Let’s start with an assumption written by the Japanese art critic Fumihiko Sumitomo: “…visiting a western museum would make you believe, whether you are an artist or a mere observer, that art did not root in Japan. […] But it would be more accurate to say that we (Sumitomo refers to Japanese people) identify art as an autonomous genre which was imported from the West and that, starting from this premise, a sort of dualism has manifested itself in our culture.” [1]

What we could define as “Culture Industry”, in Japan, took a different direction compared to the one we western people are used to. Probably the distinction into categories (art, science, design) made by western people, does not follow the same parameters used by the Japanese people. Coming in contact with artefacts “Made in Japan” generates a sense of estrangement, since they may look familiar at first glance, but then prove to be quite other things.

Among the intellectual people who are busy charting a course which combines the peculiar approach of Japanese authors to new-media art, the names of Tomoe Moriyama [2] , Machiko Kusahara [3] andHiroshi Yoshioka [4]. While the first two are supporters of the very contemporary “japanese style”, the third one goes deeper to the heart of the subject and is looking for socially and politically lined up authors.

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I would like to remember the most naif reader that from this moment on I will refer only to New Media Art and not to Japanese contemporary art, which constitutes a different field. It is important to consider another differentiation: what western academics define as New Media Art, is known in Japan simply as Media Art

According to Machiko Kusahara, the roots of Device Art [5] can be traced back to Dadaism and Surrealism. He also ventures a definition: Device Art is a form of media art which draws together art, technology, design, entertainment and pop culture. Other distinctive aspects of Device Art are: an inhibited approach toward technological tools, a playfulness in the expressive methods, a multidisciplinary approach with a tendency to cross-breed genres, to displace identity (the art piece).

The last aspect, the most intriguing one, is that the same object is showed first as “artwork” and then as “consumption product”, so we can meet it in many contexts with different “ambitions”. In this case the expression “consumption product” does not follow the western capitalistic categorization. In the Device Art the exhibited object functions as a “prototype”: it has to be tested before it can pass on to the assembly line. This is, for example, the iter followed also by the very famousTenori-on [6] byToshio Iwai [7] , ow distributed on the Yamaha website [8]and by authorized retailers.

A deeper analysis of the relationship between Device Art and the human body was carried out by Jun Rekimoto [9] , which I name en passant since I have not much space at my disposal.

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But what does Device Art exactly mean? First of all we state that the term device (apparatus, appliance, artifice) usually indicates a tool used to obtain a certain result within a process.

I would like to point out that Device Art is often made of objects which are able to connect to each other crossing long distances and to start a sentimental correspondence among the people who own the objects themselves; the way these devices work may seem to be curious, but it can be assimilated to the dynamics of magical practices.

Frazer (1998, p.43) [10] points out that believing in telepathy and in the possibility that things and/or people can influence one another at a distance, are the basic principles which magic is based on. Frazer the “wild”, opposed to his “civilized brother”, always believed that through the mind it is possible to manipulate phenomena at a distance and that in his life he always acted following such an intuition with an impeccable coherence. The “wild” is convinced not only that magical ceremonies influence people or things at a distance, but also that the most simple acts of everyday life can do the same.

Objects and feelings are the subjects of Device Art and these “special” objects are mood control tools. Marcel Mauss and Mircea Eliade infact, pointed out how it is typical of magical belief to give special powers to given objects. Through manipulating objects belonging (or which belonged in the past) to a person it is possible to influence his mood or his mental and / or physical state.

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Hideaki Ogawa [11], graduated with a doctorate degree from the prestigious KEIO University of Tokyo [12] , teacher in the Interface Culture degree program at the Linz University [13], co-founder and artistic director of the Studio h.o. in Tokyo (http://www.howeb.org/) [14], researcher at Ars Electronica Future Lab [15] and member of the Device Art movent s in my opinion of those authors who represent the emblematic “dualism” which Sumitomo Fumihiko talked about earleir.

Hideaki Ogawa in his SmallConnection(2004) [16] [17] [18], produces a series of tools developed to reinforce and conserve intimate connections, long-distance relationships. Small Connection is made of four “smart objects” called Air, One, Anemo and Comado (literally in Japanese little door/little window):

Air is made of two spherical-shaped lamps. It uses light as a communication channel and it is made of two lamps which turn on when you lightly touch them, and this makes visible the moment in which the partners in a couple are thinking about each other.

