PRAHA: From 1988 to 2005 (Sapporo)

Installation view (detail), c. 1989. Photographer unknown.

Sapporo is a provincial city located 820 kilometers north of Tokyo, and it is covered in snow from December to April. Among cities with a population of over 1.8 million people in the world, Sapporo is the only place where the average annual snowfall exceeds five meters. Thus, the climate makes Sapporo one of the highly distinctive cities in Japan. Although the size of the city is comparable with other cities such as Fukuoka or Nagoya, its unique natural environment is unmatched by any other city in the country. By taking advantage of the unique climate, the art scene in Sapporo has organized many projects including winter art events that incorporate snow and ice as materials. While being removed from the center of Japan, Sapporo has an active art scene with a number of artists continuously working in diverse fields.

Mr. Hisashi Shibata took part in founding ten different alternative spaces in Sapporo. He is also the founder of the independent organization "Sapporo Artist in Residence" which was later officially registered as a nonprofit organization named S-AIR. Since its establishment, their programs have centered on their residency program which has invited numerous foreign artists to Sapporo. Today, Mr. Shibata teaches art management at a university, and he also has an office in a shared studio and gallery space called naebono art studio, where he enjoys interacting with young people while organizing numerous art projects. 

PRAHA was the first art space Mr. Shibata was involved with, and it became the starting point for him to develop his own vision of alternative spaces. Aside from Mr. Shibata, there were also various individuals — who are currently active in Sapporo — who used to gather and actively engage in PRAHA’s activities when they were young. Through interviews and conversations, it became apparent that those who gathered in PRAHA and the network forged there have laid the foundation of today's art scene in Sapporo.

Mr. Shibata in his young days, in his room, c. 1989. Photographer unknown.

Group photograph at the exhibition opening reception, c. 1989. Photographer unknown.

PRAHA was an alternative space active from 1988 to 2005 in the city of Sapporo. Two young architects who were running an urban planning office at the time rented a former hospital building which had been unused for about a decade. They renovated the building and turned the second floor into their offices. Later, the architects approached young artists, including Mr. Shibata, and shared their idea of using the first floor as a shared studio. They also emphasized  the importance of having a mixture of people from different disciplines. Because of their professional experience in urban planning, the two architects must have been aware of the potential of a community organically formed through interactions among a variety of people. Intrigued by their ideas, Mr. Shibata took the lead in bringing together creators from various fields such as contemporary art, metalworking, photography, and theater, and thus PRAHA began. Originally built as a hospital, the two-story building had a floor area of 330 m2, which was divided into rooms designed for various purposes such as examination rooms, a cafeteria, and an inpatient ward. As the property was leased from the landlord, the rent for the first floor was split among the members occupying each room, and thus the space was maintained. The space was named PRAHA in reference to the image of Eastern Europe, which presented new artistic trends to the international art scene a century ago. 

After studying art at a university of education in Sapporo, Mr. Shibata, who was 26 years old at the time, was working as a junior high school teacher when he moved in and began living in PRAHA. Everyday after coming back from work, he used his after-work hours to renovate and turn a room at PRAHA into his home. 

The usage of rooms varied from person to person. Some lived and worked in their rooms, while others used it only as a studio, and there was also a group of photographers who set up a darkroom (this group later grew to about 60 people). Thus, each of them was exploring their own way of using the space. There were also those who were not members but would always hang out at PRAHA. Non-members sometimes brought in ideas and proposals to PRAHA. Each person involved in PRAHA was constantly thinking about what they could do in the space. As it continued its activities and became known in the neighborhood, children from the neighborhood also occasionally brought in their own paintings to show in the space.

The beginning years of PRAHA, around 1989, coincided with the emergence of media art in Japan. In Kyoto, a performance group called Dumb Type just started to produce stage performances incorporating video art, and Mr. Shibata recalls that he had the chance to see their work at some point which made a big impact on him. It was also the time when the tools for computer graphics and video editing were becoming available in the market, however, video cameras and editing equipment were still too pricey for an individual to afford. It was just around that time when cable television opened in Sapporo. Mr. Shibata befriended a cameraman from a TV station who had an interest in PRAHA and came to feature them. Mr. Shibata occasionally borrowed his video camera and tried making video works. In this way, the network of people kept growing, which constantly promoted interactions and collaborations in the production of artworks.

When people gather, a lot of things happen. At PRAHA, young artists hung out together and talked about various things, in which ideas and plans were formulated. There were conversations like: "Okay, let's make an exhibition next time," "Let's make an event that incorporates music," "Let's make a video work," "Let's invite that person to a talk," and so on. Thus, numerous events and exhibitions materialized, which eventually expanded the network of people. 

Exterior of PRAHA, c. 1989. Photographer unknown.

Detail of an installation by Hideo Yoshida in a garden, c. 1989. Photographer unknown.

So what was the concept of PRAHA? Mr. Shibata says, "PRAHA was all about everything."

"What mattered the most to me was to facilitate interactions among people from different backgrounds, through which new forms of energy would be generated. So I tried to create situations, in which creators working in different genres, could spend time together, and from there, things started to roll in different directions. I shared the idea with the urban planning architects who approached me in the very beginning. I think PRAHA was all about stirring up to create various cultural forms." 

