We met at the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, where Soichiro Michara’s work had caught my eye. A resident artist in Berlin, the 33-year-old from Kyoto has been working for the last two years on the exhibition “the world filled with blanks”, a project that functions as a comment on the Fukushima nuclear tragedy. His exhibition led to a conversation about the collaboration between artists and scientists that has triggered my imagination and increased my expectations.
What brought you to Berlin?
I’d say my being here is the direct result of my decision to finally lead the life of a full-time artist. A few months ago, after I quit my job, I applied for a residency with the Tokyo Wonder Site – it’s a japanese institute of contemporary arts and international exchange that invites artists to spend three months living and working in Berlin, in the Künstlerhaus Bethanien. So here I am.
Was this city your first choice?
Yes, here’s where I wanted to be. You see, my artistic interests are connected on the one side to technology and the media, and on the other to the contemporary art scene. If I were only interested in technology, I think the best choice would have been to simply stay in Japan. But I very much wanted to explore the work that artists are producing right now, internationally. One would think that London is a very good destination in that respect, but London is extremely expensive. And all other cities lack a sufficiently vibrant media and technology scene. But Berlin is very good on both, so it was a natural choice.
What was the first thing you did upon arriving in Berlin?
One day after landing here, I headed straight to Martin Gropius Bau, to see the Anish Kapoor exhibition. He is my favourite artist. He uses material on its own to create very complex perceptions – is it sight or is it distance that he is creating? It was such a wonderful opportunity for me because, in Japan, we cannot bring over his huge pieces.
What kind of work did you do before embarking on the life of the full-time artist?
I used to work for the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media. Let me try to explain what it was that I was doing, because it is something that’s not very familiar to most people. In the contemporary art field and the new media art field, the artists need to do more than drawing, painting or sculpture in order to realize their vision. Very often they might need to be able to control some circuits, to do some programming and make software. But not that many artists are familiar with engineering, so they usually need some support.
Do you have a background in software engineering?
I have studied Arts and majored in Information Design. I have always had a keen interest in technology and worked with computers while I was still an arts student. I was lucky to have many friends who were studying sciences or software engineering and I would always turn to them with my little problems: For instance I would be working on a project for which I needed to figure out how many gears I had to use, but I didn’t have the answers because my knowledge of engineering was pretty limited at the time. And what’s more important, I didn’t know how to do the research that was necessary for me in order to find out the answers to my practical problems. But my questions were very unique and my friends could not provide the answers. So I had to start doing research and look for them on my own. Learning how to do research and using my imagination taught me a lot.
So after experimenting and learning you found yourself working at the Arts and Media Centre?
Yes, I was working as technical director and video and hardware engineer for new media art. I stayed there for seven years, while also being active as an artist.
Your recent work refers to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 3, 2011. What was your personal experience of 3/11?
At that time I was living in Yamaguchi, a city which is far away from Fukushima. So I didn’t feel any physical vibration due to the earthquake. I was at work when it happened so we were watching everything on tv – the tv station had started to fly helicopters with reporters above the area, so we sat there watching the accident on real time. We were sitting there watching the town being covered by the sea water, we were watching it happen. Later, when I went out into the street the feeling was very strange, because of course everything was going on as usual on our side of the country. But the next day, there was something different, something out of the ordinary: All the bottled water had disappeared from all the stores in the city. And that went on for three days. What had happened was that, because the water in the area around Fukushima had been polluted, all the water bottles from every other place in the country were gathered and distributed there. That was the only physical consequence for me.
How long after the Fukushima accident did you start working on the two pieces that comprise the exhibition “the world filled with blanks”?
I was thinking about this for two years, before I finally came to a decision as to what I wished to do. Thoughts about had happened occupied my mind for a long time, I couldn’t simply decide about things, I couldn’t arrive to one conclusion. After all, I just start with a question. I never have a picture of my project. So, I started thinking that this was an artificial disaster, definitely, because it is humans who build the nuclear power plants. But the situation is extremely complex. Ours is a country that has neither oil, nor gas, so there was a need to produce energy at a low cost. Japan’s decisions regarding energy go back to the 1950s, so the problem has a history and it is not that simple to suddenly make a huge strategic change. Many people protest, but we have no choice but to try to find a way for real and realistic changes. On my part, I was eager to contribute to the public discussion, or at least to the questions posed. Many journalists exposed the politicians’ grave mistakes and their lies, but I am an artist. I wanted to contribute a different perspective. So I was thinking and working on this project for two years.
One of the two works that you exhibit is called “the blank to overcome”. Would you describe it?
As I already mentioned, the thoughts about the disaster were occupying my mind for two years, as I could not exactly grasp its nature and significance in its entirety. I felt that I could not get to the core of that problem. My thoughts were not solid, so how would my work be so? First I decided to use a material that is not simply liquid, but something that flows and changes at each and every moment. So among other things I tried working with smoke, I tried water, but they all were very hard to control.
How did you end up using bubbles?
The idea hit me while I was in the bathtub, simply lying there, relaxing and thinking. I had a straw and I would blow through it and watch how I could manipulate the size of the bubbles or the ratio of the water and bubbles. So I realized that here was something that I could control, maybe not a 100% but still I could control it. So that’s what you have here in front of you: your normal, everyday, German bubble soap.
So what you did was imitate what we do by blowing through a straw?
