2004 [8th] Japan Media Arts Festival Device Art Symposium "How We Create Media Art Works"
Panel Discussion "How We Create Media Art Works"

2004 [8th] Japan Media Arts Festival
Device Art Symposium "How We Create Media Art Works"

Panel Discussion:"How We Create Device Art Works"
03 March 2005@Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography

This session was moderated by Machiko Kusahara, and joined by panelists Hiroo Iwata, Ryota Kuwakubo, Sachiko Kodama, and Novmichi Tosa (Maywa Denki). Each panelist made a presentation of their works, and reflecting on issues that arose there, the following discussion took place.

[This English text is a summary of the Japanese transcription]

Iwata: While introducing Maywa Denki's "Gatchakon", Mr. Tosa mentioned that certain interfaces (such as rotary dials used in old telephones and TV sets) are fading away from our daily lives. I think this is a very important point. With the permeation of digital media, our experience is becoming increasingly virtual, but the world we actually inhabit is the realm of real space in which we manipulate tangible objects. This kind of sensory experience is probably essential to the human existence. I feel that one of the missions of Device Art is to work on the sophistication of such experience.

Tosa: I make things like "Bitman", thinking that their cuteness is appealing. While the latest models of digital cameras offer several million pixels in resolution, "Bitman" displays pictures with 64(8 x 8) pixels. Technological progress doesn't necessarily lead to better artistic expressions.

Kuwakubo: The radio-controlled robot "R/V" which I showed in my presentation is, in a way, a physical equivalent of an avatar that represents the self in cyberspace. It is put together by technology that has been around for about 30 years, but for the audience who is used to the life of alternating between virtual and physical worlds, this work can be a novel sensation. I think physical elements are as important as information.

Kodama: The sophistication of the interface is something that I also keep in mind. Ferrofluid, the material used in my work, is not easy to handle. However, the process is a bit like learning how to play a musical instrument. Being awkward at first, a player starts to feel at ease with the instrument with practice and progress. Like this example, the tricky nature of ferrofluid is what makes it interesting to work with.

Tosa: As the term "three Sacred Treasures [the mirror, the sword, and the crescent jewel: from ancient times, they symbolize the Japanese Imperial throne]" in our language suggests, traditionally there has been a mentality of honoring tools and utensils to the status of divinity in the aesthetics of Japan.

Iwata: The strong attachment for tools and objects is a typical Japanese trait. As it is reflected in the popularity of combat robots, Japanese people are much more affirmative towards products of technology compared to westerners. However, as in the field of ubiquitous computing, technology and interfaces are becoming increasingly invisible in the current trend. I don't think this method will suit the Japanese; rather, technological elements should be more exposed.

Kuwakubo: One example I often refer to on that phenomenon is the automatic doors installed in the Japanese beef bowl restaurant chain Yoshinoya. The doors open and close when people touch the sensor plate, but actually, the motion isn't set off by the touch itself. It is activated because the hand cuts off the light from the light sensor. I am not comfortable with this kind of technology, which is somewhat deceptive to the human perception. I much prefer the aggressive presence of security cameras in ATM booths.

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Kusahara: Let us proceed to the next topic, "the importance of selecting materials in creating Device Art."

Kodama: How I became involved with ferrofluid is like this. Once, when I had been working mostly with holograms, my roommate was experimenting with this moving liquid, which intrigued me with its peculiar realness. Being accustomed to the look of computer graphics, I was fascinated by the slick texture of this black material.

Tosa: I also give a lot of consideration in choosing materials when I create -- aluminum and ABS plastic are my favorites. An artist's inclination towards a specific material is probably rooted in some kind of fetishism. In that sense, the physical aspect of creating surely exists, but at the same time, I feel that the concept is the only thing essential for an artwork to endure through time. For each of the works by Maywa Denki, a plan can be drawn so that it can be re-made when I am gone. This reminds me of the traditional Japanese pastime origami. The popular origami crane was invented by some aristocrat hundreds of years ago. While playing with a piece of paper, this person devised a way of folding it into the shape of a crane. Then the procedure -- not the original crane itself -- was handed down through many generations, and we still know how to fold paper cranes today.

Kuwakubo: Mr. Tosa has made a very interesting point, but my method is a bit different. When I create something, I often choose parts and materials that are easy to obtain, cheap, and simple to work with. As it turns out, electronic devices are quite perishable. Old models of ICs and LSIs are hard to come by today, and there is no guarantee that electronic devices we are using now will be available ten years later. In some cases, it might be necessary to look for junk parts and dead-stock parts to reconstruct a piece of work, and certain works might be impossible to replicate even with a plan drafted by the artist.

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Question from the audience: What is your view on the durability of Device Art works?

Tosa: As they are works of art, I would like them to last at least for a hundred years. However, the weakness of technology art lies in the fact that the technology behind it becomes obsolete. Indeed, it would be impossible to repair a work if essential components are no longer available. Even if it doesn't last a hundred years, maybe it's fine as long as the artist's idea behind it can be understood through the remnant of the work.

Iwata: Device Art using digital technology might be impossible to repair when essential parts become unobtainable, but with mechanical systems, restoration can be done in one way or another. Consequently, I think the durability of a work is infinite -- but this is only so when the work is based on a firm concept. We should also strive to make the term "Device Art" secure its place in art history, along with movements such as Cubism and Impressionism.

Question from the audience: What is the difference between an industrial product and a work of art?

Kuwakubo: Generally, it is believed that the aura of an artwork is embodied in original works, and not in reproductions. Yet, I sense a stronger aura from reproductions. An industrial product is realized by the efforts of countless people, and production lines are promptly assembled and shut down according to market demand. In this regard, I think such products have an irreplaceable quality. Maybe the gap between machines and art isn't so wide as people think.

Iwata: In the art world, reproduction has traditionally been viewed with negative implications, but in Device Art, the essence of a work lies in the fact that it is a reproduction. I think the passion and the ingenuity of an artist could somehow be propagated through the product. However, the challenge is to develop a system to convey such qualities. Mr. Kuwakubo had once lamented that successful musicians get rich but media artists creating good work never gain a lot of money. This is because there is no platform to distribute products related to media art and Device Art. It is probably necessary to build a new industry for this purpose.

Tosa: When such an industry is realized, however, the problem will be its impact on the environment. I don't want to offend toy companies, but the more they produce and sell, the greater the damage. People who are addicted to the cyberspace are often criticized as being unhealthy, but in reality, their lifestyle could be less harmful to the environment.

Kuwakubo: On the other hand, it can be pointed out that computers are manufactured from raw materials, and a fair amount of electricity is used to maintain the cyberspace. It's hard to say which kind of activity is worse.

Kusahara: It looks like we are facing a new issue here. Device Art works are physical and tangible objects that are not confined inside the computer screen. Because of this characteristic, it may be inevitable to be confronted with environmental issues. Maybe this is our homework for today.

(translation: Nozawa Tomoyo)

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