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Cinema and Video

Michael Goldberg. The Father of Japanese Video Art Who Became Its Grandfather

Виктор Белозеров

Our conversation with Michael Goldberg is the story of an eyewitness who saw and contributed to the birth of video art in Japan in the early 1970s. His knowledge is invaluable, he is a witness to many stories of video artists from Japan, as well as an active participant in the processes that have evolved around Canadian video art. In this interview, we talk about many things, and also touch on one of the most vital issues when reality collides with the creative process. I consider our conversation an incredible success and I am grateful to Michael for his detailed answers to the questions that worried me. I hope that this interview will be useful not only for those who are interested in Japanese video art, but also for those who are immersed in the issues related to video production and distribution. Since the dialogue turned out to be voluminous, and it was simply unforgivable to throw something out of it, its first part (out of two) is being published for the time being.

My sincere thanks to Michael for our productive and rich conversation and the great preparatory work on this interview. This dialogue has become even more complete thanks to the photographs that Michael provided from his archive. Special (incredible) thanks for providing many texts (several hundred titles) from his personal archive, which, although not included in this interview, will serve as an even more meaningful ground for continuing research on Japanese video art.

Russian version / Русская версия

Author’s Illustration

Author’s Illustration

Gendai Eye (Viktor Belozerov): I would like to start our conversation by asking how your journey to Japan began. As far as I know, the starting point was the exhibition “Some More Beginnings” at the Brooklyn Museum and your introduction to Fujiko Nakaya. What are your impressions of meeting her?

Michael Goldberg: I met Fujiko Nakaya for the first time in New York at the second EAT exhibition. Nakaya-san was their Japanese representative, or the person who liaised with EAT. She created a sculpture of fog around the Pepsi Pavilion at the Osaka Expo’ 70 Worlds Fair. I had started organising E.A.T. events in Montreal, not exhibitions, just workshops and presentations. Québécois artists were suspicious of E.A.T. at the time. They thought it somehow had links to the CIA in America, because one of the founders had a security clearance. I didn’t care about their politics, so I did some activity anyway. I exhibited a piece at their 1968 Brooklyn Museum exhibition, where I met Nakaya-san. She spoke — and speaks — fluent English, because she went to University in the United States. I wanted to go to Japan. But I had worked three weeks at Expo ’67 in Montreal playing guitar for people waiting in lines, and I knew that during the Expo, or the Olympics, or any huge international event, the mood of a place changes. I decided not to go to Japan in 1970, and went instead in 1971, so that’s how I ended up there that year.

Nakaya-san kindly helped me find a place to stay. She introduced me to various artists, and we realized there were quite a few who wanted to use video in their work. They were from all sorts of backgrounds. In those days, there was no teaching of video; it was so new there weren’t yet video artists in Japan. She decided to take me to Sony, because the Sony building had just opened in Ginza, a very fancy, spiral showcase building. They had all sorts of equipment… and nothing to show on the monitors except television programs. She and Yamaguchi Katsuhiro convinced Sony to give a budget and technical help, and lend equipment, so that Japanese video artists could do their first video art pieces. Japan’s very first group exhibition of video art, “VIDEO COMMUNICATION — Do It Yourself Kit”, happened as a result of that.

Exhibition “VIDEO COMMUNICATION — Do It Yourself Kit” (1972). Michael Goldberg (on the right, walking past the curatorial text). In the bottom photo, Nobuhiro Kawanaka (behind the beret-wearing man on the left). Courtesy: Video Journal

Exhibition “VIDEO COMMUNICATION — Do It Yourself Kit” (1972). Michael Goldberg (on the right, walking past the curatorial text). In the bottom photo, Nobuhiro Kawanaka (behind the beret-wearing man on the left). Courtesy: Video Journal

Afterward, in 1973, I organized, with quite a few friends, an international alternative video symposium in Vancouver, called “Matrix”, and Nakaya-san came from Japan. She joined discussions and gave some eye-opening information and advice, because in Japan there was no government money for video art or for video creation. Since Canada is sparsely populated, mostly along its southern border close to America, it was strongly influenced, at least in English Canada, by American culture. The Canadian government gave grants to foster video creation, supporting very small groups all across the country. She pointed out that in Japan there were no grants for video art, there was no connection with the government.

