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

Rhizomatiks
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.

 

Tattoos, Makers and Data Visualisation

Maker Faire tattoosWe approached to MakerFaire with a spirit of enquiry, wanting to gather data about the community of makers attending, asking “What kind of skills do visitors to Maker Faire have?”. The tricky bit was gathering this data in an interesting way. Could we make doing a survey genuinely fun for everyone involved?

We thought we could ask people to create ‘a badge of identity’ as an output to filling in a short questionnaire about their maker skills. We made temporary tattoos, designed by Wes West, so people could brand themselves within three categories – Physical Making, Digital Making and Electronics.  Physical making was represented by a molecule diagram of cellulose, computer making by a binary table and electronics by an electron moving between electrons. Keen participants could indicate their level of mastery with an army-style three bar system.Maker tattoo keyWe applied them to arms, hands, necks, ankles, even a midriff, and you could spy them all over the faire. Indeed, seeing them everywhere brought people to seek out our rather tucked-away stand in one of the corners of the building, and yes, fill out the survey. Their previously invisible skills were now on display for all to see.

Geek CodeThe tattoos were inspired by Geek Code, letters and symbols used by self-described “geeks” to inform fellow geeks about their personality, appearance, interests, skills and opinions. Other geeks can read the geek code and discover what the writer looks like, what interests they have, and so forth. This is deemed to be efficient in a sufficiently geeky manner.

The gold standard for interactive activities at live events is to design something that passers by can see, quickly parse, and get drawn in by. By looking at it, they’ll understand it and want to participate. Simon Katan built us a colourful, gently spinning diagram which highlighted both relative numbers of people ticking different categories, and particularly strong connections between them. It was important that it updated in real time, so each person could see the change they had made to the sum total of the data. By the end of the day the diagram had become gloriously tangled; to see the spinning diagram in action, go here.Caper diagram end of daySo what did we learn?

The top skills at Makerfaire were soldering, closely followed by coding. Circuit design, sewing, and interface design chased each other for third place throughout the day.

Having a write-in ‘other’ field in each of the three categories triggered some really interesting conversations – especially with those who weren’t comfortable calling themselves Makers. So many people said ‘I’m not a maker but…’ ‘I suppose I’ve re-plumbed and rewired my house’, ‘I grind my own telescope lenses’, ‘Does making your own furniture count?’. There’s a divide in people’s minds between making you do because something needs doing, and making for its own sake, as a hobby.

Kids especially loved the tattoos, and choosing them and filling in the survey with parents triggered some interesting inter-generational conversations.

And finally, having the live visualisation made the process of gathering data feel like a two way transaction, not an imposition. Asking people to join in feels quite different from asking people to give something away.stef-and-kids

Photo credits: image 2 by Rain Rabbit, other images by the Caper team.

Culture Hack East developments

Since the start of 2013 we have been developing a strategic plan for Culture Hack East, in partnership with CoDE and Creative Front at Anglia Ruskin University, as part of our ongoing development of Culture Hack nationally.  We have been working with the arts, creative and technology industries in the East region to explore and define the strategic development of the programme for 2013 and 2014, with support from the Arts CounciLTMitchell_130226_9253As well as strategic development, we have produced a Toolkit (available online later in April) to share our methodology and learnings so far from Culture Hack.  This free resource includes information on the process and ethos of the Culture Hack programme, as well as resources, such as signposting to funding opportunities, and real lift case studies including Hoipolloi and the London Review of Books.  The toolkit includes information on what motivates people to take part and how participating in a Culture Hack event can support legacy projects and long-term organisational change.

Back in February we ran a Culture Hack East Ideas Lab with our regional partners at Anglia Ruskin University.  The aim of the lab was to bring together cultural organisations, technologists, designers and developers to experiment with rapid ideas generation. We had over thirty attendees including The Junction, Wysing Arts Centre, ADeC, CRASSH, Hoipolloi, Cambridgeshire County Council, Tribal Labs and Stride Design.TMitchell_130227_9482Over two days, they created user journeys, developed paper prototypes and pitched ideas. Our panel – made up of Georgia Ward (Arts Council England), Zoe Svendsen (Metis Arts), Rachel Drury (Arts Policy Researcher in Residence, University of Cambridge), and Daniel Jones (Erase) – selected two prototypes to receive development bursaries, taking the ideas beyond paper prototypes to digital prototype stage.

Developed by Specialmoves, Parrabbola, DanceDigital and firstsite, Art Buddies is about creating opportunities for audiences to take risks, facilitating group attendance to artistic exhibitions or performances. They could be novices who have an interest in the art form, or knowledgeable enthusiasts keen to share. The Art Buddies team have tested an early stage prototype with target user groups, and through this they have refined what a successful and engaging experience would look like.TMitchell_130227_9353University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s Cambridge Cabinet contains nearly 160 artifacts found in the Cambridge area that originate from the Medieval, Roman and Prehistoric periods. Developed by the museum with Atlas Live, the Wall of Cambridge Archaeology iPad App presents the visitor with a representation of the cabinet, maps of the Cambridge area, and the objects themselves. MAA is keen to develop the prototype to a second phase period, involving user testing in the gallery.  Off the back of this initial prototype the group have located additional funding to enable this future development.User-3As soon as the prototypes are available to the public we will share the links with you!

Photos: Tim Mitchell