New Internet artists
from Japan

by Cameron Allan McKean


Clip from Akihiko Taniguchi's video for Holly Herndon - Chorus

They’re coding swarm robots and building machines that make graffiti, empathizing with sick technology and selling binary porn at an ‘Internet Black Market.’ We track down Internet artists who are using code and virtual tools to dive deeper into what the future looks like

If the Internet is an ocean, why do we spend so much time floating on its surface? What’s really going on down there? Not just in the deepest, darkest trenches, but among the forgotten protocols, faulty algorithms and emerging parameters outside the busy shipping lanes and far from the crowded life rafts of Facebook and Twitter.

No, an ocean isn’t an ideal metaphor, but it’s hard to think about abstract interconnected virtual spaces without visualizing them as something tangible — a superhighway, web or cloud.

It’s after midnight on a Thursday night in Tokyo and I’m on my laptop looking for something worth diving down for. It’s not going so well. I’ve been snorkelling over the websites of various media arts festivals, the Tumblr portfolios of “new media artists,” checking YouTube and Vimeo accounts, browsing online exhibitions of Net.art (and “post-Internet art”) and scrolling through discussions on online forums to track down people in Japan who are using the Internet as a medium for art and experimentation.

There’s a lot to look through and potentially hundreds of people to interview but I’m targeting those who are most engaged in a real community, an “Internet scene,” and I want to speak with them face to face (or through video chat) to understand their shared concerns and visions of the future. But, right now, I’m not 100 percent sure such a community even exists, there’s just so much seemingly random stuff floating around out here.

Sliding down one slippery link-tunnel after another, I arrive at the homepage of IDPW. A one-line sentence, “A secret society on the Internet that goes back more than 100 years,” is written in slime-green Helvetica under the suspiciously retro title, “Welcome to IDPW HomePage.” The “About” section isn’t much help, but it does list some of members: “Smile Tuna,” “Tax Gull,” “Tomorrow Shark,” “Last Fish,” “Gray Seastar” and “Sister Abalone.”

IDPW (pronounced “ai-pasu” — a portmanteau of I.D. and password) are infamous for creating the “Internet Yami-Ichi/Internet Black Market,” a real-life flea market in which vendors sell homemade web-related items such as virtual stones, Edward Snowden snowglobes, or binary porn. It was recently held for the fifth time in Brussels.

From afar, IDPW is reminiscent of the country’s avant-garde collectives that were active from the 1950s to the ’70s such as Gutai or the lesser known cooperative The Play. This group of artists wanted to break down the walls built around art. Instead of showing artwork in exhibition halls and institutions, they floated down rivers on giant polystyrene arrows, herded sheep from Kyoto to Osaka and, in 1968, constructed a 3-meter-long egg, which was dropped into a Pacific Ocean current off the coast of Wakayama Prefecture in the hope it would float all the way to the United States. Is IDPW — and whoever else may be part of its community — re-enacting this model of experimentation and activism, albeit using virtual objects made with intangible tools? Art historians Reiko Tomii and Jean Ippolito are among a number of researchers who have published books and academic papers on Japanese digital media artists that draw parallels between the country’s current crop of digital artists and the aforementioned avant-garde artists from the 20th century. However, I can’t help feeling suspicious: surely contemporary digital artists are venturing into new territory?

I send a carefully worded interview request to the email address listed on IDPW’s homepage, and wait.

life, in 3-D

One of Akihiko Taniguchi's Recordings of Everyday Life.
See more here: hibinokiroku.tumblr.com

Before I receive a reply from IDPW, however, an email from another media artist, Akihiko Taniguchi, arrives in my inbox. This 31-year-old web developer and lecturer at Tama Art University in Tokyo creates detailed 3-D models of everyday spaces, including his parents’ home, boxes of medicine, cup ramen and even garbage. His work received international attention in January 2014 after he produced a music video for digital musician Holly Herndon’s song “Chorus.” The video shows a collection of rotating 3-D models of Herndon on the screens of 3-D computers in 3-D versions of real workspaces, which Taniguchi built from photos people sent him. He deliberately negotiates the perceptual boundary between the virtual and the real with his models, but sometimes they become so layered and meta, it’s difficult to understand exactly what it is that you are looking at. They’re copies of copies of copies and representations of what’s behind the representations of other representations.

