【Talk】New Dumb Type: Interview with Ken Furudate x Satoshi Hama x Aoi Yamada Commemorating the “Dumb Type, 2022: remap” Exhibition (Artizon Museum)

On the occasion of “Japan Pavilion Exhibition in Tokyo —From the 59th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia Dumb Type, 2022: remap” (on view at the Artizon Museum from February 25 to May 14), Tokyo Art Beat interviewed the members of artist collective Dumb Type. We asked them to describe Dumb Type and “2022: remap” from the perspective of the young members of the group. (Portraits by Ryusuke Ohno; translated by Alena Heiß)

From left: Ken Furudate, Aoi Yamada, and Satoshi Hama at the Artizon Museum

Japan Pavilion Exhibition in Tokyo —From the 59th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia Dumb Type, 2022: remap is currently on view at the Artizon Museum. The exhibition will run from February 25 to May 14, 2023.

This exhibition marks the return of Dumb Type after representing the Japan Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale. On display is the recomposed version of 2022, a piece inspiring reflection on communication methods and ways of perceiving the world in a “post-truth” age.

Dumb Type “2022: remap” Installation view Photo by Keizo Kioku Courtesy of the Artizon Museum

Founded in Kyoto in 1984 by Kyoto City University of Arts students, Dumb Type is one of the pioneering art collectives in Japan. They have produced various stage and installation works questioning the relationship between the body and technology. Founder member Teiji Furuhashi came out as gay and HIV-positive in 1992 and passed away in 1995, leaving behind the well-known masterpiece S/N (premiered in 1994).

The collective members are not permanent but change with each work or project. Artists such as Shiro Takatani and Ryoji Ikeda are also actively working on their individual projects. For example, Ryuichi Sakamoto participated as a member of the group at the Venice Biennale and this exhibition, which incorporates field recordings made by artists from around the world in response to his call.

After a break in the 2000s, Dumb Type’s activities are accelerating again, starting with a solo exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz, France, in 2018, followed by an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo in 2019-20, a new work 2020 created in March 2020, and a solo exhibition at Haus der Kunst Munich in 2022, as well as an appearance at the Venice Biennale in 2022.

The new Dumb Type also welcomed young members aged between twenty and forty. The collective’s work influenced them in the 1990s, but their distance and perspective on the group naturally differ from that of Takatani and the other core members. How is the new Dumb Type operated, and what kind of work is 2022: remap? To answer these questions, we invited 2022: remap project members Ken Furudate (b. 1981) and Satoshi Hama (b. 1985), along with dancer Aoi Yamada (b. 2000), who participated in the original 2020 performance, to join us for a round-table discussion.【Tokyo Art Beat】

Meeting the Dumb Type

——Dumb Type is one of Japan’s leading art collectives. Formed in 1984, it has continuously renewed itself and brought new members to the group. The exhibition at the Artizon Museum is an excellent opportunity to learn about the “present” of the group. Before discussing the exhibition, tell us how you joined Dumb Type.

Furudate: I joined Dumb Type in 2014 and am probably the first among us. I started working with one of the group’s founders, Shiro Takatani, in 2007 and joined the group to work on MEMORANDUM OR VOYAGE in 2014.

I first learned about Dumb Type in high school. I was amazed by their unique expression, which can neither be called dance nor theatre but only “performance.” In my senior year of high school, I heard that OR (premiered in 1997 and performed at Kyoto City Kita Bunka Kaikan in 1999) would be performed in Kyoto, so I went to see it. I never imagined that I would become a member of this group at the time, but now I am happy to be working as one of them.

Ken Furudate

Hama: I used to work as a sound engineer and programmer at the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media (YCAM), where I was fortunate to be involved in the production of works by Dumb Type members Shiro Takatani, Tadasu Takamine, Ryoji Ikeda, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. After leaving YCAM and going independent, we continued to work together. I was asked if I would like to join on the occasion of the solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo in 2019.