One follows the same principle used in Air. In this case it uses a mechanical reaction: when the yellow bar at the centre of the hemisphere is pressed, by someone who is on the other side of the planet, the twin object reacts everting a mandrin located within it. The concept is simple: if your partner gives you a One as a gift before leaving for a long journey, it will allow you to be in contact with him while he is not there, thanks to the feedback force system. Once you have put it in the new house, if you see the bar peeping out from the hemisphere you just have to press it and the force feedback system allows you to “feel” you fiance while he/she is trying to touch you from the other side of the world.

Anemo reacts to the noises made by the person/people nearby. In this case too, the twin object would make its propeller spin, anywhere it is located in the world.

Finally, Comado is made on the idea that there are small doors opening to another dimension. This small door installed on the wall can be opened to peek into the other person’s apartment, which is visible only if the other door is open too.

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We had the chance and the honour to interview Hideaki Ogawa himself and to discuss with him his artistic production, as well as the theory and the research lying behind it.

Mauro Arrighi: I would like you to talk about SmallConnection. Why did you choose this title?

Hideaki Ogawa: With SmallConnection I wanted to create a new way of using the modern communication media. There are not many theories concerning how to design a simple but effective communication over networks through user-tangible interfaces. So, I choose this title because it conveys the idea of what the project is about.

Mauro Arrighi: What is the aim of this project?

Hideaki Ogawa: My aim was to create a scenario in which to develop new communication systems. Through the creation of simple connections, people can receive and send feelings also at a long distance.

Mauro Arrighi: Do you think there is an emotional connection between technological tools and human beings?

Hideaki Ogawa: Information tools are different from traditional tools. Telecommunication systems should be designed considering the context which the user is immersed in. In other words: they are architectures of experiences, projects for feelings. This means that, through design, we can develop and improve our lives. SmallConnection is an emotional communication medium. Designers have to consider the users emotional context in order to create this emotional communication medium.

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Mauro Arrighi: Do you think that technological tools can help people keeping or reinforcing their relationships?

Hideaki Ogawa: I think so. SmallConnection is designed considering the real fabric of relationships among people. If there was no previous communication between two people (the couple), the meaning would not be understood since the message sent is really simple. I think that, because of the fact that communication is so “primitive”, it is possible to exchange true emotions.

Mauro Arrighi: Is there some kind of connection between Shintoism and your production in general, and with this artwork in particular?

Hideaki Ogawa: In SmallConnection, tools are not just communication media. This depends on the idea that all things, objects, have a mind of their own and contain the divine at metaphysical level. So, it could be that I invented SmallConnection to “install” an intelligence into the objects.

Mauro Arrighi: Does all this have anything to do with the paradigmatic elements of traditional Japanese culture, like iki, ma, tama, ara, e niki?

Hideaki Ogawa: That’s for sure, when I imagined this particular form of communication, I thought about how I could use the concept of “air”. This could be associated with the concept of ma.

Mauro Arrighi: Do your objects have magical power?

Hideaki Ogawa: I do not create them as magical objects.

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Mauro Arrighi: How do you conceive technology?

Hideaki Ogawa: Technology is unstoppable. Our lives and our way of thinking develop following technologies. First of all: mobile phones radically changed our interpersonal relationships, and this happened in just ten years. In particular we should consider the problems coming from the use of technologies linked to telecommunications, and also the possibilities which they open. In the future we will be able to communicate through telepathy sooner than we think. SmallConnection was designed for a world in which telepathic communications already exist. Objects can be a wall between one mind and another; we should maintain this wall. This was my secret message, hidden in this project.

Mauro Arrighi: What do you think is “natural” and “not-natural” (artificial) in your research?

Hideaki Ogawa: “Natural” are the happenings and the stories. “Not natural” is the contrary to the ordinary course of nature.

Mauro Arrighi: Do you think there is any difference between art and design, and more precisely between artists and designers?

Hideaki Ogawa: Design is linked to the market exigences; art is born from the artist’s mind, as a form of communication. 

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As we can assume by the words of Hideaki Ogawa, Japanese artists working in the Device Art field give a very high value to the objects they come in contact with in the everyday life, enhancing them as “emotional tools”. The most important aspect of this approach, is that artworks act as a sort of membrane acting as a bridge between the sacred and the social life, between what is private and what is public.

