Talking Picture, 1981
Considered one of the leading figures of media arts in post-war Japan, Takahiko Iimura has been exploring the conjunctions and the boundaries between film, video and digital platforms in a body of works that comprises screenings, installations and expanded projections. Operating not only between these media but also between countries, he has been a strong presence in the avant-garde scene of both New York and Tokyo since the early 1960s. At that time, while working as an editor for various film and arts journals including Kikan Firumu [Film Quarterly], Iimura began collaborating with members of leading performance-art troupes in Japan, the Neo-Dada Organizers and the Hi-Red Centre. Grounded in these traditions and, to this day, approaching each project with conceptual rigour, he continues his venture to not merely identify the particularities of each medium he works in, but to question its definition within the process.
Julian Ross: In 1964 you received a joint prize along with Yoichi Takabayashi, Nobuhiko Obayashi and Donald Richie, amongst others, at the first Knokke-Le-Zoute Experimental Film Festival in Belgium. To what extent were you a group or a movement and what was your relationship with the other award winners?
Takahiko Iimura: We got together to apply for the Knokke-Le-Zoute Experimental Film Festival. Other applicants included Kazutomo Fujino, Hosei Hirata and Naoya Yoshida. Although most of us were friends and we applied together, we weren't exactly a group. For example, I don't personally know Yoshida. But Takabayashi, Ōbayashi, Richie and I had formed a group called Film Independents* so we were friends and together we decided to send some of our work. We also worked together in production, but only to an extent – we were individual artists who had their own personal approach to their work and so we didn't exactly pursue a group mentality. We didn't actually go to the festival and we heard the news after the festival was over. Afterwards, we independently organised some screenings in Tokyo and Kyoto to celebrate.
I wrote a manifesto for us, but I received the other's permission and some of them edited it. I was actually the one who came up with the idea for Film Independents. In the art museum in Ueno, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, there was already the Yomiuri Independents and Nihon Independents who allowed works of art to be exhibited without selection or competition and anyone could submit. It was a post-war phenomenon that took inspiration from what happened in pre-war Paris and we thought that we could also pursue this idea in cinema. So we arranged the 1st Film Independents screening, although actually this was to be the only one. I have plans to eventually organise another screening of these works though and perhaps make the programme available on DVD.
These films maintained a distance from commercially orientated films and political propagandistic films, and instead pursued inner truth, meaning and freedom. You could say that, at the time, Film Independents was the only place where you could engage in such practices in Japan. The manifesto says: "Our proposal, and the reason we exist, is to return to the 'personal' as a point of departure and hand back filmmaking to the individual."
JR: Do you feel the joint-prize winners of Knokke-Le-Zoute Experimental Film Festival continued as a group after the screenings?
TI: Although we were formed as a group by the festival, each of us were individuals pursuing different types of filmmaking. Some of the works weren't "experimental" and quite different from each other; for example, Naoya Yoshida's film was a TV-style documentary but Obayashi and Fujino's collaboration was surrealistic and theatrical. We didn't exactly have a common language and the ways these films were made were wide-ranging, though I would not say the same for Film Independents. Film Independents did submit our films together and we continued to work together.
JR: How would you describe your relationship with Donald Richie?
TI: We had known each other for a while by then and out of the group I felt the strongest affiliation and friendship with him. When I met him, he was already writing on film for The Japan Times and had made some 8mm experimental films too. So we often hung out together and he introduced me to the American underground and experimental film scene. He also had programmed for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and had already been in Japan for a fairly long time.
JR: Would you say he introduced the existence of American underground and experimental filmmaking to the Japanese film community?
TI: Yes, he certainly did introduce their existence, although he didn't physically bring any of the films into the country. For example, he showed me copies of Life Magazine with stills from such films. I don't exactly agree with everything he writes, and I haven't seen all of his films, but we did have a certain kinship, and he taught me a lot.
JR: Talking about Tokyo during the 1960s, I would like to get an idea of what kind of "scene" there was for Japanese experimental film. You seemed to be working in quite distinct circles from people such as Toshio Matsumoto, Masao Adachi and Motoharu Jonouchi. Were there any fundamental differences in approach or philosophy with these directors?
