Very lucky me happened to be in Tokyo during the Japan Media Arts festival. Cheerful, a bit chaotic and very laid-back, the festival had much to tickle a European amateur of media art.

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The National Art Center where the exhibition was held

First of all, the festival doesn't just celebrates media arts, it also highlights creative works of entertainment, animation, and manga which gives the feeling that media art is part of a broader contemporary culture than it is in Europe. On the other hand, i didn't see as many socially-engaged artworks media art works as one can find in similar exhibitions in both Europe and the U.S. of A. I'm all for activism and hacktivism but you know what? i didn't expect to find conscience-wrecking works in the exhibition anyway, so its scarce presence didn't spoil my dessert.

Unlike most similar events, Japan Media Arts festival displays not only the awarded works but also the ones that have been recommended by the jury.

Finally, there was light instead of the usual crepuscular atmosphere in the exhibition space. I don't understand why media art exhibitions are so desperate to have you nose-dive into darkness and gloominess.

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David Bowen's Growth Modeling Device scooped up the grand prize in the Art Division category. The system attempts to replicate the daily growth of an onion plant.

While lasers scan the onion from one of three angles, a fuse deposition modeler creates a plastic model based on the information collected. The device repeats this process every twenty-four hours scanning from a different angle. After a new model is produced the system advances a conveyor approx. 17 inches so the cycle can repeat. The result is a series of white plastic models illustrating a simple organic phenomenon from different angles.

Vernissage tv interviewed Bowen about his installation.

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One of my favourite works in the exhibition was Braun Tube Jazz Band. Wada Ei lined up tv screens and used them as percussion instruments, reinventing thus the purpose and characteristics of a media we thought we knew so well. The artist explains: One day, a spectacular picture popped up in my brain. It was an image of abandoned electrical appliances being played as musical instruments on a street in a town. Using this image as a starting point, I set up the same number of tube televisions and PC-controlled video decks correspond to the number of notes in a musical scale to create a set of gamelan percussion instruments. Tapping TV tubes produces primitive and cosmic electrical music.


(there's another video over here)

I was glad to finally get to see Lawrence Malstaf's Nemo Observatorium which i had missed at ars electronica 2009 where it baffled the audience by receiving the Golden Nica of Interactive Art.

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People were forming a long queue to be allowed to enter the transparent cylinder and sit on its chair, right in the eye of the upcoming storm... Once you've press the start button, a huge volume of foam polystyrene beads swirl frantically against the internal wall of the cylinder. All hell breaks loose around you and after a first moment of shock, the experience turn out to be soothing and perfectly safe.

Among the recommendations of the jury:

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Leçons de Français (French Lessons), a very charming French lesson by Vanessa Louzon who cut and rearranged images from a French lesson book that belonged to her mother and a communist-era atlas of Europe that belonged to her father, and constructed a video narrative using language lesson clichés to tell about modern life, displacement, and failed dreams (movie.)

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Common Flowers, by Shiho Fukuhara and Georg Tremmel (of the Biopresence fame), reverts the blue "Moondust" carnation -the first commercially available and purely aesthetic GM product- back to its natural white state using open-source DIY bio-bending methods and procedures.

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BOX 2.0, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Alkatraz Gallery

Box 2.0, by
Nika Oblak & Primoz Novak, is a bright orange rubber LCD monitor showing clones of the artists duo trapped inside it. As they bump and hit on the walls surrounding them in 2D video, pneumatic system and software transfer their movements into actual 3D space as if their kicks could actually enable them to escape the tv set (video.)

Bearings Glocken, by Kawase Kohske, is a musical instrument that performs a glockenspiel using steel ball for bearings, said to be the world's most perfect sphere on earth.

Photo on the homepage: Flood Helmet Gallery from the series Objects for Our Sick Planet, by ONG Kian-Peng.

All my pictures from the Japan Media Arts Festival.

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Previously: Art and Medicine at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo (Part 1).

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Patricia Piccinini, Science Story, Part I: Laboratory Procedures, 2002

Toward Eternal Life and Love, the last section of the exhibition Medicine and Art, attempts to bring light on the latest developments in biotechnology, cybernetics and neuroscience, but also on the vital issues they entail. Can our definition of life remain forever unchallenged? Is the human commitment to reproduce going to stay the same? Are there limits to the way we will be able to modify and 'enhance' our body in the future? Will we ever reach our dreams of immortality? How much can medical and scientific developments impact the way we love and live?

