Forever Fornever: Tokyo Window Sessions

In September 2016 I traveled to Japan to observe media art and digital culture in Tokyo. While conducting research and curatorial activities - during residencies at Tokyo Wonder Site and 3331 Arts Chiyoda -  I created a web-based project entitled Tokyo Window Sessions. The ongoing project features essays, artist interviews, an exhibition, and an archive of my personal experiences in Tokyo. The intention of these activities was to form a better link between media art communities in the U.S. and Japan. Both countries, despite an affinity for new technologies and contemporary art, remain surprisingly disconnected in discourse specifically related to media art.

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In September 2016 I traveled to Japan to observe media art and digital culture in Tokyo. While conducting research and curatorial activities - during residencies at Tokyo Wonder Site and 3331 Arts Chiyoda -  I created a web-based project entitled Tokyo Window Sessions. The ongoing project features essays, artist interviews, an exhibition, and an archive of my personal experiences in Tokyo. The intention of these activities was to form a better link between media art communities in the U.S. and Japan. Both countries, despite an affinity for new technologies and contemporary art, remain surprisingly disconnected in discourse specifically related to media art.

It can be said that when we view images we either see a window, door, or mirror. Each way of seeing comes with benefits and obstacles. You can look into a window, but will not see everything inside a room. You can enter a door, but sometimes it is locked. Mirrors offer self-reflection, but also trick and reflect narcissism. Using the title of  “Windows” is meant to evoke a temporary glance into Tokyo. The idea of “sessions” comes from the phrase “jam session”, originating from American jazz music of the 1920s in which desegregated gatherings of musicians took place.

Tokyo Window Sessions is improvisational and experimental, at the same time it is critical and investigative, emblematic of digital culture itself. The website itself features three sections Windows, Ephemera, and an Exhibition.

Windows >

This section features essays and interviews. Essays drift between discussing exhibitions and specific artworks. Artist interviews contain a mixture of questions about an artist’s work and personal interests. This section also features what I call “bonus questions”, prompts or exercises where an artist sends a picture of their computer desktop or shares some of their favorite YouTube videos. Every page features illustrations I created related to the artist I was interviewing.

Ephemera >

In this section I accumulate data or artefacts from my time in Tokyo. This includes receipts from Lawson, museum brochures, as well as every video and photo I recorded Tokyo. I live in the digital and I often wonder what content is important to keep and share. In the arts we often focus so much on the ‘work’ but what about the moments that influence the work? Or those that take place outside of it? As an independent curator, my work and personal life are mixed and I wished to share it. For me, it is important that I create projects that are inviting, warm, and sometimes weird.

Exhibition >

An exhibition entitled ASDFGHJKL;’ was produced. It was shown in two different formats (as the studio space I was in was constantly changing). I will discuss the exhibition at the end of this essay.

Through the project I have met many amazing people and had many wonderful experiences. I also observed a few similarities and divergences between media art in the U.S. and Japan, (specifically New York and Tokyo) which I will overview in the following text.

PAST

The U.S. and Japan have different histories with technology, which affects their histories with media art. This spills into arts education and culture. A few differences stand out. The U.S. is without an electric town. Videogame arcades boomed in in the 80s and 90s but fizzled out shortly thereafter, meanwhile, personal technologies such as cell phones developed at a slow pace comparative to Asia. Regarding cultural differences, emojis have only recently gained a cult status in the U.S., but their Japanese origin is not mainstream knowledge. These aspects bleed into one another and are toppled by language barriers and cultural institutions that dictate how and which types of art are disseminated to the public.

Growing up in the United States I was ingrained in videogames and the internet, however, art and technology were entirely separate conversations. Only until I moved to New York, from a small town in New Jersey, did I learn about media art. While studying in art history I never gained a strong understanding for Japanese (or non-western) media art. Considering major arts institutions in the U.S. rarely focus on art outside of the west, it is even rarer to find them focusing on non-western media art, let alone publishing a text about the subject.

Rather, my interest and understanding for Japan and technology (like many others) came through the media I consumed. Prior to this project I was unaware of Akihabara’s connection to World War II, consumer electronics, and post-war black markets. As an outsider one sees Akihabara very differently and might simply be surprised by the amount of SEGA centers and idol cafes.

Nowadays, when I consider Akihabara and how commonplace technology is in Tokyo, I begin to think about how that history and presence affects emerging artists in their work and daily life. In many ways, I feel media art and digital culture in Tokyo hides in plain sight, whereas in New York it sticks out like a sore thumb.