Yes, it’s very simple. There are tanks filled with soap and water. Underneath them, I have placed the air pumps. And I just created a circuit which I control, so that I can turn it on and off. This way the pumps are working when I want them to work.
Can I touch the bubbles?
Yes, of course. You can drive your hand through them, there’s no problem.
How did you manage to have them standing?
I’ll show you. Each tank is hanging by the ceiling by four strings. If the strings were not there, the bubbles would fall on the floor and vanish. Whereas now they climb on the strings and stick on them.
Children would be amazed.
Last weekend there was some musical event in the building, so many families were here and as they would be passing by my studio some children looked inside and were impressed by the image of this huge bubble, so they dragged their parents here, making them come in. And the children were staring at the piece wide-eyed, then looking at me and saying only “Seife?” They were amazed, yes. I think they were going to try it at home.
In what ways, though, have bubbles proved to be the ideal material for you to give form to your thoughts on the Fukushima accident?
That’s the thing: My thoughts on the events of 3/11 have always kept changing and taking on different forms. Because I was trying out alternative viewpoints, considering and reconsidering. But what has always been clear is that we Japanese must look directly at 3/11, we have to deal with it. There are too many people who avoid looking, they do not wish for the country to reconsider our nuclear strategy. Others cannot keep looking because this is too big and miserable an issue.
Tokyo won the bid to host the 2010 Olympics. Was that not a decision that offers hope and a very good reason for jubilation among people in Japan?
Well, many Japanese have actually been very critical of the government because they keep stressing that the Olympics are not a priority right now. The people in Fukushima are complaining about it and I think very rightly so. On the other hand, I try to see the positive side to this story and believe that we can use it as an opportunity to put pressure on the government. OK, they won the Olympics 2010 race, but first they have to deal with the Fukushima tragedy. And they have to make sure that Japan is a safe country – we cannot invite the international community in “grey” areas where the level of pollution is undefined, for example.
The other piece that you have been working on, is a bell. In what way is this connected to Fukushima?
It is a bell made of a microchip and a tube. This is a G-M tube that detects radiation. By the way, I bought it in Japan, but it was produced in Ukraine, after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. After 3/11 I became interested in radiation itself, in this sort of energy that we cannot perceive. And since I have also been working with sound, I posed this question to myself: If radiation indeed made a sound, what would that be? So I tried many sounds, mainly computer generated sounds, but I was never satisfied so I kept researching.
Then out of the blue, I happened to come upon the wind bells. The bell that I use for this piece is a very typical Japanese wind-bell and hers is a very typical soundscape of the Japanese summer. What interested me is the historical context: In ancient times these bells were placed in castles and houses in order to warn and ward off evil spirits, to catch evil and reflect it away. In lack of the means to explain illness and natural disaster with the help of science, people believed in invisible evil spirits. The sound had the meaning of reflecting the pain away from them. The more I read about it, the more convinced I was that this was a match for radiation, in our days. So what this little bell does, is that it detects natural, harmless radiation and makes a sound. But if I bring this to Fukushima, it will sound very differently…
While growing up, did you have an interest in art? Did you have the opportunity to be around works of art?
My father is an architect, so I grew up surrounded by architectural drawings and books on archιtecture. I always liked them, I still do. And I loved my father’s architect’s tilted desk -at that time he did not use a computer- and all those special tools for architects. As a child I would take the small pieces of wood that he used for his models and make little animals or funny houses.
Which artists would you count among those whose work you admire most?
Two Japanese artists. One is Shusaku Arakawa, whose art is connected to the concept of living forever. Well, he already passed away. But his work was extraordinary, it was very interesting. And there is another artist I hugely admire, her name Rei Naito. She’s doing very soft installations, using maybe only one string or natural light in a big space, but with this subtlety one feels something very intense, very organic in a way, something very hard to describe. Her work is very inspiring. And her philosophy is to be accepting of everything.
You are also doing research in the realm of tactile sensation. Would you please explain to me, in as simple words as possible what is it you are doing?
I have always been interested in science and in collaborating with scientists. And I have always wanted to research the different types of perception. I was indeed doing that, with the exception of the haptic perception. In Japan many scientists are doing intensive research -in fact many different types of research- in haptic perception. Because ours is a culture that puts great value in how things feel, we are very sensitive to touch, so we need to work with great care on how the things we produce feel.
Now where do I come in? I once came upon an exhibition by young scientists who work in the field of tactile science research. That was my starting point. So I want to make some platform for non-researchers to investigate haptic design. I just focus on one specific technique which uses only vibration by a loudspeaker. I work together with sound engineers who get touching data from a loudspeaker – this means they only get vibration data, which a person will then be able to touch, directly. So we collaborate in order to make a kit and capture this.
So, in essence you are inventing a new surface?
Yes, a digital sketchbook for haptic sensation. I realize that what I am describing and how this is connected to art might be hard to fully grasp, but I think that twenty or thirty years in the future artists or designers will use advanced technology to create something completely new, a new interface or a new sensation.
What’s the next stop after Berlin? Are you going back to Kyoto?
I am going back to Kyoto, but only for a little while. I have another residency coming up, this time in Perth, Australia. I am interested in experimenting and incorporating many kinds of science and engineering in my artistic work. My challenge this time is to step in the field of biotechnology. So for the duration of the residency I will be based in an art lab dedicated to exploring the boundary between bio-science and art.
You have already spent quite some time in Berlin. Do you have a favourite spot in the city?
I love the Tempelhofer Park, it’s a wonderful place.