Digital by Design
Ed. Troika
Thames and Hudson, 2008
pp. 275-279

Device Art ? Media Art Meets Mass Production
Machiko Kusahara

Machiko Kusahara is a media art curator and a researcher in the field of media studies who has been publishing and curating in the interdisciplinary field that embraces art, techno1ogy and culture. Her recent research focuses on the correlation between digital media and traditiona1 culture. She coined the term 'device art' to describe an emerging movement of Japanese artists, many of whom featured in this book, who explore mass production and commercial circuits as a means of distribution of message-driven, individually-conceived technological artefacts.

Troika: What is device art, what does it aim at and what questions does it rise?
MK: Device art is a concept derived from the recent digital media art scene in Japan.
Using both latest and everyday techno1ogies and material, these media artworks enable users/viewers/interactors to enjoy and understand what media technologies mean to us. In device art, an artwork is realized in a form of device, the device becoming the content itself. Device art is a concept for re-examining art-science-technology relationships, from both a contemporary and a historical perspective, in order to foreground a new aspect of media art. The concept is a logical extension of a change in the notion of art that already started in the early 20th century with art movements such as Dada and Surrealism. More recently, interactive art has redefined forms of art and the role of artists. What we call device art is a form of media art that integrates art and technology as well as design, entertainment and popular culture. There is a sense of playfulness or wonder in device artwork -even if it involves a serious theme -that makes it possible to be shown or commercialized outside museums and galleries. The concept reflects Japanese cultural tradition in many ways, including appreciation of refined tools and materials, love of technology, acceptance of playfulness and the absence of a clear border between art, design and entertainment, among other issues. Device art seeks after a new paradigm in art, by producing artworks based on creative use of hardware technologies and opening a channel to make them more accessible to everyone.
Through these activities device art questions the validity of traditional boundaries between art, design, entertainment, technology and commercial products.
Troika: It seems that device art is about mass production of artworks. How does it differ, as a theory, from pop art?
MK: As described above, it is not just about mass production of artworks. Pop art responded to the mass-production/mass-consumption society. Its heritage can be seen in device art, with the use of industrial materials and media technologies, connection to pop culture, etc. But digital technology has changed our society further - and it still continues at an enormous speed. The impact is essential, with the very nature of 'being digital'. This is something different from the change in the society pop art dealt with. Needless to say, the idea of a 'virtual world' is commonplace now, what with avatars and other immaterial substitutes for the real world. Copies are not only massive but also identical; there is no distinction between original and copy, which means the traditional basis of 'art' has been challenged with digital technologies. Information became more important than physical materiality. Device artists are responding to these issues. With their professional knowledge and skills in fields such as virtual reality, mechatronics, human interface and interactive technologies, they unde1'stand the possibilities and problems media technologies bring to us. It is also a reason why device art focuses on hardware-based work. Producing or delivering artwork widely is easier and more commonplace in software-based forms such as web art or games. The challenge for device art is to open such channels for physical objects.
Troika: As for you, how do the works of device artists expand our understanding of technology and what it can be/do? How can art devices contribute to how technology is thought about, its function and its role in our society?
MK: Artists visualize personal and social issues by providing different view angles from what we usually achieve in our daily life. Works of device artists expand our understanding of technology by realizing usually impossible experiences using their expertise. For example, Iwata's Floating Eye literally realizes the McLuhanian 'extension of body' experience by combining latest technologies with old ideas such as walking with an eye mask. Works by Sachiko Kodama [pp. 124-27] or Masahiko Inami [1] transform known industrial materials into magical experiences. In all these examples, playfulness plays an important role. Japanese media artists have been often criticized for 'not being critical of technology'. But being critical does not necessarily mean being negative. Artists cannot stop technology by saying 'no'. Understanding technology is more important than denying. Generally speaking, media artists use media technology because they see many possibilities in it, as well as problems. It is possible for artists to show what technology can bring us, how interesting or amazing it can be when used creatively, how technology changes our life and society with possible problems. It is important that people become interested in technology and try to understand it, rather than being scared and using it only in a passive mode - or, even worse, being used by it. Artists can provide them with a key to understanding technology. On the other hand, artists use and invent technology in ways engineers don't think about. Kodama's use of electromagnetic fluid is an example. We know many such cases in media art. Device art enhances such practice and helps to forge creative bonds between art, technology and science.
Troika: Considering the difficulties, both financial and technical, of getting an idea mass-produced, how much do you think an artwork has to be watered down for that purpose?
