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Open Spaces

Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 11:19AM   |  6 comments
The Tenori-on, a new musical instrument

 “So what is wrong for artists to design a product, or to collaborate with the industry to make people a little happier?" probes Japanese new media scholar and curator  Machiko Kusahara.  She's showing us all kinds of new technology design projects invented by avant garde artists.  She's arguing that more and more examples of artists working with commercial products  are emerging--especially in Japan.

Machiko is taking us all on a  jolting powerpoint journey through the emerging worlds of gadgets and devices.

Machiko's presentation works the cracks between the avant garde, concept design, industry and commercial applications.  Here in the United States, we often ping poing within westernized binary logics: mainstream media bad, independent media/arts good; industry bad, experimental practice good; popular culture bad, criticality good. Machiko contends that these dualities aren't operative in Japanese culture.

One of the most interesting examples she screened on her densely packed, visually engaging , and utterly exciting powerpoint  is the Tenori-on, designed by artists Toshio Iwai and Yu Nishibori. It's a new interface to make music and visuals simultaneously through a user -friendly touch screen interface.  Yamaha sells it.

It's day two of the Spatialized Networks and Artistic Mobilities International Workshop at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell. I'm sitting in the lovely 19th century meeting room padded with a thick Persian carpet and a Steinway grand rumored to have the best tone in Ithaca.  Oil painting portraits  hang from the wainscotted walls. 

The contrast between these wild new media designs from Japan--we just saw documentation of an installation of digitized water flows--and these surroundings that feel like part of the set from Pride and Prejudice could not be more extreme. And that's part of the pleasure of this gathering--it's an infiltration of original interrogations into networks, startling designs and  the new horizons of digital theory into a domain I  have come to associate with an emphasis on written texts and dispassionate, distant, often overly qualified theorizing.

Tim Murray, director of the Society for the Humanities, has occupied the forefront for creating think tanks where digital meets texts meets artists meets politics.  The many digital culture symposia and workshops he's organized over the last decade have spurred collaborations, artists 'projects, theoretical writing. Murray is an intellectual and creative shaman fashioning creative cauldrons where new ideas emerge from unexpected interactions. He's also one of the most generous, gracious, and open intellectuals in upstate New York, according to reconnaissance from several of the participants in the Spatialized Networks workshop. He conjures vital, urgent communities and convenings.

We're now looking at Robot Tile by Hiroo Iwata, an Japanese engineering professor who works with nano-technology materials and makes tiles which use infrared sensors on the floor to move. A person walks on the tiles but they move to keep the walker in a room, always in the same place.  The tiles are programmed to move in a specific direction. You walk forever but get nowhere.

Hiroo Iwata also invented a video camera attached to a blimp that sends the view from above to a spherical immersive screen in an oversized helmet. This sphere attaches to the head of the participant, making them look like an overgrown ant.

Machiko's talk is mind -stretching and challenging in this environment of artists and critical intellectuals.  I sense that some in the room are uncomfortable with the contention that avant garde artists and designers would work in a bottom up way with industry. We've  been watching a dizzying multitude of examples of experimental artists moving into design.  Right now:   Straw straw.  The Muji prize winner with the gold prize, these artists have repositioned straw--yes, that's right, straw, as in barn, as in farm-- as wall art.  These straws of wheat have a long history traced back to Mesopotamia.  And now, they are art on a wall, or suspended  in a plastic bag. Minimalist art?  Design? A joke?

Senseware, explains  Machiko, is the association of manufacturers of synthetic fibers in Milan, Italy. They offered the high-tech fabric to artists, designers, and architects who would realize new works using the latest textiles offered by the sponsoring companies.

Next up:  the cleaning robot by Fukitorimushi designed by a Panasonic designers team. It looks like a white pillow, but crawls like an insect. It cleans the floors.  The crowd of academics and artists here are laughing and smiling.  The product uses nano-fibers.  The nano fiber offers more surface than other fabrics--so it can pick up more dirt and dust.  So, is it art? Is it design? Is it commercial? The form resembles  a traditional zokin (cleaning cloth) used for fukitori (wiping). Cleaning, claims Machiko,  constitutes a central part of Japanese everyday culture.

Machiko's conclusions are provocative.  They ask us to dive into the blurs between art, design, industry:

  • How can we propose more creative use of technology?   
  • How do we understand convergences of art design, technology and popular culture ?
  • What is the difference between art design,  gadgets and commercial products ?
  • How do we analyze bringing art outside museums and galleries ?
  • How can we understand the nature of playfulness ?
  • How can we understand artists producing commercial culture?
  • What does it mean to be critical? What does critical mean?
  • How can artists and designers reveal unknown features of technology?
  • Can we propose a more creative use of technology?
  • Can dark themes can have playful top layer ?

My friend Stephanie Owens, herself a new media designer and artist, enters the discussion: Is the playful tradition of design in Japan connected to any where else?  How do we think about the Japanese "tradition" of appreciating "gadgets" and "useless" design?  

