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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011

Looking information technology in the eye


Special to The Japan Times

In an era in which we have seen communication and human interaction revolutionized by new technology, it may well seem that the "medium really is the message." But just how far can this alliteratively attractive slogan really be stretched?

News photo
Keeping an eye on you: The third part of Seiko Mikami's "Desire of Codes," mimics the way memory works by showing fragmented recordings of recent and past visitors to the installation. C.B. LIDDELL PHOTO

Those issues and questions now form an important part of artistic discourse, especially for that subsection of the artistic profession known as "media artists." One such artist is Seiko Mikami, whose enigmatically titled installation, "Desire of Codes," is now on display at the Inter Communication Center in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.

The ICC is a display space financed by the telecommunications giant NTT, with a remit to focus on art with a technological and communications aspect. "Desire of Codes" is certainly that.

Those looking for a content-rich exhibition with aesthetic variety would be better off visiting the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery's "Feel and Think: A New Era of Tokyo Fashion," a stimulating and innovative exhibition located in the same building.

"Desire of Codes," by contrast, is a rather sparse and bleak affair. Indeed, the content is actually nonexistent, at least until you, the viewer, walk into the exhibition space. That's because you actually provide the content for Mikami's interactive installation, which turns the viewer into the viewed.

The piece comprises three parts designed to mimic sensory and mental processes. First there is a wall with 90 small mechanized sticks bearing lights, cameras and sensors that respond to the presence of visitors by turning toward them and filming. Second, in the center of the hall, there are six large robotic arms suspended from the ceiling that do likewise, but with greater three-dimensional movement and a sense of animation and intelligence. These also project the images they "see" on to the floor around you at differing magnifications.

The third part of the installation looks like a large compound eye projected onto the back wall. At least formally, this reminded me of Zen, the spaceship computer from the late 1970s BBC sci-fi series "Blake's 7." The eye is divided into 61 hexagons that show jumbled-up recordings taken by the cameras at this exhibition and previous ones.

The show, which was commissioned by and debuted at the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media, has also visited Germany and Austria. So, by mixing sensory inputs from the recent and distant past, the installation mimics the way memory works. Along with the way the sensors and robotic arms respond to us, this creates an eerie impression of a sentient intelligence. An obvious conclusion is that the artist is trying to give us a foretaste of how future artificial intelligence will seem when it has the means to interact with us on a more physical level — but the artist herself is not so sure.

"I'm not interested in artificial intelligence that much actually," Mikami explains by telephone from Yamaguchi Prefecture, where she is working on a new installation. "The 'desire of codes' in the title is not about hardware. It's more about information-oriented society."

Mikami is particularly interested in how technology creates virtual or informational versions of people that exist ghostlike alongside their real existence, and the inaccuracies this often creates.

"For example, recently, I bought a teddy bear for my friend's birthday present through Amazon dot com," she explains. "So Amazon is tracking me and thinks that Seiko Mikami likes teddy bears. But I don't like teddy bears myself! This shows that there are two kinds of 'you' in this world; the information you and the real you."

For legal reasons, Mikami's installation can't collect individualized informational on visitors, only fragmentary images, but the distortion of our information selves is hinted at by the way the robot arms film visitors then project them back at varying magnifications. Although an interesting premise, the overall effect of the installation remains weak because Mikami provides a medium whose only message is a jumbled array of random images of anonymous visitors.

"Desire of Codes" at the Inter Communication Center runs till Dec. 18; admission ¥500; open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.ntticc.or.jp.


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