He writes in his email that he is happy to meet, but makes one thing clear — we can only do the interview in a place that has an Internet connection.

We meet in an old, Japanese-style coffee shop in a Shinjuku basement on a cold Saturday morning. Sitting on a velvet swivel chair, I ask Taniguchi about the older domestic media artists he looked up to when he was a student.

“I used to make work in a Ryoji Ikeda style,” he says, referring to one of the country’s leading sound artists who collaborated with Dumb Type, the influential Kyoto art collective founded in 1984. Working alone, Ikeda pairs his sound performances with enormous projections of complex number sets, letters and patterns — machine codes that interpolate over each other like copulating spreadsheets.

“However, a lump of flesh with a brain can appreciate Ikeda’s work,” he says. “You don’t need to have a life to appreciate it. There’s no humanity in his work.”

Taniguchi feels that artwork representing the complexity of machines and data is not really interesting, or even truly complex.

“I wanted to express the complexity of everyday life, to find a level of humanity,” he says, “so I started by making a 3-D model of my family home using Google SketchUp with floating models of real objects inside it.”

He opens his laptop and navigates me through the home — “I haven’t shown my parents this yet,” he says — clicking on floating models of flu medication and an Amazon delivery box. It’s all very normal but there’s something uncanny about watching a dozen boxes of medicine floating in a mundane living room. Robots that look too human-like make people feel nervous — a response known as the “uncanny valley” — but what about 3-D models that look too much like real objects?

This desire to break from visualizing the cold mutterings of machines to representing the mundane complexity of the real world mirrors the zeitgeist in Japan during the 1960s, when avant-garde collectives made a conscious “descent to the everyday,” as critic Atsushi Miyakawa claimed in 1964. However, groups such as The Play didn’t have to worry about the “uncanny valley” when they floated downstream on a polystyrene arrow.

“I want to go back and forth between the real world and the virtual world,” Taniguchi says.

But how much control over his creations does he have, given that he is working directly with a computer?

“I’m deciding things and the software is deciding things, just as paint or clay affect the final look of a painting or sculpture,” he says. “I like the idea that the computer is making the work — seeing how the computer sees.”

The quiet coffee shop is now filled with the low murmur of middle-aged men and elderly couples. What does Taniguchi think they would have to say about “computer vision” and “3-D models of everyday life?”

“They wouldn’t understand,” he says. “That’s why these ideas should be printed in a newspaper.”

This topic — the importance of internet literacy — is something I will hear repeated again and again during my interviews for this article. Our days of bobbing around on the surface of the ocean are numbered.

Perhaps foolishly, I have scheduled my next interview directly after my chat with Taniguchi in the same coffee shop. There is some overlap between the two interviews, and I’m surprised to see that the two artists are friends.

“We know each other through Tokyo’s Internet scene” says a 28-year-old freelance fashion designer who goes by the artist name Nukeme (a play on the 1991 video game “Duke Nukem”). Taniguchi laughs, but the “Internet scene” isn’t as big of a joke as it seems.

“We all know each other online, from Twitter or Tumblr, but not so much in real life,” Nukeme says.

They sit down and Nukeme picks up where Taniguchi left off: computer vision.

“If computers are now part of our environment, part of a new ecology,” he says, “then it’s a natural progression to see art from their perspective.”

Nukeme shows us his hooded sweatshirt covered in poorly rendered versions of icons for Internet Explorer and Google Chrome.

“I sold these sweatshirts at IDPW’s first ‘Internet Black Market,’” he says. “I consider them to be collaborations with a computerized sewing or embroidery machine where I rewrite its hexadecimal data. I’m interested in glitches and machine errors.”

Wait, IDPW? I’m closing in on what may be the illuminati of the Internet scene.

“I once participated in one of their online parties — a shared Google document that was accessed by 40 or 50 people who were adding things to it and voice-chatting through Google Hangouts. There was so much going on the computer was freezing up.”

Freezing up isn’t necessarily bad — at least as far as Nukeme is concerned.

“Errors let you see what is happening inside a machine,” he says. “It’s like your body when you get sick — you become aware of the processes going on inside.”

These errors, he says, provide clues about linking the real and virtual (or experiencing the real through the virtual, and vice versa), another topic that will continue to rear its head over the next few weeks.

