The Singaporean performance artist shares his art and process with Chicago
Illustrations by Magdalena Wistuba. Original photographs by Arjuna S. Capulong.
On the night of December 31, 1993 to January 1, 1994, at a weeklong artist-organized festival in Singapore, performance artist Joseph Ng performed “Brother Cane.” The artist smacked twelve bags of red dye placed on top of twelve blocks of tofu with a cane, burned a cigarette into his arm, cut his pubic hair and recited words from the newspaper. The work decried the Singaporean authorities for the caning of twelve men accused of allegedly committing homosexual solicitations. Following governmental and media outrage, Joseph Ng was arrested and charged with committing an obscene act in public: cutting his pubic hair.
Afterwards, performance art was denied government funding and de-facto banned for the next ten years. Singapore’s Ministries of Home Affairs and the Arts released a statement explaining the government’s position: “[The Government] is concerned that new art forms such as ‘performance art’ and ‘forum theatre’ which have no script and encourage spontaneous audience participation pose dangers to public order, security and decency, and much greater difficulty to the licensing authority.”
Lee Wen, former president of The Artist Village, an independent artists’ collective, was a main organizer of the event where Joseph Ng performed. In 1994, he protested Ng’s arrest publicly and continued to make work as a performance artist despite the government injunction. He is most known for his “Journey of a Yellow Man” public performance series. Incarnating himself in full yellow body paint, he questions various social political issues. He has performed this in locations all over the world, exploring exaggerated and subverted notions of Asian identity as well as addressing experiences of migration and diaspora. His site-specific work responds to locations, contexts, and stereotyped identity, sometimes going beyond the gallery walls to interact with people in public places. As a member of the international performance collective Black Market, he performed discretely in Singapore and received invitations to present work internationally. Numerous times he approached the National Arts Council in Singapore for funding and was told that he could apply in dance or theater but not “performance art.” Vehemently against the government prohibition, he never applied under another category.
Two years after the ban was lifted in 2005, Lee Wen received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s most prestigious award for arts and culture. He came to SAIC this fall at the invitation of the Art History, Theory, and Criticism department and the Performance department, thanks in part to a grant from the National Art Council of Singapore. Sitting in a café in Wicker Park, I asked Lee about his reaction to Singapore’s current support for his work after the previous prohibition.
“I have been knocking on their door for years and now that it is open, of course I will enter, but I feel it is very uncomfortable. But it is necessary that I do enter,” says Lee. Wary of the country’s recent development of new infrastructures for contemporary art, he stated, “Singapore’s art fairs are a big black shiny funeral.” Rather than critically thinking about art, Lee claims that mainstream Singaporeans tend to see sponsorship of the arts as an utilitarian investment for the sake of capital gains, if not that of showing off the political power of the state.
Nora Taylor, SAIC Art History professor and advocate of Asian performance art, introduced Lee Wen at the Columbus Performance Space. She spoke highly of him, contextualizing and praising his works, such as his “Chewing Gum” series of paintings. In this work, the audience was invited to take part in a transgressive act by placing their pieces of chewing gum on a canvas, as in Singapore gum is banned. His work consistently deals with the repressive laws in Singapore, where although performance art is now legal, male homosexuality is not.
Taylor offers him a glowing introduction as well as a birthday wish. Lee Wen whispers into the microphone, “You will regret this.” From his seat he leans in, “It is a lot of people’s birthdays. It is also a lot of people’s death days. You cannot have birth without death.” He stands up, explaining that it is hard for his body to sit at times and tells the audience about his nickname, “Stagger Lee,” referring to his walking impediment. He created a series of works based on his Parkinson’s disease and ever since has been calling his work “performing the sick body.” His wild delivery and honesty about his condition, life and governmental defiance is striking.