TI: Actually I knew each one of them in person. I met Adachi when I frequented the VAN Film Science Research Centre, and he was also a part of the Film Independents. But I never worked with Jonouchi, he was at Nippon University and he was a part of VAN, but he never joined Film Independents. For a while after I finished school, I worked at Nichiei Shinsha, a production company which produced news and PR films, as an assistant director. I only got around 10,000 yen a month! But Matsumoto also worked there and he made Record Of A Long White Line (Shiroi Nagai Sen no Kiroku, 1960), which had an experimental approach for a PR film. There was also the Kiroku Eiga no Kai [Documentary Films Association], which Matsumoto was a part of and I had an affiliation with. Many of its members were making PR films, simply to eat, and some were making genuine documentaries. The group disbanded and later reformed into Eizo Geijutsu no Kai [Moving-Image Arts Association], which Matsumoto was a key member of and I was a part of, but there weren't many people making experimental films there. Although we didn't work together, we weren't exactly operating within separate circles and we did interact. For those who worked in the film industry including those making PR films, they thought they'd be making a decent film within the industry, but I had no illusion of that. Instead I thought even making an 8mm film had much more freedom.
On Eye Rape, 1962
JR: Other than yourself and Matsumoto, who would you say was making experimental films in the 1960s?
TI: There was Nobuhiko Obayashi and Yoichi Takabayashi. We actually formed a group called Sannin no Kai [A Group of Three] in 1964 and organised some screenings. I suppose this caused a bit of confusion, because many people, including Matsumoto, have written that I came out of an amateur/private filmmaking background. I don't really question whether I was amateur or not, and I was using 8mm, but I feel that my interests lay elsewhere; artistically speaking, I would suggest that I came out of the Neo-Dada movement like Hi-Red Centre and Fluxus.
JR: Can you tell us about your involvement with the Sogetsu Art Centre?
TI: I cooperated with the experimental film programming, particularly with films from the US, at the Sogetsu Cinematheque and the Sogetsu Film Art Festival that started in 1967. I helped in different ways and contacted people for them. The experimental filmmaker and critic Kenji Kanesaka was involved with them already, and he introduced many American experimental films. For example, in July 1966 we showed works by Stan Vanderbeek, Stan Brakhage, Donald Richie and myself, and the programme was titled Japam - US Underground Cinema. Sogetsu Art Centre brought artists from abroad, like Robert Rauschenberg, and had performances by Yoko Ono as well as dancers. It was an important centre for avant-garde art in general, not only experimental cinema. They also showed a solo programme of my films in 1970 when I returned from the US.
JR: And the films were screened in the same place as where the performances were held?
TI: They were held in the same hall, which was located in the basement. It had around 250 seats I think, though I don't remember exactly. The Sogetsu Art Centre also screened French avant-garde films of the 1920-30s for the first time in Japan in 1965. We didn't have access to these films until then. We could only look at photographs from books and film journals, which is obviously limited. In many ways we began making experimental films in a way that was completely detached from its historical lineage in the US or Europe, where admittedly not everyone had access to these films, but people could, if they wanted to, visit cinémathèques and view these films. But in Japan, we started making these films in a place where it was impossible to see the actual footage. Lots of people have accused some of our films for copying the West but, in fact, this would have been very difficult.
I also performed a piece called Screen Play at an event called Sweet 16 at the Sogetsu Art Centre in 1963, where I projected Colour (Iro, 1962) onto a friend's back. It was an abstract film where I filmed the chemical reactions that emerged when I dropped some paint into oil from a close distance, maybe from ten centimetres away. These colours exploded and created waves, and at the end, I heated it up from underneath until it went black.
JR: Other than the stills you found from Western experimental films, where did you seek inspiration for your work?
TI: When I was in high school, I really liked poems. I was especially interested in Dadaist visual poems, and made some myself using Japanese typography. For example, I used the Japanese kanji for eye [目], which is phonetically identical to the English word for self, "I". I wrote this kanji at the top of a page, and at the bottom, I drew the kanji on its side, which looks similar to the kanji for the number four [四]. The Japanese word four can be read as "shi", which is phonetically identical to the Japanese word for "death" as well as "poem". In such ways I connected the self with death, and I wrote this poem when I was contemplating suicide in high school. I heard that when you jump off a building, all these images emerge like in a revolving lantern, but if I had actually jumped, I wouldn't have written this poem!
JR: So your poem, shi, was more important than your death, shi?
TI: [Laughs] Indeed. Anyway, people in Japan like Seiichi Niikuni also wrote visual poems in the 50s. The Japanese written language is already quite visual, especially with kanji characters; unlike the alphabet, kanji have the ability to elicit an image. I was involved in poetry circles during my high school and university years.
JR: Do you consider poetry writing and filmmaking a similar process?
