Toshio Iwai, born in Japan in 1962, has been internationally defined as a new-media artist. In the following pages, I will address one of his experiments, Sound-Lens , which he made in 2001, when he was 39. Following this piece, a couple of Japanese contemporary authors are offering a totally new point of view of Tokyo through the everyday’s unseen: Iwai is one of these explorers.

This work of Iwai could be re-named after the title of a paragraph of the book Millennial Monsters by Anne Allison: “Technology Begets Mythology: Healing and Nomadiscism, Enchantment and Illumination” (Allison 2006: 22). [1]

About this artwork, Jun Rekimoto writes: “Toshio Iwai’s interactive artwork Sound-Lens is a hand held device that converts light into sound” (Rekimoto 2009: 9) [2]. Sound-Lens can be ascribed to the category of mobile electronic music; it can also be described as an artistic model, which converts light into sound. Sound-Lens is a portable sound device, but there is no content in it: no digital music is stored inside the device. The sound is made on the fly: it is synthesized by the hardware/software system inside the device.

There is a big lens, which detects light, and then the light waves are translated into sound waves. Every light-emitting and light-reflecting object can be turned into a musical instrument.

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Sound-Lens is remarkable in enabling us to experience the world from a totally different perspective (Iwai 2006: 321) [3]. One can experience the kind of voice a desk lamp would have for example. By using Sound-Lens, it is possible to listen to the traffic lights or even to the moon: when the receiver lens is held up against a light source, the concealed sound can be heard through the worn headset.

De Mente writes: “Japanese aesthetic pursuits were designed to pleasure all of the senses as well as the spirit. They included such formalized practices as poetry-writing, moon-viewing, cherry blossom viewing, incense parties, sightseeing, listening to the songs of insects, flower arranging, music, folk dancing, and the tea ceremony” (De Mente 2003: 37) [4]. Iwai’s experiment fits this aesthetic tradition.

A key point of Sound-Lens is its portability: this device enables us to explore the soundscape and atmosphere of public spaces in real time.

As Betsky puts it in the essay entitled Marking The Electrosphere: “In a world of urban sprawl, we are increasingly nomads who find themselves in one spot only momentarily. Once there, we anchor ourselves to a place, and to a sense of belonging, through signs, numbers, or figures” (Betsky 1997: 222)[5].

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Sound-Lens sits in-between Interactive Art and product Design. The users would carry the device and listen to the sounds through headphones, but the device alone is dumb and speechless in itself: it relies on the specific lighting of the cityscape. Remarkably, in new-media art, the notion of observer or visitor has been surpassed and replaced by the notion of player, user or performer.

Randall Packer writes about the legacy of Làszlò Moholy-Nagy as instructor at the Bauhaus, and on the theories of Walter Gropius: these authors left seminal ideas, which developed through time and beyond Weimar; Packer points out: “Further experimentation in live performance subsequently had a profound impact on the changing relationship between the viewer and the artwork, with the intent to heighten individual, subjective experience. This tendency took root in the performance art of John Cage, who staged seminal events with Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College in the early 1950s” (Packer 2003: 145) [6].

The Pepsi Pavilion is regarded as being a cornerstone in the development of Japanese new media art. Between March 15 and September 13, 1970 a World Expo ’70 was held in Suita, Osaka, Japan.

The Pepsi Pavilion questioned the role of the viewer. Packer writes: The sum total of the Pepsi Pavilion was a fluid, multi-sensory experience of light, sound, touch and movement, constantly changing in response to the viewer’s presence and actions, and to the natural forces of the environment. Seen by millions of visitors, the Pavilion brought into sharp focus the active role of the viewer through the project’s embrace of open, responsive systems. For the artists and engineers, it became a study in the dynamics of viewer interaction (Packer 2003: 147) [7].

Since then, it was clear that there had been a shift in the role of the viewer from passive subject to active participant: from viewer to performer, then to player, and later, to user.

