kirsty boyle :: robotics artist

otakulture exhibition essay

Other Otakulture artists – Cao Fei, Keiko Miyata, Queenie Chan, Yumi-co, Tetsuto Takahashi, Corin Edwards + Jessica Weatherley, Paul Robertson, Halszka Masash , Jordan Lewerissa

Curatorial essay by Christian McCrea

What happens when this weirdest and most inward of cultural worlds, the wide-eyed, spiky, furious, shimmering otaku takes it to the streets, sometimes literally, and takes on the pomp and circumstance of what everybody wanted to believe was its antithesis, the punk? Ten years ago, the assessment was grim, and the otaku’s loneliness was the only way people could produce any meaning from the madness. Even those who took up the otaku flag had their doubts about the anti-sociality of the phenomena. Volker Grassmuck, in his 1993 article, “Man, Nation & Machine: The Otaku Answer to Pressing Problems of the Media Society” was so sure he had the key to the otaku’s ‘monomaniacal pursuit of culture’:

“Their urge to appropriate the world is motivated by the ambition to swap the borderlessness of the social cosmos for the microcosmos of collecting, of games, or of the machine. This radical limitation enables them to form an identity and bundle together a life story as a narrative.”

It doesn’t take an otaku long, perhaps early in the larval stage, to realise that theirs is a life lived in passions and forces – that intensity is their lifeblood and a type of being rather than a measure. At the same time, the grim realization dawns upon them that they face persecution for daring to be active in their consumption. Those who criticized this life never worried about the inwardness of the otaku, but rather took deep offense at the very idea: How dare you pursue your identity without the ironic detachment of a lobotomy victim! How dare you enjoy things outside of the miasmic labyrinth of endless cools, authentics and reals! You are making us look bad!

As the fierce and razor-thin yaoi boys pout and sparkle and the glassy-eyed video girls tilt and bob their heads in tune to the wild majesty of the J-Rock themesong; as the bleeding bobble-headed dog with no mouth collects the last crystal bone, as the last volley of missile contrails shatter the epoch – the otaku in us could not be further from being isolated. Only when the otaku blasted open the bedroom door, resplendent in crystal assuredness, could there be a glimmer of recognition and the preconceptions shattered. A glance across the street; there stood another being, differently shaped, but just as weird. Jiwon Ahn’s compelling image of the animated subject struck out in 1994 to point out the paradox – otakus were creatures of community after all.

“There also appear to be imaginary communities that latently exist among broader, younger audiences across national boundaries, who share the collective memories of consuming the same media texts and the common nostalgia for their childhood viewing experiences….

….It is in this juncture where I find a new subjectivity, thoroughly penetrated by commercial media, yet at the same time released from the restrictive forms of traditional (modern) human subjectivity, can be imagined in a very real sense.”

The otaku superculture grew out of these imaginary communities to connect like strings of bacteria in a dish. The emergence of major otaku artists – Nara, Mori, Murakami – coincided with the coming-of-age of a superflattened generation who lived in Final Fantasies and dreamt of pornographic space battles. Geert Lovink’s figure of the digidandy, written at the same time as Ahn and Grassmuck’s otakus, took an approach which would become more : more connoisseur that collector, more interested in the ‘grace of the media gesture’, this figure sought out ways to display their knowledge and indulge in the beauty of their passions to form their identities.

The artists in this exhibition from Japan and Australia, benefit from the waves of evolution that have resonated since these images and ideas first began to gain currency. They have developed entire worlds and minute particulars for their gods, heroes, monsters and friends. The appropriations and mutations of their works are bursting with equal parts maniacal energy and calm, iridescent simplicity.

Keiko Miyata’s toys and photos are as immediately adorable as they are pensive and withdrawn; works such as “Green Rabbit Tower” becoming the apotheosis of ‘grotesque cute’, where the impossible quickly becomes the tactile, even huggable. The figures at play appear with horns and tentacles, posed for odd reflection, but require no time to fall in that peculiar love with.

Corin Edwards + Jessica Weatherley’s manic armies of drawn and digital characters emerge from an entire array of influences; they march out of simple shapes and complex cultural situations, possessing everything in their wake with new personas and hybridic delights. The animated eye comes to life, wondering as much at itself as those who look back.