TI: After poetry I started painting abstract expressionist pieces, inspired by the action paintings that were introduced from the US They were not as violent as Jackson Pollock's, and I realised that I didn't have the talent for such work. So I decided to pursue experimental filmmaking, which I discovered as a combination of visual poems and abstract painting. For example, when I look at Junk (Kuzu, 1962) now, I see such influence of hybrid practices in the combination of surrealism and documentary. I was interested in junk-art and Dadaism, and there was also the buzzword Obuje [object] at the time, where artists used everyday material for their work. There was also On Eye Rape (1962) that I made with Natsuyuki Nakanishi [Hi-Red Centre], which derived from a similar concept. Nakanishi found sexual education films that were thrown away at a film lab, and these films were to teach children sexual education using images of animals and plants. The Japanese censorship didn't allow images of pubic hair, so I inserted a still of one as a subliminal image to express our opposition to censorship. We also punched holes into the film frames, and punched holes through the censored images, as if we were censoring the censored. The punched holes were metaphors for the inability to see, a metaphor for censorship. I felt here that Dadaism and Surrealism were combined. In prewar Japan, Dada and Surrealism were introduced almost at the same time, together as the avant-garde, just as they were re-introduced afterwards in other countries as Neo-Dada. The sexuality of surrealist imagery and dry shocking imagery of Dada were combined to create a unique milieu within the Japanese art community.
JR: Your films were first screened in 1963 at the Naiqua Gallery, formally a medical clinic in Shinbashi, Tokyo. Were there many alternative venues like this at the time, and if so, can you describe some of your favourites?
TI: This place was very unique. A friend called Kunio Miyata, who was a year above me at Keio University, had set the place up. He was at Keio for a year, but decided to pursue medicine at a medical school. His father owned a medical clinic, but he passed away so Kunio Miyata decided to use the space as an art gallery. In 1963 he started the gallery and invited many contemporary Neo-Dada style artists to present their work. He didn't make much money as all these artists were quite poor, but he kindly kept at it. He set up the Naiqua Cinematheque there and you could say it was the only space at the time that screened avant-garde and 8mm films. Yasunao Tone, the musician and composer, wrote a graphic score for my film Dada '62 (1962) and I interpreted the score using the film projector to perform a "film concert" at the Naiqua Cinematheque in 1963. Yoko Ono, who had come back from the US, also performed "happenings" there. It was a very special place, although we only organised a few screenings, including an Obayashi special. Genpei Akasegawa and Jiro Takamatsu from Hi-Red Centre also presented an exhibition. It was a space where all sorts of artists interacted.
Naiqua Cinematheque's first flyer. Courtesy of Takahiko Iimura and Yuka Miyata
JR: There was a retrospective of your work at Sasori-za [Theatre Scorpio], the underground theatre of ATG's Art Theatre Shinjuku Bunka, entitled Takahiko Iimura's Cinema Love-In in March 1970 and Takahiko Iimura's Image Power in November 1970. Did you frequent Sasori-za or Shinjuku Bunka?
TI: When I came back from the US, I was told about Sasori-za and their activities so I decided to propose a screening to Kinshiro Kuzui, who managed Shinjuku Bunka and Sasori-za. Shinjuku Bunka showed independent ATG films and Sasori-za showed more experimental films. It was a small space but it was great that they would show my films every day for an entire month. I visited the space quite a few times too, especially to go and see films. I saw some Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda films at Shinjuku Bunka as well, although I can't remember whether I saw any plays there. I met lots of artists and was able to rekindle my relationships with people I used to know before I left for New York.
JR: A number of experimental filmmakers left Japan to live and work abroad in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Yoko Ono, Mako Idemitsu, Masanori Oe and Masao Adachi. What was it, do you think, about the Japanese cultural climate, that made experimental filmmakers go overseas?
TI: Out of these people, I think Yoko Ono was the first, as her dad took her with him to the US when he went on foreign trips for his job at a bank. I'm not exactly sure why people left and it wasn't just filmmakers but also artists. Many Neo-Dada artists moved abroad, such has Ushio Shinohara and Shusaku Arakawa. I'd say that these artists' relationships were stronger for me personally than other experimental filmmakers. For example, I didn't personally know Masanori Oe in Japan nor in the States. At that time, New York was like the new Paris and that drew a lot of artists there. I suppose it was the combined influence of senpais [seniors] moving abroad and the space that drew me there. It was a phenomenon that harks back to the Impressionists in prewar Japan, so in that sense we were doing nothing new, but I suppose you could say it was new for experimental and personal filmmakers. There weren't many spaces in Japan you could do such work, and there weren't many places that seriously reviewed or showed interest in our work, so we were isolated in that sense.
When Yoko Ono did the music for Love (Ai, 1962) and showed it to Jonas Mekas, and he wrote about my work, it surprised me and gave me courage to move, even though I couldn't speak much English at the time. I heard about a Harvard University scholarship from Kenji Kanesaka, who had received it the year before, and so I went to the US for two months over the summer. The scholarship wasn't for students, but for the general public, so there were people like journalists and teachers as well as artists, although I didn't know about this until I got there. In Tokyo they tested my English, and I was so nervous I couldn't say a word. Later I heard that the scholarship programme was questioned because they brought a person like me, who couldn't speak English!
