CREST Project
Device Art Symposium Device Art Symposium "Reflections on Commercializing Media Art"
Panel Discussion Device Art Symposium "Reflections on Commercializing Media Art"

CREST Project
Device Art Symposium Device Art Symposium "Reflections on Commercializing Media Art"

Panel Discussion: Device Art Symposium "Reflections on Commercializing Media Art"
30 September 2007@The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, 7F MiraiCAN Hall

This session was moderated by Machiko Kusahara, and joined by panelists Hiroo Iwata, Ryota Kuwakubo, Kazuhiko Hachiya, Novmichi Tosa (Maywa Denki), and Dominique Chen. After the overview statement by Hiroo Iwata, each panelist made a presentation. Reflecting on issues that arose there, the following discussion took place.

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

Kusahara: All of the creators in today's panel have, in one way or another, experienced the commercialization of their works and ideas. Recently, there is a global trend among artists and engineers to release their ideas and methods allowing them to be shared with the rest of the world, and it has become easier to make something starting from ideas provided by others. However, there are also issues. Perhaps this system can work well with software or things like T-shirts, but when it comes to producing hardware and machines, various problems such as safety concerns arise.

If you try to commercialize an artwork, you must deal with maintenance, worry about upgrading, and think about ways to finance the production. When abroad, I am often asked the question "how do Japanese artists manage to collaborate with corporations without making compromises in their critical stance?" Today, our panel is joined by Dominique Chen from the NPO Creative Commons Japan. I hope we can start the discussion from these topics.

Hachiya: Let me talk about my experiences in making commercial products. In "Thanks Tail", the prototype version was able to move its tail in two directions: vertically and horizontally. But for economical reasons, we could only make the tail move horizontally in the final product. Also, it was inevitable to increase the numbers of components to meet safety regulations, and this resulted in making battery replacement difficult. So these were the compromises I had to make in the process of commercialization. But with the production of the software "PostPet," I pretty much had everything done the way I wanted.

Mass production of hardware aimed at general users, like the goods by Maywa Denki, is much harder to accomplish. So, what I am trying to do now in this Device Art project is to develop products that I can sell to shops and companies instead of general consumers. Products for commercial use could be made in smaller quantities, and a higher price setting could be acceptable. Also, it wouldn't be much of a problem if the product is a little hard to operate, as long as maintenance is possible. I hope to make gradual progress by starting from this niche.

Kuwakubo: I am disclosing the circuit diagram of my work "Pri/Pro" under the Creative Commons license. At this stage, I am doing this for educational purposes. For example, a student might surf the web in search of technical ideas that he/she can use to make something for a school assignment; in such cases, it is good to have a system like the Creative Commons license to assure that you are not infringing on someone's intellectual property rights. For about a year now, Dominique has been helping me out to figure out the best way to make this work.

Actually, if you look at the electronic circuits that are applied in "Pri/Pro" there is nothing new. It is an assembly of generic circuits. If someone makes an original work with "Pri/Pro" and turns it into a commercial product, I suppose that I have to decide whether or not to approve depending on the situation. If that work is based on an original idea, the creator should be entitled to the rights. If I decide to let other people arrange my ideas, I can choose the degree of regulations accordingly. That kind of freedom of choice is the characteristic of Creative Commons license.

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Iwata: A work of Device Art is something that is tangible, an object that has a form. Intellectual property rights of objects are protected by patents, but how can we associate artworks with the patent system? From the beginning of the Device Art project, this was regarded as a difficult issue. At the moment, the relation between the patent system and Creative Commons is a new area that needs further examination. To apply the system of Creative Commons in handling real objects, I think it would be necessary to make adjustments in the patent system by introducing gradual stages in the degree of regulations.

Chen: Some people tend to think that the freedom Creative Commons allows to circulate digital information can immediately be translated to the patent system, but I think this is unrealistic. Recently, there was a lot of talk when IBM released its method to build a particular IC chip through the General Public License. But you need to be careful in doing that kind of thing, for there is a risk that other parties with a very similar idea to your invention might apply for a patent, and you might end up without the right to using it. Therefore, it is realistic to first get a patent for your invention, and then release the functional elements through the General Public License. Right now, the know-how to build that kind of open system is gradually being accumulated.

Tosa: I think Creative Commons is a system that works well when it is handling information. But it is a different matter when it comes to tangible objects. Mass production needs funding, and a company undertaking this must take risks. You need to persuade the company to think you are competent enough in order to commercialize an artwork. If they think there is potential for business in your idea, then they will definitely support you.

