Takahiko Iimura

An Interview with Takahiko Iimura: Sept-Oct 2010

This interview was first published in The Moving Image Review and Journal, (MIRAJ) Vol 1, Issue 2. Intellect Books, London, 2012.

Chris Meigh-Andrews: I’m particularly interested in your perspective of working with video from the early times in Japan. So, to start with I would be interested to know when and where you first discovered video.

Takahiko Iimura: It was in New York, although I knew about video before- from various sources, including friends. But in 1967 or 1968 when I was in New York. I had met Nam June Paik before this, in Tokyo, when he had stayed a while in Japan. I went to see him in New York, where he was working. The work he was making at that time was not exactly video art, more like TV art. He was using a magnet directly onto the TV and distorting the image- for example, images of Nixon- the US president at that time. I also saw work by other artists, such as Les Levine who was working with video installation.

CMA: So this was in 1968. When you went back to Japan, did you find that there were other artists working with video there, or were you one of the first?

TI: I suspect that I was one of the first. But I didn’t go directly to Tokyo when I left New York- I went to Europe. I had a tour of screening of my films. I went to many places in Europe, including London- that was the first place. I went to see David Curtis working at the Arts Lab. I also went to Liverpool and Birmingham and showed my film work. It was the height of the underground film movement.

CM-A: So you were working exclusively in film at that time?

TI: I have worked in film, experimental film, I mean, since 1962, and have produced quite a number of works but I was excited by video as a new media. Although I didn’t have a video recorder or camera at that time, so when I got back to Tokyo the first thing I bought was a video camera, recorder and monitor and I started working with video.

That was around the end of 1969, when I went back to Tokyo.

CM-A: So you began using video about that time?

TI: It took me a year or so to start making my first works. I made A Chair and Blinking both in 1970.

CM-A: I’m interested to know how you perceived the differences between working with film and working with video. What was attractive to you about the video medium?

TI: Well, obviously the capability of video- recording whilst you are shooting and being able to view the image on the monitor, which of course was not possible with film. This simultaneity of the video image attracted me very much- the recording and viewing with sound. This was the time of the video portapack which was still very heavy…

CM-A: I remember it well- quite a bulky piece of kit!

TI: I was young, so I could handle it.

CM-A: So was all of your earliest video work made with the portapack, or did you also have an opportunity to work in a TV studio?

TI: No, I didn’t have access to a studio until later, when I was asked to produce something for TV.  Besides the portpack I had a heavy VTR deck with which I could edit physically using splicing tape.

CM-A: When you were working with video in those early days, did you see this as parallel the work you were doing in film- or distinctly different? What was the relationship between your work in film and your early video experiments?

TI: Well, as I had been working with film for almost 10 years by then- since the early 1960’s, I found video a very different medium and I tried not to repeat what I had done with film.  I wanted to make something different and unique to video. Yet I found the flicker effect in film, which I had seen in New York, quite exciting, and I tried to use that film technique with video.

CM-A: So would it be correct to say that you were interested in exchanging ideas and approaches between the two mediums?

TI: The first piece I produced in 1970 was called A Chair, and it used a 16mm film projector fed with a short loop of flickering film that I had shot for the film Shutter (1971). I projected the flickering film image directly onto a TV monitor in front of a chair which was being shot by the video camera. On the monitor you see the chair and it’s flickering shadow synchronized with the sound of white noise. (I attached a microphone to the front of the projector’s lens.) This technical description makes it sound complicated, but the resulting piece was very minimal. In a way, I was questioning of the state of the chair as an image on the monitor. When played back on the monitor, (which was the most common way of displaying video- projection was still very rare) the image of the chair within the frame of the monitor made a special reference- one frame is an image- the other is a physical object.

I made another piece called Blinking which is more lyrical, but also uses this flickering effect, as well as the rolling of the video frame. (In fact as the rolling speeds up,  it begins to look like flickering).

CM-A: Were they installations or videotapes?

