Mediamatic Magazine 3#4 Keiko Sei 1 jan 1989

Melts in your Magazine, not in your Museum

Come to think of it, ALFRED BIRNBAUM. Hasn't video been business art from its very inception?



Art as it is understood in Japan, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, blends into mass culture with the info-speed of technology. In fact, it amounts to little
else but trendy information, very saleable information. Which in effect reduces the
system-as-genius to the system-asmerchandiser. Business as usual, I'm afraid.
For instance, even before MAX HEADROOM was introduced to Japan, some
laugh-a-minute show had already beaten the real character to the punch with a
parody version. Indeed, laugh-a-minute entertainment is the height of mass culture,
but in this case it's highly attuned to information, in whatever form (Japanese
love to talk about their joho kando: infosensitivity). For the record, introduced or
not, MAX HEADROOM was parodied by yet another laugh star in a television advert for a dietary fibre(!) drink.
Which only makes 'video art' one more seen-it-before. Not a legitimate intellectual
snub from actually having gone to a museum or gallery to see video, but merely
a comment that it's technically nothing new, no matter how artistically superlative
it may otherwise be. The moral here being that the real game for those 'in the know' is
to discover in art only what can be palmed off as a first to mass media culture.
This reductio ad nihilo is not, however, a question of technique alone. Japanese
television already incorporates its share of video artistry', so that if video art had never
existed it would have scarcely been missed. Who could argue in favour of video as
personal medium as opposed to mass media when television already airs such
programming as twenty-four hours in the life of an ordinary family or seeking the
opinion of the person-in-the-street? (At present, Tokyo has two national television channels and five private stations plus two sat channels. All private and satellite channels
broadcast twenty-four hours. When the Emperor was ill, NHK national broadcasting joined the ranks of twenty-four-hour stations.)
To the layman of any nation, video art might look just like TV commercials. He gets the point, though, when more than a few critical treatises have come out on the subject, elevating the television commercial message - or CM as it is known in Japanese -
to an art higher than art itself. One particularly famous CM creator, TORU
KAWASAKI (the epitome of the Japanese media pro-as-media star), had a major hit on
his hands in 1983 with an advert for a whistling beer keg(!!).. It showed out of nowhere a sumo wrestler walking up to a suburban home and sales-pitching the product to the householder, who promptly responds: Now this is an idea sure to appeal to the general public! This was extremely popular because the general public knows that it is so media saturated yet so frighteningly uniform. The words virtually stand as the pillar of all creative endeavours in Japan.
Recently, one particularly instructive television programme highlighted the
curious position of media art in Japan. A drama was produced by the private network
TV ASAHI (that's right, the same folks who showed NAM JUNE PAIK'S Bye-Bye Kipling retitled as East- West TV Tug-of- War and later stunted his Wrap Around the World to a fractional TV Olympics), it was a prime time adaption from a popular kiddy comic, entitled MIHO and SHIZUKA'S Xmas special -Mismatch and starred two girl teen idols, MIHO NAKAYAMA and SHIZUKA KUDO, in a calculated targetting of an early-teen viewership. Japanese TV abounds with mindless programs like this, the reason being that along with cartoons and laugh-aminute shows, teen idol romances hold probably the biggest rating shares. They're huge industries (the biggest-selling comic magazine in Japan prints nearly five million copies biweekly).
Now in Xmas special Mismatch finds MIHO, a boy-allergic window display
designer, sharing a flat with SHIZUKA, a boy-crazy model. Each finds her guy and of
course falls head-over-heels. What is interesting here is that whilst in the original
comic MIHO'S boyfriend is a young sculptor just returned from New York, in the TV
version it was deemed that the sculptor's image was too old-fashioned and so the
artist-boyfriend was updated to a video artist. Our fictional video artist, TOSHIRO MINAMI is even recognised by NAMJUNE PAIK. (Japanese success stories follow the
typical pattern of the young unknown going to New York, or London, or..., meeting a
major figure and returning to Japan. Once, it was jazz musicians, now apparently we have entered the age of the video artist.)
MIHO meets TOSHIRO at work when he briefly returns to Japan to do a video installation as part of a store display. When MIHO inadvertently sits on his creation, TOSHIRO quips with classic artist sarcasm: Didn't know I was making benches here! Intrigued by this opening line, MIHO'S fancy turns to true admiration, when she observes how earnestly he applies himself to his artwork and she winds up helping him degauss his monitors with loving care. However, after several sub-plots and advances, our TOSHIRO heads back to New York.