While in Chicago, Lee Wen also shared a performance evening at Design Cloud with Myanmar performance artist Chaw Ei Thein. As an exiled person, she too understands government suppression. In her performance, she casually talks to the audience about the constant imprisonment of free thinkers in her country, as she unwraps objects, dresses and paints her face and finally presents a traditional Burmese dance. The gallery is packed, people are gathered on the floor and standing on the edges. Lee Wen is dressed in black jeans and a top. A blue yoga mat and red dress lie on the floor. He picks up a guitar, and, holding it at an unusual angle, he plays and sings of being a woman whose husband has left her. He then removes the black shirt and changes into the red dress, slowly, as a dance.
When I asked Lee about this enigmatic and personal piece, he told me that it is the beginning of a series called “The Call of the Red.” The work takes on various images to be found in a continuation of his book entitled The Republic of Daydreams, a surrealist tale of the world in art and other moments in history. The central image is that of the red dress. One day, men and women will be gathered in a red square, all wearing a red dress. But, one man will put his red dress in a block of ice as a witness to the event. The next iteration of the piece will be that of a red dress in a block of ice.
“The song came out of thinking about my mother,” he says. It is a response to tanabata, a day that commemorates the meeting of two separated lovers, a cowherd and a maiden. They meet on a rainbow bridge, only once a year. Another aspect of this legendary day is the figure of a widow, who upon seeing her husband leaving her for the other world, fears that when she finally rejoins him, he may not love her anymore, as she will age in earth time while he remains youthful.
The work, Lee says, “also relates to our ideals in society. The red you are asking me about is representing those core values, the ideals in our societies that we symbolically put on our state insignia, such as our national flags and coat of arms. Have we not forgotten them, and in doing so allow them to die? We have died as has art. Death is not only in what we see, it is also happening in us. Hence there is a constant need for change, a constant revolution in our hearts. The root word for revolution is to revolve. The world is always revolving. If we don’t keep up with it we die. And we must die as we must get born again.”
Digital Manufacturing is Moving to Main Street
Photographs by Andrew Kaye.
An eight-year-old boy stood deep in thought, mesmerized by the robotic actions of a laser cutter as it etched his name into a yellow acrylic sheet the size of a smart phone.
This scene was impossible just two years ago, but as digital manufacturing gains momentum, major companies are investing in small public maker labs.
General Electric created GE Garages, a temporary maker space that functions like a creative laboratory, giving anyone free access to 3D printers and other machines of the third industrial revolution in which digital technology puts manufacturing back in the hands of the public.
GE Garages set up just north of the Chicago River on Michigan Avenue from late September to mid-October. Well-informed employees from TechShop, a growing national chain of public access workshops, helped the public interact with modern manufacturing tools: a laser cutter, a CNC (computer numerical control) mill, a vinyl printer, an injection molder, and 3D printers. These machines are the legacy of mass-production factories — think of the Chicago Stockyards or Detroit auto industry — but as vocations increasingly leave the production line, machines have scaled down in size and price. Industrial tools are becoming personal appliances. 10 years ago 3D printers cost five or six figures. A basic model in 2013 costs $900.
“Makers,” as users of this kind of technology often call themselves, are emerging with the technology. They are often self-reliant, curious tinkerers of sorts who are using these machines to design and reinvent our relationship with objects. In a video on Wired magazine’s website, editor-in-chief Chris Anderson says, “The moment here of desktop manufacturing is not just the tools, it’s what people will do with them.” Designs are created in free 3D modeling software like Autodesk 123D and then printed out in any imaginable form from cell phone covers, to personalized mugs, to wearable jewelry. This revolution has changed the way we interact with technology. Makers can now be the designer, the manufacturer and the entrepreneur all rolled into one.
GE Garages was a partnership between GE and Chicago Ideas Week. Beyond the laboratory, there were hands-on workshops and lectures from key players of the maker movement. Among the speakers was Zach Kaplan, CEO of Inventables — a company that aims to give entrepreneurs access to affordable materials in smaller quantities. “The rules of who can have a factory have changed,” says Kaplan.
Inventables is collaborating with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Data Science for Social Good, a fellowship program that brings together aspiring data scientists at the University of Chicago. The project is Light Up Chicago, which aims to teach 22,000 Chicago public high school students about digital manufacturing and computer science. They’re using a desktop-sized light fixture from Chicago-based design studio MINIMAL and hacking, or breaking into, it. This is where industrial design meets digital manufacturing.
