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Urban Escapism – Part 2. Sound Lens, Rhabdomancy By Toshio Iwai

As we had seen in the first part of this essay, published on the last month issue – Digimag 69, the work of Toshio Iwai lies beneath two major worldviews: holism and reductionism; Allison on this regard writes: “Whereas other scholars such as Max Weber argued that modernity brought rationalization, Benjamin thought that under the surface of rationality the urban-industrial world had become reenchanted on an unconscious level” (Allison 2006: 28). [1] (Allison 2006 : 28).


Roberto Milazzi
sunveils qualities pertinent to nomadism through Guènon: accordingly to the corpus of studies of Renet Guènon, for settled cultures, persuasion is actuated through images – might be in the form of paintings as well as sculptures and the architecture – while for nomads the message is conveyed by voice. The theophanies among Jewish, nomads par excellence, have prevalently the following character: “God spoke” and “God made His voice aloud”. Well to remember that: prophet is who speaks through the voice of God (Milazzi 2008: 10). [2]

In my opinion Sound-Lens can be used as Litmus paper, where, rather than test the acidity or basicity of a solution, it is possible to investigate characteristics pertinent to Modernism and to Postmodernism. As Allison writes: “Nomadicism – what characterizes the postmodern world more than anything, according to Deleuze – is the trope of everyday life in Tokyo” (Allison 2006: 67). [3] Concerning tribalism and the way Iwai makes experience his events, the main point of reference is to contemporary rhabdomancy, where the shaman Iwai explores the cityscape not in search of water but of another fluid: electricity in the form of light. One could compare electricity to a contemporary version of water. It might be premature to define Iwai’s journey as the one of a nomad shaman in search of a good path. In the following pages I will address this issue fully.

 

As Aaron Betsky puts it in the essay entitled Plasticity in a World of Flow: “Today, designers continue to be inspired by the notion that solids can melt into liquids, and that the body can be one such form. They create objects that fit into our hands and against every curve of our body, so that we can glide more comfortably through urban sprawl or surf the Internet without strain.” (Betsky 1997: 152). [4] The relationship with the reality of city dwellers in contemporary urban environments, maybe surprisingly, shows characteristic aspects typical of ancient ancestors. Iwai is one of the authors who best interpret the contemporary form of urban nomadism: in fact, Sound-Lens looks like a tool for rhabdomancy.

As Richard Schechner points out: “My thesis is that much play behavior is adapted from hunting, that hunting is a kind of playing. This kind of playing is strategic, future-and-crisis-oriented, violent and/or combative; it has winners and losers, leaders and followers; it employs costumes and or/or disguises (often as animals); it has a beginning, middle, and end; and its underlying themes are fertility, prowess, and animism/totemism”[5] (Schechner 2003: 108).

Rhabdomancy belongs to the arts of divination: it is a practice enacted in order to achieve knowledge. The Future and, broadly, what it is not known yet are the target of such practice. This practice infers the principle of causality, it is not beyond the control of consciousness: today we might say that this was a practice that followed a scientific method, yet devoid of technology with which to attain results. Therefore, the unknown was probed consciously, but the lack of proper tools undermined the efficacy of the method. Such latency opened the way to religions, which afterwards have been superseded by science, as Marcel Mauss and Mircea Eliade convey. Mauss and Eliade pointed out in their research that it is typical of a magic belief to ascribe to objects some special powers. Among other theories, the paradigm of “the three laws of sympathy” as described by Marcel Mauss in Sociologie et anthropologie and in A General Theory of Magic is the most effective aid in exploring the contemporary Japanese art scene.

 

I am not alone in positioning the theories of Mauss in a high-tech contemporary setting. Eugene Thacker in his essay argues that: “If magic is both immanent (social) and instrumental (technological), then black magic is an instrumental use of the immanent qualities of magic. […] if we keep in mind our notion of black magic (aided by Mauss’ theory), then it is hard to deny certain analogies in the biotech industry” (Thacker 2003: 140). [6]

Even if masked as artistic experiences aided by recent high-tech tools, ancient rituals tend to circulate solely in the contemporary urban environment. The practitioners might be not aware of what they are enacting as Allison puts: “This intermixture of the old (spirituality) with the new (digital/virtual media) in Japan exemplifies what I have earlier dubbed techno-animism: animating contemporary technology and commodities with spirits and recuperating cultural traditions with New Age practices” [7] (Allison 2006 : 21).