TI: They were tape pieces. I used a close-up image (in negative) of a woman’s eyes on the monitor and the flickering lines over the image looks like the blinking of an eye. The flickering of the scan-lines, which increase and decrease in frequency, produce a kind of double meaning for the scan-lines and the blinking eye. Both A Chair and Blinking are on my DVD Early Conceptual Videos. The reason I included these two pieces in this package is that I consider them to be precursors of my later conceptual videos, even though they are not so much “conceptual” as “perceptional” works.

CM-A: At the time you were making these first video pieces, were there other artists in Japan whom you found were important to you or who related to your work, or did you find yourself quite distinctly separate at this time?

TI: I found myself quite isolated then, and I didn’t have much contact with other artists in Japan at that time. In 1970 there were still very few artists working in video. A bit later- by 1975, there were a few more, but not in 1970.

CM-A: So when was the first time you showed your work in Japan with other artists?

TI: The first time I showed my work in Japan was in a show called “Contemporary Arts in Japan”( Gendai Nippon Bijyutu Ten) curated by Yusuke Nakahara, art critic, at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum in 1970. I installed a four-monitor piece called Man and Woman, which is also in the compilation of my early videos.  Wearing thin tights, a man and woman laid opening their legs as in the “Vitruvian Man” by Leonardo da Vinci were shot from above. The front and the back images were shot separately and one over/under the other.  The narration merely describes each position in a matter-of-fact way. So that the piece is not sexual at all, as some commentators believed.

In 1971, I did a kind of intermedia performance in an event called “Cross Talk Intermedia” organized by the American Cultural Centre in Tokyo. The piece I did for this was called Outside/Inside. It was a live video projection piece, using an “Eidophor” projector- a very bulky piece of equipment- very rare, perhaps the first use in an art event.

CM-A: At that time video projectors must have been very clumsy machines!!

TI: Right! Very clumsy! Big and heavy! I put the projector on the stage inside the auditorium, and shot the face of the audience one by one projecting the images onto the big screen in front of them. At the same time there was another camera outside the auditorium interviewing passers-by and we switched these images back and forth. This was the first time that I had done a live projection piece. Perhaps the first live video performance in Japan.

CM-A: So this was both an installation and a live performance piece?

TI: Right. The installation of Man and Woman on four monitors was played on tape (no disk available at the time) on four video players. Though the tapes were recorded in the same order they each had different starting points so that they never matched the timing between the monitors and I’d deliberately try to have gaps between the tapes which I found quite interesting!

CM-A: So this was a new departure for you away from recorded work?

TI: I found the possibility of having a live image in front of the audience very exciting.

CM-A: It seems to me that this was also quite an unusual approach to making work at this time, because it was not so much about the artist and his or her “vision”, but about the audience responses and their engagement with the image.

TI: This was quite rare at the time- to be able to view oneself on a big screen, so people were quite amazed.

CM-A: They were not intimidated?

TI: Well, a lot of them were kind of hesitant, – but I did manage, somehow….In relation to ideas about audience participation, I was associated with happenings and events, which was the form of performance in the 1960s. Often they involved the audience in Japan as well- for example, events by “Hi Red Center,” the Japanese Fluxus group.  It seemed to me natural that working with new media, I wanted to explore a new form of audience participation.

CM-A: You mentioned earlier that you were asked to make something for TV- were there any early broadcasts of artists’ video in Japan?

TI: That was much later- towards the end of the 1970’s or the early 1980s- sorry I forget the exact date. The piece I made is not listed in my filmography. It was a kind of satirical piece of TV, I made, not very serious but more of a joke. Japanese TV was (and still is) very commercial and they have never considered broadcasting video art. I could only make a joke of it and show something in a round-about way.

After staying for a year or so in Japan in 1974 I went back to NY and then to Berlin, as I got a grant from the German academy.  I made an installation called Register Yourself at the Academy of Arts in New York that was also a kind of performance piece. People were asked to enter the space one at a time and to register their names in the visitor’s book. A camera was set up behind the person who was then shown on a video monitor. It was an idea I got from the American voting system, where you have to register in order to get a vote. What I had in my mind for the piece was a critical aspect of video. People tend to think of video as a democratic medium in which everybody can participate, and although this is true in one aspect, video can be manipulated just like any other medium. Setting up a camera behind the person who registers, and ‘shooting’ his/her back is like the surveillance cameras of more recent times. Surveillance cameras were rarely seen at that time in the city. In a way I anticipated the situation of today without knowing exactly what was to come. In the exhibition, the signature and an enlarged photo from the video were displayed in the gallery.