At Harvard University, a lecturer recommended that I should organise a screening of my work, but after viewing some of it he said we shouldn't show such films to students but faculties. In the end I was able to screen the film at Yale University in October 1966, at a time when they used to only have male students. The screening was advertised as "Skin Flicks" in the campus paper and I didn't know what that meant, but it attracted so many students – all shouting: "Show me skin flicks!" – that not everyone could fit inside the venue.
JR: Do you feel you made the right decision in moving to the States?
TI: I suppose so. I wouldn't have been able to experience such things and receive such appreciation in Japan.
JR: Do you consider yourself a Japanese artist, an American artist, or an émigré artist? In his book An Accented Cinema, Hamid Naficy discusses the aesthetic response to migration and the subsequent feeling of displacement – he includes Jonas Mekas in his list of accented filmmakers. Do you feel a part of such categorisations?
TI: Although I don't know what Naficy wrote in his book, I feel you could say that there is a diaspora cinema. Personally, I didn't leave Japan for political reasons as it was purely out of artistic interest and it wasn't like I was an expatriate, even though I was dissatisfied with Japan to a certain extent. By going to America and Europe, I feel I was able to expand my personal vision of the world and it inevitably changed my appreciation and evaluation of things. Certainly, when I was in New York my experiences in Japan stayed in the back of my mind and vice versa, so I feel as if I have one foot in the US and the other in Japan. Perhaps the philosophical ideas from Europe, such as those by Jean-Paul Sartre, also maintained an influence somewhere in my mind. It's certainly a mixture of things and I wouldn't be able to clearly separate one influence from another – you can't just cut off one of your legs! My experiences of living in different parts of the world have certainly generated my interest in the concept of identity, which I feel I explore in my work.
JR: Do you think your personal interest in the traditions of Japan was spawned by the interest foreign artists began to show in them?
TI: Well, I suppose it was both. First I was interested in promoting group shows of Japanese films in foreign countries, so I introduced many of my friends' films to audiences in the US. I think people felt that they'd find "Japan" watching these films because they were grouped together as Japanese films. Such preconceptions lead to disappointment, and when they didn't find "Japan", people instead claimed that these films were merely copying the Americans. So in the end I didn't want to have such burdens on my shoulders and attract misguided audiences by having Japanese group shows, although I don't reject such categorisations entirely. For example, I submit my films into group shows and I just recently participated in a programme of Japanese-American video art of the 1960s and 1970s. But when I present my own work I now prefer it to be viewed as an Iimura film, rather than a Japanese film, especially because my films are "personal" films [kojin eiga]. It might be a different case for documentaries, where they investigate social realities and problems. I'm not saying such realities don't exist in personal films, as they certainly exist in the background, but in the end the individual is in the foreground.
Clockwise from top left:Takahiko Iimura: My Documentary, 1964; Genpei Akasegawa: HOMOLOGY, 1964; Yasunao Tone: 288K=120", 1964; Nobuhiko Obayashi: Complexe, 1964
TI: For example, in Video Self: I = You = He/She (1982), which was a video installation realised at the Whitney Museum in New York, I played with language constructions. The Japanese do not really use such pronouns in everyday language but the equal sign that ties together both phrases is borrowed from the Japanese language construction. In Japanese, you don't often separate such things. For example, there is the traditional Japanese word "nushi" and "onushi" which was used in the feudal time, and the only difference is the "o" at the beginning as an honorific prefix to separate the self and other. I'm trying to say here that "I" and "you" aren't that different. It was inevitable for me to discover such differences in English and Japanese whilst I studied the English language. The words "he" and "she" in Japanese emerged during the Meiji period when people began to translate many foreign books. I wanted to convey in this piece that, simply by changing the perspective, one person could be simultaneously "I", "you", "he/she" – all three pronouns. "I" is shot from the foreground face, "you" is shot from the side profile, and "he/she" is shot from behind the head. This installation captures the person from three angles; the individual can change the projected angles with a switcher located in the middle where he/she is sat and is asked to come up with a sentence when he/she heard the words "I am" or "You are" or "he/she is" through headphones.
JR: Your collaboration with Yasunao Tone for Onan (1963) as well as with butoh dancers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno for Cine-Dance (1963-2007), and your collaboration with performance-artist Sho Kazakura for A Dance Party in the Kingdom of Lilliput (1964), suggest that you attempt to incorporate or translate features of other artistic media into the filmic medium in a way that perhaps defies medial identifications. Can you explain how these collaborations came about and how you met artists outside the film community?
