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Pre-Cinema Toys Inspire Multimedia Artist Toshio Iwai

At the intersection of pre-cinematic devices and modern technology is the work of Japan's Toshio Iwai. Deanna Morse describes the work of this innovative multimedia artist.

Pre-CinemaToys Inspire Multimedia Artist

Toshio Iwai doesn't consider himself an animator. He told me this during our daily walks over the three weeks we worked together selecting competition films for the Hiroshima International Animation Festival. As we walked, we never talked about the films or the screening process. We talked about our own artwork. Iwai has been called a "cult figure" and a "truly great multimedia artist." He may not consider himself an animator, but at the Hiroshima Festival, animators were talking about his work more than they talked about any of the films in competition. Iwai is an innovative multimedia artist working with new technologies. The concepts for his installations spring from the archaeological roots of the motion picture. This intersection of pre-cinematic devices and modern technology creates a hybrid that allows viewers to reconsider the media in their modern lives. Like many children, Iwai doodled in the margins of his school notebooks and made little flipbooks on the pages' corners. He was a science buff. But, unlike many children, these were not casual interests. As a nine year-old, he had created a sketchbook with drawings of inventions, motors, propellers, light bulbs and gears. He even built hand-cranked and mechanical toys. His parents encouraged his interest in science and invention, bought him books on crafts and tools, and even joined him making toys on weekends.

Examples of Toshio Iwai's early Xeroxed Phenakistoscopes (1982).

Antiques and Modernity Collide

In college, Iwai made a scratch film and flipbooks, but then began researching the roots of cinema. He discovered three pre-cinema toys which inspired his installation pieces: the Phenakistoscope, the Zoetrope, and a hand-cranked music box. The Phenakistoscope was invented in 1832 and is attributed by some historians to Joseph Plateau. This optical toy uses persistence of vision to simulate movement. Evenly spaced slits are cut in the edge of a thin disc about the size of a dinner plate. The device is black on one side, with slightly differing drawings on the other. The viewer spins the disc and looks into a mirror at the drawings through the slits. The slits create a strobe and the illusion of movement.

In college (1982), Iwai did a series of Phenakistoscopes, using a Xerox machine to create the multiple pie-shaped images which were glued onto the black slotted disc. Much of the imagery has a Japanese reference. Strings ooze in and out like soba noodles. We see a running horse, resembling the photo studies of Eadweard Muybridge, but these have been pushed out of a layer of rice, the horse defined by the negative space. An origami-folded paper crane gently lifts wings in flight. The Zoetrope, or "wheel of life," was another source of inspiration for Iwai. This 1834 device is similar to the Phenakistoscope, but it does not require a mirror. The slits are cut into a cylinder which spins on a turntable, with strips of drawings on the inside base of the drum. In 1988, Iwai began constructing 3D Zoetropes, inspired by Etienne-Jules Marey's experiments with placing three dimensional models, rather than drawings, into the Zoetrope canister.

One of Iwai's hand-cranked 3D Zoetropes (1988).

An Iwai Experience

After hearing about his work, I was eager to see Toshio's interactive installations at the Festival. I had arrived a day early, and looked for him, ready to offer installation assistance. The signs were not yet up, but music drew me to the space. The room was darkened, but the installations were all up and running. Three Zoetropes marked the entrance, a wall of Phenakistoscopes were spinning near a bank of televisions, and, in the middle of the room, three eerie crystal domes pulsated with moving shapes and light. I felt like I was visiting a cinema museum on a spaceship. Or were these crystal balls offering a vision of the future? Whatever it was, I put down my catalog and decided to explore.

The Zoetropes could be hand cranked, and included a human figure modeled from clay, and a worm shape moving up stairs. At first, I thought the interiors were projected, and I peered over the top to assure myself that they were real models. The light seemed almost silvery, magical, and I couldn't figure out why. Later, I asked Toshio about this. I don't think this would be a trade secret - he told me the clay figures were painted with golden acrylic paint, reflected in silver paper edging the slits.The Phenakistoscopes were framed in wooden boxes, under glass, displayed as moving paintings. Curiously, there was no strobe light, or cut slits, but they were animated nonetheless. In 1990, Iwai had developed a Step Motion system. These stepping motors created intermittent movement, so that the images moved constantly, so fast that the intermittence was not visible. It was elegant, and it looked effortless. That is, until one began to question how this animated movement could be achieved without strobe lights or slits.

