Historical Perspective of Art and Technology: Japanese Culture Revived in Digital Era

- On Originality and Japanese Culture -

Machiko Kusahara

This text is reconstructed from the audio recording of my lecture at Invencao: Humanization of Technology Conference that took place in Sao Paulo in 1996. It is published in 1997.


I teach media art theory and practice in Japan to students aged from eighteen to mid-twenties. Some of them are older. There are quite a few students from other Asian countries such as Korea, China, and Taiwan who come to study the cutting edge technologies. In general they are hard working students, eager to study.

Several years ago I had an interesting experience. I asked my students to submit paper; to write on issues on technology and artistic representation in computer graphics. I went through students' paper. There was a brilliant paper from a student abroad. I was happy to give him a good remark. Then there was another good paper - the only problem was that the sentences were exactly the same with the earlier one. And another, and another. It was clear by that time that they copied from someone's writing. And strangely enough, they were the best students in my class who always come to ask me good questions. I didn't understand why they had to copy from someone else's writing. Instead of giving them the worst remark I decided to interview everyone of them. They answered my questions without problem.

Apparently they understood my lecture and could speak in their own words. Then, why did they copy? Their answer to this question was clear enough. "I don't write Japanese well enough. But I read an article written by someone, and I totally agreed with what was written there. It was exactly what I wanted to say. So I copied it. It's much better than my poor Japanese. I shouldn't let my dear professor suffer from my poor writing. What's wrong with it?"

This is a totally different idea from what you have on copyright. Japanese are often accused of not respecting copyright, often copying software for example. Still it was a little too much from even Japanese standard. Yet, as a part of my background is in oriental painting and I had certain experience in its learning system, I somehow understood what brought them to make such action. It comes from something we share in Asian culture in general. Not only with oriental paintings, but with most of the martial arts, tea ceremony, flower arrangement... there is something in common . So, that was one of my starting points where I started to think about the way our cultural tradition works with digital media, including electronic art.


Before showing some works from Japan regarding this theme, I would like to talk about Japanese poetry HAIKAI. It is a form of short poem which has a long history. Actually there was much influence from Chinese literature in the foundation of such short poem. Haikai developed from Waka which was appreciated among the noble who also read Chinese poetry and took certain idea from it.
But what is interesting about Japanese history is that not only the nobles but ordinary people also enjoyed making and appreciating such short poems. First official anthology of Waka includes many poems made by normal anonymous people from all over the country. These short poems were not necessarily the expression of their feelings. They were also used as a tool of communication either to convey polite greetings or passionate affection, or even political messages. A noble person should have a skill to write a nice poem instead of a love letter. It was often the case with normal people as well.

But a Waka has only 5-7-5-7-7 syllables which might be a composition of six to ten words. How can one put so much meanings in such a short form?
Actually it was exactly the reason why Waka served as a useful tool of communication. Instead of being a poem that stands by itself with meanings which come directly from its components, a Waka would consist of words that have different meanings behind them. In a sense, Waka was a multi-textural non-linear form of literature.
Because of that a Waka could mean much more than what was literally said.

Besides, not only making poems, enjoying poems or publishing poems, we play with poems in Japan. I used to do it when I was a child. It used to be the most popular game to be played during the new year holidays among families and friends.
There is a set of one hundred poems from one hundred different celebrated poets from around the 15th century. Players should memorize these poems. There are two sets of hundred cards; one with full poems to be read (for the reader), the other only with the latter half of them (for the players).
When a poem is read, the players should find the right card with the second part of the poem printed. It can be a match between two players (more formal competition) or among more than three people. The player who got the largest number of cards wins. It's a serious match.
On the other hand these cards are usually beautifully decorated and painted. There are even old sets of cards hand-painted by well-known painter/designer Korin Ogata. It is a jou de culture. Actually these playing cards are called "karuta" which comes from Portuguese word for cards. The idea of playing with paper cards was originally brought to Japan by Portuguese. But instead of playing with numbers, Japanese played with poems.
The largest Japanese publisher for such cards today is Nintendo. Nintendo is now better known as a computer game maker/distributor, but is originally a publisher of such playing cards.
It is interesting to think how Japanese game culture changed from a game of classic literature to occidental shooting or dragon and dungeon games involving computer while Nintendo always remains as a mainstream of such culture. Does it reflect the change of Japanese culture, in fact?

