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ICC Again

by Monty DiPietro

Almost five years after the InterCommunication Center opened in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward and the same question remains: Is this a gallery for artists working with new media; or is it an exhibit hall for techies toying with art?

I think even NTT, the telecommunications giant that bankrolls the space, is still not quite sure of the answer. Initially, there was talk of ICC engendering a nexus between art and technology. Big interactive works were installed in the 5,200 square meter space, which founding ICC committee member Yutaka Hikosaka described as "a cross between the EPCOT Center in Florida and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris." ICC invited international artists, researchers, and scientists to participate in their grand scheme, and promoted their exhibitions in the world's leading art publications.

The local art community came out to have a look -- partly because the opening party buffets were among the best in Tokyo -- but ICC did not attract anywhere near the 2,500 visitors per day predicted in initial forecasts. The cool public response could not be attributed to a lack of financial commitment from the very deep-pocketed NTT, which spent 5 billion yen just to open the space, but was more likely due the uneasy alliance ICC tried to foster. For Joe Public, the displays might have seemed too artsy and difficult, while for art lovers the exhibitions were more than often too safe, looking as if they had been curated by committees, as if they had been overseen by no more artless an entity than the phone company. Late last year, ICC director Keiji Nakamura stepped down, and the big space turned off the lights and closed its doors.

After eight months of what a staff member termed "renewal planning," ICC has come back in a big way -- five shows opened last Friday and will run through the end of July. ICC has cast its net far and wide in search of a new identity, and has pulled in so many different sorts of work that it is impossible to attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of the exercise, although the word "hodgepodge" does come to mind.

There are videos and sculptures, light rooms and photocopies, a weird surveillance video camping trailer and a colorful Bangladeshi rickshaw. There is a state of the art computer interfaced "CAVE" environment courtesy of the University of Illonois at Chicago's Electronic Visualization Laboratory, and there are two teams of inflatable dog dolls that play football.

The only thing missing is cohesion.

Highly-touted among the five exhibitions, judging by the size of the promotional posters, is "Techno-Landscape - Toward Newer World Textures." This exhibition alone features work from a dozen artists, some fairly well-known, others relatively obscure. It is themed around themed around personal and virtual views and interpretations of what has traditionally been termed the landscape study.

The impacted city of Tokyo is a perfect place for this sort of a study, and the perfect place for visitors to meditate in the wonderful "Blue Atmosphere" of Takuro Osaka or glide along on the glittering "Night Bus" of Yutaka Sone. But then, in the very next room, one is confronted with something like Shu Lea Chang's "Baby Play." Although Chang's contribution is actually my favorite piece at ICC right now, a work that comments on the futility of digital interfaces by offering mechanical controls which are far more user-friendly, it just doesn't fit with the rest of what is up.

So what is up with the ambitious new and ambitious ICC? This is clearly not a gallery for oil-on-canvas purists, but a space for those keen on environments built with devices such as a "Fraunhofer IAO Virtual Reality System Lightening Renderer based on IRIS Performer." But even as media evolves, there are some things that do not change so quickly, and one of these is the way an art exhibition can move a viewer. Unlike the EPCOT or the Pompidou, both of which are large enough to run concurrent exhibitions designed to attract unique visitors, ICC might want to set its future exhibition programs up around more of a central focus.

New media art centers are opening up all around the world these days, and many are probably facing the same challenges as ICC in their search for that elusive nexus between art and technology.

Notes: The current ICC exhibition program runs to July 29, 2001. Visit ICC's webpage at: http://www.ntticc.or.jp/index_e.html Pictured are a detail from "Landscape: Les Fleurs du Mal" (2000-2001), CAVE installation by Joseph Tremonti; and "Baby Play(image)" (2001), mixed media, by Shu lea Chang
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