The R&D company Rhizomatiks is currently having its first solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, a public art institution. With its 15-year history of actively delivering both commercial and experimental digital art projects, this is a brand-new adventure for the group as well as for the museum. The show is dedicated to presenting a panorama of the company/creative collective’s activities through the years, from installations to its collaboration with dancers and singers, from well-received, successful projects in and outside Japan to less fruitful experiments that never made it to the final stage.
Rhizomatiks × ELEVENPLAY “multiplex”
With the piece Rhizomatiks × ELEVENPLAY “multiplex” (2021), the tech-oriented company, with its ongoing stage collaborator, demonstrates its immediate sensitivity to the present. It is a piece that consists of a live performance on a stage without people (only pedestals, cameras, and projectors) and a video of that same performance but this time with dancers. At this particular moment, when live entertainment carries both risk and a lack of consideration, “multiplex” makes an impression on the audience with its smooth choreography and coordination of the objects, the music, and the light, without any human-form performer. Instead, the latter is confined to the video screen beside the stage and the YouTube streaming window, accompanied by their digitalized forms generated through motion capture. Other parts of the show, however, are less concerned with the risk of contagion. A good deal of Rhizomatiks’ archives, including not only previous and ongoing projects but also some of the aborted ones, are placed in the passageways, where each project deserves a larger screen and a considerably larger space, and more time for the sake of a better demonstration. Even on a weekday, crowds composed of audience members have to stick together for a worrisome amount of time, trying to get an overall look at the videos, texts, and the actual props. As if this experience carried more weight than what and who they are, displaying an odd lack of awareness on the part of the institution as it reflects on the nature of Rhizomatiks—is it about being the only techies in the traditional art world, or is it their work that really matters in this exhibition? Does the answer vary either way?
Another issue raised by the passageway involves the spectator’s tech awareness. As most of us do not come with equivalent knowledge of computer science and engineering, are we able to perceive what’s there, even if we do get to benefit from careful demonstrations and explanations? If the answer is no, is that a problem?
Rhizomatiks apparently do not bother with such questions. Their work is driven by professional curiosity to figure out questions like what would happen if we put together an airgun and the classic Traveling Salesman Problem in computer science and operations research. Their projects are function oriented, more concerned with how to build up the system architecture than the content, and less with the concept, the meaning, or the message in a social context. But then again, where does the obsession with the concept in art lie anyway? In art history, we’ve had art defined by its medium, art of the readymade, and of course, conceptual art; would it be so strange if today, in this information age, if there emerged an art of pure technology? It seems to be a trend filled with possibilities to embrace. Meanwhile, what we ought to ask is, what’s the better way to incorporate the life forms—not just those of human beings—other than digitalizing them and putting them in passageways?
INTERVIEW_ I, Rhizo
Rhizomatiks marks its fifteen-year existence with its first ever museum exhibition. In the following interview, two of its members remark at length on the future of technology, its relationship to the art object, and how/what (financial) value will be attributed to it. They also discuss how their own work, within the context of his show, has put forward an expansion of the act of curating. This in turn points to the limit of a traditional curatorial gesture, and to the palpable tension in the exhibition as technology defies its own ontology, in real time.
S_Z: could we start by talking about the history and the current structure of Rhizomatiks? How many engineers, artists, researchers do you have and how do you work together?
Daito Manabe: We have about 20 people now, half software and half hardware engineers. We organize teams according to each project, a few cases that require 20 people working on the same project. Usually there are a fewer people, 5 or something like that, working on the same work, who are responsible for video, software, and hardware.
S_Z: How did Rhizomatiks develop over the years since its foundation in 2006?
Motoi Ishibashi: I joined Rhizomatiks later, but it started with four people in 2006. The number of people increased quickly between 2004 and 2006.
S_Z: How do you position your activities? Was Rhizomatiks founded as an Art Creative Collective or a (commercial) company?
Motoi Ishibashi: I think keeping the balance between both is exactly the uniqueness of Rhizomatiks. We’ve done advertising projects for clients, as well as our own works for display.
S_Z: The MOT exhibition is receiving assistance from several electronics and technology companies. Are they regular sponsors/collaborators or does it depend on each specific project?
Motoi Ishibashi: Rather than long-term collaborations, in most of the cases we collaborate out of the need of our works. However, there are some companies that we have continued to work with over the years, such as Panasonic, which has provided us with equipment for various projects.
S_Z: Do you have your own team setting up the tech part or is it a collaboration between you, tech teams from the sponsors, and those of the museum?
