INTERVIEW AND PHOTOS BY TOMO KOSUGATRANSLATED BY LENA OISHI
Daito Manabe is a Japanese video artist who sticks half a dozen electrodes onto his face, synchs them all up to a blippy homemade soundtrack, and proceeds to electrocute himself into a choreography of grimaces and twitches.This oddly mesmerizing work has garnered such massive international attention that parasitic Hollywood ad slobs co-opted Daito’s technique for a national milk-chocolate campaign. Gross. (Ever diplomatic, Daito says this isn’t exactly the case, but it’s true, by God.) Either way, now he’s famous. We met up with Daito in Tokyo to find out what would possess a nice boy from the suburbs to do such things to his face—it’s not boredom like you might think—and to see what the future of controlled-voltage art has in store for us.
Vice: What was the thinking behind Electric Stimulus to Face?Daito Manabe:I started thinking about how weird it would be if you could artificially copy human facial expressions. Masaki Teruoka, one of the leading authorities in the development of bio-art devices, once said: “A machine can simulate a perfect smile, but it fails to look like a real smile until you put the emotions behind it.”So you took up the task of hard-wiring your own face to prove him wrong?I heard this and I thought, while that is probably true, perhaps I could simulate a perfect smile using electricity. So I tried it, and of course it didn’t work.What went wrong?I realized very quickly that it’s impossible to build a technical device that can synthetically copy human facial expressions.Which was the whole point, right?But I kept pursuing it and presented my experiments, including all my failed attempts, as performance pieces.Electric Stimulus to Facewas just one of the videos I made while trying to simulate these facial expressions.Was there anything else you hoped to accomplish?The entire sequence was based on specific expressions: a smile, an angry face, and so on. I was very much influenced by the artist Stelarc, particularly one performance of his,Ping Body, in which he moves his body according to prompts sent to him via a computer-interfaced muscle-stimulation system online.Your video reminded me of an experiment Luigi Galvani conducted. He hooked up a dead frog with electrodes and moved its muscles by sending electric pulses.
People have been experimenting with controlling facial expressions with electric pulses since the 1850s, so I didn’t exactly invent the technology.Well, if there wasn’t exactly an army of people like you before your video spread across the internet, there certainly is now. There must be a convention or something, right?There’s an event called Dorkbot in New York where all these people doing weird things with electricity come together. They screened my videos there. The title of the most recent event was “You’re Doing It Wrong: Creative Misuse of Technology,” which I thought was clever.Is that idea useful in describing what you do?Yeah, I’m just misusing an existing technology. The inventor of the Nintendo Game Boy, Gunpei Yokoi, had an interesting theory about how there is power in “lateral thinking of withered technology.” What he meant was that a lot of possibilities would open up by using common technologies in new, radical ways. Opening up new potentials for mundane technologies is something I aim for in my work.Was it always your plan to take Electric Stimulus to Face global via YouTube, or was it just a coincidence?I was asked to perform at the Digital Art Festival, which is hosted by Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK. But since I couldn’t attend, I asked a friend to make an appearance in my place. He wanted to know what sort of performances I do, so I shotElectric Stimulus and uploaded it to YouTube
for him to see.Was the international attention immediate?Some geeky blog found it, posted it on their website, and it took off from there. Before I knew it, so many people had seen the video! It helped that my artist friends spread the word too.I imagine that quickly made you a convert to the mainstream appeal YouTube offers.A lot of programmers think it’s a good idea that we are more open and share everything, and I’ve personally reaped a lot of benefit from that. For example, I obtained most of the applications that I use for my performances for free. I guess I’m trying to do the same. Some people say that even if you come up with an idea and actually execute it, the whole thing is pointless unless you share it with people. And I agree.That’s refreshingly populist.Besides, I feel bad for always being at the receiving end of freebies. I try to share my creations with the younger generation through workshops as well.The ease and reach of user-generated video sites are proving pretty handy for artists.Until recently, it took time and money to show people your experiments since you had to burn them onto a DVD and post them. YouTube changed all that. It’s opened up a lot of opportunities for geeks like me who are mucking about at the tail end of the spectrum.INTERVIEW AND PHOTOS BY TOMOKAZU KOSUGATRANSLATED BY LENA OISHI
Stills from Electric Stimulus to Face: Test 3You often use the word “test” in the titles and descriptions of your videos. Is that just to cover your ass or what?
