This conversation is also available as a podcast.
Jason Bailey: As an artist who grew up as the black sheep in a family of engineers, I’d love to know how your passion for mathematics and computer science came together with art.
Sputniko!: I was born in Tokyo in 1985. My mother is British and my father is Japanese. My parents were both mathematics researchers and professors, so math was talked about a lot in my household. With both specializing in time series analysis, my parents had a lot of computers in the house, which I played with from a very young age. I started programming in elementary school when I was around 11 years old. I figured out how to connect my computer to the Internet, so I was considered a computer geek and I got bullied so much for it, also because I’m half-British, which is unusual in Japan. My classmates used to call me: “Gaijin!” — the derogatory term for foreigners. That experience trained me to not be particularly interested in mainstream labels. I’ve become so used to being the odd one out that I don’t hesitate to cross borders and question labels.
When I was growing up, I loved using computers to draw things and to make music and animations. So I had this love for creating. But when you’re young, and your parents are both math professors, they assume you’ll study mathematics as well. In 2003, I moved to London to study mathematics and computer science at Imperial College. I used to code ActionScript for a living, making interactive websites for BBC, MTV, Nike, and Shonen Jump manga in Japan. A lot of people thought I was going to continue as an engineer. But, growing up as a teenager in Japan, my inspirations were female artists and performers like Laurie Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Miranda July who adopted feminist, gender-based messaging as a means of empowerment. That really struck me growing up in Japan, where the level of gender inequality is quite bad.
I had another realization at university, where I was only one of very few female students studying computer science. While I was very excited to be learning about early machine learning, neural networks, and bioinformatics, I started to feel that these technologies didn’t really solve some of the issues faced by women and minorities. This was particularly true of the issue of women’s health, including menstruation, menopause, and pregnancy.
When I was growing up in Japan, I had very bad PMS (premenstrual syndrome), which affected me every month and also impacted my studies. I thought: “Well, technology and science have solved so many problems in the world, why am I still struggling with something so primitive in 2003!?”
My research into menstruation led me to discover just how much is yet to be resolved due to the gender gap in technology. There was a lot of medication that helped women feel better during menstruation that I didn’t know about because it was not discussed by the Japanese media. I also found out that Japan took 40 years to approve oral contraceptives. When it did, in 1999, it was the last member country of the United Nations to do so. Many politicians suggested that the contraceptive pill could make women overly sexually active, which is ironic considering Japan approved Viagra in only six months. It was quite a hilarious double standard. I found out about all these things when I was about 18 or 19 and, inspired by the artists I’ve just mentioned, I started making music and music videos as a hobby — writing songs about technology and singing about women and feminism.
After graduating in 2006, I worked as an engineer for two years. But having harbored a passion for music and arts, I joined a fantastic course at the Royal College of Art called Design Interactions, taught by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. Of all my classmates, I was the only one with a background in engineering or mathematics.
JB: Most of the folks I know who work at the intersection of art and tech are primarily art-driven. But, from what you’ve shared, it’s really more that you were in engineering and saw the need to communicate the injustices, biases, and uneven impact of technology across genders, which naturally brought you to music and art. You’re often discussing topics that people are uncomfortable with, like menstruation and inequality, and you’re using formats even some artists are uncomfortable with. I’m curious about why you choose to use the music video format to deliver these messages. Is it to expand the number of people who can participate in the debate, or is that just what you’re most comfortable with?
S: I don’t really have a conventional fine arts background. As an engineer who sings and makes music videos, I was a bit of a black sheep at the Royal College of Art. Quite naturally, I started sharing stories about menstruation. When I exhibited Menstruation Machine in 2010, it coincided with the rise of YouTube and Twitter culture. I remember at the time, not too many artists put their films on YouTube because it wasn’t considered a very sophisticated platform. But I thought: “If I want to make work that stimulates a discussion, then why not put it on a platform that allows me to have as many discussions as possible.” Different museum curators saw my work on YouTube, and invited me to display my art in the museum, including Yuko Hasegawa, who used to be the Artistic Director at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, and Paola Antonelli from MoMA, New York.
