The second part of the interview with Michael Goldberg. In this part of the interview, we are talking about Video Cocktail, SCAN gallery, Michael’s teaching and film practice, as well as specific personalities who have made a great contribution to the development of Japanese video art.
GE: It is still very interesting that most of the video artists gathered in groups (Video Hiroba, Video Earth, Video Cocktail), not only because of the technicalities, but also because of the distribution system, you had to be in the group.
MG: I wrote monthly articles for over 15 years in several video publications in Japan, which were translated into Japanese. One of them was a magazine called “Video Com”, which eventually disappeared. It was the main glossy magazine meant to promote sale of video hardware. In the early days they covered video art a lot and let me have pages in color at the front of the magazine. Over the years, those pages became devoted to advertisements of equipment. Color pages for advertising black boxes! I ended up with black and white pages for video art at the end of the magazine. I also had one series titled “Video Criticism”, and was allowed (as a foreigner) to criticize. In Japan, criticism is taboo. It is impolite.
In the 1980s I covered and really supported the “second wave” of video art, including “Video Cocktail”. But their third exhibition started to look bland. With no selection process, there was some excellent work, and a lot of less interesting stuff. For me, if everything submitted is shown, it raises the question of criteria for exhibitions or distribution of any kind. I hope this won’t be considered “elitist”.
In my review, I compared the third Video Cocktail to a “pousse café”. This is a drink in very slender glass with liqueurs of different densities. You pour a bit of the heaviest alcohol into the glass, then carefully pour each subsequent level. You also have to drink it delicately from the bottom with a straw, because if you mix the layers, the colors blur and it tastes terrible. The first two exhibitions were great, but the third was mediocre and wasn’t heading in a direction that I felt was encouraging.
GE: How did they distribute their cassettes? Hiroya mentioned that they used watermarks on their videos, but he didn’t remember anything about the distribution system at all.
MG: You know why he didn’t remember? Because there wasn’t a distribution system. The only thing was Fujiko Nakaya’s SCAN video gallery. She collected a lot of work and paid for everything out of her own pocket. There were no grants, and no corporate sponsors. It wasn’t a non-profit organization, and anyway in Japan the law does not favor corporations getting tax reductions for giving donations to non-profits. Nakaya-san tried to develop income from two sources. She translated into Japanese a series of museum videos from America, thinking there might be a market for that. She also rented out video art and documentary work from her library for exhibitions in other countries and occasionally in Japan. And what happened? She was totally exploited. Curators would come from overseas, preview the tapes at SCAN, then go directly to the artists to get copies for free, because “there was no budget for the exhibition”. No systematic distribution system was organised in Japan. Even in Canada, distribution never advanced to the extent that it became self-funded. It relied on other sources of income. Artists subsidize the independent work they do in order to express themselves freely… and there is no guarantee that they are ever going to “sell” it.
Another side story. I had a poet friend in Vancouver, where Intermedia had bought a small, good quality printing press, and he printed poets’ books (including his own) for free. This is known as “vanity press” — artists who publish their own books. These do not sell well, but at least a nice-quality book is available. I said to him: “Are you not worried about ‘selling out’?”, to which he replied: “Sell out? Heck no. I want to ‘buy in’”. Distribution is a big problem for artists of any sort. Indeed, in the visual arts in Japan, the gallery/museum system is not “in the business” to promote new talent.
I learned recently that in Canada, artist-run video centers across the country got together and digitized a lot of their works, including documentaries. These are now available online at a reasonable rate for individuals, more costly for public screenings. In the 1970s, museums never gave money to exhibit Canadian video art or fine art, and never paid us for showing our videos. At the same time they were bringing in famous American and European artists, setting aside huge budgets for them. Local artists got fed up and started pushing the Canada Council to stop funding museums that didn’t pay a baseline rental fee to Canadian artists whose work they were exhibiting, a lobbying strategy that worked!
Now, some fifty years after we launched the Video Inn (renamed VIVO), it still conducts important, interesting activities. Finally, groups like ours have gotten together and worked out a system using the Internet to monetize their activity, to get income for the artists whose work is being shown. But in Japan… I am exaggerating and it is a little bit of a cliché, Japanese artists were so innocent that if someone invited them to show their work at an exhibition or festival overseas, they were thrilled! The artist would willingly pay all the expenses to send it. There is no concept of distribution in Japan.
I don’t really like television, never liked it. In my house, where I lived with my huge family, I didn’t know that there was an “off” button on the TV. It was on all the time. I got into video in reaction to television. In the early days we did things that were not on television. Over the years, I realized that I had a role to play doing social criticism programs for television, there would be an audience and some distribution. Otherwise we’d spend months or longer with the people we film, be they ballet dancers or social activists, edit like crazy, and end up with a VHS or DVD that was put on a shelf. Distribution is a very important concept and issue for those of us who work independently.