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Exhibition view. Image Mori Art Museum

The latest advancements of science are presented into a historical perspective, with the proponent of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin, as the key protagonist of this section of the exhibition. His theories about evolution through natural selection were evidenced in his 1859 essay On the Origin of Species. The book stirred much controversy but Darwin's ideas on evolution became accepted by the scientific community and much of the general public in his lifetime. As the current debate around creationism demonstrates, Darwin's theory of evolution still haven't met unanimity. A Creation museum in Kentucky, US even brandishes the moto "Life doesn't evolve around Darwin."

The Mori Art Center had brought to Tokyo many original illustrations related to Darwin's research on animals and men but also ivory phrenological heads, some of the original metal plates used by Francis Crick and James D. Watson to build a double helix model of DNA and determine its molecular structure, etc.

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Broca-type goniometer for measuring the angles of the face, France, 1865-1875. Credits: Science Museum London

One of the most puzzling artifacts for me was this goniometer. Invented in the early 1860s by surgeon and anthropologist Paul Broca, the goniometer was designed to measure the 'Jacquart' angle of the face. "Scientifical" measurements of the face were used by anthropologists in the 1800s to classify human types and races, in the mistaken belief that some human groups were more evolved than others. Human types were then placed on an evolutionary ladder, inevitably with Europeans at the top.

The artworks that illustrate the Toward Eternal Life and Love chapter range from the very pop to the acutely grave.

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Patricia Piccinini, Game Boys Advanced, 2002 (detail.) Image Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Copyright Patricia Piccinini

And Patricia Piccinini's Game Boys Advanced are quietly disturbing. A couple of boys absorbed into a handheld video game shouldn't raise an eyebrow. Except that on closer inspection, the kids appear to be twins with prematurely wrinkled, slack skin.

The brothers are not really twins, they are clones. The boys' accelerated decrepitude is a nods to reports that Dolly the sheep was ageing at a more rapid rate than would be expected. The scientists responsible for her seeing the light argued that the reason or Dolly's arthritis might have been the sedentary existence she led in laboratory rather than any genetic problems resulting from the cloning process.

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Gilles Barbier, L'Hospice (The Nursing Home), 2002. Exhibition view (image Mori Art Museum)

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Gilles Barbier, L'Hospice (The Nursing Home), 2002. Detail

When American superheroes get too shabby, they are sent to vegetate in Gilles Barbier's Nursing Home. The work refers quite straightforwardly to our societies' obsession with eternal youth. Should medical research be geared towards the fight against the loss of youthfulness? Or isn't medicine's most noble mission to provide us with better lives? Will our society ever revert to respecting old age?

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Sense, Annie Cattrell, 2000. Detail. Photo Peter Cattrell

Annie Cattrell used FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scanning techniques to create Sense, a fascinating series of sculptures that map the activity patterns of the brain as it responds to touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste. Scans of a subject's brain using each of the senses were produced with FMRI. These scans were then converted into 3D structures of amber resin using a rapid-prototyping process.

Tokyo art beat has an interview with Oron Catts. The Victimless Leather -which he developed together with Ionat Zurr- was one of the highlights of Toward Eternal Life and Love.

Special mention to the fantastic coin-operated dispenser of plastic body parts which you can find inside the exhibition shop:

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The exhibition Medicine and Art runs until February 28, 2010 at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.

My first stop in Tokyo, once i had dropped my suitcase at the hotel was for the Mori Art Museum. The Roppongi art space has opened Medicine and Art, an exhibition which, despite its grandiloquent sub-title "Imagining the Future for Art and Love", was every bit as brilliant as i had hoped.

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Prosthetics, anatomical drawings by Michelangelo, an ornate amputation saw from ca. 1650, disturbing prints by Patricia Piccinini, diagrams by René Descartes, Tibetan anatomical figures, a painting by Damien Hirst, etc. Some 150 medical artifacts from the Wellcome Collection in London and works of old Japanese and contemporary art are exhibited side by side. Without any hierarchy nor anxiety. Each and everyone of them offers the most seducing spectacle about life.

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Paolo Mascagni, Anatomical Illustration. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

From ancient times humans have sought to unravel the secret mechanisms of the body, developing in the process a wealth of medical expertise. At the same time we have seen our own bodies as vessels for the representation of ideals of beauty, and long sought to depict our bodies in paintings and drawings.

The exhibition is bold, provoking and it has the merit of bringing together oriental medicine and our own western idea of the art and science of healing.

