Dr. Duncan White interviews

Takahiko iimura(2010, London)


Duncan White: Your work seems to have always involved an engagement with the relationship between image and word - Jonas Mekas described your early film 'Love' ('Ai')(1962) as 'a film poem' - why has this connection between image and word been important to you?

Takahiko Iimura: My answer to this is anecdotal. I was first interested in poetry during my high school days. I wrote a visual poem using Japanese characters - similar to a Dadaist poem - by arranging characters visually. As you know, Japanese characters which we call Kanji are ideograms based on Chinese symbols. For instance 'Eye' is based on my first visual poem which used this character Eye at the top of the page. The character is made up of a standing rectangle with two horizontal lines in the middle representing an eyeball. In my high school days I was very desperate and thought seriously about suicide. But instead of killing myself I wrote this poem: at the top of the page I have an Eye standing and under the character there is nothing just empty space and at the bottom of the page is the same character lying down horizontally. [This is supposed to indicate an Eye jumps down from the top and fell down flat at the ground] In a way this represents another character which means 'number 4' in Japanese, which is pronounced 'c'. This sound phonetically also means 'death' so in this new form the 'visual sound' of 'Eye' actually means [erase another 'means'here] 'death'. For me this is a combination of a visual and phonetic symbol and acted as my starting point. After graduating from school I came across neo-Dada and Action painting in the early 60s and I was very much influenced by that new fashion in art. Junk (1962) was the very first film I made and it was influenced by the neo-dada Junk Art of the time. But it's a kind of film poem in the tradition of experimental film.

DW: When making Junk, were you interested in the material qualities of film and the material substitution of objects with words?

TI: To some extent yes. But I was more interested in my relationship with the objects how I participated in the scene and how I was involved. It was a question of putting myself in the work as another object.

DW: So you saw yourself as junk as well as the junk you were filming in a way?

TI: Yes (laughs) I tried to participate in some way - like with the boys fighting on the beach. So it was a kind of engaged process that I recorded. That was my starting point.

DW: You said that neo-dada and junk art were an influence on you; were there other influences on you at the time? You say you came to film via poetry and painting?

TI: That's right. I painted a few abstract expressionist pieces but I wasn't satisfied and I wanted to go further. So through the combination of poetry and painting I found this other visual form - film. My discovery was the way I could record myself engaging with the medium. This was my introduction to experimental film - which I could only read about because we had no cinematheque in Japan. We had no access to actually looking at them. Not until the mid-1960s when we got a bunch of avant-garde films of the 20s and 30s from the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris in 1965.

DW: And where were you living then?

TI: Tokyo.

DW: So your first encounter of experimental film was through writing and books?

TI: And little photographs.

DW: So the text as a kind of frame has always been important - this leads on to my next question: Writing is invisible we read but don't necessarily see words - you seem to be interested in words as objects? Making words visible? Are you interested in making the audience read rather than look - reading as 'making conscious'?

TI: I am interested in both ways - reading as well as looking at the image. Those early visual poems I made are closely related to a later work, White Calligraphy, which I made in 1967. In that film I copy an ancient Japanese story [Kojiki, 712] from mythology onto a film. I scratched a character into every frame of black leader. When it is projected it is too fast to read - so it's more the visual effect. But at the same time, as you learn how to see the film, it becomes possible to read certain characters when they appear, like the word 'God' or 'life' or 'heaven'. Such words often appear in this story - so they are more easily recognised - over time. In fact my new version of White Calligraphy has sound - my voice reading certain characters on the sound track using slow speed on DVD. It will be shown for the first time in Frankfurt [ 'Cameraless Film' at SCHIRN KUNSTHALLE , FRANKFURT June 2 - August 29, 2010] this summer.

DW: Will you read the words in English or in Japanese?

TI: I read in Japanese because the phonetic sign has no meaning outside of Japanese. But certain words also have meanings in English - such as, 'God' and 'Heaven' - so I read those in English. So it is a combination of Japanese phonetics and words translated into English.

DW: The interchange between languages in the film sounds very interesting. So there is a strong relation between reading and looking in the film. Is it because you don't really see a distinction between reading and seeing are they the same for you?

TI: Yes, like I said, many of these Japanese characters are based on a picture originally. So naturally reading and looking are something you do in combination, as a combined way of seeing the characters.

DW: Like a lot of the Structural filmmakers from the late 60s and early 70s in the UK you seemd to be interested in resisting (or even denying) the image in film - is this what got you interested in text (as a kind of anti-image) as in White Calligraphy?