TI: I feel the crossover and interactions happened both ways, and although here it is materialised as a film, you could say that I was participating in their art whilst their performances happened. In the case of A Dance Party In The Kingdom Of Lilliput, I suggested most of the "happening" ideas and the construction of the film was also solely conceived by myself, but some parts were inspired from Sho Kazakura's work, particularly the title of the film, which was taken directly from the title of one of his "happening" performances. But of course, his character, expression and figure are all his own, we used spaces that he had already performed in and we did also include one of his performance pieces.
JR: Do you feel that you were also involved in and a part of the performance while recording the happening?
TI: I understand what you're saying. There are recordings of events and there are recordings of events that are art pieces themselves. I'm not saying that recordings of events aren't art, but it isn't my style. For example, many filmmakers who filmed Tatsumi Hijikata's butoh performances often tried to record his performance objectively, but I wanted to do something different. I gave the title Cine-Dance to the two films I made with the butoh artists: The Masseur (Anma, 1963) and Rose Colour Dance (1965). What I meant by Cine-Dance was that it was "cinema dancing", and therefore not just a recording of a dance but also the fusion of dance and film. Personally, I question the concept of a completely objective recording of an event. So here I consciously allowed my personal engagements and actions to freely surface, and I performed a dance whilst holding a camera. I got on stage myself as if I were one of the dancers, and I recorded the dancers' movement whilst simultaneously recording traces of my own as moving images. Some people complain that I'm not capturing Hijikata and Ohno properly, and that the camera moves too much and that they're unsure which dancer they were looking at. But that wasn't my intention. I always aim for something beyond a simple recording of an event. I feel that's what a true collaboration is.
JR: As one of the editors of the film magazine Kikan Firumu, you were often involved in group discussion on film art with artists from different fields, such as Toru Takemitsu [composer] and Kiyoshi Awazu [designer]. Did you do many interviews in this manner or was this unique to Kikan Firumu? Did such group discussions enable you to meet other artists and did any new ideas emerge out of these discussions?
TI: In Japan, the format of a group discussion is quite common in popular journals as well as specialist ones, and it has been for quite a long time. There are not as many one-to-one interviews as there are in other countries. Perhaps this derives from the Japanese lifestyle, an extension of getting together at an izakaya [pub] and having friendly drinks. In my experience, there were rarely any heated debates or harsh questions. But it isn't as if people are restraining themselves from asking questions they want or expressing their opinions. But I would say it would be rare that new ideas or theories would have emerged from such debates. I didn't know Toru Takemitsu that well, but I knew Kiyoshi Awazu as a personal friend. He was very good with people and was good at gathering people together, both in and outside of work.
As an editor, I did propose some ideas, I submited articles and took part in discussions, but it wasn't like I was there at every editorial meeting as I was coming in and out of Japan. I was also an editor for Geijutsu Kurabu but I rarely did any editorial work per se. I suppose I wanted to pursue my work in art and not be constricted by editorial duties, so I guess I prioritised filmmaking in that sense.
2 pages from Eiga Hyou Ron (Cinema Criticism), November 1965 Issue
JR: It seems you incorporate film exhibition and projection as part of your performance as an artist.
JR: What did you think about Expo '70 which took place in Osaka? It seems that it was a key turning point in Japanese art history and divided many people.
TI: I didn't participate myself and I wasn't invited either, as I was in the US, but I did go see it when I returned to Japan. I don't think the artists who presented there were all politically tolerated or safe, but there was a Hanpaku or Anti-Expo movement led by leftist people who questioned the political intentions of the event, and I do understand what they were protesting against. In my opinion, it is up to the artists whether they'd like to participate or not, so I have never been for or against the Expo. But there were many unimpressive pieces on show to be honest. For events of this sort of model, a lot of money is being used and a large number of staff are inevitably involved. When you gather together so many pieces of art in one space, you risk treating the pieces and the audience as one mass or one big spectacle. For filmmakers making films outside the industry, there are certain restrictions in presenting your work in such an environment, as it is a fixed space that limits personal connections. The enormous and conspicuous screen, a characteristic of a mass spectacle, immerses the spectator and steals their eyes, and in that sense it might not be as interesting.
However, it is not as if I have never done anything like that before. At the American Cultural Centre's Cross Talk series in the late 1960s or early 1970s, I performed at a big one-day event, where composers also performed and some Stan Brakhage films were screened. I performed an early video art performance called Outside and Inside (1971) for Cross Talk 5, using an early model of a very big projector called Aidohall. There wasn't any sound, but I individually filmed audiences one by one and projected that onto the big screen. Also I took another camera outside on the streets, where I filmed people on the streets and interviewed them whilst projecting them on the screen inside in real-time. I conceived the project as an exchange of faces. I wanted to show the image of an audience to the audience. I found out later that Allan Kaprow was doing something similar, where he connected New York and Los Angeles, a piece called Hello (1969).
