Q&A: Alternatives – Tomoko Hayashi (part 1)
TOMOKO HAYASHI is a creative practitioner working at the liminal juncture of art, science, design and technology. Yet her work avoids the techno-fetish of many such interdisciplinary ventures. For, while both new and traditional technologies are harnessed in her work, its true heart lies in the delicate evocation of intimacy between lovers parted by great distance. This synthesis of subtle psychology and emotional empathy with technologically enabled design is the hallmark of projects that have included a curtained bed on which one can caress a distant lover with languid trails of light and a man’s shirt that weeps when the woman he loves sheds tears, revealing an intimate message inscribed within the garment’s fabric.
There is a strong sense of the poetic that imbues art and the value of things well-crafted that defines good design. These things are clear to the viewer. Meanwhile, the devices and circuitry that effect this poignant sense of connection remain discreetly behind the scenes, leaving the lovers at the centre of their own private stage. While the business and military technologies of mobile telephony, bluetooth, email and texting have become everyday phenomena in a world evermore networked, few have sought to design such technologies for just two people, creating bespoke emissaries of the intimate. It is this sensitivity to the individual and a modest veiling of the many skills she brings to each new project that set Tomoko Hayashi’s practice apart. Hers is the fine art of apparent artlessness.
Tomoko Hayashi is currently based in Tokyo and has previously worked in a number of art and technology labs in Japan, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom.
To jump to Part 2 of this inteview go here.
Do you think of yourself as an artist?
I call myself a multi-disciplinary artist/designer on my CV, but really it’s hard to describe myself. Maybe a mediator or an enhancer of experience…? I usually just let people decide for themselves what to call me. I once had my work featured in a jewellery book and some bloggers then started to describe me as a jewellery designer. A curator in Scotland once called me a “Love Doctor” because, following a feature on the BBC about my ‘Mutsugoto’ project, I was contacted by over a hundred couples from all over the world who were in long distance relationships. They were suffering because they were apart and asked me for help. Other people have called me a ‘specialist in long-distance relationships’… but I am not, nor did I start out thinking of my high-tech pieces as ‘art’, although I do now think that what I do could be a form of art.
Tell me about the ‘Mutsugoto’ project?
‘Mutsugoto’ [‘Pillow Talk’ in English] is an interactive installation that invites couples to experience an intimate connection over a distance.
‘Mutsugoto’ is meant to be installed in the bedrooms of two partners who are parted by a great distance. You begin by lying on the bed, wearing the special ring. As you relax and think about your partner far away, you gently move your hand around your body. These movements are traced by a light beam on both your own body and that of your partner lying on the other, distant, bed.
Twinkling lights projected onto your body map where your partner is drawing on their own body. If you follow your partner’s movements and your strokes happen to cross, the lines will react with each other, reflecting your synchrony.
Video: Mutsugoto by Tomoko Hayashi published by Distance Lab on Vimeo.
How did you begin working on projects like this?
My career history is rather strange. I studied design, have worked mainly at science labs and was recently employed by an apparel and lifestyle brand in Tokyo. But I am happy to go anywhere in the world if I am invited to take part in an exhibition. I have yet to stage a solo show and I have not sold much work. However, somehow (and luckily) I have been invited to take part in museum group shows once or twice every year for the last decade. I really enjoy these exhibitions, and I suppose I should approach more institutions to show my work like this but, so far, things just seem to unfold by themselves. One thing leads to another … word of mouth, or people find me online… My exhibition activity might not be concentrated enough to mean I can be called an ‘artist’, but I kind of like working at this pace and with curators who already trust me. That said, I suppose to survive I should go about it more seriously…
Working in science labs is great, but it’s hard work. I was very lucky to work with a great team who share very similar goals to mine in terms of enhancing human connection through new technology. It was here, between 2004 and 2008 in Ireland and Scotland, that I was able to develop the Mutsugoto project. Later, that team was dissolved and since then I have not been able to find the right people to work with; people who truly share the same goals and determination. So, I will wait and see… Nonetheless, even though I make high-tech pieces, I wouldn’t call myself a ‘new media artist’. For me, technology is just an optional medium with which to work.
Perhaps my answer to your earlier question is: “I’m somewhat of an artist but, so far, quite passive and slow-growing…”
Do you think an artist has a particular role or responsibility in the world?
I think the role of the artist should be broad, and the scale and nature of their impact in the world will vary depending on the artist’s determination.