Machiko's answer: an image of the Chameleon USB, a USB stick designed to look like a chameleon. Some other models are designed to look like sushi, and others, like underwater creatures you'd see while snorkeling in the South China Sea.

"Designers need to think about the culture, rather than just selling it," suggest Machiko. Later, over a lunch of ham and brie sandwiches and spinach salad crackling with upstate cheddar cheese chunks, I asked Machiko how she defines the difference between a "device" and a "gadget." A device, according to Machiko, is something that is used. A gadget is something that in its utter uselessness, is fun.

As for me, I'm ready to snap up one of those nanotechnology pillows to clean the wood floors in my house. And on another screen as I write these words, I am scouring the internet to shop for one of those Japanese creature USB sticks to plug into my Asus netbook. Might be a good way to start a debate about what is art, what is design, what is experimental, what is a device, what is a gadget, what is industrial application, and....what happens when the avant garde and the everyday find each other in an intellectual and artistic traffic jam?



Patty, thanks so much for blogging over the weekend. In response to a question I asked Machiko after the conference was over: In thinking about the politics of ecologies, what about the plastics that a lot of these gadgets and toys use in production? Our landfills are streaming with neon colored plastics that are not recyclable, refuse from the playtime toy entertainment industry. Machiko responds that many of these toys produced by artists have ironically become "collector's items" that fans have bought up. If I understood her they initially were pretty inexpensive but now command higher prices as "collector's items." There was one gadget Mashiko showed us which was a sipping straw produced out of real straw. Designed by a very young designer I thought it was a pretty smart idea but I wonder if it smells like straw?

On another note, while the "cleaning pillow" entertained me, the Tehori-ons appeared as a glorified personal electronic magic slate. Maybe I'm missing something?

Still processing so much but it's nice to see the conversations live on.

Renate: What a great point you raise about the ecologies of gadgets and devices, their plastic refuse as yet another example of a disposable culture. The political economy of gadgets and devices, where they are both discarded on one end and then become valuable through scarcity on the other, is important to consider...In some ways, your post suggests that these artists' gadgets and devices actually eventually accrue value just like other art.

And yes, thanks for pointing out that the Spatialized Networks and Artistic Mobilities Workshop engendered conversations that live on---so much to mine and explore in these fertile intersections between technologies, arts, networks, gadgets, devices, plastic, and...uh...straw as straws!


Thanks for this provocative blog (and including it with FLEFF). One of the aspects of all of this discussion, and its many analogues (or digilogs?), that mosts interests me is the closeness and distance between avant-garde technologies and "primitive" technologies: so we get shamans, alchemy, and straw from Mesopotomia alongside powerpoints and cleaning robots. This is the top layer of a profound meditation on human imagination, productivity, and possibility. Thanks for the thought and the making!

I'm particularly interested in the conversation that will arise about the classification of these products. Are they devices? gadgets? industrial applications? art objects? Every time a conversation about classification comes up, I always attempt to avoid it because so many preconceived ideas are associated with naming something. (For example, "art object" is rarely seen as something practical). Perhaps in Japan people think differently of classifying such objects and therefore are able to produce ambiguously classified objects with ease. How can the U.S. stop classifying objects to create art and objects like those Machiko demonstrated in her presentation? Am I wrong in thinking that the U.S. thinks about art objects in this way?

It seems the art world has been increasingly intrigued by the idea of removing art from the museum/gallery system and 'nocking it off its pedestal'. This has led to numerous concepts all centered around devaluing the art object and encouraging a process-focused culture. It's interesting, then to see artists in Japan making potentially marketable devices. While these pieces are still largely focused on the interaction between audience and object, the physicality of making these functional objects almost defies where other art is headed. Especially since the devices they are making are so connected to pop culture, mainstream, and all the other things that art likes to scoff at. Even so, a lot of those questions Patty listed cross over to all new art forms.

I just came back from Zagreb, where we had device art exhibition/symposium and Maywa Denki performance ("product demonstration", according the way the art unit appears as a small manufacturing company as a part of its commentary to the capitalist society). The performance was great, and the Croatians reacted actively.

Patty, thanks for your great summary. I'm glad you mentioned about the issue of dualism. Because it is so deeply embedded in culture, we need to have multiple viewpoints to understand its impact.
Just a minor correction: The MUJI contest is meant to encourage young designers and to find new ideas that could be commercialized by MUJI. So, Straw-Straw is not an artwork to be shown on a wall.Another correction is that SENSEWARE exhibition was sponsored by Japanese association of fabric manufacturers. It was shown in Milano and in Tokyo.

The two comments from students are quite right. It was a pity that I did not have enough time to talk about the connection to pop culture!

Renate, thanks for the great comment. Those products by artists are in fact a commentary to consumer society in which "used" things are discarded easily. One of Device Art Project member artists Ryota Kuwakubo made "Nicodama", which directly addresses the issue. I wish I had more time to touch on the issues as well!

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