GE: When we talk about Fujiko Nakaya and her gallery, it is often mentioned that Bill Viola played a role in the creation of this gallery. Is this true or is it somewhat exaggerated?
MG: Although I couldn’t read Japanese, I designed the logo for Video Hiroba, scan lines going through ビデオヒロバ in katakana. People assumed I was a part of the group, but I had to return to Canada when it was starting. I was there at the beginning, but I am not one of the founders. I wouldn’t assume that Bill Viola gave Nakaya-san the concept for SCAN Gallery, though they may have had discussions about it. He has done a lot of work that is very sensitive to Japan and had a deep, instinctive understanding of Japanese culture. He did good work related to Japan, but does he take credit for starting SCAN? I don’t know.
GE: Could you tell me about your teaching at Tsukuba. Who did you teach and what?
MG: I taught there for ten months. Tsukuba University was originally based in Tokyo and was called the Tokyo Educational University. A new campus was established in a “science city” far from Tokyo, with ideas that were going to be totally different, where “anything is possible”. When I was there in 1980, there were only two faculties: athletics and fine arts, both of which had video equipment. The sports guys frequented an all-you-can-eat yakiniku roasted meat place, and the owner went out of business because they ate and ate and ate. Aside from that there wasn’t much to do; there was no library or cinema. It was in the middle of farmland. Some of the students who came there were like: “Why are we here? What am I going to do in life?”. It was new.
Katsuhiro Yamaguchi was kind enough to invite me to teach there as a foreign guest lecturer. Even then, I couldn’t speak Japanese. Some of the students who understood English would help translate what I was trying to explain. My students were new to video, and none of them were interested in documentaries. Their idea was to film scenes of nature, “beauty” in the fine art sense. I asked only one thing for their final video piece: include humans in the image. One solved my challenge in an intriguing way — you never saw a person head-to-foot, only a torso of someone disappearing around a corner or the shadow of someone on the ground. Brilliant!
The closest to “documentary” approach was that of photography major Naoya Hatakeyama. I don’t think his inspiration came from my class, where I was trying to convince students to connect video with humanity and society. His photos were large scale, connecting the natural and technological environment with humans, showing the minuscule presence of people on the planet. In March 2011, ten days after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami, I went to Rikuzentakata and ran into him. Next to the river, where a wall of water had destroyed everything in its path. He was taking photos; I was there filming news for German television. I learned much later, when I went to an exhibition where he was showing his work, that he had been taking photos of the place where his house had been, where his mother perished, her body still missing. In one of them there is a rainbow over the destroyed houses. I believe Hatakeyama-san already was an artist when he was my student. Look at the Bauhaus. The teachers were great artists and designers, but does that mean they were inspiring? How many names do you know of those who studied there? Even if I hadn’t been his teacher, Hatakeyama-san would have achieved greatness.
GE: It“s very interesting to talk about the documentary or narrative aspect of Japanese video art. Personally, I have two theories that somehow regulate all the processes associated with this phenomenon. The lack of social or narrative work is due to de-radicalization after the 1960s: the ANPO generation, the Tokyo Olympics, Expo 70. Political activity has come to naught. The second theory is related to the linguistic aspect, it was necessary to translate the text, make subtitles, and many Japanese authors simply did not want and could not do this. What do you think about this?
MG: Japanese activists of that time had no interest in putting energy or time into subtitling to any other language, because they were trying to reach and motivate Japanese. Why should they pay attention to other countries? They were not trying to develop careers, get bought in museums or any of that stuff. I don’t think the goal of most documentary filmmakers or videographers, people who wanted to have an effect in their society, would be to show what they are doing to other cultures. They didn’t care what Europeans thought about what they are doing. They wanted to work on their next film or video and try to get things happening. I can understand that from a universal perspective.
Subtitling is an art, and language is indeed a barrier. I can speak fairly well now; my accent is good, and when people get on the phone they sometimes think I am Japanese at first. Translation is an art. DT Suzuki was accused of being a “reverse orientalist” because he was explaining Buddhism in terms of Christianity and psychoanalysis, for example when he talks about the ego. In Buddhism, the ego does not exist. Some people criticized him because he was using western concepts to explain Japanese ones.
You are on the right track though, frankly, with what you say about activism. Other than ANPO or more recent anti-nuclear demonstrations, there have been very few large street demonstrations on the level there used to be after the war (WW II). I think there are reasons for that, not necessarily good reasons, but real reasons why activism diminished by the 1970s and 1980s in Japan. But I have not studied this question in any depth.