Motoi Ishibashi: Construction work such as building walls and wiring cables is done by contractors, while we mainly work on video, sound, and system operation and more.
This time Panasonic had a new projection system that they were testing. The exhibition happens to be a good opportunity to test it over a long period of time (three months), which led to how we ended up using it in the show. There are also other companies that simply rent us equipment.
S_Z: Was the museum acquiring more gear in the process?
Motoi Ishibashi: Most of the equipment in this exhibition is borrowed, some of it comes directly from Rhizomatiks.
S_Z: When did the discussion begin with the curator and the museum to have an exhibition of your work?
Daito Manabe: I can’t quite remember, but I’ve got meeting minutes from last summer. That’s probably when it began.
S_Z: Was the exhibition originally scheduled in March to June as it is?
Daito Manabe: Yes, that was already decided from the beginning.
S_Z: Did you conceive the layout of the exhibition or did you agree with the curator’s plan?
Motoi Ishibashi: It took quite a long time to decide which works to show. As to the layout, we probably started to talk about it in October or November, and it was only in April, right before the exhibition opened, that the final decision was made.
S_Z: Was this planned from the beginning as a retrospective show or was there a conceptual idea to start with?
Daito Manabe: The exhibition was meant to look back on the history of the company, and to also show what we are doing now and what we will be doing in the future. It was not just a collection of existing works, but also an exhibition of current works in progress, prototypes, research and experiments that are not yet ready for production. We tried to show the works in a variety of time frames.
S_Z: Were you taking the COVID-19 situation into consideration when conceiving the show? Were you bearing in mind issues such as limited audience members, social distancing, etc.?
Daito Manabe: We were conscious of creating a space that was as wide as possible and not too crowded. Also, the idea of creating something that can be viewed online was an idea that would not have come out if not for the pandemic. We tried to keep the post-COVID-19 concept in mind as we worked on the projects.
S_Z: For those who did visit the show, what do you hope that they take away from it?
Daito Manabe: We have a very large team working on this project, and there are many different specialists in Rhizomatiks, which allow us to present works that apply video, data visualization, sound, as well as works that rely on self-developed hardwares. I think we have created an exhibition with a great variety, so I hope that people will be able to understand the exhibition as a whole and get a sense of what kind of company and group Rhizomatiks is.
Motoi Ishibashi: Rather than a normal exhibition, we also bring in projects that are in the middle stages of research and development, videos recording failures and trial errors, and behind-the-scenes videos that show the production process. So it’s not just about the finished works, but about the process as well and how it all started, or even about things that didn’t work out and didn’t even grow into finished works. In that sense, the range of works being showed is very wide, so of course we would like people to see our works, but we would also be happy if they could get a sense of how our team works as a whole as Manabe said earlier.
S_Z: What do you think are the main challenges of presenting digital artworks on this scale?
Daito Manabe: I think that each of us had our own challenges to take on, whether it be technical or expressive. There are also some very new motifs, such as crypto art and NFT, which we don’t yet know what the correct form is. It is a challenge to examine how it will develop in the future. There are many different kinds of challenges throughout the exhibition.
S_Z: NFT is a very innovative form of art, how do you think it will develop in the future and how do you think Rhizomatiks will participate in its development?
Daito Manabe: Our work is all about digital technology and digital data, which makes us directly related to NFT and crypto art. However, its environmental impact has not yet been solved, and the current markets, such as SuperRare, Foundation and Nifty Gateway, are led by investors rather than by artists. In this situation, there is some excessive promotion going on. When it settles down a bit, the timing will come when we can properly create the value of digital works that we were originally aiming for, as well as systems that can guarantee the value of digital works for a long time. It’s a bit like a bubble right now. Once time has passed, I think we’ll witness a different evaluation.
Motoi Ishibashi: What Daito and other colleagues are doing is creating their own platform, which is probably the interesting point. Different from simply wanting to monetize the work, it’s very unique that we handle the subject matter from a different angle. It would be quite difficult to create a proper market platform if not implemented with the technology background like ours. What’s really interesting to me is to create a market not as business, but as art.
S_Z: Your work has been shown in so many different contexts and venues; what does being shown in a more traditional art institution mean to you? do you see this as being recognized as artists, or is your work engaged in subverting the role of the museum?
Daito Manabe: Since we have been creating artworks based on research and technological development rather than for galleries or auction houses, it is indeed unusual for us to have an exhibition at a contemporary art museum. The curators who allowed us to do so, especially Ms. Hasegawa, appreciated our activities as a new form of artist activities, for which we are very grateful. Our work is quite different from the others that the museum has shown, which must have required a lot of hard work and raised new challenges.
