Interview with Mika Fukumori: On Ototenji and IAMAS

November 25, 2009

Before I’m going to start with individual presentations from this year’s edition of Device_art 3.009, held last month in Zagreb, I owe you few wordz on the concept and origins from the organizers of the festival, Kontejner – bureau of contemporary art praxis.

mika_fukumori_ototenji.jpgMika Fukumori: Ototenji

‘Device art is a concept that was invented almost at the same time in 2004 in Japan and here. Those who follow the scene related to arts and the new technologies cannot believe that it is not a matter of a kind of copying, and wonder who took the title from whom. But we claim that Device Art is just one more piece of evidence showing that ideas are universal.

Also, the fact that, for better or worse, we share the same project name does not mean that the concept that the term signifies is the same. Dr Andreas Broeckmann, art historian and independent curator, long term director of the Transmedial Festival, getting hold of a catalogue of the first exhibition of Device Art in Zagreb, commented on the difference with the words: Exactly the opposite! Of course, there was a slight exaggeration in this, for it is not completely opposite, but it is certain that the Japanese and the Croatian versions of Device Art do differ conceptually.


The Japanese term for Device Art was thought up by Dr Machiko Kusahara, a very distinguished lecturer at UCLA and Dr Hiroo Iwata from Tsukuba University, and the name, simplified, meant something that was part product, part toy, part sculpture.

There are three basic characteristics of Japanese Device Art. The first is that the mechanism itself constitutes the subject of the work, i.e. the medium is the content; the second is that the artworks are often designed for play, and in some cases are mass produced and meant for wide commercial distribution. The third characteristic is that the playfulness of the works derives from the Japanese tradition and culture that have always been intrigued with sophisticated tools and materials.’ (Text by Suncica Ostoic & Olga Majcen Linn, Kontejner)

IAMAS.jpgIAMAS Tokyo Showcase (c) taken from kristykomuso

Therefore, this year Zagreb’s Device_art hosted Japanese new media school IAMAS, as well as  Slovene and Croatian artists… Today, I’m starting with the first interview in the series which will be published during the following weeks (and months, you know me!)… I interviewed artists with the help of Satoshi Morita (yeah, you remember him from last year’s Touch me Festival) in order to avoid possible language barriers…

Ladiez and Gentlemen, Mika Fukumori…

Mika Fukumori was born in 1967 in Japan. Her previous experience was connected with television. From1994 till 2000 she was director of the local TV station. In 2004 she graduated new media at IAMAS – Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences in Tokyo. From 2005 she works at the Research Centre for Media Culture in IAMAS. Her works, Letter Picture Book and Ototenji were exhibited widely: Austria, USA, Korea, China and Japan.

deviceart_9.jpgMika Fukumori at Device art 3.009
Photo by Kontejner

Can you tell me few words about your previous project the Letter Picture Book : Shiroi hon (White book)”…

MF: The work with The White Book was a project I did at IAMAS. I think the reason why this book was ‘born’ is actually IAMAS. One reason why I started to work on this project is because I got a task and a theme to find if there is any space between two and three dimensions. That was a kind of theme to work on from IAMAS. Then I started to think about what could be 2 dimensional and 3 dimensional.

ototenji_1.jpgOtotenji exhibited at Device art 3.009
Photo taken from (c)

Let’s get back now to your latest project Ototenji…

MF: Ototenji means the sound Braille. Braille is the language of the blind people. At first, it wasn’t based on blind people, but on 2,5 dimension. Then I thought what it could be and I got to the point when I realized that there are things that exist but you can’t see them. More precisely, you see that there is a lack of one perception. When you have 3 dimensions, you can see or touch everything. But, 2,5 could miss one aspect. Then I started to think about the lack of sight and that was the pathway to use Braille…

So, basically it’s a learning device. Japanese Braille is consisted of 50 letters combined with 1 grid and 6 dots. This combination of vowels and consonants determines the sequence of the grids. Hence, my model has blocks which are inserted into panel with 6 holes and in the moment when the figure is in the Braille sequence the sound of the corresponding letter is performed from the speaker. But there is this moment with LED, because at the same time the connection between vowels and consonants is illuminated with different colors.

Photo by Kontejner

In Japan is more common to have women dealing and solving tech issues then the rest of the world, am I wrong?!

MF: Yes. Right, talking about this involvement with technology. Actually, I didn’t program anything or made this object. This is one special aspect of IAMAS, that there are technicians who can practically build ideas we, the students have. We just need to have an idea and a plan how this should work and look like. I just made the concept and the structure of an idea, and then technicians realized this work. So, that’s this creative aspect of IAMAS. This collaboration works really well, because there are also engineers, programmers, composers, video makers.

ototenji02_w400.jpgOtotenji by Mika Fukumori taken from Musica Visual (c)

In such cases we are not competitors, and you have hundreds of chances and opportunities to work together in order to realize the concept. … and they are mostly men (laughs).

