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Hitchhiking Away from Utopia with Rebel Programmers e x o n e m o

We talk to co-founders Sembo Kensuke and Yae Akaiwa about Unix hacker culture, monetizing net art, and the dangers of collaboration.
January 28, 2014, 8:19pm

Sembo Kensuke and Yae Akaiwa.

This week, net art pioneers behind e x o n e m o, will hit the spotlight.

On Thursday, they’ll take part in Art Hack Day, as part of the Transmediale a festival of new media. They’ll also sprinkle some wisdom on the Hitchhiking Away from Utopia talk with collective IDPW and game designer Gabin Ito this Friday.

To think it all began in university, where co-founders Sembo Kensuke and Yae Akaiwa were influenced by the Unix hacker culture, honing away on experimental projects since 1996. Since 2000, however, they’ve been making installations involving sewing machines and projections, even more software and performances. Part-programmers, part-artists, designers and even inventors, they tend to blur the lines between what’s what in a way that leaves you with a lot of questions–and even more open browsers.


The duo have been referred to as “the new face of Japan’s media art scene,” having traveled internationally for museum shows, known for their challenging code that comments on the human relationship to technology. Highlights include FragMental storm, iPhone software which makes gorgeous collages out of selected image and text searches, the complimentary spam service for your frenemies, G-Spam, and Highball, music pulled from a keyword.

While on their way to Berlin for Transmediale, the duo spoke with us about the dangers of collaborating, what it’s like selling net art to collectors and the next window of opportunity.

FragMental Storm for iPhone from exonemo.

FragMental Storm is a software that searches web with any keyword and makes collage with the result images and texts in realtime.

Creator’s Project: This is your sequel to Transmediale, you were here in 2005. What has changed between then and now?
e x o n e m o: The last time, we had been invited to give a presentation. This time we are invited as participants for Art Hack Day, and we are also doing an event called the Internet Yami-ichi/Black Market. The latter has been quite successful and gotten a lot of attention in Japan, so we are looking forward to seeing how it goes in Berlin. Also, we have a child now. So we are participating with her this time.

The topic of the January 31 talk is ‘Hitchhiking Away from Utopia.’ How uncomfortable has the internet, as an art medium, become?
Well it’s a confluence of a lot of things. For example, as the internet became an increasing part of our lives, it kind of gradually fell under the jurisdiction of the actual world, one step at a time. I'm talking about stuff like privacy, ownership/copyright, actual world interpersonal politics, stuff like that. Once upon a time it had belonged to a small number of us early adopters who brought our literacy, or awareness of the possibilities, and a willingness to develop something different. But as everyone else entered, it inevitably become a bit more uptight, where the you need to watch what you say and do a whole lot more than before. And along with this, creatively, you've got a higher ratio of people who just want to be entertained: It's easier to upload videos to YouTube than do something challenging with code, so we're seeing fewer challenges, less risk taking. And on top of all of this, smart phones have made us all permanently connected. It's not "the Internet" any more. It's all aspects of our daily lives. There are obviously good and bad things one could say about each. We're looking forward to seeing how the discussion plays out on the 31st.

E x o n e m o exhibition 'on the web' 2004 In your eyes, where is the next window of opportunity?
At first everybody was bringing what they wanted from the actual world into the internet. Now people are bringing stuff that initiated on-line back to modify their actual space. That's what you'll see at the Internet Black Market. Not that we think that the distinction between the two is going to last for very much longer. We're in a kind of transitional period. People themselves are rapidly transforming. But it’s a question of how we're going to update ourselves, and which values, ways of thinking and interacting, our beliefs and faith. We're very interested in following this transformation. What is happening in Japan right now, in terms of new media, technology and art? What is the most exciting thing you?
Well people, as ever, have online pop cultural phenomena like Hatsune Miku and Niko Niko Douga. Otaku culture booms come and go. It's probably on the wane now. Things are more disperse after 3.11. There are a lot more "local" scenes, including pop culture "idol" groups. Each regional scene has its own kind of "yuru-chara" (yuru means "not necessarily well defined", or more accurately well made) mascots. There's a population explosion of them. Not to be cliche but we tend to look at these like the pantheon of innumerable gods of every time place or activity that fill Japan, rooted in its ancient animist culture. It's interesting to see these deep roots being reborn. On the other side, since 3.11, Japanese people have generally lost interest in the outside world, and the tendency is toward exclusivity. We think the Japanese people are feeling weak. People are doing stuff like ostracizing people from neighboring countries, which is just stupid. How has e x o n e m o come to represent Japan’s new media art scene? Is that accurate? How does it feel?
Originally we were doing things which were certainly not "gold standard" media art. We were outsiders in the scene, but here we are 17 years later, and what do you know, now people do tend to say things like you just did, speaking to us as though we were central figures within Japan's media art scene. It feels pretty weird. Anyway, positioning ourselves is not something that really interests us. Whatever is given you, your own perspective on what it is, and what you're going to do about is more important, don't you think?

e x o n e m o installing 'a web page' at Mori Art Museum 2004 Let’s reminisce for a second: When have you been in the most trouble in your career? With police, money, whatever. Can you tell us the story and how you managed to survive?
Having a child changed our time management, for sure. The 3/11 disaster trifecta of tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear meltdown happened before she was two years old, and that prompted us to leave Tokyo. Those were probably the hardest things imposed upon us. But because we left, we gained a kind of objectivity about the city of Tokyo, and the patterns we'd locked ourselves into there. We communicate a lot more on the internet now, and that fact gave an opportunity to think pretty thoroughly about those issues. And out of that experience we formed IDPW, and created the Internet Black Market. So again, there's the thing that you're given, and the thing you make of it. What advice do you have for young net artists these days? It seems like everyone with a little programming skills and attitude is a digital artist these days.
DIYs and DIWOs are thriving these days, but what we find dangerous is that collaborating is fun -- fun to the point that people tend to feel satisfied, and new values don't have a chance to surface. We believe that new values are made by lone crazy people. However, much of the internet accelerates the breadth and speed of communications available, it's important to not lose touch with one's individual solitude. Is it true that net art is difficult to sell? If so, is it impossible to make a living off your art?
Don't you think that situation is changing these days? Things like the media art fair UNPAINTED are a pretty optimistic sign, don't you think? Obviously it is hard to make a living just with art, especially in Japan where the art scenes are small and there isn't a wealthy collector class. But we were never interested in creating art for the existing art system anyway. We've always thought it more important to make our mark in the areas where the distinctions between what is and isn't still are unclear. You travel for a lot of shows and talks. Can anything new be said at this point?
Well computers will keep swallowing all of the quantifiable humans' jobs, so all that's left is to basically pursue something creative and irreproducible like art. If you're doing media art, you know what we're
talking about!

Hitchhiking Away from Utopia featuring e x o n e m o shakes down this January 31 at 4 p.m. in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt as part of the Transmediale festival in Berlin, Germany.