CREST Project
Device Art Symposium "Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? -- The Relation Between Concept and Technology"
Panel Discussion "Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? -- The Relation Between Concept and Technology"

CREST Project
Device Art Symposium "Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? -- The Relation Between Concept and Technology"

Panel Discussion: "Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? -- The Relation Between Concept and Technology"
21 June 2006@Akihabara UDX 6F Conference Room

This session was moderated by Machiko Kusahara, and joined by panelists Hiroo Iwata, Masahiko Inami, Sachiko Kodama, Kazuhiko Hachiya and guest lecturer Usman Haque. After the presentations made by each panelist, Usman Haque gave a special lecture. Reflecting on issues that were dealt within the presentations and lecture, the following discussion took place.

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

Kusahara: First of all, I would like to ask Usman to comment on the presentations by the panelists.

Haque: There were many projects that I have felt a strong affinity to. I particularly like "Thanks Tail" which is very simple in its design, but opens up a new kind of communication.

I guess we have come across this issue of the relationship between technology and art quite a lot in all of these presentations. For me, technology is a social concept. Artists tend to use technology because technology reflects the social designs of the times. So coming to the question about the chicken and the egg, the concept and technology, I find it very difficult to make this distinction. Because, for me, it's like trying to find the distinction between mind and body, between real and virtual. Actually, they are all part of each other.

Contemporary life is different from the way people lived a hundred years ago. Our social relationship is changing so quickly, that within 10 years we will have completely transformed them. Artists and designers try to take apart society in order to understand it, and then they represent it to that same society to have some kind of effect on it: they kind of hack society. I think the situation in which we live makes us interested in the social concept of technology, and art becomes an instrument for presenting that fact.

Kusahara: Let's hear what the other panelists think about this topic, "the social concept of technology".

Hachiya: I am convinced that something is an artwork when there is a one-to-one relation between the creator and the work. Usman said that he doesn't like to think of himself as an artist, but I sense a distinct tone and character from his body of works.

In that sense, works like "Locomotion Interface" and "Khronos Projector" are very unlikely to be perceived as artworks by someone in the art world. But even though they are not "artworks" I think they can stand as "creations" of another kind. We call our works "Device Art," but I personally don't think we should put too much emphasis on the word "art" in describing everything that comes out of this project. Perhaps the goal of this Device Art project -- the commercialization of its works and the extension of its technology into a general use -- is related closer to the field of design, rather than art.

Kusahara: Indeed, ideas such as "device as an art" or "art in the form of a device" would not fit the definition of art in a traditional sense. But I think such contradictions make them more interesting to discuss.

Inami: Mr. Hachiya said that he sees something as art when there is a one-to-one relation between the work and the creator. But the same can be said of research. For example, when I see Professor Iwata's presentation, there are times when I strongly sense his distinctive tone. So if the sensibility of Device Art becomes widely accepted, perhaps the definition of art itself could be expanded.

Kodama: This CREST project is titled "Establishment and Development of Expressive Science and Technology"; I want this term "Expressive Science and Technology" to gain wider recognition in society. Today, the military industry immediately comes to mind as the major area in which accomplishments of science and technology are applied -- North Korea's development of ballistic missile Taepodong, which is always in the news these days, is one example. I wish such imbalance in the application of technology could be corrected, by shifting it a little towards the field of arts and culture.

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Kusahara: Now, let's move on to the theme of today's discussion, "the relation between concept and technology." In creating art, do you think it is obligatory to first have a concept and then search for the technology to realize it? Instead, if you are working in the field of design or entertainment, is it OK to start from an idea that is inspired by a particular technology? I don't think this is necessarily true; for instance, the concept of Ms. Kodama's work might never have been conceived if she didn't know about the existence of ferrofluid.

Kodama: Usman said that it is hard to separate concept and technology because they are part of each other. I agree with what he said, since it is a very common practice to develop a thought by using a tool; this tool might be a tangible object or it could be something conceptual like language.

Compared to the field of science in which only a single interpretation is accepted to understand something, the world of art allows everyone to embrace their own interpretation. The richness in the range of interpretations is perhaps a very important factor in art.

Hachiya: I think it is actually possible to make artworks based on devices. For example, I came up with the idea of "Inter Dis-Communication Machine" when I was playing with a video transmitter and a video camera. Also, the inspiration that blossomed into "Seeing is Believing" came when I discovered that infrared transmitted by remote control devices could be seen through a camera. From my own experience, I can say that ideas for an artwork could stem from the characteristics of a particular device or technology. I think it's perfectly OK for us to explore in that direction.

Kusahara: From that standpoint, Mr. Inami's "Optical Camouflage" could have been just another demonstration of engineering technology, but actually, it goes beyond that. It may not be an artwork, but it stands as an individual content. How did this come about?

Inami: When we learn how to write academic papers, we are told to follow a certain format: start out by setting an objective, lay out the methods in order to achieve it, then present the outcome at the end. But actually, there are times when I make things the other way around, starting from a sudden urge to make a particular object, or envisioning a moving mechanism inside my head.

It's like when Ms. Kodama was staring at ferrofluid, and saw the shape of a sea urchin in it. I noticed that an object could be made invisible, while experimenting with retroreflective material. In fact, I got this idea when I was playing with actual materials.

