A Conversation with Usaginingen
Japanese duo Usaginingen perform with a pair of large scale, hand built instrument-machines named “TA-CO” and “SHIBAKI”. Usaginingen translates literally to ‘rabbit-human”, a hybrid concept that happens to reflect their intuitive ability to dwell simultaneously, and extremely effectively, in multiple territories: cinema and music; analog and digital; screen and stage; craft and electronics. Spouses Emi and Shinichi Hirai developed the project in Berlin after moving there in 2010 from Tokyo, where they had been working—perhaps surprisingly, given the rapid success of their venture into the arts—as an advertising graphic designer and a radiologist, respectively. They have since performed in over 40 cities in 15 countries, recently making their North American debut as part of Antimatter Media Art Festival on the West Coast of Canada. They have been enthusiastically received at numerous European festivals; their performance at the 2014 Reykjavik Visual Music-Punto y Raya Festival won the award for Live Cinema. Watching Usaginingen play their machines is mesmerizing in and of itself, but their physical interactions with TA-CO and SHIBAKI are just one element of a deeply immersive experience that fluidly synergizes projections, shadows, reflections, live percussion and Ableton-structured electronic music. We met up after their Antimatter performance to discuss their work and experiences so far; both artists were present but Shinichi was more comfortable answering questions in English.
This is a really unique project. What was the genesis of it? How and why did you start working on it together?
We were married before we started the project. We moved to Berlin in 2010. Before that we lived in Tokyo, where I worked in a hospital as a radiographer and Emi was a graphic designer working in advertising. Emi wanted to live in a European country for a while at least once in our lives. We just thought it would be an experience. The first and second year in Berlin we tried to find Emi a graphic design job. We brought her portfolio with us to parties, passed it to people everywhere, but unfortunately she couldn’t get offers. The German sense is very straight and simple but Emi prefers to make more playful things. There are a lot of musicians in Berlin, though, and some of them, when they saw her portfolio, wanted to do real time performances with her. The first guy who suggested it was Japanese. He had moved to Berlin at the same time as us, so we not only had creative things in common, we had the same kinds of problems: visas, how to get internet, basically everything, because it was a foreign country. So we were kind of on the same wavelength in a lot of ways.
Many designers and visual artists might have gone an animation software or video production route when thinking about translating their work to something real time. Your machine is kind of an astonishing approach.
Emi doesn’t like to use computers and she’s actually not very good at using digital things! It’s the same in her graphic design work—she draws more, and makes more handcrafted elements. Her machine, TA-CO, has layers, so the idea was from Photoshop but it’s like a totally mechanical version of the program. And she also just had the idea that she wanted to ride something, like a bicycle. I remember the day she first showed me some really rough sketches. I thought it could be so interesting if it were real, so I asked my father to make it with us because I didn’t have any woodcutting or soldering skills. It’s not my father’s job but it’s a serious hobby for him. It’s really simple machine in the end—it has only the Plexiglas layers and the drum.
How did your music become part of things, Shinichi?
The first year, she collaborated with musicians in Berlin and I supported her—I went to the venues and helped put the machine together, sat in the audience for every performance. And then that started to get boring, so I to her I wanted us to perform together. When I was in uni I played bass guitar and I produced music a little bit. That was it. But we built a machine for me. SHIBAKI has a midi controller, percussion elements, and an electric string instrument. It has two strings. I use Ableton when performing, and Logic for the music I produce in advance, to be mixed in during the live shows.
Your performances are an incredible synthesis of sound and visuals, human performance and machine performance… you use electronic devices but what you do is so far away from just sitting at laptops. There are a huge number of components, but everything is so effectively integrated. The response from audiences has been fantastic so far. Did you have to put a lot of work into finding that kind of overall balance and flow, or did it seem to just come quite easily?
Because we were married before the project we’d already spent a lot of time together, and we are always trying to be even. I don’t want to fit my music to her visuals, or vice versa. We want to make something together. So maybe that’s one reason. We usually perform at more digital media arts festivals, so people are watching digital things all day and we’re always the exception. It seems to come across as very classic and nostalgic. The first year we tried having the visuals just projected onto a big screen, and we performed beside it. Then a guy told us after one performance that he was really tired from looking back and forth, trying to watch both the screen and us, so we thought, ok we should come forward into the stage more. We also started using shadows, reflections and light to bring the visuals out into the whole performance space, to create a total atmosphere. My music is about 50% improvised, but her machine isn’t fit for improvisation because you need to prepare all the materials for it in advance. She never remembers my music structure, so that doesn’t help her keep track her sequences! Her technique is to practice at lot and put the actions into her body as muscle memory.
You say in your brief artist statement that you “express [your] respect to the animals, nature and human.” How do those ideas — animals, nature and human—inform what you create? Are specific performances built from specific concepts or narratives?
With the first set we performed at Antimatter, Pendulum, it’s not a strict concept. but our general idea with that one is different perspectives, seeing the same thing different ways. It’s loosely based on a trip to Egypt. While we were there a Japanese journalist was arrested by ISIS. Before that, we’d felt really comfortable there. It was very new, but comfortable. After we heard that news there was an element of fear. So with this performance we tried to make something that shifted frequently and always had two faces at the same time. The second set, Bath, was created after we’d travelled to Iceland and we were thinking about global warming. So we used water, a lot of fire-like visuals.
When we lived in Tokyo, our top priority there was working. After we moved to Berlin that changed. We thought we needed more time to feel… everything… and not just be constantly rushing around, and spending money clothes. We didn’t have a job for a long time after we moved, so we talked a lot about life, japan, culture, politics—which was also, in part, because we’d touched a different culture there. Lately we’ve been thinking more that we are like a part of nature. And also she just likes animals. She has a lot of animal kitchenware and she designs animal things all the time.
You also mentioned on your blog that you find you have different reactions when you perform in difference countries?
Latin people have a very direct reaction. English people are really into the music side of things. Japanese people are really quiet during the performance but afterwards if we talk to them face to face, they tell us they enjoyed it. When we perform in European countries, people say it feels Japanese, and when we perform in Japan they say it seems quite European or German. But children, they’re all the same in how they react. They don’t ask many questions but during the performances they really respond to the specific elements: water, an apple… I remember one funny question from a junior high school student. She asked us, “What is your relationship?” She was a teenager, so of course she was interested in relationships.
In Japan we often perform in schools—from nursery schools to universities—and after the performances we speak a little. After the 2011 Tsunami I think peoples’ ideas about what they want, their ideas about what their lives are, are changing. We have many friends who moved out from Tokyo to the countryside. These performances are part of our own exploration of this phenomenon and, especially when we perform to young audiences, we want to express to them that they can try to do whatever they want. Before, it was just accepted that you go to school, go to university and go work at a big company. We used to do that. I used to work in the hospital and she had a really “good” job. But we quit. And somehow I want to show these kids the possibility of their lives.