In such a society where making and appreciating poems is a part of the culture and is an important tool of communication, people should know poems and their hidden meanings behind.
In fact, a word has references behind its regular meanings. For example, if a name of a place (either in Japan or in China) is mentioned in a poem, it doesn't only mean the place itself but it provides a link to all the previous contexts included in the earlier poems that referred to the same place.
Such particular names of places made an important part of "makura-kotoba". "Makura-kotoba" (which literally means "pillow word" ) is used as the first part of a poem (makura means pre-positioning) and opens up the link to metaphorical meanings and other poems as mentioned. Besides names of particular places certain adjective phrases established themselves as makura-kotoba. By doing so a short poem can mean many things.

Making a poem or replying to a poem was thus a serious match of intelligence. The emperor's court enjoyed rather peaceful time for more than hundred years in 10th to 11th century. Noble men did not have to show their ability in fighting. Earning a fame in intelligence (i.e. knowing and making poems for example) became an important part of the career. Having one's poems selected for Royal anthology of WAKA or winning at a WAKA match in the royal court was a serious business.
It is also known that a noble family would hire an intelligent woman as the tutor for their daughter, so that she would win the chance to get married with the emperor or crown prince, and her father would seize power. Lady Murasaki who wrote "The Tale of Genji" was one of those tutors. Lady Seisho who was one of the earliest essayists known for exceptional intelligence and sense of humor was actually a tutor for a noble lady who was a rival to Lady Murasaki's mistress. Knowledge in literature was an important part of the court, and thus of power politics.

To serve for such purpose there were publications at that time already.
It was a kind of database. They contained all possible references for each word, how it was used in previous poems and thus what it could mean beside its original meaning. The idea of such database had been founded previously in China.
China was the first country in the world that introduced an open examination given by the state to be hired as a state official. Anyone from any class could become an elite if one could succeed in the examination, for which literature was an important part.

What would happen to the idea of copyright or originality in a society where poem is a part of communication and is recycled as a part of a database of metaphor?
A good poem will be cited, not as a whole but just as a part of it. Citing the whole poem does not make the match of intelligence. A word from a good poem would start to have its own meaning, and would be used over and over, gradually changing or enriching its original meanings.
In a sense, it becomes a gene in the literature. A good, useful gene will be used, modified, and keeps on living in different forms. It could become a makura-kotoba, for example. Finally the origin of such gene might be forgotten because it becomes a part of the environment. On the other hand, a bad or banal poem would only remain as it was, without being referred or cited. A poet should feel happy if a part of his/her poem is used in a different poem by someone else.
An appreciated poem will be recorded and printed with the name of the poet on the official publication from the court (such publication was regularly accomplished) besides being remembered by others. But at the same time it should be decomposed and re-used by others to prove it's metaphorical strength. It is difficult to say either such tradition influenced and prepared the way Japanese attitude toward originality, or it comes more deeply from Japanese or Asian culture.
Judging from the fact that Asian countries share similar attitude toward copyright, it is likely that either Asian culture or Pan-Pacific culture cultivated such tendency.

Waka gave birth to another important form of Japanese poem RENGA which developed into HAIKAI- NO-RENGA, or what was simply called HAIKU later. Instead of going through dialogue by series of independent WAKA, two or more poets would collaborate in making RENGA.
RENGA means linked verse. A verse which is a set of two lines that consist of five and seven syllables will be composed by a poet, then followed by another verse made by another poet, and thus it continues.

Continues? Yes and no. Here is the interesting feature of RENGA. The aesthetics of RENGA consists in the continuous change of scenes, not in the continuity of the scene. Each verse reflects what was represented in the previous one, but should develop into something else. It is a consequence of chain imagination that shouldn't stay at one spot. One can see the tradition of match of poem in it. It is both collaboration and match of intelligence and imagination among poets.
In Edo era, instead of WAKA match at the royal court in earlier centuries RENGA parties would take place indoor and outdoor typically among rich citizens. Matsuo Basho was one of the most celebrated directors of such RENGA parties.
In fact, directing RENGA was a source of major income for Basho. Well known Japanese short poem HAIKU was developed from RENGA, by making a part of RENGA as an independent verse . It was Basho who established HAIKU as a new form of poetry.