S_Z: In the case of the choreographer/dancers, did they come to you or did you want to work with them? What do the collaborations bring to your work?
Daito Manabe: In the case of dance performance, there are two mechanisms of collaboration. For the first case, we start with research and technological development, then we ask performers to apply our designs and inventions in their performances. A choreographer, usually MIKIKO, would convert what we develop into a dance performance. In the second case, the performer would already have an idea and ask us if it’s possible to do something like that. We’d then work on the development accordingly. In many cases we have been working together for a long time. We used to work on each of our parts separately, but now we are able to come up with an idea and think about the performance together from the initial stage. The technology and the performance have become more integrated.
S_Z: What’s the significance of collaborations like this in Rhizomatiks’ activities?
Daito Manabe: There are so many different patterns of collaborations, some are performances, some are with astronomers or brain scientists. We not only make video and music work but also engineering, being able to collaborate in many different ways is really one of our strengths. We are able to make combinations that have never existed before because we have the technology and because we understand means of expression. If there was just one artist, for example, if there was just me, I would never have been able to realize such a large number of collaborations. That’s the strength of having a team of specialists working together.
S_Z: Were you familiar with other such collaborations between dance and technology, besides Dumb Type? What are your similarities and differences?
Motoi Ishibashi: I think Dumb Type and us are very different. Sometimes we are juxtaposed in comparison, but I think we are totally different. On the other hand, recently, in the field of entertainment, there has been an increase in the number of artists using such advanced technology in their performances. The first time we worked with Perfume was in 2010, back then media art expressions and techniques were hardly part of the entertainment field, but throughout the years they gradually got closer to each other, and the needs in that industry seem to be increasing rapidly. I don’t think we are being compared with what’s happening that field but in a sense, I think that what we have been doing is being recognized and is spreading, and it is a good thing that there are more places for such forms of expression and more chances to reach the audience.
Daito Manabe: Like NFT or crypto art that we mentioned earlier, we need to think about layers other than the content of the work, such as the creation of the platform for presenting the works. This is probably the case for many media artists, to think one step ahead of creating the work. For example, when making a dance performance piece, we start from the mechanism of filming or choreography. Thinking about how to design a mechanism and build up the system together with content-making is probably what distinguishes us. If we hadn’t been working on research and development, we wouldn’t be able to bring about such works.
S_Z: Do you also pay much attention on the visual outcome, such as the scale, spectacle or the idea of experience in your work?
Daito Manabe: Ishibashi might talk about that, but to me it’s more of a matter of technique. Had we wanted to do something flashy and easy to understand, of course we could. If we need a ceiling of height or a space of this size, for example, we then try to work on the infrastructure accordingly. But it’s not to say the bigger the projection, the better. Nor does it matter if a work uses 200 monitors or if it’s mounted on an entire building. I don’t think scale has anything to do with the essence of our work.
Motoi Ishibashi: The part that is visible to the audience is certainly very important, but it comes at the very end in our working process. Of course it will have a great impact on how the work is perceived, but before getting there we put much more effort in figuring out what kind of mechanism we can build up that would allow us to create something interesting. Rhizomatiks has a very good visual team that will deliver high quality when we get to the last part. However, rather than just making it visually appealing, we try to emphasize the aspects that are more meaningful. Rather than just making it look good without any meaning, it is more important to figure out, for example, how to better present the dance moves.
S_Z: For international audiences, Japanese media art seems to be less concerned with narrative or politics than what we might see in other parts of Asia, as well as in Europe or North America. What do you think about that?
Daito Manabe: To me it is better to talk about things with data rather than with words, texts, narratives or stories. If we go back to the example of NFT, of course we can create a story-telling work to discuss about its impact on the environment, but it is quite difficult to go beyond raising the issue to solving problems. We are different from contemporary artists and media artists in the way that we don’t just raise issues, but also implement them technologically and put them into practice. That’s why our work is often treated differently from other works that focus on storytelling, and I think that’s the way it should be. On the other hand, exhibiting our work at a contemporary art museum is in itself very unusual, isn’t it, Ishibashi?
Motoi Ishibashi: It has been said many times in the past that Japanese media art and technology art seem to be quite unique when viewed from a European perspective. I think that’s true. One of the reasons why this is the case is because of the different model of education, I think. I recently realized that the reason why people say that our work is very Japanese is because we are very meticulous about the details, and there is an element of craftsmanship whether it’s in choreography, hardware, or video making.