MK: It is a time- and effort-consuming process for an artist to make his or her artwork mass-produced. It also costs, to make prototypes, for example. Who will pay for these costs is always an issue. Private firms would not collaborate with an artist unless they saw a merit in it. To make anything widely distributed there are many factors to be considered and re-designed, including safety, durability, maintenance, etc. Although the cost of mass production should be covered within a normal business framework, public support for artists will help them to take the necessary time and effort to realize commercially acceptable products. At the same time, public support - both financial and schematic - is needed to facilitate joint projects between artists and engineers/scientists. Artists such as Nobumichi Tosa [p. 256], Kazuhiko Hachiya [2], Ryota Kuwakubo [p. 212] and Toshio Iwai [3] have realized their projects, but it's not always possible. In the history of avant-garde art, there existed programs such as E. A .T. [4]. In recent years in Japan, there has been an understanding that artists' creative ideas help the industry to develop new technology or to find new applications. As a result, media artists are often invited to universities to work with researchers in engineering, on public grants for projects that bridge art and technology.
Troika: Device art seems based on a different understanding of art in Japan from the West. How do you think device art can become acceptable in the West? Is it possible at all? Under what circumstances?
MK: As I said earlier, Japanese media artists are often criticized for their apparently playful attitude towards technology. But an artwork can be both playful and critical at the same time. For example, Maywa Denki's [pp. 254-59] works have rich cultural layers behind their funny representation. Regarding the positive attitude towards technology, it is important to understand that Japan did not share the nightmare of the industrial revolution, which so heavily influenced Western culture. Besides, during nearly 250 years of peace from the 17th to the mid-19th century, the latest technologies were used for entertainment instead of for warfare or for industry. Of course, Japan had to quickly catch up with the West after that, but optimism about technology seems to be deeply rooted in Japanese culture. (For example, compare Fritz Lang's film Metropolis with its Japanese version, an animation written by the manga master Osamu Tezuka and realized by Katsuhiro Otomo, the director of Akira.) However, our society has already gone through the modern era, entered the postmodern era, and now we live in the information age. Artists respond to such changes in society. It always takes longer for art institutions to accept change, but growing public acceptance eventually influences the definition of art. Such a transition takes place especially in fields where the 'public' is involved in supporting the new art form. Photography and film came through such a process. It's happening with music video now, and in design as well, I believe. People are accepting the idea that creators can express their ideas and concepts in commercially available formats. Device art is a part of such a phenomenon.
Troika: What parallels can you draw between the Japanese device art movement and the other designers/ artists included in this book - Hulger, Science and Sons, Fur, Schulze and Webb, Aparna Rao?
MK: There are many parallels among these movements including device art, because they are responding to our contemporary society from different, though non-traditional angles. Besides movements in art and design, I see important parallels in culture to share, such as the open-source movement and Creative Commons [5], do-it-yourself, the 'Make' community [6], among others. We live in the information-based society, in which digital technologies have changed what 'copy' or 'copyright' or 'publishing' means, while the industry is dominated by IT giants. How do we secure and develop our right to use technology creatively? In the field of design, mass-production technologies have made it possible for the general public to enjoy 'design' in daily life. It was made possible by designers who collaborated creatively with the industry. Already in the 19th century Christopher Dresser [7] pioneered such collaboration, offering functional and refined design for everyday life. Designers today, such as Naoto Fukasawa [8], collaborate with industry to realize new concepts that engineers would not imagine. Artists do not have to stand outside society, technology, actual production or reality, even if their ideas can be best realized outside museums and galleries. These movements reflect such ideas.
Troika: How much of device art aims at creating a sustainable income stream for the artist, beyond traditional gallery sales?
MK: We are just finding this out. In most cases, mass production requires involvement of professional production/distribution companies. This means that artists will be paid some kind of licensing fee for each product sold. A popular product will bring the artist a sustainable income. While it is not exactly device art, as it is software, Kazuhiko Hachiya's PostPet [9] is a most successful example, in which an artist proposed a product idea to a company on his own initiative, resulting in a product that has brought considerable income to both the company and himself over the last ten years. It is possible.
Troika: Why do you think technology companies do not produce designer items or hire individual designers as much as furniture companies do?
MK: In the case of furniture, the basic function cannot be changed. Therefore design becomes a means of attracting attention. However, function is the major focus of attention in the case of technology-oriented products. Besides, there is not much freedom for design when realizing function is the matter in hand. In Japan, technology companies hire individual designers to produce cell phones and robots, which is an interesting phenomenon. These are highly technical products in which function seriously matters, but they are also cultural objects. Design is a major issue. So the companies hire outstanding individual designers if they think that they will help attract attention and discover unexpected design possibilities.
Machiko Kusahara
Images:
Hiroo Iwata, Floating Eye, 2001
Floating Eye is an interactive installation that separates a person's vision from the body. The participant navigates a floating airship by towing a string. The airship is equipped with a specialized camera- head that captures a wide-angle image. A wearable visual system then allows the participant to see his/her own body or the surrounding environment from a bird's perspective.