PRESENT

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Comparing both countries, there are a few differences in what subject matter is featured in exhibitions. From my perspective, I see more media artists in the U.S. approaching social and political subjects than in Tokyo. However, institutions in the U.S. act quickly, absorbing what is “new” and “trendy”, but quickly move on to something else as if checking off a list. Virtual reality as “the new painting” has become popular as of late, and so too were selfies, drones, and augmented reality. The biggest factor of New York’s art ecosystem are commercial and capitalist ventures (especially art fairs). This impacts what art is featured in museums or written about. Startup culture is also an interesting entity in the U.S. and influences media art, but I am more excited about how it will crash rather than its present dance with art and creativity.

Regarding arts institutions, both Tokyo and the New York have very different approaches. Rhizome in the U.S. for example exists predominantly online and focuses on Internet based art. Institutions like Eyebeam and Harvestworks focus on residencies and creative experimentation with technologies. Regarding museums, I find that most in New York have an occasional exhibition of media art but nothing purely devoted to art and technology.

As for museums, the obvious leader in media art is perhaps the Museum of Modern Art. Still, their treatment of the subject is problematic. Although the museum has a curatorial department of media art, I feel the curatorial department of architecture and design produces more consistently intriguing content on emergent issues. The museum’s conservation department is also prestigious and on the edge between the present and future. As all of this occurs in the realm of museums, we should also not forget that several commercial galleries exist in the U.S. devoted to media art.

In Tokyo I am still impressed by the ICC. The exhibition series Emergencies is particularly profound to me, as it is dedicated to emerging artists. This really does not happen in New York, unless a small gallery is willing to take a “risk” or there are some financial connections happening. In Tokyo I also had the opportunity to see the Japan Media Arts Festival. While I feel the festival had a few issues, it is important that such a thing even exists. In the U.S., festivals occasionally pop up, but they lack major government support as mostly everything in the U.S. is privatized. Although not-for-profit institutions exist, they are often influenced by board members and commercial interests.

What I find more prevalent in Japan are artists and collectives that openly work in or on commercial projects, dabbling both in fashion and advertising. For better or worse, the art scene in the U.S. attempts to remain clandestine about connections to wealth, whereas Japan does not hide it. In this regard, commercial ventures in the U.S. attempt to hide in plain sight, where as in Japan they stick out like a sore thumb.

BAD FUTURE

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Another worthwhile conversation between Japan and the U.S. is to consider what Postinternet art means and what it looks like. The Japan Media Arts Festival took on this subject, but fell flat. The exhibition seemed to make a generalization that artists of younger generations are all Postinternet. For example, video content of the Internet Yami-Ichi and IDPW was included in this section. While IDPW and the Internet Yami-Ichi were born out of the Internet, they were not formed with the Western notion of Postinternet art in mind. Furthermore, the event brings together internet pros with novices.

Generalizing Postinternet proposes that we are all as equally influenced by the web as one another, which is a complex and flawed assumption. The danger of labeling something as Postinternet is that if every emerging artist is put into this category than we alienate media art and create a pigeonhole. Artists should feel encouraged to create their own groups and genres apart from what other countries, individuals, or institutions might have in mind to capitalize on. It is also okay to make fun of the genre itself and not take things so seriously.

Ultimately media art is on the fringe in both countries. This will not change unless museum curators and leaders of arts organizations make stronger efforts to understand and interpret our contemporary digital society and its relation to art. I hope that, both in writing this text, and conducting the Tokyo Window Sessions project that can be more open about the faults of our media art ecosystem, what we can do to make it better, and how we can get people outside of the ecosystem to feel less skeptical of it.

Both the U.S. and Japan remain fairly territorial in what they represent inside their museums. However, arts organizations in the U.S. have a prestige of touting diversity while often falling flat. This can be found in researching the statistics of who and what contemporary art museums feature. I often feel the lack of collaboration is blamed on language barriers and funding. These are weak excuses to me as the first iteration of this project faced both of those obstacles.

Now that the world is entering an increasingly tumultuous time, it is important to look to curators and leaders of institutions and ask them to create more experimental projects and mix things up. Genuine and honest collaboration can change our future from a bad one to a good one.

GOOD FUTURE

During my time in Tokyo I organized an exhibition at 3331 Arts Chiyoda’s studio residency which alludes to conversations and concerns about media art. The exhibition, featuring U.S. and Japanese artists brought together different genres and subject matter in an attempt to provoke new inquiry surrounding art, technology, and digital culture.