S_Z: Would you say that your work is socially engaged?
Daito Manabe: I’m not sure. I haven’t really thought about our activities in terms of social engagement, so I’ll leave the question to Mr. Ishibashi. It is often the case that work which is simply inspired by new technology is often rejected. For the past 15 years or so, we’ve often been asked the question “Is it technology first or concept first?”. It can of course go either way, and I somehow understand that an art person would want to hear the answer “concept”. However, there are times when technology drives and inspires us to create new works, and we don’t romanticize or black box these things but make works honestly. We don’t make meaningless fusses or anything like that. We’ve been very honest in our production activities, and making works out of our own intellectual curiosity and craftsmanship desires. We’ve been able to do that without adding any strange flavor to our work, and I think that’s been a good thing. Now, social engagement, Mr. Ishibashi.
Motoi Ishibashi: We recently held a workshop for high school students and created a place for young people to make presentations of their inventions at the Panasonic Center. It was not with social engagement in mind, but more purely to help young people who want to do something like that but don’t know how to get started. I think it would be great if we could expand our activities little by little like that. I don’t know if that’s social engagement or not, but that’s what we are trying to do.
S_Z: You are developing exciting cutting-edge technology to create your works, and really start from step 0 as you mentioned earlier. Would you worry how much the audience could get what you do from your work or do you think as time goes by eventually it will get there?
Daito Manabe: It’s quite difficult to decide how much to explain and guide. That’s exactly something that we can decide through discussion with curators when exhibiting at a museum. We write academic papers to explain everything precisely while meticulously leaving no question marks. In the case of a work of art, however, you have to leave some space for the viewer to think about it, which to me is very difficult every single time. For this exhibition the museum has helped a lot in making the decision.
Motoi Ishibashi: Even if it’s difficult to understand how it works, there are still many different layers to look at. People who are interested in technical things can see it that way, and people who are simply interested in music can see it that way. Our work applies various techniques and has many different aspects to it. In that sense it’s a mixture of a lot of things, and it’s good that it provides multiple ways to look at.
S_Z: Would you be interested in being represented by galleries? Or would you prefer to build up your own platforms as you just said?
Daito Manabe: NFT or blockchain were originally created as a question or an antithesis to the centralized system. But it also attracts people from the art market and it’s Christie’s and other big auction houses that made the first big moves. So, as long as you are involved in art, it is very difficult to do without such auction houses and galleries. We don’t have any relationship with such galleries or auction houses at the moment. Now that anyone can really show their works, I feel that curating is actually very important. Now that the NFT platform and the Crypto Art platform are open to anyone, the quality and direction of the works vary dramatically. Consequently everyone is now realizing the importance of curation. I personally think that NFT and crypto art will become more sophisticated with more selections made.
S_Z: One of the selling points of NFT or crypto art is the idea of freedom-anyone can upload any work. At the moment curatorial approaches towards them haven’t been figured out.
Daito Manabe: Now, with platforms like SuperRare and Nifty Gateway, artists can apply and their works will be exhibited if they are selected. But we don’t know what the criteria are, and the platforms are operated in an opaque state. On the other hand, there are also endeavors like Foundation that see the demerits in that and try to develop a new curation and invitation system, to promote a democratic way of selection where new artists will be welcomed if it’s agreed by various existing artists. There are a lot of new challenges in this area, and I think that a new curatorial system will be born that is decentralized, where curation is done by consensus, rather than simply by one person authoritatively selecting works. That’s what everyone is searching for right now.
S_Z: In the future if there are offers, would you be interested in being represented by galleries?
Daito Manabe: I would like to hear Mr. Ishibashi’s opinion. I used to think that it was very tricky because there are so many restrictions when you create works for sale. But if we can find someone who understands the characteristics of Rhizomatiks’ works, it’s worth trying to work together on how to sell the works, etc.
S_Z: Have there been discussions about this within Rhizomatiks in the past 15 years?
Motoi Ishibashi: I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but we were able to use the technology we created for our works in advertisements and get paid for it, so selling our works was not a priority for us. This is very practical. In the future, when thinking about selling, I’d think about something that is more like a product rather than a pure art piece, just like Meiwa Denki’s art products. I would like to try to sell something that is more like a daily product than an art piece.
S_Z: So physical items would be better than video works?
Motoi Ishibashi: Yes. I’m a hardware designer, so I’d like to do something with products like that.
Thanks to Mihoko Nakajima and Chiako Kudo (Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo), as well as Tomoko Yotsumoto (Rhizomatiks).