Coded Cultures; Vienna May 25 - June 3, 2009


Assembling Things: Device Art

Machiko Kusahara
Waseda University / Art + Sci Center +Lab, UCLA

Assembling an aircraft is not a work of art ? at least that is what we usually think. But the seagull-shaped M-02J glider is a different case. The elegant looking aircraft shown at the prestigious Spiral Hall in Aoyama, Tokyo in December 2008 is in fact a work by an artist. Kazuhiko Hachiya, whose work such as the Inter DisCommunication Machine has been shown internationally, launched "Open Sky" project in 2003 to build a functional aircraft for personal use. At the exhibition the latest development of the "personal" project was shown. Collaborating with engineers and volunteers, the glider he designed has gone through several stages of test flights. As its aerodynamic capacity was proven, it is now ready to have a jet engine finally installed on it.

As the shape of the glider suggests, the inspiration came from "Maeve", an imaginary personal aircraft in Hayao Miyazaki's animation film "Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind". However, while the heroine Nausicaa flies freely, "We are not allowed to do so", Hachiya points out. "The sky is not open to us. It belongs to the authority, politics, and global business." Hachiya decided to visualize the situation and raise an objection in an artistic form, by manufacturing and flying a jet glider himself.

Although it may sound too adventurous for an artist to design a jet glider, Hachiya already has some experience in using a jet engine for "AirBoard" (1997-2001, collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo), which was a realization of the flying skateboard presented in the film "Back to the Future". The artist purchased the "world's smallest jet engine" of the time and was trained to handle the engine that may explode if mistreated.

One might ask a question how an independent artist could afford a jet engine. As early as in 1997 Hachiya conceived and developed "PostPet", software that uses various virtual animals ("pets") to deliver emails, at the time when access to the internet was mostly targeted for researchers and businessmen. With playful features the artist designed, the software interested young women, encouraging them to start using the internet. Collaboration with the industry was crucial for Hachiya, because his goal was to offer a better and more interesting communication tool for people, rather than to produce a good looking artwork to be shown at a museum. Eventually the commercial success of the product enabled him to buy a jet engine.

Collaboration between artists, engineers and the industry can take place in different levels. Hiroo Iwata shows his latest work at Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan in April 2009. Iwata is a professor of engineering at Tsukuba University who has developed many systems for virtual reality. He has produced works since the mid 1990s such as "Floating Eye" (Ars Electronica, 2001), "Food Simulator" (SIGGRAPH, 2004), "Feel Your Brain" (2008) among others. The piece he shows at Salone is a new version of his robot tile.

With its original version several pieces of metallic "tiles" are wirelessly connected to a computer with a set of video cameras attached. Each tile is motorized and can move in any direction. As the cameras capture where the user is heading, the tiles drive back in real time cancelling each step he/she has made. At the same time the last tile of the row quickly moves forward, offering a piece of "ground" for his/her next step. No matter to which direction the user walks, he/she remains in the same place. The plain looking tiles resemble step stones, from Japanese gardens to guide a visitor, but instead the robot tiles keep him/her on the same spot forever. In Salone Iwata covers the tile top with a new type of electro-conductive fiber to measure the pressure that indicates the user's walking motion. Now each tile senses what is happening on it and sends data to the computer. No video camera is needed.

The exhibition at Salone is a part of the SENSEWARE exhibition, which is conceived and curated by the designer Kenya Hara. Its first edition took place at the Spiral Hall in 2007 and was a huge success. Each of the invited artists, designers and architects chose from the list of new fabrics offered by sponsoring manufacturers to create a new piece that fully utilizes th features of the chosen fabric. Following the success of the first edition Hara invited 16 Japanese and Italian artists/designers, this time including Iwata.

Dr. Iwata currently has a solo exhibition at Miraikan (National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation) titled "Dr. Strange Device". The exhibition is a part of a Device Art Gallery series that opened in 2008 and will continue for several years. Apparently he enjoys being an engineer and an artist at the same time, demonstrating both the light and dark side of technology.

These are examples from the current media art scene in Japan. Collaborations between engineers and artists, importance of playfulness, and interest in physical interface have been observed. >>Device Art<< is a project Iwata launched in 2005 with the aim of realizing and promoting a new concept: art in the form of functioning devices that can reach outside museums and galleries. The group consists of engineers, researchers and media artists. Members with engineering background create a bit "crazy", but inspiring works, as is the case of Iwata's robot tiles, Masahiko Inami's "Optical Camouflage" that makes the user invisible, or Taro Maeda's "Shaking the World: Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation As A Novel Sensation Interface" that allows the user to control another user's walking behavior by remotely stimulating his/her sense of gravity. Members include artists such as Novmichi Tosa (a.k.a. Maywa Denki), Sachiko Kodama, Ryota Kuwakubo, the earlier mentioned Kazuhiko Hachiya, and others. Artists and engineers assemble new material and technology in a unique and playful manners to show what technologies mean to us at the border of art, design, engineering, and entertainment. Today convergence of art and its related fields has become commonplace in urban landscape. Architects, industrial and fashion designers propose their concepts and realize innovative works that influence our culture rather than simply responding to existing demands, working inside traditional frameworks. Works and activities of creative designers extend far beyond the traditional range of product design, while corporate designers change our daily life with products such as the iPod. SENSEWARE is an example of such design activities.

"Being critical" has been considered an important element of art. Now it is needed to examine what it means to be "critical". There have been avant-garde artists, such as experimental filmmakers, who expanded and visualized what "film" could mean to us. An artist can remain critical in examining the current status ? in this case: how technology is used in society, how it is commercialized, etc. ? and provide an alternative perspective, possibly with a sense of humor.

©Machiko Kusahara, 2009