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Analysis of the New Media Artworks: Field Works by Masaki Fujihata

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Japanese artist and scholar, Masaki Fujihata (born 1956) is one of the precursors of digital art in Japan. He is the most recognized by his installation Beyond Pages (1995-1997), which is considered the most iconic and digital interactive artworks not only in Japan but worldwide.

The main concept of the beyond Pages is to show the scission of two worlds – real and the virtual. Fujihata combines the tangibility of the ‘real’ space, by displaying physical objects, with digitally projected objects floating in the virtual space. In Beyond Pages real space intertwine with the imaginary world, there is no border between the two.

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Fujihata interest lays in the exploration of interactive environments, non-physical spaces that can be accessed by digital means.

His installation released along with his collaborator Takeshi Kawashima in August and September 2002 entitled Field-Work@Alsace is part of the ongoing Field Projects founded by Fujihata in 1991. Field Projects is a collection of pieces consisting of recordings made in particular locations combined with abstract projections of 3D virtual spaces that represent those locations, in a ‘cumulative approach to recorded time’.

The camera used for creation of this work, captured each geographical position depending on the direction, angle and movements of the cameraman in relation to space. Fujihata collected this information and created a new media interface which is a synthesis of three-dimensional images of navigable space and videos.

Field-Work@Alsace is an interactive installation consisting of video interviews with inhabitants of Alsace – the area located around the border between France and Germany. The viewers are confronted by a black screen with marked three-dimensional white lines which indicate the artist’s movements in the area where the interviews were recorded. While navigating through this online space, the viewers can notice that the lines indicate the shapes of Alsace. GPS records were used by Fujihata to project the shape of the region Alsace, which depends on the movements of the camera from one location to another. The map is shaped by temporality constructed by the location of the interviews, the movements made by the cameraman and the direction of the camera. Fujihata sketched the space of Alsace by combining various events that occur temporarily, through time. Fujihata presents segments of the past that produce the space which is being organized by the digitally created white lines. The viewer can access these excerpts of the space by clicking on a chosen 3D image. Space of the region of Alsace is created not through its linear temporality, but rather by the significant historical moments of various temporalities – the spatial narrative combines various moments in the lives of Alsace’s inhabitants.

Masaki Fujihata’s project Field Works is entirely based on technology, the structure of the space is shaped by the GPS records. However, Fujihata used the technological means which are designed to be precise and to provide a simple, cartographic documentation, to provide contextual meanings, as it was described by the scholar and curator Drew Hemmet in his publication ‘Locative arts’:

‘Through a juxtaposition of location data captured by GPS and moving images captured by video, it aims to articulate local narratives, while also excavating a sense of parallelism in the universe on a human scale. Field Works stretches and pulls at the coordinate system, in the same way that dancers play with shifting the body’s center of gravity to create a kind of distortion in the fabric of space time.’

This distortion created by Fujihata in the structure of Field Works’ time space was achieved by the selection of numerous perspectives as well as by the records of the gyroscope and the GPS system mounted in the camera. The project forms ‘both a record of movement over time and an associated database of amassed moments’. By operating within the virtual, intangible space, Field Works aims to provide endless interpretations, whether in the field of philosophy, aesthetics, or spirituality. Fujihata’s work deals with the notion of space in the virtual but it also tackles the understanding of the physical space of the ‘real’. Field Works appears as a ‘poetic form of data visualization’.

Field Works is an example of so-called ‘locative arts’, the subcategory of new media arts.

Locative art emerged in the late nineties as a phenomenon that combines interactive and participatory art with the digital technology which, by then, had begun to expand onto the structures of public space. At the same time artists begun to use digital mapping technologies as a way of exploring alternative notions of spatiality. These two practices became interesting tools in critique and spatial mediation. Location-focused technologies used in the visual arts transform and contribute to reanalysis of the perception of space and its different forms, such as urban, social, and philosophical.

