Itsuo Sakane

Transcript of Interview with Itsuo Sakane: Tokyo, 8/10/2010

CM-A: I am interested in getting as many different perspectives as possible and in particular the period where video was distinct medium as opposed to being absorbed into something else, such as the digital mix that you get with computers now, so called “new media”. I am looking at the period from about 65-66 through to about 88, when video could still be identified as video and the artists who worked with it. I’m particularly interested in what the Japanese experience was like, that is ‘How was it different, how was it similar to what went on in other places? In my experience both in the UK and reflecting on some of the other parts of Europe, basically the only people to write about video art were other video artists. I was told that this was pretty similar in Japan and I’d be interested to know whether you agree with that and about your perspective on that idea, and also on the development of artists’ video as a genre, if you like, or as an identifiable subcategory of art, during that period.

Itsuo Sakane: As far as I know, the person who used the Sony pack was Nam June Paik and at that time he already left Japan. He studied in Japan, in Tokyo University, in the same class as me, but I didn’t know him, because I was two years older than him. I was sick for two years and couldn’t go to school.  That was the reason why I stayed for two years. But anyway I knew of his activities since 1968 or 1969, because I was a journalist. At that time I was a science writer. I studied architecture at university, but for the first few years I stayed as part of the local office for training. Three years later in 1960, I came back to the Tokyo office and covered the World Design Conference in 1960.  At that time so many great designers, artists like Charles Eames and many persons from Japan, Hungary and many other famous artists and architects came over.  I covered all three years about design. Because in Japan, the architecture was in the Department of Engineering at Tokyo University. I was also invited in 1964 to the Scientific Department.  I covered the science department and I was the science writer for 10 years from 1965 to 1975.

CM-A: So you specialized in scientific developments?

IS: Yes, but also I was interested in the relationship between art and science. I had to cover the new movement of Art and Technology that appeared from the end of the 50’s and the beginning of the 60’s. I covered those activities like E.A.T. and many other artists. And in 1967, I had a chance to visit the Montreal Expo. So I followed that. I came back at the time before Expo 1970 in Osaka. In Japan there were some activities in the Art and Technology movement. In 1969, there were two big exhibitions in Tokyo. One was the Electro Magical exhibition in the Sony building. There were many artists working not only in video, but also making computer artworks. That same year, 1969, there was another big show called Crosstalk Intermedia.  That was one year before the 1970 Expo.  So many like John Cage, and other famous artists and musicians came. Both of these were in Tokyo. And then in 1970, the Osaka Expo started. So before the Expo in 1970 I started a weekly column about the Expo in the newspaper which covered topics on the relationship between art and science.

CM-A: So you wrote specifically about the relationship between art and science?

IS: That is right, and later it became a book. Then in the middle of 1970, of course I covered the Expo 1970, including the US pavilion. I saw the moon-stone which was brought back from the moon. Also in Expo 70 there was a big Art and Technology show, which was organized by the E.A.T. (Experiments in Art & Technology) I covered that. Also one of the E.A.T members was Fujiko Nakaya.  She was active in the making of folk art. After that, around the beginning of the 70s, she became a video artist. But as far as I am concerned I don’t think there were any video artists active until the end of the 60s in Japan. Only one or two had started before that but are not so well known.

As I said I stayed one year at Harvard University, on a journalist fellowship. (Itsuo Sakane was Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, 1970-1971.)

CM-A: When was that?

IS: From July 1970 to August 1971. Only one year. But while I was in Boston, in Harvard, I also visited the MIT, CAVS (Center for Advanced Visual Studies), and met many artists from the Art and Technology movement. So after coming back when finished as a fellow, in the summer of 1971, I was appointed to a sort of desk position on the newspaper (Asahi Shimbun) . That means not a writer, but checking the work of other writers.

CM-A: So you were working mainly as an editor at that point?

IS: Yes, that is right, in the science papers. I didn’t write for work but I wanted to write something. I stayed for four years there. Then I tried to change position to be able to write. So in 1975, I got the chance to move to the culture page and the home section page. So from 1975, I started two columns one is for the home section, and that was called the museum of fun column, which lasted more than one year. After it finished it became a book.  (“The Museum of Fun Book”, The Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo, 1977), which was very well accepted by the audience. Then the newspaper company asked me to organize an exhibition based on this series of art. So I organized a series of travelling exhibitions.