CM-A: Was this also a live piece like “Cross Talk Intermedia”?

TI: Yes. I also had another piece, a companion piece to Register Yourself which I made in Berlin, called Project Yourself . In this work any one could sit in front of the camera and it was suggested that people could say anything they wanted for a minute.  It was a very political time in Germany and one of the audience accused me of making  an “imperialist project from Sony”, presumably because the equipment I borrowed for this project was from on loan from Sony. He asked the audience to go onto the street and join the  demonstration against the USA. At that time there was an American invasion of Chile, and there was a big demonstration in Berlin.

CM-A: Were you happy that people were having a political response to what you were doing?

TI: Well, I was not sure what he was protesting about, and he asked me to stop the project and I told him that he could say anything he liked using my installation, but that I would not stop it and that it was open to everybody- so then he cut a cable!

CM-A: Really! That’s quite an aggressive act on his part.  You must have been angry.

TI: I was upset, and the audience reacted to what he had done and they began to discuss the issue with the guy who had cut the cable, but I didn’t know what was going on as they were speaking in German. In the end the guy who had cut the cable repaired it. The whole thing was beyond my expectations- I was quite surprised that a live video could evoke such a response! These two pieces:  Register Yourself and Project Yourself both reflected the  negative and positive aspects of video, but the positive response to Project Yourself got more attention than the negative which I felt was a good sign.

C.M-A: That is certainly quite a dramatic incident. Did this incident have any effect on the way you worked?

TI: Not as a direct result of this incident, but there was this notion of video as a political medium, and in a way I tried to participate in that.  Later I moved to works with more individuality.

CM-A: The “liveness’ of video made that sort of reaction and engagement possible; that kind of instant response to a change in the attitude of the audience and the relationship between the artist and the audience.  Which do you consider to be your most important works?

TI: A later work- entitled Observer-Observed in a series which I made in 1975-1976,  whilst I was teaching at the University of Minnesota. I was investigating the possibility of making work about the semiology of video. I knew about film semiology, which is about narrative cinema, but video is very different from film and I thought there should be video semiology.

CM-A: Did this connect with issues relating to the specific material qualities of video?

TI: The purpose of the video trilogy Camera, Monitor, Frame (1976), Observer/Observed (1975), and  Observer/Observed/Observer (1976) was to create a semiology of video as a video work rather than as a written text. Besides the video, I published a descriptive text (1) under the title “A Semiology of Video,” which includes the text, a floor plan and the camera operation etc.

(1)”A Semiology of Video,”Takahiko Iimmura at the Lux, film,video,cd-rom, installation, The Lux Centre, London, 1998, pp.24-62. “Pour une semiology de la video,” takahiko iimura film et video,”Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, 1999, French and Japanese, pp.20-58

The main aim was a study of the structural relationships of video and language using English.  Based on the feedback system of video, I assigned the system into the relation of the observer and the observed using the words as “I” and “YOU”. What I was concerned with was the structure of “seeing” involved for both the observer and the observed as in the sentence “I see you”, which is posited by the closed-circuit video system. For me it was about the simultaneous relationship between the viewer and the viewed- you could switch the role between  them- so you have a double feedback relationship.  Based on this simple sentence “I see you” which I put into this double feedback relationship, I could have both sentences with the images: One is “I see you who is shooting me” with the image of a person with camera. Another is “I see myself who is shooting you” with the same person within monitor. The first is voice -over narration from outside of the image, the second synchronized voice which is the key to identify the image with the voice. Also the image within the monitor indicates the reflective nature of the image. At the bottom of the frame, the super-imposed words, firstly “I – You – Me”, and secondly “I – Myself – You” shows the relationships of the pronouns, the two way feedback of  Observer/Observed/Observer.

So with the language I had adopted you have this structure into an installation piece where  This Is A Camera Which Shoots This (1980) in which ‘this’ is the subject and also the object. You can make endless sentences such as “This is a camera which is this, is a camera which shoots this.”-  This is exactly what feedback in video does.

