Tokyo Interactions: Akihabara and reclaimed spaces

As part of my research into how I might go about making art in Japan, I needed to find out where to source the various microcontrollers and sensors that sometimes go into my interactive contraptions. That’ll be Akihabara then, but where to start – I remember going there a decade ago, getting a bit bewildered and leaving fairly rapidly.

Fortunately, Kaho Abe had been on a similar quest a week or so ahead of me and was able to make some recommendations, pointing me in the direction of this useful blog post, including a handy map.

Found them!

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

I expect I’d probably end up mostly ordering online, but it’s super useful to know I can buy things in the real world too, should I need to and, as Kaho pointed out, sometimes you need to be able to hear/feel how a switch thunks before you decide if it’s right for your project.

I made a purchase, just to show willing…

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

After that I wove my way back through the crowds to the station and then followed the train tracks looking for traces of artisan makers: next on the to-do list was a visit to 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan (machine translated link, more information here).

In a way that reminded me of Koganecho, small units have been constructed underneath elevated train tracks and made available to be used as shops by artists and craftspeople.

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

It’s amazing what a coat of white paint will do. I just wish I had the means to take a load of lovely handmade ceramics and woodwork back home with me in my rucksack…

Next up: 3331 Arts Chiyoda.

Housed in what used to be a junior high school, 3331 is now an arts centre that hosts a variety of creative businesses, galleries, shop, cafe and events space. They also run an artists in residence programme, so I was keen to get a sense of their personality, as it were.

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

It was gone 6pm by the time I got there, so some of the units had already closed, but even so the echoes of the old school made for an interesting time wandering along the corridors.

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions: putting the work in

My first full day in Tokyo.

Making my way to my digs the afternoon before, I’d surfaced out of the train station to find myself at Tokyo Opera City: a place I recognised because I’ve been to the Intercommunication Center (ICC) a couple of times. The ICC is run by the telecommunications company NTT East and exhibits media art and interactive multimedia and I quite like their programming although I haven’t yet quite got to the stage where I remember this and go there by default! Anyway, making the most of being local and it being the last day of a multi-sensory sound-based exhibition I went for a look.

OTO NO BA: Sound-digging with the senses took its theme as “sound that is not only perceived with the ears, but with various other senses, or even with the whole of the body”. Being part of the kids programme, I was anticipating it being quite hands-on, and arrived prepared to prance around a bit to interact with things!

I don’t usually have to gird my loins for interactive art in this manner: I think there may be something interesting going on there where I feel more self conscious here and aware that there’s loads more potential for doing The Wrong Thing.

Grabbing the bull by the horns I jumped straight in with a bit of tambourine action and some sort of motion-tracking projection set up (ratatap, Junichi Kanebako) that responded with visuals when you made a noise with your tambourine (or bongo, or shaker…). As an interesting side observation in hindsight, I think most of the noise was being made by the gallery staff – perhaps a reminder that interactive work either needs a facilitator or to be intuitive to use?

Next I donned a stripy tabbard and approached the Border Shirtsizer (Ei Wada) to make some noise in a pleasingly loud, lo-fi, CRT, B&W, tone generator stylee.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

There was some nice experimenting to be done with jiggling/twisting/wafting to see how the changing camera view of the stripes changed the tone that was output.

After all that noise I made a beeline for touch the sound picnic (Junichi Kanebako). Ear defenders to block out a lot of the ambient noise and a sort of microphone set-up that transformed the sound signal into a buzz from a vibration motor.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It would be interesting to take this outside and through a variety of spaces, as it was quite uniformly loud in the gallery. There was a nice percussive moment when a small child ran past me, though!

For me, the star of the show was Perfumery Organ (Perfumery Organ Project) and not just because of its massive sweeping curve and assortment of small storage.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

I really like this literal take on the idea that perfumes have high and low notes. It was also very engaging trying to figure out the different mechanisms at work and general detail spotting. The organ played at 15 minute intervals and, between performances, you could pick up the little canisters on the front row and sniff the different scents. (During the performance you got buffetted by heady wafts coming from the brown bottles.)

I went to Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House in London a few months ago, but this was very different in feel.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It’s only now as I look back at the video footage that I’m starting to realise that there were a range of different mechanisms for moving the jars/blowy things into position to make the noise.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It was close to closing time by now so I removed my ear defenders and had a quick look at the main exhibition.

It made me happy to see a piece referencing Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, having only recently discovered the writing and used it in a workshop. Also this dead bug soldered windchime triggered by a Geiger counter was nice:

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It happened that I was able to book the last slot of the day for Akio Suzuki’s acoustic installation, so I settled down to listen to Kugiuchi & Water Bottle on my own, in the dark, sealed into an anechoic chamber.

I asked the assistant if the artist provided the room or if it was in their tech specs for the gallery to sort one out. It turns out that the chamber is a permanent feature of the gallery and it gets used to house different artworks as part of different exhibitions. hmmmmmmmm……

***bingle bongle ***
Incoming message from Megumi

There’s an opening event and after party at a new shared studio space, would I like to go?
It’s in Kabata *googles “Kabata”* Yikes that’s half way to Yokohama! And it’s already gone 6 o’clock. What is this place anyway?