Iwai's Step Motion system (1990).

The "crystal ball" installations, from the Time Stratum series, were compelling. The largest piece was a pyramid-like structure. Inside, 120 little paper dolls of the artist wearing a TV head were mounted on a disc three feet in diameter, surrounding a reflective silver ball. These dolls gyrated, moved in and away from each other, turned, and rotated. It was like a crowded dance floor of choreographed clones.Three slightly smaller domes vibrated with metamorphic plants, animals and crystals. Video monitors were suspended above each dome, tube down, playing a strobe light signal with changing colors and rhythms. At one point, the video signal stopped strobing and the disc just swirled past, a blur of movement. By showing us the video strobe and the effect, Iwai intentionally exposed the technology for us. With the changing colors synchronized to music composed by Iwai, I stayed for a long time enjoying these reconfigured Zoetropes.

Time Stratum II featured 120 paper dolls gyrating around a reflective silver ball (1985).

Time Sratum III

Musical, Digital Insects

The third pre-cinema inspirational toy for Iwai was a hand-cranked antique music box. This little toy uses paper cards, punched like the rolls on a player piano. It also came with a punch, so that the owner could create their own musical punchcards. Iwai found this device intriguing -- an early depiction of "visual music."

In 1990, inspired by this technology, he created a computer game called Music Insects, as a tool for visual music performance. In the game, the player can make marks with a mouse, which are akin to the punches on the music roll. On the screen little insects react with sound, direction and color changes when they hit a mark. Later, he made a more complex version of this for Nintendo, called Sound Fantasy.

Unfortunately, this game was never launched commercially, so in 1996, he released a more developed version as the CD-ROM Sim Tunes in collaboration with Maxis, Inc. In these games, as with the hand-cranked music box, one can see the notation for the music visually on the screen, just as one does on the paper rolls that can be held in the hand. The punch one makes on a paper roll plays a note when it passes the music box. On the computer, one makes a mark, and when it passes an insect, it plays a note. But there were added elements that only could be achieved with the computer. For instance, the marks one makes not only create a sound, but also a visual animation to go with that sound. Plus, a "Starfly" insect would create music automatically. The program could also generate new music based on the player's composition.

The Permanent Works After the festival, I went to Tokyo to see Seven Memories of Media Technology, Iwai's permanent installation at the InterCommunication Center (ICC). Like seven haiku poems, these pieces combined digital and physical technology fragments, activated through a touch screen. In one, a real flipbook was under glass. As one touched the glass, a wire frame computer generated flipbook was projected on the paper pages. With one's touch, one could flip forward, backward, at different speeds. In a version of the visual music box, one's touch created small lines of light which flew onto a rotating disc. As the disc rotated past a music box, notes were played. At each rotation, some of the notes (and sound) disappeared, some stayed. I was sure I was annoying the gallery guard by making so much sound for so long. However, when I returned later to these installations, I found the gallery guard playing with the same piece.

Sim Tunes was released in 1996 by Maxis, a company well known for other simulation including Sim City and Sim Tower.

In recent years, Iwai has created several public installations, including remote Internet projects. He currently has permanent installations at the San Francisco Exploratorium, the Nadia Park in Nagoya, Japan, and the ICC in Tokyo.

Early this year, I caught up with Toshio via e-mail. He was in Seoul, Korea, building an installation at the National Museum of Contemporary Art. He would soon return to Tokyo, where he is an artist in residence at the Mixed Reality Systems Laboratory, creating new pieces for the 1st International Symposium on Mixed Reality to be held next March in Yokohama, Japan. Iwai will also install a permanent work for the new digital gallery of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, England next April.

After that? Whatever it is, it's bound to be interesting. Deanna Morse is an animator and Professor in the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University, Michigan. She serves on the International Board of ASIFA (Association International du Film d'Animation) and is President of the midwest U.S. chapter, ASIFA/Central.