I’ve loved noise music since I was a student. When I attended the International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences [IAMAS], from which Takamine and Furudate also graduated, I came across Dumb Type while browsing materials on noise and performing arts in the library. When I started going to IAMAS in 2005, electronica and electronic music were quite popular among fans and the general public, and they greatly influenced me. While watching videos of Dumb Type’s performances, I was also very interested in how music could be further improved.

Satoshi Hama

Aoi: I first discovered Dumb Type on YouTube when I was 17 years old and was struck by S/N (premiered in 1994) and OR (1997). Until then, I only knew how to dance to music, but I was surprised to learn that there were other ways of expressing oneself with digital data. I was also surprised that they had been around for 16 years before I was even born, and I felt that there was no such thing as a new expression anymore, and I wanted to be the one to bring it into the future. Nobody in my generation knew about the Dumb Type, and I wanted more people to discover them.

When I found out that they were looking for performers for 2020, the first work to be created in 18 years, I sent them some materials without much hope of being accepted, but they offered me an audition in Kyoto. I was nervous because I thought, “This will stay in people’s memories.” After dancing to Ryoji Ikeda’s minimalist soundtrack, for some reason, I danced in a leotard to “Tsugaru Kaikyo: Winter Scenery,” and before I knew it, I had passed the audition [laughs]. I later learned I was the only one invited for the audition, although they had received dozens of applications.

Aoi Yamada

Between emotion and objectivity

——At the 59th Venice Biennale artist talk hosted by the Japan Foundation, Takatani mentioned that Dumb Type had previously used computers to control machines, but with the participation of Furudate and others, it was now possible to use computers for more real-time generative expression. What is expected of you as the younger generation in the group, and what are some of the things that resonate with you?

Furudate: I think Dumb Type has a solid high-tech image in terms of media performance, but when you look closely, the way things were synchronized was rather analog. But with the participation of programmers like us, the rise of the internet, and devices like Arduino that make it relatively easy to control motors, and so on, the nature of what can be expressed has changed.

For example, the multiple turntables and vinyl records in this exhibition (exhibited in past exhibitions as Playback [2018-]) were initially rooted in the Pleasure Life performance in 1988. In the previous version of Playback (1989), they used acrylic Fresnel lenses to imitate records, but now it is a motor mechanism that allows playing the sound of an actual record at the desired part.

Dumb Type “2022: remap” Installation view Photo by Keizo Kioku Courtesy of the Artizon Museum

Another essential factor may be that computers have made using “randomness” possible. And randomness allows us to eliminate a sense of arbitrariness whenever we have to make a choice. As can be seen in the symbolic S/N performance, Dumb Type has a very powerful and emotional feeling, but at the same time, a clear and neutral perspective that challenges it.

Aoi: Indeed, Dumb Type has an unusual sense of balance between showing emotion and avoiding revealing too much of it. I heard from Takatani that Teiji Furuhashi, a key figure in Dumb Type, wanted to highlight his HIV-positive status in S/N, to which he replied: “That’s personal, isn’t it?”. So they worked together to come up with a solution that did not put it in the foreground as an expression. This balance of treating things as information without making them personal is interesting and also challenging.

Hama: When I studied media art as a student, I remember seeing plenty of descriptive works in which the explanation of mechanisms and techniques could fit on a single PDF page. On the other hand, Dumb Type didn’t explain the work. Or rather, it was too complex for a few words. Curious, I started digging, only to find that the names of the members were listed but not their roles. I was fascinated by this mysterious anonymity and the fact that there was no top-down approach, and the group work was not centered around any particular person.

Aoi: I agree. They didn’t live for art, they each had their own life and work, but they came together to create works of art, gathering things that were created as an extension of that life and work. That’s what attracted me too.

From left: Ken Furudate, Aoi Yamada and Satoshi Hama

Hama: Dumb Type’s work does not mainly focus on current technology or scientific discoveries but instead explores the theme of “humans.”