CM-A: In these works you draw parallels between the written and spoken language and the visual phenomenon. Were they conceived as both tapes and installations?

TI: Both performance and installation, but the Observer/Observed trilogy is a tape piece.  I have made two versions, but the second version, which I made in 1989-1990 is more compact, and easier to watch, and more professionally made too. For me this is a very important piece because I intended, as I said earlier, to explore semiology not as an academic paper, not with words only, but as a video piece combined with words – using the language of video.

CM-A: There’s quite a jump between the 1970’s and the 1990’s. Clearly for you, the themes were very consistent. So you were interested in these same key ideas and concerns across a number of decades?

TI: I wanted to make a better version. I was given a chance to make a new version at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada with their professional staff, but the concept and the structure remained the same, also the language. (Obviously I looked older.)

CM-A: Would you say that you are an artist who is very driven by theory- or theoretical concerns?

TI: I have always had these theoretical concerns since I engaged in conceptual art in the 1970s. Though conceptual art in media has never been well defined I have investigated the idea using video and dealing with the image and the words at parallel.  In a similar vein to This is a camera … I made other installations such as As I See You- You See Me (1990) which again is with two cameras facing each other, and between them is a written sentence taped onto the wall and I walk back and forth between the two cameras saying the sentence in two languages: English and Japanese.  So “I see you” again concerns both the object and the subject. Here the word ‘you’ acts both ways. But in Japanese it doesn’t work in the same way, as the sentence structure is different from English. In Japanese  the object follows the subject immediately without a predicate (verb) in between but with a  particle, and the predicate comes at the end.   For the performance I made a wrong translation intentionally following a word with a word to show the difference in the language construction. So when I say in Japanese “As I See You, You See Me,” it was translated in English and superimposed onto the tape: “I You See As You Me See. ”

The other important piece for me is  Talking To Myself: Phenomenological Operation, which was made in 1978 and quotes Jacques Derrida from his book Speech and Phenomena, translated by David Allison.  Derrida says “I hear myself at the same time that I speak” . I used this sentence in various ways in four pieces under the title Seeing, Hearing, Speaking in DVD. One of the main points of the piece is that what is assumed to be identical between “the I who hears” and the “I who speaks” is not necessarily the same in video.  In the video the I who speaks in the image is not able to hear what I speak- only the viewer is able to hear. So that after the original sentence, I made another one without the image, voice only, switching the two “I”s: “I speak to myself at the same time that I hear.” This is not exactly same as the first. I speak to only myself that I hear is aiming to the self without the viewer is assumed. That’s why I did not show the image. This can be spoken even without the voice as a monologue. The two sentences within the image and without make quite a difference.  This is what I call “Phenomenology of the self” in video. In fact I visited Jacques Derrida in Paris in 1978 and showed him the first tape. He was very interested in this work and encouraged me to continue to develop the idea.

CM-A: These are clearly philosophical works in the sense that they require that the audience reflect on the conceptual and linguistic ideas they contain, and are certainly not just about what is seen (or heard) on the screen- they are about the implications for the spectator’s experience of looking and perceiving.

TI: Well the spectator is directly involved for sure, but this kind of theory is not discussed very much in video or film and this is important- not in a narrative way, but in terms of the medium.

CM-A: I suppose that this work is to some extent about the “space” of video- the so-callled “videosphere”- electronic space and the relationship of meanings that can be generated or expressed within that particular and unique conceptual space. Let me ask you something in relation to that idea: Across the time that you have been working with video, the medium has changed considerably. When you began using it, the image was very low quality- only B&W, for example, and you have also experimented with early video projection, etc. Gradually it became possible to use colour, to edit the picture, to display and distribute the image in a variety of ways, etc. Have these factors affected the way you have worked with video- the way you have used it or thought about it as a medium for your work?

TI: Well I have used those new factors, but not for themselves. I have certain concerns- certain themes or things that I wanted to do in video, so some pieces for example I have made in B&W instead of colour because I found that colour was irrelevant.

