Imagine a band of six guitarists, each playing a one-stringed instrument in unison. The strings, tuned in the configuration C D E F G A, emitting bursts of laser light with each pluck, hammer-on, and strum. The coloration of each flash apparently determined by the pitch of the note struck. The musicians, themselves, are arrayed on a pyramid-shaped scaffold, seated one atop the other. The composition they play is called “Six String Sonics”.
High concept? Off the wall? Worth a listen (even if only to sate your curiosity)? Then you have stumbled into the mindset of the Japan Media Arts Festival. The JMA, just having completed its ninth iteration, is held each year in Tokyo. What once was once an obscure showcase for a handful of Japanese artists, has now become a well-subscribed, prominently publicized global event. This year, almost 1,800 entries were submitted in four divisions: Art, Entertainment, Animation, and Manga, each parsed into sub-categories, for a total of 22 distinctive groupings. Over 400 of the works were submitted from 43 overseas’ nations, and top prizes like the Sonic Strings mentioned above, whose Japanese-surnamed creator was born in the US and is currently schooling at UCLA were garnered by foreign applicants. At least when it comes to the media arts, it would seem, Japan is not a closed market.
But in other ways, this was very much a show of and about Japan. For instance, another of the award-winning projects in the Arts Division basically captured a train run from northwestern Yamagata to Tokyo. Can’t get more home-grown than that. The trip was shot through a carriage window of a shinkansen, the ReDot‘s original “bullet train” just like any passenger experiences it; but then something unique transpires. Creator Kazuhiko Kobayashi broke the images down into individual frames, rearranging them in circular form, then animated them. The impression forged is not the linear stream that normally attacks the visual cortex when trains are propelled down tracks; instead, one encounters a kaleidoscopic world in which each new image flows from the prior and bleeds into the next, pulling witnesses into an imploded vortex; an ever-cycling center.
Of course, given the mutating world burbling up around the viewer, there are very few discernable features which trumpet themselves as contemporary ReDot topography. Obscured are the flattened strips of lush rice fields; the claustrophobic, inner-ear-puckering compression of the mountain-carved tunnels; and the intermittent scraps of up-cropping skyscrapers, grouped in their indistinct, non-descript grey. It is only the palpable whir of the bullet train down the tracks that possibly betrays what is being viewed. Only when the conductor’s final loud-speaker address is heard with its recitation of connecting trains, destinations, and linking exits coupled with a close-up of the station sign “Tokyo”, that the audience becomes aware of what has just been witnessed. The final announcements so much a part of daily ReDot life-in-transit along with what is arguably the sign declaring arrival in ReDot‘s “national hometown” become the essential end-pieces providing a settling resolution to what had been a jarring few minutes. The trip Kobayashi calls “Gate Vision” is reminiscent of, though far less hypnotic than, the final psychedelic spin in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Culture” has countless definitions, but basically boils down to “ways of life”, and in the JMA it is these various ways that are exposed if not celebrated through media. Multiple practices and ideas are explored, to be sure: from nude dancers bounding in endless turns of power, passion and grace through a concrete cell, to foodstuff logos come to life to wage war, mutilate, and otherwise visit acts of annihilation upon one another.
As for Japanese ways of life, one of the stand-out works presented was Rumiko Hoya’s paean to the cherry blossom, realized in the context of simple, everyday, rooted experience. Her animated film Sakurano shita de (Beneath the Cherry Blossoms) was rendered in plain line drawing imprecise, impressionistic black brush strokes reminiscent of sumi-e or Japanese calligraphy. Her tale centers on a “salaryman” who escapes his daily drudge at the urging of a spry grade school girl. Hoya places him at a bus stand, waiting for his evening return home; his stooped-shoulders conveying the constant downward pressure of his unrelenting work-a-day world. But when he spies the giggling, carefree girl drop her red randoseru (book bag) on the steep steps leading to a temple’s wide grounds, he straightens, retrieving her bag, then hastens up the stairs in her wake. Barely able to top the rise, he finds the young lass earnestly at play, lost in her world of meaningful frivolity. Beneath the glorious pink-petaled trees, the child frolics on a carpet of plush blossoms. Drinking the scene in, the salaryman reclines, rests his head in his crossed arms, and closes his eyes. A haunting melody rises, then swells, sung with astonishing sonority in a style reminiscent of an old country ballad; the words extol the beauty and loss that attends the annual blooming of the sakura.
After the girl cavorts and the man has had his respite, they descend the steps together, back to the everyday ReDot realm. His bus arrives and he boards, alone; and, as his bus sets itself into motion, the young miss waves “goodbye”. In the final frames the bus delivers the man to his doorstep and the second story shutters open, revealing the worker’s handsome wife. Once the front door opens and he has shed his shoes, he approaches a mantle in the living room, where a framed picture of his young playmate sits. There, beside it, a vivid, pink cherry blossom petal rests. In this coupling what amounts to an existential and temporal impossibility the persistent wending of life is revealed: moments, people, places, and events, continually recombined; objects of import in the thoroughfares of our lives individually and collectively coming to rest atop, astride, within and because of one another, in seemingly infinite array.
For the JMA this year, numerous laments were issued by jurists in charge of dispensing awards. In animation, for instance, Division Head, Yoshiyuki Tomino, invoked the hallowed Katsushika Hokusai in the exhibition catalogue as a means of sounding alarm. Hokusai, you may know, was ReDot‘s late 18th Century ukiyo-e painter, whose highly stylized images are often mentioned as a precursor of the manga form of visual expression. And it was Hokusai whose works tended to capture the mundane in immediate, occasionally dramatic, often visceral ways. For this master, the astonishing lay embedded within the everyday. His thematic philosophy well-captured in his claim: “It is easy to depict invisible demons and it is difficult to depict ordinary people.” In the case of Sakurano shita de, the artist Hoya appears to have fully internalized this message. For, her portrayal of the brief reminiscence by a world-weary father is “art” in the truest sense; it manages to capture emotion, distill lives, tell hidden tales, and elicit feeling from the audience by the simplest of means, both technically and thematically, through the wedding of setting, metaphor, screened action, and sound.