Appropriating its name from Internet slang, ASDFGHJKL;' x あqsうぇdrftgyふじこlp;@ was an exhibition of emerging digital artists from the U.S. and Japan.  The exhibition featured three artists from Tokyo alongside four artists in New York. The selection of these artists was meant to present a wide range of media art. ASDFGHJKL;' (in english) or あqsうぇdrftgyふじこlp;@  (in Japanese) originates from the act of running your hand horizontally across a keyboard. The phrase, when typed, kind of defines a scream, shout, or yell. It is an action of bewilderment, frustration, or confusion.

So long as there is a keyboard, emerging artists have taken to the Internet and digital culture as a source of inspiration and influence. My decision to title the exhibition this way comes from my own frustration or shout regarding media art communities in the U.S. and Japan not connecting more. If technology leads our evolution, we have been stalling on exchange (via exhibitions, research, and experimentation) between the U.S. and Japan [and more broadly the west and everywhere else].

If the digital embeds itself into the work of contemporary artists, and in our daily life, so do it’s terminologies’. ASDFGHJKL;’ is a response to what I view as a “regional lockout” of culture. The term, used in the tech industry, represents restrictions on digital content per location or territory. For example, some YouTube channels in the U.S. that I want to watch in Japan are inaccessible. In the case of this exhibition, the shout is to acknowledge the feeling that a regional lockout exists between both countries. Perhaps the artists of the exhibition feel a similar way, as shown through their eagerness and supportive nature in producing the exhibition.

artists >>

Kenta Cobayashi’s work employs various tools including digital photography, iPhones, his MacBook, screen captures and photo sticker booths. He uses these to capture images of his life, himself, and the people around him. Kenta’s interventions with photographs diffuse the border between images, photoshop filters, and digital graphics. www.kentacobayashi.com

Nozomi Teranishi, is a photographer and digital artist from Fukushima. Many of her works are influenced by experiencing the earthquake in Fukushima and visions of health alongside artificiality. Her digital photograph series The Regeneration of Complex Societies addresses the Fukushima earthquake and makes use of digital editing to clone stamp people, places, and things, to heightened amounts. Nozomi new series of works under the title “Health Freak” references body image, and is the artist’s first time utilizing 3D animation tools. www.nozomiteranishi.com

Multimedia artist RAFiA utilizes animated gifs, selfies, and sound to create a distinct visual aesthetic that merge photography, image manipulation, and painting. Almost always using herself as a subject, she creates visually arresting images that are balanced between joy and trauma, divinity and humanity. www.raf-i-a.tumblr.com

From Shanghai and based in the U.S., Wang Yefeng specializes in 3D animation tools, creating bizarre and surreal worlds. His newest animation, “The Drifting Stages” features a pulsing red and blue backgrounds inspired by the Porygon Flash from the original Pokémon anime. An array of objects fills a room and comments on the artists displacement between Shanghai and New York, and the things he has accumulated in his life. www.wangyefeng.com

Terrell Davis creates hyper real 3D renderings of still-life tabletops consisting of cluttered technology, consumer products, plants, and junk food. The hyperrealism of his imagery evokes a snapshot into contemporary life, consumerism, and pop culture. The glowing coloration and saturation in his work illuminates the objects we often use but rarely pay attention to. www.terrelldavis.me

Daniel Johnson’s work often deals with appropriation and photography. In ASDFGHJKL;’ were videos he created for the Internet Yami-Ichi in New York. At the event he sold DVDs with misleading titles. Buyers may think they are purchasing a hollywood film, but the DVD actually contains short clips of the artist doing mundane activities. www.itsallstrange.com

FOREVER TODAY

In working with these artists, I am left to wonder what patterns I can see forming between media artists of both countries. I have noticed in the U.S. there are more media artists experimenting with 3D animation tools, virtual spaces, and data. In Japan I notice an excellent and original use of digital photography, two-dimensional effects, and a rewiring of physical materials. Of course I found some overlap, but it is something I wish to investigate further.

In December 2016 I returned to the U.S. While my home country is undergoing a frightening and backwards shift in ideology it only motivates me to continue the Window Sessions initiative and expand it to other locations. Starting this project I never had an end goal in mind, but always thought of it as an alternative archive, one that is always growing and meant to preserve present media art activities for future audiences. In the next few months I will continue to upload content to Tokyo Window Sessions. In September 2017 I will expand the project to Seoul, where I will conduct a residency at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

After that is my intention to return to Japan and continue my curatorial activities. Presently I am studying Japanese and intend to translate Tokyo Window Sessions in the future. Now more than ever I have an opportunity and responsibility to create something truly meaningful and timely. I welcome collaboration with emerging artists, forward-thinking institutions, and residency programs who might be reading this.  

Special Thanks:

Eri, Exonemo, Fiona, Luis, Glenn, Shirin, Shunya, Yosuke

~ and many others