In America, video art was heavily funded by foundations and some government bodies, and a few artists would get a lot of money to do really interesting technical experimentation. That was the thrust of the beginnings of video art there. In Europe, there was a strong dichotomy between what we might call “art” and “politics”, or “documentary” and the “fine arts” in video. Those scenes were very separate, and didn’t see eye to eye at all. But in Canada, for us it was all creative work with video, and we didn’t have any big differences. In 1976, I was hired as video funding officer by the Canada Council, and worked there for two years. When I left the post there was a job-hiring procedure for the person who would replace me. I was the very first officer, because the video department didn’t exist before. It had been a small part of the film funding division, and film people didn’t like video in those days, to put it mildly. One of the people who applied for the job she disapproved of my way of thinking, that of funding both documentary and video art, allowing for a wide range of opinions and expression. She said: “I think it should be made clear that there should be no politics in art. I don’t want the job. I just want to make it clear that art and politics must not be mixed”. I asked her: “What are you going to do about Québec? All the arts in Québec are politicized.” How can you say you can’t have opinions about society if you are in art?

Nakaya-san and people who were involved in the 1972 exhibition started a video access group called “Video Hiroba”. “Hiroba” in Japanese means a plaza, a very large space where people can gather. Historically, in Japan there were no real plazas; large gardens were for the elite. There wasn’t a word for it in Japan. Nakaya-san came up with the idea of calling video creators “video authors” or “video sakka” in Japanese. Unfortunately, from my point of view, over time it was only called “art”, Japanese “bijutsu”, which refers to things that are beautiful. The fine arts aspect became strong and people creating with video in the early days called themselves video artists. Most were making what might be called “pure art”, from the point of view of the woman who applied for my job. That’s my initial connection to Nakaya-san.

GE: If we are talking about differences in terms and definitions such as “video sakka”, when does the definition of “video aato” come up, at the same time or later?

MG: From what I saw, I think even in the beginning “video aato” (video art), a Japanese borrowed word, was a concept that was very entrenched. I was invited back and forth after the 1972 exhibition, to be a judge on various competitions. I was also invited to teach as a “foreign guest lecturer” at Tsukuba University in 1980. The only thing I asked my students was that there should be people in the video piece they produce at the end of the course, because they were mostly shooting nature and doing abstract graphics. It was all “art”. Just have people in the shots, I asked. And one student, fabulous, his idea was you never saw a person, but you would see someone disappearing around the corner or a shadow going by. You never saw anyone in full, but the person was part of the concept.

Nakaya-san recognized the importance of both aspects, social commentary and introspection or beauty in what we perceive. She understood there is room for what she called “video authors”, people expressing themselves about society, but in fact the mainstream was mostly what one would classify as “video art”.

The image on the left is the cover of The Accessible Portapack Manual, a camera manual that greatly helped video artists in the early days of video. On the spreads on the right is one image from the manual (a girl with a camera), as well as text and illustrations from the French version “La vidéographie à la portée de tous”. Courtesy: Michael Goldberg

The image on the left is the cover of The Accessible Portapack Manual, a camera manual that greatly helped video artists in the early days of video. On the spreads on the right is one image from the manual (a girl with a camera), as well as text and illustrations from the French version “La vidéographie à la portée de tous”. Courtesy: Michael Goldberg

GE: At that time, in the late 1960s, were you familiar with other Japanese video artists like Shigeko Kubota or Mako Idemitsu? It seems that by that time they were already in New York.

MG: I didn’t know them then, but I totally supported Mako Idemitsu in the work that started when I was here. I was her camera person for four or five of the “monitor inside the monitor” series that she did about Japanese psychology and male-female relations. Although she didn’t label herself a feminist, I think she was in her way. I wanted to be of help if I could, to her and other women who were doing things, which is why I volunteered with Mako Idemitsu. She speaks English quite well. I met Shigeko Kubota once around 1967 when I visited Nam Jun Paik in New York.