Now let's see how such tradition reflects in Japanese most contemporary digital art.
Illustrator Katsuhiko Hibino, whose works were exhibited in Venezia Biennale in 1995, went through an interesting experiment using network in the previous year. Two of his illustrations were uploaded on the biggest commercial computer network in Japan.
Users were invited to download the images, to make one's own image(s) using them. It was an open competition where Hibino himself made the selection from entered works. There were some interesting works entered. Hibino also had an open workshop during one of his exhibitions. By connecting his studio and the exhibition space with computer network and a telephone line, the artist invited visitors to a remote collaboration while talking on the telephone line. Hibino carried these experiments because he was curious how people would interpret and modify his images.

Artist Noriyuki Tanaka joined the experiment on the net along with Hibino.
Tanaka is known for his collaborative works done with Professor Shinsuke Shimojo of the University of Tokyo which brought art and cognitive science together. Creating a space where a visitor would realize his/her unconscious ego, expectations, or automatic way of cognition, is the purpose of Tanaka's artwork. With Tanaka's two images uploaded on the network users of the net created different resulting images.
One of the most interesting works came from an architect who by using 3D computer graphics made a virtual installation of Tanaka's works. For Tanaka the project was interesting to experience how his imagination would go through changes through other people's imagination. The resulting images are mixtures of imaginations of the artist and the users.
The artist experimented the idea even further in his CD-ROM publication then. "The Art of Clear Light", a CD-ROM which contains photographs Tanaka took in different places is not just a photo album of an artist. It contains a piece of software that shuffles the images in the CD-ROM and overlay each of them on top of images from a different folder on the computer. A user is invited to bring in his/her own photographs or drawings into the folder so that each image will be mixed with the artist's piece of work.

This is a totally different approach to show an artist's works. An artist usually insists to show one's works in their complete form, without being damaged by any sense. Noriyuki Tanaka insists that his images should be seen as mixed with those of user's! From the point of view of a user, Tanaka says, when he/she sees one's familiar image (i.e. a photo one has taken, for example) through the half transparent layer of a different image the artist had prepared, it means that the user sees the scene through the artist's layer of thought - or, the two consciousness (of the user and the artist) mix in the scene and produce a new meaning. Merging one's ego with others to see what is beyond. It is what the title of the publication means, according to Tibetan Buddhism.

Art projects to bring an experience to step beyond one's self are carried by artist Kazuhiko Hachiya as well. In his work "InterDiscommunication Machine" Hachiya made a parody of InterCommunication Center(NTT/ICC) in its naming, and a parody of high-end expensive virtual reality in its system designing. ICC is named after the concept that the new media technology would connect people creating new channel of communication. InterDiscommunication Machine shows that technology can serve to cause discommunication among people. Actually the aim of the work is to promote communication between two visitors by physically relocating the normal communication channel.
With this piece of art, each of two visitors(users) is asked to wear a special equipment. It exactly looks like a kind of HMD(head mounted display) with a screen and a set of headphone with a transmitter on one's back. What you see is only the screen. And it is true that what one sees on the screen is the space in front of him/her from a different point of view. It is, in fact, the space seen from the OTHER person! What you see is what the other person sees, what you hear is what the other person hears. A small video camera and a microphone on top of the helmet shoots the supposed view and collects the sound around a visitor. The image and sound are transmitted wireless to the other person's screen and the speaker.
Though the technology used is very simple, this system allows the exchange of one's view and the soundscape with that of the other person. In a sense it is an extremely low-tech virtual reality. It is difficult to imagine what would be such an experience unless you try it. You should look around for yourself on the screen to reach the other. If you see yourself it means that the other person now sees you. You should understand the space around you by guessing what the other person is doing - because you can see it only through the other person's eyes. Shaking hands is already a big deal. People say "try to see things from other people's point of view". When it comes true, seeing things from another person's point of view is not that easy. Gradually you get used to a sense of having one's tele-existence that belongs to another person's coordinate system. It is a strange feeling to merge one's world into someone else's cognitive space.

