Ann Adachi-Tasch reflects on her engagement with Japanese experimental moving image works of the 1950s to 1980s.
What does it mean to represent archival works outside of the historical context and circumstances in which they were created? Archivist Sen Uesaki discusses the concept of “container” and “contents,” in which the experience of the content can take multiple shapes depending on the container.1 The moving image works are the contents, the self-standing cultural occurrence of the past. The institution, the exhibition, the database, is the container. Since the work cannot be placed in the “original container” (year, location, audience, etc.), significant thought is sometimes placed on achieving the closest representation to the original. Like the multiple possibilities available in the process of translating a word of a certain language into another language, an experience passes through an interpretive sieve capable of multiple outputs—with inevitable distortion, imprecision, and perhaps fictitiousness that may be layers apart from the original.
However, interpretation, and its distance from the original, need not be pejorative once we understand the multiple outputs as iterations, which releases the notion of translation from the hierarchical structure of the superior original and the subordinate translation. Walter Benjamin characterised the translated output as that which “gives voice to the intentio of the original not as reproduction but as harmony, as a supplement to the language in which it expresses itself, as its own kind of intentio.”2 Giving “its own kind of intentio” allows multiple autonomous iterations to emerge, each defined by their differences from each other. When we describe an experience, it enters the realm of language and becomes fixed and rigidified: something that did not have a definition is historicised, rationalised, re-enacted, displayed, or distributed. During this interpretive process of designating language, a structure of power emerges, allowing the storyteller, the historian, the curator, or the institution to distribute a definition of an occurrence.
For archival projects, investments are made to preserve works, and copies of those works, by facilities equipped for the task. But, of course, when this is done, the right to access that material is transferred to the receiving institution. The frequency of presentation of the work is determined by the institution, as well as how it will be presented, within the parameters designated by the artist. Partner institutions that receive the archival product are not simply the custodians of the work, but have their own mission and agenda. Archives have a mission of protection; museums of interpretation and presentation to the public. Institutions are able to define the imaginative extent of the work in a way that may end up designating and amplifying a certain narrative. Even a simple difference, such as the country in which the work’s archive is located, can suggest a narrative that may be crucial to how the work is positioned.
Since our founding in 2015, Collaborative Cataloging Japan (CCJ) has worked toward our mission to preserve, document, and disseminate Japanese experimental moving image works of the 1950s through the 1980s.3 The experimental film and video making in Japan from this time was imaginative, powerful, and robust. In the period after the World War II, Japan as a nation was redefining its identity, and this postwar evolution produced moving image works of profound and lasting cultural significance. Ginrin (Silver Ring, 1955) by Toshio Matsumoto is one of the first experimental films made in Japan and represents the start of the period of our mission’s scope. A commissioned bicycle industry promotional film, it was made in collaboration with the group Jikken Kōbō, an inter-disciplinary group that set aside the conflicts of a defeated country and sought a new artistic perspective nested in Bauhaus geometric abstraction. The intermedia events of the student-organised film clubs and the ritualistic performances on public spaces of the early 1960s capture the tumultuous spirit against the US-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo), and also express something of the ambivalence in Japan at the time.
The video medium, which became available for public use through the commercial marketing of the portable video recorder in 1965, brought on a new strand of experimentalism based on its unique ability to investigate the possibilities of immediacy, broadcast communication, electronic visual language, as well as phenomenological and conceptual inquiry. However, in many cases, the absence of organised preservation efforts left collections to the hands of the individual curators, researchers, and artists themselves. CCJ was formed with an aim to create a network among those caretakers, and to organise a concerted effort to fundraise, research, catalogue, preserve, and present.
As CCJ pursues its projects, we’re aware of the potential effects of different geographic contexts. Placed in major institutions outside of Japan, certain works may invite more international, cross-cultural readings, and allow its histories to be known in more places outside its country of origin. Placed in Japan, on the other hand, these histories are more likely to be considered within Japanese and local histories, rather than as part of a global, transnational one. Further, the type of institution may need to be carefully considered (if the luxury of choosing is available): archives born out of grassroots efforts will provide a different background than that of a large, well-established institution. Perhaps part of CCJ’s work is to ensure that there are multiple containers, whether local or global, to “hold” the work.