The fixture is constructed from acrylic sheets, LED lights and light diffuser film rolls in an oval rectangle, echoing the shape of Chicago’s rail system in the loop. As part of the project, Andrew Kaye (MFA Art & Technology, 2014) is working with Miguel Perez (BFA, 2014) and Brannon Dorsey (BFA, 2014) to develop software that will run on a Raspberry Pi microcomputer and be embedded in the lamp. “The lamp will have certain features that allow the students to interact with the light output — tweeting #lightupchicago to trigger a behavior, and so on,” says Kaye, who is also F Newsmagazine’s Webmaster.
“If someone wanted to know if a Divvy bike station, [for example], was full or empty, the lamp would light up green if there were bikes, and red if there were none,” says Kaplan. “The cool part is that not only can you pick a channel that has city-centered data, but you can also write your own channel and share the file with people.”
Artists, innovators, creators and designers have more control over their designs than they used to, all the way from the idea’s inception to its creation, and many share their digital files via Thingiverse, an online community of free 3D printable object designers. This is the era of digital craftsmanship, where web generation meets physical creation. At the heart of this revolution is authenticity and customization by, and for, whoever is curious enough to try it.
GE Garages closed its doors in October, but interested members of the public can still print objects on public machines in central Chicago. The Harold Washington Library now has a free open access maker lab, which includes 3D printers, laser cutters, a milling machine and a vinyl cutter. “The innovation lab has scheduled classes for library patrons with zero experience but are curious about the technology,” says Chicago Public Library Branch Manager Yvette Leigh. During open studio hours hobbyists and 3D modelers with more knowledge work on their own projects, “but also give back to the space by teaching librarians about the software,” added Leigh, who hopes the introduction of these machines to the library will impact future societies as much as computers did.
Emancipation Through Improvisation
Illustration by Berke Yazicioglu.
Kate Speer is hopeful as heck. Energetic, vivacious, and bubbling over. She is clearly committed to dance as a social practice, as activism, as momentum and movement for change. Yet after her presentation is complete, and she’s finished her water bottle, out-of-breath and spent, she seems distant. Exhausted. Spaced out. Pale even. Her comments during discussion continue to be to the point: this is activism, this is change-in the making; this is no-doubt spiritual.
Speer’s presentation took place as part of a weekend conference on Performance Studies at Northwestern University on the panel, “Mobilizing Affect.” In her thesis, “Transcendence, Testifying & Funkitivity: The Spiritual and Political Dimensions of Charisma in David Dorfman’s Prophets of Funk,” Speer dawns a ’70’s inspired purple dress and sunglasses and intersperses her reading with dance numbers specifically devised with iconic, funky choreography.
What I found particularly compelling was not Speer’s presentation, nor her research, but what panel discussant Barnor Hesse had to say about it. Hesse’s task was to specifically articulate the “mobilization of affect” in relation to the presented theses. Hesse acknowledged Speer’s main kicking argument — that the prophets of funk are like Pentecostal priests, inspiring spiritual possession that renders social results due to the charismatic skill of the prophet/priest/artist/singer/musician/performer. He acknowledged that the space between performer and audience member fosters certain chemistry. However, Hesse challenged that there is more to these charismatic characters than meets the eye or hits the ear, pointing out that this charismatic performativity is composed of a complex entanglement of being. In describing a concept of black performativity, Hesse referred to poet and philosopher Fred Moten. He explained that to Moten, “enslavement and the resistance to enslavement is the performative essence of blackness. And that through the act of resistance, improvisation takes place.”
Hesse asked Speer, “So are there charismatic moments in participatory events of black music, like funk, which are unsettling and compelling reminders of that double bind of enslavement and resistance to slavery?”