JR: You have written on Allan Kaprow in Kikan Firumu. What was your relationship with him?
TI: I had met him in Berlin, where we both performed at the Akademie der Künste in the 1970s. We were one of five people who were invited, and I performed my piece called Register Yourself (1972). Here I wanted to explore the idea that you had to register to obtain the right to vote in the USA, a political piece in that sense. Actually I first met him at the Harvard University Summer Seminar in 1966.
JR: In a group interview in Kikan Firumu, Masao Adachi quotes you saying, "filmmaking is like peeing and pooing" Do you remember making such a statement, and if so, could you elaborate on this attitude to filmmaking?
TI: I can't remember exactly what I said but I do recall something quite similar. I suppose I wanted to say that the "underground" can be avant-garde but it can also be an everyday activity like peeing or pooing. Excretion might be considered a silly thing but you can still appreciate it if you look at it from a different perspective. For example, Yoko Ono obsessively filmed bottoms!
TI: There were others too, like Genpei Akasegawa, who made a two minute film for Film Independents, which I actually filmed for him. At the time, Fluxus were a much discussed art movement in New York, and their ideas travelled around the world. Nam June Paik, who had lived in Tokyo before, was also involved. I've never considered myself as part of the Fluxus movement, as by that time I didn't really want to take part in group activities, but they were my friends and I enjoyed their work. Fluxus itself wasn't really a movement or group that took account of membership either. Like I mentioned before, I didn't want to just record them but I wanted to collaborate in Fluxus Replayed. They got together again in 1990, and for me it was a nostalgic experience when they performed their performances from the 1960s. The performances made it clear that, like Beethoven's sonatas, Fluxus performances can be performed again many years after they were originally performed. There is the sense that, if there is a script, you can re-perform these pieces. And for me to film these performances and screen the film, it was a re-re-performance. So, if I were to accurately title this film, it should have been called Fluxus Re-Replayed.
JR: In 1985, you made a film called John Cage Performs James Joyce (2005). To what extent has Cage's thinking on time informed your work?
TI: Although we only collaborated once, on John Cage Performs James Joyce, I had admired his work a long time before I finally met him in 1985. In particular, I was struck by his composition '4 minutes 33 seconds'. I once interviewed him too. Actually that film itself began as an interview. He had an idea, suggested that we film it and I went along with his proposal. I was expecting an interview but he showed me this idea instead, although we did get to do the interview in the end. The interview is included in the Japanese edition of the DVD, where I ask John Cage about '4 minutes 33 seconds', discussing the conceptual title of the piece. Time itself becomes the title of the piece. John said that it's not just the time but also a space, and I responded by discussing the traditional Japanese concept of MA, which is a concept that construes time and space as inextricably linked as you may experience in the empty space of a San-Sui-Ga [Mountain-Water-drawing] or in the moments of no-action in a Noh play. I also made a film called 2 Minutes 46 Seconds 16 Frames (100 Feet) in 1972, which was inspired by his composition. In the beginning, I chronologically wrote down the numbers one to twenty-four on each frame for 100 feet of film. Then I chronologically wrote down the numbers one to sixty, but this time every second [every 24 frames], and then the third time I wrote only one and two for a one minute interval and did this twice, the rest is all clear. It was an attempt to show that time is also distance, especially with film. The film was also inspired by Duchamp's 3 Standard Stoppages. Duchamp dropped a metre long string from a metre above the ground and traced the shape the string made when it landed.
John Cage Performs James Joyce, 2005
JR: With Dada '62 (1962) you turned film into an interactive medium when you performed the projector like a musical instrument according to Yasunao Tone's graphic score. Music is often cited as what all art aspires to be. In what ways has music inspired your work?
TI: Tone and two others were in Group Ongaku, who explored the possibilities of chance music. I used the projector as if it were a musical instrument by freezing frame, carrying the projector around the venue and projecting images against walls, on floors and on peoples' clothes as well as onto myself. Each time I did something different, which enhanced the sense of performativity. I tried to conceive the screening of film as a parallel phenomenon to a live music performance. Both film and music are recordable, whereas music is placed onto vinyl or CDs and films onto DVDs, which can all be manufactured in a mass scale. The screenings of these films were an attempt to recapture the performative essence of film exhibition, a way to resuscitate its dynamism that was disappearing as cinema became increasingly like a ready-made product like tinned cans. I still collaborate with musicians for some of my performances.
JR: Are you inspired by music when you edit your films?