Before leaving, Nukeme mentions some of the digital media artists he respects, starting with the Netherland’s jodi.org who were active from the mid-’90s and are one of the forerunners of modern Net.art for the way they pioneered the subversion of new technology. However, he adds, “Net.art doesn’t just need to be online, it can now exist in the real world.”

I found Nukeme through his collaborator, 30-year-old Takahiro Yamaguchi. We meet in another old coffee shop at the back of Shibuya, sitting beside the only other patrons inside — a pair of salarymen poring over printouts of numbers.

The location is somewhat symbolic, lying across the road from the offices of Grandbase Inc., a “multidisciplinary design studio” started by Yosuke Kurita that produces the online digital arts website CBCNET and the APMT design conference. Kurita has forged links with Internet artists abroad and nurtured young artists, including Yamaguchi (I also recognize Kurita’s face in a number of IDPW videos online).

The last time I interviewed Yamaguchi, in 2009, he was working for Grandbase and using Google Earth to trace out giant letters in real-time with a Global Positioning System in an attempt to make a new font. He was inspired after seeing a enormous piece of Los Angeles graffiti on Google Earth.

“It really affected me,” he says. He took this experience of virtual graffiti a step further and built a rickety robot with collaborator Kanno So that could make automated graffiti based on mechanics and internal algorithms — the “Senseless Drawing Bot.” It creates illegible graffiti-like scribbles with spray paint — legibility and beauty isn’t the point. This “Senseless Drawing Bot” has been invited to robot art festivals from Mexico to Russia and Yamaguchi is leaving for Barcelona tomorrow to try to build a new “senseless drawing” machine.

Yamaguchi thinks of himself as a contemporary artist rather than specifically a so-called new media artist or digital media artist. To him there is no real difference between these categories, “it’s all contemporary art” he says. Yamaguchi is uncomfortable with being lumped in with an overinflated media art scene where, he believes, “the government has even defined what media art is.”

“I complain a lot about the situation,” he says, “Japanese people don’t seem to like contemporary art.” He wonders why — perhaps few people are interested in understanding it?

His complaints echo the late Furuhashi Teiji, founder of art collective Dumb Type. “There was a political element (to our work), but Japanese audiences don’t want to see that,” Teiji once told Kyoto Journal. “They want to avoid it. They just want entertainment. Japanese audiences are very lazy.”

Yamaguchi is dedicated enough to what he is doing that he has quit his day job.

“I want to become a pure artist, but it’s quite hard,” he says.

However, it’s a constant hustle to stay afloat; Yamaguchi cuts the interview short — he and So are scheduled to have a Skype meeting with the organizers of an upcoming exhibition before he heads home to pack.

In a few days I will also be speaking with So on Skype. He relocated to Berlin in 2013 after visiting the German capital with Yamaguchi for a residency program.

“I prefer things here,” he says, “but getting equipment delivered is strange. Tokyo (by comparison) is perfect.” And by “things” he means parts for robots.

“I’ve spent today coding parameters in Processing (a programming language) for the swarm robot I’m building,” he says.

Within the first five minutes he’s taken me from robots operating with a hive mind — “I’m interested in the intelligence of flocks of birds and schools of fish,” he says — to explaining physical computing, his boredom with “interactivity” and love of “machine vulnerability.”

We are entering uncharted waters. His distance from the nation’s Internet scene gives him a unique perspective on how Japan consumes and uses the Internet.

“People in Japan don’t really know or care about the Snowden leaks, but security and political issues are huge here,” he says.

He then talks about “the Singularity” (a hypothetical future point in time when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence), computers asking rather than answering questions and how he’d like to building a machine that could make beautiful award-winning works of art.

“It would be great if it could produce works of art worth $100,000, but it’s all about getting the right parameters,” he says.

Part of the reason behind So’s move to Berlin, he says, is a search for a “different way to make things compared to older (media artists).”

“I totally agree with what Zachary Lieberman is doing at the School for Poetic Computation — showing the weaknesses of machines (and using computers) not just for entertainment,” he says.

Before the conversation ends, So asks if I know Hari-kuyo — the Buddhist and Shinto festival of broken needles.

He describes the way that used sewing needles in Kanto are given a funeral ceremony in February each year.

“People in Japan have a sense of the personality in things,” he says, suggesting that one day artificial intelligence is more likely to be part and parcel of everyday life here. And, with that, he goes back to programming the parameters of his swarm robot.