GE: What was SCAN Gallery at the time? As far as I understand, you participated in the selection of works for exhibitions a couple of times?
MG: Yes and no. To be specific (this is getting very specific), I think artists submitted videos to Nakaya-san and she would select those that interested her. To widen her scope, she set up a very small “SCAN competition” for people who were not known. I was on several juries. We would look at a bunch of videos and give advice, and then Nakaya-san gave a prize. In that sense, we did help Nakaya-san, but it didn”t feel like it was a council of advisors or anything like that. The Gallery collection was her personal project, albeit a selfless one!
GE: There were many different venues, not only SCAN gallery, but also Image Forum. Various equipment was used to display the works. How did the screenings usually go?
MG: Image Forum started as a film group. Kawanaka-san made his first videos in 1972 when I was there, and we worked on one together. Image Forum’s primary format was projection on a screen; that’s where they were coming from and where they were going. One of the reasons is that, in the early days, filmmakers, even documentary and art filmmakers, didn’t like video because image quality is poor compared to film. When video was projected on a large screen, you’d get six hundred and twenty-five lines of resolution; that’s the maximum. With film, if there is a tiny person walking across a field in the background, you pay attention, but in video, forget it! Image Forum concentrated on avant-garde cinema and experimental classic films, and still does. But they also teach video production and show videos.
In the 1960s and early 70s, video was black-and-white with little contrast range. When we held the international “Matrix” gathering in Vancouver, we rented a video projector and had a small monitor next to it. People close to it would watch the monitor, because its quality was better than the fuzzy, gray projection on the big screen. Nevertheless, the overall level of creativity was high because we were starting from zero. There were limitations and no limits at the same time. Freedom is actually always within limits. Anyway, Image Forum was large screen orientated, and SCAN was small screen.
GE: The last question about the 1980s. Tokyo was always a center for video artists. Were there any other places for video artists in Japan?
MG: In terms of a center where people could gather, hold large festivals or maintain ongoing activity, only Tokyo. There were a number of dedicated video artists in Osaka, and documentary and social criticism videos were made there. But they never formed groups, and I don’t know of any huge events except for one in Kobe, another started in Fukui, and a small one in Osaka. But in terms of networking or ongoing activities, or continuity of artists doing videos over the years, Tokyo was the base in Japan.
GE: I would like to ask you about specific artists, just in a few words, describe your impression of them and their work. Katsuhiro Yamaguchi.
MG: Yamaguchi-sensei was older than most video artists in Japan, a sculptor working mostly in acrylic. The first video performance piece he did that I know, perhaps the only one, was at “VIDEO COMMUNICATION” in the Sony building. He had two cameras, one on a tripod catching a side “two-shot”, the other held by hand, and there was an apple on the table cut into pieces. He held the camera and pointed it at Hakudo Kobayashi, who ate some of the apple, then passed the camera to Hakudo, who filmed him eating the apple, back and forth. It was a live, inside-outside performance where the audience could see both views. He was making a statement about personal and “objective” points of view, very different from his acrylic work. I am sure he did other things. He also did a lot of work organizing large events with Nakaya-san, for which I am totally grateful, and he hired me at Tsukuba University, knowing I didn’t speak any Japanese! I am very thankful to him for all he did for video art in Japan.
GE: Ko Nakajima
MG: Kō Nakajima’s eyes are really bad now, and he can’t speak any other language, but he is still active in Japan and abroad. Kō used to invite foreigners to his place on short notice, where the young lady who took care care of his two kids fed everyone (and I washed the dishes). She has been my wife for forty years, so I am grateful to him for that, ha ha.
Kō is a maverick, a loner. He started in film animation and didn’t like Video Hiroba. He would complain about those “avant-garde artists” and never got involved: “They are famous, famous…mehh”. But over the years he became very popular in France and a video art celebrity in his own right. After that, I didn’t hear him complain about them any more. He is a pioneer, no question of it. Kō got Sony to develop a stop-motion Betamax videocassette recording system, “The Animaker”, so that animation could be done with video. And under his direction, JVC, came out with a simple graphics computer called ”The Aniputer”. They worked out a system to superimpose a title or subtitle on the screen, now used on mobile phones, where you see the alphabet and click on the letters you want. Kō had ideas that were useful to others; he was not just doing his own thing.
Among his significant personal work, Kō Nakajima came out with a video series called “My Story”. It began with the birth of his first child edited together with the death of his mother, very touching and deep, and he updated it over the years. Kō is crazy, and I love him.