JB: The art world often sees anything tech-related as artificial, anti-humanity, and an intrusive evil. Do you see storytelling and mythologies as ways to reframe issues in a way that makes people more comfortable with technology?
S: I think, historically, people have used mythologies and religions to make sense of the world.
It’s interesting how people feel about technology because, when you think about it, farming is technology, and printing is technology. So what we think is technology today, might soon become a normal part of human life.
It’s more about how we use technology. Social media was a utopia that allowed me to show my work. But then it became a platform for fake news and conspiracy theories. So I think it’s fair that some people are worried about the negative implications of technology. In my work, I’m most interested in the implications of technology, whether it will become dystopian, and what defines dystopia. I portray a certain vision of the future of technology.
JB: One thing your work brings to mind is the power of viral storytelling versus actual building. When I look at a work like The Moonwalk Machine – Selena’s Step (2013), at first, I think: “Is there actually going to be a machine sent to the moon, and what are the logistics of that?” But when I view the work, I realize just how insignificant it is that the machine never got built. If the machine were to be built, the focus would be more on the machine, and less on the narrative. Storytelling is sometimes the ideal format.
S: It’s true, The Moonwalk Machine hasn’t gone to the moon. It’s a fictional prototype. But we actually did engineer the Red Silk of Fate (2016/2021). Nonetheless, I think it doesn’t always have to be built because, for me, the narrative, questions, and discussions I want to stimulate are more important than the technology itself. I do enough research to show that something could be built if you wanted to, in order to avoid making it seem too fantastical. A lot of the work that came out of my course at the Royal College was based on future narratives.
The Red Thread of Fate is a very famous mythology in Japan, China, and Korea that says that two people who are destined to meet each other romantically have an invisible red thread between them. For this work, I looked through different research papers on bioengineering and found a very interesting scientist in Japan, Professor Hideki Sezutsu, who genetically engineered silkworms to produce silk that glowed red and green using the genes of jellyfish and coral. So I thought: “What if we engineer something that only existed in mythology?” I asked Sezutsu-Sensei if he could add a type of gene that produces oxytocin, known as a love hormone, together with a gene from a red glowing coral so that the silk produced would look a little bit like the Red Thread of Fate. In just a few months, the professor managed to create the world’s first silk that glows red containing oxytocin.
This collaboration between an artist and a scientist created a new living organism that existed exclusively in Asian mythology.
I had quite mixed feelings when I saw it with my own eyes because it was quite a controversial notion. I wanted to consider the perspectives of different Asian religions on genetic engineering. So, after I created this Red Thread of Fate, I visited a Shinto shrine and had a conversation with the priest of Kanda Myojin, which is one of the oldest shrines in Tokyo. I asked them how they felt about bioengineering technology. The Shinto priest described the Shinto belief that a spirit lives in everything — in the wind, a stone, a mountain, or a tree. So if there is a new living organism, even if it is created artificially, there is going to be a new spirit. I then created an installation, which is shaped like a shrine. This was shown in Hong Kong last November, due to be shown again in Singapore in 2023.
JB: Recently, you’ve chosen to engage with NFTs. What has been your experience so far?
S: It’s been almost a year since I started exploring the NFT space. I am very certain that it will change the ecosystem of art forever. Before NFTs emerged, I sold my work in contemporary art spaces, like art fairs, but I’m not the contemporary art market type.
I think Web2 gave artists freedom to share, but it didn’t really give artists freedom to sell something of value.
If you wanted to sell your works they usually had to be displayed in physical spaces like galleries and these were often very exclusive and not so decentralized. Now it feels very natural to buy and sell artworks online, and it empowers both artists and collectors alike. Unfortunately, it’s also true that, at the moment, a lot of the artists and collectors are male. I’m excited about some initiatives like Unicorn DAO, which is commissioning female and LGBTQ artists. They invited me to curate and commissioned me to do a piece. I created wearables that allow avatars to bleed in the metaverse — a Menstruation Machine for the metaverse. I created pants that avatars can wear that are stained with menstrual blood. But when I put them through the application process, unfortunately, all of these wearables were rejected, because no blood patches were allowed in the metaverse at all. We had some interesting conversations on the review page.
