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The Role of Art in Digital Society—the Significance of Media Art

Machiko Kusahara
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

February is the season of media art in Tokyo. The joint program including the Yebisu International Festival for Art and Alternative Visions, Digital Choc organized by Institut Francais with Goethe Insititute, and the Media Ambition Tokyo in Roppongi, attract attention with many visitors. Why is it media art now?

Today, digital images flood our daily lives — giant screens in our streets, screens in commuter trains, digital billboards, popular projection mapping events, smartphone screens, video games—the list goes on. But people are not just passively consuming them. Hatsune Miku, the virtual singer or “vocaloid” that allows just about anyone to compose songs and write lyrics to be sung by her, as well as create animation, has opened the gates for amateurs to become professionals. As we saw last year with the word Insta-bae (the quality of being "Instagrammable"), entering the lexicon as a new buzzword, anyone can create content and put it on the Internet. In such a time and age, what should artists do, and what is the role of art in the digital era?

Since the beginning of the 1980s, I have curated, written, and engaged in education in computer graphics (CG) and media art. Society has undergone a rapid transformation in these past 35 years, as we moved from an age where televisions and cameras were analog and cell phones didn’t exist, to the digital society we live in now. As a person who has followed these changes closely, I have watched how artists have taken the lead in responding to new technologies such as CG, the internet, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and virtual reality (VR), and how they convey the changes in our lives and our world views through their art works. Similar to science fiction novels and films, art visually exhibits what could happen in the future and what could have happened in the past, even offering a simulated experience of these ideas.

Na-Cord art edition by Novmichi Tosa (Maywa Denki). Click to enlarge.

Media art, which emerged around 1990, is a form of artistic expression that consciously deals with the arrival of digital media society ushered by computers, telecommunications, and multimedia. These works of art use technology that are readily available at our fingertips, as well as cutting-edge technology developed in labs or even old and forgotten technologies. By using them in novel and unexpected ways artists reveal new possibilities and dangers along with the reality of ourselves in a world inundated with media. One example is a piece created by the art unit formed in 1993 called Maywa Denki, titled Na-Cord (Fish Cord), which was created in 1994 and has been on the market since 1996. In an age where we imagine electricity as something that is always safely available to us (except, of course, in the years following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami), the sharp bones of this Na-Cord (the ends are rounded in the actual products) offer us a harsh reminder of the true essence of electricity (such as the risk of electrocution).

Inter Dis-Comnunication Machine by Kazuhiko Hachiya

Kazuhiko Hachiya’s Inter Dis-Comnunication Machine (1993) is known for its pioneer status in Japanese VR art. As two participants wear head-mounted displays (HMD) they exchange audiovisual senses, meaning what each participant sees and hears is the sight and sound transmitted from the other participant’s HMD through the use of a video camera and a microphone attached to it. Seeing and hearing the world through another person’s eyes and ears is a weird experience, and both participants lose a sense of where they are. When a couple tries the piece and after wandering around each of them finds him/herself in one’s field of vision – which means they finally met – the couple often hug each other out of sheer joy. However, in visual terms, they are embracing themselves. It is as if the artist foresaw the future where our identities wander the Internet. Still the piece offers a hilarious experience for both the participants and the viewers.

Toshihiro Anzai and Rieko Nakamurahttp://renga.com/

In 1992, Toshihiro Anzai and Rieko Nakamura started creating Renga. Renga is a form of art where one person creates CG art and sends it to another person, who then makes changes to it and sends it back. It’s not easily imaginable that a professional artist would make any changes to the work of another artist, but digital data can be duplicated unlimitedly, and the “original” remains at the hands of the creator. This idea, which was inspired by another art form by the same phonetic name (renga, or collaborative poetry, from which haiku emerged), has further developed by inviting others such as an artist who is totally blind, a Chinese calligrapher, artists from overseas, as well as ordinary people. The artwork has evoked many thoughts and discussions on the nature of originality and emergence in the digital age. Often artists who are active online such as Anzai and Nakamura not only create their own works of art, but they also design and provide a creative platform that is open for people from all walks of life.

Stranger Visions by Heather Dewey-Hagborg
Photo:Carolien Coenen (Artefact 2015)

Recently, a new form of art called Bioart, which makes use of biotechnology, has been flourishing. New York artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg takes DNA from littered cigarette butts and chewing gum found on the streets, analyzes them to determine the ethnicity and sex of the individual, and reproduces their faces using a 3D printer. The extremely realistic faces adorning the wall force us to observe the problems that the world is confronting today, such as tensions between ethnic groups and issues surrounding privacy. One of the unique features of media art is the critical perspectives offered from various angles by artists who have a thorough understanding of technology. This enables artists to convey the meaning of the technology that we hold in our hands in ways that are intuitive and stimulating to the imagination.

Society is rapidly changing due to digital media. Could anyone have imagined 35 years ago that with the advent of smartphones, things like cameras, address books, and encyclopedias would be rendered obsolete? We do not know exactly what these changes mean for our future. Media artists make use of their technique and experience to create a space for people to use various forms of media in creative ways. They also shift our everyday experience by using the most advanced technologies in ways that they are not designed to be used, offering us new perspectives on things that were unknown to us, or shining new light on things that we take for granted. It takes time for a new technology to appear in the world as marketable products, and the main components of cutting-edge technology would be concealed. However, with time-limited art exhibitions, these technologies can be experimented with at a much earlier stage. Novel ideas created by artists are beneficial for technology experts as well, and in recent years facilities for collaborations among artists, scientists, and engineers have been spreading on a global scale.

Digital data cannot be seen with the eye. We no longer ascertain what is happening in the massive network landscape. This is where art can serve as a key for us to think about the world today and in the future. As media art helps create joy out of the innovations brought on by digital technology, it also offers commentary on the state of our digital media society from various perspectives. As the world of media changes, so will media art, bringing forth new visions of the critical consciousness of artists.

Machiko Kusahara
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Machiko Kusahara is a researcher and curator for media art and media culture. She has been curating and evaluating digital art since the early 1980s, and has planned and produced exhibitions both in Japan and abroad, such as the International Exposition, Tsukuba, Japan, 1985; World Design Exposition 1989; Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography; and NTT InterCommunication Center. Based on the theme of interrelated development of media technology, culture, society, and art, she also studies film culture from the Edo period (1603–1868) to the Showa period (1926–1989), from shadowgraphs, slide projectors, and panorama films, while exploring the art of the digital era. Her writing has been published in MediaArtHistories (MIT Press), Media Archaeology (UC Press), Companion to Digital Art (Wiley), and Routledge Handbook of New Media in Asia, among other publications. She has also served on the judging committee of international public exhibitions, such as SIGGRAPH, Ars Electronica, ISEA, Hiroshima International Animation Festival, and the Japan Media Arts Festival. She taught at Tokyo Polytechnic University, Kobe University, and UCLA before assuming her current post. She received a Ph.D. in Engineering from the University of Tokyo.