TI: I don't think about it directly, but as both music and film are structured by time, it seems inevitable. John Cage said that time is the most important essence of music, and I feel the same for film, although its importance has been largely neglected. Films that make us conscious of time passing are often criticised for being boring, and films that make us forget time passing are often celebrated. But I feel there are some films that allow an understanding to be evoked exactly by making us conscious of the time passing. The sense of duration in cinema can correlate with the sense of time in music. In terms of philosophy, Henri Bergson's discussion on the concept of durée and the Japanese concept of MA, or interval, have strong similarities. In theatrical films a scene lasts a few seconds, I suppose some go on for longer, and the notes played on a musical instrument also last a certain amount of time. In my film 24 Frames Per Second (1975-78), I wanted to place the notion of time at the forefront. As one frame is the shortest duration achievable in cinema, I wanted to see to what extent such a short time is visible to the human eye.
JR: Do you think about what sort of music you'd like to have composed for your films while making them?
TI: Sure sometimes. Music is often attached onto films afterwards, and is thus treated inferior. I feel this might be problematic and I have often tried to reject such ways of thinking. At some screenings I have used no music in the conventional way, but instead created music with the sounds of the projector or scratched marks directly onto the soundtrack to make sounds. It was an attempt to intensify the relationship between sound and image, make it one directly against the other, as they appear at the same time. In some cases I have used sound in a more calculated way to a similar effect. In 24 Frames Per Second, for example, I scratched the soundtrack, so even though the one frame highlighted might be missed by the human eye, the sound makes it "visible". In this film, I either add a frame of bright light into a film of darkness, or vice versa. It is actually harder to see a moment of darkness in a span of light than the other way round. But if you add sound to that moment, it is more noticeable.
TI: Discussion on film is often based on production, and it is often the case that exhibition is neglected. I feel for film, and to an even larger extent for video, exhibition is probably the most important factor, as it is the space and time when it meets its audience. I wanted to rethink its significance. I suppose it depends on your approach – whether you feel film is motion pictures, which is what it is referred to in English, or reflected pictures, which is what film is called in Japan. These concepts are very different. Perhaps the concept of reflected pictures derives from shadow pictures, which preceded cinema, although they did exist in the West too. The system of cinema, where you get a venue, gather some people in a dark space and show some images, was already around in the 19th century. This notion of having an audience face a screen has a longer history than cinema, and maybe it is more important to discuss this than the production side of film. Perhaps Plato's ideas on the phenomena of caves, and the presence of an altar in Christian churches, are models in ways to think about film projection. In my film Talking Pictures (1981), I tried to discuss this relationship between the audience and the film by making the audience the viewer and simultaneously the creator. By providing two roles I tried to problematize the assumed binaries between active creator and its passive audience and tried to make the two roles into one.
JR: You have worked in both film and video – in film, you often explore the concept of time and the material of film, whereas in video you seem to explore identity, language and the nature of video as a medium. Can you elaborate on these differences and how they work for your artistic explorations?
TI: I think that's an interesting perspective. I think these traits you mention are the characteristics of each medium and I try to foreground such things in my work. In film, time is materialised more than in video, although it is not impossible in the video medium either. There is a way where you can physically measure time. For tapes or DVDs you cannot visibly comprehend time as material, so I suppose film is a suitable medium to discuss time. In video this changes to signals: although frames still exist in video you can't see it unless you computerise it, but you still won't be able to touch it. The characteristic of video is that you can film and project simultaneously, and therefore you can see people filming and being projected at the same time, which provokes discussion on identity. The camera and monitor exists in the same space and time for video, but this is not the case in film.
JR: Is the media you are working on the most important thing for you in the creating process? Or, is it a more natural process?
TI: The media is important, but not as important as the concepts that come with the media.
JR: You've conducted many multi-projection experiments in your film installations and screenings. Can you explain why you are using multiple sources of projection, and what you are hoping to explore through such experiments?
TI: I do both single- and multi-projection, and they both offer different possibilities, so I wouldn't be able to say which I prefer. Sometimes there are too many images in multi-projection screenings and we are unable to concentrate, but then again we are offered the freedom to look at whichever image we want. Single projection allows you to concentrate more intensely, much like reading a book, but whereas cinema can project multiple images, a book cannot. Multiple projections can also offer plural possibilities through the relationships between the images. Recently I've used more often a single channel, purely because of spatial restrictions, as it really does depend on the space in which it is screened.
JR: You often speak of the dialectic of positive and negative and the two concepts as non-absolute terms. To what extent have these ideas informed your work?
