LONDON – As a boy in the 1980s, Yuri Suzuki fell under the spell of video games and his father’s record collection. The family home was in bustling Shibuya Ward, near the border with Shinjuku, and the influence of global cultures within its walls was strong. Both parents were in publishing — his mother editor in chief of Soen, the seminal fashion magazine — and their tastes broad. Imports ranged from the classics to the avant-garde, with a tilt toward American popular culture. So young Yuri took indirect life lessons watching videotapes of “Saturday Night Live” as well as “MTV.” His touchstones included both U.S. TV personality Mister Rogers and Italian music producer Giorgio Moroder. You could say he didn’t fit in at school.
Things turned around for him as a teenager in the ’90s, both socially and creatively. His parents’ immersion in print notwithstanding, he was drawn toward the power of sound, and Wako Gakuen, where he attended secondary school, was a good place to explore that. A relatively small campus in Machida, Wako is known for its progressive curriculum and distinguished alumni, luminaries of manga, film, academia and politics — “Death Note” to the Diet. Suzuki entered in the wake of musician Keigo Oyamada (aka Cornelius) and other key figures of the Shibuya-kei scene. “People there were naturally into music culture,” Suzuki recalls. “I used to play trombone in a ska-punk band. Then I started making techno music, so I also became an engineer recording friends’ music.”
Still, Suzuki was something of an individualist, a honne teen in a tatemae world. “Another band I got fired from because I couldn’t read any musical scores,” he says.
Now a sound artist and designer based in London, with both personal projects and big-name collaborations all over the globe, Suzuki has seen those early experiences come together in his life and his work. “What my parents fed me as a child really relates here to people of my generation,” he says. What once set him apart, he says, “those things are more like ‘us things’ now.” Even the students he works with at the Royal College of Art, where he teaches design in the School of Communication, appreciate Moroder. “It’s quite nice to talk about,” he admits.
To be clear, the reason Suzuki stays on in London — why he left Japan — is not to live in elusive context but to live in service to his work, which is to say to realize his dreams. “I had quite a lot of dreams when I was in Japan, projects I wanted to do but that never materialized for whatever reason — lack of budget, lack of collaborators,” he says. “These dreams can now come true outside of Japan because that’s where those things came into place.”
On a first visit while an industrial design student at Nihon University and aspiring electronic musician, Suzuki thought London paled against Berlin, where the music and creative scenes felt more vital. Not until 2001, when visiting as a member of Maywa Denki, the mad geniuses behind the Otamatone instrument, did the creative community centered at RCA call.
Contrasted with his university experience in Tokyo, where the focus was more rigid and academic, London’s Royal College of Art was a cacophony of ideas, with mentors from throughout Europe and the world beyond. Suzuki enrolled for a master’s of art in product design, studying under the likes of Ron Arad and Durrell Bishop, but there was a feeling then “that the department was not even art — that you could do anything, supersede the range. It was quite a great playground.”
The first year, he said, was confusing —with faculty from all over the field, many not even “teachers” in the traditional sense — but “I could do whatever I wanted. It was a good time to examine myself and think about what I wanted to do in the creative industry.”
Bishop, a British designer with a focus on interactive, self-evident work, was particularly influential. “Durrell understands the crossover between art and design and is just an incredible person,” Suzuki says. “He wears a work suit — a boiler suit — of the same design every day.” And his manner as an instructor “was kind of harsh.”
This directness suited Suzuki for a few reasons. For one, he was still developing his English. “Everyone studies English in Japan, he recalls, “but nothing really useful for English communication.” For another, he’d just learned he was dyslexic. “In Japan, there’s no assessment for that,” he says. “Even my teachers didn’t really care.” Under Bishop, he found focus in projects that were both interactive and tactile, “more understandable than words.”
Naturally direct — “my expression is always super straight; even in Japanese people would be offended by what I say”—Suzuki avoids relying on words or text in his projects. “The best way to express my work is less about description and more about feeling and experiencing it,” he says. “This way, people can get what I want to say and with a stronger effect.” Plus, he insists, sound is much more influential than any visual. “It’s quite provocative, isn’t it?” he says.
Consider 2010’s “White Noise Machine,” a product of his artist’s residency in New Delhi. As part of the “Silent City” installation, Suzuki designed a device — essentially, a large wooden box with a horn sprouting from its side — that generates noise equal to that in its surrounding environment. Then he set it on a busy street to see what would happen. “No description,” he says. “People just come in and discover that their interaction causes something.” Children seemed to intuitively grasp the machine’s power, shouting into the horn to cause a riot of feedback. “They just played around like it was a toy,” he says. “But that’s part of what I wanted to say conceptually.”
Suzuki’s work today is mostly collaborative, with clients ranging from Audi and Disney to pop acts will.i.am and OK Go. Through this work, he has created common ground with people from all over the world, including in Mexico, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, India and most of Europe. “Recently I’ve had quite a lot of contact from China. That’s really nice,” he says. “Collaborators have amazing viewpoints, and we always have good discussions. I don’t care where they came from, it’s more about who they are and what they can do.”
While he wishes for more opportunity to work in Japan, particularly now in the run-up to the 2020 Games, Suzuki dismisses the idea of being a representative of his homeland. “Being a (Japanese) creator is not about showcasing Japanese culture,” he says. However, he does concede that his Japanese heritage may influence his attitude toward work. “I’m quite greedy. I just want to do anything I want,” he says. “Japan: it’s such a bento culture — so many things stuffed into one box. You want to taste everything.”
For now, he remains in London, grateful for his studio, global community and work visa, and weathering the political storm as best he can. “Until five years ago, I never felt like an immigrant in this country because people here accept difference and other cultures,” he says. “That is the beauty of London.” But, he says, things have been changing in recent years, with conservative policies strangling resources and stirring anti-immigrant sentiment.
Suzuki himself was recently confronted on the street by an elderly man demanding to know where he was from. It was a first for him, being targeted because of his race, but he just shrugged it off: “I just thought, ‘Don’t you feel sad, such an old guy acting this way?'”
Even as a boy in Japan, Suzuki was quite liberal, with little patience for this kind of behavior. “But I didn’t confront that 80-something-year-old guy,” he says. “People are used to accepting things in the U.K. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ — I hate that.”
Name: Yuri Suzuki
Profession: Sound artist, designer
Key moments in career:
1999 — Began work with art unit Maywa Denki
2006 — Started studying at Royal College of Art
2013 — Worked at Disney Research Pittsburgh
Life philosophy: “Any work (we undertake) has to be quite exciting and really come from our dreams. Each time I direct a project, it’s like a dream project. All the time. I don’t want to do a project I’ll regret.”
2006年 英国立美術大学院 (Royal College of Art) にて就学
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.