Experiments in the wild

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Ten years ago, when a new cultural facility opened in the western Japan city of Yamaguchi, its founders sought to fulfill a role quite different from those museums in the countryside.

Unlike many public museums in rural Japan that function as touring venues for exhibitions that have already shown in the major cities, or which feature long-established artists familiar to a local audience, the city-funded Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media (YCAM) was designed to be a place where artists from various genres could be invited to create and showcase new and original artwork. And not just any artwork, but pieces that are loosely associated with a fast-changing, definition-defying form of creativity that often utilizes media technologies such as computer graphics, animation and the Internet, and is known as “media art.”

At the grand opening of the facility, located on the site of a former school some 50 minutes by bus from Ube Airport — which is a 90-minute flight from Tokyo — the center’s staff collaborated with award-winning Mexican-Canadian electronic artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer to create a huge installation artwork using 20 powerful searchlights able to illuminate places as far as 15 km away.

For that artwork, titled “Amodal Suspension,” people were encouraged to send and exchange text messages via their phones, Web sites and special terminals set up at 28 art centers around the world. Those text messages were converted into light signals displayed through searchlights placed on the curved roof of the YCAM building and in the adjacent park, which would flash and move around, sending a giant, intricately tangled “mesh of light” into the sky.

“Until then, media technology was something only huge industries and research institutes could use,” recalls Kazunao Abe, the deputy director of YCAM, who has served as chief curator from its opening in November 2003. “I think the project was symbolic in that we showed how such technologies can be accessed and used by anyone, even children.”

Ten years later, it seems YCAM has consolidated its position as one of the very few breeding grounds in Japan for cutting-edge media art, and some of the works born there have toured across the country and overseas. Despite the edgy, experimental and often abstract nature of many of the exhibitions, the project has been well-received in Yamaguchi, a city of some 195,000 people, Abe argues, noting that more than 700,000 people visit the YCAM complex (an arts theater, a film theater, an exhibition space and a public library) every year.

One reason YCAM has remained relevant to local residents, he points out, is that it has made education one of its key undertakings — developing and offering experiential, interactive workshops, with the ultimate aim of bringing the media and media art closer to people. Among them, for example, is a workshop titled “Pasta Architecture,” where participants work in a group of six to create buildings using pieces of uncooked spaghetti. Different roles are assigned to each of the group members: for example, one person can only build horizontally, another person only vertically.

In another workshop, “Sensory Athletics,” participants learn the characteristics of their own body and understand the connection between space and movement by walking through a maze of elastic strings, placed in a grid pattern from the floors to the ceiling.

What also sets YCAM apart from many other arts centers in Japan is a division called InterLab. It’s a tech-savvy R&D division that’s made up of multinational staff versed in computer programming and networking technologies who help artists give form to their ideas by designing the necessary computer systems and software, developing electronic devices and planning sound, light and video systems.

“We broke away from the collections-based museum model,” Abe says. “We have instead offered an infrastructure for various artists, designers and computer programmers to come in and collaborate. Such forms of creation were rare, especially when we started, because it was before the Internet was available to everyone and before the concepts of Creative Commons and open source gained currency. In a sense we had foreseen such concepts.”

Of the vast amount shown at the YCAM over the past decade, Abe cites “Ensembles,” a 2008 work by musician/composer Yoshihide Otomo, as one of the most noteworthy.

“It was both an installation and a live event, using all the facilities of YCAM, including the library,” he says. “Under the single rule that no one copies what other people are doing, he let everyone create sounds and music in simultaneous jam sessions. It was like a modern-day version of ‘Musicircus,’ (originally put together in 1967) by (U.S. experimental musician) John Cage.”

This also gave Otomo — the man behind the theme song for the ongoing NHK morning-drama series “Amachan” — a rare experience to create something together with the public, which then evolved into other interactive projects he was a part of later on, Abe says.

Meanwhile, “The End,” a so-called Vocaloid opera that features animated character Hatsune Miku, was another milestone for YCAM, according to Abe. “The End,” which premiered at YCAM in December, features only computer-created music and video. Keiichiro Shibuya did the show’s music, writer Toshiki Okada wrote the script, and Masaki Yokobe, aka YKBX, worked on the visuals. Tickets sold out and the production created enormous buzz before coming to Tokyo’s Bunkamura Orchard Hall in May. It will also be performed in France this November.

“When it premiered, more than 800 people came from Tokyo,” Abe says. “I think we set the example of sending a new (cultural) message from a rural area.”

So where is YCAM headed in the next 10 years? And what is it trying to achieve through the ongoing anniversary festival running until Sept. 1, and then again for another month from Nov. 1 through Dec. 1? Tapping musician Ryuichi Sakamoto as the festival’s artistic director, YCAM has expanded the scope of media art to even include community-based installations and projects, such as a Kenyan-style clothes-sharing market by Toshinari Nishio, and an outdoor-activities event by contact Gonzo [see sidebar]. Sakamoto will collaborate with YCAM’s InterLab to convert the bioelectric data of trees into music, while the Web-based live-streaming music studio Dommune will open a satellite real-life studio in the city’s shopping arcade. What’s more, a mini Maker Faire, which is a U.S.-born DIY event, will be held at YCAM for the first time in western Japan. These events and more are projects “from the bottom up,” inspired and developed by artists, creators and visitors, according to Abe.

“Media art is not clearly defined as an artistic genre, but because of that, it’s free from a traditional mind-set and traditional analytical history,” Abe says. “Media and media technologies are indispensable to people and society, like water and air. And they are not something handed out to you by someone from above. Everyone needs to have some say in how (media technologies) evolve and develop, through such creative expressions as art, design, architecture and civil engineering.”

For more information on Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media, and a schedule of its 10th-anniversary events, visit 10th.ycam.jp/en.