Many scholars find similarities between locative arts and the Situationist International, a political and radical art organization established between 1957 and 1972. Situationists’ manifesto included the amplified Marxist theory with the critique of modern society and social alienation. One of the key concepts introduced and critiqued by Situationists was ‘the society of spectacle’ which appears as a result of commodification of everyday life, tendency applied by the advanced capitalism. Situationists critiqued the capitalism’s concerns about the interrelations of society through objects, which concern appears in the idea of urbanism. One of the main figures of the Situationists movement, Guy Debord wrote: ‘urbanism is capitalism’s seizure of the natural human environment… capitalism can and must now remake the totality of space into its own setting’.

The Situationists considered the city as the creation of subjective environments, therefore the city was a space which could ‘welcome’ derive that is ‘experimental behavior’. This behaviour was used to counteract and reject the rational, modernist design of the city.

The term derive, which was introduced by Debord, stands for ‘a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.’ Derive was therefore an aimless wander within a material space, a ‘permanent play’ through which the wanderers “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there’. As it was noted by De Souza e Silva and Hjorth (2009:610) ‘unlike earlier surrealist experiments, and Baudelaire’s flaneur, in which chance played a strong role, the derive was less about randomly walking through the city for its own sake and more about experiencing its contours, zones, and vortex’. Situationists also adapted the term ‘detournement’, previously used by the Letterists, which was defined as “the integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres’. In other words, détournement was a technique of mimicking the existing expressions of capitalist system in order to subvert them. Furthermore, one of the actions taken by the Situationists was a practice of so called psychogeography, which was defined by Joseph Hart in his article for Utne Reader: ‘a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities… just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.” Psychogeography was focused on strictly subjective exploration of spaces and times.

However, as observed by various theorists (Pinder, Tuters, Wark), the Situationist movement never managed to achieve to combine the use of city as a space for its experimental plays and an object for critical study. Thus, contemporary artists apply the Situationist theory and its critique of urbanism into the new practices that use urban interventionism for opposite purpose.in the 1980s and 1990s artists undertook the critique of cartography as an instrument of hegemony and by their practice they sought to provide new representations of space as a site for a new spatial politics, referring to Henri Lefebvre’s claim that ‘(social) space is a (social) product’ meaning that a change within society creates and organizes new patterns of physical environments.

At this time various practices became popular such as Geographic Information Systems, participatory mapping, eco-mapping, and others. One of the media practices which emerged at that time was ‘tactical cartography’ which was described as ‘the use of any media that will engage a particular socio-political context in order to create molecular interventions and semiotic shocks that collectively could diminish the rising intensity of authoritarian culture.’ Derived from Situationist aesthetics, as well as Fluxus, tactical cartography tackles the subjects of political empowerment and interactive art distributed through digital means. As noted by… ‘tactical cartographies aren’t just about politics and power; they are political machines that work on power relations’.

The artistic interventions in the city spaces were meant to educate and ‘interfere’ in the sociopolitical spatial structures. As it was observed by Lev Manovich (2000) these actions were facilitated by the digital media, as they allow for storing of spatial data in its uniform format of a code which can be stored and transformed, therefore its visual form of maps is also changeable and open to reconfigurations. The use of the digital media in recording environmental data also allowed for the removal of human interactions such as sensing or transcription which enabled for ‘an automated and real-time dimension to mapping that renders the map a live text where changes accumulate incrementally and an infinite number of refinements may be made.’

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, due to the growth and popularity of technology, the new digital mapping tool such as WiFi and GPS became a crucial part for some of the artistic practices. This type of location-aware technology was used by artists as an instrument which combines information produced virtually with the location data.

Artists started applying technology, which they called ‘locative media’, in their artistic interventions. The term ‘locative media’ was coined by Karlis Kalnin during the Art+Communication Festival taking place in 2003 in Riga, Latvia. The other significant instance of using the term was Ben Russell’s ‘headmap manifesto’, initially published online in 1999 which was ‘a sequence of text fragments dealing with the social and cultural implications of location aware devices.’. Russell proposed a utopian vision of the world where location technologies have become accessible by everyone and ‘soaked’ into the physical space.

