Mediamatic Magazine 3#1 Alfred Birnbaum 1 Jan 1988

Japan video

Remembering an Art of Memory

Alfred Birnbaum's survey of Japan Video Art. These are parts 2 and 3 of the article he started in Mediamatic 2/4

The Rise and Fall of Video Art
Part II

The term video art divides generations. No sooner was video established as an art, than a counter-revolution was underway among the students of the very artists which had first laboured to gain the medium recognition. This third video generation of the '80s was some twenty years younger on the average than their late-'60s avantgarde teachers. There had been no second generation; no real innovators to take the revolutionary ends of their immediate seniors and subordinate them as means further aesthetic ends (with the possible exception of such isolated technicians turned artists as SHINSUKE INA and YASUO SHINOHARA, or filmmakers as MAKO IDEMITSU, MAO KAWAGUCHI, and NAKAI TSUNEO who edged into video in the mid ‘70s but only came to prominence later).

Instead, front-line reinforcements had been brought in from abroad in the persons of American BILL VIOLA and Korean NAM JUNE PAIK. From 1978 on into the early '80s, these two major figures on the international video circuit were frequent visitors to Japan. PAIK held annual one-man shows at GALERIE WATARI as well as other special events sponsored by the TOKYO AMERICAN CENTER and SONY, culminating in his large-scale solo exhibition at the TOKYO METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART in 1984. VIOLA had participated in the 1978 International Video Art Exhibition at SOGETSU HALL, did a number of shows and was likewise favoured by SONY during a year's stay on a Japan-us Artist Exchange Fellowship.

The tapeworks of VIOLA and PAIK were taught as video art, making them the definitive exemplars for art students learning video. So much so that we can recognize two definite lines of influence: VIOLA's numinous meditations on light, time and perception inspired hundreds of hours of fixed framing, slow zooms and subtle distortions of the visual field; while PAIK's slapdash Pop and irreverent media trickery translated into fast-frame editing, processed imagery and synthetic technocolours. The emotive VIOLA School and playful PAIK School dominated early '80s video in a way that can only be compared to Japanese schooling patterns around enka (mood ballads) and kayokyoku(teen tunes) in the world of popular music.

The problem was that for the post-Punk generation (music clips were being shown in music clubs as early as 1978), video art invoked the protected high-culture atmosphere of museums, arts festivals and galleries. Chairs lined up in a dark room, as more than one young videomaker has disparaged the term.

The dark room in Japan was Harajuku's VIDEO GALLERY SCAN, founded in 1980 by FUJIKO NAKAYA and named by BILL VIOLA. A small one-room operation combining office, tape library and showing space, funded entirely out of NAKAYA's pocket, for the first half of the '80s, this was the epicenter and launching pad for Japanese video art. NAKAYA's impact on the Japanese video scene of the early '80s cannot be underestimated. Nearly all of the third video generation were discovered via the spring and autumn SCAN competitions: NAOKO KUROZUKA, DAIZABURO HARADA, RITSU OGAWA, MAKOTO SAITO, YOSHINOBU KUROKA WA - the list goes on and on. Still others got their first hands-on video experience at a SCAN workshop. SCAN (and to a lesser extent the primarily film-oriented IMAGE FORUM in Yotsuya) was the only outlet for anyone doing independent videowork.

Certainly SCAN was about the only place in Tokyo where you could go to see regularly scheduled video screenings.

American-educated NAKAYA had strong ties with New York video centre ELECTRONIC ARTS INTERMIX and the MUSEUM OF MODERN ART (where Video from Tokyo to Fukui and Kyoto, the first overseas exhibition dedicated to Japanese video was held in 1979); she had very American ideas of linking together local museums and galleries throughout Japan into a Video Art Network for touring shows. SCAN maintained a wide catalogue of American video works and was a port of call for many foreign video makers. Paradoxically, however, NAKAYA was on another wavelength from more immediate trends right in SCAN's backyard.

Energy had started to build behind video as the coming thing. A young medium for young people. If this sounds like commercial copy, it is because certain concerns were beginning to awaken to the potentials of video - or rather of eizo (visuals), a catch-all gloss of electronic images as consumable surface. Not surprising in a society where television advertisements aspire to art, more households have VCRs than anywhere else in the world, and promotional pageants are a national passion. Of course, from 1978 on JVC convened its annual Tokyo Video Festival to showcase home-format amateur video. But it was the video exhibition held at the 1981 Kobe Portopia, a gala pavilionland with no other particular purchase on art, that signaled video's coming out. Soon video would become synonymous with crowd-pleasing flash and moving-wallpaper imagery.


Yoshitaka Shimano - An installation made by Yoshitaka Shimano. It's a plywood tower with speakers on both sides.

The boom was on. In 1982, the promotional agency ENGINE ROOM set up GALLERY SPOON (complete with a spoon graphic culled from DUCHAMP) to appeal to a young trendy crowd. Where SCAN had been hidden away, an enclave of dedicated videogoers, SPOON was in the heart of the Shibuya shopping district, packaged as a video club(as was Daily Planet in Harajuku, right around the corner from SCAN). SPOON's kick-off tape and performance program was the ebulliently overtitled Video Age Power, including works by university students YOSHITAKA SHIMANO, HIRONORI TERAI and others. Yet the video age remained only a gleam in promoters' eyes; crowds failed to materialize and SPOON was washed up in little over a year, just as BRIAN ENO's audio-visual installation show at La Foret Akasaka, LAURI ANDERSON's first Japan tour and PAIK's Tokyo Met exhibition were about to focus public attention on creative media.