Sound-Lens
opens the door to a very personal experience: a journey into perception. This private state – I advance the definition of autistic condition – can be turned into a spectacle for an audience when hooked to a mixer/PA system and video projected. As a matter of fact a mental condition in which fantasy dominates over reality, a state which can be termed childnessess, and hearing what others cannot: are symptoms of schizophrenia and other disorders. My assumption might look hard-core: what it is nowadays termed as new-media art shall be probed not only through aesthetic theories, but also by the aid of neurophysiology and psychiatry


Sound-Lens
can be turned into an happening, or action, when performed by a group equipped with Sound-Lenses. On the definition of happening, action and performance in art I shall refer to Rudolf Frieling in his No Rehearsal – aspects of Media Art as Process. (http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/source-text/44/)

The boundaries between happening, action art and performance are fluid, but a rough distinction may be drawn quite easily. A happening involves a set of instructions, a location and an open dramatic concept (sometimes with a script or ‘musical’ score), but the participants are free – at least in theory – to decide how far they wish to involve themselves in the events. Actions, by contrast, are based on an idea that is enacted by one or several performers, but the sequence of events is essentially open, since the action takes place in a public space where unplanned encounters with the everyday world are inevitable. At the end of the 1960s the talk was of ‘anti-art’ or ‘non-art’. Performance art approximates most closely to the traditional mise-en-scène, requiring a clear demarcation between actors and audience. Here, the events may be meticulously planned or relatively spontaneous: the significant point is that they always revolve around the individual personalities of the performers.[8] (Frieling 2003: 163)

 

If a ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value; if it is a set of actions that are prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community, which might overlap; if the term ritual usually excludes actions that are arbitrarily chosen by the performers, it follows that the performance enacted by Iwai and his followers is not a ritual. Yet, Sound-Lens adopts Kyriakidis’ interpretation of the ritual. Kyriakidis writes that a ritual can be described as a “set of actions” that seems irrational, non-contiguous, or illogical to an outsider, while for the insiders – the practitioners/participants – it has its own internal meaning (Kyriakidis 2007). By definition then Sound-Lens can be grouped in the ritual actions because it involves special gestures, processions, and manipulation of certain objects.

In terms of their shape and usage, the tools that Toshio Iwai uses during the performance resemble some sacred objects used in Shinto rituals: torimono. Shigeru describes torimono as: “a prop which is held in the hand of the dancer in sacred dance rituals such as kagura. It can also refer to the thing the dancer holds when performing a dance to purify the implements to be used in a sacred ritual or dance” (Shigeru 2007). [10]

By holding the torimono while dancing, the dancer can enact the divine power. It is thought that the spirit is actually present inside the torimono during the dance and can take possession of the dancer, who then attains the kamigakari, a state of possession. In the dance named ninjōmai, which is part of the songs hayakarakami and sonokoma, the ninjō [the lead dancer] holds in his hand a fuji [circle of wicker wrapped in white cloth against a branch of sakaki] , believed to possess magical power. In the Aichi Prefecture, during the hana-matsuri, the mikagura and yudate kagura are performed, where floral headgear and the cloak are held in the hands of the dancers and purified while dancing. Also in it is not uncommon to find characters who dance brandishing objects embodying symbolic and otherworldly properties. It is worth noting that before becoming theatrical props, all these objects have had the role of torimono, which similarly happens in Kabuki dance and in other types of traditional Japanese dance. The use of objects, which the dancers carry in their hands, is crucial in the ritual/dance. Deities are told to move from their dwelling into the torimono during the rituals. Sound-Lens might be compared to a contemporary torimono.


Sound-Lens
mimics an extroversion of the organ of sight: you put a third eye on your hand and you wander around with it. It also recalls the third eye of Hindu and Buddhist tradition but in this case, almost ironically, it is not related to a higher state of conscience – a form of Enlightenment in spiritual terms – nor to the Enlightenment – the European intellectual movement of the late 18th and 19th centuries -, but to the city illumination. Sound-Lens is also an ear: the collapsing of eye, ear and hand; the merging of the sense of sight, hearing and touch. As I previously stated, Sound-Lens resembles the tool of a Shaman; speaking out of allegory: Iwai wanders with his followers in Shibuya during the night – as it is customary during magical practices – in search of a path, they are guided by spirits disguised as lights of the contemporary cityscape.