The first part of the exhibition is all about Discovering the Inner World of the Body: How did people around the world first acquire understanding of the mechanisms of the human body and the vast world it contains? The first section of the exhibition answers that question by tracing various scientific developments through a vast array of artefacts. One of the highlights of the show is a series of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. For the Renaissance man, understanding the human body was a first step towards uncovering the mysteries of the outside world. Besides, his work epitomizes the spirit of the Tokyo exhibition. Da Vinci, better than anyone, managed to combine a scientific and an artistic approach to the study of the human body.

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Exhibition view (image Mori Art Museum) featuring Bal Yiluo, Recycling, 2009

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Iron model of the joints in a human skeleton, Italy, 1570-1700. Credit: Science Museum, London

This 30-cm tall, fully articulated iron manikin is thought to have been used at mediacal schools during the 16th and 17th centuries for demonstrating the structure of joints and for teaching joint-related how to treat joint-related diseases.

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Maruyama Okyo, Skeleton Performing Zazen on Waves, c.1787 (Daijoji Temple, Hyogo, Japan)

The second section, Fighting Against Death and Disease covers the way people have tried to fight against death and disease through the ages. In addition to presenting the history of medicine, pharmaceuticals, artificial limbs and organs, life sciences and scientific technology, this section poses philosophical questions about the nature of life and death with the various memento mori works.

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Alvin Zafra, Argument from Nowhere, 2000

One of the most striking pieces in the show is Alvin Zafra's 'Argument from Nowhere'. It doesn't look like anything else but an abstract painting. Until you read the notice and see the video of how the artwork came to life. Zafra vigorously grounded a human skull to powder against a seven-meter long panel of sandpaper, leaving a soft gradient of grey monotones. The operation took 14 days. Zafra said his motivation was "to paint a beautiful image of death."

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Tetsuya NOGUCHI, "Target Marks 1580" and "Target Marks 1610", 2009

Tetsuya Noguchi crafted two figures. The first one represents a young warrior wearing armor in the style of the Warring States period, the second sculpture represents the same man, only he is thirty years older and lives therefore in the Azuchi-Momoyama period.

The armour worn by the figures is ambivalent. Made to protect the body and relieve warriors's fear of death and misery, this armour also features several targets that invites death or injury to the body.

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Ernst Pohl, Omniskop X-ray apparatus, 1910. Science Museum, London

In the early 1920's, Ernst Pohl created the ground-breaking Omniscope. This X-ray machine could be rotated completely around the patient which greatly enhanced the diagnostic and therapeutic potential. By the end of World War II, around 400 units had been manufactured and delivered throughout Europe, the USA, Japan and the Soviet Union (via.)

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Set of fifty artificial eyes, Liverpool, England, 1900-1940

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Damien Hirst, Surgical Procedure (Maia), 2007

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Kamata Keishu, Surgery for Breast Cancer, 1851. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In 1851, Kamata Keishu compiled a ten-volume medical treatise called Geka kihai in which he described and illustrated the surgical techniques pioneered by his teacher, surgeon, Hanaoka Seishu. The illustration above shows the excision of a cancerous growth from a woman's breast, an operation which Hanaoka Seishu first carried out in 1804 using general anesthetic.

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Custom built iron lung, Cardiff, Wales, 1941-1950

The picture above shows the ancestor of respiratory nasal masks. The patient with respiratory problems was encased in the wooden box up to their neck. The air pressure inside the box was alternated by operating the giant leather bellows. This caused the lungs to inflate and deflate so the person could breathe. During black outs or period of unstable electrical power supply, nurses were said o have operated it by pushing the bellows with their hands.

To be continued...

The exhibition Medicine and Art runs until February 28, 2010 at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.

After a few posts about the Arsenale section of the VVenice Biennale of Architecture , let's go straight to the Giardini, the historic exhibition venue which hosts most of the national pavilions.

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One of the most popular pavilions this year is probably the Japanese one, surrounded as it is by greenhouses, little wooden benches and tea tables for visitors to have a rest.

The pavilion, called Extreme Nature: Landscape of Ambiguous Spaces, is a joint project by ex-SANAA architect Junya Ishigami and star botanist Hideaki Ohba. Its interior is sleek, luminous and looks empty... until you notice the delicate pencil drawings traced on the cream walls. They illustrate an architecture entirely made of natural elements (trees, flowers, other plants, mountains, lakes, etc.). The real nature is just outside the pavilion, in the neatly trimmed garden and inside four vertical greenhouses where Ikebana-inspired garden arrangements grow without air conditioning systems, creating an imperfect artificial environment.