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Coming back to Iwai and his project Sound Lens, one may argue, as the online movie about the project suggests, that in Iwai’s point of view Shibuya station is a synecdoche of Tokyo. Tokyo, in turn, is an allegory of the city of light. Shibuya is then the perfect site where the new-media artist can investigate the glittering surface of the market as a reflection of late-capitalism Japan. I refer to Tokyo as a city of light as a reference to Paris: contemporary Tokyo can be perceived as an allegory of Paris of the 19th century.

Paris has been nicknamed La Ville-Lumière; such epithet was assigned due to the following reasons: the foundation of the Academy of Science, the Haussmann’s Renovation, the early adopting of street lighting.

I think that the fascination that Toshio Iwai and other Japanese authors have of the streetlights of Tokyo is mere superficial incantation. In saying so I don’t mean to diminish the value of the research of these authors: I mean to question the preconception that contemporary western scholars have in regard to the centrality of surface and enchantment.

In the movie/installation done by WOW this epidermal fascination towards the nocturnal cityscape of Tokyo is made apparent. The images are beautiful in their illusionistic appeal: the real city is abstracted into seemingly photorealistic three-dimensional floating objects, the constitutive elements of the facade of Tokyo.

WOW, maybe inadvertently, does not manipulate the images of the facades of the city, but represents Tokyo as a facade itself: a glossy overcoat, which defies gravity, suspended on an infinite black space. This consideration does not detract from the aesthetic experience that we might enjoy with our senses at the view of the installation.

As Philip Brophy puts it: “For me, so much of Japan investigates what could be termed as an ‘optical epidermalism’: a form of illusory sheathing, gloving and skinning where things are ‘second skinned’ by a tight yet malleable surface, which twists and swells while signifying a range of modalities and tonalities’” (Brophy 2007: 51).[8]

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The facade becomes emblematic of the modern – or the postmodern as some argue- cityscape. In my opinion, the parallelism that can be traced between the factual facadomization of Paris of the late 19th century and the virtual facadomization of Tokyo of the 21st century is concerned more with the surface than with the content: it is like maquillage. Interestingly, the body of Paris as it was has been lost: we find ourselves facing a more dramatic event than a simple operation of maquillage.

The Haussmann’s Renovation of Paris has its nemesis in Mireille Suzanne Francette Porte, best known as ORLAN, with her artistic plastic surgeries of the early to mid nineties; conversely, the reduction of Tokyo to a second skin of bright advertisements has its nemesis in the 2D/3D animation of WOW. What I find odd and threatening is that the appropriation of the Parisian allure does not refer to the present-day diverse capital, but to an idealized Paris. It is an appropriation, reinterpretation, and simulation done by means of digital technology.

I believe that the definition that Allison gives of Walter Benjamin‘s theories, originally used to analyze Paris of the 19th century and now applied to describe contemporary Tokyo, applies here: “New department stores arranged goods in carnivalesque dream form, and urban space became transformed by (and into) markets for selling dreams” (Allison 2006: 29). [9]

The transfiguration of an hypothetical other, to be found in an European setting from the 19th century, has in the directors Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo charismatic examples. The dreamy transfiguration of Miyazaki of an idealized Europe is emblematic and can be seen in the following movies: The Castle of Cagliostro dated 1979, Kiki’s Delivery Service dated 1989, and Porco Rosso dated 1992; as for Otomo’s, his Steamboy dated 2004.

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Most notable, if the system of beliefs preceding the Enlightenment have not disappeared through modernization in France, so is for Japan when it underwent Modernization, whose beginning coincides with The Meiji Restoration. The otherness in this case is not the foreigner, but the idea or a system of beliefs, which has survived to the rise of monotheism first, and to the Age of Reason later, in the case of Western countries.

Such phenomenon goes under the definition of axial age; accordingly to German philosopher Karl Jaspers, Japan never went through such epochal revolution (Jaspers 2011). [10] Even within cultures that underwent the process of axialization, the survival and resurfacing of holism might occur, especially in contexts where reductionist instances are at work.

Allison points out, referring to the research of Susan Buck-Morss on Walter Benjamin that “Mythology did not disappear in this age of technology but, rather, became rooted within technology itself. This phenomenon resulted from what he [Walter Benjamin] believed to be a creative potential within industrial production, as well as the imaginative effect on consumers of the spectacular display of goods (as in the Parisian arcades) as a kind of phantasmagoric ‘dreamworld’” (Allison 2006: 28) [11]. In my opinion, the lights in the nightscape are like mermaids. In fact, using Sound-Lens, we can experience their voices. This is the resurfacing of the myth in the contemporaneous.

