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Daito Manabe: being real about being material [Theory]


An artist with a background in DJ-ing, electronic music, and visuals for clubs in Japan and now all over the world, Daito Manabe tends to make virtual things real, rather than vice versa. One of the things that I find most compelling in the work of Daito is the materiality, the viscerality of the means of transmitting his bits. As Mitchell Whitelaw points out we can aestheticize transmateriality, that is, the coolness of the not-there, of the purely momentary electric buzz, but there’s no getting around the fundamental essence of a physical entry point. For me to be aware, I must engage my body and the material of the world that lies right beyond it.

What’s so refreshing about Daitos work, particularly in contrast to many North American computational artists, is his willingness to engage the body as a canvas, as a site of action, rather than the engine of action. He might be one of the most interesting post-screen artists working today quite simple because of the canvas on which he’s chosen to work and the playfulness with which he approaches the body as a canvas. You can’t help but notice how for a time computational art seemed to focus on the digitalization and augmentation of space and physical properties. With a rash of compelling works that focus on the rematerialization of digital space, the reverse seems to be gaining momentum. Just as we were all once surprised by the digital mimicking the analog, familiar digital tropes now surprise when revealed in analogue form: real, actuated, physical stuff, moving around.

A projection is not just a projection onto a blank screen, instead, he paints the wall with phosphorescent paint and illuminates it with a laser to paint a transient image. To write a sentence or draw a hand, he arms a robotic arm with an automatic BB gun and shoots it through a sheet of paper.

It’s an interesting thing about the aesthetics of these surfaces: they’re really about not using the traditional screen even though I’m only aware of them because they are on a traditional screen. Without Youtube, I wouldn’t even know the name Daito Manabe, and in all likelihood neither would you. But his videos that he puts up are more than just documentation, more than a simple process video to demonstrate technical considerations, background, the specifics of a set-up, nor are they the slick depth-of-field heavy mini-advertisements of so many design agencies. There’s very little hidden magic or un-necessary polish in both his performances and his videos. An electrode to the face is rather difficult to miss, its effects are unmistakable, and that’s part of the point: if you’re at all empathetic, you can feel it too, even from the audience or from half a globe away in front of your computer.

There’s another un-mistakable reference floating around in Daitos work: the club. One could imagine a dance floor as a fluid particle simulation: forces inspire bodies, particles influence one another, density and energy increase and decrease in patterns. It’s the perfect territory for a computational artist. A crowd of women with miniaturized versions of club light displays walking around Tokyo looks like a club. The synchronized bodies of Particles At YCAM resemble nothing so much as either choreographed dancers or generated flocking fireflies. The music is absent but its pattern can almost be heard, synaesthetically. What’s interesting is that these objects could very well be virtual, but they simply aren’t. Their movement could be played out in a purely virtual plane, but it isn’t, and that’s what makes them so more interesting. What’s a wave without a medium? What’s a beat in a club without people to listen? His history of working as a DJ and VJ makes perfect sense: in few places is computational technology as visceral, as embodied, as in making music.

“from hardware hacking to modular LEDs and custom software, they participate in what might be called “expanded computing”, using the malleability of digital media to reactivate its presence – and thus our presence, too – in the world of things.” – Mitchell Whitelaw

In his excellent essay “After the Screen” Mitchell Whitelaw talks to as post-screen imaging: making images on things that remind us that they’re in a single place and that, despite our illusions to the contrary, in a material sense, we are too. In Daitos bodily works and his physical works the pixels are not simply pixels, they are automata that speak to one another. His physical pixels swarm and synchronize, his human computer interfaces play their people; as in Stelarc, though perhaps in a less frightening way, the machine drives the human. Much of the early cybernetic performance art emphasized the strangeness of a human and machine co-creating a being. It was scary and weird. The lightness of Daitos work comes from his playfulness. I always get the sense that it isn’t so much that cyborgs are weird, just that his cyborgs are a little weird. When he uses the face as a solenoid of sorts, an actuated surface, it’s very similar to things that architects and material engineers design for and dream of. Just made ever-so-slightly weird. Another word might be “quirky”. But that minimizes what I think is the importance and the curiosity of the things that Daito makes. More than anything else, his work reminds us that the promise of hyper-surfaces and hyper-actuated technological skins, is at the moment only delivered by us and our bodies with all the strange, funny, and sometimes uncomfortable corollaries that implies.