GE: How were you perceived then? Because it seems to me that in many areas of art such a spontaneous appearance of people from abroad has always made a great impression on Japanese artists, not in the sense of copying ideas, but in the sense of inspiration.

MG: Honestly, I can’t tell you how I was perceived. I was me, not the one perceiving, so that’s hard to answer. You should ask other people how they perceived me. Also, I didn’t speak Japanese at all, even when I started teaching at Japan Technical College (Nihon Denshi Senmon Gakko) after Tsukuba, I taught there for 16 or 17 years. In the beginning I did pantomime and drew on a blackboard. I was surprised when they hired me for a second year to teach video production. In college, I was a token gaijin, a token foreigner. There is a word in Japanese –“gaiatsu”, which literally means “pressure from outside”. When America arrived with the black ships in 1854, bam bam bam…they convinced the Japanese to open their borders to trade. In the beginning, treaties were unequal because the foreigners displayed fearsome power. But Japan realized it should learn from the best. They took medicine from Germany, the parliamentary system from England, and so on. Ideas from the outside were sometimes seen as positive (though not now, unfortunately). At certain times in history the Japanese have certainly been influenced by outsiders and were conducive to listening and learning. Of course that might be perceived negatively by those who have to change and don’t want to. Like us men during the beginning of feminism — oh my God, we’re going to lose our advantages; we don’t want that. Then, change would be perceived as pressure from outside.

Before I came to Japan, Michael Shamberg, who wrote “Guerilla Television”, came to Japan and met Nakaya-San. She translated his excellent book into Japanese. Basically, he came to buy a Portapack and go to Algeria when the Black Panthers were based there, to meet and videotape Timothy Leary. The Black Panthers confiscated his Portapack before he left and started doing propaganda videos with it.

Nakaya-san took me to Sony, and said: “Look, video activity is starting up around the world”. Non-commercial video (what we called “alternative video” and art) was starting to take off, and it should have been happening in Japan too. They put a budget in when they realized they could show original content to help promote video. It had been conceived as an educational tool, not a home use tool. Sony sold audio language labs and thought video would work in a similar way. I was useful for that purpose. I don’t know if this could be called “gaiatsu”, but they used me and I was called “sensei” (teacher). I’d never studied production nor done a lot of videos. I’d done some large installations and lots of events, so I was seen as an “expert”. I was the outsider who helped Japanese artists understand — without speaking Japanese — how to make their first videos.

That’s from the point of view of the manufacturers. After Sony, JVC sponsored a series of international competitions called the Tokyo Video Festival, and Toshiba organised showings and seminars. They began working with creative video people and community groups as a way of promoting sales of their products. From the perspective of the artists who were able to use video freely, and from the point of view of the manufacturers, it was a win-win situation. I was useful in the beginning, and I am considered one of the pioneers, sometimes called “the father of video art” in Japan. I am actually “the grandfather” at this point.

A number of the early artists are now dead. After they are gone, their legacy is taken seriously, though not while they were alive. It is very hard to get recognized doing avant-garde or pioneering work.

I don’t do Zen meditation, but I did a documentary about Daisetsu Suzuki, the “man who introduced Zen to the West”. There is a term in Zen which basically means “convenient means” or “useful tools”. You can’t teach someone to discover enlightenment; they have to suddenly “get it”. You can point in the direction, but you can’t explain it. I think I was a useful tool in that sense. I think maybe that’s how people perceive me. Some are grateful, and maybe “gaiatsu” could be a word to describe my role in those days. In recent years I had a very good connection with NHK WORLD and NHK. But the documentaries I did included social criticism, and right now I am not welcome as a foreigner in that scene. Not just me. Independent documentary directors reporting on social issues in Japan are not seen in a positive light these days. “Gaiatsu” doesn’t mean that a foreigner can easily influence what’s going on.