Nobumichi Tosa (Maywa Denki) poses with two of his 'singing machines'.

Notes:
[1] Professor Masahiko Inami is a Professor in the Department of Engineering and Intelligent Systems of the University of Electro-Communications, Tokyo. Together with Susumu Tachi and Naoki Kawakami he created a prototypical camouflage system, in which a video camera takes a shot of the background and displays it on a cloth using an external projector. The same year Time magazine named it the coolest invention of 2005.
[2]Kazuhiko Hachiya is known for his art and technology experiments and inventions, from jet-powered hoverboards to abstract CG production.
[3]Toshio Iwai is a Japanese interactive media and installation artist who has also created a number of commercial video games. He received high acclaim from critics for many of his musical performances and digital musical instrument designs, including the Tenori-On, a handheld device that plays sound and light patterns.
[4]E.A.T.( Experiments in Art and Technology) was founded in 1966 by engineers Billy Kluver and Fred Waldhauer and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman. The non-profit organization developed from the experience of '9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering'. This event, which was held in October 1966 in New York City, brought together 40 engineers and 10 contemporary artists who worked together on performances that incorporated new technology.
[5] The Creative Commons is a non-profit organization devoted to expanding the range of creative work available for others legally to build upon and share. The organization has released several copyright licenses known as Creative Commons licenses, which restrict only certain rights (or none) of the work.
[6] Make is a quarterly publication from O'Reilly Media, which focuses on DIY projects celebrating technology, science, and craft with a DIY mindset. Make is marketed to people who enjoy 'making' things and features complex projects that can often be completed with cheap materials, including household items.
[7] Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) was one of the first industrial designers and pioneered what we now recognize as the spruce, simple, modern aesthetic. He embraced modern manufacturing in the development of furniture,
textiles, ceramics, glass, wallpaper and metalware and used it to introduce well-made and efficient products into the homes of ordinary people. His metal toast racks are still in production today.
[8] Naoto Fukasawa is a lecturer in the Product Design department at Musashino Art University and Tama Art University in Tokyo. He helped set up IDEO in Japan in 1996 and his designs have won more than 50 design awards in Europe and America.
[9] PostPet is an email software that was developed by Kazuhiko Hachiya (media artist), Namie Manabe (graphic designer) and Takashi Kohki (programmer) in 1997. Sony Communication Network Corporation handles production, distribution and user support.