Art

Message trumps the medium at JMAF

by Mike Sunda

Special To The Japan Times

When Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The medium is the message” in the mid-1960s, the ensuing dialogue on media theory encouraged an approach that persists to the present day: to examine new types of technology through the societal and cultural changes that they engender.

Of course, it can often take years, if not decades, before such changes can be identified — by which point the technology in question has lost all its novelty and been normalized within the public consciousness.

This is why the annual Japan Media Arts Festival and events of its ilk are so important. The technology and media at JMAF are impressive, but the real value is in the way the artworks on display encourage viewers to consider the sociocultural impact of emerging technologies. This year’s pieces cover contentious themes ranging from unmanned warfare and digital surveillance to bionic prosthetics that actually supersede human limbs in their performance.

As is the norm for the festival, the pieces are divided into four categories: art, entertainment, animation and manga. This year marks a record of 3,853 entries from 71 countries, whittled down to a still-sizeable number of award winners, which will be displayed between Feb. 4 to 15 across three venues: The National Art Center, Cinem@rt and SuperDeluxe — each within walking distance of each other in Tokyo’s Roppongi district.

Competition juror Akihiro Kubota, who is an artist and professor, has been impressed by this year’s submissions.

“In the entertainment division, which I oversee, there has been a marked improvement in both the quality and quantity of video works,” he tells The Japan Times. “There were many works that had a real depth of content — appending universal truths to personal themes. It really makes you feel like we’ve arrived in a new era regarding the growth of the visual format.”

One specific trait that Kubota has his eye on is the way in which certain works have tied together the “local” and the “global.” He highlights “Ingress,” a mobile-gaming application that won the grand prize in the entertainment division. The augmented-reality application draws on the GPS functionality of users’ mobile devices to track and reward geographic meandering.

“Ingress” has been a huge hit in Japan in particular, with officials in Iwate Prefecture even using the mobile game to encourage regional tourism, to great effect. “Ingress” fans should enjoy its display at JMAF, in which the game’s digital “power cubes” will be transformed into “real” objects in the exhibition space.

Just like the inherent appeal of augmented-reality applications, the display seeks to blur the line between real and virtual spheres.

“These are works that don’t just dichotomize the regional and the global, the individual and society,” Kubota says. “Instead, they situate the global within the local, and vice versa.”

While “Ingress” is symptomatic of a trend toward the gamification of the everyday — ultimately the way it rewards its users’ activity is not dissimilar to something like the Nike FuelBand activity tracker — not every work at JMAF paints a positive picture of technological advancement.

Continuing on thematically from James Bridle’s “Dronestagram” work, exhibited last year, JMAF continues to encourage dialogue on drone technology via the inclusion of Dutch designer Ruben Pater’s “Drone Survival Guide,” a critical examination of the now-proliferate unmanned vehicles. Constructed as a parody of bird-watching, the guide displays a variety of prominent drone models by their silhouettes — essentially positioning viewers directly underneath them, creating a sense of vulnerability.

The guide originally came out in late 2013, although technological advancements in the following year have done little to temper Pater’s unease.

“Boeing is developing a solar-powered drone called ‘Solar Eagle’ that can stay in the air for five years,” Pater says. “China and the U.S. are developing hypersonic drones that can go 25 times the speed of sound. At that kind of speed humans are too slow to respond, so you need even faster autonomous systems to defend yourself. How does the system know an enemy drone from a commercial airliner? For me that is one of the worries with current advancements.”

Meanwhile, two massive names in Japanese art — Rhizomatiks designer Daito Manabe and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto — have a collaborative piece on offer. The “Sensing Streams — invisible, inaudible” installation was originally shown at the Sapporo International Art Festival last year, and consists of a giant screen that gathers data from electromagnetic waves (from mobile phones and radios, for example) and turns it into an audiovisual display. By making the invisible visible, the work would seem to prompt viewers to consider the implications of surveillance in the digital age, especially given recent controversies such as the NSA’s domestic spying activities.

Although such works inevitably raise ideological concerns, many other pieces on display are content with showcasing cutting-edge technologies in an objectively neutral tone.

In his humorously titled “This May Not Be A Movie”, Kazuhiro Goshima has used a groundbreaking system of moving optical fibers to reproduce moving images as lines of light.

Whereas films — or “movies,” rather — have, somewhat paradoxically, always been composited from still images, Goshima’s installation brings a new meaning to “moving images.” Like so many other works on display, it encourages us to re-examine and redefine technologies that we routinely take for granted. Typical of the nuanced attitudes on display throughout, Goshima himself considers both positive and negative aspects of new video technology.

“With 4K and high-frame-rate technology, the amount of information transmitted can, in a way, actually ‘exceed’ reality,” he says. “We experience a sort of optical illusion, as if memories are being directly written into our brains. I am interested in the newness of such a sensation, but it also makes me uneasy in some ways — as if we are selling ourselves over to a point where our own human volition is ignored.”

Elsewhere, picks from the animation division include feature films “Crayon Shin-chan: Serious Battle! Robot Dad Strikes Back” and “Giovanni’s Island”, which are said to represent the high standards in which Japanese animation is held internationally.

Meanwhile, the manga division features autobiographical meta-manga “Blue Blaze,” Chinese comic “A Chinese Life” and gag manga “Sheep Tree.” The festival will provide dedicated viewing rooms for its cinematic offerings, and special presentation spaces for the manga division prize-winners.

With so much on offer at JMAF, don’t be worried if you feel as if there’s almost too much to take in. After all, you’ll have until next year’s edition to mull over 2015’s technological developments, by which point even hypersonic drones might be obsolete.

The Japan Media Arts Festival takes place from Feb. 4 to 15 at The National Art Center (10 a.m.-8 p.m.), Cinem@rt and SuperDeluxe in Tokyo. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.j-mediaarts.jp.