There has been a long-running debate in the contemporary art world: why hire curators when artists are perfectly capable of putting together an exhibition themselves? The Okayama Art Summit is a case in point. Held in Setouchi, western Japan, the event is the brainchild of Japanese fashion entrepreneur and art collector Yasuharu Ishikawa, who hopes contemporary art can revitalise his hometown. Launched in 2016, it is being staged for the second time this year. Ishikawa and Tokyo gallerist Taro Nasu, the event’s executive director, have avoided appointing curators and instead handed power to leading artists. They want the Okayama Art Summit to be an antidote to conventional, curator-led biennales that tend to be crammed with artists. “You get numb by this,” says Pierre Huyghe, the triennial’s artistic director this year. “It needs to be graspable. Once you have 200 artists, not only does it dilute everything but it’s nearly impossible for you to start to play mentally with the works.” The French conceptual artist has chosen works by 18 artists, of which he is one, and exhibited them within a small radius. The shows, all of which are within walking distance of each other, take in historic sites such as the striking, black-walled Okayama castle and the banks of the Asahi River. A master of staging, Huyghe says: “I am interested in the experience of the dramaturgy of this exhibition.” Rather than display discrete works, he has invited artists to help him conjure an alternate world. Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal has dancers singing and weaving between artworks amid makeshift sand dunes in the derelict yard of a former elementary school. Behind them on an advertising billboard is Irish artist John Gerrard’s X. laevis (Spacelab) (2017), a digital simulation of a giant frog with splayed legs floating in space. The frog is reflected in Skin Pool (Oromom) (2019), a swimming pool below filled with a bubbling pink liquid created by Swiss artist Pamela Rosenkranz. Touching on ideas of toxicity, genetics and the future of humanity – the frog is a reference to an experiment to test whether humans could one day reproduce in space – these works take centre stage at the art summit. “It’s a rare thing that happened here. Pierre is an artist, so he thinks about forms and he doesn’t think from the top down with a theme [like a curator]. That changes the whole dynamic,” says artist Fabien Giraud, who, with Raphaël Siboni, showed a dystopian film. “It was very open as a process. We discussed a lot about how you can make a world composed of many autonomous worlds that somehow converge and create a coherent whole without diminishing the singularity of each one.” To achieve this vision, the triennial’s theme, “If the Snake …” was deliberately kept open-ended. The snake can be seen as a metaphor for how different works slither into one another. “‘If the snake’ became just [a] way of [using an] incomplete sentence [to leave] speculation open. It’s a hypothesis,” says Huyghe. “At the same time the snake is something we fear and admire.” Several artists came up with disturbing narratives that wind through the sleepy city. Among the most vivid is young Belgian Eva L’Hoest’s apocalyptic virtual reality work Under Automata (2017) in the basement of the Meiji-era Fukuoka soy sauce factory. A jarring contrast to the factory’s 19th century architecture, the work plunges you into a virtual plane crash, with fragmented bodies shredded like paper and shrapnel-like aeroplane parts sailing towards you. L’Hoest created the work using 3D scans recorded during a long-haul flight. While it evokes the aftermath of a crash, the scene resulted from aberrations and accidents in the art-making process that call into question the deceptive power of technology. Some works play with invisible algorithmic, biological and neurological processes. Back in the old elementary school yard, a large screen shows Huyghe’s Not yet titled (2019), in which distorted images morph in rapid succession, sometimes evoking fleshy, Francis Bacon-like faces or deformed animals. To create this work, Huyghe shared his private thoughts with an individual, showing them images linked to his family, things that he feared, and the triennial before it opened. A laboratory in Kyoto used a functional MRI scanner and a deep neural network to reconstruct the images the individual tried to recreate in his mind. Where necessary, the technology contributed to the images to help fill in gaps, so the resulting visuals are a fusion of human and artificial intelligence. It’s a rare thing that happened here. Pierre is an artist, so he thinks about forms and he doesn’t think from the top down with a theme [like a curator]. That changes the whole dynamic Fabien Giraud, artist This artwork poses important questions about technology, our imagination and the human condition, and the same can be said of the Okayama Art Summit as a whole. “It may not be easy to understand and these are not necessarily ‘pleasant’ works, but if you just create exhibitions to please the general public, that makes them less interesting,” says Taro. “That’s what we want to avoid. “In order for the wider audience to enjoy the triennial it will take time, but it’s worth the wait. Even if it takes years.” The Okayama Art Summit runs until November 24.