Dumb Type (MOT)
Actions ＋ Reflections
Venue : Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT)
Organization : Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Nikkei Inc.
“The flying bullets keep making this barely perceptible noise while just managing to find their place in these gaps. This is a noise that only Dumb Type is capable of making. We coax technology out of this crappy consumerist world in order to transform these noises into something that can be deciphered.” (Teiji Furuhashi)
In the beginning
There are several reasons for taking a panoramic, retrospective view of Dumb Type today, some 30 years after they were formed in 1984, following one of the peak periods of their activity in the 1990s. Those who were part of this unique collective came and went with each project while the core members remained constant, active in media ranging from performance, installation, workshops, film screenings, and publications. Starting in the late 80s, Dumb Type had already been acclaimed in Europe and America for their performances: several of their installations had been exhibited in museums and acquired for the collections of the MoMA and the Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon. In Asia, as well, where media technologies have been gaining prominence in recent years, interest in Dumb Type has been growing. In 2018, the “Actions + Reflexions” exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France (curated by the author) drew some 78,000 visitors. So why Dumb Type, now?
The members of Dumb Type were students at Kyoto City University of Arts, made up mostly of students in the Concept and Media Planning department who were able to express themselves freely primarily through video, photography, and film. It was also a collective of students from the printmaking and craft departments — not a professional media technology department. At the time, in 1984, such a department did not even exist. Dumb Type was not so much about amateurism, rather than a process of enjoyable experimentation through which its members forcefully co-opted the new media of video and computers, appropriating them according to their own sensibilities and using them in a bricolage-like fashion. Unlike the commercialism of Tokyo, Kyoto was more open towards and tolerant of experimental things. There was also the fact that a more liberal spirit prevailed in Kyoto. In a sense, it was entirely natural for Dumb Type to depart from a conventional visual language, and seek to create a new one that could take on a dissenting voice against the status quo. The collective sought to renew and update media so that they could convey a new kind of message. At the center of all this was the video artist as well as accomplished drummer, Teiji Furuhashi (then 24).
For those who had grown accustomed to the bubbly, overheated atmosphere of Tokyo during the 1980s, the disparity in temperature seen at Pleasure Life, staged at the Quest Hall in Harajuku in 1988, was perceived as a fresh burst of stimulation. This difference in temperature delivered a subtle chill that penetrated deeply: it had certain paradoxical elements that made it intellectual and stylish, yet extreme, and cynical yet seductive, as if a raw, unadorned human body had been flung into a high-tech environment. Chie Sumiyoshi notes that Dumb Type’s “highbrow art delivered a long, low intensity shock that twists and winds effortlessly into you, for both contemporary artists and those who came after them, as well as the international art scene.”
The postmodernism of 1980s Japan was based on the prosperity that had been created by capitalism: it was nurtured by the “production of meaningless difference,” featuring an excess of images and information and a saturation of things, as well as the “levelling of values” in which entertainment and politics were discussed in the same terms. In such an environment, the subject (individual) throws the object into a state of relativity: it becomes exceedingly difficult to maintain a sense of critical distance from it. In Japan, Western “philosophy” or a “sense of history with a context” does not exist. More than a few intellectuals have pointed out that calling these things “thought” and “memories” would be a more accurate characterization of the actual situation. During the 1980s, it was something of a trend to remark, “aa, karui” (“oh, how light it is”) — an indication, perhaps, that there had never been another era that so perfectly matched this floating, structureless “thought” and anti-historical attitude that severs all context. Meanwhile, the lazy audience is deeply mired in a pool of modern comfort. Although Furuhashi had always paid particular attention to the relationship between everyday life and art, he also spoke about the difficulty of artistic expression in relation to the notion of conceptualization in Japan.
“In the future, artistic expression will gradually become a part of everyday life. For example, if you are walking along the street and the landscape in front of you causes some special vision to take shape, then that will constitute an act of artistic expression.” “Interestingly, however, one becomes numb to this sensation when in Japan. It’s quite common to be faced with a situation in which one is unsure about whether something is art, or just an image.”
Furuhashi avoided getting duped by images and becoming desensitized to them, persisting with a desire to “experience” art that would exert an actual influence on himself and others (note). Pleasure Life was an artwork that offered a true reflection of the reality of Tokyo at the time. While Tokyo greeted it as a piece of entertainment, offering a vision of a utopian lifestyle of comfort from the future, European and American audiences were apparently horrified by this portrayal of the advent of a technologically enabled surveillance society. Attempting to share this new vision with an audience that lacked the receptors to perform a critical reading of politics and society “by sharing experiences,” Furuhashi’s artistic language took the form of a reflection on the times, expressed as a single environment or situation — a multimedia performance that incorporated elements of film, sound, the human body, sculpture, and architecture, as well as an installation. While the “anti” gestures and body language of the avant-garde theater and performance of the 60s ended in dysfunction, most turning around and becoming commercial theater, Furuhashi acknowledged that he was a part of wider society, diverting his attention towards the propagation of shared experiences that could project a new vision against this backdrop. His basic principle was now to assume the position of one concerned, rather than a critic from the sidelines, and to share an experience of physical sensations.
Video, a medium that has infiltrated the space of the everyday, had become a tool capable of transforming both our interior self and the exterior environment into images. In this sense, it was an effective device for sharing a sense of first-person involvement and physical sensations. The relationship between video and performance had already become developed during the 1970s. Dumb Type’s precedents included a diversity of video installations, Robert Wilson’s “theater of images,” and the performances of Laurie Anderson, which linked concept to visuality through the use of multimedia.
One of the influences on Dumb Type that came from the Japanese cultural context was Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). Formed in 1978, YMO swept the world with its brand of techno-pop music, performing the relationship between new computers and music and that between technology and humans with a deadpan, expressionless stance and minimal aesthetic — something that also exerted a profound influence on design and fashion.
In the context of how they began, the three elements chosen — a state of “dumbness” (verbal deficiency), the use of new media, and collectivity — allowed Dumb Type to embody a sharp sense of criticality under the conditions in Japan outlined above.
1) excising the script and lines associated with traditional theater, as well as conventional narrative structure
2) a reactive physicality, forcefully derived from one’s relationship with technology and machines. The perspective of this physicality is based on visual technologies that scan or sense one’s nerves or pulse. This is a representation of a new ecology that encompasses a new environment of audio-visual information generated by images and new media, and forms of control enabled by technology.
3) a flight from the privileging of the individual and the notion of the subject, as a result of collective intelligence and collaboration, backed up by a criticism of power, authority, and hierarchy
After Furuhashi’s death in 1995, Dumb Type’s practice continued in an active mode, while reflecting on various trends and movements of the time, such as the new conflicts, ethics, and movements that had emerged in an informatized world, as well as shifts in the social and psychological ecology. This essay seeks to shed some light on the “Dumb Type Effect,” while tracing how this particular movement unfolded.
"The Dumb Type effect, 1984 to the present" Yuko Hasegawa (Excerpt from the catalog text)