20th Art Division Critiques

Invisible Systems

This is my third year as a juror for the Japan Media Arts Festival. In my comments the first year, I addressed the issue of medium/media,★1 and the second year I discussed old or dead media.★2 Both were topics that I have had occasion to study in my scholarly research, which has centered mainly on the visual culture of Japan's modern period. The specific subjects of my research are of a different era and context from the media art being produced in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, but I nevertheless found remarkable parallels between the two. It was an interesting, even thrilling, experience. In this, my final year as a juror, I'd like to think about systems.Individuals living in the present day may be nothing more than nodes on a variety of networks. When I say this, I suspect most of my readers will immediately think I'm talking about the Internet, but this idea actually arose from my current research on the electrical power system that built out its grid all over the world from the end of the 19th century into the 20th century, beginning with the cities.Among sources of light, candles are stand-alone. But with the exception of devices like flashlights, light bulbs must be connected to the network of wires that makes up our electrical power system in order to shine. The gaslights that preceded light bulbs required a similar connection. In his book Networks of Power (1983), which looks at the electrical grid as a cultural artifact, Thomas P. HUGHES states that "[electric power systems] embody the physical, intellectual, and symbolic resources of the society that constructs them."★3 As this observation suggests, invisible network systems transform human activity, and those systems are perceptible only by way of the transformations they engender. Which is to say, it may be possible to conceptualize the collective membership of human society today as a medium for visualizing those systems.YOSHIHARA Yukihiro's COLONY, which received an Excellence Award, is none other than an endeavor to visualize the invisible network that delivers invisible electrical power. The electrical system transmits power from generating plants to end users through a network of high-tension wires, but those of us who live in cities can see neither the "net" itself nor the fact that our cities are in effect being "nourished" by distant regions. This work shows a continuous series of landscapes crossed by high-voltage lines punctuated with steel towers, bringing that net into visible relief.It need scarcely be stated that Grand Prize winner Interface I by Ralf BAECKER is a work that speaks directly to systems (see "Reason for Award," p.23). In Excellence Award winner Jller, by Benjamin MAUS and Prokop BARTONÍČEK, pebbles gathered from the eponymous river are sorted by origin and age using image recognition technology. Natural historians have developed a system of knowledge in which they attempt to place understandings gained through close observation of the world on an orderly grid, and this would seem to be an automated version of that. New Face Award winner The Wall, by Nina KURTELA, is also worth mentioning. By representing the system of picture frames and white-cube blank walls that embodies the modernist conception of art, it can be seen as foregrounding both the homogeneity and the subtle differences within that system.Systems are these troublesome things that bind us. As the anarcho-punk band Crass asserts in one of its songs, we are all ruled by systems until we die.★4 On the other hand, we can't live without systems. To use the old cliche, they are like the air we breathe--constantly surrounding us, defining where we can live, yet invisible. Engineering and social science and design are not the only fields capable of making them visible. The critical eye of art--as well as of the humanities in general--should be able to bring them into relief, too.

Annotations★1─SATOW Morihiro, "Being Critically Conscious of Media," 18th Japan Media Arts Festival Award-winning Works, pp.284-285.★2─SATOW Morihiro, "The Imaginative Power of Old Media," 19th Japan Media Arts Festival Award-winning Works, pp.289-290.★3─Thomas P. HUGHES, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society 1880-1930, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983, p.2.★4─Crass, "Systematic Death," Penis Envy, Crass Records, 1980.

SATOW Morihiro
Historian of Visual Culture and Professor, Kyoto Seika University
Born in 1966 in Kyoto Prefecture. After obtaining a master's degree from Columbia University in New York, he obtained a doctoral degree in Art Theory from Doshisha University. SATOW specializes in the fields of Art History and Visual Culture, and is the author of Topografi no Nihon kindai—Edo koroe, Yokohama shashin, geijutsu shashin (Topography and Japanese Modernity: Edo Doro-e, Yokohama Photography and Art Photography) [Seikyusha, 2011]. Recent articles include “The Picture-Language of Industrial Capitalism: Allan SEKULA and the Photographic Archive” in Parasophia: Kyoto International Festival of Contemporary Culture 2015 [Official Catalogue] [Kyoto International Festival of Contemporary Culture Organizing Committee, 2015] and “Kitch and Modernity: GONDA Yasunosuke and Naniwa-bushi as Popular Entertainment” in Taisho Imagery, vol. 11 [2016]. He was one of the Japanese translators of Geoffrey BATCHEN's Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography [Seikyusha, 2010]. SATOW won a New Face Award at the 62nd Ministry of Education Awards for Fine Arts in the category “Art Critique.”