Michael Goldberg in the Ginza District (Tokyo, 1971). Photo by Itsuko Sakane. A still from Michael Goldberg“s documentary ‘Fast Foods’ Tokyo” (1983). Courtesy: Michael Goldberg

Michael Goldberg in the Ginza District (Tokyo, 1971). Photo by Itsuko Sakane. A still from Michael Goldberg“s documentary ‘Fast Foods’ Tokyo” (1983). Courtesy: Michael Goldberg

GE: At the time, was there any borderline between experimental cinema and video art (late 1960s or early 1970s). Because if we’re talking about Toshio Matsumoto, he was active in both video art and experimental cinema. There were experiments by Katsuhiro Yamaguchi and Kohei Ando.

MG: You should add Kō Nakajima to this list. The first people who created with video had little or no experience with the medium. They came from other backgrounds. In Vancouver there was a group called Intermedia, which I joined. There were poets, dancers, sculptors, experimental filmmakers, and so on. Mind you, filmmakers producing for hall audiences were not attracted to video, to put it mildly.

It can be said that initial video art expansion in Japan slowed down after the first decades, as it did in other countries once creative people started working with computers and the Web. Even before video, as you said, there were Japanese film artists who were doing experimental work. There was a lot of experimentation with video in the early days because there was no precedent. There were also some film artists doing work that included social content, but there are very few hard core documentarians who became well known. There were also Japanese who did wondrous abstract imagery with video.

One of the things I had an early passion for was “video delay”. It is similar to audio delay, except that with video it is possible to display images. I did installations where people would enter an installation and walk out, then see themselves back where they were moments ago. While that sounds like a gimmick, the content and themes were important.

There were other types of experiments exploiting the electromagnetic nature of video. One of the wonderful things you could do is “video feedback”. You connect the camera to a monitor, point it at the monitor and when you zoom in, you don’t see the room around the monitor anymore, only the scan lines of the camera and monitor interacting. They create spirals and all kinds of abstract effects that you can manipulate. People tried things that hadn’t been done before. Mind you, after a while lots of people happened upon video feedback and it was like: “Oh, this is great. I’ve just discovered a new thing”, though many others had already been using it.

There is an intrinsic problem with “discovery”. Even great revelations are sometimes made simultaneously in different parts of the world. Conversely, when video art kind of died out in Japan, there was a plan to use video artists’ tapes for a long-distance “television on-demand” prototype. They stored a bunch of video artist’s works in a mainframe computer, which I helped digitize, and one of the organizers, who was an art-librarian specialist, said: “It’s dead stock, so we should just use it”. That got me really angry. “Are you saying that ‘Mona Lisa” by Matsumoto-san is dead stock? It still is beautiful. It still is unique!’ I object to the concept of video art being “dead”.

“Michael-san no Video In & Out”. The book was published in Japanese in 1989. This book was used by almost all art universities and technical colleges teaching video in the early 1990s

“Michael-san no Video In & Out”. The book was published in Japanese in 1989. This book was used by almost all art universities and technical colleges teaching video in the early 1990s

GE: Back to the question of generations of video artists in Japan. We received the first generation in the late 1960s, and the second only in the 1980s. Why is there such a big gap between generations, almost ten years?

MG: That’s a fair question. I think part of the reason is the first generation became so strong that others in the artistic community didn’t feel included. I am not saying they were excluded. But for various reasons, the larger community of creative people didn’t feel welcome, even though there was the concept of Video Hiroba being an open space. The fact is there wasn’t a lot of accessible equipment.

When I came to Tokyo in 1971, we didn’t find any video artists. There were actually several, including Keigo Yamamoto in far flung Fukui. He had access to video because he taught art in a local school and started doing things out of his own pleasure. Eventually he was invited to exhibitions, and we brought him to Canada. In 1985, Keigo organized a video exhibition (International Video Art Festival) in Fukui with video art from around the world. Local authorities and museums were excited to connect with the outside world. He was doing interesting things, but wasn’t involved in Video Hiroba.

There were occasional events that were sponsored, but there was no access system per se. It wasn’t easy, not as easy as in Canada for sure. In Canada, we set up video access centers for artists and community groups across the country. But in Japan, it took private patrons and occasional corporate sponsors to do something for a short period of time: a festival or a huge exhibition. I don’t think there was a system that would allow people to access equipment and do anything they wanted. Nakaya-san started SCAN gallery in her apartment building and did her best to advance video art, in the larger sense of the term.

