Real-world validations of our digital realm

by Cameron Allan Mckean

Special To The Japan Times

“We are now living in a super, hyper-extended information society,” says curator Masafumi Fukugawa, “and that idea was the starting point for our new exhibition.”

Fukagawa is one of five curators of “Being-in-the-Wired-World,” a group exhibition at Kawasaki City Museum that features eight emerging artists (or artist duos) commissioned to make work responding to the “new world of communication, technology and media.”

From afar, the exhibition could be seen as a flailing grab for quick contemporary currency by showing the “virtual art” of the “post-Internet age.” Up close, however, “Being-in-the-Wired-World” is a far more ambitious and articulate expression of our media-saturated lives than the kind of artworks those keywords are typically associated with. There are no 3-D renderings of roman columns here, no conceptual Facebook artworks, no #newaesthetic-styled images of machine-vision (live cams, 3-D map glitches, video games). Google and YouTube didn’t make a single appearance. The work here is subtle, complicated and human.

There is one exception — Rafael Rozendaal, the only non-Japanese included in the exhibition and a successful Internet artist who builds and sells interactive websites. He produced a projection of falling rain that can be adjusted by viewers using trackpads. Unexpectedly he is the odd artist out because his work is an expression of digital aesthetics and technology.

But this is really a show about the experience of the digital world, not about the aesthetics and mechanisms of computers, smartphones and the Internet, a perspective that Fukagawa says is “already boring.” Experience (identified by the “being” in the title) is the key word and the curatorial imperative that gives the show its strength.

One of the strongest works is Dokou Nakamura’s two-hour-long video piece of candid interviews with local Kawasaki taxi drivers (which can be watched from inside a real Kawasaki taxi). The drivers talk about a person, and you suspect they all might be talking about the same person, but the details don’t match up as the stories accumulate. It’s a layered work about communication and content, which indirectly comments on social media, asking, “When we read about people online, who are we really reading about?”

Artist duo Sayaka Uchino and Takeshi Fujimura follow a similar path about subjective/shared experiences. They handed out 70,000 questionnaires to elementary school children in Kawasaki asking them to draw a local cat they had seen and a map to its location. A staggering 8,000 kids wrote back, and the artists sorted through the responses to find different expressions of the “same cat.” They then used the collective maps and attempted to discover and photograph what may have been the “real” cat the responses referred to.

The most compelling works are the ones that are humorous and digitally articulate — like the two works mentioned above — without needing to resort to digital aesthetics.

As a space, the Kawasaki City Museum is not particularly welcoming, but the artists found ways of incorporating its ’80s-bubble-economy-charm. Among the museum’s dated permanent displays, Tsuyoshi Anzai placed videos depicting the figures from the displays themselves (including a dead bug and stuffed boar) debating the function of a nonsensical machine; an analog for the “black box” of modern technology. Twins Akiko and Masako Takada used the broken facade of the museum to make their photographic series. They created small-scale versions of damaged objects and placed them into the broken gaps of their originals: tiny bricks fill the space of missing bricks in a wall, and the hole in a sports net is filled with a miniature sports net. It’s a clever expression of how digital ideas such as scalability would look in everyday objects.

New York based aricoco’s (Ari Tabei) “running-away-from-home” installation and performance stretches the exhibition concept the furthest.

“I am not so conscious about mobile tech or modern mobility,” she writes in an email interview, but her portable colony of mobile sleeping pods made from detritus are a vivid expression of a world in constant movement.

More literal interpretations include video artworks by Nobue Kitakami — who divided up a home movie into single frames, separated those frames into their composite colors (red, green and blue) hand painted them and put them back together as a film — and Tamaki Tsuchida and Masanori Tominaga, who show fictional examples of daily life glitches, i.e. accidents.

Built in 1988, the Kawasaki City Museum was one of the first in Japan to be dedicated to new and old media — a “museum of reproductive arts,” (art that can be replicated or copied) in reference to a famous essay by philosopher Walter Benjamin. “Being-in-the-wired-world” is part of the museum’s 25th anniversary celebrations and Fukagawa sees it as a “new start” for the museum. It’s an intelligent show capturing a potential artistic shift away from representations of media in media art, to exploring the actual experience of people living in a media saturated environment. Experience, ironically, is one of the few things we still can’t reproduce. But for how long?

“Being-in-the-Wired-World” at the Kawasaki City Museum runs till Sept. 29; open 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. ¥800. Closed Mon. www.kawasaki-museum.jp