transition to virtual or remote work, both artists and residency providers reported that the arts residencies sector was not one that could easily adapt to a virtual, remote world. It should also probably be noted that 6% of respondents said they did not have a stable, reliable internet connection in their home workspace.

“The camaraderie of being in a space with other artists is the best reason to go. The energy would not travel over the internet, and would dissipate when the laptop is closed. The spontaneous conversations are not likely to happen, and meeting new people at meals definitely would not.”

“I already spend 12 hours a day on Zoom or online – teaching, admin meetings, book launches, readings, socializing, writing sessions, trainings, movie watch parties.”

“I believe, for my own creativity/health, that I need to have less screen time and more in-person interactions.”

Freedom of mobility and the pandemic

During the Plague that raged in Europe in the 14th century, around 100 million people died, which was around 22% of the global population of 450 million. Also known as the Black Death, this dreaded pandemic occurred against the backdrop of the unification of Eurasia by the Mongol Empire and the establishment of a massive distribution area stretching from China to Eastern Europe. In other words, the history of epidemics is also closely connected to the global movement of people.

In Europe alone, between 25 and 30 million people died, which was around one third of the total population at the time. Such sudden decreases in population also have a huge impact on the structure of industries. The manuscript industry, which until then had been labor intensive, suffered from a labor shortage, and it is said that the invention of the movable-type printing press by Gutenberg, or in other words the mechanization of the manuscript industry, was an attempt to resolve this.
According to the above-mentioned «», “The ability to mass produce books heralded the arrival of an age in which, as long as one could get one’s hands on books, it was possible to learn without going to the trouble of gathering under a scholar, which also had a considerable impact on the premise behind universities up until then, which was the gathering of people under scholars while being supported by the freedom of mobility.”

So, as a result of this 21st century pandemic we are currently facing, will arts residencies—a global network at the forefront of the freedom of mobility aimed at the exchange of knowledge and intellectual creation, in which sense one could say strictly observes the precedent of the origins of universities—end up largely shifting the center of gravity of its structure to the cyber world?