During Speer’s presentation, she briefly went into the etymology of Funk, its semantic roots being in the Kikongo word lu-fuki, or a strong body odor. The word “funk” functions as a conglomerate of “smell” and “fuck,” an example of dual-embodiment wherein language has transformed to include two inflections, the oppressor and the resistor. Funk pins exoticized racism to the very table it leapt from with an enduring voice of resistance and re-appropriation, much in the way that words like “queer” and “bitch” are reasserted. These reassertions are playing with language in order to present simultaneity of meaning, marking both the pain and the pleasure of the word. In some circumstances we see the word, we hear the word, and also understand the word for being adversely comprised of what it is, and what it isn’t (or what it’s resisting). In this reconfiguration, the senses are not apart from our understanding, but the experience deliberately places cognition in communion with the senses, evidencing an innovated pathway of empathy. But how does this circumstance occur? How can we invite this hybridity of cognitions and sensations?
Thom Donovan’s essay, “A Grave in Exchange for the Commons,” Fred Moten and the “Resistance of the Object,” posits Marxist theory with Moten’s poem where the blues began and artist Adam Pendleton’s auditory installation to explain how language and improvisation cultivate a commons that reasserts the limits of production, thereby fostering freedom. He points out that in “Private Property and Communism,” Karl Marx argues that the object, as private property, functions in correlation with human perception — and suggests that the senses themselves are in a contemplative relationship with objects. Furthermore, that the senses are not merely just senses, but human senses, painted over with a societal and cultural aptitude for perceiving. Marx says that the transcendence from private property is the result of “complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities.” So, how do we emancipate ourselves?
Donovan describes a tradition of blues “in which talking voice and talking instruments become interchangeable, where communicability and expression are thus uniquely coextensive.” He proposes that this interchangeability is when the senses, or the organs of a being, “infuse one another.” Where the seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, and loving are made available to one another, there is an opening — a commons. Donovan calls this “making common cause against the alienation of their common property.” The commons allows us to move beyond commodity. For the body, which has become the object/commodity, the commons is a place to give the body back to itself. In the commons, we are released from the human-sensorial hijacking through a hybridity of vibrations, where language and sound co-mingle to reassert an embodied form of expression.
The embodied practice of improvisation cultivates the commons also by eliding commodity in its participation with ephemerality. Donovan articulates that in Moten’s book, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Moten “suggests how the collective labor of the ensemble and the improvisatory nature of blues performance can both lead to models of collective organization and production that oppose expropriation, the reproduction of private property, enclosure, and other forms of subjection. In the improvisational techniques—scoring becomes unforeclosed — it resists being authored — by the fact that it is written and performed, live and recorded.” Improvisation is a performative agency that reconfigures corporeal and cognitive experiences. In this reconfiguration of the sensorial and intellectual body and mind, an emancipated practice emerges. Improvisation emerges frequently during solos in funk, as is celebrated with artists such as Herbie Hancock and Bootsy Collins. However, improvisation is not just wide open, but involves a set of self-imposed limitations — and in pushing against these limitations, we embody our diversely unique freedoms.
That day at Northwestern University, when Speer made the decision to leave the podium and turn up the music, it would have been nice to see, to hear, and to feel her contemplate improvising, participating and embodying funk. She performed choreographed movements, virtuously executed but nonetheless a form of representation. Representation in a sense that it lacked the very power of REpresentation, as in, differentiated repetition. Is this why she seemed the way she did after her presentation? Wrung and empty in an unsettling way? I want her to perform her funk. The dangerous thing that she may have done is to slip into making funk a commodity — a consumable formula for social change. And she, herself, is made into a commodity, objectified in action. To her, I say, let that go! Let go of what you know! Give in to yourself, give yourself back to yourself, and in doing so, you give others back to themselves.
U.S. Educational Institutions Export Their Product to the Global Marketplace
Amid a sea of controversy
Illustration by Frederick Eschrich.
