Desire of Codes by Seiko Mikami. Exhibitied at Japan Media Arts Festival 2013.
Desire of Codes by Seiko Mikami. Exhibitied at Japan Media Arts Festival 2013.

A View from Japan

16 June 2015

Contemporary media art, popular culture, Japanese anime and manga coexist happily at the Japan Media Arts Festival. by Honor Harger

The National Art Centre in Tokyo. Exhibition venue for  Japan Media Arts Festival 2013.
The National Art Centre in Tokyo. Exhibition venue for Japan Media Arts Festival 2013.

As David Blandy busies himself with exploring everything from DNA to Japanese anime at Lighthouse, I’m in Japan looking at how art and popular culture collide.

I’m here as a guest of Shiga Pefectural Social Welfare organisation, Haretari Kumottari and the Aiseikai organisation, and my visit has happily coincided with the 16th Japan Media Arts Festival, one of the most important showcases of media art in Asia, which takes place in arts venues across Tokyo.

Earlier, this week, I had the great pleasure of attending the opening of the festival and seeing a preview of the main exhibition at the National Art Centre in Roppongi, one of the largest art museums in Japan. The exhibition presents the works nominated for the festival prize. Awards are given in four categories: Art, Animation, Manga and Entertainment.

This juxtaposition of contemporary media artwork by the likes of Seiko Mikami and Davide Quayola, alongside major works of animation by filmmakers such as Katsuhiro Otomo – director of the renown film, Akira – all of whom attended the opening, is what marks this festival out as different from others happening internationally. This combined with the presence of popular culture forms such as the exhilarating game, Gravity Daze and the highly entertaining robotics piece, The KURATAS Project makes for a unique atmosphere.

Standout works in the art category for me included Desire of Codes by Japanese artist, Seiko Mikami.

Mikami’s extraordinary interactive installation, produced at YCAM in Yamaguchi, has received acclaim all around the world since it was first shown in exhibitions in Japan and Austria (including at last year’s Ars Electronica festival). The work presents our contemporary information age as a living ecology, which we are a part a part of. As the festival catalogue notes, the work, “exemplifies the present era in which the boundary between the ‘body as data’ and the ‘physical body’ is growing increasingly ambiguous”. It is comprised of three interlinked sections. “Stretching across a white wall is an array of 90 devices equipped with small cameras that resemble the [antennae] of insects. Hanging from the ceiling are six search arms with in-built cameras and laser projectors. In the rear of the exhibition venue, there is also a circular screen with a diameter of 4.7 meters that resembles the compound eye of an insect.”

The sheer scale of the work strikes you as you entire the large 12m2 space. Recalling the motion of Ken Rinaldo’s work from 2000, Autopoesis, the robotic arms in Desire of Codes reach towards visitors as we enter the space. They seem curiously alive, searching for our presence, recording our motion and relaying our actions to the installation’s internal network, and to the projection screen.

Images provided by the multiple cameras in the installation, combine with pictures from surveillance cameras in public places around the world. Quoting from the catalogue: “these images from both past and present, from the venue and sites in other countries, are intricately interwoven and projected on the screen. By reassembling these fragments from different times and places, the compound eye depicts a new kind of reality. It represents a desire to self-propagate through the information ecosystem with visitors themselves as the object of observation and expression; it also expresses our contemporary sense of existence as a physical body.”

Or as Mikami herself puts it, “what new desires do we have, now that we live in an information-oriented environment and have perceptions shaped by that environment?”

I was also really drawn to a completely different work, this time by South Korean artist, Wonbin Yang, entitled “Species Series

Yang’s work presents us not with slick, futuristic vision of robotics, but rather a more humble, poetic and sympathetic idea of robots as frail and fragile creatures, ill-suited to our busy urban environments. Yang has built a series of autonomous machines made out from the detritus of our everyday life – rubbish, old newspapers, a discarded umbrella. He lets his robotic creations loose in large cities, and records their attempts to navigate their treacherous environment. His meticulous documentation recalls the techniques used in natural history documentaries, and we can’t help be reminded of the survival strategies employed, with various levels of success, of living creatures. Yang further emphasises the connection with the taxonomies of zoology, by presenting the ‘bodies’ of his ‘dead’ creations as museological ‘specimens’, accompanied by details of the history of each robot’s emergence, adaptation, and evolution.

The Jury said of Species Series, “[it] is notable for its refreshing attempt to completely overturn the typical notion of an anthropomorphized robot.” […] Artificial creatures that resemble insects, are equipped by science and technology with the gift of movement and flashing lights, then unleashed on a crowded city. But as they fail to attract much attention, they are naturally run over by cars, stepped on, or knocked from their moorings. The work is distinguished by an intrepid and humorous spirit as the artist witnesses the death of this new species."

Other works of note included the mesmerising new piece by film by legendary anime director, Katsuhiro Otomo. Best known for his celebrated features, Akira, Steamboy and Mushishi, his new short film entitled Combustible deservedly won the grand prize in the animation category of the festival.

And special mention must be made of The Warped Forest, a self-funded film by Shunichiro Miki from Japan.

As the Tokyo Times put it, “when asked to describe his latest film in one word, director Shunichiro Miki repeated what most cinema critics worldwide had said after their own somewhat botched attempts to describe it: ‘Indescribable’.”
It really has to be seen to be believed, as the trailer – above – probably illustrates.

The following day we visited the vast Toyko Midtown shopping complex where the winner of the grand prize in the art category, Pendulum Choir by Swiss group, Cod.Act, was being performed for the lunchtime shoppers.

Pendulum Choir, as the title suggests, is a choral piece in which the nine singers are positioned on tilting platforms, that move dramatically during the performance. Their a cappella voices oscillate between abstract vocalisations, and lyrical narrative sounds, with the movement of their bodies radically altering the sonority of the performance. Watching Tokyo shoppers accidentally encounter nine Swiss opera singers clad in black strapped to hydraulic jacks, and swinging wildly through their air, whilst singing from horizontal positions, was, it must be said, somewhat surreal.

But in many ways, that’s been the order of the day so far in the festival, and there is still much more to come.

My sincere thanks go to my hosts for bringing me to Japan:
Shiga Pefectural Social Welfare organisation (thank you to Kenga Kitaoka)
Haretari Kumottari non-profit organisation (thanks to Yoshitaka Kasahara)
Aiseikai social welfare organisation (thanks to Yoichi Inoue)



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