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Toshio Iwai, 2002

BY SHIZU YUASA
INTERVIEW WITH DAVID D'HEILLY
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MIE MORIMOTO

We’re in Tokyo’s Harajuku district just past sundown. The street is full of colorfully dressed hipsters, yet everyone is focused on a peripheral knot of people standing in a half-circle around an Asahi drink-vending machine. They all have big headphones over their ears and the same mini disc-sized machines in their hands. They seem to be measuring something. What are the people doing? What are they listening to? Are they in some kind of cult?
At the center stands the guru — a man with shoulder-length hair, wearing a pair of serious glasses, a gently intelligent smile on his face. He looks sincere. He’s just emerged, with his disciples, from one of Tokyo’s trendiest buildings, the La Forêt fashion emporium, which, like many of the city’s department stores, contains its own art gallery. Stopping every couple of meters, the guru addresses his flock. They put their headphones back on and point their disc-shaped devices towards a succession of everyday light sources — street lamps, an electronic bulletin board, passing headlights, the screen of a mobile phone. They’re listening to them — listening to the lights! To anything luminous, in fact. Even the moon.
The little object that each person is holding in their hands is called the Sound Lens, and it transforms light into sound. It’s the invention of artist Toshio Iwai, the man who is leading the strange little group. Unlike most multimedia artworks, which address the viewer in a contained environment and yield predictable responses, Iwai’s interactive works take you out into the real world. He makes the tools, but the content is up to you.

“What I want to do is create media. When a medium first arises, a whole world of new potentials also comes into being. There is no such thing as ‘correct use’ at the beginning. The only thing that people have to go on is the elation — the sense that this new thing is really interesting.
Of course, actual works need to be made in any new medium right away. The Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison both had to create elementary works for their inventions, just to illustrate that these things deserved further exploration. When Edison invented the wax cylinder player, the first thing he recorded was “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Because it’s only when you have a combination of hardware and software that you have a medium, right? If you only propose the hardware, it’s just a machine.”

Take another Iwai invention, Musical Chess. You and a partner sit down on either side of a table. When you put a glass ball into one of the holes in the table, the ball radiates a pink light and emits a resonance. You keep placing the balls, taking turns. Every couple of minutes the table plays the full “map” of pitches you’ve made. As you play, you begin to learn the rules of the game, the specific relationship of the table map to the music. You start to consider where to place the balls so they harmonize with the choices made by your partner. Harmony and discord. Suddenly new patterns emerge on the chessboard. It’s exciting — the results of coincidences, repetitions, and experiments become audible. Musical Chess encourages you to use all your senses in composing melodies based on synesthesia, connecting touch to vision and vision to sound. This music is liberated from musical instruments.

 Toshio Iwai has worked in the field of media art for more than a decade, and every year his creations seem to become simpler. In the early ’90s he created Amiga animations for the legendary kids’ TV show Ugo Ugo Luga. Iwai deliberately used a simple, low-resolution computer software system, so that he could rustle up graphics in real time during the live broadcasts. Since then it has become commonplace to see him on TV programs about digital art, where he’ll pop up to explain how to make a flip animation book or write an interactive sound and vision program with HotJava.

“What was the last software that offered you a real perceptual shock, or that really pointed to a new mode of apprehending the world? Of course Napster generated a new social phenomenon, but the people who fed from that phenomenon are still staring at the same desktop interface and using the same functions of their computers. They are shocked by what their computers are capable of — not by what their lives are capable of.”

A work by Toshio Iwai, whether we consider it as art or invention, is simply fun to play with. We touch it and experiment with it. By doing so, we experience the same excitement that the artist himself experienced in inventing it. Iwai’s art reminds me of the monthly science magazine of my elementary school years. Each issue came with a special supplement, a kit for a do-it-yourself-experiment. Over the years, I amassed a rich stock of experiences: I plastered my hand, licked litmus paper, and bred water fleas. I still remember how shocking it was when I saw my own hair for the first time through a simple microscope that was included with one issue. Did I really have millions of those grotesque roots on my head? It was magical to discover how to make a photographic print with sunlight, and how to capture radio waves with simple equipment. When I interact with one of Iwai’s works, I remember the excitement I had making experiments with those primitive tools — I remember being a child, using my hands.

“When the power of beauty hits you, where does it come from? Your eyes? Your thoughts? Your actions? This question really gets to me. My work is more or less about the fact that we live in a world where our eyes and ears are continually being stimulated. I want to create things that, even with all of the media overload surrounding us, still take in all of the senses.”

Back to Harajuku at sundown. I join the group. “Hey, try listening to this!” says the guru, pointing to some small flashing buttons on the vending machine. I put on the headphones and point my Sound Lens toward them. “Beeeweeepupubuuuu!” It’s a humorous, unexpectedly harmonious sound. Usually I don’t like vending machines. They look ugly. They’re plonked down thoughtlessly in the landscape, their design as tasteless as their drinks. But now this machine is singing! I try other illuminations. Each bright light on the Meiji Dori has a different sound personality.
After the tour, I walk down the streets without the Sound Lens, imagining what sort of music the world around me is making. The idea transports me into my own little sci-fi world. Now that I’ve realized that we can listen to lights, I imagine the smell of colors, the taste of music. Equipped with my new sensibility, perhaps someday I’ll even be able to draw a picture of the future.




© index magazine

Mie Morimoto

 

© index magazine

Mie Morimoto

© Mie Morimoto
 
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