TI: There is positive and negative in film, but this changes meaning in video. There is the effect of the negative in video, but there is no actual negative. Of course there is "reversal film", where only positive is used. We can construe the difference between positive and negative as definitive or think about it in a more relational way. In cinema the positive and negative appear at the same time, which I suppose you could say is the same for music, even possibly for theatre or any time-based art.
In a more conceptual sense, the dialectic between "to do" and "to be done", or in other words "to see" or "to be seen", can also be explored in a similar way. Although there is a word for negative as a material in film, there is no way you could show a negative image, in other words, a state of no image. Although silence is the state of no sound, it is not entirely negative, as the state of no sound is still a state. An image of a face is different to an image with no face, but the image with no face still exists. In the shape of existence there is no such thing as a denied existence, as that in itself is also a form of existence. This is something that is easier to elicit in images rather than words. In a sense, negative space, where images are denied, is unlimited, whereas positive space is limited by what is there. For example, if a film said: "This is Takahiko Iimura," the image will be limited by an image of myself. However, if a film said: "This is not Takahiko Iimura," the possibilities are limitless. If you think of images placed in context with each other, alongside each other, it evokes meanings because they are chained together. This is the same for language, as words placed alongside each other create meaning overall.Video Self: I = You = He/She, 1982
JR: You often cite language, mainly Japanese and English, as formal inspiration for your film projects. What sparked your interest in such semiotic approaches and how do you feel the language of film or video can relate to the spoken word?
TI: I suppose I got interested in language for a practical reason, which was to learn English. I began to realise how different Japanese and English were and thus language became something that was mysterious and complicated, whereas I'd felt it quite a natural thing beforehand. I made a piece called This is a Camera Which Shoots This (1982). In Japanese, this sentence would have two pronouns before a verb – kore wa kore o satsuei suru kamera de aru – which would be directly translated to English as "this this shoots" which is structurally wrong in English. The English word "this" can be both the subject and the object, and this depends on where the word is placed in the sentence and how it is framed. You could change the title to "This is a Camera Which Shoots This is a Camera", which would become a sort of palindrome. In video you can shoot at the same time as you project, where the camera as a subject simultaneously becomes the object, which correlates with this notion. In this way I showed the double identity of a camera and conveyed the correspondence between words and images.
It is also the same with the word "you" even though "I" can also be "me" which is what I tried to discuss with my film As I See You You See Me (1990-95). Here I conveyed the communication of eyes, but in Japan it was traditionally considered to be impolite to meet eyes, so it would be "as I see you, you will not see me". This difference was another reason I made the piece. Two cameras would face each other, and I would ask two people from the audience to shoot each other whilst saying the sentence.
JR: Your earlier work feels spontaneous and impulsive whereas your later work is very mathematical, precise and calculated. Was this a conscious evolution?
TI: Sure, there was a change and I suppose I was conscious of it to some extent. During the 1960s there was more spontaneity, I suppose it had something to do with the times, but change came with the emergence of structural film and conceptual art, where the notion of thinking was foregrounded. As you said, my later work has been more calculated and has once been included in a "calculated cinema" programme, but it is not like I have completely abandoned my spontaneity.
JR: Do you think of your audience when you are working on a project?
TI: I consider myself as an audience member myself, even whilst making my films, and I have the desire to join the audience at my screenings or watch the films as a member of the audience, which is what I tried to conceptualise in Talking Pictures (1981) I feel the act of viewing or hearing is not limited to the audience.
JR: You are often the subject of your own camera, much like shi-shosetsu [I-novels], and you have once said that "it is not about me but about an abstract "I" Do you see filmmaking as a way of understanding yourself?
TI: I am interested in whether an "I" detached from the self exists, as however abstractly you speak about "I", the speaking subject will always physically exist. I am not interested in the person "I" or expressing my own personality, but the concept of the subject "I". However, I have made a film called I Love You (1973-87), which seems personal but was actually a verbal exercise rather than a projection of my emotions, although some people don't see it that way and ask what my wife thinks of the film [laughs]. In I Love You there is an image of myself speaking but the voice is my wife's, and vice versa, and here I tried to show that the subject "I" is not always what you see onscreen or in front of you. I tried to show that the concept of "I" could be limitless. So, "I" is physically limited but at the same time conceptually limitless.
Endnotes Videoart Center Tokyo will release a DVD that will include most of the films that were screened as part of this programme in 2013.
*Read the Film Independents' Manifesto here: http://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/library/documents/the-film-independents-manifesto/
The interview was originally published in Midnight Eye in September 2010: (Link) and has been amended for publication in Vertigo.
Julian Ross is a PhD candidate at the Centre for World Cinemas, University of Leeds, researching Japanese experimental and independent cinema of the 1960s-1970s as part of the Mixed Cinema Network. He is a commissioning editor for Vertigo and a film programmer based in London.