Concerning Japan’s transition from Middle Age to Modernity, Allison points out, referring to the book by Gerald Figal Civilization and Monsters, concerning the research made by ethnographer Yanagita Kunio, that the supernatural did not succumb to modernity. On the contrary: mysterious and fantastic things – fushigi – have been vital in stabilizing and harmonizing the transformation of Japan.

Allison approvingly quotes Figal: “The fantastic as I conceive it is the constant condition of Japanese modernity in all its contradictions and fluidity. [..] The fantastic allows the modern to be thought. [..] Modernity is itself phantasmagoric [..] modernity is akin to the root definition of Bakemono, a “thing that changes form” (Figal 2006: 28).[12]

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I might admit that the above-mentioned definition of contemporary Japan is similar in what is thought to be Post-modernism. In fact, in defining the work of Toshio Iwai as a series of commandments following Modernism, I can’t help but posing some resistance: “For the conservative Daniel Bell, writing in 1978, Modernism was characterized by a disruptive agnosticism” (Harrison and Wood 2005: 1016). [13] Since it seems to me that Sound-Lens embed a form of spirituality, it might contrast with the above-mentioned assumption.

Iwai does not seem interested in any political statement after all, but the work implicitly considers the importance of the visual to contemporary societies, specifically in the West; on this subject Dr Gillian Rose approvingly quotes Jay: “Martin Jay has used the term ucularcentrism to describe the apparent centrality of the visual to contemporary Western life” (Rose 2001: 7) [14]

As Rose might say, Iwai disrupts the conventional analytical western framework for understanding how images become meaningful: the signs, which compose words, are deprived of their literal meaning. Iwai uses the signs, as Barthes sees those in Japanese culture (Barthes 1983).

Neon signs, the logographic Chinese characters Kanji, are used by Iwai as raw material for the elaboration of an audio output, which has neither resemblance with the signifier nor with the signified. Barthes does not describe the real Japan, Japan serves as an ideal tool to put on the extremes, to set apart, to locate on two opposite sides the worldview of the Japanese and the worldview of the Westerners. Barthes needs to form the Other, which better manifests in what I would name superficiality.

For the scholar Alan Macfarlane, Japanese people, instead of looking at themselves in the mirror – metaphorically – or to look at the factual reality objectively, look at themselves through the judgments made by foreign academics having as subject the Japanese culture itself (Macfarlane 2009). As Gillian Rose puts it, “modern forms of knowledge depend on a scopic regime” (Rose 2001: 7). [15]

Barbara Maria Stafford, throughout her investigation, found that from the beginning of the eighteen century, images have become increasingly powerful in the depiction of the world on discharge of text, therefore knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, has been based upon images; such process literally gave rise to a worldview based on images, which has been thought as been scientifically describing the reality (Stafford 1993, 1996).

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Chris Jenks, in the opening of his essay entitled The centrality of the eye in western culture, points out that “looking, seeing and knowing have become perilously intertwined” (Jenks 1995: 1); [16] furthermore Jenks argues that “the modern world is very much a ‘seen’ phenomenon” (Jenks 2004: 255). [17] Even so, Jenks is not in fully agreement with the theory, which recites that Modern culture was characterized by the privileged status of vision over the other senses. In fact, in Culture Key Ideas he writes that sight has not been granted its predominance until up to modern time.

It appears to be that in western culture the action of seeing would equate the process of knowing. This is not a concept peculiar to western philosophy. On the contrary, as the book L’uomo e il suo divenire secondo il Vedanta by René Guénon “The Sanskrit root vid, from which both Veda and vidya derive, means ‘to see’ – from Latin videre – and ‘to know’ at the same time: the sight is used as the symbol for knowledge, being its privileged tool in the realm of the senses. This symbolism is transposed well into pure intellectual order, where knowledge is compared to a ‘inner vision’, as it is exemplified by the term ‘intuition’(Guénon 1992: 17). [18]

In regard to the primacy of vision and the control which technology exerts on the way we navigate through the contemporary urban scenario, I would like to quote Ravi Agarwal: “Urban centres are probably the greatest technological creations of modern times. A city dweller has no connection with the world that supports him or her. [..] The isolation of the mind itself is probably more dangerous” (Agarwal 2003: 33). [19] The author goes on describing his experience with the camera to the extent to which he felt to of being in total control of the tool.