One recent project provides a workspace to contemplate some of these ideas. In March 2020, CCJ organised an exhibition titled More Than Cinema: Motoharu Jonouchi and Keiichi Tanaami at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York. This project is part of research4 started in 2016 on Japanese Expanded Cinema, an important movement of experimental moving image with a distinct history from that of the Expanded Cinema of the West.5 One featured work is Motoharu Jonouchi’s Document 6.15 (1961-62), a documentation of the struggle against the 1960 renewal of the Japan-US Security Treaty, an agreement first signed in 1951 at the end of the allied occupation, allowing the US military to be stationed in Japan in order for both Japan and the US to act towards the “maintenance of peace in East Asia.” Opponents of the treaty were upset about the prospect of the continued US military presence and Japan’s dependency on it. The unyielding artistic audacity that emerged within Japan’s internal political struggle is not the usual narrative told in the American public’s encounter with Japanese culture. Moreover, the images of this work would have special resonance with the American public, if it was available for viewing during the current Black Lives Matter protests.
Document 6.15 was initially screened at the memorial assembly for Michiko Kanba, a student who was killed at a demonstration in front of the Diet Building. Considered the first expanded cinema experiment in Japan, the event included symbolic close-up images of Kanba along with scenes of police brutality, with two different soundtracks, slide projections of paintings, and a live performance. At the memorial service event—a vibrant and anarchic gathering of political associates—the presentation of the work involved live interjections of sound and other visual elements. At Pioneer Works, the film was presented as a single-channel video projection, with newly-discovered footage related to the work on three small monitors. Without the components of the political and historical context, the venue, the crowd, and the performance, the piece was stripped down as an archival display.
Another highlight is a film with six frames, Human Events (1975), made for a dance performance by Tsujimura Kazuko at Kinokuniya Hall, Shinjuku, Tokyo. The images are extreme close-ups of the dancer’s body, which is massaged by a finger as the colour of the image changes. Arranged in a two-by-three composition in two films, different parts of the body are scattered in ways that defy the familiar order of anatomy. Having recently undergone preservation by CCJ, this presentation is shown as an installation, derived from new archival negative materials and prints. A true re-staging of the work would require live dance and music.
Performance must be experienced, not spoken of or explained. It is a process, as described in the words of Vincent Crapanzano, of a “dimension of experience that insofar as it resists articulation, indeed disappears with articulation.”6 The moment one tries to describe the experience, its existence is no longer and translation of the experience is at hand. The curators of the exhibition—researchers Go Hirasawa, Julian Ross, and myself—understood these issues as an inherent problem of representing performative works, but our goal was not to overcome it. Rather than recreating immersive environments in which these works were presented—political assembly, discotheque, dance performance, etc.—which would never even come close to a genuine representation of the original, our aim was to produce a rigorous, academic, research-based exhibition on historical works and documents.
The unique aspect of the presentation of Document 6.15 was the newly found footage that may have been part of the original screening, and because the work was presented as events, there were multiple iterations. Go Hirasawa found negatives that may have been part of the original screening, which allowed us to digitise and present footage not included in the final edited version. A dance performance would have been a closer representation of Human Events, with a dancer appropriate to the style and context of Tsujimura Kazuko (if we could find such a person), and additional equipment to make possible the larger-than-human scale projections. We opted to use our limited resources to create new master negatives (which were donated to MoMA for archival safekeeping) and the exhibition film prints, prioritising our main mission of preservation.
Unfortunately, the show opened during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we were unable to provide context and dig deeper into the “expansive” parts of the movement. The intention was initially to incorporate the voices from various sizes of organisations involved—from the very small nonprofit (CCJ), to mid-sized institutions embedded in artist and resident communities of Brooklyn (Pioneer Works, co-presented with CCJ the archival and research-oriented More Than Cinema exhibition and planned the performance event; PS1 was our tentative partner for our book launch event), to world renowned institutions (Columbia University, which was due to present a symposium; and MoMA, which opened their large-scale installation of Cinematic Illumination)—each with its own mission to serve its specific audiences, programmatic obligations, its own existing historical context and institutional canons, and genuine interest in telling a story of Japanese Expanded Cinema. The constellation of methods and viewpoints would have been the forte, not relying on a single interpretation.
One of the highlights of More Than Cinema at Pioneer Works was the planned performances. An homage to Jonouchi who passed away in 1986, filmmaker Katsu Kanai in Poem of Far Yet (Madamada no uta) remembers Jonouchi in his film and by reciting Jonouchi’s poem read in his film performance of Shinjuku Station (1968–74). Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver’sし-C-4 (shi-C-4), a poetry work originally performed in 1968 at discotheque L.S.D. in Shinjuku, Tokyo, would have provided context to his work of the late-1960s including Cinematic Illumination7 (1968–69), a large-scale installation involving eighteen carousel slide projectors currently re-staged at The Museum of Modern Art. The artists cancelled their travel at the last minute due to COVID-19, cutting out the only live performance in our programme.