Artists and media practitioners undertaking the concept of ‘locative media’ begun to blend the digital into the social life and physical architecture of cities. The aim of these artistic interventions was to provide a commentary or critique of the social and cultural aspects of urban spaces. Locative media resembled the concepts and aesthetics of Situationists in a sense that they aimed to challenge urbanism and social structure of the city, with the added new tool of new media technology. As it was argued by Tuters and Varnelis (2006: 358),

‘…since its inception… locative media practitioners have claimed an avant-garde position, insisting not only that their work is capable of creating a paradigmatic shift in the art world, but also that it can reconfigure our everyday life as well by renewing our sense of place in the world.’

Because of the fact that technology was becoming more and more accessible to ‘common’ person, everyone could feel like they are part of an artistic project – viewers were finally able to access and react to art by experience it through private digital devices, as it was observed by Russell (1999:4): ‘what was once the sole preserve of builders, architects and engineers falls into the hands of everyone: the ability to shape and organize the real world and the real space’.

Field Works applies all the mentioned techniques, initially invented and exercised by the Situationists. It appears that Fujihata implied the Debordian concept of derive, an alternative to the traditional method of experiencing the spatial structure. Fujihata focused rather on the particular temporal moments which shape the cartography of the region. The map of Alsace is the result of psychogeography and Fujihata’s subjective and selective perception of the space. Finally, Field Works is the example of locative media, or interactive art, which involves and gives freedom to the viewer who can manage and privately and subjectively experience the cartography of the space of Alsace.

In his article on interactive art published in the Aesthetics & Culture, a theorist of media and audiovisual culture, Ryszard Kluszczynski, discusses various strategies for interactive art, these are: strategy of instrument, game, archives, labyrinth, rhizome, system, network and spectacle. These strategies organize the interactive behavior of the viewer and, according to Kluszczynski, they ‘can be understood as scores that project the interactive behavior of the receivers’.

In the analysis of these strategies, Kluszczynski claims that all the elements, such as software system, database and interface, create and enable interactivity in artworks however they are organized differently in each of the strategies.

One of the strategies proposed by Kluszczynski is the strategy of labyrinth in which ‘there is not so much information, but most of all its organization, and more precisely – their hypertext structure.’ To Kluszczynski, hypertext is a data which is organized by the sequence of independent text blocks accessed through hyperlinks. While analyzing a work of art which is based on labyrinth, the viewer lacks introductory knowledge and information which would be used as a background for interpreting an artwork. Neither does he have a structure which would provide the outline of space and direct his/her experience. Moreover, the structure of an artwork can be transformed by the time of experience (the phenomenon defined as dynamic mapping). Also hypertexts are nonlinear, they do not provide any structure, there is no defined order which would navigate user/viewer through the successive stages of experience. This affects the viewers’ perception of an artwork that is solely based on their own perception and judgment, as Kluszczynski observes: ‘Lack of knowledge about the space of experience makes the emotions and sensations evoked by it: anxiety, the sense of being lost and challenge, but also sensations of cognitive character: making decisions and undertaking activities, searching for answers, analysis of interactions’ results – they all become the central attributes of an interactive work of art that realizes the Strategy of Labyrinth.’

Navigating through the space of labyrinths created by multiple hypertexts brings an impression of endlessness, and at times – a trap.

A labyrinth created by Fujihata in his Field Works as well provides this experience of infinity of space, a spatial structure that can be unfolded and expanded with the ‘click’ of the user. Moreover, the experience can differ from one user to another as the investigation in the space relates on individual actions of each viewer.

One of the main concerns in analysis new media artworks is the notion of space – space of the artwork (virtual) and the perception of physical space embodied in the cognition of the viewers. First of all, it is worth pointing out that space can never be fully understood and described as it always remains abstract, Our understanding of space is mostly mental as it never exists solely by itself. Each person projects the idea of space that is based on articulations of ones sensory experiences and already gained spatial knowledge developed through previous spatial encounters.

Space in new media art is developed through virtuality that combines both real space which ‘materialize’ itself in a digital environment and the space of the viewer which is an abstract notion combined of mental processes that are difficult to define and materialize. These processes are linked to the perception of time, we project space through movement happening in space or through experience of old spatial interrelations.

Thus, virtual space provides some aspects of reality which is not materialized.

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