Reviewed by: Josh Meggitt
Reviewed: 20 March, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Japanese responses to the hyper-reality of contemporary life hold a particular resonance as Japan remains the frontier at which human experience and technological advancement most brutally collide. The many characteristics of post-modern Japanese urban life – relentless visual and aural noise, overcrowding, excessive working hours, rampant commercialism, competing versions of synthetic reality – have been concerns running through all of Ryoji Ikeda’s work.
While he recently released a CD of his first three opus-numbered pieces for strings, his recordings have tended towards the pure end of digital minimalism – sparse constructions of sine tones, white noise and harshly cut samples. Musically, his interest is in the properties of sound itself and its reception, as his 2000-2004 project “Matrix” for solo sine wave attests (for ‘anechoic room’, ‘acoustic dislocation’, and ‘theatre chamber’). His interests cover a broad range of media, with art installations, audio visual performances and collaborations with theatre groups, architects, and visual artists critically acclaimed and documented in print and DVD.
The two-piece Datamatics was structured much like piano-accompanied silent cinema, the screen being the focus of visual activity with Ikeda’s computer providing the live soundtrack. formula [ver.2.3] explored, viscerally and painfully, the concept of ‘information overload’. While working initially with minimal means – the screen black, marked only by a softly pulsating central axis, dancing horizontal and vertical lines set to an audio track of high-pitched sine tones – Ikeda soon worked these into relentless patterns of aggressive power. Avoiding mid-ranged sounds, Ikeda works in extreme highs and lows – his introduction of low-end bass thuds was both dramatically structured and had the hall physically shaking. Plain lines and grids gave way to vicious strobe effects and busier representational images, sine tones to white noise punctuated with sharp, rhythmic cuts. The piece’s strongest moments involved a dizzyingly fast sequence of images – street signs, wire fences, cars, landscapes, buildings – to deafening roars of electronic noise. As the film pointed out visually and verbally, it was ‘The most beautiful ugly sound there is’.
Part of the problem with writing about Ikeda’s work is that it moves at the same pace as the society he is criticizing. Noughts and ones flow across the screen, cascading upwards like a reverse waterfall in one particularly beautiful segment, just as data disappears across countless screens among countless offices before countless perplexed individuals the world over. Not only a compelling, breathtaking audio-visual experience, formula offers one of the most barbed and uncompromising indictments of capitalist culture I have witnessed.
C4I, corresponding to the terms ‘Command’, ‘Control’, ‘Communications’, ‘Computers’ and ‘Intelligence’ used by US Intelligence, was a calmer, warmer, more deliberately artful piece. Where “data.series” explored digital information as its subject, C4I looked at contemporary society and its relationship with the natural world. Crisp images of slowly-turned pages of books segued into columns of newsprint, stock market figures and time-lapse graph developments. A world map was soon enveloped with web-like traces of air-routes, themselves blocked out by fading numbers explaining flying times or innumerable other vectors. Filmed images of bare tree branches became facsimiled white-on-black outlines, these pasted upon flight path patterns to emphasize the connectedness, and absurdity, of all arbitrary events.
Here, too, Ikeda’s music was softer and less offensive. A segment of too-fast-to-read statistics was accompanied by John Barry’s music to the made-in-Japan James Bond film “You only Live Twice” – the only occasion of recognisable sampled sound. Sharp digital tones were again present, but so were softer washes of surprisingly beautiful ambience. If C4I was no less critical of modern society, it was also more obvious, slightly clumsy in parts, but also poignant and optimistic.