Halszka Masash’s utopias and dreams are not superimposed on the urban sites they inhabit, but spring up precisely from where they seem the most peculiar. Using graffiti, installations, videos and toys, these tales and fables come together for peculiar accidents and drift away across the city just as swiftly. As much cybernetic as human, figures come together under the instant and pose only for as long as we witnesses them, going on with their lives here and the myriad elseworlds they inhabit.

Kirsty Boyle’s robotic fascinations has allowed her to delve into the psychology of the cybernetic, producing narratives of alienation and ambivalence that can only be told by bodies that squeak and whirr. Her use of sound allows a complex language to emerge from these figures, not merely communication itself but entire lives and stories in transmission, awaiting connection with the biological watcher.

In Queenie Chan’s “The Dreaming”, the ultimate Australian narrative, the bush enveloping the lives of visitors, is brought to life with in manga style. Identical twins drift off into the land and mysteries bake under the summer sun, but the story bursts and sparkles with wide-eyed wonder. The story belongs first and foremost to the characters, and all questions of belonging become as distant as the footsteps in the hills.

Paul Robertson’s “The Magic Touch” is a rapid world where the (super) deformed characters are already midway through the best day of their life when we join them. Especially echoing short internet animations and roleplaying game characters, they are ready to pose and smile in front of the rainbow at any time and at any cost.

Cao Fei’s “Cosplayers” is a surreal jaunt into the world of the doubly unreal world of the costume player. These fascinations run so deep as to accentuate even compete with senses of the world around them, supplanting narrative experience with those of the characters. Others yet are merely meticulous costume designers; the rich ambivalence of the cosplay phenomena is explored here with the theme of travel and movement across spaces given a priority. No other aspect of this blossoming superculture seems as directly inconcievable to our ossified senses of what it is to relate to consumer culture.

The world of Yumi-Co drips with saccharin but sparkles with activity and life. Taking the collecting and platforming motifs of game design to the manic plateau of pure event causes instant delight suffused with a sense of care. “Cute XXX Doom” is the process of accumulation driven to the aesthetic horizon and given a triple-scoop icecream.

Jordan Lewerissa’s “Third Floor” is the story of a becalmed and nervous figure unable to approach another in the confines of the most alienating of space, the elevator. The sense of regret and lost opportunity is accentuated by the durational nature of the event; characters come and go in multiple reals (and reels), but the sense of the impossible mars any wish to cross the barrier. The otaku romance is always this way; perhaps always a wish.

Let us forget for a moment all the prevarication about translating cultural information between ‘the West’ and ‘Japan’, as if these terms could mean anything anymore, drenched in formulations and the technologies of assumption that have clustered around them like diseased bionic armour. Let us forget the quandaries of the local and global, both places none of us can pretend to inhabit, long since decimated in the silent white psychic waveblast of criticism. Let us even forget the problems of identity.

The maniac world of the otaku has now long since evolved past the problems of merely being, especially in the artistic context, and into the broader questions of becoming:

“While the otaku is always in touch (with the computer), he or she is always out of touch (with the actual world). What does detachment mean in what looks more and more like a regime of all-connectedness? Paradoxically, the otaku lays bare the non-relation at the heart of the all-relatedness of information. Potentially then, being otaku means to assert the right to noncommunication at the very centre of the communications revolution, to inscribe refusal in the heart of work—which may involve a different sense of how one’s labour pays off.”

The phrase ‘to inscribe refusal at the heart of work’ takes on entirely new dimensions in otaku art, the images and objects are radiant with play, joy, madness and delight – they refuse to operate according to art’s sober systems, but more importantly, the works of these artists are happy to play together; they collide and caress like improbable montages in a OVA, characters spliced in from different realities to foreign theme music. Video, installations, ink, paint gravitate together not out of some deranged need to become multimedia, but simply because the otaku cannot exist on one plane in silence.

If otaku – ‘house’ – was originally deployed to denigrate the inward nature of these obsessions, it can now only mean ‘house’ in the familial sense. These obsessions are home. These images are the walls in which we live. These leaking, squeaking, freaking faces with eyes larger than their souls are our parents and children. The otaku way of life is – was always – immersed in friendship, community, adventure, connoisseurship and beauty as much as it ever was tinged by the lonely and the weird.