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The pavilion spreads outside its walls, its spills in the garden and it's hard to delineate its exact boundaries. There's no dualistic relationship between inside and outside, between architecture and landscape. The furniture which one would expect to find inside a tea room are distributed in the garden. The doors are left open, not even the temperature difference can be used as a factor to differentiate between the inside and the outside. The only structure built specifically for this edition of thee architecture biennale are the delicate and transparent greenhouses and they are not located inside the pavilion either.

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The Japanese Pavilion itself is made to appear as an artificial environment or an element of topography. The original outdoor space overlaps with the space that emerges between the ephemeral steel structures covered with glass, causing the appearance of a doubled, ambiguous space. The condition of space produced here makes us aware that everything in it - the plants inside and outside, the furniture, the architecture, the topography, and the environment - exists simultaneously.

Previous works by young Ishigami show a similar attention for the smooth blending of nature and architecture. A spectacular example of that practice is the KAIT Studio designed earlier this year for the Kanagawa Institute of Technology.

Slideshow of the pictures i took at the Japanese pavilion last week:

Source for images 1 and 3.

The Venice Biennale of Architecture continues until Nov. 23, 2008.

I made it just on time to see the last day of Heavy Light: Recent Photography and Video From Japan, an exhibition that closed a few days ago at the International center of photography in Manhattan.

The work of the 13 Japanese artists on show visits three main themes. The one i found most fascinating and probably also most Japanese investigates the tension between individual expression and collective identity in contemporary Japan.

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Tomoko Sawada. From the series "School Days," 2004 © Tomoko Sawada. Courtesy of MEM Inc. and Zabriskie Gallery

She might not be as beautiful as Cindy Sherman but that doesn't prevent Tomoko Sawada to create compelling images. Her "School Days" series shows groups of girls in their high school uniforms lined up in neat rows. At first sight, they are all different. But a closer watch reveals that each of the girl (including the teacher's) has the face of Sawada who with subtlety varies her smile, adds an accessory in her hair, stands with an arrogant stance or adopts a demure posture. What was a sweet and innocent school portraits turns into a satire of Japan's homogeneity and emphasis on conformity (interview of the artist on Pingmag.)

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Hiroh Kikai, November 17, 2001 and A Performer of Butoh Dance, 2001

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Photo: Hiroh Kikai

Hiroh Kikai's portraits also talk about individuality. Since 1973 the photographer has roamed the Asakusa district of Tokyo, looking for people whom he defines as having a 'take my picture please' aura. So far he has collected 600 b&w portraits of strangers posing against the blank walls of the Sensoji Temple. Most of the people he selected seem to be ordinary. Yet, there is something definitely unconventional about each of them (more images).

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Masayuki Yoshinaga, from the series Goth-Loli, 2006 (more in Radar's slideshow)

We knew about Masayuki Yoshinaga's portraits of goth-lolitas but the photographer also spent 7 years making portraits of Bōsōzoku, the teenage biker gangs, often linked to the Yakuza. A former member of the Bosozoku himself, Yoshinga managed to get access to their activities and had the gang pose for him.

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Masayuki Yoshinaga, from the Bosozoku series, 1997-2003 (image topgear)

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Masayuki Yoshinaga, from the Bosozoku series, 1997-2003 (image topgear)

A second theme in the exhibition examines the relationship of the adult to the child, a key subject in a country facing a rapidly graying demographic.

0aakenjjjji.jpgKenji Yanobe's works explore the idea of survival in a post-atomic world.

The installation Blue Cinema in the Woods centers on a child-size movie theater set on the back of an elephant. Outside the theater stands a ventriloquist's dummy called Torayan, who appears frequently in Yanobe's work. Torayan is wearing a mini Atom suit ('Atom' comes from the robot character in Osamu Tezuka' s comic book Astro Boy), a child version of the radiation suit that the artist wore in 1997 when he carried out a performance at Chernobyl.

In the video shown inside the movie theater, Torayan appears with Yanobe's father, an amateur ventriloquist. Using American civil-defense films of the 1950s, he instructs Torayan about the measures to be taken if atomic disasters were to happen again.

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Kenji Yanobe, Blue Cinema in the Woods, 2006 © Kenji Yanobe. Courtesy of the artist

Miwa Yanagi's b&w photo series, "Fairy Tale," consists of reinterpretations of western stories in a very Film Noir fashion. The protagonists are all young girls. The young girls are set upon by nasty old women but they have very little in common with the Disney-like innocence of their age. They put up a fight and prove not so helpless after all. They use their youth and cunning to triumph in rather heartless fashion over their aged tormentors.