In a video in a small room, there is a three-dimensional space created by collecting text from the internet, using AI to analyze how words are used, and mapping words related to each other. But this isn’t about the novelty of AI either. Instead, in everyday life, we sometimes try to imagine the etymology or history of the words we use or try to catch a moment when a word appears in our brain, don’t we? I see it as a device, like a mirror, that reflects the time and space of the mysterious language that unfolds unconsciously deep inside a person’s mind.

Dumb Type “2022: remap” Installation view Photo by Keizo Kioku Courtesy of the Artizon Museum

The never-ending conversations

——With such a wide range of members of different generations, it seems there are many different ways of approaching technology.

Aoi: That’s true. In fact, I don’t know if I should say this, but honestly, I am not very impressed with AI-based expression. Partly because I am a dancer. I understand that there is a certain appeal in creating something with a machine, but a computer simulation of the live experience of watching the water and listening to its sounds, for example, is not as good as the real thing. My aim is rather to preserve the raw sensation of living and continue to express it through dance.

I could not see the exhibition at the Japan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, so this was the first time I saw it in person, and in that sense, I really missed the presence of living beings [laughs].

Furudate: That’s an honest opinion [laughs]. I respect it, but I would like to speak from my perspective on the appeal of expression through AI. A computer can externalize one’s thoughts, right? As for TRACE/REACT II, letting the machine choose the words reveals how we use language to think and the structure of words we are not usually aware of. And this is quite exciting.

Also, I think that the raw sensation that Aoi mentioned is a common element in Dumb Type’s works. The brightness of the LED light, the grainy sound, and the darkness of the venue...are not just machines or venue mechanisms; they create an experience beyond that.

Aoi: Indeed, the sound was pleasant.

Dumb Type “2022: remap” Installation view Photo by Keizo Kioku Courtesy of the Artizon Museum

——Dumb Type works are minimalist but have a certain overflowing surplus.

Furudate: We often discuss the project concept, but never with the mindset of just delivering it. Before moving forward, if nothing makes an impression through experience, we will not proceed with the idea. I sometimes wonder if this was a reaction to concept-driven contemporary art.

Aoi: Well, I’m still unconvinced about the fun aspect of using AI [laughs], but we talk like this endlessly with everyone at Dumb Type. I was so surprised. There is no mediator of any sort.

Furudate: It’s never-ending.

Ken Furudate and Aoi Yamada

Hama: At Dumb Type, we don’t start production with a script in advance but rather create small pieces based on each member’s strong interests, which are combined and rearranged at the end.

Aoi: It is strange, though, because, in the end, it all comes together. It is, after all, a group of people with the same sensibilities.

Furudate: This is important in the creation process. We share a sense of what is cool and what is not without having to explain every detail.

Hama: But the meetings are really long, and during the production of 2022, we had weekly discussions from nine in the evening until two in the morning for the entire year.

Furudate: The discussion doesn’t start with the artwork but with our current interests. It is also a process of aligning our aesthetics.

Aoi: That surprised me too. I was nervous because I was expecting the 2020 production to be a bit Spartan, but everyone was chatting and talking about the social issues, saying things like “That country is having a hard time” or “There was a protest there.” Many of the dancers I had been around seemed to be performing to distance themselves from society, so I was inspired by the attitude of being interested in global trends and incorporating them into the work.

Dumb Type “2022: remap” Installation view Photo by Keizo Kioku Courtesy of the Artizon Museum

Questioning fixed systems of time and space

——What can you tell us about 2022: remap featured in this exhibition? This is a recomposition of 2022 presented initially in Venice, but how did you come up with the idea in the first place?

Furudate: An initial starting point was the pandemic. With the growing concern about going outside, we found it interesting the idea of “liminal spaces” (initially referring to the in-between spaces such as corridors and staircases, but now also meaning eerie landscapes without people) that were becoming increasingly common online. Dumb Type has often explored the theme of borders, and we have discussed the idea that a border is not a “line” but has a certain “width” in which the liminal space exists.