Restaging Cinematic Illumination outside of Japan was a project that squarely aligned with CCJ’s core mission. Tokyo Photographic Art Museum (TOP) presented the installation in 2017 (first time after the original presentation in 1969), with great effort in the reproduction of the piece. When we learned that the archival copy of the work acquired by TOP would not be available for loan outside of the institution, we took it as our mission to present it abroad. Our advocacy was well received by MoMA, who took it under their programme to re-stage it there. MoMA, with its high calibre of resources and standards, produced a superior presentation that fantastically demonstrates the “expanded” quality of Japanese Expanded Cinema. Regrettably, the other voices to this story, the constellation of voices, were underemphasised or disappeared entirely, due to the COVID-related cancellations.
Homi Bhabha, in the context of cross-cultural interpretation, states, “the aim of cultural difference is to re-articulate the sum of knowledge from the perspective of the signifying position of the minority that resists totalization.”8 Our work, perhaps, should aim to encourage many “containers” to exist, to include different institutional levels and cultural voices, while recognising that each has distinct agendas and audiences, and view all as harmonious to the process of telling the story of the original. The original occurrence cannot be experienced again. We can only discuss it, and by strategically encouraging many channels to discuss it, we fulfil our mission of thoughtful dissemination.
Ann Adachi-Tasch is Executive Director of Collaborative Cataloging Japan, a not-for-profit that supports preservation and archiving of Japanese historical and experimental moving image works. She has worked at The Museum of Modern Art where she managed projects for the Museum’s global research initiative titled Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP), and contributed to the launch of its digital platform, post (post.at.moma.org). In 2009, she organised a touring screening programme and publication of Japanese experimental video and film, Vital Signals at Electronic Arts Intermix, a video art archive and distributor where she was the Distribution Coordinator. She has given presentations and written about the status of media archiving at The Museum of Modern Art (Tokyo); Keio University Art Center (Tokyo); Tate Modern (London); and the Archives of American Art (Washington D.C.), among others.
Collaborative Cataloging Japan (CCJ) is an international, 501(c)3 non-profit organisation dedicated to preserving, documenting, and disseminating the legacy of Japanese experimental moving images made in the 1950s–80s, in order to enable their appreciation by a wider audience. The scope of moving image focus includes fine art on film and video, documentations of performance, independently produced documentaries, experimental animation, and experimental television.
2. Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator” in Illuminations, Harry Zohn (trans.), Hannah Arendt (ed.) (New York: Schocken, 1969).
3. The genres that CCJ prioritise are wide-ranging, from politically-motivated film making, independent experiments in 8mm and 16mm films, expanded cinema and intermedia, socially-engaged video work, medium-specific video or electronic explorations, moving image that emerged as an extension of fine art creation and conceptual thinking, and experimental animation.
4. Our research included interviews with artists, curators, and archivists, who made or dealt with Expanded Cinema work, as well as collection surveys, preservation projects and in-depth analysis, public events, and a publication titled Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia: Critical Texts of the 1960s (2020, Archive Books, Berlin).
5. The term Expanded Cinema references a movement described in the early 1960s US, of tendencies away from traditional painterly practice to a more performative and live presentation such as the Fluxus performances, events at Judson Church, USCO, Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie Drome, etc. Rather than the traditional theatre format, artists adopted multiple projections, looping techniques, live performance, and other hybrid forms to focus attention on the human body and space itself. In Japan, the terms “expanded cinema” and “intermedia” were introduced, extensively discussed, and popularised primarily in film and art journals starting in the mid-1960s. Before the terms’ arrival to Japan from the US, works of the early 1960s such as Document 6.15 (1961-62) by Motoharu Jonouchi and the members of the Nihon University Film Study Club incorporated performative elements. “As such, the political crux of Intermedia [as coined by Dick Higgins in the mid-1960s] to instigate a critical spectatorship and stimulate audiences into participation was achieved to a degree many years prior to the arrival and subsequent discussion of the term.” Ross, Julian. “Situating Intermedia and Expanded Cinema in 1960s Japan” in Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia: Critical Texts of the 1960s (Berlin: Archive Books, 2020), 28.
6. Crapanzano, Vincent. Imaginative Horizons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 18.
7. Cinematic Illumination, and was first presented at an event at the discotheque Killer Joe’s as part of the Intermedia Arts Festival in Tokyo, 1969, organised by Fluxus artists Tone Yasunao, Mieko Shiomi and others.
8. Bhabha, Homi K. “DissemiNation: Time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation” in The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 2006), 232.