CM-A: So across the period you have been using it, video has been the same basic medium and the theoretical and conceptual implications of the medium are still very similar?

TI: This is true to a certain extent. I have tried to work with the basics and not to be involved with the tricks of the technology. You might find some of them in what we call “Media Art” in Japan, that excludes video art and experimental film, but only concerns computer-generated art.  This is a very Japanese phenomenon- for many of them video art is passe!

CM-A: It is clear that gratuitous electronic and digital effects have never been relevant to your work. Did you consciously reject this approach to the medium?

TI: Well I am not against digital effects, as I use them in my work. I have exhibited some multiple channel installations (For example, AIUEONN Six Features,Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, 1995) which used touch-screen technology and of which there is also an interactive version. In fact the interactive CD-Roms I made- for instance  Observer/Observed (1999), is much more interesting than the DVD version because of the multiple interactions between the image and the language. In the case of the CD-Rom of AIUEONN Six Features (1998-1999), I include a language game using the Japanese vowel sounds and making words out of them, a kind of meta-game. I have also published a book of my essays in CD-Rom in Japanese, Eizou Jikken No Tameni (For the Visual Experiments)(1997), with many short excerpts of my film/videos which activate just with a click on the page. Even a few of my DVDs have multimedia/interactive aspects involving not only the video but also texts, diagrams, animations, and graphics- for example Seeing/Hearing/Speaking (2002). These works sound technological and yet they are produced out of my theoretical concerns. I believe technology and theory is not antagonistic.

(2) “Eizou Jikken No Tameni “(For the Visual Experiments)(1997), Euphonic Co,Ltd, Tokyo,

in Japanese as CD-ROM Expended Book, MAC OS later than 7.6,but before OSX, 10.4. A new version is currently under construction.

CM-A: Have those kind of innovations affected the way you think about using the video medium within a fine art context?

TI: I was not interested in working with video for the sake of the technology. When I felt it was necessary I have used and explored certain technologies and techniques to make my work. For example in the above-mentioned AIUEONN Six Features (1993) I used very expensive” state of the art” technology at the time- “System G”, which was developed by Sony, which was capable of making simultaneous morphing effects, which was offered to me by the company without charge . It was the only time I have used such advanced technology for my own purposes. Certainly without that technology the piece would not have been possible.  My own face  was  simultaneously  distorted using these digital techniques. The best part of it, I thought, was to pronounce the vowels, A, I, U, E, O, NN without the synchronization of the image, but with the wrong pronunciation- this piece is very popular piece with children!

CM-A: From your experience, would you say that there is anything about Japanese video which is unique to Japan- that for example comes out of a specifically Japanese way of thinking or looking at the world- perhaps influenced by the particularities of the language or other aspects of the  culture, or do you feel that Japanese work is more international, and not particularly specific to the country?

TI: Well, I have used it both ways. Certain video works are related to our tradition, our thought or customs. A piece I called  I = You = He/She (Whitney Museum, New York, 1979) is a multi-channel video installation with audience participation. Again I worked with language: “I am, you are, and he or she is” heard via head phones.  This is all related to the cameras which shoot  from three positions. The front view is “I am”, and the side view or profile is “You are” and the back view is “He or She is”. The viewer is instructed to make a sentence, while watching your face in three views in the monitor, and after the lead, say, “I am seeing myself in a monitor,” “You are watching me” etc.  Yet always the single person can be identified; I = You = He. Only pronouns are relating to a single person. This reminded me of Japanese in a way because in Japanese the distinction is not so apparent as it is in English. We had used to use, in the feudal time,  the same word for “I” and “you” (“Nushi” for I, “O-Nushi” for You), the only difference is to put a prefix (honorific).

CM-A: So this difference between the two languages was fundamental to the work?

TI: Not in that case. I made this piece for an American audience so that it is not particularly concern with Japanese, but just to explain that my motivation for the piece comes from my background, which makes me more sensitive to using pronouns in English. The point is “you” can be I, You, He/She from different points of view, yet the same person is identified in the image.ed

CM-A: Does that difference also reflect back in some way on the issue of the relationship between the audience and the artist that is an important theme in your work? Say, for example in relation to the idea of using the camera to look at the audience and the audience becoming part of the work- the relationship between the individual and the group?