, 2013 saw Yale University open its doors for the first time in the sovereign city-state of Singapore. As a joint venture between the Connecticut-based Ivy-League school and the National University of Singapore (NUS), “Yale-NUS” received full funding from the Singaporean government and opened with an inaugural class of 157 students from 26 countries
. Though Yale billed it as “Singapore’s first liberal arts college
,” NUS spoke of it as providing a “global and multi-disciplinary education
,” and Yale president Richard Levin described its ultimate goal as advancing “both the development of liberal arts curriculum and pedagogy encouraging critical inquiry
” in Asia, these sentiments were not enough to placate concerned faculty, students and humanitarian organizations. Some worried about Singapore’s restrictions on free speech and homosexuality and how it would affect civil rights on campus. Others, like Yale Political Science professor Seyla Benhabib, criticized the “naïve missionary sentiment
” of these educational motivations in Asia. But at an even more fundamental level, some were mystified by the seemingly hazy imperatives for opening this campus in the first place.
The creation of this university is not an isolated incident—it is part of a larger phenomenon in U.S. higher education. In the past decade, countless prestigious U.S. universities like Duke, NYU (New York University), the University of Chicago, and even Parsons School of Design, have worked with various state and national governments to begin the construction of full-time, degree-granting campuses in global cities like Singapore, Dubai and Shanghai across Southeast Asia, the United Arab Emirates, and China. Though the explanations vary between the administrations of these colleges, some commentators have explained this shift as yet another development in the ongoing relationship between internationalization and higher education.
Other prominent voices, such as NYU president John Sexton, describe the development of these schools as “harbingers of a new way of structuring the university.” He has explained these new campuses as “global network universities,” with the potential to fully integrate campuses into the global economy and connect people and programs on an international scale. Though these sentiments may seem anodyne, they form a façade over the real market logic driving the creation of the “global” university. As these developments have been understood as the future of higher education, these new configurations of knowledge and education may have negative social and economic ramifications.
While these narratives appear to adequately rationalize the creation of these global universities, it is undeniable that there are larger ideological forces governing these projects. To be sure, the structure of higher education in the U.S. has been dominated by corporations over the last few decades. The current CEOs of Pepsico, Time Warner Inc. and Chanel serve as members of the “Yale Corporation,” (the governing body of Yale university), and the school hosts undergraduate internship programs with these and other multi-national corporations. In a gesture that has now become standard protocol for universities, 2009 – 10 saw the University of Chicago’s Booth Business school accept from $50,000 – $99,999 in donations from corporations like Walmart, Cargill and the oil and gas giants Exxon-Mobil and Chevron-Texaco. Ultimately, the effects of higher education’s increasingly corporate character are adverse. As the historian Gerda Lerner has observed, this increased privatization and corporatization decreases state and federal funding to universities which creates rises in tuition that place financial burden on individual families. Additionally, privatization reduces the number of professors receiving tenure while hiring more underpaid adjunct faculty.
These new global universities embody what cultural anthropologist Tom Looser has described as “the instrumental logic of corporate profit seeking,” and some of the discourse surrounding the creation of these universities underscores the real rationale directing their creation. The acuteness of John Sexton’s language becomes revelatory enough when he refers to these new “genuinely global” universities’ abilities to “accommodate seamlessly” the flows of the “human capital of faculty, students and staff” between different national contexts. Likewise, on the website for the recently opened Mumbai campus of Parsons School of Design (one of the only art and design schools with a campus abroad), a large graphic with pictures of smiling undergraduates literally states that students will experience a “transformative and marketable” education with an “academic ideology that moulds designers to cater to a diverse range of industries and employers.”
Regardless of their self-stated motives, every institution involved in these processes intends to realize the full-fledged globalization of higher education. But just as globalization has entailed what the social theorist David Harvey has described as the “financialization of everything,” this shift fully amalgamates higher education with the market-logic of global capitalism. Perfectly captured by the language of Parson’s School of Design, the explicit logic of these universities is to take the creative capacities and subjectivities of prospective students and reduce them to fungible forms of service and interchangeable human capital. Education is described in terms of molding, as this human labor potential can be disciplined and shaped by universities to better serve the corporations that sponsor universities, and as a form of capital that can flow to the economic centers that desire it – namely, the service industries of global cities.