TI: Well, White Calligraphy is not anti-image. In this case the image is included - not only a pictorial image but also as a calligraphy? It is based on a picture and this seems to be quit different from English which is based on the use of symbolic signs. So speaking of the structural film - I do not consider those works anti-image either. They may be a more minimal image - yet they are still image. When you close your eyes during The Flicker (Tony Conrad, 1966), for instance, you still see a faint image or even a colour through your eyelids. I made a film called Shutter(1971) which is actually shooting the shutter of a projector from the front at the different camera speed from 8 to 64 fps while making fade in / out with the device. The image I got is an eye shaped form at the center which is coming and going made by the fades. It makes flicker effects as well, but my interest is in the movement of the eye shaped image. Unlike the Flicker, I show the image in the positive and the negative one after the other. In the case of my other work, I made a film called 1-60 Seconds(1973), which is made by using the numbers 1-60 traced at certain intervals so all you see is 1 2 3 4 5 in separate frames written directly onto black leader. Between each number there is only dark. When it is projected you are very much conscious about time and this number presents each number in seconds progressing every time - one adding to the previous - so 1 2 3 in that order. But in actual fact number 3 comes after 6 seconds from the beginning because you add 1 2 3 and you get 6. So you have this dual system of duration of the individual second as well as the seconds from the beginning simultaneously. Once you are accustomed to this darkness you become aware of a whole space and the surrounding environment between the individual seconds. It's total darkness but still some perception is working in the darkness. Like John Cage said, there is no such thing as complete silence, similarly, there is no complete darkness.

DW: In terms of the anti-image idea, I was going to suggest that the denial of the image - as in the work of Peter Gidal - is more about anti-representational imagery. It seems that your work is in a similar territory in the way that you want to represent something without using representational imagery. The way in 1-60 you attempt to represent time without using photographic, or representational imagery.

TI: Right. It's a question of representational images vs the image itself. So when you are sitting in the cinema I somehow separate between 'picture' and 'image'. Picture, for me, equals representation while the image is non-representational in form.

DW: How does this difference between picture and image work - how would you define the distinction?

TI: For representation you have to have a series of pictures in order to represent meaning. This positions you outside of the picture. In the case of the image you can be a part of it (as with 1-60). The image is not necessarily outside of yourself but could be inside - with you, as it were. That would be one distinction you could make.

DW: Moving on: the use of Japanese characters reminds me of Eisenstein's ideas about the ideogram in film language(in his book Film Form) (1) Is this something you are referring to in White Calligraphy? (1) Eisenstein: 'By the combination of two 'depictables' is achieved the representation of something that is graphically undepictable… For example: the picture of water and the picture of an eye signifies to weep; the picture of an ear near the drawing of a door = 'to listen'.' Eisenstein Film Form 30. [From separate hieroglyphs has been fused - the ideogram.]

TI: I read a long time ago about Eisenstein's theory of montage and his example of the Japanese pictogram. He sees the word as a symbolic image and by combining certain characters it is possible to make another character which has a quite different meaning. This informs his analysis of the word in relation to the cinema and montage theory. In my case, White Calligraphy itself is not an analysis of the character it's more about the reading of the symbolic image and also later (as with my new work) it becomes about an engagement with the actual meaning of the word. So it's somehow shifting my focus between looking and reading at the same time - and I suppose this very much concerns the speed of the film. At first it may appear too fast but once you become accustomed, as I said, you can read certain characters. In this way I am engaging in reading as well as looking. In relation to Eisenstein's theory - I have had arguments with his ideas about montage. His reading of the characters is based on separating, or isolating each character, from the context and making another sense or meaning. This is based on silent film where certain images in sequence make another meaning and is part of what I would call 'film semiology'. This film semiology is based on narrative film. I'm concerned with experimental film which offers a quite different reading of the cinema - not based on narrative. So I wasn't satisfied with 'film semiotics' and I tried to invent my own 'video semiology' which is different from film semiotics. This is more concerned with context than with isolated images. Of the words motion picture in Japanese we call "eiga" which literally means "reflected picture." It emphasizes the state of the picture how it was presented as it is reflected on screen rather than the picture which moves. The idea comes from, I suppose, the shadow picture play which rooted in Asia long before the movie was invented. In the play people see only the screen (though there may be seats in the back from where the audience can see both the player and the screen) on which the shadow of the players carry all the story.

DW: That reminds me of your work, I am a Viewer / You are a Viewer (1981) in which your shadow is on the screen and as you move out of the way you almost invite the viewer to take up a similar position, to become part of the image.

TI: The piece was adopted from the shadow picture play in which I was a player as well as a viewer. Therefore the separation of the player and the viewer or the author and the audience was shifted from the physical to operational.

