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Crypto Histories
January 1, 2024

Digital Art’s Rising Sun

Japan has been central to developments in art and technology from the beginning, argues Junya Yamamine
Credit: Emi Kusano, Techno-Animism #88, 2023. Courtesy of the artist
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Digital Art’s Rising Sun

Japan’s technology sector grew significantly in the second half of the twentieth century, driving the country’s economic development and becoming part of Japan’s identity, both domestically and internationally. As a result, a great number of artists are involved in technology-enhanced entertainment and NFT art. On the other hand, not much is known about historical trends in this field.

Global interest in art’s relationship to technology grew out of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), initiated by the artist Robert Rauschenberg and a researcher at Bell Labs, Billy Klüver, which launched in 1966 with 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York. However, in Japan, interest in the field was already emerging in the 1950s, with a group called Jikken Kōbō (“Experimental Workshop”), formed by Shūzō Takiguchi alongside more than a dozen others, including the composers Tōru Takemitsu and Joji Yuasa. 

Having burned brightly for a number of years producing works of kinetic and performance art, as well as experimental film, the group ceased activities in 1957. However, many members of Jikken Kōbō would go on to participate in Expo ’70 in Osaka as individual artists, with one of its principal figures, Katsuhiro Yamaguchi, becoming a pioneer of media art in Japan, nurturing well-known media artists including Toshio Iwai and Maywa Denki from his post at the University of Tsukuba.

Hiroshi Kawano, Design 3-1. Data 4, 5, 6, 6, 6 [Design 1-4. Data 1, 2, 3, 3, 3], 1964. Photography by Franz J. Wamhof. Courtesy ZKM Karlsruhe

Yet algorithmic computer graphics had already emerged in Japan in the 1960s in parallel with developments in the US and Europe. 

Like Herbert W. Franke, Frieder Nake, and Manfred Mohr, Hiroshi Kawano was also influenced by Max Bense’s work on rational aesthetics, publishing designs calculated using an OKITAC 5090A computer as early as September 1964. 

Kawano’s 2011 retrospective at the ZKM Center for Art and Media included various experiments from the 1960s, ranging from computer music to computer graphics to AI research. Works of the Japanese Computer Technique Group (CTG) were also included in the sixth edition of the American monthly magazine Computers and Automation and as part of the exhibition, “Cybernetic Serendipity,” at the ICA in London. Based out of IBM’s Scientific Data Center in Tokyo, the CTG produced striking graphic representations, including a cycle of images of the late President John F. Kennedy programmed in Fortran IV and plotted with a Calcomp 563 plotter. Their manifesto of 1966 continues to resonate today:

We will tame the computer’s appealing transcendental charm and restrain it from serving established power. This stance is the way to solve complicated problems in the machine society. We do not praise machine civilization, nor do we criticise it. By a strategic collaboration with artists, scientists and other creative people from a wide variety of backgrounds, we will deliberate carefully the relationships between human beings and machines, and how we should live in the computer age.¹

The Pepsi Pavilion and Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculpture, illuminated at night by high-intensity xenon lights, 1970. Photography by Shunk-Kender. Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Trust / Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Media art blossomed in Japan after Expo ’70, the world’s fair held in Suita, Osaka, which became a national point of convergence for young contemporary artists seeking to engineer a hopeful future through the use of technology. It was also a global event, with E.A.T. designing the Pepsi Pavilion as a “Laboratory for Social Experimentation,” with its origami-inspired dome enveloped with water vapor from Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculpture. Developments in media art also catalyzed new forms of video art, with artists increasingly examining social changes brought about by the development of broadcasting technology and the informatization of computers. 

Thanks to Sony’s Portapak, a portable video camera launched in 1967, what had previously been the preserve of professionals was now accessible to everyone, democratizing video as an alternative to the mass media power structure. 

Artists were thus inspired to push new devices beyond their developers’ expectations, thereby expanding their possibilities. Alongside her installation for the Pepsi Pavilion, Fujiko Nakaya was also a pioneer of Japanese video art, bridging local developments to the wider world through gallery exhibitions and festivals focused on video.

However, such developments also created a major point of contention between critical approaches to new media and the spectacle of experimentation with new technologies. In Japan, this was exemplified by TV War, a collaboration between the video team Radical TV and Ryuichi Sakamoto, presented at Expo’ 85 in Tsukuba. The work sampled footage capturing the violence of war, reflecting on the mass consumption of military technology via a 2000-inch JumboTron television screen, the largest in the world at the time. In subsequent decades, artists have continued to challenge the boundaries between art and technology, using the former to assess the social implications of the latter. 