Yeah, but as women we have really creative brain for ideas… (laughs)

Satoshi Morita: Yeah, and we work! (laughs)

MF: There are also technical universities in Japan. Normally, they do this technique based things, but there are mostly man, students are mostly man and they are kind of strict. They are not so soft and flexible. At IAMAS there are lots of women who have a lot of ideas, which men probably don’t have, I don’t know. IAMAS have this combination of ideas, meaning soft, and this strict, technical aspect. There is a possibility to realize these aspects and it’s very nicely combined in IAMAS.

But this whole story is from 10 years ago (laughs). Now, IAMAS has also many good female programmers, and there are not many differences between men and women doing programming or ideas and concepts. Not much at all.

ototenji_2.JPGOtotenji at thisAbility vs Disability Exhibition (2008)
Photo taken from

But the scene has also changed in last few years… girlz took an enormous and almost exclusive part at DIY scene in the context of wearable technology, for instance… it’s very interesting because they have in focus not only the causes, but the consequences… Can you tell me something about Ototenji in relation to the blind people and the society in Japan?

MF: There are many products that have the Braille language on their packages in Japan. You can find it really everywhere in Japan, in the elevator or in telephone cabins, everywhere you can find Braille. But most blind people are not 100% blind; they are slightly disabled for the sight. So, I think our government feels a kind of satisfied just to put the Braille everywhere and it’s done for them. Actually, it’s not, because slightly blind people probably don’t know well the Braille language.

So, I wanted to deal also with this political position of the government and the Japanese society. Having Braille language everywhere is not the only approach to help the blind. So, Ototenji is also intended for people who can see,  in order to think about that what could help blind people, in fact. Not just using the Braille everywhere, but to try a little bit different approach. Not just this easy and comfortable approach for the society.

ototenji_3.jpgOtotenji at thisAbility vs Disability Exhibition (2008)
Photo taken from

Yeah, I see. You mean that it just covers one aspect… With Ototenji you can sense how complex this issue actually is… What do you do now at IAMAS?

MF: I organize exhibitions for IAMAS, do some PR and so. IAMAS is a University with students who produce projects and artworks, so there are many opportunities to exhibit these projects.

Regarding new media, Japan has slightly different situation then the rest of the world, because technology is now deeply rooted in modern Japanese society and it’s functional… There are also many cute toys, not only serious devices that are very popular in the country… How it’s reflected on IAMAS as educational institution?

MF: Education in Japan is consisted of two structures: Academy, which is not like University but sort of Institution; and graduated schools, where you can get Master. In those two institutions there are many different students with different backgrounds. Some are into programming, some into composing; some are into design or IT. Some of them are into sound or some into kind of artistic thing, like mixed media.

ototenji04_z.jpgPhoto by Kontejner

But the focus in IAMAS is to bring quickly the concept into the object. Since there are enough people to work together, there are also enough knowledge and experience to realize the concept. For example, Jamming Gear by So Kanno is really great example how quickly one idea can be produced. He started it by doing a drawing and using somewhat ready made gears. Then he used kind of audio digital and analogue components. This prototyping, actually to make a prototype as quickly as possible is now the main focus at IAMAS.

There are few things that are a little bit different between arts universities and IAMAS. On many art universities, for example at some design department they can have the good concept, good vision and they can also build model, but only till the prototype. They can make a form, but probably they don’t have enough facilities or enough personnel to involve this complex technology into the practice.

ototenji_7.jpgPhoto taken from IAMAS from the exhibition ‘Source of Life’

They have 3D models created in 3ds Max or Cinema 4D, but not an actual real product…

MF: Yes, on IAMAS there are also 3D modelling things, but we have also professors and technicians who can build a kind of machine to create one form or one prototype. So, you have here this technological aspect, but you have also this personal, a kind of man power aspect which is good for the whole process from the starting idea till the prototyping phase. Actually, you have an opportunity to try how this idea works by building a prototype. Then again, people have the opportunity to test this and how it works, and also to see the possibility how you can get much more from different situations when it’s applied in a special way.

deviceart.jpgPhoto: Kontejner

In Asia philosophy, life and art are unique, whilst Westerns make huge barriers and walls between each of them… This is now westerner asking, are you more inspired by art or technology?

MF: I don’t think about it, if something is art or not. If this work involves technology, but the technology is also not the theme or purpose, I would say vision. You simply realize one device or one concept using, for instance Braille in order to make a communication with people who are blind, as well as those who aren’t blind. There is actually a kind of practice for blind people, to put things in the whole and this kind of action. I think that there is no need to make a distinction between technology and arts.

ototenji02.jpgPhoto by Mika Fukumori (c)

But for me, that’s a difficult matter, because what’s actually art or what’s technology? But then you have this situation that art needs technology, they are pretty much connected. I mean, not only in a sense of high tech, but everything what you use is technology. But I’m really happy that I managed to realize Ototenji now, because I had a possibility to produce it at IAMAS using this colour LED.

IAMAS_1.jpgIAMAS Gang at Device Art 3.009, photo by Kontejner

Because, like ten years ago we didn’t have these things, and this project would look much bigger and in different form. And now we have this concept of device_art or new media art, which mean that we have easier contacts with people. People now have the basic knowledge about that what these things might mean, and how to build a connection between the audience and the project. Now, I feel more comfortable and I can work now.

Mika, Thanks a lot!

p.s. Thanks, Satoshi!

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