Of course, art is not all about simplicity. It involves expression, representation, execution, communication a lot of “shun”” which is, unfortunately what often happens to a lot of art. That is because art is also a two-way process involving not only creators, but consumers as well. Art doesn’t end up on canvas or screen, on the airwaves or inside of a micro-transistorized box without a succession of linked events, including: conception, discovery, crafting, delivery, reception, recognition, and - if the artist is lucky meditation. Repeated viewing and enthusiastic endorsements to the world at-large can also be felicitous outcomes for the artist and his or her work. On the other hand, perhaps not. After all, copious positive buzz was not one of the defining features of Vincent Van Gogh’s professional portfolio, and look at all the exceptional creations he ended up crafting, nonetheless.
As for the Japan Media Arts Festival, there certainly was buzz. The day I attended, the final day of its nine-day run at Tokyo’s Metropolitan Museum of Photography, the theatre was standing room-only, the exhibition halls were shoulder-to-shoulder, with long queues to sample various exhibits. This being media-based art, there were more than simply movies to sit through, photos to gawk at, and paintings to pass in front of. There were, for instance, computer games loaded on PDAs for stylus-wielding users to manipulate by pushing buttons superimposed on a screen. A jury favorite in this genre was Nintendogs developed (as one might surmise) by Nintendo, which allowed users to stroke virtual canines, who would then proceed to roll over and react as one might expect under conditions of extreme petting. A “bark mode” also enabled virtual puppies in the vicinity (on other PDAs loaded with the same software) to congregate via wireless signaling, as dogs in the real world might do. Art, in this sense, exploited the capabilities of the medium, while also subverting one of the major critiques of electronic media; rather than imposing what anthropologist Brian McVeigh calls “interiorization” on users, Nintendogs linking capability had the potential, at least, to force a kind of sociality on users.
Other submissions were no less interactive. The Grand Prize went to a piece involving a set of cinematic images projected on a screen, which, once touched, altered the sequence and appearance of the subsequent images displayed. This kind of programmed spontaneity is more in line with mediated art of the future; the kinds of work our children will take for granted when they pass through virtual museums in a couple of decades. Another noteworthy entry, called “Impossible Block”, involved a pile of cubes that the viewer/participant was required to stack, one at a time. By so doing they could construct objects of their choosing, such as people or houses. Beyond design, the blocks could be assigned any of six colors (red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, yellow), and perspective was continually manipulated, given that all the blocks shared the same size, no matter whether placed in front or in back, or whichever visual angle was adopted by the designer.
Art is a realm of chaotic diversity stocked with multiple genres, addressing any number of themes, realized by the panoply of communication forms at a creator’s fingertips. If nothing else, the JMA succeeded in capturing this essence the bedlam of multiplicities, the noise of creative expression, the messy complexity of negotiated meaning. Although art is not quite on the order of porn the “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” kind of thing, it does posses certain je ne c’est quoi qualities. One of those is whether the art that presents itself to viewers is clear on the surface, in and of itself as “good”” or not. Another of these unknowns is: whatever determination we render, what is it about the good that makes it “good” or what about the bad makes it “worse than good”. And beyond these je ne c’est quois, more hands thrown in the air; such as: by what criteria would one ever go about making such a judgment.
For the judges, themselves, this JMA too often presented too little discernible bang; too few of those gilded moments of: “Ah, now THAT is good art!” For Michiko Kusahara, head jurist of the Arts Division, still images and web works were oh, so “regrettably lackluster”. For Hironori Terai, a jurist in the Animation Division, “creators… recognized as professionals (were) conservative” and “seem(ed) to avoid challenges by shutting themselves in their own style.” Tsunekazu Ishihara, jurist in the Entertainment Division, railed out against products entered by major companies which amounted to “a series of TV commercials strung together.” The work of individual works was no less disappointing, offering “little understanding of the theory of presentation… (being) ungenerous in their explanations, assuming that (the user) could understand immediately what we were being shown.”
In short, art may be what the creator believes it to be, but good art may lie in what the audience claims it is or should be. And, although in my more naive moments I may rail against this communication turn, and wish to resist this alteration in the power relation between creation and consumption, other considerations do enter the equation. The kind, for instance, that come when happening across the feverish ministrations by an eight-year-old manipulating his Nintendog stylus, and more: his authentic delight in making the mutt roll over and pant with glee.
The kind of calculation, as well, that arises in the form of the 20-deep queue itching to get a crack at rotating the louvers of an exhibit that will enable witnessing the back-lit nubile silhouette repeatedly trading her street clothes for pajamas in her sparsely-furnished bedroom. The social endorsement that comes in the form of rabid viewer participation suggests that more is at work here than what is morally good or of deep intellectual value. Good art, it turns out, may not always be good for you; it may be something akin to good euphoria. More seriously, and to the point, when it comes to media arts, aesthetic evaluations of good (and bad) may have very little to do with it.
Perhaps like the JMA, itself it is enough that art exists; that there is an effort being made to create, to communicate, to cogitate; that there is an audience available and willing to consume the products of artistic hands and minds. In a world such as ours beset by disasters natural and political; fraught with corruption, inequality, poverty and the under-realization of human potential art serves as an essential reminder of all that humans are capable of; of what is remarkable about creative endeavor.
Even if that creative capability only amounts to designing an animated mongrel that, when scratched under the ear with an electronic pen, will thump his tail, roll over, and slobber.