Often the devices in those videos aren’t finished yet. In fact, most of the performances on YouTube are things I thought were interesting during the process of production, which is why they’re called tests.You have another video up called Myoelectric Sensor, and the description says, “Please think of this as a new type of instrument.” This time it’s your hands and feet that are synched to sounds! How is this different from the face thing?This video features a sensor that converts weak electric currents running through your muscles into sounds. In other words, it’s the exact opposite of what happens inElectric Stimulus to Face.Was it a similar process?Initially, I developed this device in collaboration with a dancer. The concept was that dance doesn’t necessarily have to be about moving your body, and that perhaps twitching your muscles could theoretically be seen as “dance.”So choreography spurs the music?Yes, we decided to do this project of producing a really minimal dance performance consisting of twitching muscles. But obviously muscle spasms aren’t very easy to see, so I asked Mr. Teruoka whether a sensor could detect muscle movements.And?Apparently it can! That was the initial plan. But in practice, dancing without movement is essentially impossible, so we gradually introduced some moves.So if a dancer improvises a dance routine, the device reacts to the movement and we end up with synchronized music. And if they had sensors all over their bodies we’d have an orchestral thing going?
Theoretically, yes. But it’s actually very difficult to make the noise that is emitted sound like music. A beautifully choreographed dance doesn’t rely on the same principles as making pretty sounds. If we hooked this device up to a musician, for example, they could probably approach the whole thing from an aural perspective and create some fascinating rhythms and melodies.But for a dancer, movement comes before anything, including sound.Dancers think about the choreography first and foremost. This wouldn’t necessarily end up being good music. Plus it gets more complicated as you introduce additional sensors. I write programs myself so I’m pretty sure I could control a device that had sensors for rhythm, melody, harmony, and one effect. But if you’re dealing with 20 sensors or more, it’s too much to handle.How many sensors did you use for Myoelectric Sensor?I opted for few sensors and tried to create as much diversity out of those as possible. Kind of like it was a game console. However, if we were dealing with visuals rather than sound we could easily draw some interesting pictures using lots of sensors. Another problem is that with too many sensors, the correlation between the sounds and the body movements becomes obscured.Someone commented on YouTube that Björk is looking for you.I got a call from Universal Music, which represents Björk, but it was for another musician. I would be absolutely honored if Björk actually did contact me, but the idea of hooking people like Perfume [a Japanese girl pop group] up to electrodes is much more enticing! I find it much more exciting to collaborate with people you would never imagine me being associated with.
Why is that?My work would be exposed to a completely different audience who have never heard of me and will hopefully be surprised. They might even interpret the device on an entirely new level that I never dreamed of. I love collaborating with people, though, so if anybody out there is interested in sensors or low-frequency pulses, please contact me.I’m sure people will take you up on that. But first some business: What about this chocolate commercial that blatantly rips off your work? Were you handsomely compensated?Oh, I know about that! It’s that candy commercial where two kids are sitting and twitching their face in all sorts of ways, right?That’s the one.I got a lot of emails from concerned friends when it first aired. I think they were worried that somebody stole my work. An ad agency in London mailed me asking whether I had collaborated on the commercial. The reality is that I had nothing to do with it.Dicks!In some respect, yes, perhaps somebody nicked my idea. That said, I just think that the ad was the result of people coming up with a certain concept, a certain method, which ultimately resulted in something that was very similar to my work. I don’t hold any grudges.What do you think the future holds for you?Right now, I have three ideas that I want to work on. I want to do a performance using transcranial magnetic stimulation. Basically, it consists of stimulating your brain with pulsed magnetic fields.Is this something you’d test on yourself, or are you soliciting other brave souls?I’ve wanted to experiment with this for a while, but meddling with the brain is pretty dangerous. I don’t have a license, so the project has stalled. I discussed the idea with some people from a science museum in Philadelphia, though, and they were like, “Oh yeah, we were just talking about that ourselves.”What a coincidence. Just like the chocolate folks.It got me thinking about the experiment again. I’m not sure whether I’ll get any performance pieces out of it, or even if it’s safe enough to be approved. There are a lot of hurdles, but I feel like there’s a lot of potential there to produce something beyond my limits.