The back streets of the internet: meet the Japanese projects changing art and tech

From internet-flavoured coffee to digital ‘pills’ loaded with healing music, Katy Beale, co-founder of Caper, blogs about some of the most innovative arts and technology projects and organisations in Japan.

Going beyond the concept of Cool Japan, Tokyo today sees creatives, thinkers, designers and black-market movements mixing up culture, innovation and technology. The country is an inspiring urban mix of creativity, consumption and tradition, and on a recent visit to Tokyo and neighbouring Yokohama I explored where and how these things are meeting, fusing and exploding into new ideas.

I was introduced to a whole host of fascinating organisations and people: art galleries, science museums, creative agencies, co-working spaces, city government policy teams, makers, artists, technologists and the open data movement. Here are just a few examples of the innovative work being done there.

(c) Katy Beale

(c) Katy Beale

The Internet Yami-ichi
The IDPW is a voluntary organisation and web-based secret society that celebrates the “back streets of the internet” by hosting online parties, developing useless software and holding a regular offline internet-themed flea market called the Internet Yami-ichi (Yami means “dark side”).

At its 2012 event, 500 people came to buy things as diverse as glitch art-embroidered hoodies, internet-flavoured coffee and the real world retweet: a service in which a man shouts your message at Yami-ichi attendees. Described as the internet black market, the event also saw artist Tomoya Watanabe peddle pebbles. With each stone came a CD-rom of its 3D scan data as an IP address. The work was a direct response to the fear the internet might one day use up every possible IP address, but it turns out that if you assign one to every single rock on earth, you still wouldn’t run out.

Digital music pills
The Japan Pill-harmonic is a project that takes a user-centred design approach to the problem of dwindling audience figures in classical music. The solution? Consumable, neatly-packaged micro SD card “pills” loaded with music ready to cure your ailment or affliction. Want a better night’s sleep? Simply connect the pill to your laptop and feel the benefits.

For this particular project, the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra worked with advertising agency BBDO Japan to prescribe different pills to improve various aspects of your health or mind. For beautiful skin, try Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; for an enhanced appetite, swallow up Rossini’s Barber of Seville; and for constipation issues, relax with Brahms’ Symphony No 1: The First Movement.

The Japan Pill-harmonic campaign

Open data cities
The City of Yokohama, a metropolis that merges with Tokyo, has been embracing the possibilities of open data for the benefit of its citizens. Leading the way in the Japanese open data movement with its policy of “giving power to the people”, the city is using open data as a tool to identify issues and create policies.

Elevenplay dance company perform with drones at Spiral Hall in Minami-Aoyama

Creative collective Rhizomatiks produces digital art installations, commercial design work and education programmes. Out of its Tokyo studio – which has its own R&D and internal hackspace, 4nchor5 La6 – the are masters of experimental work that includes musical shoes(planned by W+K Tokyo), human/drone dance performances and theMuseum of Me, which uses your Facebook profile to create a digital exhibition all about you.

Interestingly, the company implements a truly flat structure – much touted in agency land, but in reality poorly realised – where employees get to decide on things they want to work on and can veto projects.

Museum robots
In Tokyo, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation(Miraikan) has a giant 10m pixel, LED-screen Geo-Cosmos globe complete with soundtrack by techno DJ Jeff Mills. The installation itself shows a live, scaled version of the Earth based on everyday image data taken by weather satellites. Another highlight of the museum are its human-like robots that can run and kick balls around, much to the delight of visiting school children.

(c) National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan)

(c) National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan)

Art hacks
Children are also catered for by Canvas, an organisation that has an anarchic approach to bringing together arts and science. One of its projects, Workshop Collection, brought together 100,000 people for hundreds of self-facilitated free workshops over just one weekend, opening up coding, crafts, art and design to the public. On another project, the company hacked public spaces by hijacking digital screens across Japan to display children’s artwork in over 6,000 places, including TVs for sale in shops and screens in train stations and airports.

