Digital choreographies

Sophie Hansen travels through Japan’s new media Intercommunication Centre, ICC

Mikami Seiko World, Membrane and the Dismembered Body

Mikami Seiko World, Membrane and the Dismembered Body

The ICC, Intercommunication Centre, in Tokyo is every new media enthusiast’s dream. This sophisticated venue offers a fantasy selection of experiences and resources in a context of optimistic engagement with the ideas and entertainments of new media work, and around the whole place wafts the sweet perfume of money. There are no half measures at the ICC, and what a refreshing environment for new work this provides. By putting cutting edge, esoteric art in such a high quality context, the curatorial and cultural approach of the ICC is as powerfully inspirational as the works themselves.

Launched in 1997, with a speech—by Director Kaneko Takashi—which remains as the centre’s mission, the centre’s objectives are clear; “Intercommunication means communication for creation through mutual exchange and fusion. Contemporary society needs to break free from the dichotomy of technology and art and bring together diverse concerns, transcending the barriers of cultures and systems.” Giving concrete form to this idealistic vision of future syntheses, the ICC is located in an extremely prosperous business complex in central Tokyo, which also houses the National Opera. Gliding past business men gathered around a giant Anthony Caro, one silently ascends to the 3 floors of the ICC, where reasonable entry prices, good design and friendly staff make even the entry process a novelty.

Abundance is key to the ICC’s success, for not only does it house a permanent exhibition of the best of international new media art, but it also presents visiting exhibitions, films, discussions and lectures, commissions new work, supports artists in residence and offers an unparalleled information resource of activity in this field.

Most visitors to the ICC come to see the permanent collection, which reads like a role call of the most successful international art and technology teams of recent years. Eleven numbered installations lead the visitor through a panorama of diverse approaches to interactivity.

The first exhibit is the most accessible, offering a degree of familiarity in the content and the nature of the interaction which enables the visitor to relax to the level where pleasure and play can begin. Iwai Toshio’s Seven Memories of Media Technology consists of boxes each containing a media-related object such as a camera or television. Only the image of the object, projected onto the glass lid, is available for manipulation. Material objects are divorced from their functions by immaterial images, and a whole range of new interactions with familiar apparatus is solicited. Simply by making sounds and lovely light effects, the visitor feels a fresh enthusiasm for the most basic of technologies.

This principle of delight is maintained in Gregory Barsamian’s Juggler installation which uses strobes and sculptures to recreate the child-like thrill of animation. Similarly, Heri Dono’s Gamelan of Nommunication encloses startling new ideas in playful, appealing forms. Dono’s arrangement of Heath Robinson-style instruments liberates a joyful cacophony of sound and motion with its own uncanny, almost indecipherable coherence. With the same easy balance of fun and thought, Luc Courchesne’s Landscape One engages visitors in a muddle of screen-based narratives where ideas about chance, society and control emerge through novel interactions.

In Karl Sims’ Galapagos installation, the relationship between visitor and artwork also hovers curiously between the personal and public, as one visitor at a time steps onto sensor-equipped footpads to manipulate a world of abstract organisms held on a bank of 12 monitors. Complex Darwinian ideas merge with gorgeous, colourful forms and child-like choreography to create a quickstep which is observed by others, impatiently awaiting their turn.

Another work which engages a similar self-choreography of the participant is the Dumbtype Installation OR, which is a version of a theatrical performance of the same name. Video images of Dumbtype’s performers are captured within long slabs of glass laid on a white carpet and surrounded by sensors which react to the perusing visitor. In this chillingly clinical space, the vulnerability of the prone bodies elicits uncommon physical reactions, as visitors perform duets and solos around the panels.

The same inventiveness of movement could well be happening in Maebayashi Akitsugu’s Audible Distance, but one has no way of knowing, for visitors are enclosed in head mounted sensor systems which leave them stumbling around in the dark with only the audible pulses and visible globular shapes of the computer graphics to alert them to the proximity of others. The disorientating disjunction of physical and virtual space recreates a thrilling trippy experience which, even with all its important ideas, is still great fun.