The ideological rhetoric surrounding global capitalism and its neoliberal social and economic characteristics has dovetailed with the way the global university and its student and faculty populations are imagined. This is especially so in the new ways in which human capital, or the collective economic value of a laborer’s skills, expertise and knowledge, are envisioned under the globalization of higher education. Just as neoliberal economic policies imagine the free flow of trade and capital across international borders, the global university is imagined to facilitate the free flow of human capital (in this case students, faculty and programs) that can be fed back into the service sectors of the largely post-industrial global cities they are created in. They intend to convert these increasingly sovereign cities to what Sexton has described as “idea capitals” that will “attract a disproportionate percentage of the world’s intellectual capacity.” In what Looser has described as “a merging of the university and the service sector,” global universities intend to create “a service-defined social life.”
While this extreme reduction of education to the production and crafting of human potential for business outcomes may seem like the same process that occurs stateside, or in any other industrialized social context, the importance here is that these developments are imagined at a global scale. Regardless of whether universities realize their stated neoliberal goals of making human capital flow internationally, the global university will play a fundamental role in the new organization of global cities and the ways they reconfigure social life and state power. But as power, sovereignty, and perhaps a large portion of the world’s intellectuals are drawn to these cities, it is important to remember the price of doing so. As these global configurations of U.S. universities exist for the maximization of profit at the expense of the identities and human capacities of individuals, these developments do nothing to amend the imbalances of social and economic power they create. It is for this reason that as global universities continue to grow and develop in tandem with global cities, each of the social actors involved in their production must be examined with a renewed and continuous amount of scholarly discourse and criticism. Without this, there may never be a way to imagine forms that could equally distribute power, wealth and agency within higher education.
Unpacking Media Archeology
Illustration by Meghan Ryan Morris
In the past decade, Media Archaeologies have become an increasingly prevalent topic of discussion for artists and scholars interested in media studies and the evolution of the ways information is disseminated. Many have thought of media archaeology as a way of understanding history. It operates on a timeline comprised of fragmentary epochs dictated by different media formats and protocols. Though various media formats may have utopic aspirations placed upon them, each become quickly outmoded as time progresses. It is for this reason that media archaeologies have become a far-reaching and intricate site of study.
Artist and theorist Erkki Huhtamo , often regarded as one of the earliest writers on the subject, was brought to SAIC to present for the FVNMA’s Media Archaeologies Institute lecture series, spearheaded by professor Eric Fleischauer. Huhtamo’s recent book, Illusions in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles (2013) looks to early forms of visual culture in search of a mirror to reflect the present. The Institute originally proposed as a course last spring has now evolved, in its inaugural semester, into a series of lectures by those who use re-discovered and outdated media through writing and studio practice. In his SAIC presentation, Huhtamo linked the U.S. painter John Banvard’s famous Mississippi River panoramas and the contemporary meme and image macro, through a concept known as “topos” (singular) or “topoi” (plural).
For Huhtamo and his contemporaries, topos refers to particular types of images that have recurring themes throughout history. These are not to be confused with icons, or more static images that do not change with time. They are far more complex and protean forms of imagery. In pursuing topos, media archeologists attend to moments where one image is destroyed in favor of a newer one that replaces it. These moments are interpreted as the forbearers of enduring cultural content that seems to transcend different generations. Topos are images we continuously return to, as we seek new forms that can satisfy the particular demands of the cultural moment. What is of particular interest for Huhtamo, is the inevitable reinterpretation of these themes and visual motifs between instances of new cultural production.
Huhtamo enters the field through semantic and semiotic principles, often tying visual phenomena to the key theorists of semiotics, like Roland Barthes and Ferdinand de Saussure. According to Huhtamo, the study of signs is comprised of their signifiers and signified objects, functioning as a useful template for recognizing and theorizing topoi. In this regard, certain signs have particular types of staying power, while their variables often change from one period to the next. While attending to previous eras and their own isolated characteristics, the dance between signifiers and the signified reveals the cultural currency of some signs to be more complex than others. In addition to studying semiotics Huhtamo looks to the early texts of Aby Warburg and Andre Malraux as they conceptualized what would later be understood as visual culture.
