“What are silk screen prints doing in a show of media art?”

This was the first question thrown at curator Tomoe Moriyama at the opening-day press conference for “Cyber Arts Japan,” currently showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. It came from a man wearing a bright pink hat who proceeded to hurl one hard-ball question after another. The curator did an admirable job of trying to bat away challenges to the show’s legitimacy and even the term “media art,” but the call had already been made.

The attending artists whose works are shown at “Cyber Arts Japan” knew he wasn’t just posturing. “Media art” is a slippery term that can be used to promote creators as well as confine them to a curatorial ghetto. And let’s not go near that overused and cringe-worthy prefix: “cyber.”

The exhibition’s subtitle is slightly more to the point: “Ars Electronica — 30 Years for Art and Media Technology.” This is the exhibition’s raison d’e^tre, a celebration of an Austria-based event that has nurtured so much media art over the past three decades.

However, museum visitors seeking a comprehensive look at Ars Electronica’s influence should lower their expectations. Granted, the organizers have commissioned a online archive of Ars Electronica within Second Life and set up a room of infographics that tally the participating countries’ output, various sub-genres, etc. The sobering reality, though, is “Cyber Arts Japan” is a rather weak back pat for the artists involved.

Ars Electronica: proving ground for media arts

Based in Linz, Austria, Ars Electronica holds an annual festival that throws a bright spotlight on artists from around the world.

In 1987, it added a juried competition covering various categories, and the Prix Ars Electronica has become synymous with an Oscar. The first Golden Nica, the competition’s top prize, went to John Lasseter, who went on to become Pixar’s wizard of animation.

Ars Electronica also includes a media center and museum, the Ars Electronica Center, as well as laboratory for future innovations.

The exhibition rightly includes media art veterans, such as Toshio Iwai, whose revolutionary music device Tenori-on, made in collaboration with Yamaha, is on display. And there’s Kazuhiko Hachiya, the inventor of PostPets, those colorful Japan-only avatars that deliver e-mail (they’ll be tweeting soon, too). These two creators deserve praise for reinventing interfaces, though visitors should be forgiven for thinking their installations are product placements. Without hints of the creators’ oeuvres or even a catalogue (apparently it’s pending) it’s easy to overlook their achievements.

At least more context is given to the exhibit of Maywa Denki, a unit that’s done much to popularize media art both domestically and overseas. A wall-long timeline depicts the various surreal musical contraptions used in their stage performances. While Maywa Denki is included in a genre associated with advanced technology, the unit’s philosophy is anachronistically lo-fi, both embracing and mocking Japan’s geeky tech fetish.

Fittingly nearby are works by Yuri Suzuki and Ryota Kuwakubo, artists who once apprenticed with Maywa Denki. In two clever pieces, Suzuki literally remixes vinyl to reveal the value of sound, while Kuwakubo simulates communication, or lack thereof, with opposing game screens. Further down the corridor is a video work by Daito Manabe, famous for his “body-hacking” experiments on YouTube. In this piece, using myoelectric sensors and pulse generators, he forcibly syncs his expressions with other faces.

Simple eloquence characterizes many of these works, and for that, we should be thankful. Sachiko Kodama’s small yet powerful piece “Morpho Tower” displays a seemingly organic life form, which is actually ferrofluid dynamically sculpted by electromagnets. Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau’s “Life Writer” is an evocative fusion of analog and digital modes that invites a viewer to press a key on a antique typewriter. A digital critter then appears on the writer’s blank page. More key taps generate more creatures and more activity. Playing on genetic codes, the artists — who have taught at universities in Japan — have programmed an eloquent metaphor of the creative process and the potential of self-replicating digital life forms.

The scale of the exhibits expands in the museum’s atrium, which resembles a Terry Gilliam film set: a small silver blimp carries an aerial camera that affords an out-of-body experience; a tall chimney spurts bursts of paper snowflakes; and a giant transparent figure, suspended upside down, looms over everything. Curiously, along one wall, photos show Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, playing with spinning colored lights in zero gravity and looking like a interplanetary raver. Art or promotion of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency? Your call.

Any retrospective must be a difficult curatorial task, especially when governments and corporations are on board. However, for media-art neophytes, the context here is scant, and to media-art followers, most works are known entities. The sum of the various parts equals “important recognition,” but one leaves wanting more.

And the silk screens? Blink and you’ll miss them.

The 13th Japan Media Arts Festival at the National Art Center, an exhibition being held concurrently, across town in Roppongi, is more of a crowd-pleaser. On until Feb. 14, this government-sponsored show is a large four-ring circus featuring works in the categories of Art, Entertainment, Animation and Manga. Similar to “Cyber Arts,” the festival comprises mostly prize-winning works (in this case, chosen by the Agency of Cultural Affairs), but at least they’re recent.

Decidedly more hands-on and interactive, this event offers a cacophonous arcade of things to touch and oggle. Last Saturday, the entertainment section was packed with game players transfixed on the screens, and the festival’s centerpiece — Lawrence Malstaf’s “Nemo Observatorium” — was surrounded by a long line of visitors eager to try out this alternative theme-park attraction. One artist stood next to his work of bouncing musical ball bearings, hawking it like a sideshow barker. At another exhibit, a staffer cautioned squeamish visitors before he demonstrated a virtual laboratory where humans are the lab rats. It’s all good chaotic fun.

Showcasing not only artists but also creators working for large publishers, music labels and game makers, the Media Arts Festival is decidedly more commercial than “Cyber Arts.” Perhaps for this reason, it’s a lot more engaging.

If Japan wants to ramp up its global “soft power” it would do well to take the best of both shows on the road.

“Cyber Arts Japan” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo runs till March 22; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Mon.; admission ¥1,000. For more information, visit www.mot-art-museum.jp/eng The Japan Media Arts Festival at the National Arts Center, Tokyo runs till Feb. 14; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; free admission. For more information, visit plaza.bunka.go.jp/english

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.