Ryuichi Sakamoto and Radical TV, (Still from) TV War, 1985. Courtesy of the artists

Interest in the art of technology swelled in the 1980s at a time when Japan’s economic development became inextricably linked with the advancement of new digital technologies. The exhibition, “Arts on Computer,” acknowledged as much as part of its inauguration of the new O Art Museum in Shinagawa. This was also the moment when Japanese creators started to gain recognition abroad, with Yoichiro Kawaguchi and Masaki Fujihata recognized at the SIGGRAPH conference on computer graphics and both Toshio Iwai and Seiko Mikami coming to prominence. Just as the father of video art, Nam June Paik, was inspiring a generation of Japanese artists with a major exhibition in Tokyo, Dumb Type also emerged as an artist collective that continues to illuminate contemporary society through performances of vivid visuals and sound. 

By the 1990s, media art was attracting attention from corporations, regional administrations, and the national government, with Japan’s largest telecommunications company, NTT, establishing the InterCommunication Center as the first media art center in the country just as the annual Japan Media Arts Festival was holding its first awards. Canon ARTLAB also began supporting artists engaging with new technologies while Nagoya’s International Biennial, ARTEC, hosted the world premiere of Jeffrey Shaw’s masterpiece of interactive art, The Legible City.

The gathering momentum led to an increase in the number of universities teaching media arts: from Tokyo University of the Arts, where Masaki Fujihata taught, to the University of Tsukuba to Tama Art University, whose faculty has included luminaries such as Akihiro Kubota and Seiko Mikami. Meanwhile, at The Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences (IAMAS), Masayuki Akamatsu was busy writing the Japanese textbook on Max, a new visual programming framework based on C

The spread of new programming languages such as Arduino, Processing, and openFrameworks soon normalized open source code across the internet, which fired the creative exploits of a new generation of digital creators. 
Emi Kusano, Techno-Animism #157, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Led by Daito Manabe, the creative collective Rhizomatiks has built a reputation for advanced projection mapping technology, participating in the staging of the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics. Meanwhile, teamLab has entered the scene, attracting the attention of the general public through immersive video installations at a time when Japanese people are increasingly conflicted about the meaning of media art.

It was Shiho Fukuhara, Ai Hasegawa, and Sputniko! who, having spent time at the Royal College of Art in London, introduced the concept of speculative design to Japan, in the process imagining possible futures while revealing the social and gender biases underpinning contemporary AI, biotechnology, and robotics. A product of research across science and engineering, Geminoid has also questioned the boundary between humans and robots, while the Ory Laboratory has created an environment where people who are physically disabled can walk via communication technology. 

These developments represent a shift from an era in which art served as a critical window on society to a moment when both economic mobility and social implementation are now crucial components.

The rise of NFTs has also turbocharged coding culture, fostering interest in works of generative art by the likes of qubibi and Shunsuke Takawo. In turn, Emi Kusano has been inspired by 1980s and ’90s anime to create Shinsei Galverse alongside Zombie Zoo. Yet despite such successes, literacy in these areas of Japanese art remains low, with the trading of digital art still to escalate at home. As the era of Web3 takes hold, it will be necessary to think more deeply about whether and how economic mobility might return to society. What these different histories suggest is that, even in the midst of chaos, we are moving towards a new paradigm.

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With thanks to Alex Estorick.

Junya Yamamine is a curator and CEO at NYAW inc. After working as a curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, at 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, and at Contemporary Art Centre | Art Tower Mito, he became the director of ANB Tokyo. Previous curatorial projects include “Hello World — for the Post-Human Age,” “Resistance of Fog — Fujiko Nakaya,” and “The World Began Without the Human Race and It Will End Without It.” In addition to planning and consulting on art-related projects such as Meet Your Art Festival, Music Loves Art in Summer Sonic, and the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Cultural Economy Strategy Promotion Project, he also supervises art programs, featuring in magazines and on television. He is also a writer, jury member, and, in 2015, served as an overseas trainee for curators from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology.

This article is also available in Japanese via Massage Magazine.


¹ Quoted in G Bell, “Touching the future: stories of systems, serendipity and grace” in Griffith Review, No. 71, February 2021, 251-262.