Another project Hachiya carried after the invention of this machine was "Mega-Diary" which took place as a part of network art projects sponsored by InterCommunication Center. A hundred users of the network were invited to write diaries for a hundred days respectively, which would be open on the network. Anyone can read others' diaries. By reading others' diaries daily one starts to have a feeling of one's life mixed with others' lives. One starts to virtually live and experience other people's lives. Personal experience and emotion will be mixed with other people's.
Here again, the theme of the project is to experience a merging ego. "Reading others' diaries was a strange experience," one of the participants said. "But after a while I felt like living their lives even though I had never seen them - we just happened to be on the same network. They became closer than my parents with whom I live. Someone always wrote about the dish he cooked. I felt like virtually eating those dishes. I watched TV that I didn't watch in my real life, enjoyed playing games in a game center I have never visited... When we finally met after the hundred day term was over, it was a kind of deja vu."


The most significant art project that illustrates the reincarnation of Japanese traditional culture in digital era is the RENGA conceived and carried by artists Toshihiro Anzai and Rieko Nakamura.
RENGA in this case is a word play. REN means link or linked, GA in its original terminology means song or poem. The same sound GA also means image(s), with a different Chinese character. RENGA here means linked images instead of linked verse.
Anzai and Nakamura are artists who use computers to paint. They have been using network, organizing various projects on the net for years. Nakamura worked as a project coordinator at one of the major commercial networks in Japan while her background is in painting. Anzai had opened his own network which became a meeting place for media artists and researchers.
Including myself, people virtually met on these networks every night to discuss the new feature of digital technology in terms of the concept of originality. The basic idea was to create a virtual studio or cafe in the air where people would get together around midnight to discuss, show one's works, enjoy a performance, collaborate, or argue. As painters and poets gathered together in cafe in old Paris, we thought we needed such place on the network. We also had MOO and MUD without knowing how such ideas were called in English. Network was also an important part of the activity of Digital Image, the largest group of digital artists in Japan which we founded in 1989 (the first exhibition took place in May 1991).

The concept of RENGA was developed in such circumstance.
The idea of RENGA came to Anzai by chance. During a workshop Digital Image organized at an exhibition we had in Toyama in December 1991 (it was the last of the eight exhibitions Digital Image did in 1991) he sat in front of a computer where Nakamura's work was loaded. He started to modify the image unconsciously. Then he noticed that the resulting image showed a hybrid of two different styles of the artists. In fact, Nakamura's work brought a "seed" of imagination to Anzai which was different from what he would usually have. Then it developed into a different way from Nakamura's style because it was Anzai who watered and let it grow.
It was a new experience for Anzai. After thinking and analyzing this experience for several weeks, he proposed a new network collaboration to Nakamura. The first series of RENGA was exhibited at the annual Digital Image exhibition in 1992.

RENGA is carried as follows. One artist will prepare an image. The image will be sent to the other artist via network. The other artist will modify the image freely, turning it into his/her own work. Then the image will be sent back to the other. The session continues until they feel the series is saturated.
While the process itself is collaborative painting, the concept of RENGA is deeply connected to the nature of digital technology and the idea of originality.
In general, an artist would naturally hesitate to modify a work of another artist. It means to destroy someone's work. But in case of digital painting, one can easily make a copy of an image and give it to someone else. The original and the copy are identical. There is no difference between them. Moreover, one can make as many copies as one wants without degrading the original quality. It is totally different from the case of prints such as lithography.

With such feature, the traditional system that supports the value of artworks lose its basis. The value of an artwork can be no longer based on the physical originality of the piece. In case of RENGA, an artist would paint digitally, and then make a copy and send it to the other artist by e-mail. No material is involved in the process. It is a genuine IMAGE which is on the screen, without any physical existence. At the same time, exactly with the same reason why one can make identical copies of an image, any part of an image can be modified or erased on the screen without leaving any trace of the original image. It is different from painting over someone else's oil painting.