CM-A: This was a touring exhibition?

IS: Yes, and then the newspaper asked me to write another series of columns. So I started a new Museum fun series. The same way it lasted one year and then I organised another exhibition. All together I was so busy until 1984. Then after that I worked more in the field between art and technology. So I covered computers, and I had many chances to organize Science Exhibitions like Art and Illusion and also Light Art. Also I had the chance to organize an interactive art exhibition because MIT’s media person, Nicholas Negroponte, compared it to the normal traditional art, the audience should participate in the art itself.

For that purpose the engineers should create the interface between the art work and the audience. From that time a new type of art started. The interactive art started. In 1989, I had organized an interactive art show in Kawasaki, for the first time. It was very successful. Then my retirement from the newspaper came after I was 60 years. Then I got an offer from the Keio University and I became Professor in the Faculty of Environmental Information. I taught there for 6 years. Then in 1995, I was invited to organize a new school to educate the content creators in the age of information. So I made a new school that was called the International Academy of the Media Arts and Sciences. It was in 1996. I organized two small courses, one for the students that have graduated from high school, and the other was for students who graduated from university or from society. The course became a sort of graduate school in 2001. This course became a part of the Institute of the Media, Art and the Sciences, IMAS. In 2003, I became tired so I retired.

So your question is about video art in the 60s and the 70s.

CM-A: It is good to have this context for it. I wondered to what extent you saw video as a separate thing or whether you saw it as part of something such as interactivity, film, music….

IS:  On the way back from Harvard to Japan in 1971, I met Michael Goldberg in Vancouver. He was just preparing to go to Japan, with a foundation grant from the Canada Council. Then after he came at the end of 1971, he stayed at my home for a couple of nights. Then he wanted to organize a new video art, Video Hiroba. When I met him in the Sony building at the Video Hiroba exhibition I saw how many people gathered so I knew the first early members of the Video Art in Japan in 1971.

CM–A: You may know this- Michael told me yesterday that they have the tapes from that 1971 show, the reel-to-reel tapes. They are going to restore them, because you know what happens to that old tape? It begins to stick. So there is a way to cook them in an oven and then play them once and to re-record the signal. They are going to try to restore the tapes and have the original material that was produced by that group. So you were quite connected to all this?

IS: Yes that is right. I know that many people like Kawanaka. He has also organized a video studio. So if you have a chance to visit him, he must have many old video tapes. Toshi Massimoto started his career as an artist before starting video art. He is a well known artist. He was a professor at the Kyoto University, and after that he became a professor at the Nihon university.  Also I must tell you, around 1980, many American video artists visited Japan.  As you know Bill Viola stayed in Japan for one and half years, and he got support from Sony, as did Gary Hill.

CM-A: Did you find yourself writing about this work as a critic or just reporting?

IS:  I was just reporting.  I’m explaining to the public about the new type of video art.  How, it’s appearing and how it is interesting. Because of the movement of the video artists, many newspaper companies started application from every person to make new video art.

CM-A: So they’ve invited people to apply.

IS:  It’s a sort of competition.  Any person can apply and the person who wins gets an award.  This system started in the middle of the seventies. Even I was one of the juries.

CM-A: You say Japanese newspapers did this as well? That was quite an innovative approach.  Nobody I have met in Japan has mentioned this except you.  That’s very interesting.  One of my questions to you would be. Do you think there is anything distinctive about Japanese video because I can’t think of anywhere else that has been picked up in that way and explored as a creative possibility.  So that’s very interesting, it must have made a lot of people interested in trying video.

IS: I don’t know how many years it lasted, but maybe since the middle of the 70’s until the middle of the 80’s – about 10 years but no more. Maybe Victor (JVC) might still do this, I don’t know.  Some video artists still exist, but the computer technology provides more information that even video artists are trying to use these computer technologies to create their own works.

CM-A: So video has completely disappeared as a separate medium for artists in Japan?