Huhtamo sees repetitive motifs, traditions, and the constant area of play between old and new media as a rich area of study for Media Archeologists. He is interested in looking at the possibilities for media archaeological possibilities of cloud computing, as well as the topos of the “hand of God motif.” For example, one can compare the detached hand on a Dirt Devil vacuum logo to the hand that assembles the set in Roberto Rossellini’s film La Macchina Ammazzacattivi (The Machine that Kills Bad People).
Fleischauer has particular sensitivity to the notion of topoi as he worked through the transition between analog and digital video formats in the 1990s. He cites this as an interesting learning curve in adapting to new media forms as well as on overall paradigm shift in how content is created and stored. He sees this as a prevalent issue not only in film and video but within other media as well.
Like Huhtamo, Fleischauer is interested in the cultural unpacking of topoi and meaning that can be gleaned from repetitive gestures of image making through time. In addition to Huhtamo, Fleischauer recommends other writers in media archaeologies such as Jussi Parikka, Siegfried Zielinski, and Wendy Hui Kyong Chu and artists such as Paul DeMarinis, Gregory Barsamian, and Daniel Rehn. Considering the SAIC faculty, Fleischauer recommends the work of James Connolly and Kyle Evans who created the project Cracked Ray Tube, which alters analog technology like televisions to produce distorted noises and images.
For Media Archeologists like Huhtamo and Fleischauer, media history consists of forms rather than specific events. As systems and media formats evolve, components or sets of data (like images, texts, and codes) are left behind. While data may be lost, these shifts beg the question of what data can be transferred to the new platform of dissemination and production. Constant attempts have been made to mitigate these challenges, such as “migrating” media to new formats. Information inevitably falls victim to the evolution of these platforms. In the contemporary moment, stacks of media containing mass amounts of unused data sit, housed in a multitude of outdated formats.
Both media and platform exist in an interlocking relationship of dependency. For example, a paper computer punch card would lose its significance without a mainframe computer that interprets its data. Conversely, the mainframe would be irrelevant without its stack of program cards to run through its apparatus. A 5.25” floppy disk of the computer game Oregon Trail formatted for the Apple II platform would need not only specific computer hardware, but also particular firmware and a compatible operating system as well.
The practice of media archaeologies involves digging through layers of existing technology to discover the content of existing but otherwise unused systems. The efforts of media archeologists like Huhtamo and Fleischauer uncover flows of data from yesteryear that serve not only as historic moments in their own right, but reveal a consistency in the kind of information we like to store for later remembrance. The formats of the past as media archaeologists theorists and practitioners continue to reveal, influence future iterations of media. Media Archaeology indicates that no format is final. The glitches of the past can become the aesthetic pleasures of the future.
Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine and A Brief History of Japanese Gangster Films
Illustration by Jordan Whitney Martin
Explorations of honor, betrayal and family are common to cinematic contributions from around the world, but there’s nothing quite like Japan’s rich yakuza stories. This past semester, The Gene Siskel Film Center presented a succession of fourteen films in a series entitled “Public Enemies: The Gangster/Crime Film.” Running in conjunction with SAIC’s Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism with a viewing and discussion-based class led by Lawrence Knapp and Jill Marie Stone, the series has been a rich exploration about the variety of themes that emerge from the many genres of criminal films, ranging from gender roles to capitalist modes, and range across country and history. On a Tuesday in late October, Professor Knapp delivered a lecture on Japan’s contributions to gangster films as part of a viewing and discussion of Takeshi Kitano’s 1993 yakuza film Sonatine, which provoked my own interest into diving further into the rich vein of Japanese film history.