We talked ourselves in an out of it a few times, mostly just pitching our tiredness against knowing that it would be a really relevant thing for me to go and see and that tonight would be our best chance to meet a range of people.

We got ourselves there in the end though, and the studio was pretty impressive! Some interesting work, too, slightly different to the sorts of things I usually see at artist run exhibitions.

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

I’ll direct you to the Hunch website to find out more about the artists, but mostly so you can mouse over their profile pictures, too:

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

The after party involved a few chats with people to the backdrop of steel and regular drum solos by fairy light whilst a cross between Sesame Street’s Big Bird and a mirror ball rotated above us. I met a glass artist, a lecturer in English History, and an artist who also has what sounds like quite a participatory practice – another unusual find for me in Japan, we’ve arranged to meet up and chat next week without the drum soloist…

More photos from the day here:

Playable City Tokyo

Playable City Tokyo

I was recently one of four British participants selected to take part in Watershed’s Playable City project in Tokyo. Working alongside 7 Japanese counterparts and an awesome support team from the Pervasive Media Studio and British Council Japan, we spent a week exploring the theme of playful welcomes:


In 2020, the world will focus on Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. In the run up, the construction period and during the games themselves, thousands of people will visit the city who have not been before. With the theme of  a ‘Playful Welcome’, seven Japanese and four UK participants will collaborate and develop playful ideas to connect visitors and local people to each other and to the city, during this exciting time.

…The Playable City Tokyo 2016 Creative Lab and Forum programme is part of the trial research project for the governmental “Basic Policy for Promoting Measures related to Preparations for and Management of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020”.

Further details about who was involved can be found on the Lab’s page on the Playable City website.

It was an intense week with a lovely group of intelligent, observant, generous people all riffing off each other and their surroundings; poking at gaps in language and disjoints between cultures, asking many questions and exploring even the smallest of details alongside the big questions.

Some of the very many things we packed into that too-short amount of time included some of the following…

Looking up

A map-making exercise of the area around the WIRED lab in Ark Hills where we were based. These maps led us to complete creative activities, to seek out the deity hidden in plain view and to chase after leaves. The one I made was effectively a prompt for people to slow down and to look up: a sort of treasure hunt of details and views.

Looking up

We also concocted small games for each other. Jo and I were set the Chopsticks Challenge which comprised several tasks that had to be completed working together elbow-to-elbow to make a pair of chopsticks with our forearms. I’m quite impressed with our portrait of Hilary!

chopstick drawing

As the week progressed we were allocated to different teams and we began the task of a more focussed critique of Tokyo and the processes of interaction and integration we might like to see happen as visitors start to arrive as part of the upcoming Olympic Games.

group sharing

We filled many ginormous sheets of paper with notes and diagrams like this:


(I can assure they all made perfect sense at the time!)

Gradually the concrete room we were colonising became covered in the traces of our thought processes and we began to distil out key themes and assemble them into a proposal for things-that-might-be.

With limited time and resources, prototyping was very lo-fi …but fast, and full of energy. Also little magic moments like this demonstration of a restaurant queue enlivened into a collaborative dance routine by responsive light panels in the floor!

magic moment

Other experiments took place outside.

We only got into trouble with the local security guards twice in the whole week…


As our ideas got bigger they also started to ask more questions about the types of interactions we wanted to nurture, the places we wanted these interactions to happen and how we wanted to mediate these.

Our group repeatedly grappled with the ideas of gateways, rabbitholes and entrances, so when it came time to take our prototyping outside to include real people and places, we chose to take things right back to basics and to do some experiments questioning how the very first invitation might work. What does it take to bring someone over that line between playing and not playing?

To focus in on the invitation we had to choose play that was familiar enough that we wouldn’t need to explain the rules. One thing led to another and suddenly we were armed with a selection of signs and an escalator in the nearby shopping centre.

pick one

Our aim was to use the fixed space and timespan of the journey up the escalator as a space in which to recruit people to playing a game of Rock, Paper, Scissor (or Janken Pon) at the moment that they reached the top.

janken escalator

We tried different signs in the approach to the escalator and also on and alongside the escalator itself, but without much uptake at all. It wasn’t until we ‘rebranded’ the escalator as The Janken Escalator that things started to turn around.

Perhaps not at all unsurprisingly, the real change came when we had a person waiting at the top of the escalator, ready to start throwing shapes. Up until then we’d had a poster with a pre-made choice that the player ‘played’ against by making their choice – and grabbing a piece of paper representing it – on the way up.

Playing with a real person is just loads better!

(c) British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

© British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

Again I think we raised as many questions as we answered, but that’s when you know things are interesting. Alas we were out of time, though, and the following day we were presenting our research to a room full of people before wrapping up and saying our goodbyes.


Also traces

You can see my Flickr album of photos from the workshop here:

It was a wonderful, challenging, stimulating workshop to have been a part of and it’s left me hungry for more of the same. It’s also been interesting to have had the work flow structured by someone else – making me reflect on the processes I would normally work though and highlighting aspects that I find more or less important to me in my practice. For example, in particular I felt the lack of having a specific place to be designing interactions for. What was interesting though was that I also felt the lack of having a technological system to work with too.