Kusahara: Although Mr. Hachiya's "PostPet" was developed from the start as a consumer product, his previous artistic efforts are clearly reflected in it. Even in elements that seem purely technological at a glance, an artistic impact can be felt.

On the other hand, professor Iwata's "Robot Tiles" made such a huge impression on the audience in the art world because even though it's not an artwork by itself, it suggests what the next generation of art might be like. Perhaps people sensed something unique with a potential to break down existing technological systems and technological appearances that limit today's art.

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Haque: Looking at the words in the phrase "Device Art," I began to wonder. A device normally is there to make things easier, whereas the process of art, it seems to me, is always a struggle. The funny thing that we see these days is... a lot of projects, for example my "Low Tech" or Mr. Kuwakubo's project, are trying to make it easier to make things, or easier to make art. And I wonder if this is a good thing for art or not. Because maybe we do need to find it difficult in order to make the most interesting things.

Hachiya: Right now, the field of media art is still dominated by artists, but it seems that little by little, the presence of engineers is increasing. Professor Iwata's work and Mr. Maeda's work are good examples. Those works represent a new and emerging trend that is difficult to categorize, but is very interesting nevertheless. I think that these works should not be confined to the framework of art. People like Maywa Denki and I create artworks as artists, but at the same time, we also try to develop them into commercial products. However, it is also true that the nature of art doesn't actually mesh well with commercialization and industrialization. Maybe there is a possibility that engineers could overcome such difficulties and create new kinds of works.

Iwata: That is precisely what I am imagining as a goal for this Device Art project. As of now, there are some engineers who could influence the field of media art. But to expand this field into a proper industry by the next generation, I think it is necessary to first pave the way by developing Technology that supports the creation of digital media contents. Some people can develop their ideas without much trouble, but there are others, who are not so good at working with technology. If we don't provide them with some support, the field of Device Art will never take root in society.

Inami: Technology has two potentials. Firstly, there is the possibility to expand the horizon of expression. Also (this is related to what Prof. Iwata had just mentioned about the technology that supports creation), technology has the power to open the door to creatorship by making it easy to create.

But one might wonder, "is it really a good thing to facilitate creation?" For example, I guess there is a certain joy in the process of learning how to walk on stilts. Likewise, as it was mentioned before that the process of creating is always a struggle, going through that struggle might be the very reason that brings the sense of fulfillment and delight when the work is finally finished. So, can we simply say that it's a good thing to make it easier for everyone to create? I am still not sure.

Haque: Until very recently, the distinction between art and technology wasn't so clear. Throughout the long course of history, they were part of the same thing, related to the process of making things.

But nowadays a lot of the technology is created by corporations or institutions. So, there is this unequal relationship between the artists and the corporations who are supporting them. For these companies, the artists who are making things with their technology are like very cheap research, a nice way to get some ideas. The role of an artist has always been to put up a mirror in front of society by saying "look, this is what we are, this is what we're doing". But it's much more difficult now for artists to do that because when they create, they are using the technology that is designed by the power structures that they should be able to question.

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Question from the audience: Concerning the issue "is it possible for a device to stand as an artwork by itself?" I would like to ask this: in this field of Device Art, are there occasions in which researchers are emotionally moved in the course of their research? If so, I personally think it could be regarded as art.

Iwata: When we had a discussion beforehand in preparation for today's symposium, Mr. Hachiya pointed out that there is a difference between a concept and an artwork. A concept is somewhat like a verbal description, whereas an artwork is based on emotion, and starting from this emotion, a particular form is made.

In my research, I make things gradually by going through a trial and error phase. In this process, there are times when I feel an emotional sensation. If I succeed in conveying this experience, I think my work will have an impact on the audience that is similar to that of an artwork.

Inami: I agree. Basically, researchers are motivated by the emotional reward that they get by finding the solution to a problem that they set out to solve. If that feeling could be communicated to others in an effective way, consequently the research would be widely recognized. By this logic, I think that the worlds of art and research share something similar, which is related to this emotional aspect.

I would like to mention one more thing. Although high-tech is often regarded with a sense of awe, actually a lot of it hardly works beyond the doors of a research lab. Most of the time, new technology is very unstable and you are lucky if it keeps working for the period of one or two days needed for getting experiment data. Presenting a work at an exhibition is a daunting task, let alone making a commercial product with it. Perhaps this instability of high-tech and the difficulty in reproducing it make it all the more satisfying when a researcher succeeds in making something.

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Question from the audience: A body of technology ready to be used for creating digital media contents might be an effective tool for education, but the use of standardized tools could result in a flood of similar works. What do you think about it?

Hachiya: Yes, that can surely happen. When I teach students, I don't immediately let them use these tools in making things. I start by telling them to take apart these tools and hack them. It's crucial to be able to have this perspective, or else you are likely to be stuck in a very narrow mindset.

Iwata: In his workshop, Mr. Kuwakubo is also instructing his students to make their own modules. It's important for them to exchange information with other people, while adding their own ideas as they go along. This method is close to the process of open source -- a topic I hope to discuss further on another occasion.

(translation: Nozawa Tomoyo)

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