It took until the 1980s for more artists and people who wanted to create or express themselves with video to gain access. The delay is often attributed to the first generation being too powerful. Indeed, they became the avant-garde. But I wouldn’t put it down to that simple explanation. I think there were a number of factors. How are you going to make a video if you haven’t got the machines to play it on, or use video for serious projects? I think that is part of the reason it took a while for universities and museums, local institutions and private donors, to make it possible for the next generation to come to the fore.

GE: We had the same conversation with Hiroya Sakurai when we discussed the issue of distribution and access to video equipment. He said that this was only possible in universities or for people who worked in television. There are only two options in this case.

MG: Video artists from the first generation couldn’t live off video art. Museums weren’t buying, let alone private collectors. Video art wasn’t a way to make a living, and even now, probably it is so only for a very small number of people.

One of the fortunate or unfortunate realities of the 1980s in Japan is a few pioneers ended up teaching video art in universities. They got budgets, bought basic equipment and experimental technology, and so on. There were students doing interesting work there. But after graduation they no longer had access. “Video Cocktail” (the main 2nd generation initiative) managed to start up, partly from tapes that had been made but had no distribution. “Video Cocktail” became possible because there was a body of work and an ongoing “base of production”, a weird way of saying that. Those were the problems faced by the video art scene in Japan, at least in the 1980s.

Michael’s Betacam Edit Room (circa 1992). Courtesy: Michael Goldberg

Michael’s Betacam Edit Room (circa 1992). Courtesy: Michael Goldberg

GE: What about the system? Or was it too expensive to rent a camera?

MG: Video rental was not an option for artists, documentarists or community groups with low budgets. Art students have access while in university. Ordinary Japanese citizens could occasionally borrow a Portapack (a portable video machine) and perhaps get access to a small CATV (cable television) studio with several cameras, but that wasn’t common or well organized. A reality I believe about art history, fine art worldwide, is that often it is the elite who are able to produce artwork. It is very hard — and rare — to live off one’s art, and therefore, if one has family income or substantial savings, that gives you the independence to do what you want to do.

I once interviewed Robert Aitkin, one of the first American Zen masters. During a stroll I asked: “Do you have any regrets?” and he said: “The only regret I have is that all of my students were middle-class”. I wasn’t middle-class when I started, not even now. Eventually I owned a lot of Betacam gear including a TV broadcast quality editing room, with which I was able to do documentaries. While teaching at Tsukuba I was also “full-time” cameraman / editor at TF1 (French network) and I started my video production company. I had a large income only during those two years in my life, which I used to buy equipment and managed to make a number of independent documentaries. Decades later video went digital; then high definition, and now I edit on a laptop. I gave away or threw away almost all that hardware. I think what was true for me is the same for a few video artists who manage to do video work continuously over the years. You need some independent income or personal access, and that was very difficult for videographers in Japan.

In Canada, we developed a system of free access for burgeoning videographers. As the first video grants officer at the Canada Council, I developed a policy of not awarding large grants for a small number of artists, like in the US, funding instead projects with low grade equipment, half-inch, black and white video (in the early days), accessible to artists and community groups across the country. It was dependent, of course, on government funding.

Funding for the arts in general, and video too, became tighter over the years. Fortunately, when our group in Vancouver initiated our “alternative video” library, we consulted a local lawyer, a communist who was willing to give us advice for free. He advised us to set up a non-profit organization with educational and charitable purposes, and we incorporated ourselves with a charter that had all of that. When the government started to cut down on funding video art in Canada, we developed alternative ways of gaining income. There is no equivalent in Japan to the system in Canada.

Even in the 1980s, I think that explains the delay of the emergence of Video Cocktail, comprised mainly of younger people who weren’t in Video Hiroba. The Video Cocktail initiative came together from all sorts of backgrounds as well. I think their base was partly universities students, teachers, and some independent creators, the source of a body of work that allowed for the large exhibitions that they held.

The Interview was held on 3 October 2021

Part 2

The short history of Japanese video art (rus)
Interview with Hiroya Sakurai (eng/rus)