I recently had the
opportunity to see the US premiere of Japanese Artist Kenji Yanobe's
"Survival System Train" and other work at the Yerba Buena Center
for the Arts in San Francisco. Yanobe's work, made from industrial
salvage, is designed to serve as the artist's personal survival
gear as well as tools for conquest and protection in the event
of nuclear accident or other disaster. The train consists of several
connected rail cars, each self-contained and fulfilling a distinct
purpose such as food production, water and air purification, and
transportation of matching yellow radiation suits, one for the
artist and one for his dog.
||Looking at this
assortment of personal survival suits and protective vehicles
made me keenly aware of the isolation caused by our technologically
aggressive culture. This armor of radiation-proof lead and
glass seem to suggest that in spite of the wonders of science
and technology, we are still essentially alone in the world,
perhaps even more so, except maybe for the dog.
This emotional response of isolation
is a common reaction I have to a great deal of the "machine" art
being produced in the Bay Area. Survival Research Labs offers
an of apocalyptic mix of hell-bent tractor pulls and radio-controlled
street riots, suggesting that a dog-eat-dog fight to the death
is the ultimate thrill show for the jaded and detached. Allen
Rath's digital/video based sculptures more elegantly convey the
notion of the ghost in the machine, capturing small facets of
our humanity seemingly trapped within a mechanical frame. Even
Frank Garvey's radio-controlled "beggar" aggressively panhandling
for change reinforces our sense of alienation and detachment in
a technologically mediated society.
At a recent talk, Yanobe suggested
an underlying difference between how technology is viewed in America
and Japan. He believes that in the west, historically we were
often guinea pigs for technology and industrial development. The
inevitable disasters, nuclear accidents and environmental damage
has fueled a distrust of technology and the big business behind
it. In Japan, Yanobe states, technology is often seen as a benevolent
force helping the nation develop and expand. A connection can
be made between the high percentage of industrial robots in Japanese
manufacturing, and the number of robot characters on Japanese
TV, movies, and especially in the illustrated "manga"(comic magazines
read by nearly every man, woman, and child in Japan). Many of
these robotic characters and mascots are cute and friendly, often
shaped like children or pets. They are frequently indistinguishable
from the human characters around them, except perhaps for some
super-human ability. The cultural view is a level of intimacy
and comfort with technology. My personal view is that the younger
generations of Japanese and Americans share this view of emerging
technology, having been raised hand-in-hand with it.
is the first to live entirely in a post-industrial culture.
While I may be slightly off on the dates, my impression is
that I was born in parallel with the birth the digital age.
Digital clocks, Pong, Apple computers, these things were all
part of the foundation of my childhood, as firmly a part of
my world as if they had always existed. The proof may be that
I am the 1st generation of my family able to program the VCR
without instructions, while my young nieces and nephews instinctively
comprehend electronic devices with even an greater level of
comfort and ease.
No part of our physical, emotional,
and spiritual lives goes untouched by technology in some form.
There is even a web site which allow you to leave an prayer at
Wailing Wall in Jerusalem via email (http://www.norn.org/pub/other-orgs/yvc/kotel).
However the most significant impact technology has on our lives
compared to previous generations is how we communicate. Modern
methods of journalism, entertainment, marketing and sales have
all become so aggressive and forward thinking regarding technology
that I for one become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information
I must process each day. Phone calls and junk mail I'm used to,
but now in addition to unsubscribed magazines and a seemingly
endless torrent of computer catalogues, I have a dozen or so junk
email messages everyday, while my other phone line (I need the
2nd one for the email) keeps ringing from a auto-dialer suggesting
I hold the line for a special offer on cable TV service. The only
way I can process this amount of information each day is by maintaining
a near clinically short attention span. And while I may been raised
on soundbites, MTV, and the arcade life-span of 25 cents, still
the chatter of a thousand Lexus commercials, movie reviews, and
free America Online offers begins to drown out my own thoughts.
I find myself "media fasting", as William Gibson calls it, more
and more frequently just to hear my own voice.
This growing need for isolation
in our thoroughly modern world is reflected in much of Yanobe's
work, especially "Tanking Machine", a salt-water filled metal
sphere, complete with deep sea diving portholes and propane heaters,
all of which serves as a safe and private man-made womb. This
struck me as a metaphor for human interaction in a technologically
mediated society, in particular the evolution of anonymous methods
of communication, such as email and faxing. Many of these newer
choices for personal expression offer access to the outside world
while maintaining discrete distance from it. I now conduct more
of my personal and professional business electronically, interacting
with people daily whom I have never actually met, seen, or spoken
with. There is very little by which to know these people as individuals.
I can't hear the tone of their voice of see a look in their eye.
No clues are gleaned from handwriting, stationary or other evidence,
only the standard 12 point Geneva text in the standard Netscape
window. While I might sound as if I am complaining about the impersonal
and buffered exchanges offered by email, I admit to using these
features to my advantage from time to time. The anonymity is just
too seductive to a reclusive artist like myself. I can stay in
touch, yet remain unreachable. I can represent myself however
I choose, create entire personae online with real relationships,
yet remain anonymous.
Why the need for simultaneous
conductivity and isolation? Successfully navigating through modern
life requires the savvy of knowing how to work the system you're
engaged in. Winding your way through downtown traffic, conducting
online researching, or negotiating an apartment lease is often
like a battle, and fortune favors the prepared mind. If you are
going to master the modern world, you have to jump in head first
and accept the learning curve. You must constantly absorb new
skills and adapt to new paradigms. There may be no discernible
end in sight, but after a while you find your own absorption rate.
A calm and safe place, a decompression chamber which allows for
mental digestion is practically a requirement to balance the effects
of modern life. Kenji Yanobe's work seems built upon this need
for privacy and escape, giving us a clear example of where we
may be headed as individuals in a society we keep at arm's length.