Indeed, I often get the question "how can you collaborate with companies?" by people in the art world outside Japan. My impression is that foreign artists tend to have a concept that lacks flexibility, and that makes it harder to work with a company.

There is another way of creating a mass product: that is, to let the people, instead of a company, become the producer, just like Mr. Kuwakubo is doing by releasing the method to make "Pri/Pro." A typical example for this is a recipe for cooking. If you provide your own recipe to the public, anyone in the world will be able to make the same dish. But it is also important to think about ways to reward people who share their creations. If this issue is ignored, creators will not be able to support themselves financially. I believe Creative Commons will play an important role in providing the solution to this.

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Kusahara: Another key element in commercializing a work is "playfulness." The artists gathered today all have a sense of playfulness in their approach to creating. In the past, Japanese media art was often criticized abroad for being too positive towards technology. But if your works are always giving out negative messages such as "media technology will make terrible things happen!" I guess you will never succeed in commercializing them even if they are highly valued artworks.

Hachiya: However, there is no point for an artist to create a product, if its feature is just playfulness -- that sort of thing will never compete with products made by the game industry. But it is also true that a product will not sell if the aspect of criticism becomes too strong. Perhaps the solution is to give it a complex structure; making it look cute on the surface, and concealing serious and satirical messages underneath. Some people will get that message and others will not, but I think that is fine.

Kuwakubo: Maybe this is because I started to spend more time teaching... but actually, I am beginning to loose interest in the commercialization of my works. But come to think of it, there are many types of products, and I don't necessarily have to make something large scale. If I don't need to construct a mold for the product, the scale of the production can be something around several thousands, and that's enough for me if I can make a profit. Instead of aiming for a big hit, I would like to make something on a smaller scale that can attract a handful of people.

Hachiya: Looking at Mr. Tosa's activities in this Device Art project so far, I sense that he is working with ambivalence and hesitation. Since this project is funded by JST (Japan Science and Technology Agency), there are limitations to how we can use that money, and this is a tricky situation for artists.

Tosa: The most difficult part is what professor Iwata had mentioned before, the issue of copyright and patents concerning artworks. Also, my initial plan for this Device Art project was to make gadgets for the "EDELWEISS" series, but I eventually changed my mind because the concept behind that work was very personal. It struck me that it's unethical to use taxpayers' money to make such a personal work; instead, it would be much better to make things that everyone can use and enjoy. So I changed my plan and decided to organize a workshop where people can learn how to make devices from the "Knock!" series.

Kusahara: However, if you worry too much about serving the interests of others, the artistic impact will be weakened. Funds for this Device Art project are meant to be used by artists to refine their creative ideas to the level of commercial products. I don't think it matters if the original idea is inspired by something personal. A company will develop an idea into a commercial product if they think it has a marketing potential. If they are convinced they can make a profit despite the expenses of patent fee to the university that owns the rights, they will proceed with the production.

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Tosa: Is that a usual procedure in the engineering field?

Iwata: Yes, researchers get patents for their inventions, and companies develop new products using those patented inventions. There is a difference between ideas conceived by artists and inventions that are protected by patents.

Kuwakubo: Artists tend to think that their work is unique. In contrast, the patent system assures something to be unique, but at the same time, it enables that idea to be useful to everyone. I guess artists have some difficulty in grasping this functional element.

Hachiya: There is a huge gap between artistic creativity and the act of making something with research funds coming from a public budget. What we are trying to do is very difficult, but I wish we can pull this off successfully.

Tosa: I think there is a big difference between a Device Art product and Device Art; or you can say, Device Art as a commercial product compared to Device Art as art. When creating a product, you must put in special efforts to make it attractive, and that technique is something altogether different from inventions protected by patents and copyright. On the other hand, if something completely original that can be called "artistic engineering" is invented, it could be sold without much adjustment. So, probably there are these two different approaches to commercializing artworks.

Chen: I would like to make a final comment on the relation between media art and commercialization. These days, I am under the impression that young people are confused about what to make of the word "art": Is art something linked to commercial success, or is it an activity that has a social role?

If you try to make a living with art within the present social structure, you are most likely to be caught up in finding ways to gain profit. I think we have to change this. If the present legal structure is inadequate in changing the situation, we should build a new system like the Creative Commons. When we succeed in doing this, perhaps more people will follow in the footsteps of Mr. Tosa, Mr. Hachiya, and Mr. Kuwakubo.

Iwata: Up until this project, the participants of this CREST program consisted only of college researchers. Our project is the first to have artists as main research members. This is quite a challenge, and the best way to support their creative efforts is yet to be found, but we shall work this out in the end and hopefully produce fruitful results.

(translation: Nozawa Tomoyo)

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