EXTERNALISING OUR BODY: DEVICE ART AND ITS EXPERIMENTAL NATURE

24 02 2009

By MACHIKO KUSAHARA

WHAT IS DEVICE ART

Device Art is a concept proposed by a group of artists, researchers and engineers in Japan, who currently carry a collaborative project under the same title. Project members have been involved in the field of media art for many years. Device Art is a concept derived from recent digital media art scene in Japan. Using both latest and everyday technologies and material, these media art works enable users/viewers/interactors to enjoy and understand what media technologies mean to us. In Device Art, an artwork is realized in a form of device, the device becoming the content itself. There is a sense of playfulness or sense of wonder in Device Art work – even if it involves a serious theme – which makes it possible to be shown or commercialized outside museums and galleries. The concept reflects Japanese cultural tradition in many ways, including appreciation of refined tools and materials, love for technology, acceptance of playfulness, absence of clear border between art, design and entertainment, among other issues. At the same time it shares an ongoing international interest in bridging between art, design and other related areas. Device Art seeks after a new paradigm in art, by producing artworks based on creative use of hardware technologies and opening a channel to make them more accessible to everyone. Through these activities Device Art questions the validity of traditional boundaries between art, design, entertainment, technology, and commercial products. 1

PLAYFULNESS IN JAPANESE MEDIA ART

Playfulness is a feature often observed in media artworks from Japan. Often Japanese media artworks are criticized for not “being serious”, lacking criticism toward technology. Is it really so, that being critical is equal to wearing a serious look and being negative toward technology?

Being playful does not mean that a work is lacking a serious theme, or embracing technology without criticism. An artwork consists of multiple layers, either representational or cultural, which allow its audience to have one’s own interpretation. Without such layers a piece would be rather thin as an artwork. Japanese media artists seem to make a top layer playful or entertaining. Sometimes people could immediately detect serious themes behind the apparent playfulness; sometimes it requires deeper understanding to reach the theme behind; in other cases it ends up just being playful or entertaining or demonstration of technology without much content, which easily happens in interactive art.

Actually playfulness and entertaining features are widely observed in the field of interactive art because of its nature. 2(An interactive artwork needs to invite visitors to participate.) Still, there seems to be a cultural reason why Japanese artists look for and the audience welcome playfulness.

Appreciation of playfulness is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. 3 Today it could be associated with typically “Japanese” popular culture such as games, animation, or gadgets, including cell phones with all possible features for fun. Historically newest technologies brought from abroad were often used just for entertaining purposes rather than for practical or industrial use, due to the stabilized society that lasted for nearly three centuries until mid nineteenth century.4 It is no wonder, then, that artists using latest technologies are interested in incorporating playful features in their works.

With Device Art, such layer of playfulness enables the artworks reach wider audience by being mass-produced and commercially distributed. In fact, artists such as Maywa Denki (Novmichi Tosa), Ryota Kuwakubo and Kazuhiko Hachiya, who are members of Device Art Project, have commercialized gadgets they created. “Bitman” co-developed by Tosa and Kuwakubo is a techno-gadget that anyone could enjoy. “PostPet” invented by Hachiya and co-developed by Sony Communication Network is an extremely successful email software combined with a virtual pet since 1997 that runs on PC and cell phones with a rich variety of accompanying products and services. Playfulness is the essential feature of the software product. 5 While these artists are known with entertaining works, performances and workshops, some of their works involve serious risks on their own bodies. 6 Why playfulness is combined with hazard? In order to answer the question we may need to analyze what Device Art represents in the media environment today.

ART IN THE AGE OF MASS PRODUCTION

“Mass production” of artworks is not a new idea. Pop artists such as Andy Warhol responded to the mass-production/mass consumption American society by using the latest media technology of the time and creating multiple copies of images.

It is partly inherited in Device Art, with the use of industrial material, use of media technologies, connection to pop culture, etc. But digital technology has changed our society further – and it still continues at an enormous speed. The impact is essential, with the very nature of “being digital”. This is something different from the change in the society Pop Art dealt with. With digital technology copies are not only massive but also identical; no distinction between original and copy. It means the traditional basis of “art” is essentially challenged with digital technologies.7 Information became more important than physical materiality. For example, the idea of ‘virtual world” is commonplace now, with avatars and other immaterial substitutes of the real world.

Device artists are responding to these issues. With their professional knowledge and skills in the fields such as virtual reality, mechatronics, human interface and interactive technologies, they understand possibilities and problems media technologies bring to us.8 The challenge logically leads to the issue of body. As virtual realm increases its importance in our life and media technologies become incorporated into the environment – being “ubiquitous” and invisible – “being critical toward technology” as an artist may mean making the relationship between technology and our body visible.

