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Akihabara TV 2002

by Monty DiPietro

From the moment the typical Tokyoite steps out their front door, they are subjected to an unrelenting barrage of visual and aural advertising. Personally, I've never seen a city that even comes close: Down the street from my place, stuck in among the neon signs of a sex club and the golden arches of a fast food restaurant, are a couple of wall-mounted megaphones. While one shrieks about bodies, the other shrieks about burgers. Meanwhile a tower of light running up alongside the building promotes everything from ice cream to schoolgirl "massages." It's hard-sell consumerism run rampant -- and it has to be doing something vulgar to the inside of our minds.

Sight and sound wise, few Tokyo neighborhoods are as manic as Akihabara (or 'Electric Town," as it is called). But for the next two weeks, there is some relief in sight, in the form of Akihabara TV, an exhibition of video art that is not trying to sell anyone anything at all. Now in its third year, Akihabara TV is organized by Command N, an art collective with its headquarters in central Electric Town. This third incarnation, "Akihabara TV_03" brings work by 26 video artists from 10 countries to hundreds of television sets, large outdoor video monitors, and computer screens at some 65 electronic stores in the Akihabara area.

Although there are screen savers and interactive DVDs (for computer displays), the main thrust of Akihabara TV_03 is a 30 minute compilation of short videos that is playing on television screens throughout the area.

The original idea behind the project was beautiful in its simplicity -- electronics shops turn their display televisions on during business hours so customers can see what sort of image quality the different models are capable of. As such, whole walls of sets show whatever programming happens to be on the station they are tuned to at that time. Rather than daytime dramas or bug spray commercials, why not have art videos play on some of the sets? This might entice customers to linger a little longer, and it would also promote contemporary art. To realize Akihabara TV, all Command N needed to do was convince a bunch of Tokyo businessmen to cooperate. If you think this sounds like a 'difficult' (read: 'impossible') task, be aware that Command N had a secret weapon: Masato Nakamura.

Much of what Command N has achieved has been made possible by the efforts of Masato Nakamura, one of Japan's most ambitious artists. When it comes to negotiation, Nakamura has the Midas touch . Who else could have obtained permission from MacDonald's Restaurants to co-opt their golden arches, as Nakamura did for his installation piece, "QSC+mV," which showed at the 2001 Venice Biennale? Aside from the usual art gang behind Akihabara TV this year, Command N has also enlisted support from a half dozen embassies, and corporate giants such as Pioneer, Kirin, and Sony.

I think the main value in this project lies in its interventionist quality -- the art videos will mostly be chanced across by unsuspecting shoppers. For those who would like to tour the different sites and watch the watchers, stop in at Command N or any of the participating shops to pick up a map, then look for the floating silver "aTV3" balloons that mark locations.

There are some real gems here, among them Keitaro Usui's "AC/DC," which features a vintage Shinkansen train moving through an Akihabara night scene that grows, neon-on-neon, until walls of light obscure the sky, obscure even other walls of light. The perfect melodramatic soundtrack which accompanies the piece is Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz.

I was concerned that, as this is a project for public places, it might be too safe, all computer graphics and cutesy, but this is not the case. One piece, in which the contrived Belgian artist Messieurs Delmotte bites and flings live chickens, actually offended me. Also unsettling was "Rosen," by Heiner Schilling and Jan Wagner, which sees the German artists throwing paint balloons at a sheet of glass while repeatedly mouthing tortured variations on the name "Rosen."

UK-born local Peter Bellars' piece is about racial discrimination in Japan -- the soundtrack is a series of telephone calls, recorded on the artists' answering machine, of polite refusals from Tokyo real estate agents, these due Bellars being a foreigner.

If the medium is the message, then "Akihabara TV_03" is the perfect show for Tokyo.

Notes: Pictured is TV Kid by Elke Boon playing on an outdoor screen in Akihabara. "Akihabara TV_03" is in at various locations in Akihabara until March 24. Visit Command N to see the works or to get a bilingual map to the participating stores. Command N is located at Machizukuri House Akiba, 1-7-1 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda-ku; 03-5297-3506; www.commandN.net; and is open 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. daily.
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