I asked them: “Why is this not allowed in Decentraland?” I made a joke and asked: “If the blood was blue, would you allow it?” And they said: “Yes.”
Menstruation is something that half the population on the planet experiences, and to be censored and rejected like that in Decentraland — such a major platform — was quite surprising. So although people talk about trying to make Web3 or the metaverse more inclusive, ironically it just feels like traditional values and perspectives are being perpetuated. [...]
I developed from an engineer to a musician, and then I started being called an artist, but I felt like a bit of an activist with an interest in women’s health and reproductive issues. That led me to create a new women’s health startup in Japan, called Cradle. Right now, I’m actually dividing my time as an artist. Half the time, I’m the CEO of Cradle, a startup that provides services to Japanese corporations, which are often very male-dominated. My clients include Yahoo, Deloitte, NEC, Shiseido, and Sony.
I felt that many women in Japan didn’t have enough knowledge about contraceptive pills, menstruation, menopause, pregnancy, and fertility treatments largely due to these topics being taboo in Japanese society. Because of that, I created this new service that provides educational content and online seminars for people to learn about their bodies and treatments. We have a network of over 90 women’s health clinics around Japan, which female employees can go to and receive discounts on different treatments, including breast and ovarian cancer check-ups, gynecological examination, egg freezing, and other fertility treatments. This is a new challenge for me because being an artist and being the CEO of a company are very different.
I have a vision about creating a world with better access to women’s healthcare. For me, this startup is my new artwork. It wouldn’t be exhibited in a museum, but it is as important as my Menstruation Machine. Some recent tech startups are really changing how people live and work. And Jason, you’re also trying to shape how people collect art and culture with ClubNFT.
I love Joseph Beuys’s notion of “social sculpture,” and I feel that if artists are social sculptors in 2022, then maybe startup culture is a new medium for sculpting our future society.
JB: Throughout history, when people were using paintings or drawings or illuminated manuscripts, they weren’t obsessed with the formats themselves. The formats were simply ways to communicate with larger groups of people. Our fetishization of canvas or paper as supports is reductive when we have new online platforms to generate ideas and make changes. As someone from an art background who is now working as a CEO, I definitely sympathize. In the US, you mentioned that we were 40 years ahead of Japan on the pill but we’ve just set ourselves back over 40 years by overturning Roe v. Wade. This isn’t something women should have to fight alone. The work you’re doing artistically and entrepreneurially pulls Japan forward precisely at a time when America is taking backward steps. The artist’s role is to get people to think and to have an impact.
S: Yeah, definitely. I also think it’s so important to have men communicating about Roe v. Wade. I think artists can invent new mediums for discussion and, for me, I can see how Web3 and NFTs offer new ways for artists to engage in issues they care about. For example, I was able to donate 10% of the proceeds from NFT sales of my recent work, The Nursery, (2022) shown at Bright Moments, to LegalAbortion.eth, a digital wallet created by Unicorn DAO to help fund and protect reproductive rights. Startups are interesting media to work with. I think there are many ways to start a conversation and have an impact.
Sputniko! (Hiromi Ozaki) is an artist and filmmaker who explores the themes of gender, futures, and feminism. She is also the founder and CEO of women’s health startup Cradle. She has held the role of Assistant Professor at MIT Media Lab, serving as director of the Design Fiction Group from 2013 to 2017, and is currently an Associate Professor at Tokyo University of the Arts. In 2013, Sputniko was awarded Vogue Japan Woman of the Year, and has since been selected as one of the Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum, moderating sessions at Davos 2020. She is also a TED Fellow. Her work has been exhibited globally, including at MoMA and Cooper Hewitt, New York; V&A and Bright Moments, London; Centre Pompidou, Metz; and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Her work is in the permanent collections of the V&A, London; and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa.
Jason Bailey is the creator of the art and tech blog Artnome.com and founder of GreenNFTs and ClubNFT, where he serves as CEO.