IS: Yes, that’s right.  Some of the video artists who worked in the middle of the 1970’s became computer artists.

CM-A: I understand how video art was subsumed into something larger.  When you were on the jury for these early festivals, did you see works that you thought would function in the context of an art gallery, or you or were they most often much more personal, about family, travel, etc?

IS: Yes- both.  Some were very much conceptual.

CM-A:  Was it your experience that not many journalists or writers would write about this video work critically?

IS: I don’t think many video art critics existed. Some of the artists themselves wrote about their video work but I don’t know any journalists who were mainly writing on video art.

CM-A: Do you think that that was detrimental? In other words do you think that, because there was not any critical focus on the work that was being shown, that it made the artists less rigorous?  I’m thinking if there wasn’t a kind of critical context for the work it may have made it harder for the artists to be rigorous in what they’re doing-  because there wasn’t a kind of focus, looking at the quality of the work or the artistic significance. I wonder?

IS:  I don’t think there were any writers who wrote critical essays, or articles because although the Japanese audience is very curious about new things, they are not so much interested in criticizing anything.

CM-A: Yes I understand. In the US people like Rosalind Krauss (who wrote that famous article about video narcissism including work by Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman, in which she was very critical about the kinds of work they did, causing quite a demanding sort of context for what video artists in America were doing; raising the stakes critically. Certainly in my experience in the UK, there weren’t many writers, and I think that meant that we had to look to critics who were writing about experimental film for any kind of theoretical and contextual discourse around video. It sounds like it there was a similar situation in Japan.

IS: You know, in the history of Japanese culture, from the middle era many new interesting things came from abroad, from Europe and America. So the Japanese people are always looking for something new, and are not so critical about the new works that came. Professional journalists or critics didn’t argue from some special standpoint, so if it is very interesting or very funny, it is not so critical.

CM-A: Do you think that looking back on that period and, forgive me for trying to focus on video, but do you think that there are things that are distinctive about Japanese artists dealing with video as opposed to what was going in America or Canada or in Europe? Do you think if you look at some of the Japanese works from that period you can tell that it is drawing on a sensibility that comes from the Japanese experience?

IS: Oh yes. Do you mean those Japanese video artworks are sort of Japanese? Yes I think so.  Of course it depends on each video artist. Each video artist has his/her own character and for example it is more or less conceptual.  I like interactive art. And Fujiko Nakaya was using the video camera for social documentation.

CM-A: Yes Michael (Goldberg) was talking to me a little bit about this last night. I understand that she recorded images at Minamata.  I knew a little about that from Eugene Smith’s photojournalist work.

IS: It was around that time the government activities were secret, so it was very good. Even Michael Goldberg himself was active in Canada where he was studying. So it was a sort of a civil movement for democratic activities.

CM-A: Using video as a catalyst for change. So was that a strong strand in Japan, using video in a kind of social way?

IS: It depends on the video artist. Some are so. Fujiko Nakaya is one. Others were more interested in conceptual artworks.

CM-A: What about the Japanese sensibility when it comes to landscape, and in  particular their relationship to nature? Is that something that Japanese video artists drew on?

IS: I think that artists such as Bill Viola appreciated the Japanese landscape more than Japanese video artists. His work is more beautiful than the Japanese video artists.

CM-A: Did his work influence Japanese artists?

IS: I think so, yes. Because he also made friends with many Japanese video artists. He was very influential.

CM-A: When was this? “The First Dream” was made in 1980 or 1981, I think?

IS: I think it was in 1981, and he stayed one and half years; so maybe 1982 or something.

CM-A: It is interesting that for example that Gary Hill wasn’t as influential. I do not see him mentioned very much.

IS: Gary Hill was also interested in Japanese playful workings. That really had an impression on Japanese people who were already accustomed to this kind of work.

CM-A: So, it sounds as if some American video artists had a big impact on the Japanese.

IS:  That is right.

CM-A: So you would say after Viola visited Japan there was a sort of new influence that spread?

IS: I think so, yes.  Even two or 3 years ago, he had a show at the Mori Museum of Art.  I met him again in 1996 at the US Pavilion.