(c) Katy Beale

(c) Katy Beale

Musical trees
The Yamaguchi Centre for Arts and Media (YCAM) was founded in 2003 to work at the forefront of art and technology. It supports the work of innovative practitioners, such as Sakamoto’s Forest Symphony, an installation that takes bioelectric data from trees and turns it into hypnotic soundscapes.

Open source disaster design
Design firm Nosigner is an expert in open source and social innovation design, applying it in the face of natural disasters with Olive: an open source, Wikipedia-style resource for people to use after the last major earthquake. The project gathered useful open source designs, for example how to make a temporary toilet, wash your dishes, make a water purifier, make rubber bands from old bicycle tube and increase the size of a battery with paper. It was made in just 40 hours by four people.

Katy Beale is co-founder of Caper and travelled to Japan as a part of the British Council’s Creative Economy programme – follow her on Twitter @katybeale

This article is also featured on the British Council Creative Economy website and Guardian Culture Professionals blog.


February 2012

Month 9 for Caper. We celebrated by moving into our new studio, a light and airy space in Rockwell House. After lots of travelling during the last few months, we’ve been based mostly in London recently – working on our future plans and delivering some projects for clients, including:

Helping BBC Radio 3 to spread the word about Albumblatt, a rediscovered work by Brahms – seen here in an exclusive performance by András Schiff.

Recruiting the technologists-in-residence for Happenstance, our R&D project funded by NESTA, Arts Council England and the AHRC. There were 72 applications for the six residencies (two each at Spike Island, Site Gallery and Lighthouse), and we met 18 candidates last week for a busy day of interviews and workshops. Tables were (literally) turned, tiny robots were conjured and Penguin-o-meters imagined. We’ll be announcing the successful residents soon, and sharing the first stage of our learning.

Developing the next stage of our digital communications work for Homerton University Hospital NHS Trust. Katy has been leading a piece of research assessing the potential of the hospital in being more open with its data and better communicating with its community.

Working with The Royal Pavilion and Museums in Brighton and Hove on how to take their objects out of the museum and into the wider world (more on this soon).

Advising the BBC/Arts Council England initiative The Space – thinking about how arts organisations can make better digital content and helping to shape the service, which will launch this Summer.

We’ve also been giving some talks and running some events.

Women in a Room – our meet-up for women in technology – is going from strength to strength. This week we’re hosting the sold-out Women in a Room 5 at Special Moves, as part of Social Media Week. Kate Bussmann and Julie Howell will be leading a discussion about how women manage their reputations online, picking up from Laurie Penny’s article Woman’s Opinion is the Mini-Skirt of the Internet. Women in a Room 6 is a start-up speed mentoring event, co-produced with the British Library and Web Heroines. Vote for it now to get it included in Digital Shoreditch.

Maker’s Guild has started its residency at the V&A and is hosting weekly guest blog posts from makers, showcasing projects and processes. Get in touch with Rachel if you’d like to have your work featured there. The next event, on 3 March, will be a forum for discussing the Social and Economic Impact of Making, featuring Rosy Greenlees, Executive Director of the Crafts Council, and Ben Hammersley, the Prime Minister’s Ambassador to Tech City. Reserve your free place here.

Katy is also lecturing at the Birkbeck MA in Arts Management this week; Rachel is visiting Highwire DTC at Lancaster University as part of their Digital Futures programme, talking about collaboration and co-creation and creating new systems and cultures.

And we’re very pleased that Katy’s book Museums at Play has been voted one of the Top 10 Museum Education Books of 2011 by Museum Education Monitor.

And finally, here are some things that have caught our eye:

Ship Adrift, imagining the dislocation of ArtAngel’s A Room For London

Richard Sennett’s new book Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-Operation (see also this article by Sennett in The Guardian)

Lots of general awesome over at GOV.UK, including this, on Writing Simply by Russell Davies

On Twitter, Jenny Holzer, Mom and Amham Arts Centre

This trailer for Fascinating Mummies at the National Museum of Scotland:

Fascinating Mummies from National Museums Scotland on Vimeo.