What kind of experience is it, to go through RENGA session? First of all, it is a match of artistic sensitivity and expression between the artists. Of course it is not a fight - it is a collaboration. Yet one has to catch a ball thrown to him/her which is heavy enough with its artistic content, and then throw it back with a different content. Like you must know the course and the weight of a ball if you want to catch it correctly, one has to understand the content of the image thrown to him/her via the net, to catch it and "cook" it in his/her own style.
On the other hand, it is an exciting experience to share someone else's way of imagination. Instead of limiting the source of imagination to oneself, there are different possibilities in finding the seed of images. By trying to understand the nature of the image given by another artist, one would discover a new landscape. One has to confront with an alien imagination. It is not very easy sometimes. But on the other hand it means that one's personal universe would become wider and more adventurous, and an artist can go through the creative process through dialogue. It is interesting to see the whole session of RENGA if you know the original styles of the participating artists. Each work clearly shows the style of the artist, yet there is something different.
Going through a session of RENGA is an exciting experience. At SIGGRAPH 94 we organized a three day international RENGA session connecting the EDGE at SIGGRAPH (which was the exhibition space for interactive art) and artists on network in Japan. An image would go though the modification at SIGGRAPH with artists visiting the space, then the final piece of the day will be sent to Japan at the end of the afternoon. In the morning in Orlando the image sent back from Japan will be uploaded and the same procedure is repeated. Another international session was held during ISEA 95 between Montreal and Tokyo.
An artist told me after he joined RENGA. "I usually don't make such piece. But the image sent to me provoked something in me that I hadn't realized until now. I never thought that I have such imagination. I couldn't help making this piece. It was me who painted - but it was not just me. "

Another episode of RENGA with Chinese contemporary calligraphy artist Xia Gao would signify the nature of RENGA. It was a session held in Beijing in 1996. For the Chinese artist it was the first time to collaborate artists using digital technology. Gao's two calligraphy works with his signatures were scanned into computer and used as the "seeds" for the session. Anzai and Nakamura modified over the images transmitted through network, sent them back. In Beijing the images were printed and Gao painted over them.
At the second time Gao sent the images back Anzai and Nakamura noticed that there were no longer his signatures on the images while signature is an important part of calligraphy. Later they asked him about it. Gao told them that he understood that the images are no longer HIS works but the result of collaborative imagination. The sense of owning one's work vanishes.

Collaborative imagination? Isn't there something terrifying in the idea?
Japanese are well known for their efficiency in working in groups. It is why Japanese industry succeeded. On the other hand Japanese are not very good in making decisions on one's own responsibility. Seeking more value on collaboration rather than individual goal makes a totalitarian attitude easier, which was unfortunately proven in our recent history. Our tradition in putting less importance on personal right on art pieces should be a reason of the problem on copyright issue, such as copying software. But the same tradition might bring new possibilities on network, allowing free transaction of imagination. It is a different approach, coming from different background.


There is a word "biodiversity". An ecosystem with a rich variety of species is more stable and would survive through drastic environmental changes. Species which had developed to fit the environment would have difficulties when something changes. Minor species might find the new environment more comfortable and would become prosperous. If there are no such species all species might die. As is known in case of the regeneration of forest, the ecosystem itself is the combination of different species.
I believe in the necessity of the cultural biodiversity . Each culture has its own tradition. Through its history a society would generate its own culture; the whole complex of art, society, way of thinking, way of working, etc. which are connected together with the same backbone and nerve system.
Every now and then there might be a prevailing culture that orients the global fauna. Yet when a big change happens to the environment it is such diversity of culture that helps finding the way, to modify the rule and keep the global society adapt the new condition. And the environment is in fact changing rapidly and globally. The new way of communication such as network is changing our way of thinking and way of living. We need to keep our cultural biodiversity.
I am proud that I could bring something from my own culture that might help inspiration toward the coming era. And I feel honored that I was given a chance to speak about the subject in Brazil, where you keep the world largest biodiversity along Amazon.

Published in ARTE NO SECULO - A HUMANIZACAO DAS TECNOLOGIAS(Brasil) Edition UNESP 1997

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