Hideaki Ogawa‘s research is based on the idea that all things (in particular the technological tools within communication media) can feel something: they (the objects) have a “sensitivity” and are all linked to one another. Even if Ogawa does not refer to superterrestrial forces, in his artworks he alludes to the concept of “ma”: ma is a word which in Japanese gives the idea of a “negative space”, the gap, the time lag and also the “pause between things”.

It is thanks to this silent space embracing all of Creation that it is possible to act at a distance. From the traditional Japanese point of view, global telecommunication technologies seem to be a manifestation of the ma concept. Ogawa deals with tools helping to communicate at a distance, to be emotionally connected and his work seems to make true one of the paradigms of “the three sympathetic magic laws” , one of the processes described by Marcel Mauss in his Esquisse d’une théorie générale de la magie and Sociologie et anthropologie: the contiguity rule.

Using clothes, objects or food which have been in contact with the loved person, in order to modify at a distance the psychophysical state, is something belonging to magic. The Shaman does not just take into consideration the objects: the effects in applying the contiguity law manifest themselves also when you make rituals based on the identification process of the part for the whole, like in the rituals using organic parts of human beings, like teeth, spit and hair, but even using the prints has the same aim.

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Marcel Mauss[19] ocuses on the fact that exchanging objects between people creates a relationships network among those who take part in the exchange. He mainly refers to the object given as a gift; from his point of view, the connection between the donor and the receiver is born from a sort of magical power, the act of giving overlaps the ritual. “Objects are never completely separated from the people exchanging them” (Mauss 1990, p.31) [20]. This means that, when someone gives or exchanges an object which belonged to him/her in the past, he/she is also donating a part of himself/herself.

This is a process which seems to be well represented in many artworks by Device Artists and is one of the main reasons why Japanese artists dealing with electronic art seem to be so unique to us western people.




[1] – Fumihiko Sumitomo. “Dear PB”. In Philip Brophy rapt! 20 contemporary artists from Japan. Catalogo. The Japan Foundation, 2007. Traduzione dall’Inglese di Mauro Arrighi (2011).

[2] – Hasegawa, Y., Seki, A., Moriyama, T., Namba, S., Mori, C., e Chaira, T. (2007). Space for Your Future (Recombining the DNA of Art and Design). INAX Publishing.

[3] – Kusahara, M. Device Art: A New Approach in Understanding Japanese Contemporary Media Art in Grau, O. (2007). Media Art Histories. The MIT Press.

[4] – Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L., and King, D. (2008). Interface Cultures: Artistic Aspects of Interaction Culture and Media Theory. Transcript Verlag. http://www.bun.kyoto-u.ac.jp/~yoshioka/

[5] – Kusahara, M. Device Art: A New Form of Media Art from a Japanese Perspective.http://www.intelligentagent.com/archive/Vol6_No2_pacific_rim_kusahara.htm

[6] – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GE-lJzKIzDE&feature=related

[7] – http://iwaisanchi.exblog.jp/

[8] – http://www.global.yamaha.com/tenori-on/

[9] – Rekimoto, J. (2008). Organic Interaction Technologies: From Stone to Skin. ACM. http://www.organicui.org/?page_id=37

[10] – Frazer, J.G. (1998). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Oxford University Press.

[11] – Per maggiori informazioni riguardo Hideaki Ogawa riferirsi a: http://www.howeb.org/ ; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqQuM-Es5vQ

[12] – http://www.keio.ac.jp/

[13] – http://www.interface.ufg.ac.at/

[14] – http://www.howeb.org/

[15] – http://new.aec.at/futurelab/en/about/

[16] – http://www.howeb.org/e/works/SmallConnection.html

[17] – http://www.flickr.com/photos/hdoto/sets/72157625720217714/

[18] – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SyAWyfWhAk&feature=player_embedded

[19]Il saggio di Mauss era originariamente intitolato “Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques” ed era stato pubblicato in Année Sociologique nel 1923–1924. Il saggio fu poi ripubblicato in Inglese in due diverse edizoni tradotte: la prima a cura di Ian Cunnison, apparsa nel 1954; la seconda di W.D. Halls, edita nel 1990.

[20] – Mauss, M. 1990 (1922). The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. London: Routledge. Traduzione dall’Inglese di Mauro Arrighi (2011).