Thereafter he felt as if he had become the tool himself. The camera imposed what and how Agarwal was seeing the world around him. Agarwal reminds us that Photography, the technology of photographing, from being an aid in understanding the reality – the epidermis of the appearance nonetheless – can become a thick filter between us and the other at first, to the extent that technology separates us from the world around.

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Judith Adler takes into account the political meaning of sight, pointing out that the Grand Tour, in the timeframe between 1600 and 1840 sanctioned the idea that sight itself was a privileged tool for acquiring knowledge and ultimately control (Adler 1989: 1366-1391). [20] The grand tour is judged for its political orientation because those were the journeys of the European elites, nobility at first and bourgeois lately. The subjects of the tour were upper-class citizens while the objects were foreign commoners, immersed in romanticized landscapes, roman ruins, and contemporary paintings.

Renato Barilli points out that during the eighteenth century philosophers, writers, and essayists practiced the Grand Tour in order to find aesthetic manifestations of beauty and the sublime (Barilli 1989: 28-29). Those were to be found in nature, in its digressions as contemplation of landscapes. Sightseeing was indented to provoke psychological excitement; geographical exploration had an exotic appeal, which transcended scientific discovery for allegoric aims. [21] These manifestations of the sublime were intended to gush out from the senses and not from the intellect.

The parallelism between the elitist inner significance of the grand tour through Europe and the guided tour by Toshio Iwai in Tokyo cityscape reveals itself in an interesting twist: artists, designers and art aficionados are nonetheless an elite, but what is peculiar in the Shibuya tour is that an ordinary landscape – for those who live there, of course – is then turned by the Iwai’s device into an unconventional landscape.

John Urry wrote that we do not “travel to remote places” to experience novelty (Urry 2002: 7), [22] but to turn what we typically encounter in everyday life into something extraordinary. Twisting Urry’s assertion, rather than traveling abroad to experience something unusual for us, we reshape – de-shape perhaps -, by passing through technology, the conventional, turning it into the uncanny, and by doing so we find pleasure.

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Christopher Dowling in his Multi-sensory versus the ‘Higher’ Senses says: “Much of the literature in this domain makes reference to the fact that aesthetic experiences in the art world differs to that in quotidian contexts in that artworks tend to engage the ‘higher senses’ of vision and hearing (Dowling 2010: 236). [23] In this sense Sound-Lens shall be positioned in the context of Art not in the everyday aesthetic.

Defining Sound-Lens is even more difficult when we add another idea from Dowling: “[..] art (even art with some focus on the everyday) tends to distance the viewer from its object, emphasizing the visual impact of an environment but relegating the kind of interaction yielded by the other senses” (Dowling 2010: 236). [24] n this regard, it might be said that the scope of Art is to make unfamiliar the object of our perception. Widening the vision through artfulness procrastinates judgment.


[1] – Allison 2006 : 22

[2] – Rekimoto 2009 : 9

[3] – Iwai 2006 : 321

[4] – De Mente 2003 : 37

[5] – Betsky 1997 : 222

[6] – Packer 2003 : 145

[7] – Packer 2003 : 147

[8] – Brophy 2007 : 51

[9] – Allison 2006 : 29

[10] – Jasper 2011

[11] – Allison 2006 : 28

[12] – Figal 2006 : 28

[13] – Harrison e Wood 2005: 1016

[14] – Rose 2001 : 7


[16] – Jenks 1995: 1

[17] – Jenks 2004, 255

[18] – Guénon 1992 : 17

[19] – Agarwal 2003 : 33

[20] – Adler 1989 : 1366-1391

[21] -Barilli 1989 : 28-29

[22] -Urry 2002 : 7

[23] -Dowling 2010 : 236