Hatsune Ohtsu & Sei Kazama

Hatsune Ohtsu and Sei Kazama (Visual Brains) interview, Tokyo,Oct 2nd, 2010.

CM-A: So as you remember, we were talking over dinner and I said that what I was very interested in was the specific experience of artists working with video in Japan. Trying to look at how it was different or similar to some of the other countries that I have become aware of, particularly Europe and America. Also I want to see what is unique and particular about the Japanese experience. Especially given that so much of the technology was developed here, particularly the portapack and the U-matic format. It seems important to have a sense of how that technology impacted on art in Japan. And to maybe integrate that a little bit with some of the things that I have been writing about. It seemed a really bad omission not to write anything about Japan.

Sei Kazama: Do you want to know about the technology, the mind, situation and concept and their relations?

CM-A: Yes that is right. But as I mentioned, also particularly identifying video as distinctive format. Now we all agree it has disappeared into something bigger, something else. But it was distinct from film for a while. It was very particular. There was something about the instant quality of it, the “liveness”, the low-resolution image; the fact that initially you could not edit it. People could use it for alternative approaches to media, separate from broadcast TV. Those are the kinds of ideas that are important, I think, and they are what identify video art practice in my experience. A lot of artists seemed to have been attracted to this. I wonder if this was the same in Japan or whether it is different.

I am aware that was not so much a question, but more to give you an overview of what I am trying to do. So my questions are more particular and will develop.  I will start very directly: What was your first experience of video, where was it and when was it?

SK: First we encountered video media and visual art. Her father is a show writer in television, and my father is a painter. Since we were young we were all very interested in art and technology and media. So when I was in university I met Hastune. Hatsune was shooting a video already. Her father had the equipment, so….

CM-A: When was that?

SK: In 1978 or 1979. We met in the 1980. So we got together.

CM-A: So it wasn’t necessarily in a gallery context and what you were making was not necessarily artists’ video. It was a broader use of the medium. So how did that connect to your interest as an artist then, coming from a background of painting? Was there was an interest in the fusion between a technological approach and some kind of more painterly aesthetic.

SK: Yes, yes. We were also interested in modern art. Hatsune was interested in modern art, and she practiced dance. You know Ankoku-Butoh (Dance of darkness). She danced with Butoh Company. It was very famous for contemporary dance like “Dance Experience”. In the 1970 and 80s they were very active.

CM-A: And they were using video as part of what they were doing?

SK: Yes she was shooting dance, as well as dancing herself. In 1978, she participated in Dairakudakan.

CM-A: Okay, so it was live work. In Japan is it similar to other countries that live art is one of the strongest influences on early video art ?

SK: Yes. She participated in one live art group after Dairakudakan. It was called Mousai. That was 1979. Dancing and recording and dancing in the feedback.

CM-A: So you were using video not just to record the dance but also to engage with the technology in some way; to use the screen; a bit like Joan Jonas in Vertical Roll.  She began as a dancer I believe. So, that idea of using the screens on the stage in relation to the dancers- were you were both involved in doing that?

SK: It was not on the stage. It was more, from what I understood, a recording. It was not shown on the stage.

CM-A: So, how did you show that work? Where did you show it?

SK: At that time there was no feedback. No interest in doing something that was an artwork with those themes. That is why when they met they began to use those tapes.

CM-A: In post-production?

SK: Yes.

CM-A: Yes, so they had the recordings of the dance and then started to use the material, work through it, edit it, and colourise it?

SK: No

CM-A: Were you able to edit your material?

SK: In 1981 we borrowed equipment when shooting. Editing was too expensive. We couldn’t buy the equipment. So, we only edited on a video tape within camera.

CM-A: Yes, “crash editing”. I remember (laughter). So you made these tapes and they were mainly dance. You showed them in a gallery? What did you do with them once you made them? Where did you show them?

SK: Few people were exhibiting, like Katsuhiro Yamaguchi and Keigo Yamamoto; the first generation video artists. They had shown work in Paris in the late 60s and 70s but it was very rare case 04:12. We couldn’t show in a gallery. So we had entered works in some video competitions. There were competitions with big ceremonies at Panasonic and Victor.

CM-A: Yes, I was aware of the National Video Festival and I have seen some of the catalogues. (I think I sent something myself in the 80s.)

SK: At first we did not have a prize, but afterwards we did. From 86 we got lots of prizes. It was at Mrs. Fujiko Nakaya’s SCAN video gallery. Image Forum was also still here.