Secret society

The IDPW website

In a few days I receive an email titled “Re: Secret interview for The Japan Times?” from “Tax Gull, IDPW.” The secret society has made contact and proposes a Google Hangout in a few days time.

I research as much as I can, making careful notes and compiling a list of serious, hard-hitting questions that will ultimately prove useless.

On the day of the interview a link is sent to my email address just after 9 p.m. directing me to a video chat.

I log in. Chaos reigns.

Five windows pop up on my screen, people are talking all at once, messages are appearing, jokes I don’t understand are being laughed at, children are screaming in the background and someone is clearly pouring themselves a glass of white wine.

I start by asking them all who they are.

“Everyone knows who we are,” Tax Gull says. “It’s not really a secret, it just sounds better to say that.” Tax Gull’s real name is Shingo Ohno. He is an art director for Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo.

By “everyone” he means the infamous “Internet scene.” And I start to recognize some familiar faces in the screens. Yamaguchi (aka Smile Tuna) is there, talking from Barcelona after arriving to complete his project with So. Shunya Hagiwara (aka Gray Seastar), who I met on the street in Shibuya after my interview with Yamaguchi, is also there. Ohno and exonemo — comprised of married couple Kensuke Sembo (aka Last Fish) and Yae Akaiwa (aka Sister Abalone) — are sitting in Fukuoka, and Tomoya Watanabe (aka Tomorrow Shark) is there, too, speaking from Yamaguchi. It turns out Watanabe works for the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media, one of the most important institutions for media art in the country.

IDPW is a collective of artists, programmers and media researchers who “love the Internet,” Sembo says. At one point the collective held monthly parties online, but its current purpose is to organize and curate the aforementioned “Internet Black Market.” As a cultural event that is exported worldwide, this sounds like the type of thing the government would be funding through its so-called Cool Japan initiative, right? The answer, unfortunately, is no.

“Basically the government doesn’t know what’s cool,” Ohno says.

Now IDPW want to get like-minded organizers in other countries to start their own “Internet Black Markets.”

“It would be good to have one in South Africa,” Sembo says.

“And one for the elderly,” Hagiwara adds. “The potential for the Internet is huge,” he continues. “Facebook and Twitter are just a small part, the Internet is a huge ocean.”

I ask them about their sea-themed pseudonyms and Ohno sends me a link to IDPW’s name generator.

“We all pick our names from this random generator,” he says. I push the “Generate” button and wait for the response: “Feeble Whale Shark” — harsh, but fair.

Given the sheer scope and volume of the Internet, do IDPW’s members have a cohesive view of this “ocean?”

There is a long pause before they all tentatively come to a general consensus.

Watanabe says they want people to re-examine their day-to-day lives.

“The meaning of the trash bin on your (computer) desktop is changing,” he says. “It’s becoming as valuable as your real trash bin but, of course, the real bin itself doesn’t change.”

Ohno extrapolates on this idea a little.

“The Internet is just Twitter and Facebook for some people,” he says. “We are thinking totally differently — there are so many ways for us to exist online.”

Akaiwa, one of the few female artists in a scene dominated by men, brings it all together.

“You’re in the Internet even when you’re not on the Internet,” Akaiwa says. “When you think, ‘I won’t put this image on Facebook,’ you’re still part of the Internet.”

This community (and it is a real community, everyone I spoke to for this article was a member of IDPW or had participated in one of their events) isn’t just a digital version of Japan’s avant-garde collectives of the postwar years. They’re navigating something fundamentally different, a milieu they believe art can’t be broken out of. Instead of breaching its walls with the virtual version of The Play’s arrows, sheep and giant eggs, they’re taking these abstractions deeper into everyday life. They’re experiencing the Internet not as a thing, but a condition. Even when you’re not online it exists in the way you think, the way you talk, how you live and how you love.

The thing about the ocean is that once you’ve entered it, any decision about whether or not you’d like to get wet is irrelevant — it’s a total, suffocating embrace.

If you want to decide what shape this “mass consensual hallucination” (in the words of William Gibson) takes, you better start learning to breathe water, even if, as in my case, it means becoming a lumbering, toothless shark, bumping into things and getting lost.


Read part one of this two-part series here:

<code+culture: part one>

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