Making the invisible visible at the Japan Media Arts Festival

by Cameron Allan Mckean

Special To The Japan Times

In 1965, artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006) attached a strong magnet to the top of a television. The crisp image, overpowered by the magnet, folded onto itself in beautiful geometric waves. But it wasn’t meant to be beautiful; it was an attack.

“Television has been attacking us all our lives, now we can attack it back,” Paik said of his actions.

At the 17th Japan Media Arts Festival, which runs till Feb. 16 at Tokyo’s National Art Center, there’s an absence of Paik’s critical attitude toward technology. Instead, as jury member Shiro Takatani points out, technology is being used to let us “see things never seen before.” The designers, artists and programmers featured here are using it to expand perceptions and reveal the hidden dimensions of the world around us.

Although the layout of the exhibition, ironically, obscures rather than reveals much of the work, it’s an exciting year for the festival. Curator Yuka Uematsu says this year’s works went beyond showcasing “technical aspects,” with clear differences between different types of media art “melting away.”

Paik’s presence is still felt, though, invoked in a number of works but most explicitly in “crt mgn,” an installation by German artist Carsten Nicolai, who won the Grand Prize in the festival’s Art division. For the piece, Nicolai took Paik’s magnet-on-the-TV approach to masterful heights, using swinging magnets to mutate audio and visual signals from neon lights, video cameras and two old TVs.

Nicolai says “crt mgn” is part of a “series of works exploring perception and optical distortion.” With all those electronics, it was also highly dangerous.

“I wasn’t hospitalized but my fingers turned blue,” Nicolai says.

This will be the largest edition of the annual festival yet. The 120 works being showcased were whittled down from 4,347 entries from 83 countries and regions. There are four divisions: Art, Entertainment, Animation and Manga. This year also features the largest number of entries from outside Japan — almost half came from overseas.

Like Nicolai’s work, many other prize-winning pieces at this year’s festival attempted to manifest the invisible dimensions inherent in our digital world. James Bridle, a British artist and writer, won an Excellence Award in the Art division for an Instragram account he called “Dronestagram.” He posts screenshots from Google Earth via the photo-sharing social network of places where The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has concluded a drone attack was carried out. He says it’s a simple attempt to bring the invisible drone war into the lives of young Instagram users.

Bridle says that “making the invisible visible” was only the first step of his project. The next steps will be making it both “comprehensible and actionable.”

The winning work in the Entertainment division resurrected Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna. “Sound of Honda -Ayrton Senna 1989-” includes a video, website, media installation and audio component that re-creates the driver’s fastest lap at the Suzuka Circuit in Mie Prefecture. In the video, the viewer can see speakers positioned around the racetrack. After a countdown, they blast a convincing imitation of the engine noises made by the car Senna would have been driving. These disembodied sounds follow a series of LED lights synced to match the speed of his original run. The effect is uncanny.

The Grand Prize in the Animation division was awarded to “Approved For Adoption,” a French-Belgian animated documentary that deftly fuses drawings, 8 mm film and 3-D animation to tell the true story of Jung Henin, an adopted Korean boy who struggles to accept his ethnic heritage.

The mix of winning animation this year is eclectic and exciting. It includes feature films, TV series and shorts. The “new era” of animation promised by jury members at previous editions of the festival may finally be upon us.

Hirohiko Araki, creator of the cult manga series “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure,” won the Grand Prize in the Manga division for his “Jojolion” comic, which is the eighth installment of the series. Jury members called it a “masterpiece” and a “celebration of humanity.” The bizarre fantasy is set in a coastal town that has been devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Araki weaves the ongoing trauma of the disaster into his story.

In addition to the usual artworks, films and comics, this year’s festival also features a manga library, symposiums, workshops and guided tours. (Some may require making reservations in advance.)

It’s difficult to make a pithy summary of such an expansive and diverse show. Looking back at the energized and critical work created in 2013 for this festival, it’s clear that media and technology are no longer things to “attack” but tools to expand political, social and psychological power. What would Paik — the man who coined the term “electronic superhighway” — say if he were still with us? If you can get close enough to the mutating electric signals coming from Nicolai’s magnetized cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions, you just might hear him answer. Or, you may get so close you accidentally electrocute yourself, in which case you can ask him personally.

The Japan Media Arts Festival continues through Feb. 16 at the National Art Center and other venues in Tokyo. The center is closed Feb. 12. For more information, visit www.j-mediaarts.jp.