Mediamatic Magazine 2#4 Alfred Birnbaum 1 Jan 1988

Remembering an art of memory

The third Bonn Videonale, to be held in september, will feature a special Japan program. Japan, the Land of Video or is it Alfred Birnbaum, video artist and editor of this year's Tokyo edition of Infermental, tries to answer this urgent question.

Despite Japan's dominance in the world of video hardware market for almost a quarter
of a century, video culture has for the most part happened abroad. One of the main reasons is Japan's lack of funding for contemporary art, media art included, as compared to the support it received in the West- yet Japan is not without its own lineage of artistic expression in video. In forms an almost forgotten history, now entering its twentieth year.

Remembering an Art of Memory
Part I

Video came on the Japanese art scene in the avantgarde happenings of the late '60s. Artists were eager to experiment with anything new, and although prohibitively expensive, video seemed amply suited for recording live action and for spontaneous visualisation through an externalised eye. As early as 1968, TOSHIO MATSUMOTO of KYUSHU COLLEGE OF ART TECHNOLOGY staged a live event with video, Magnetic Scramble. By 1969, 8- and 16M 1 filmmakers and Mono-ha conceptualists were producing tapes; among the first to take camera in hand were TAKAHIKO IIMURA of Tokyo, AKIRA MATSUMOTO of Osaka, and KEIGO YAMAMOTO of Fukui.
The first Japanese video generation, however, really dates from the watershed year 1972, when Canadian MICHAEL GOLD BERG of the Vancouver-based SATELLITE VIDEO EXCHA GE came to Japan to establish contacts for his International Video Exchange directory. Japan was a black hole on the video map: already exporting new technologies in hardware, yet who knew what the Japanese themselves were doing in the medium? The surprising truth was they were doing almost nothing-yet. GOLDBERG quickly took up the cause and switched roles from information gatherer to transmitter, drawing on his own experience in the West. Answering GOLDBERG's call at his Video Communication Do It Yourself Kit(it workshop-exhibition at the GINZA SONY
BUILDING were a more than a dozen artists who were to become the most passionate proponants of video throughout the '70s: KATSU HIRO YAMAGUCHI, NOBUHIRO KAWANAKA, FUJIKO NAKAYA, SAKUMI HAGIWARA and HAKUDO KOBAYASHI, plus most of the names already mentioned, forming the collective VIDEO HIROBA (Video Commons). Hovering at the periphery were maverick film animator KO NAKAJIMA's group, VIDEO EARTH, established at the end of 1971, and ICHIRO TEZUKA's VIDEO INFORMATIOn CENTER, founded in 1974 for archival taping of theatre and other cultural events.
Further momentum was added to the energy of these three groups by incoming shows such as JOHN REILLY and RUDI STERN's American Video Show at the Tokyo American Center in 1973 and SHIKEGO KUBOTA's Tokyo-New York Video Express at the Tenjosajikikan Theatre in 197 4, as well as by opportunities to participate in video festivals abroad. A flurry of activity ensued, with Japanese artists doing everything from holding solo and group video shows in galleries, to championing video entries in art exhibitions, to organising symposia on and via video, to staging video picnics and other video fieldwork.
Videoworks in these early days often had a narcistic quality, as it featured the artist - the cheapest model in town - or immediate family and friends. Many pieces were conceived as situations to precipitate some perceptual dislocation: realtime video relays linked otherwise isolated environments; tape delays and loops skewed expectations of synchronous time; feedback patterns were built up by aiming the camera at its own monitor output; virtual space inside the screen was set equivalent or in paradox to real space.
The times were highly politicised, of course, and many committed artists saw video as an open door for people to take media into their own hands. By the mid' 70s, ideas of Guerilla Television, after the American hands-on manual of the same name (translated by FUJIKO NAKAYA, 1974), and community action cable television and video projects had come to the fore. FUJIKO AKAYA's 1972 documentation of a sit-in by Minamata mercury-poisoning victims and her communications project Renewal of Regional Life and Culture (1975-76) are exemplary of such videowork.
But most of these developments were also visible simultaneously or earlier in American, Canadian and European video. The question arises: what, if anything, was unique to the Japanese video scene of the '70s? Many Western observers have projected a special Japanese-ness on video here and analyzed each work to death, dredging Japan's art history as far back as noh and ukiyo-e in search of a continuous aesthetic tradition. An effort which, to paraphrase a famous dictum on contemporary Japanese printmaking, seems about as reasonable as expecting Scottish art to come in tartans and bagpipes. True, certain Japanese video makers have their subtly-shaded sabi filters: witness KEIGO YAMAMOTO's series of explorations into traditional percepts ki (vital breath) and ma (open interval). But no matter how preprogrammed the cultural vision, the fact remains that the Japanese video of the '70s was hard -wired by more immediate social and technological circumstances. The entire medium was new and underground, hence imprompto and make-do (in the mid-'70s, OBUHIRO KAWANAKA and colleague KATSU TOMIYAMA even found a media workshop under the name Japan Underground Film Center - now known as IMAGE FORUM).
The capital-intensive mode of production, polished look and narrative ideas of broadcast television were not consistent with the rue art or radical vision. Japanese video effectively pruned itself down to simple gesture, planar composition, stark portrayals of the qualities of physical materials, and camera-eye sketches of the immediate living environment.
Video-work along these lines then replicated within the limits of the stolid Japanese hierarchy. Perpetuation by pattern, master to pupil. Many firstgeneration videomakers went on to teaching positions at universitiesKATSUHIRO YAMAGUCHI at TSUKUBA U IVERSITY, FUJIKO NAKAYA at NIHON U IVERSITY, SAKUMI HAGIWARA at T AMA ART UNIVERSITY -a process which at once legitimized and territoralised the Japanese video scene. It is even arguable that the latter half of the '70s was so given over to getting established that there was no room for a second generation immediately following these sensei.

to be continued