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November 30, 2000

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MARCH 31, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 12

Digital Tokyo Tour
A Japanese exhibition blurs the line between art and technology


Bram Belloni
Pop Art

They compared themselves to viruses, and certainly proved infectious to all those who saw their work. "We're not very famous," says multimedia artist Sembo Kensuke of himself and his collaborator Akaiwa Yae. "You could say that we're just bugs - the computer bugs of Japan." Despite such modesty, Tech.Pop.Japan, an exhibition by young Japanese multimedia artists such as Sembo almost stole the show at the Rotterdam International Film Festival earlier this year.

The collection, an eclectic mix of interactive art-works, video games, CD-ROMs, animated films and live music, was presented in a plush 1960s cinema called the Corso. Utilizing a riot of sound and vision, the artists - with the help of Rotterdam curator Femke Wolting and Tokyo coordinator Uchide Maholo - managed to achieve the impossible: create a Japanese metropolis thousands of miles away from home in a rainy Dutch city.


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The old cinema was decorated to evoke the neon-lit Shinjuku and Roppongi districts of Tokyo. Visitors could take time out from the exhibits to sit down and browse through Japanese magazines, or relax at a (real, not virtual) sushi bar. That certainly gave European visitors a taste of the East. But it was the interactive adventures in the Tokyo Techno Tourism section that allowed them to get to grips with the alternative underbelly of Japanese life.

These computer games, commercially available products from Nintendo, Sega and Sony, gave players the chance to take a virtual tour through the Japanese capital. "Some cities are known by famous movies, but the image of today's Tokyo is more suited to digital media," says section organizer Masuyama Hiroshi, a research psychologist who also administers a Game Museum project in Japan.

And what a tour it was. Sony's Metropolitan Express put you at the controls of a suburban Tokyo commuter train, while Bust A Groove threw you into a dance contest at a Roppongi club. Other games enabled you to visit the backstreets as a leather-jacketed hoodlum, cook some noodles in a Shinjuku snack bar or, "the most fun" according to a blurb, take control of Godzilla and stomp Tokyo into a pile of rubble. (This correspondent crushed Fukuoka by mistake.)

Enjoyable as the exhibition was, it had a serious side. The aim was to show how new technologies in Japan were blurring the lines between art and science, play and expression. "The distinction between art and commerce is disintegrating," says coordinator Uchide, "and we are going to see more of these kind of barriers collapsing in the future." Tech.Pop.Japan demonstrated how computer games are becoming more like art-works, while digital art is looking remarkably similar to computer games. This transmigration is taking place in the realm of flesh-and-blood too. Computer programmers are turning to multimedia art, while artists are experimenting with programs in composing electronic work.

If Tech.Pop.Japan is any indicator, art exhibitions are about to become a lot more fun - and gallery owners will have to remove those "Do Not Touch" signs. Take Kage Kage (Shadow Shadow), a multimedia installation by Kunoh Kyoko and Chikamore Motoshi. This touch-sensitive work consists of a series of horn-like spikes protruding from two circular discs that are hung on a wall like a painting. Touch any spike and a surprise, big or small, appears on the discs. Sometimes a solitary leaf-like shadow, accompanied by a bizarre sound, sprouts and then withers. Touch another spike and a flock of shadow birds momentarily envelops the disc.

According to the artists, the piece was designed to show the "impossibility of an objective reality in our technically mediated world." That is, while shadows prove the existence of objects, the images themselves have no substance. As high-flown as this might sound, Kyoko and Chikamore were inspired by the everyday experience of watching children at play. Kage Kage is based on the idea of a toy, something that is simple and fun to use.

Game-like works attracted older visitors too. Everyone seemed to enjoy playing with Kawakubo Ryota's Bithike, an interactive light sculpture which had a Zen-like simplicity. Visitors filled in a number of squares on a backlit grid by using a joystick. Then, at the press of a button, all the squares flashed in the order that they were checked. The overall effect was like watching a Tetris computer game collide with a Mondrian painting. Each attempt can be saved for posterity, or even uploaded to an archive on the Internet. It proved a surprisingly addictive pastime. Just ask the visitors who hovered eagerly beside the four available machines, waiting for a slot to come free.

The technology may be new, but the name Bithike refers to the ancient art of haiku poetry. "Haiku has a strict form," explains curator Uchide, referring to its three-line restriction. "The Japanese esthetic is fundamentally one of minimalism, and that underlies the project." Tradition echoes in other installations. Missing Link, an interactive work by graphics student Furuhashi Takaumi, replicated the experience of folding origami with a computer and cursor. In fact, it's evident that despite all their techno-tools, Japan's young multimedia generation has a strong link with the arts of the past. The artists may call themselves computer bugs - but they certainly don't intend to crash the system.

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