In general, I imagine an artist’s role is to broaden one’s ideas and views; expand one’s imagination and help one take notice of things in our lives; ask questions that make one think about things and generate discussion; raise awareness of social issues; highlight the beauty in things that we don’t normally notice; present a fresh perspective…
Or just shake things up and move people emotionally…
Artists may not solve our problems directly, but they can have a long-term impact on our minds and influence upon our lives.
When you read a book or see a film, the way you enjoy them can change depending to your emotional state and the personal experiences and memories you carry inside you. If those experiences and memories link you into the story or engender empathy, perhaps because a character comes to represent how you think or feel that day, then it can be an extraordinary feeling if the story ends in a way you could never have imagined … something beyond what you could have imagined…
When you encounter a great work of art in this intensely connected way, you can’t stop thinking about it for days, weeks… On the other hand, if your emotions shift focus to something else, that art-inspired feeling might fade the next day or even after just a few seconds. Human emotions are by their nature so fleeting that it is a miracle when a work does successfully connect strongly with the emotions and stay in the mind for a long time. Personally, I do not think it is an easy thing to create art that moves the majority of people, but then it also depends on the kind of role that the artist chooses to take.
In general, I believe an artist’s role is to step back and observe things from a different perspective, in the hope that they inspire people by communicating those observations. And that, I think, requires an artist to remain on the margins and in the minority…
How do you see your role?
My role as artist is, broadly, to provide experiences that enhance or generate significant moments and synchronicities between people through the senses… simply to capture, highlight or celebrate those moments the Ancient Greeks called ‘kairos’ or crystallise personal memories and collective stories to be shared with others through the five senses. In my high-tech pieces, I feel my role is to inspire people about the ways in which we can relate to these new technologies and to each other. How should we design our technologies and how should we avoid becoming overly dependent upon them in our daily life and human communication.
How would you describe what you do?
My work poses a question: what is the nature of real human connection in this fast-moving society? When I was 19, I read a book called ‘The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies’ by the French philosopher Michel Serres and ever since then human intimacy and five-sense communication have been the central theme of my practice, which explores various ways to enhance human intimacy and communication through those five senses. And, since I originally trained in textile design, the qualities of the materials that I use and the design of the environment in which the communication takes place are very important to the essence of my work.
I have explored this theme in different media and in different places, collaborating with a variety of specialists including computer scientists, dancers, a neuroscientist, an artisan who carves wooden moulds for traditional Japanese sweets and the couples living apart who participate in my projects.
Tell me about working with the sweet-mould maker.
I was online and discovered a craftsman who makes traditional wooden sweet moulds. I went to visit him in Kagawa. I took with me a number of plaster casts of various body parts made from a couple I had worked with. He was very surprised and really rather shocked to see them and hear my request to carve sweet-moulds of them… Initially, he wasn’t particularly interested in helping me but, as time passed, he became more enthusiastic about the idea.
I asked him to include the characteristic details that made each body part unique … the idiosyncratic shape of a finger nail, for example … but he wasn’t very happy about making things that were ‘imperfect’. He was worried that people think that these human ‘imperfections’ were faults in his craftsmanship.
I had a similar experience when I worked with an engineer on my high-tech pieces: this fear of human imperfection.
That’s interesting. I trained in physics. It is a science that uses a lot of mathematics. Mathematics can be very seductive because it is so precise and elegant. We were always warned never to think of mathematics as perfect and Nature as imperfect. Mathematics is an abstraction developed by human beings – Nature is real. Perhaps the same is true with your sweet-mould maker.
Actually, I think what we come to love about other people in close and intimate relationships is often what makes them ‘imperfect’ – what makes them an individual. It would be difficult to fall in love with the sort of idealisations that sometimes appear in art.
Not only art. I think the mass-media constantly hype up idealised notions of how people’s lives and relationships ought to be. They are creating many people who want to conform to an impossible goal of a ‘perfect’ life and relationship … The result is that people feel that their life and relationships are not good enough; they are not yet happy enough. But, as you say, real intimacy is not perfect like a diamond ring, that’s what makes a relationship unique and irreplaceable.
My work often represents love that is not always beautiful and perfect … not ‘universal’ … but truly meaningful only for the particular pair of people who are in that intimate relationship. The motifs could even be things like a smelly sock, or a partner’s weird habit that makes you giggle…
Working with technicians can be super-hard sometimes, because their aim is to make things perfect in the most efficient way possible. Meanwhile, my work is not aiming to showcase what we can do with technology, it’s about how can we enrich the experience of the people using the technology. The process is as important as the outcome. So, I always aim to minimise any focus on the technology.