GE: Nobuhiro Kawanaka
MG: Kawanaka-san has had throat cancer and now cannot talk. His first piece, “Kick the World”, is a classic, and still relevant. When he was working on his video for the VIDEO COMMUNICATION exhibition, we were in the studio together and he was trying to explain in Japanese what he wanted to do. The engineer did not understand him at all, but I did, because of his gestures and other things, so I ran over and helped. He wanted to record himself, play it back on the monitor, then record himself with the monitor in the shot and record that, again and again. There is a photo in the Sony Building of us together that I love. I am showing him how videotape delay works, and I motion that you have to move the play lever a fraction of a second before you move the record lever, otherwise the tape goes limp. We couldn’t communicate verbally, but we got along really well.
GE: Could you name any other female artists except Fujiko Nakaya and Mako Idemitsu?
MG: I don’t think that Nakaya-san considers herself a video artist. She is a fog artist. That is her contribution to the world of art and technology. Idemitsu-san’s work is special. Her approach to using video technology to express her vision of women in Japanese society, and her way of showing it, are unique.
There aren“t many women in Japan’s video art community, and I”m bad at remembering names. One couple, Hatsune Otsu and Sei Kazama, made a real effort to continue doing a video piece every year, even though they didn’t have much income, and sent them to various exhibitions. There was a charming young lady (Emi Segawa) in Osaka and her partner (Jun Okazaki). It was she who was committed to social commentary, and they did a touching report about the homeless. Emi-chan had a lot of promise but unfortunately jumped to her death. I attended the funeral and cried to see her without her smile.
GE: You“ve had a lot of experience in Japan and Canada. To summarize everything we discussed today, what is the difference between the development of video art in Japan and Canada?
MG: It depends on how you define video art. For example, our group in Vancouver (VIVO) had two main activities. The first was decentralized communication using video, getting people to send tapes to each other through the mail, long before the Internet existed. Video exchange was a very important aspect of our activities, though it didn’t blossom as much as I hoped. The other aspect was our “alternative video” library, which still exists. Most other groups, you’d walk in the door and nobody paid attention to you. The Kitchen in New York apparently was similar to ours, but at most video centers everybody is busy doing what they do and they are not orientated toward the public. “Production” of “video art” slowed down everywhere in the world because there were other venues for creative energy. But it hasn’t disappeared. Distribution is becoming more of a priority, so the accumulated library of historical and creative work can be accessed. That is happening, at least in Canada.
There are very few Japanese creators nowadays who call themselves “video artists”. In general, what I’ve described is more applicable to my experience in Canada than to what I know of Japan. I think you have to ask Japanese who are involved in video art now, not just those who used to be active, how they see its continuity or development through the decades.
GE: Was there a moment when you distanced yourself from video art by telling yourself that it was time to go about your business and projects?
MG: The answer is yes, but with a nuance. I did not decide that video art was no longer worth being involved in. It is nothing like that. I am “a late bloomer” as a creator. I spent twenty to thirty years working mostly on projects for others. Almost everything I did was to help others do things with video in a non-profit way. What happened is I started to produce more and more personal work. Also, for a number of years I depended on video production to survive. I had a full Betacam kit and editing room. We have two kids and don’t own a house, but we sent them to University. So for a while I devoted myself more to family. I didn’t care about developing a career, though keeping a good reputation is important in Japan.
I kind of phased out of doing things for people in the video art and alternative video scene and started to do — and still do — personal video, which, I hope, may help bring about positive change. At the same time, in Japan there are fewer and fewer things I can do. Perhaps if I had stayed in Canada, my life would be different. There aren”t many opportunities to do critical documentaries here. I cannot read or write Japanese so it is difficult to organize productions on my own. Maybe I became a bit egoistical. I didn’t think about it before, but it became important for me to do things as a creator. I am going to be 76 in 3 days. My wife told me many years ago: “Don’t say ‘yes’ to everybody, because then you come back later and complain that you have too much to do”. The phase of my life when I started to say “no” began. We also help take care of our grandchildren now. That’s what happened to me.
GE: What are you working on now?
MG: I’ll tell you about the personal projects I’ve done in recent years: I did an 88-minute documentary (in Japanese) about prewar, foreign wives of Japanese, and one about Zen philosopher DT Suzuki. I did a program about the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, another about volunteerism after the tsunami. I then did a documentary about Tokyo’s homeless titled “In the Shadows of the Olympics” and lastly, a feature program in Japanese about a New Zealand man who died in a mental hospital after he was strapped to a bed for 10 days, a common problem in Japan. NHK started to get nervous about my social criticism, and after the last one I was told I am not welcome there anymore. NHK higher-ups don’t think foreign documentary directors should be looking at social problems in Japan. Then came the pandemic and the Olympics, during which I had only one camera job, for a British group doing a documentary about the Olympic Refugee Team. In Japan, refugees are treated very badly. What will be next, I don’t know.