And so is the Life Spacies installation of Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau. On the screens in their 2 rooms, virtual organisms appear and grow in response to the movement of visitors. Email messages are incorporated from the internet as are the interacting images of the separated visitors who become active creators of this teeming new world. Reaching out for a purple bug which swipes across the image of the other startled participant before bursting into a reproductive frenzy creates strange sensations in the participants and their observers.

This collective interaction is taken through another prism in ConFIGURING the Cave, a collaboration between Agnes Hegedus, Jeffrey Shaw, Bernd Lintermann and Leslie Stuck. In this work, groups gather for each timed immersion into a virtual world where the astonishing 3-dimensional environments break disconcertingly over the heads of visitors as they in turn manipulate the large wooden puppet which is the interface.

To echo this group disorientation there is an equally challenging individual immersion provided in Mikami Seiko’s off-puttingly titled World, Membrane and the Dismembered Body installation. Seated on a medical styled chair, the sounds of the body are amplified till they fill the dark, anechoic room and create a “perception-driven architecture.” This, the most theme-park styled event within the exhibition, is balanced by the more intellectual engagement required by Shu Lea Cheang’s Buy One Get One computer-in-a-lunch-box installation, which invites the visitor on a world tour of the artist’s life through ideas and images. The interface is familiar but the anarchy of the content is as thrilling as the most immersive exhibits and disruptive ideas force their way through the familiar mouse and browser connections straight to the visitor’s feelings.

Located next to the Art and Science Chronology permanent exhibit, Cheang’s piece offers a transition into the more theoretical aspects of the ICC’s collection, taking the visitor from the active engagements of the permanent exhibition into the second circle of experiences which broaden the context of the work. The Chronology is a walk-over line of glass cases containing media artefacts of the 20th century representing movements, personalities and events in a sequence which emphasises relationships and connecting influences more than linear progression. Educational yet entertaining is also the theme of the theatre programme which screens a series of original documentaries, with titles such as Travels in Art and Science—A Collection of Wonders.

In this theatre, resident international artists, such as current occupants Do-Ho Shu and York der Knoefel, are given a forum to present their research. Symposia and lectures are only part of a well-resourced program of academic activity lending real weight to the ICC’s mission statement. The curation of the visiting exhibitions also aims to represent the latest discoveries in the field. Contextualised for the visitor by the highly produced work within the permanent exhibition, these shows make the link between high-end research, creative experimentation and outcome in the form of products, whether they be artistic or commercial.

Recently the ICC exhibited the work of graduates of international new media courses in Digital Bauhaus. The International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences and the Inter Medium Institute Graduate School in Japan, The Kunsthochschule fur Medien in Germany, and Le Fresnoy in France presented CD-ROMs, installations and screen-based art in this substantial overview of current directions. The diversity of the formats employed was as fascinating as the range of concerns addressed; there were as many cultural crossovers as there were glaring omissions and much of the experience was disappointing and frustrating. In this confusion of new work you felt the doubts and faults inherent in much artistic engagement with technology as you stumbled with the interfaces and lost interest in the content. And yet following the ready pleasures and inspirations of the permanent exhibition, these failures appear crucial; only from such abundant confusion can real discoveries emerge.

It is in this clear-sighted, inclusive response to new media work that the ICC distinguishes itself from centres sharing its liberal aims. Generous with the visitor, the permanent exhibition is full of gratification and delight. The sense that art offers new experiences is hammered home with each perfectly tuned exhibit. The guiding principle of excellence, consistently maintained throughout the centre underlines the links between the worlds of art and business, science and technology. The visitor is brought into the heart of the equation by the engagement of their creative participation in personal, relevant ways. It is an untrammelled pleasure to roam around the ICC, discovering the many textures of creative involvement with technology.

RealTime issue #33 Oct-Nov 1999 pg. 5

© Sophie Hansen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1999
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