Why do you choose to work in this way?
New technologies are advancing rapidly and there are now just so many types of communication tool that fill our everyday lives. That might seem to engender an instant feeling of ‘connectedness’ with anybody and everybody in the world. However, human emotion and memory are so fleeting and uncontrollable that it is hard to truly feel a moment of togetherness or capture the subtle emotional synchrony between people; even more so, given our busy schedules and nomadic lifestyles today. I believe that human intimacy and connectedness takes time, and grows as we share our significant moments and accumulated memories with our loved ones. Consequently, the goal of my work is to celebrate and enhance human intimacy by designing a meaningful experience or capturing a precious moment between people, crystallising these things in a way that can be shared through the five senses, over the time.
Have you always worked in this way?
Well, I have always been interested in the five senses, but a number of things happened that focused my thinking: I had to face the death of some close friends and family; I experienced two big earthquakes and I have had this nomadic life-style, living and worked in five different countries in last 10 years. These experiences started me to thinking more deeply about what I could do to enhance human intimacy and human connection in our contemporary society, which lead me to focus on working with shared memory and experience. The earthquakes had an especial impact on me. I have been unwell for last three years, suffering from severe allergies that are possibly caused by stress and an anxiety about the uncertainty of life. I found that the only way to heal my allergies was to spend time with people who had known me for a long time and who had also experienced the earthquake that hit Kobe in 1995. We didn’t have to talk; it just helped me a lot to be close to them.
In the end, when we die and let go of the flesh, memory is the only thing that remains… Not only death: the absence felt in the distance between bodies, when one is away from loved ones, leaves us with only our memories. Memories always fade, but people who share a memory of you stand as the only witnesses of your life after death or of your existence when you are far away. So, in my work, I just want to emphasise the preciousness of mutual memories and shared experience in our lives.
I notice that moulding, shaping (and the gradual loss of shape) is an important aspect of your work. In English language we talk of an idea that is created (especially a strong one) as an ‘impression’ – the same word we use for the indentation made by an object in a soft surface. In ‘Mutsugoto’ I sense there is this idea of touch and the points where touches coincide that suggest indentation or pressure on the skin, even though none is there, only light.
In his inspirational book, ‘The Five Senses’, Michel Serres talks about the place where skin folds back on itself or is touched by another … it is sensitive. It loves and lets itself be loved. Its cuts and rashes are ‘wounds of the soul’. Being touched by another makes you conscious of your existence. It’s like the other person is pointing to your soul at the very border of your body.
In the ‘Mutsugoto’ project, I wanted to use light and your own hand to create a similar effect; telling yourself and the other person about the soul you touch by stroking your body and sending a trace of the movement to the other person who is so far away from you
After ‘Mutsugoto’ was featured in the BBC, a neuroscientist called Dr. Francis McGlone contacted me. He told me that the memory of touch and the context of where the communication took place – knowing who that is at the end of the Mutsugoto experience and the memory of their touch – will induce the feeling of being touched, even though it is just a light on their body. It actually activates the touch receptor circuits in the brain in a form of cross-modal perception.
I find so many projects that approach this kind of virtual communication offer sensations or visual effects that are too literal and simply don’t leave any space for people’s imagination to take hold. Rather than imitating the sense of touch by using some kind of haptic device or vibrating gadget, I wanted to use one’s own body, own memory, and a bit of imagination to create a deeper sense of intimacy.
 ‘Kairos’ is a Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment. The ancient Greeks had two words for time, ‘chronos’ and ‘kairos’. While the former refers to the sequence of time, the latter signifies a moment of time in which something special happens. What the special something is depends on who is using the word. While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative nature.
 The Kobe earthquake was Japan’s worst post-war earthquake in the 20th century. It occurred on 17 January 1995 and lasted just 20 seconds but caused the deaths of 6,434 people and some US$100 billion worth of damage.
 Cross-modal perception involves interactions between two or more different sensory modalities. It is a process reflecting brain plasticity which allows neural pathways to reconfigure in response to behaviour, injury or the environment. Other examples include synaesthesia (where those affected perceive, for example, sounds as colours), sensory substitution (where a disability such as blindness might be relieved by ‘repurposing’ the sense of hearing to describe the world around) and the McGurk effect (in which vision and hearing interact in speech perception).
Part 2 of this interview is here.