Sputniko! interview: “I just can’t stop crossing borders”

Sputniko! is an artistic name based both on technology (Sputnik) and surprise (o!): and that is in some way a good definition for her work too, mixing design, technology, art and many other disciplines to cause our amazed surprise and constant delight. Hiromi Izaki, real name of Sputniko!, mathematician by career and artist by profession, seduced us with the softness of her manners and the strength of her ideas during our conversation at Sónar +D Barcelona. An Assistant Professor at renowned MIT Media Lab, while keeping her allure of “Woman of the Year 2013” by Vogue Japan Magazine, she shared with us her thoughts about technology, design, art, pop culture, and society in the world to come.

P.N. You are constantly mixing different areas from video to music to technology: how do you like to define your creations and installations? Is that wide mixing of techniques something deliberate to enhance your message, or just a way to feel comfortable to develop your work?

S. If I need to explain what I do and why I work with so many media, also working with many different genres of people, I think that artist would be a very convenient word that covers everything for me. I guess the reason why I work in so many different formats is that I have always been a hybrid, I grew up mixing techniques. I like just working with different ideas and genres because it give me an inspiration. I just can’t stop crossing borders, I just like it.

P.N. Music usually is pretty important in your works. So, now that we are at Sónar Festival it’s the right place to ask you about the power of music as one of your tools?

S. I think that music is a great way of spreading an idea or a message. Music creates special moments for everyone: I think that everyone has an special music that was playing in some special moment. It is very personal, but it also has the strength to motivate people into action: for instance, you could see Youtube videos of Arab Spring protesters dancing with their music.

P.N. It is way more direct than other medias or other arts…

S. Yes, music is more direct. Music is closely related to passion, connecting together, spreading an idea… that’s what it’s special.

P.N. Your Menstruation Machine is a way to show real life through technology. But in some ways it seems that machines are making us separated from real life. How do you live this paradoxical relatioship between technology and real life?

S. I almost feel that technology can be considered as life, too. In some way I think it is dangerous to say that everything using a smartphone is unnatural and everything about jungle is natural. From my point of view it is just a new natural that has been been created. For instance, phoning used to be “technology “when it first appeared but right now we consider it “natural”… By my hand, I just embrace technology as a reality.

P.N. Maybe we are arriving at a point where technology is not that important, it is as sheer as electricity…

S. I feel that too, technology is just everyday life, it is not even special. And by the other hand there are so many different cultures, nationalities, development stages… The kind of technology considered relevant is not the same throughout the planet. The way technology fits in everyday life it’s so completely different within our culture. But also you find it everywhere, and it is difficult now to define which ones are different or new, you just can’t pinpoint it.

P.N. The Moonwalk Machine – Selena’s Step is one of your works with an special emphasis on empowering young women. Once you said something like “You don’t need to be an angry feminist to show the girls power”. Is feminism an obsolete attitude? What would be your message for young women of today?

S. I grew up in Japan where still there are different genre roles, more rigid than in Europe. When I was in Japan I published a teenage self-help book,  <<The Power of Odd  One Out>>: it is teenage self-help, but also the content is very Sputniko!, very radical. I’m very interested in getting more girls think that they can live their lives as they want, they don’t have to fit in an stereotype of being… Specially in Japan I would really like to have less conservative female roles, because at the moment in Japan 60% women leave their jobs after they have children and it is difficult to retake their professional careers after this. If you go to Japan big companies they are all men, top managers, politicians are all man… And sometimes a young girl can think that even if she works hard she won’t get it, so it is not worth it. That’s why I want more girls to feel that they can do it if they just feel more brave! I’m 28 now and I’m not that much older, so if you find someone close to your generation speaking her own opinion and being in public, they see that I don’t want to teach “girls, this is how to behave”, what I want it’s to encourage them and work together to change the world. I feel that we can change the world even if we feel all Japanese men are like this (laughs).

P.N. – Unfortunately your book <<The Power of Odd One Out>> is not available in english yet… We hope it will be available soon, so may we ask you to tell us briefly about the topics of the book?

S. It has sold more than 40 thousand copies in Japan, which is a crazy figure! The book tells my life, how I grew up in Japan, my studies, how I became Sputniko!. It explains how I have been a hybrid between British and Japanese cultures: in Japan I was bullied for not being wholly Japanese. Then I went to school  and I loved science and all the geeky stuff, but all the girls were more “cheerleaderish”… The whole book is about the sensation of not belonging. But if you work hard in what you believe, you can actually start to make your own “empire”. And MIT Media Lab is like that kind of place: they give real value to someone who you can’t define in a genre. In a way I was always not fitting in, but I think that’s the reason that I and MIT Media can cling together.

Sputniko! portrait (Photo: Naoki Ishizaka)
Sputniko! portrait (Photo: Naoki Ishizaka)

P.N. Could you tell us about your work at MIT Media Lab, the Design Fictions Project?

S. That’s the new research group I have created. Our mission is designing for debate, we design different sort of futures: what is the future like this, what is the future like that,  what the world could be… Usually when people hear the word “Design” they think about making something useful or something beautiful… but we are people thinking about design to solve problems, we engage in design to question about the world around us, what’s the world we are living in, how to think about it: that’s Design for Debate is the word. Something else that I’m interested into is the new sort of pop culture online. “Popular” has a bad name I think, probably because in the 80s very few people appeared in media and magazines, but now you like everyone has access to media: popular used to be the commercial, unchallenging, uncritical thing; but now you could make something very critical or very controversial and popular if you really work at it, you don’t even need funding. So I make work that it is difficult, and controversial, and challenging, but I deliberately put it in a pop language. It is accesible, but that’s how you get the discussion happening outside art museums. So in Design for Debate we are making debate available, spreading it. Viral media is very interesting as well…

P.N. – In Crowbot Jenny you said something like “can we make something crazy happen”…Let’s twist the question a little bit: talking about bits and atoms, can we make something crazy happen still?

S. Well, It could be anything… I’m not a very serious person, so I won’t say anything very serious like “saving the world” or something like that. Doraemon is my favorite cartoon character, it is a blue robotic cat who takes gadgets from his pocket… He’s amazing, he’s my mentor! Because he’s a critical designer, and he’s very pop. Something crazy with bits and atoms? I would create my own Doraemon!

PostDigital Node

2 thoughts on “Sputniko! interview: “I just can’t stop crossing borders”

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