CM-A: So Image forum was one place where you could show work- Were there other independent galleries that had regular screenings?

SK: Yes. Places between Shinjuku and Yotsuya.

CM-A: Do they still exist?

SK: No, now it has changed location. It is near Shibuya. At the time it was very small, but they were organizing a video festival each year and became well known for this kind of experimental film and video.

CM-A: What kind of people came to watch these things? I remember that in London at the early LVA screenings nearly everybody in the audience was an artist. Was it similar in Japan at that time?

SK: Yes, but there were also students, and the newspapers were interested in it.

CM-A: So this was in the mid 1980’s?

SK: Yes. There was a big event in 84-85 and Nam June Paik came. There was a lot of interest from mass communication press and newspapers.

CM-A: So there was a lot of publicity around the fact that Paik was here, and he also brought in people to see some of the other work?

SK: Yes. He got some grant funding to come and work at Sony at the beginning of the 80s. Paik and Viola were the big names and that raised awareness on art and technology.

CM-A: So were Paik and Viola influential on you and your work, or were there any other artists that you looked to?

SK: You cannot ignore the influence of Paik and Viola but there were other artists.

CM-A: If you had to say what was the main influence on you to make the kind of work that you made, what would you say it was? Was it from painting, from sculpture, from film making? Where were the key influences on you two?

SK: All, but mostly from music and painting.

CM-A: Japanese painting? Western painting? American painting?

SK: European painting, maybe. So, something like Paul Klee for example.

CM-A: So quite abstract work. Also work that is perhaps spiritual. So how do you use a camera, which is so literal, to make something which is non-representational? Did animation film influence you, for example, or some of the visual music people like Fischinger or some of the work of Man Ray, or any people who were working using film as an abstract form?

SK: Norman McLaren, Toshio Matsumoto and Ko Nakajima used a Scanimate. You know, a machine to make animation. Nakajima was connected, I remember, with McLaren in some way.

CM-A: So what you are saying is that many things came together. But why did you, with all those kinds of influences, from painting, music, dance, and animation decide to work in video? It is the most awkward format. It is expensive. It is low quality. It is bulky and crude.

SK: There were not many people working with it.

CM-A: So you were attracted to the idea of being pioneers exploring a new medium.

SK: Hastune made Hanga. I thought video is similar to Hanga. (Hanga is printmaking). So it was close; the spirit of work.

CM-A: Okay, so there is no distinction. Let me jump  litte. You said there were many galleries and there were one or two galleries that were important. The SCAN and Image forum were important. They were the two most important for you. That is good to know. Did you make installations as well as tapes?

SK: First it was tapes and then more. From the 90s. There was the possibility to make images for display.

CM-A: did you work with multiple screens and projection as well?

SK: Yes

CM-A: Was that a very exciting moment when you could suddenly project; Because for many years you were working on the screen and suddenly there was a projector. Did that change the way you worked?

SK: For me, the projector was not such a big deal.  It was much more interesting on the monitor. The images were softer, smaller and brighter.

CM-A: All those multiple screens, how were you synchronizing these? Is it the same image on all screens? How were they synchronized?

SK: I worked with two sources.

CM-A: What date would this be?

SK: In the 1980s.

CM-A: I can see what you are talking about with the animation. How do you generate these colours?

SK: We used a Fairlight.

CM-A: Did you buy or borrow a Fairlight? How did you get your hands on one?

SK: I bought it second hand.

CM-A: So the two of you were working together and sometimes collaborating with others as well- with musicians and performers. So sometimes you would work with a larger creative team. Are there particular people that you would identify as being ones that you worked with many times? Could you name some of those people?

SK: We collaborated with Christophe Charles, but there were many other people, for example, my old friend Toshioki Matsumura and Hirayama Makoto.

CM-A: Are they painters or sculptors or musicians?

SK: Matsumura is a musician. Hirayama is an actor and translator. They had ideas and concepts. Collaborations were not about somebody bringing sound, others performing. It was about the ideas behind the work. His young brother Otsu Tomoe was a cameraman.

CM-A: Do you think that the themes in your work when you started are still the same? The ideas in your earlier work are they still in the new work? Is there a connection or have you changed your work from the early days?

SK: Not directly, but inspirations have.

CM-A: Do you ever make separate works?

SK: No, we always work together, except the actor we talked about, Hirayama.

CM-A: You have made many works. Were any of them broadcast on television in Japan or elsewhere? How was this work shown?

SK: Not on TV programmes, but in festivals. There was a festival in Germany in 1992 called Videonale in Bonn.