Hama: Another source of inspiration was an 1850s American geography textbook that dancer Yuko Hirai brought to 2020. The book asked simple yet relevant questions such as “What is the Earth?”, “How many countries are there?” and “How are they divided?”. In 2022 we projected these words on the wall.

How do we answer the question from 170 years ago? Are units such as “countries” and “continents” universal? The titles 2020 and 2022 are based on the Western calendar, but is it eternal? How would people a million years from now/before, or aliens, see the present Earth? The starting point is to question the systems of time and space that modern society implicitly understands and uses.

Dumb Type “2022: remap” Installation view Photo by Keizo Kioku Courtesy of the Artizon Museum

Furudate: It is also important to note that it is an “American” textbook, asking questions such as “When you look at the rising Sun, what Ocean is before you?”

——The perception of space is also relative, as it depends on the individual’s standpoint.

Hama: The exhibition in the Japan Pavilion was designed to emphasize cardinal directions, and this is also replicated in the current exhibition at the Artizon Museum. Unable to visit Venice in advance, we spent many hours looking at the ground plan of the Japan Pavilion, designed by Takamasa Yoshizaka, from a distance and discussing how to make the most of the space. The structure of the square building and the hole in the center also seemed to represent a question posed long ago, just like the text in the geography textbook.

From there, we recalled the various square structures and customs that have existed everywhere since ancient times, aligned north, south, east, and west. Our minds began to wonder what thoughts people had put into these places and traditions in the past, what they were trying to leave behind, and for whom.

Exploring beyond the momentary sensation

——Aoi, what did you think of 2022: remap?

Aoi: I am familiar with the production process of Dumb Type, so it was interesting for me to imagine how many hours they spent talking before making this. But I also wondered how young people who know nothing about the group would interpret it since this piece is created from many different elements. Some people may feel pressured to understand it...but I don’t think it’s necessary. You can physically appreciate how it sounds and feels. And I would like to tell viewers of my age that it would be even more interesting if they also knew a little about the history of the Dumb Type.

Dumb Type works are quite physical. While working on 2020, I was exposed to so much strobe light that I couldn’t sleep. I asked other performers if they felt the same, and they said, “Oh, I can’t sleep either. I’m taking sleeping pills” [laughts].

Hama: Could have said so earlier [laughts].

Furudate: In fact, when I first saw Dumb Type, what attracted me most was the feeling that the limits of my senses were being challenged by the intense flickering lights and loud sounds. When I was in high school, I would watch OR and S/N late at night with headphones on, and my parents would get worried [laughs]. But rather than seeing it as “blinding” or “noisy,” I saw it as a pleasant experience. There is so much more to it.

——In that sense, it is also a kind of media art you cannot distance yourself from. It does not happen behind the screen but speaks to you directly.

Aoi: I was thinking that nowadays, whether it’s Instagram or TikTok, it’s a world of seconds. We instantly determine how we feel, and information is produced more and more repeatedly. But I hope people will see this piece and feel beyond the momentary sensation precisely because we live in such times. I think this exhibition is also an opportunity to look for sensations that one does not usually feel.

Furudate: That’s true. The flow of time is really different in this exhibition, and you probably won’t get used to it unless you spend about an hour there. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music also loops in about an hour.

Dumb Type “2022: remap” Installation view Photo by Keizo Kioku Courtesy of the Artizon Museum

——At the Japan Foundation’s artist talk, moderator Tomoe Moriyama (Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo) pointed out the uniqueness of the one-hour viewing time, citing a survey's results showing the average time viewers spend looking at a single work of art is 17 seconds.

Furudate: And the fact that we did it at the Venice Biennale, where visitors were rushing through the venues, is also extremely important. This piece is not “photogenic” at all [laughs].

——Are there any particular aspects of the reconstruction of the Venice exhibition that you want people to see?