The prop installation used in the program was made by an real video artist, NARUAKI SASAKI, who skillfully(?) rendered a definitive image of a work of video art, an impersonal pseudo-statement sanitized of any particular artist's fingerprints or sensibilities. Fire visuals overlaid with unobjectionable geometries in a stack of monitors, et voild! Video art-ppoi, as ALFRED BIRNBAUM would say.
Yet of course, the resulting piece was not SASAKI'S work any more than it was anyone else's. Anybody could have made it, because it was merely a staged television'work, you might say. But no, in the world of Japanese art that isn't about anything, where superficial stylings are the only identifying signatures, it is all too easy to discorporate stylistically. This is not post-modern appropriation, nor a LONGO-ppoi, PICABIA ppoi imitation. This isn't impersonation, this is depersonation.
First-generation Japanese video artist KEIGO YAMAMOTO has been making a series of tapes on the theme of ki, vital breath, by transposing this spiritual energy into electrical energy signals and forming silhouettes supposedly identifiably individual in character. These silhouettes, these less-than-nothing identities, are the very non-stuff of Japanese video.
At best this non-presence scarcely makes any difference. Because the insulated selfsatisfaction of the so-called video artist over superficial styling has been entirely preempted from public consciousness. If style is what you want, why watch video art? Variety shows on Japanese television change whole sets to match each pop
singer's hit tune in a spectacle of extravagance not seen elsewhere. Each day
anyone walking the streets of Tokyo sees tens, maybe hundreds of 'installations' in
stores. It's only natural that attention is completely focused on mass media and
commercial art.
So whereas PAUL GARRIN's now-famous episode! crystalizes some kind of American
Dream videowise, our Mismatch artist's story must surely represent the presenttense Japanese Video Dream. And thanks to the drama's nationwide broadcast, I half
expect the neighbourhood brats in my hometown to come running up to me next time I'm back and yell Wow! Betcha been workin' with Paik!
But let's return to our discussion of video art = business art. Video equipment is becoming increasingly semi-professional in its standards. Enticements for mass sales. With hardware features like an instant video art button (built-in VCR digitiser/colouriser,
but actually a manufacturer does offer a button labelled Video Art). Or a whole slew
of factory preset effects so that You too can be a video artist! Not that anyone feels any particular debt to art for the title artist, nor would manufacturers have to advertise the artistic calling if such aspirations were really common.
These may be simply curious reports on the experiments back at the lab. No public funding for art. The same goes for why there isn't any movement in community
video or documentary video either (there just isn't any room for it to grow) and why
Japanese video festivals always invite artists exclusively from Canada, Holland, America
and to a lesser extent West Germany (because these countries pay to send their
artists abroad).
So, in conclusion, a tip to all you like- to visit- Japan video artists (you know who you are!). Want to do Tokyo on yen instead of relying on your own country's funding?
Want to have a cute 18-year-old Japanese girl helping degauss your monitors? Here's how!
a. Become an HDTV effects specialist (with any luck, there'll probably be a PETER
CAMPUS comeback).
b. Find some new use you can find for LANDSATS.
c. Don't read too much into Tokyo as being the 'experimental city' (if you act now, though, you can still catch the tail end of the war machine dromology boom).
d. Make friends with big name video festival groupies.
To sum up, the quickest short-cut is to play up to both the industry and the new academia
at the same time. Be careful, expect nothing of Japanese museums. Their staff are not the people you have to make friends with (Japanese museums have no real art historians or curators in the Western sense - instead, they have gakugeiin , study-talent-staff, or what might be termed research assistants). Museums are the poorest institutions in the Japanese art world. Instead, concentrate on SONY, especially now that SONY feeling sore because of losing the BETA market, chances are better than you think: SONY is actually one of the few companies that rarely uses teen idols for its advertisements in Japan. Come to think of it, you could score a major coup by dreaming up some scheme that even tangentially involves a 'BETAlab', possibly in the context of one of these new Technopolis Projects they're forever planning all over Japan. Visiting artists, the likes of STEINA & WOODY VASULKA, shouldn't have to go home empty handed from what purports to be the video capital of the world!

translation YOKO ONO