Rather it was the initiatives of the third video generation themselves that best characterized Japanese video of the early '80s. Young video makers began to sour on the established video art scene and wanted to do things for themselves. Everyone seemed to be in some independent video group, but only a few left a lasting mark. In 1982, RIEKO KANAZAWA, SEIGEN KYU and YASUYUKI YAMAGUCHI set out to document music performances under the title Scanning Pool. The following year, HIROYA SAKURAI, KEIKO SEI, SHIMANO and TERAI joined their ranks to organize Scanning Pool 2, a live music-with-video program at La Foret Harajuku, which proved the first offering of what to be came known in today's industry as AV Live events.

That following year 1984 brought the mass alignment of twenty-four young video makers, many already mentioned, under the banner Video Cocktail. They rented space for their first annual group show at KOMAI GALLERY, with video performances at STUDIO 200, and after considerable difficulties managed to release a compilation of their tape works for sale on home videocassette. This move towards collective promotion and self-distribution attempted to jolt the big electronics corporations into recognizing the efforts of local video makers (even granted that three Video Cocktail members, MICHIKO AMARI, MAO KAWAGUCHI and KUMIKO KUSHIY AMA received newly-established video scholarships from JVC - since discontinued).

In 1985, Video Cocktail II moved to the more up-market Roppongi exhibition space NEWZ, while the 1986 Video Cocktail III went on to fill the entire. HARA MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART (a private institution notable for its policy of holding at least one video show a year and purchasing videowork for its collection). Video Cocktail III was very well attended, but it was to be their last exhibition as a group. In addition to video installations and tapeworks by member artists - now numbering only eighteen - there were invited guest contributions: small programmes of independent music clips, works by senior videomakers, works by foreign resident videomakers (including myself), and media performances by TAKASHI ASAI's Uplink Theatre troupe and by KOHARU KISARAGI - a self-styled Japanese LAURI ANDERSON. But it was the menu served up by HIROYA SAKURAI that really hit home: a selection of tapes by fourth video generation artists entitled Kids Who Never Heard of BILL VIOLA.

Artists come out of The Box
Part III

Fine art, as such, really has no place in today's Japan. The idea of art for art's sake just never existed in the first place and art in general plays no critical social role here. Consider, then, the fate of fringe expressions in electronic media: there is simply no economic context for the expense of video production as art; no cultural basis by which a Japanese public will appreciate video work as art. Herein lies the root of the video generation gap between the vacuum tube sensei who insist on doing video art and the integrated circuit kids who are looking in other directions through video. These new directions are many and various, diverging on such points as video's stance toward television, crossovers into other art genres and the search for viable social standing.

One of the earliest and by now most established alternatives saw video as an ongoing process of communication posed somewhere between art and literature. Two or more persons send video letters back and forth, recording a response to each previous tape. Less concerned with finished product, thus requiring a different frame of mind than for the planning and making of a work for exhibition, the video letter has a large following in Japan and has sometimes been compared to Japanese renga (linked verse) in conception. The most well-known examples are the Video Letter (1981) exchanged between poet SHUNTARO TANIKAWA and playwright-filmmaker SHUJI TERAYAMA and the K&K Video Letter (1984) between young video makers YOSHINOBU KUROKAWA and YOHANI KIBE.

Another exciting direction that also challenges boxed image video is recently emerging in sculptural video environments and installations. One of the most accomplished Japanese practitioners in this medium is HIROYA SAKURAI (a familiar name from the VIDEO COCKTAIL group). His socio-critical TV Terrorist was on view at the 2nd Fukui International Video Biennale March this year.

But far the great majority of recent Japanese video work is concerned with technique and achieving a look. Form-ascontent in the hands of the artisan. (Or as one Canadian curator put it, Japanese video isn't about anything, is it?) Such video work largely relates to graphic design and illustration, two applied arts of ready acceptance in Japan. This is the basic model of video as a popular decorative medium, not far removed from the cute animation, expansive landscapes and eclectic fantasies of broadcast television image commercials, arguably the true media art form here in Japan.

Not surprisingly, many young third generation video makers have gone into television and promotional work. Some, such as ex-video Cocktail duo DAIZABURO HARADA and HARUHIKO SHONO, better known as Radical TV, have gone big time, collaborating with the likes of pop musician RYUICHI SAKAMOTO and staging a videomusic performance TV War on the massive SONY outdoor video screen at Tsukuba Expo '85. Others have gone into independent programming: ex-Cocktail tenders YASUYUKI YAMAGUCHI and MAO KAWAGUCHI now work with young television and promo-video director HIROYUKI NAKANO's blade-runner-esque TYRELL CORPORATION. Artists everywhere have always gone where the money is, and in this age of spectacle, the art is truly in entertaining ourselves to death.

If you'd like to quote something: Birnbaum, Alfred. "Japan video." Mediamatic Magazine vol. 3 # 1 (1988).