Normally I’d be reciting a mantra of “don’t start with the technology”, but Playable City is ultimately about being playful with the infrastructure of a place (rather than just being playful in a place) and it felt like that was missing a bit from the ideas we explored.

I wonder both how I would approach the brief if I tackled it by myself, but also how we would build on what we did in that one week if we tackled it again as a group.

I think even if I did do a solo project I’d be carrying the Playable City cohort with me: my perception of Tokyo is now mediated through the eyes and experiences of everyone in the group and the things that they shared.


Coming up: Yamanote Stories at Pecha Kucha Coventry

Tomorrow I’m one of the presenters at Pecha Kucha Night Coventry, this time in turn part of the Japanese Cultural Festival being run by The Tin Music and Arts.

This means entry is free and there’s karaoke afterwards should you so fancy it!

Using an edited map to navigate around Tokyo

I thought the Japanese theme would be a good excuse to look again at a project I did back in 2006: Sites of Potentiality Guidebooks: Yamanote Line. 29 not-quite-random walks in Tokyo looking for Interesting Things.

PKNCov regulars may remember the Invite Boredom presentation Paul Conneally talked about a year or so ago:

Pecha Kucha Coventry | Vol 8 | Paul Coneally from MINDRIOT PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

This is very much a precursor to the Invigilator project and probably sets the scene for most of my practice since then!

See you at the Coal Vaults at 7pm.

the sound of watching

A week or two ago I posted an incomplete post about invigilator: Tokyo.

Well, I’m back in the UK now and sorting through all my documentation from the trip to Japan.

I’ve uploaded a few images to Flickr. There’s a slideshow here, but the pages on Flickr include captions giving more detail about each image.

but I was a bit wary about taking too many photos during the invigilation. I think it’s just a little bit too intimidating for a project that’s so much about how people react to subtleties within a space.

So, as an experiment with alternative forms of documentation, here’s a sound recording we made of the invigilation:


13 galleries


Takashima, Sato, Yamamoto Gendai, Kodama, SCAI the Bath House, Muramatsu, Nantenshi, Yamaguchi, INAX, Humanite, Koyanagi, Natsuka, Grafica.

My feet hurt.

Yamanote days

I have now embarked on a tour of Tokyo.

My guide is a map from the back of a gallery postcard, with all the labels surgically removed.

map debris

My starting point is every station on the Yamanote railway line.

map book

I’ve been doing it for 2 days now, and I’m halfway round. I don’t know where the map will take me, but there’s always something interesting to be found at the other end…

Update: this became the Sites of Potentiality: Yamanote Line project.



Known as the Grandmothers’ Harajuku, in Sugamo you can buy knicker elastic in unlimited quantities at the flea-market in the shrine grounds.

sugamo knicker elastic

However, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, Granny Jumpers are always the same…

granny jumpers

photoroundup ii

A taxi farm:

General state of things at Ono Garou:

Just liked it as an abstract collection of lines and colours:
subway map

A moderate obsession with the stairs at Ono Garou:
ono garou

ono garou

ono garou

The cast of Tonari no Totoro, shrinkwrapped:

Small cars:

Making onigiri with exchange students past and present:

Okonimiyaki and slippers:

Tower block by night:


Fun with shiny things:

Pedestrians in Ginza reclaim the road on a national holiday:


Empty billboard:
empty billboard

Shrine to stillborn children by night:

Ono Garou

As a follow-up to the contemporary art galleries in the industrial unit, yesterday Ami took me to several art galleries in Ginza.

ono garou

ono garou

My favourite was Ono Garou. One of the artists told us this is the oldest building in Ginza – an area associated with expensive shopping – and I can well believe it.

ono garou hallway

Formerly an apartment building, it is fairly crumbly inside and now inhabited by artists. Most of the rooms (typically about 2.5m square) are individual gallery spaces, even the old bath room!

ono garou mailboxes

We spent most time in the two basement spaces.

TYPE-TRACE, part of divvydual teased out ideas about language, authorship and production: three sets of laptops, chairs and projectors where visitors were invited to type their thoughts whilst having the process of their typing logged. The document was then played back in real time with letterforms having differing sizing depending on how long it took before the corresponding key had been pressed.

Next to the room bathed in the cold light from the monitors and projectors was the work of Saito Juichi. Dressed formally in suit, tie and white cotton gloves, the artist welcomed visitors at an equally formally dressed table outside his space. With soft voice and great solemnity we were then shown into what is essentially the cupboard under the stairs.

Only being able to stand upright immediately inside the door, we then had to stoop and shuffle over the rabbit pelts to view the sculpture at the far end that also provided the only lighting in the space.



Once outside and back at the table again, we were ushered through the process of signing our names (with a fountain pen, naturally) on visitors cards that were then put away in a lidded box.

Shortly afterwards we returned and, with Ami’s help with translation, Saito-san became the first person in Japan invited to participate in the Peer-to-Peer Sketchbooks project.

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