DISAPPEARENCE OF TECHNOLOGY AND OUR BODY

Human body has been continuously enhanced and extended with the use of latest technologies to meet an environment our “natural” body would not bear. While Marshal McLuhan discusses the issue in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) in relation to media technologies, his contemporary E.T. Hall generalizes the concept with historical and sociological aspects in his book The Hidden Dimension (1966) , discussing roles of artifacts as extension of man from simple tools to cities as extended skin.

Today services such as cell phones and Google Earth have further extended our perception, repositioning our vision and consciousness instantly away from where our body is, even up in the sky. Extension of body is taking place at physical level as well. An exoskeleton robot suit named HAL recently helped a handicapped Japanese man to reach a peak in the Swiss Alps. The suit automatically enhances human arm or leg power by adding extra support and energy on the hard shell with motorized movement, as sensors pick up slight changes in electric current in human muscles and the computer judges what the person aims to do.9 Our body is not only extended but also externalized in many ways. Science fiction is becoming the reality, while our real body and perception take time to catch up.

It has been observed that sometimes our perception fails to immediately follow a rapid change, leaving our body lost in the gap between the real and the perceived world. The gap may be eventually filled by further development of our perception, as Wolfgang Schivelbusch analyzed in his seminal book The Railway Journey: The Industrialization and Perception of Time and Space in the 19th Century. 10The other solution to the problem is to modify the technology to be less visible, by turning it more “friendly”. One way of doing so is to use appropriate metaphors or interfaces taken from our real world experience, so that we would not even notice we are using technologies. This has been a long term guideline in interface design, stated, theorized and practiced by visionaries such as Ted Nelson, Donald Norman, Hiroshi Ishii, among many others. 11

Another solution is making it literally invisible, mediated by video cameras, sensors and artificial intelligence that react to our “normal” body movements and other actions. This technology, an important part of virtual reality studies and at its early stage mainly developed by artists such as Myron Krueger and David Rokeby, has recently become incredibly cheap and fast even to be incorporated in game machines such as Nintendo’s game machine wii.12

Today ubiquitous environment is promoted as a better solution for the mass. Ubiquitous environment is an integrated space that fully utilizes above mentioned technologies to remove impression of using (or being used by) technology. Technology will become invisible and our body will turn into interface, being a part of a system.

DEVICE ART AND BODY

Could technology become safe or “natural” if it becomes invisible? Is it the right direction, that we are taken care of our life by invisible systems? Some artists turn the idea of automatic and comfortable environment upside down. Artists visualize personal and social issues by providing different view angles from what we usually achieve in our daily life. Works of device artists expand our understanding of technology by realizing usually impossible experiences using their expertise. For example, the project leader Hiroo Iwata’s Powered Shoes enable a user to walk any direction without moving anywhere, as the wheeled shoes cancel each and every step the user has made. The technology is a compact version of treadmill that is widely used in virtual reality environment. Although this piece is not meant as an artwork, it triggers as much thoughts and imagination to users. The illusion of traveling at the speed of light in virtual space is made upside down by the “powered” normal looking shoes (modified from a normal pair of sneakers) that function as unti-magic shoes that would carry anyone nowhere. Iwata’s artwork Floating Eye literally realizes McLuhanian “extension of body” experience by combining latest technologies with old ideas such as walking with an eye mask. The piece consists of semispherical HMD (head mounted display) for a user to wear, and a blimp that floats on top of the user, attached to the backpack he/she wears. What the user sees is the vision from above, fed from a CCD camera installed at the bottom of the blimp. The user walks around in the real world only using the view from above, looking down the image of him/herself seen from above, without being able to see the ground or obstacles in front with one’s naked eyes. While technologies such as Google Earth or cell phones bring us a safe illusion of floating in the air, Iwata’s piece let us realize what it means to be in the air in a playful but severe manner by detaching our sensory input from our body. Hachiya’s Inter DisCommunication Machine (1993) also tears off an illusion of transparent communication by literally exchanging one’s sight and sound with the other person. With Hachiya’s AirBoard and Open Sky, life of artist is literally at risk as he ignites the jet engine under his feet and test-flies the personal jet glider. Still, AirBoard is a physical realization of the imaginary future technology in the film “Back to the Future”, while the personal jet glider he is building with his Open Sky project is a materialization of the personal aircraft imagined in Hayao Miyazaki’s animation film Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. (1984) Here, bodily risk is concealed behind a light-hearted dream and connection to popular entertainment. A state of ambivalence toward technology is shown as it is, in an extreme situation in each of these projects. Having deeper knowledge and skills in both hardware and software as well as human interface, they visualize the impact of technology – both hopes and hazards – in playfully serious manners.