TI: I have a piece of work “Talking Picture (The Structure of Film Viewing)”(1981/2009, also in DVD) in which I am myself the audience as well as the player in front of the camera- so “I “ becomes “you” and “you” becomes “I” and this is interchangeable. I wanted to have this double role of author/player and viewer/audience at the same time. It’s a kind of performance as well (See “The Structure of Seeing and Hearing, A Lecture/Performance, Film and Video, Takahiko Iimura, Anthology Film Archives, New York, 1999, p. 32), but this piece (Ibid, pp. 17-20) was made for a film. What I did was to sit in front of an empty screen casting my shadow and this is shot by a camera set up behind me. In this way I am talking to the shadow of myself as the viewer at the same time playing myself as the author. What I discussed was my position within the frame work of cinema and how my various actions relate to that structure. That is the reason I subtitled the work “The Structure of Film Viewing,” and this is also a missing point of “Structural Film” in the 1970s. This shadow play is somewhat influenced by “Shadow Picture Play” which I saw in Bali, Indonesia, which I regard as a movie in Asia before film was invented. In fact Chinese for movie is called “Electric Shadow Picture” which shows the influence.

CM-A: Do you think that the Japanese work that is available to audiences in the USA and Europe is a good representation of what has been made in Japan.  I was happy to find out about the EIA collection  “Vital Signals” [Japanese and American Video Art from the 1960s and 70s] of work from Japan, but it is the first one I have come across.

TI: The EIA collection  “Vital Signals” placed Japanese video art of the 1960s and 70s in parallel with the American work and posited it into the historical and international context. In fact this selection was initiated by Professor Hioifumi Sakamoto in Nagoya, (though he has moved to Hokkaido now) who organized an exhibition of early Japanese video a few years ago after so many years of neglect. The exhibition itself was small but gathered together all of the most important videos including installations.  For example my  THIS IS A CAMERA WHICH SHOOTS THIS was revived first time since 1980.

CM-A: So it seems that artists’ video was quite marginalized in Japan, as it was for quite a long time in England, for example.

TI: Even now it is very marginalized!  Not many museums in Japan show experimental video or even film. With respect to the “Vital Signals” exhibition project by Electronic Arts Intermix I mentioned above- although a few Japanese museums have participated in the project, none of them had ever exhibited video art before. It was only after an American institution organized the project, that they joined in. This is an example of how the Japanese curators have ignored Japanese video art.

There have been a considerable number of video works produced in Japan since the 1960s, but they have not been much shown publicly outside of Japan, and so I have tried to break that barrier by going abroad myself since the 1960s, as well as organizing exhibitions at home. I am more recognised critically in Europe and the USA than I am in Japan. Although I have had solo exhibitions at the Hara Museum and the Tokyo Contemporary Museum of Photography, the Osaka Contemporary Art Center and Kirin Plaza, in Osaka, and at the Kawasaki City Museum, these are exceptional.

CM-A: So you would you say that artists’ video is still very marginal in Japan?

TI: Very much so, and this is especially true for younger video artists. Not just ordinary museum visitors, but even curators don’t consider it to be art. Only recently a curator from a contemporary art museum here commented in a major newspaper that after Nam June Paik died there would be no more video art!

CM-A: So for that curator at least, Paik was considered to be the only artist working with video! Is this kind of attitude to the medium why you spend so much time in New York?

TI: Well no- not really, but I tried hard in Japan to have exhibitions when I was younger, but it took so much of my time and energy that that I decided it would be better to spend my time producing new work. In New York at least I can have a screening once a year at Anthology Film Archives!

CM-A: Did you also find it hard to get funding to make your work in Japan?

TI: Yes, but not only for my video work- funding is very hard to get generally. The only exception to this is what we japanese call “Media Art”, which attracts state support. Along with the national policy of the ministry, the annual festival endorses manga, animation, games design and digital art, but not video art, or experimental cinema. Over the past ten years funding has been slightly better, so more people pay attention but it is still at a very low level, even though we have the largest video industry in the world!