DW: So what was it that video allowed you to do that you weren't able to do with film? I was able to explore ideas about identity more with video than film because I was able to interrogate myself or engage with myself in a new way. Not necessarily in the sense of a video diary, but I use the 'subject as I' as a model not as a personality. I often use 'I' and 'You' in that relationship. Roland Barthes said: 'You are the only one who can never see yourself except as an image.' (Quote from Damien Sanville at Close Up [file:///Users/iimuratakahiko/Desktop/Interviews/InterviewCloseUP.php.html]. Also he says in 'On Reading' that 'The I that I write is not the same as the I that is read by you'. The you as a reader and the you as a writer are two different identities. This may be said also: 'The I that I say is not the same as the I that is heard by you'. This sentence concerns to my videos in which I quoted directly from Jacques Derrida saying ' I hear myself at the same time that I speak.'

DW: So was video a way of investigating that transition between I and you?

TI: In my piece As I See You You See Me (1990), I pasted these pronouns onto the monitor screen: 'I' and 'You'. And I go back and forth between the two monitors reading: 'As I see you you see me.' I am in between I and you -sometimes combined, sometimes separated - in this case you as the subject and then you as an object - in English you have this double function right?

DW: So in that piece - you become a kind of mediator between the two positions. It's almost as if you disappear even though you are very present. I'm interested in the combining of installation and performance in which - you are there and not there at the same time as you mediate between this I and you - so you're never sure who is there and who is not and what the relationships might be.

TI: But my other concern was the difference between languages - Japanese and English - I used them at the same time - sometimes in combination so the structure of the composition of the language is different in Japanese and English - there is a different relation to the object. When I read this in Japanese it is more directly related to the object you are looking at than in English. In Japanese I and You are often placed in parallel - not meditated by the predicate. Often we don't use a subject 'I' or whatever the subject is. Just by naming the object you are the object - it is defined by the speaker; by its identification. In relation to Eisenstein he never considered this relation.

DW: Yes, it's almost the opposite of montage in a way. It's about things being in combination simultaneously rather than one thing after another - which is how montage works. So Japanese composition of the sentence is very different. Does it have something to do with the role of the pictogram - the word as image - impacting on how the language is spoken?

TI: Not directly. In Japanese, the characters for I and you in feudal times were not so different - you would just add a prefix to make the word 'you.' I and you are based on the same character - only to put a prefix or honorific [' nushi' means 'I' and 'o-nushi' 'you'] and the way you use the character makes the difference. So this is more a context-based language than a word-based language.

DW: So when you use installation [video installation I = You = She/He (Whitney Museum, New York, 1979)] are you exploring this relation between context and language?

TI: Yes in a way. In the video in comparison to English I spoke the sentence in Japanese and in English one after the other, and the English translation of the Japanese, which is super-imposed, is put the English word as same order as in Japanese at the bottom of the frame, so that it is grammatically strange translation. 'As I see you you see me' in Japanese the order is 'I you see as you me see.' The object follows immediately after the subject and the verb comes at the end. And as I said that often in Japanese the subject is omitted, so that a sentence consists of without the subject only with the object, which comes first, and the verb (or the predicate) follows. I found this order is closer to what a video picture(shot) indicates in general. In video the subject is not identified unless made it explicit, only the object is seen. Once a camera is set up, the power is on, video shows the object without the operator as seen most typically in surveillance camera. I would say a video shot is not a (full) sentence as claimed by Christian Metz on his film semiology but a sentence without the subject. This is one of my argument in video semiology. (See more the detail in "A Semiology of Video," Takahiko iimura, The collected writings of Takahiko iimura, Wildside Press, USA, 1996, pp.127-162.)

DW: One of the things that interests me is the way that, in mainstream cinema, onscreen language is treated as a kind of taboo in the sound era. Once sound had been invented there wasn't any need for language on screen. Cinema became a language in itself - a visual language. But in your work and similarly in other artists' work word and images are combined to create a new relationship between image and word. And I'm wondering why you think this might be the case? Is it a strategy for interrogating the way meaning is 'written into' films in the mainstream context or whether you are trying to find a new language of film and video?

TI: Before discussing the treatment of language in modern cinema, I would like to mention that we, in the East, have a long history of combined art of picture and words in painting, in particular in scrolls, which is an ancient art of cinema. In those scrolls the picture and the words are put in parallel, side by side, not one support the other, unlike illustrated book. Also I should mention that even in mainstream cinema, for foreign language cinema, you have your language written at the bottom. This is not uncommon when I went 'art cinema' in Tokyo in the 1960s. I agree with modernist cinema, specially with experimental cinema, 'Cinema became a language in itself - a visual language.' But if you turn to post- modernist cinema, if we can categorize them, language is no longer something to be excluded, but is included. That was the year in 1976 when I wanted to produce a video semiology in video, not on paper. I had to deal with the language, not only in written but also spoken in parallel to the image. So that in "Observer/Observed" the three media of language co-exist and intervene each other. Also each medium works in different level; the image is the first to recognize the scene, next with written words which perceive the relationship in symbolized formula, and the last with spoken words which fully comprehend the structure. It was necessary to have this kind of multimedia to understand a video semiology in video. Later I published a CD-Rom of "Observer/Observed and Other Works of Video Semiology"(1999) which realized the interactive operation of the multimedia.

