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Ryoichi Kurokawa: The electronic artist's code

by Verena Dauerer

Contributing Writer

Ryoichi Kurokawa is busy. When I join him at a fashionable cafe in Berlin-Kreuzberg, he has just finished a meeting with the producers of Mutek, an international electronic music festival. Mutek — which takes place in various cities including Montreal in Canada, San Francisco, Buenos Aires and Tokyo — wants to collaborate with the Japanese multidisciplinary artist.

After a quick coffee, we walk over to the nearby Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien artist space. Standing in front of his three huge print works on display, he starts talking about the work, titled “Atom [mute],” and how his journey as an artist led him to leave Japan to eventually settle in the German capital.

The prints that dominate the space’s entrance are currently on display as part of the annual CTM Festival, a renowned Berlin-based event showcasing what it calls “adventurous music and art.” Known in the electronic art scene for a wide array of installations, sound sculptures and audio-visual performances at the intersection of art and music, Kurokawa is a perfect fit for CTM’s concept. In 2010, his innovations won him a Golden Nica at the Prix Ars Electronica, an honor so coveted, it has been called the Oscar of media awards.

His “Atom” prints at CTM depict magnified and distorted microscale to nanoscale images obtained from the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory in Portugal. If you step closer, you realize there is more to it than layers of seemingly abstract gray and red — the surface is pixelated like a digital screen. The pieces are composed of miniscule colored squares, each defined by a 35-micrometer thick outline in a darker tone. The squares become just perceptible by the human eye when tessellated and their outlines create 70-micrometer grid lines.

“I never even planned to become an artist,” Kurokawa says, mentioning that, surprisingly, he never studied art-related topics when growing up in Osaka.

In the mid 1990s, at age 18, he used his first computer, a Macintosh Performa.

“At first, I didn’t even have any software,” he recalls. “Gradually I taught myself how to program, mostly through the internet.”

He was also in a circle of friends who made music and visuals and, when they started organizing small music events, he joined in. It brought some success when he was noticed by a electronic music label in Tokyo that asked him to release on it. At the same time, however, Kurokawa was studying French in Kyoto. He wanted to study languages, he explains, because he felt that the art and culture he was attracted to was happening in Europe.

“In 2000, audio-visual art wasn’t really established as a classic art form, but at that time, the art scene in Europe was leading the way with many festivals that were focusing on the new expression,” he recalls. “But not so much in Japan. There was only the NTT InterCommunication Center (ICC) in Tokyo and the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media (YCAM), which started later in 2003.”

He first moved to Paris in 2000 for one year and, once in Europe experiencing the art scene firsthand, he started creating art himself. But it wasn’t until 2008 that he left Japan for good to pursue life as an artist abroad.

First he relocated to Brussels to work with a production team running a festival called Cimatics. Then in 2010, he made the move to Berlin.

“I didn’t expect to have a lot of commisions when I started. It just came together naturally,” Kurokawa says of his work, which revolves around reconstructing nature with data.

For one piece, he coded a two-dimensional visual of an insect and translated it into a physical object — a 3D-printed sculpture titled “renature::insecta #2.” “Fundamentally it’s still data,” he says.

For programming the visuals of his art, he uses open-source software available online for C++ programming language.

“I’m not a professional coder, musician or VJ. I’m more of an amateur in all sectors — but I can combine,” he says. “I realized that I can’t work as a programmer for other artists, but I can program for my specific purposes.”

Kurokawa may have left Japan for more opportunities, but the inspirations from nature he deconstructs and transforms into code is a return to his childhood years spent in the countryside in a small city called Kaizuka just south of Osaka. The city is nestled between the sea and and several small mountains, including Mount Yamato Katsuragi and Mount Inunaki. In a short walk from his home, you could either arrive at Osaka Bay or stroll up a mountain, he says.

“Nature and its phenomena gave me a lot of visual inspiration. I liked being surrounded by it, in solitude,” he recalls. “When I was younger and wanted to think something over, I walked toward the sea. Otherwise I couldn’t start contemplating it. Maybe it was the movement of the waves, their timing. Walking around the mountains also offered a lot of inspiration from forms and rocks, in combination with the clouds.”

Another major influence was musique concrete — a genre of music involving mixing together raw recorded sounds into a musical montage.

“I capture real objects and reconstruct them with visuals,” he says. “That is what (musique concrete) does with audio.”

Other inspiration came in the form of Japanese animation, with his favorite movie being the genre-defining “Akira” by Katsuhiro Otomo.

“Animation itself is inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e. I like its exaggerating motions to create dynamics, and its use of color,” he tells me. “The composition of traditional Japanese gardens, too, inspires me a lot. Back then, of course, there weren’t computers capable of designing gardens in a specific way. Yet they look like they were created using special algorithms to decide the asymmetric design.”

Nowadays, Kurokawa only returns to Japan for work, and mostly to Tokyo.

“Now, artists’ situation is better than before in Japan,” he says. “But still there are no famous festivals like CTM. There is Sonar Tokyo or Mutek Tokyo, but these are essentially European and Canadian festivals. If Japan had its own direction in that kind of festival genre, maybe for artists like me it would be easier.”

When he travels to Japan he feels he totally blends into society.

“In Berlin I don’t blend in. I’m not European and I don’t speak German, so the contrast is bigger,” he says. “But I’m really comfortable with being the foreigner,” he says.

Profile

Name: Ryoichi Kurokawa

Profession: Artist/musician

Hometown: Kaizuka, Osaka Prefecture

Age: 40

Key moments in career:

1997 — Gets first personal computer for creating art

2003 — Releases first audio-visual works

2008 — Moves to Europe

2010 — Awarded a Golden Nica at Prix Ars Electronica

Things I miss about Japan: “Japanese food”

Strengths and weaknesses: “I don’t think I really have any strengths, but my weaknesses — there are too many to list.”