CM-A: Did you ever write about his work?

IS: Yes, I have written about his work. Even in the forthcoming book, I mention him.  You know in Japan we don’t say ‘new media’, we just say ‘media art’.

CM-A: “New Media” is a silly term because there is always going to be new media. At one point, watercolour was new media. (LAUGHTER)

IS : The title of the book is ‘Origins of Media Art’; and the subtitle is based in my reminiscence in this half century of following art and science. (Kosakusha, Tokyo, 2010) Because I have seen many interesting artists’ works bridging art and science, like Frank Malina who started the International Society of Art, Science and Technology and published Leonardo. So I cover art, kinetic art, mathematical art, and many kinds of technological art.

The day before yesterday, you mentioned David Bohm in England- I interviewed him; I wrote articles in my column.

CM-A: Well, he has a spiritual dimension to his ideas. He had quite a few dialogues with Krishnamurti.  I have heard recordings of them. So yes, there was a spiritual dimension to Bohm’s ideas, which I think has filtered through somehow.

IS:  And also he mentions that at the end of the 70s, there were some new interest in looking at oriental culture, so this was an influence on him too.

CM-A: Yes I think there is that idea. I know that is something that Viola was interested in. You see it for example in “The Reflecting Pool”, which is one of my favorite pieces by him.  I think in that period we are discussing, there was an attraction to the relationship between the technology and some kind of more spiritual- not religious exactly, but some dimension between technology and nature where there is a sort of spiritual centre.

I believe you also were interested in the Whitney Brothers?

IS: Yes because they worked with Einstein’s theories, so there was a sort of relativity.

CM-A: I think you are right about that. I think he (Einstein) was trying to find a way to make those theories more engaged with being alive as human beings rather than relating to some abstract mathematical possibility. Questions such as- What are the implications for those theories in our daily lives? Does it help us to understand what we are, who we are, and where we are? Because if it doesn’t it is not really very useful, I think.

IS: And also I felt before starting the Museum columns that in traditional arts, artists, were more or less trying to express themselves, their concepts, and not so much interested in communicating with the audience. And also at this time art itself had become a target for the marchers.

CM-A: That was something else about video art in the early days. Artists took on the medium because they didn’t feel that it was so commercialised. They felt perhaps it could not be so easily commodified by the gallery/collector system, and therefore packaged up and sold. The signature of the artist, as Michael was saying, being worth more than the work. So video art had that idealistic beginning, didn’t it? I mean now of course it has been absorbed into the museum culture, quite easily, but in those days, I think there was a more idealistic way of looking at it. Is that something early Japanese artists were conscious of too?

IS: Somewhat so. But even traditional art itself has become conceptual and so on. It depends on the person who looks at the artwork. I myself like a different kind of view. So I was always looking at the kind of artists who were trying to attract audiences by exchanging dialogues. Sometimes they made deceptive arts so that the audience should find something different inside.

CM-A: In some way challenging the audience?

IS: If the audience can discover something interesting, they very much enjoyed it.

CM-A: So it was a way of rewarding the spectator? It is a bit like those ways of training animals to do things; you get a little reward so you do it again. It can be a little bit patronizing.

IS: When I started writing about art and technology I tried to think of the interactive type of art, its history beyond cultures and countries and so I found many interesting deceptive art-hidden arts, many things. So I have interviews. Even among the works created by mathematicians or scientists- there was a new interest in physics. I don’t know whether this is art or not but anyway it is very charming and interactive and the audience can engage with it and enjoy it.

CM-A: As we were saying the other day, the art and science divide is new. At one time there was no distinction and people such as natural philosophers moved between notions of art and science. In a way it would be quite exciting to reunite them. Whether it could ever be done, I don’t know.

It seems to me you are one of the earliest people to write about this kind of work in the world. You were a pioneer in terms of your awareness of this kind of work.  I shall practice my French. This has been wonderful and I have a lot to digest here. I do appreciate having the honour to meet you. I will digest the things you said but I will transcribe this so that I can make more sense of it. I’ll also try to get in touch with some of these people to follow up some of these ideas.