Furudate: I don’t think there are many, but if someone happens to see both the Venice and Tokyo exhibitions, they’ll notice that the Japan Pavilion had a fantastic sense of the monotony of concrete and marble, but the Tokyo exhibition, which is a 90 percent scale reproduction of the Venice venue, is made of wood and wallpaper, which gives it an incredibly strong virtual feel. Personally, I found this “made-up” feeling interesting when I was setting up the exhibition. But for those who will only see the Tokyo venue, I hope they will first enjoy the work as it is.

Hama: The LED images hanging in the middle of the room, the turntables outside the room playing sounds from field recordings around the world, and the LED images in the small room at the back of the exhibition were not in the Venice venue and are new additions. We created it thinking of something that could replace the Japan Pavilion's skylight, Venice's dazzling outside atmosphere, and the half-mirror pillars. It might be interesting to compare the differences.

Dumb Type “2022: remap” Installation view Photo by Keizo Kioku Courtesy of the Artizon Museum

Not looking for easy answers

——Listening to you, I realized that Dumb Type is not a single unit but a diverse collective. In fact, Dumb Type today is a unique place of collaboration, bringing together a wide range of generations, from Ryuichi Sakamoto at the top to Aoi at the bottom. Do you have any ideas about what you would like to do or think about in the future?

Furudate: I see Dumb Type as a sort of persona. The original members, including Takatani, created a specific Dumb Type aesthetic, and no matter what they do, it is all Dumb Type. For me, however, it differs from collaboration as an individual artist or under my name. I am participating as part of the Dumb Type, so to speak, thinking about what I can do within the established aesthetic.

In that sense, I don’t think much about what I want to do with the future of Dumb Type. I just want to do as much as I can. That being said, you could say that what comes out of it is part of what shapes today’s Dumb Type.

Aoi: Lately, there has been a lot of demand to see how art contributes to society and how it should do so. As important as this perspective is, there are some things that such a two-sided approach cannot capture. In fact, there is no need to divide them into two separate things. Dumb Type is a unique group that can easily move between the two sides, almost like a cunning animal. I want to pursue this working style.

——Avoid a message limited to a single perspective while keeping an eye on society. Sometimes keeping a distance is also important, isn’t it?

Aoi: Yes, it is. I really like the mysterious space on the border that was mentioned earlier. A space that cannot be divided into black and white. For me, Dumb Type is something that gives me hope that such space will always exist as a place for creatures like me.

Hama: As previously mentioned, our meetings last for days and hours, but we don’t try to find answers during production. For example, one day, Takatani sent us a plan for an exhibition aligned with the cardinal directions, but he did not explain why, and no one asked for any details. I didn’t understand his aim either at first, but much later, there came a day when I suddenly seemed to “get it!” It is also possible that I read too much into it...

In any case, we bring different things together without pushing them, preaching about them, or asking for easy answers. Just keep it with us for a while and go about our daily lives. Then, one day, you suddenly notice a new perspective and can respond with new ideas. It is a group that encourages time-consuming relationships.

This piece may have a lot of ambiguity, but I hope people will take the time to think about it. A leaflet with plans of the works is distributed as you leave the exhibition room. A catalog of the Venice exhibition is also available now. I hope that those who came to see the exhibition will read it again if they find something interesting.

Satoshi Hama

Furudate: Absolutely. Come to think of it, the design of the Artizon Museum staff uniform is similar to spa wear, and one of the visitors compared this exhibition to a hot spring [laughs]. It would be nice if people could really take their time and enjoy it like a spa.

Aoi: Indeed! We live in an age of forced quick decisions, but it would be great to let it slowly sink in, like soaking in a bath. I hope visitors can also confront their senses to see what kind of light and sound they respond to.

From left: Ken Furudate, Aoi Yamada, and Satoshi Hama at the Artizon Museum

This article is a translation of the Japanese version of the interview published on Tokyo Art Beat.

Tamaki Sugihara

Tamaki Sugihara