Mediamatic Magazine vol 3#3 Alfred Birnbaum 1 Jan 1989

Real Media, Virtual Culture

Tech-ing the collective individual in Japan

Although Glenn O’Brien’s piece about ROB SCHOLTE’S business art was a fucking bootleg ripoff (but not an unappropriate one, see p.172), it found enthusiastic response. ALFRED BIRNBAUM, founding member of SPIF (SOCIETY FOR THE PERSONIFICATION OF IMITATION FAKES) reacts from Tokyo with this contribution about the Japanese notion of art.


Real Media, Virtual Culture -

What’s all the fuss about media art? Here in Japan, we’ve had it for years. Depending, of course, on what you mean by ‘media’. Depending, also of course, on what you mean by ‘art’. For with all due respect to rob scholte and others of warhol’s Pop progeny, business art is nothing new to the Japanese. Only to the Western layman, it merely looks like we are talking mass media and commercial art. Not quite so.

While such distinctions perhaps still mean something in the West, art itself, as a concept, is foreign to Japan. Much less Art, the banner Occidentals are forever waving in ‘self-evident’ display, whether to celebrate its latest incarnation or to mourn its passing, yet again. True, these heroics do seem to need to play off dichotomies, but what exactly is the difference between art- as-commodity and art-as-currency in an social economy that has never consumed or communicated anything called ‘art’ in the first place'. Indeed, few words in the Japanese language are as suspect as that Western panegyric pronounced aato.

Conversely, Japanese ‘creators’ - the artist/producer distinction is likewise dubious - spend so much time talking ‘art’ at this late hour in the business day because they can’t just do art. They really don’t get it, at least not what art is supposed to be in the Western sense. More important, why should they? There simply isn’t the philosophical corpus here to support the concept2. And what wasn’t an organic outgrowth of the society can’t be grafted on in afterthought. If there were no such thing as art, would it truly be necessary to invent it? Would anybody in Japan even miss it? Certainly not the art school graduates, who each year consistently poll ‘advertising director’ as their number one occupational goal. Social Realists all, they know - if only in gloss - that Promotion, not Expression, is the essence of contemporary art.

But let’s not confuse the issue. There’s no particular reason ‘to buy back into the tragic idea of art history’ - albeit certain ‘nouveau- yen’ en Ja£a-entrepreneurs persist in chasing after the spectre of the collector- patron in the name of ‘internationalisation’ - nor any incentive ‘to invest in the divinity of the masterpiece’, although the last two years has seen a boom in building museums throughout Japan. Why even invoke copyright or exclusive access to ‘message’? Not when the entire info-structure of the society already substantiates a near-perfect collective imaging system of epic proportions.

This is where things start getting interesting. Keeping in mind that most anything that calls itself ‘art’ in Japan is bound to be pretty deadly, we look for something ‘like art’ - as GLENN O’Brien would say5 - something of great technical perfection, spectacular scale and pervasive pursuasiveness. Something that takes on the whole of society as both hardware and software. Something whereby the individual can participate as if an artist in the creation of a look, a lifestyle, an identity. You, too, can be aesthetic, alive, different, just like everybody’s image of an individual. See how trivial art seems by comparison*?

This is the Japanese answer to interactive. While this rep icant media virus has tech-ed infestations throughout the ‘post-industrial world’, Japan is surely the epicentre. Japan’s popular media are perhaps the most highly developed information-gathering, -filtering, - disseminating and -styling system of any on the face of the planet. A ‘Black Hole of Information’ with push-buttons to match. The not-so-hidden technologies of groupthink and mass-mobilisation are impressively integrated to say the very least.

Case in point: the recent Death of the Emperor, arguably the biggest - if not exactly gala - media performance this country has ever mounted. Predictably, everything was hushed. The inner workings of the Japanese Imperial Household and surrounding politics were even less open to public scrutiny than usual, but as jishuku (‘self-restraint’) was the order of the day, nobody pressed matters very far. This much we saw coming. The real media fun began when the image industries worked up a campaign to over-compensate for the lack of precedent. This was the first time a Japanese emperor had ever died in fullblown media times and nobody quite knew what to do. Nobody knew what they were expected to do. Of course, two solid days of pomp-and-history programming were laid in against the event. There would be no advertising on radio or television for 48 hours, at a loss of billions of yen to public relations. In the meantime, everything from stars’ wedding plans to film festivals were toned-down or cancelled, not to ripple the requisite sombre mood with ’festivities’. Even more curious was the removal of any references to things salutory or auspicious, even from previously broadcast advertising. The character kotobuki (‘longevity’) was literally computer paint-boxed out of a series of 15-second whiskey spots. The stage for this media anti-extravaganza was nationwide and not apparently cued by any one leading antenna. Overall, the tone of communications became ineffably more ‘Japanese’. It was as if the media were trying to re-invent Japanese traditions, rummaging around through the sub-leased foundations of a culture for anything usable to elicit ‘harmonious’ feelings of wa. You should have been here. It was the most all-out work of Japanese Art seen in these parts in years.

Art in Japan is not where you’d expect to look. It would almost appear that you need to stand on your head to understand the an scene in Japan. That, however, would be too easy. We are not just overturning the existing genres of art; we are not just inverting the flow-chan hierarchies of the gallery-and-festival market, curator-on-top, as in the Euro-New York scheme. Theory definitely is not it. What is required is a Great Leap Sideways: creative personal expression is no longer anything special. Or rather, as one member of the Kyoto-based media-performance unit dump type put it: The individual-as-genius is no longer possible. The system-as-genius is calling the shots. Is something tugging at us from behind the electronic patterns of our perceptual fabric?

1. Japanese traditions in painting, sculpture, theatre and dance notwithstanding, there wasn’t even a collective term for creative expressions until the influx of Western ideas in the Meiji era (1868-1911), at which point were coined the neologisms bijutsu (beauty and skill) and geijutsu (talent and skill).

2. Subtracting the assumption of creativity=originality from the Beuys equation Everyone an artist yields a formula remarkably close to that of postculture Japan. So much time and energy is invested in designing everyday life; in making every detail of the home, work and play environment ‘aesthetically’ fashionable that everyone partakes of the great social media sculpture of shared mediated experience via the quantum creation of replicated surfaces. As with television, so with us. The gestaltung ‘formative’ ideal becomes katachi, form- as-conlenl, again with the provision that ‘content’ doesn’t hold much ROM with the Japanese.

3. Ppoi, ‘like’-ness is the quintessence of contemporary post-culture Japan; it is the dominant Style at all levels of all creative endeavours. An advert blatantly ‘like’ Men in the Cities, black-on-white, models poised off-balance with red Campari glasses in hand was terribly LONGO -ppoi. A free-form awm-ppoi building surfaced with broken tiles went up overnight in Tokyo, just in time before the SUNTORY whiskey commercials featuring the Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell went off the air.

Not simple copying or appropriating, a high degree of assimilation and recontextualisation is involved, and always at greater expense than the original. Others may have their simulacra, but the Japanese go it one better. (Thanks, GLENN)

4. Few Japanese artist, self-proclaimed or otherwise, attempt to deconstruct the workings of social consciousness. Art is typically not seen as a fitting vehicle for critical functions. One exception of note is HIROYA SAKURAI, whose video installations lampoon Tokyo’s info- cellular mediascape. One unrealised project, Rabbit Hutch (1988) called for a three-iaiumi-mat sized ‘flat’, walls plastered with teen idol posters, floor littered with magazines, guillotine looming over a composite self-portrait broken up between five televisions sprawling in the centre of piece.