With PsychoCommunicator (PsyCommu) system Hachiya co-developed with Taro Maeda, who is also a project member, the double sided view of technology is revealed in a playful but rather shocking manner. The title of the piece was taken from Gundam, an extremely popular and influential comic and animation series that started in 1979 as a TV series and continues even today in various forms.13 In Gundam stories future mutant specie of human called Newtype achieves an ability of telepathy, including a capability of remotely helping their buddies to avoid bullets at a battlefield. Applying a latest technology Maeda was developing at his laboratory, Hachiya “realized” the future imaginary technology. A participant will be driven right or left, experiences difficulty in walking straight, as his/her partner remotely controls his/her walking direction simply by thinking “go right” or “go left”. Galvanic vestibular stimulation alter body’s natural perception system. The experience is both entertaining, magical, and scary. Association to Gundam apparently helps people to participate, while curiosity and interest for scary (but not fatally dangerous) experiences that exist in us is another inviting factor.

In case of Maywa Denki, the gadgets Tosa creates and commercially distribute do not bring such dangerous experiences to users. However, his powerful and entertaining performance with the robotic instruments he invents is actually full of dangerous elements. As he usually announces when opening the performance, the instruments are operated using normal hundred volt electric current, with bare switches that occasionally produce blue sparks as he performs. Any accident may kill the artist if he were unlucky. Still, keeping technology transparent and straight forward is the policy Tosa holds, which is an essential ideology of Device Art. While engineers and the industry make their best effort to hide technology to make it fool-proof, artists will keep on revealing what technology really means, good or bad, entertaining or scary, reminding the audience of the real world and their body.

CONCLUSION

McLuhan states the role of artists when media technology is drastically changing the society. 14According to him artists are those who foresee the impact of technology on the society and “vaccinate” people to prepare for drastic changes. But if artworks and artists stay only in museums and galleries, the vaccination will never be offered to public.

Above mentioned artworks visualize and question what technology means to us. Playfulness plays an important role as a catalyst to integrate both sides of technology in a single piece without scaring the audience. After all, media artists use media technologies because they feel positive to use them in representing their concepts – don’t they? Then it is logical that their works may take a playful outlook while careful audience will read beneath the entertaining top layers, realizing the relationship between our body and technology from newly achieved viewpoints.

Footnotes:

1 For more detailed information and analysis on Device Art please see my following text: Machiko Kusahara “Device Art: A New Approach in Understanding Japanese. Contemporary Media Art”, MediaArtHistories, Ed. Oliver Grau, pp.277-307, MIT. Press, (2007).

2 For example we find many such works from Ars Electronica exhibition every year.

3Mitsukuni Yoshida,Asobi: The Sensibilities at Play , Mazda Motor Corporation-sponsored Culture Series,1987

4 During Edo Era development of technologies for not only weapons but also industrial innovations was strictly controlled by the central government. See Kusahara, Ibid.

5 http://www.postpet.so-net.ne.jp/, http://www.petworks.co.jp/~hachiya/works/PostPet.html

“PostPet” is not a Device Art, as it is software-based.

6 Tosa’s performance is named “Product Demonstration”, as Maywa Denki takes a form of a small scale company. Hachiya’s “InterDiscommunication Machine” is performed by participants with the presence of the artist himself, almost taking a form of a workshop or a performance.

7 This change is partly an extension of what Walter Benjamin pointed out in his “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Technologies”. However, while prints and photographs could be numbered to stay coherent with the traditional art market systems, digital reproduction technology hardly allows any such measures.

8 It is also a reason why Device Art focuses on hardware-based work. Producing or delivering artwork widely is easier and commonplace in software-based forms such as web art or games. Challenge of Device Art is in opening such channel for physical objects. It seeks for the new paradigm of art in the age of digital reproduction technologies where numerous identical copies are produced and distributed in everyday life.

9 http://sanlab.kz.tsukuba.ac.jp/english

10 Berkeley: University of California Press 1987

11 Donald A. Norman, The Invisible Computer

Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution, The MIT Press, 1998

12 Nyron Krueger “Videoplace”(1974-) , David Rokeby “Very Nervous System”(1986-)

13 Gundam is directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino. The motif of “mobile suit” has a deep impact on Japanese robot culture and practice. “Powered Suit” mentioned earlier is a realization of mobile suit.

14 McLuhan, Ibid.

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