Mr. Shibata mentions what he learned from running PRAHA, that is to say, there are points that we must consider when creating an alternative space. Three kinds of spaces should be secured simultaneously: a space open for encountering publics, a space for internal interactions, and a private space for each individual. "Without having these three spaces at the same time," says Mr. Shibata, "the atmosphere of the place becomes dull. If you only gather internally without any interaction with people outside, a stifling hierarchy could be developed within the group, which could easily emerge like a new religion. In order to avoid this, ensure that the three spaces always exist together." According to Mr. Shibata, the prerequisite condition for running an alternative space is that creators are not tightly integrated as a group, but rather, each person remains independent and participates as equals.

Mr. Shibata played a sort of leading role in the beginning phase of PRAHA, but the leadership was passed down to several people over the course of the operation. Five years after PRAHA began, Mr. Shibata eventually left the space. It was because there was a young, highly motivated person, who could lead the space, so Mr. Shibata decided to let him do it. (After leaving PRAHA, Mr. Shibata still continued his involvement with it.) Thus, the space has succeeded from generation to generation, constantly inviting new people to join, keeping the space lively, and expanding the network. In 2006, PRAHA was closed permanently as the building was decided to be demolished by the family of the building owner who had reached old age. 

A group of young artists once attempted to revive the energy of PRAHA by renting a house and naming it "PRAHA2," however it didn't last long. Mr. Shibata says that the space did not work out perhaps because they tried to recreate the allure of PRAHA. Certainly, the uniqueness of an alternative space is largely shaped by the characteristics of the building; just as we cannot find two identical homes, it is not possible to replicate a space. Strong longing and passion for the place in the past can burden us from moving forward. 

A hospital transformed into an art hub, 1989. From The Hokkaido Shimbun.

Mr. Hisashi Shibata at his office in naebono art studio, 2020. Photo by Saeko Oyama.

When PRAHA was about to end, Mr. Shibata realized, "It would not be possible to make the same space, but I felt that I could make something new wherever I was going." Since then, he has continued to take part in organizing various art projects and starting up many alternative spaces in Sapporo. He also used to run a gallery with other artists whom he met through PRAHA, and opened an art school while being active with PRAHA. Although his home base was set up in PRAHA, he was actively involved in many other projects in various places, which might have prompted a circulation of energy, constantly activating the life of PRAHA. Some of the students who studied at Mr. Shibata's art school have also set up their own galleries and schools. Thus, the efforts of the past are connected to the current formation of the art scene in Sapporo, where Mr. Shibata is also playing an active role until today. 

PRAHA began without having any specific reasons or goals. They were also not a group working towards a shared goal. It was a place that was organically formed, while people from various backgrounds hung out and communicated with each other. There was no hierarchy and everyone was equal. This is the very reason why they managed to keep the place open to any ideas, free associations, and diverse expressions. This also triggered more people to start their own projects. 

Mr. Shibata says, "I started out as an artist, but before I knew it, I was doing nothing but organizing. I think this was quite meaningful. I've taken part in setting up and running ten alternative spaces, however, in hindsight, I never created a space for myself. I've always created a space in such a way that it invites other people to enter. I think this is why a wide range of people took part, generated a good vibe, and produced various cultural activities, and I believe every city should ideally have at least three spaces like that. This vision has become the foundation of my projects."

PRAHA was a place made up of various people and mixed cultures. Its vibe is still rooted in today's art scene in Sapporo.

Saeko Oyama
December 1, 2020


The above text was translated from Japanese by Mayumi Hirano


In 1999, Hisashi Shibata established Sapporo Artist in Residence, which was later registered as the official nonprofit organization S-AIR in July 2005. He became the first director of the organization. He has facilitated and assisted more than 103 artists from 38 countries with their stay and production of artworks in Sapporo. S-AIR is a recipient of Japan Foundation Prizes for Global Citizenship in 2008. Shibata has organized various cultural projects including "SNOWSCAPE MOERE" and has conducted a research project on Local and Regional Development through the Use of Former School Buildings as Cultural and Art Spaces. He is a board member of the nonprofit organization Art NPO Link, and the head of the executive committee of the Res Artis general assembly 2012. He is a co-author of the book "What Can Be Changed through Public-Private Partnerships?" (Suiyosha, 2004).

Saeko Oyama was born in 1982, in Fukuoka. In 2006, Oyama started working with the alternative art space art space tetra in Fukuoka while organizing numerous exhibitions and music events. Since 2012, she has been working for contemporary art projects, including exhibitions and production of artworks in various locations. Currently, she works as a coordinator of exhibitions at an art center in Sapporo while she carries out fieldwork in Hokkaido. Since 2009, she has been running a record label, tontuu record, which publishes books and CDs. Her projects focus on records and bequest of memories, and explore the growth of a project stemming from a place.


Right People, Wrong Timing (RPWT) is a series of texts on defunct or inactive independent Asian arts initiatives that had crossed paths or ran parallel to Papaya’s own 20-year history. With new posts every Friday from August to December 2020, RPWT is kindly supported through a local grant by the Japan Foundation Manila.