Let’s start with the definition of “yakuza”: a Japanese gangster, or, by extension, the Japanese mafia. These are not just your everyday crime bosses; yakuza work as parts of highly organized “families” that abide by rigid codes of conduct. In this sense, the yakuza could be seen as descendants of samurai, Japan’s historical warrior class that abided by hierarchical loyalty. Early yakuza films grew out of wildly popular early samurai films, and were in fact first called ninkyo eiga, or “chivalry films.” These films featured honorable heroes that reluctantly resorted to violence in order to uphold the notion of jingi, the moral and social code of the yakuza, against backstabbers and modernizers. These films first appeared from the 1950s and remained popular until the early 1970s, with Hideo Gosha’s The Wolves (1971) being one of the last notable examples. It’s no coincidence that these “Chivalrous Yakuza” came around towards the start of the American Occupation of Japan (1945-1952) either; in this time, samurai films were not allowed because of concerns that they were too nationalistic.
From the mid-1960s and 1970s onwards, the yakuza film genre began to change its focus to different themes. Gone were the “chivalrous yakuza” reminiscent of traditional samurai flicks, and in their place were hard-knocks who represented both the harsh reality of capitalism and the extreme speed at which Japan leaped towards modernity in the latter half of the twentieth century. One film that especially shows this extreme thematic shift is Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), in which the film’s main characters are introduced throughout the opening credits and early scenes as just having emerged from the trauma of World War II and attempting to live through the proceeding postwar chaos by any means necessary; they abandon any type of social code just to survive. From here on, the yakuza character is no longer heroic or chivalrous but instead abandons once-strict values and codes. In this sense, this film reflects this time’s larger anxiety concerning a fear of new capitalistic values eroding traditional Japanese ways of life.
Skip ahead to 1993, and the newer yakuza film that’s the seminal example of the genre today: Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine. Kitano himself plays Aniki Murakawa, a tired and aging yakuza considering retirement until he and several other members from his “family” are sent from Tokyo to Okinawa to settle a turf war between two rival groups. Murakawa is reluctant and slightly suspicious of his boss’ intention in sending him in the first place, and things quickly turn for the worse when several of his men are murdered within a couple of days of arriving in the unknown turf. Murakawa and his remaining men, including his right-hand man Ken (Susumu Terajima), hide out in a house owned by one of the Okinawan yakuza, Ryoji (Masanobu Katsumura), until they can figure out just exactly what is going on. From this point forward, Murakawa’s exhaustion and desperation for a break from this crime world, and perhaps even modernity as a whole, is palpable. One scene that especially emphasizes his retreat involves him and his comrades playing a game of kamizumou (paper sumo), where players “fight” by tapping their fingers on a paper sumo ring until one of a pair of paper sumo wrestlers fall over. Being an old (and these days rare) childhood game, their match evokes their nostalgia for “old Japan.” The yakuza then continue their semi-vacation from their own realities by creating a fake sumo ring on the Okinawan beach out of sand, even going so far as to perform a fake salt-purifying ceremony and then sumo wrestle with each other. Later, they playfully light fireworks at each other on the beach, try to shoot down Frisbees with their guns, and dig pitfalls for people to fall into. As it becomes apparent that Murakawa’s boss has betrayed him and his yakuza brothers slowly start to dwindle, he sees that loyalty, that old standby, is no longer a value of the present. Just as he tries to retreat to the good old days of earlier times, he can’t hide from the pressures of the now. After facing head-on all of the things that tire and frustrate him, there is no happy ending.
In this sense, Sonatine perfectly captures the resigned frustration of living in a society where perceived values changed so rapidly in such a short period of time. For Murakawa, who built his whole life on traditional codes and values, saw it all turned against him; there is no question that this film ends on an explosively bittersweet note, but that is precisely the point of post-1960s yakuza films. These movies don’t exist to create a heroic story, but to confront the realities of extreme anxiety and social chaos brought on by Japan’s quick jump into modernity. Sonatine sympathizes with Murakawa’s longing for forgotten morals while acknowledging that living in the realm of nostalgia is neither feasible nor productive.
Further Viewing Recommendations:
Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa, 1948)
Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
Sympathy for the Underdog (Kinji Fukasaku, 1971)
Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)
Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (Katsuhito Ishii, 1999)
Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano, 1999)
Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, 2001)
Gozu (Takashi Miike, 2003)
Outrage (Takeshi Kitano, 2010)