Often my international work has a significant element of research into tools and making in the place I am visiting. Because of this I am very comfortable being in new spaces and other peoples workshops, even when our languages aren’t shared. I’ve experienced 1:1 research and interviews from the standpoint of being the interviewee, as the person conducting the research as I did in Japan, making a documentary with BBC4 about the people I’ve been researching for a particular project and from being present in other peoples workshops whilst they are interviewed. I share these ideas as my best practice, feel free to use, disagree or agree as you see fit. Some of these I’ve had to learn the hard way and some are from being on the other side of the situation.
If in doubt, take biscuits.
If you are handed something, take notice the energy around how it is held by the person passing it to you. If it is treasured and gently passed over to you with reverence, then match or exceed that reverence. Just because you might not understand what is important about the object, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t. If you are meeting someone with a language you don’t speak then often translation runs behind actions, you might just be about to learn what is so special.
Show that you value their time, I learnt the importance of this from another artist but it’s proved to be an area I’m a real stickler on too. Simply put: be on time and leave when you said you would. If you’ve asked for 2 hrs of someones time, which they’ve agreed to, then stick to it. Take some time beforehand to work out how long you realistically think it will take to see/learn/listen to what you need to & add in 30mins for tea. By all means stay if you’re invited and you want to, but don’t force it by not having asked your questions or being unprepared, or worse, by being late.
Bring something with you that shows who you are. If you are asking someone to open themselves up to you, then do the same first. Explain why you’re there, why are you meeting that person specifically, what is it about them that you’re interested in? If you are an artist maybe briefly show some work that relates to why you’re there, bake a cake or bring bread, just make the first move of sharing.
If you can, take a tea break. No matter how old or experienced you are, it’s super weird having someone you don’t know in your space. Having a tea break is the best way to level the situation and to get to know each other. Not only is it nicer for everyone to have a chat and feel more comfortable with each other but it also makes the research better = double win.
On that subject, if you don’t share a language then a good translator is so important. This is both so you can learn and ask the questions you want, but also for the other person(s) to feel comfortable. In the worst case imagine having a stranger in your space, full of your life’s work, who you can’t communicate with, who then picks up all your things with very little care. My teeth are itching just thinking about it.
When I am in someones workspace, often i’m there to learn about their tools, but the subject is wider than picking something up and asking “what’s this for?” I love to share stories, to hear about lives and learn about different points of view. For me the process should be one of sharing with both parties finding the experience interesting and engaging. I want to learn about why people make what they make, how have they honed their skills, how does this mindset translate into their everyday life, and in return share anything they might want to know, either about me or the fantastic people I’ve met in similar situations. If the research is in a language I don’t speak, then it’s hard to pick up on the subtleties of character and message conveyed through tone and intonation.
Because of this I always make sure to have time with the person doing the translation beforehand, so we can chat about my approach, and they can share any tips or local knowledge that might prove useful. Taking the time to explain that the questions can seem very gentle, that we are often ‘off subject’ but this style works best for me and that often the interest for me lies in the small details. It’s still important to translate all the questions and answers as, with experience, you are thinking a couple of questions ahead bringing in threads from previous answers. If the translation is very good (thanks Matthew at Gyokusendo!) then we start to work together, listening out for the golden threads that we can expand on in the later questions.
“I’ve never heard anyone complain that a visitor is bowing too much”
Research any local or national customs about how to act when meeting people. Is there a culture of giving gifts, exchanging business cards, having tea? Are there specific ways of doing these actions to communicate respect, likewise are there things you should avoid? Look these things up on the internet by all means but also try and ask someone locally too, often the internet has lots of information on how to conduct formal business meetings but less about 1:1 artist research situations, which often have their own rhythms.
Watch what happens around you and take your cues from there also.
It can be really hard to get up to speed with customs if they are really unfamiliar, I found bowing in some areas of Japan to be really confusing as it seemed that people were bowing 10x more than I’d read about (and prepared myself for!) and I was worried about doing it wrong and seeming like I was making fun. In the end I decided to just embrace it. What’s the harm if, worse case, someone thinks i’m a bit daft – I’d much rather that than them thinking I was disrespectful. Also bowing is really fun once you get into it!