CM-A: Have the technical changes in video, from when you started until now, effected the way you work and the kind of work you make? Because video technology has changed between profoundly between 1979 and 2010. Have those changes made a difference to the kind of work you make?

SK: Basically, the concept of what we wanted to make has not changed very much but the way we work did.

CM-A: The ideas are still fundamentally the same.

SK: It is another thing to work with computers and digital media.

CM-A: Yes, these changes have made it easier to work with moving images and sound but it has not changed the ideas behind it.  Are there any important theoretical concepts that are intrinsic to your work? Do you draw on any philosophical or critical concepts?

SK: Derrida was quite important.

CM-A: Both in terms of how you might discuss the work but also about how you might go about making it?

SK: Not on the same level, but in any way you need a concept. If you have a concept then you need to discuss it.

CM-A: Is this kind of approach quite significant in Japanese artists’ video? Are there any other important influences?

SK: For example, Buddhism and Zen Philosophy were important, maybe.

CM-A: So there was a spiritual influence, more so than the more philosophical theoretical stuff?

SK: It is all linked I guess. Of course, Iimura would read Derrida.

CM-A: Yes Iimura’s work is very influenced by linguistics. But your work is more purely visual, so I was wondering about that.

SK: I think the most important thing is the spiritual experience. If you can distinguish the spiritual experience and the theory, they would be closer to the spiritual experience. The experience of time, from child’s birth to parents’ death. It is all about the experience of time, which is linked to visual arts. Japanese artists are interested in the visual diary- the everyday and how you experience the everyday.

CM-A: So using video in a physical way, to represent the time on the body. Living in the real world and the impact of time on the body. One of the interesting things about video is that physicality.

SK: There is not one abstract idea that should be visualized but it is more about the everyday experience, which comes as a visual output.

CM-A: On the general level, because I know the other thing I am doing is talking about you and your practice to get a sense of what was going on in Japan. I want to ask about feminist practice, because certainly in North America and Europe, and I wonder if it is the same in Japan or not, women artists were very attracted to video because it did not have a history like painting and sculpture did. I wonder if that was the same in Japan or not. I get the impression from Hirofumi that it didn’t happen in the same way here for various reasons perhaps. I wonder whether, in the experience that you have of video in the community, there were women artists who took up video because of the fact that it was a new medium without a history.

SK: Not a very direct experience of it. Of course they were aware of these issues and problems and different people were making work about that. But they say it was not very influential in their work.

CM-A: I was thinking about that, because for example with the Vasulkas, who have made many collaborative works, Steina also has a whole body of her own work. When you talk to Steina she is a very strong feminist, and yet this is not always apparent in some of the work she did- for example she did a work in Japan about the elevator girls.

In Europe and North America there were a number of diverse disenfranchised groups drawing on new set of possibilities developed from feminist practice and ideas, and I was wondering if that happened in Japan too?

SK: Not so much. Although there were women working together.

CM-A: Were there any pressure groups or activists in Japan, groups that got together to try and raise the level of awareness of video as an art form? In London there was London Video arts, for example. That is my experience. Was there something like that in Japan. I guess the Image Forum and SCAN were probably similar or trying to do that. Is that true?

SK: No. I don’t think so. I don’t think there is anything similar.

CM-A: So, my last question. Do you think there are any unique aspects to the Japanese context for artists’ video?  Would you say it was similar to the USA or European tradition? What would you identify if you had to? I mean knowing what you know about the Japanese experience, what would you say was distinctive about Japanese video from your own experience, as makers, as people who showed work within the Japanese context? And you showed your work internationally. When you look at Japanese work can you see it as being Japanese work as opposed to German or American or Canadian, and if you can how would you characterize that? Would you be able to say, “ Yes there are certain qualities”? For example, is the spiritual strand very strong? I wonder about the relationship to landscape as well. Whether those things are quite distinctive about Japanese work.  (I am probably putting words in your mouth, but I am giving some examples from the little that I know.  Can you characterize Japanese video when you see it?

SK: You mean now?

CM-A: Well, looking back at what you have done, and other work you saw by some of your colleagues. When you see it shown in American or German festivals, can you see it is Japanese or is it because you know the artists? I know it is a bit of a vague question and the way I have got it here is “are there any unique aspects to the Japanese context of artists’ video?”

SK: Until the end of the 90s, there were not so many, so we knew the artists. Now the younger generation is coming out and using video in their work. In the 1970’s and 80’s there were very few people. It is difficult to say. There are many directions- there is not one.