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Miwa Yanagi, Fairy Tales Series: Gretel, 2004 © Miwa Yanagi. Courtesy of the artist

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Miwa Yanagi, Fairy Tales Series: Sleeping Beauty, 2004 © Miwa Yanagi. Courtesy of the artist

The third theme in the exhibition Heavy Light is the conflict between human culture and nature, best exemplified in the work of Naoya Hatakeyama and Naoki Kajitani.

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Naoya Hatakeyama, from the Lime Works (Factory Series) 1991-94

Hatakeyama being so famous, i'll focus on Naoki Kajitani. The young digital street photographer takes his camera primarily in the Kansai region around Osaka, one of the traditional centers of Japan's "low" entertainment culture. Despite of this clear location, Kajitani's photos are 'generic', they represent fragments of the whole country. One which is saturated with garish commercial imagery. His large-scale, Pop-style photographs shows Japan as a cramped environment saturated with noisy billboards, posters, pachinko parlours, power lines, adult shops and advertising displays that appear both playful and sordid.

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Naoki Kajitani, JPEG / Starlight, Nagasaki, 2006 © Naoki Kajitani. Courtesy of Third Gallery Aya

In an interview for the catalog of the exhibition, the photographer explained that the areas his work focuses on are being redeveloped at a fast pace and are rapidly disappearing. His work might therefore end up becoming a valuable record of the period he is busy portraying.

Spaces showing and/or supporting contemporary art which engages with digital and electronic media have started to pop up all over Europe. Very. Slowly.

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[plug.in] is one of them but i see at least two reasons that makes [plug.in] stand out from the thin crowd of media art spaces.

First, the Basel gallery exists for much longer than most (it opened in 2000). Second, and more interestingly, its programme is one of the most appealing i've ever seen in the field. [plug.in] exhibits and often commissions new internet, sound, interactive and software art; organizes events on media art and digital culture; offers visitor a library and a bar.

So far i had been following their programme through the newsletter, but when i read that [plug.in] was hosting the first solo exhibition in Europe of Tokyo-based artists Exonemo, i decided it was high time to go up North and visit the gallery.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

The main piece is an installation which unfolds over two floors:

UN-DEAD-LINK explores questions of digitized and symbolized death between the physical and virtual world. The audience can see, feel and hear the effects that a symbolic death in a computer game can have in the physical exhibition space.

You're welcome in the gallery by a bunch of objects the artists found on flea markets in Basel. An old sewing machine, a piano, reading lamps, a paper shredder on top of a mountain of paper ribbons, a turntable with a plastic dog sleeping on a spinning disk, an old recorder playing crap music, etc. Each of them is animated by an invisible actor.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

0aaplugutooton.jpgThe explanation lurks downstairs in a dark room. There, soldiers on a screen do what they are supposed to do: they run after each other, they shoot and sometimes they kill. Each time one of them is killed, its death is given an almost tangible echo upstairs by one of the devices: more paper is shred, a light goes on, the sewing machine makes a few stitches. When visitors push the red button in front of the screen, all the avatars die and upstairs every single device seem to 'scream.'

Sembo Kensuke and Yae Akaiwa from Exonemo modified the game Half-Life2 and connected the mod to the piano upstairs. The electrical objects are connected by midi/dmx (protocol) with custom devices.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

The work is extremely uncanny: Seeing and hearing the 'consequences' of a virtual death in the real world gives them a sinister weight. It's more disturbing then seeing a real war massacre on television, probably because today tv death seems almost as virtual as the death of an avatar.

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2008, [plug.in] Basel, Foto: Stefan Holenstein

[plug.in] is also showing DanmatsuMouse, a sort of geeky snuff movie in which computer mouses (or should i write 'computer mice'?) are happily destroyed using all sorts of tools on hand: the mouse gets fried in a pan, another one is swirled and crushed in a blender, etc. But something subsists beyond the death of the plastic mouse: its cadaver (a couple of tortured mice were exhibited in the gallery) and the cursor, or rather the data. The motions of the mouse and the cursor were recorded simultaneously by a video camera and a computer programme.

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A DVD, available in the gallery space (did i mention that they also have a shop selling artists' editions and electronic gadgets), allows you to play back the sinister event: the movie of the mouse murder unfolds in parallel with the movements of its cursor that takes over the ones of the cursor on your own desktop.

exonemo - UN-DEAD-LINK is on view until September 14 at [plug.in] in Basel, Switzerland.

Previously on exonemo channel: Interview with Exonemo, MobLab presentation - Transmediale, Origami bus pattern, their installation at Synthetic Times, Ryota Kuwakubo, exonemo and ressentiment in Liverpool, etc.

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