On Ninjas & Data Analysis: STS at the Tokyo Trick Art Museum

Photostory,Reflections,Review July 13, 2015 8:59 am

trick art trio 2Three stalwart companions in silliness; Tokyo Trick Art Museum, May 2015. Many thanks to Tim Highfield & Jasmine Li.

Trick Art Museums—and their upstart rival Trick Eye Museums—are spreading rapidly across East Asia. Both museum franchises specialize in a particular kind of trompe l’oeil optical illusion designed for interaction and reproduction.

According to the Trick Art website, the first Trick Art Museum opened in 1992 in Tochigi prefecture in Japan. There are currently eighteen dedicated galleries and museums in Japan alone, and Trick Art and Trick Eye franchises now span Tokyo to Singapore, Bali to Mongolia. You’ll find them in kitschy clusters, inside entertainment palaces sparkling with souvenirs and sweets. Think boardwalks. Think marvels. Think Madame Tussauds and Guinness Book of World Records. Think giant rainbow Pocky and takiyaki museums. Spaces dedicated to vacation play and escapes with friends, not Travel and Tourists.

From this glitzy yet unassuming foundation Trick Art Museums articulate an idea of art that contrasts sharply with that of traditional art museums. It is not the individual piece or artist that is elevated (think: Benjamin’s aura), it is interactive play with and around art. Trick Art Museums deal not in art as precious objects but art as social catalysts. And as the website assures us, the contents of these museums are not just for a single segment of a population to appreciate; rather “those with artistic taste and those with none, adults and children alike, everyone ought to find something familiar they can enjoy.” (my translation)

Here’s how it works: You enter the museum, get a brief explanation from a docent, and then start posing with various museum images while your friends snap photos.

in progress trioActors get into position, listen to direction; photographer-directors take photos, edit as necessary. 

This can go wrong, both in terms of actor and photographer. The photographer-director may snap a photo from an angle that betrays the trompe l’oeil, may be unable to see how to accomplish the trick. The actor may be a ham, way too happy in that struggle with a youkai.

problem duoHowever, docents located throughout the museum helpfully suggest poses and locations. Acting and photography improve as you progress from the Ninja House through Edo Area to the Haunted Mansion with Funny Japanese Monsters and beyond.

Eventually, coordinating the painting, performance, and photography, you achieve the trick. You make illusions you take pride in. It’s a team effort: You (plural) have learned how to take part in the trick. You assess the painting, consider perspectives, situate yourself accordingly, direct, attend, position and adjust the camera.

success duoThe plural here is key, and it’s a plural that yokes human and nonhuman. In order to achieve the tricks of a Trick Art Museum, you need both companion and camera. The human companion manages the shifts between perspective, seeing both the trick and the workings of the trick, directing the actor. But this dual cognitive perspective, plus the 3-D perception of two eyes, means that the human can’t only see the trick. The camera, with its single eye and no brain, sees only one perspective and, when positioned correctly, produces the trick.

It’s a lovely, very physical enactment of a point STS types have long been making about relationships between humans and technologies: Yes, a technology can yield a standardized record, assessment, etc. However, how that technology is constructed and situated, used and shared, all affect results. Ultimately construction, use, etc. are human choices. (There’s more to it than this, of course, involving things like materials, systems, epistemologies, etc.) Ditto for the standardization part. This is true whether you’re creating shareable images with friends, goofy murals, and a camera, or predictive correlations with teammates, datasets, and programming languages.

There’s an important, pragmatic corollary to this that often gets obscured: Where—and when—you participate in a process affects your (human) understanding. Sometimes you see only the workings and can’t see the trick. Think: you in the museum, but missing either companion or camera. Sometimes you see both the workings and the trick. You in the museum, now equipped with companion and camera. Sometimes you see only the produced trick. You, not in the museum—perhaps never having been in the museum—smiling at the shared image.

These trick art images key viewers to the presence of a trick through mural style and actors’ poses. Most products of technologies don’t underscore their histories of human-tech coordination so clearly. (Wouldn’t it be cool if they did? We could apply Benjamin’s idea of aura in an entirely different way.)

These images—optical illusions that prove tricks mastered, collaborations achieved—are the museum’s true exhibits, its things-to-be-shown-to-people. Want to see more? Check out #trickart on Instagram and Twitter, glass display cases of Trick Art Museums.

so many koalas



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