 

Sound-Lens is spiritual in a way that resembles theosophy in Bauhaus. As Francalanci says: “In the end, all our reasoning revolves around a crucial point: ‘the known” and ‘the unknown” issue. It is about the limit that would separate the two that all the intellectual research has been developed. A subject, which went through the entire history of literature and art, since its Homeric birth. How and for whom ‘the unknown” could turn into ‘the known”?” [11] (Francalanci 1988)

Furthermore, Francalanci points out, concerning how the European avant-gardes have developed their systems of thought, that Rudolf Steiner influenced even the rationalistic school of thought and temple of project/planning such as the Bauhaus (Francalanci 1988) [12]. Anthroposophy, the new spiritual movement founded by Steiner that started as an esoteric philosophy growing out of European transcendentalist root, with links to the more eastern-influenced theosophy, influenced Kandinsky, Itten, and Schlemmer to the extent that Rykwert defined this movement as the “dark side” of the Bauhaus (Rykwert 1982: 49). [13]

It has to be taken into account that Germany’s Staatliche Bauhaus ideal of a fusion between art and technology represented a firm reference for the Japanese avant-gardes post-WWII as for the Experimental Workshop, Kitadai, Yamaguchy Katsuhiro, and Kiyoji Ōtsuji, as Merewether points out (Merewether and Iezumi Hiro 2007: 4). [14]


László Moholy-Nagy
is perhaps the preeminent reference for Toshio Iwai with his space-light Modulator. In fact Moholy-Nagy, who became the instructor of the foundation course at the Bauhaus on 1923, wrote in his book Theatre, Circus, Variety on 1924: “It is time to produce a kind of stage activity which will no longer permit the masses to be silent spectators, which will not only excite them inwardly but will let them hold and participate – actually allow them to fuse with the action on the stage at the peak of cathartic ecstasy”(Moholy-Nagy 2002: 25). [15]

Sound-Lens is also a site-specific work. In Art in Theory (Harrison and Wood 2005: 1027), site-specific works are described as being emblems of transience. In a sense, it is to represent the ephemerality of all phenomena, a memento mori of the present time – yet past. Site-specific works express the concept (I could as well say the status) of impermanence also expressed in Art in Theory, which could be put in relation to Walter Benjamin‘s theory: “An appreciation of the transience of things, and the concern to rescue them for eternity, is one of the strongest impulses in allegory.” (Harrison and Wood 2005: 1027) [16]

The definition of ruin in Walter Benjamin as allegorical emblem par excellence (Harrison and Wood 2005: 1016) [17] does not fit the Shibuya’s topography and its facades covered with modern glittering advertisements. In Japan the word impermanence has a specific meaning as part of the principles of Zen Buddhism. One of the sanbōin [the three marks of existence] is mujō [impermanence], in Buddhism known to be one of the essential doctrines; the term expresses the Buddhist notion that existence is in a constant state of flux, Wabi-sabi it is a Weltanschauung derived from mujō founded on the acceptance of transience. Sound-Lens does not relate to the visual and haptic characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic in a traditional sense but it consists of the appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of artificial objects in the process of exploring the cityscape.

Sound-Lens is similar to other mobile and locative sound wearable audio devices such as The Personal Instrument by Krzysztof Wodiczko dated 1969. Wodiczko took inspiration from the Russian constructivist poet and artist Vladimir Mayakovsky who wrote: “the streets our brushes, the squares our palettes” (Bolton 1992: 86). [18]The wearer was perceptually confined by the system. The information received was separated and the audio could be mixed in a self-feeding loop: it was impossible to actively communicate. Wodiczko created The Personal Instrument because he was living under authoritarian restrictions; he felt under risk under the Polish government: the artwork is a personal political statement. As MacQueen put it, by emphasizing selective listening Wodiczko represented the “Dissent of a system that fostered only one-directional critical thinking – listening over speech.” (MacQueen 1997: 88).[19] Iwai’s tool resembles aesthetically and technologically Wodiczko’s; Iwai was not living under an authoritarian regime while building Sound-Lens, in Japan speech was not censored: Sound-Lens works on the surface…


Sound-Lens resembles another sound-art experiment: Electric walks by Christina Kubisch dated 2003. In fact, the start of the research dates years earlier: the work Magnetic Forest has been shown in Kyoto in 1991. In Electrical Walks the electromagnetic fields translated into sound waves are not to be found in nature, but are to be found in the contemporary cityscape. Electrical Walks is an invitation to a very special kind of stroll in cities (or elsewhere). With a special magnetic headphone and a map of the environs, upon which the possible routes and especially interesting electrical fields are marked, the visitor can set off on his own or in a group. The perception of everyday reality changes when one listens to the electrical fields; what is accustomed appears in a different context. Nothing looks the way it sounds. And nothing sounds the way it looks (Kubish). [20]

 

“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 (Yuasa and D’Heilly 2002). [21]

 

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  • Mauro Arrighi Mauro Arrighi

    Graduated from Interface Culture in Linz (Austria), guest at IAMAS in Ogaki (Japan); former PhD student at Kyoto Institute of Technology (Japan), Mauro Arrighi has been lecturer of Digital Art and Electronic Art at the [...]

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