DW: Your work stands out from other structural work at the time because you develop a direct correspondence with post-structural theory - Roland Barthes also seems to play an important part in your thinking as well as Derrida - but when I've asked other structural filmmakers such as William Raban about the connection between Structural film and Structuralism - it's always denied.

TI: Well I see. There is no direct connection between Structural Film and Structuralist theory in the literature. So I tried to not necessarily connect them but I became more interested in post- structuralist theory - particularly in video through which I could engage myself using these texts. I chose to investigate Derrida's ideas in Speech and Phenomena - in which he said: I hear myself at the same time that I speak. I became interested in reading or literally saying these words in public as well as in the studio. I wanted to get into the textual aspect and the aural encounter of the sign. This was what led to my interest in Derrida. I became interested in the use of audio and the distinction between speaking and hearing (as well as seeing). But I wanted to do this in the context of an interrogation of the text as well. I used the idea of speaking and hearing from his text. But I went further and put myself into the work by saying the text while recording it - and this is my other investigation into this area which is not so much explored in the history of film or the video arts.

DW: I wanted to ask about your more recent work and how your relation to media has changed over time - for instance in your 2002 version of Seeing Hearing Speaking?

TI: I extended what Derrida called Hearing and Speaking to include 'seeing' so that three perceptions are combined. Although seeing is not like hearing and speaking these two perceptions happen simultaneously when you speak. Seeing is another perception independent from hearing. Yet when I say: 'I who See' in connection to hearing and seeing - once this is said rather than written - you are conscious of seeing and being seen. I was interested in how this relates to hearing and speaking. This is what is called the phenomenology of the self and I tried to include viewing in parallel to hearing and speaking.

DW: Is this something Derrida ignores - the visual?

TI: Yes, he was only concerned with speech and hearing. I modified the sentence into an endless sentence. 'I hear myself at the same time that I speak to myself at the same time…' etc… infinitely. So you go back and forth between hearing and speaking. It is another way to have the simultaneity in cycle. In terms of 'seeing', I adopted the sentence of hearing/speaking to the active and passive voices of "to see" and "to be seen": 'I see myself at the same time that I am seen.' In the image my face, who speaks the sentence, in the monitor which indicates both the active/passive voices. I, who speak as I , see myself to speak, is also seen by another self as an image. Here oneself to speak is the bridge to seeing as a visible act, and I could relate to the cycle of hearing/speaking and combined the three perceptions. In hearing or silent speaking alone I can never make them combined as they are not visible act.

DW: You seem interested in these iterations or variables - you turn language into a set of principles or linguistic variables. You take a sentence which has a variety of iterations: it can be rearranged in different ways and so you set up a logic and then you try to play out the logic of the statement through to its finality.

TI: You are talking on language, yet all the iterations or variables come with the image, not language alone.

DW: I wanted to ask you about this idea of identity in your work and the influence of Japanese art on your work. Has your interest in exploring identity through video been influenced by your exprerience as someone coming from Japan to live in America and Europe? Did that cultural experience influence your investigation of identity through video?

TI: My interest in Japanese cultural or Oriental culture is really based on a contradiction and has certainly informed my attitude to the text as such. When I say, in the piece I made with my wife, 'I am Takahiko Iimura / I am not Takahiko Iimura', it's about creating a positive and a negative position at the same time ('I am' and 'I am not'). This is very much in the tradition of Zen philosophy which openly admits to this contradiction. It is a denial of self. Yet the self denial of the image put me positive outside of the image. I am not Takahiko Iimura in the image turns me myself who sees the image as a positive if there are no plural Takahiko iimura. To live in this contradiction is a way to find something else. I accept it - to live in this contradiction - and to be positioned in terms of the positive and negative. Or as the classic example of a painting of Rene Magritte "This is not a pipe" has proved that only words can make the negation, not the image which only presents an affirmation. Or another classic case shows that a Yin and Yang circle in which a white part has a black dot and a black part has a white dot. That is a double structure of positive within negative and negative within positive makes a whole circle. In my film: 24 Frames Per Second (1975-1978), which consists of a white frame within one second of black and a black frame within one second of white, 1/24, which increases one frame every time in both directions until they become 24/24 - as you use positive and negative at the same time (in the film process) positive becomes negative and negative becomes positive in time. In these movements no and yes have no difference - only the movement between -. When these positions are fixed things are dead. Positive and negative are relative terms. We live in this kind of world, I think.

Note
Dr. Duncan White, University of Arts London.


top