I. Memory Preserved
I was born in the island nation of Japan and spent my early childhood years in the Bay Area in California. Being born to the water and spending the formative years of adolescence by the ocean imprints a certain physiological ember of presence. On the weekends, my father would frequently take our family down to the water. I remember the hikes on Colwell Ranch Beach, seeing the artichoke fields by the access trail, their verdant tufts contrasting with the matted gold gravel of the path. Some weekends we would be down in Santa Cruz, fishing off the pier, watching the glow of the pendular electric motorized metal arms of the Typhoon swing up and down and around while the silhouette on the fading paint along the wooden tracks of the Giant Dipper basked in the golden sun. The click clack and swoosh of the roller coaster cars would murmur on the pier as they careened through the twists and turns. The scent of bait and freshly caught fish permeated the space while the cacophonous symphony of sea lion chants would syncopate and be released from the wooden beams below. On rare occasions we would find ourselves staying overnight at the southern end of Monterey Bay. Walking Cannery Row, I recall the long abandoned industrial buildings left to decay in the breeze before hitting the stretch of buildings which had received a facelift. Before entering the aquarium, the serenade of the Peruvian wooden flute players would welcome visitors.
Like the breath passing through the instruments, a similar flush of air sifting through wood would be felt on the other end of the aquarium, watching the tidal waters ebb and flow from the observation deck. Sea otters and fish would find themselves isolated on their own rooftop villa of sorts before the tide would eventually call them back home.
It is the eve of summer of 2018, and I find myself standing on a bluff just off the parking lot near Land’s End in San Francisco. There is a strong wind howling off the Pacific Ocean and it is drifting through the bright, brick-red arches of the Golden Gate Bridge into the San Francisco Bay. The thick layer of fog, affectionately named Karl the Fog, still hovers over the slumbering tide. It was there, looking out over the water that the first synapses of synesthetic response fired. Carried within the pebbles of mist in Karl’s blue gray coat, the rich concoction of salt spray with notes of the nearby Monterey Cypress and faint peppering of the distant eucalyptus passes through my airways. At that moment, I cannot help but simply stand there for a few moments and simply inhale more and take the elements deeper with every breath. My eyes slowly scan the water as if reading text on an immaculate scroll, written in an illegible but understandable text, like a gesture that feels natural, but no one else understands. This unique texture in its pixelated granules of mist excites the embedded physiological response—a latent self in that brief moment becomes aware of its surroundings and the bond between body and land becomes intertwined. When one is asked about home, the typical answer is a geographic location on a map, but home can also be something much more intricate and fleeting. It can be subtle and made up of multiple elements, fragmented yet contained, and as fleeting as the sun’s light to the rolling waves of fog.
II. Writing Homes
Regarding image capture through a lens, the level of sharpness and clarity of the resulting image are always revered as markers of quality and intrigue. At the time when I was receiving my undergraduate education, full high definition was becoming more accessible and the norm for video production and viewing. While many were enthralled by the precision of the image represented, I was drifting in the opposite direction. In the process of securing the clarity and sharpness of the linear forms within the frame, this came at the expense and reduction of noise. As my eyes scanned the high-definition frame, the imagery, while noticeably sharper and higher quality, also felt sterile and flat.
This is not to say I refused to adapt to modern technology and shoot using high-definition cameras. Rather, this simply posed a challenge in the work required in post-processing to achieve the desired result. In my 2017 work, Schrödinger’s Cat Part I, I took the compiled clips of high-definition video and worked to write the noise back into the image. This process included writing the original digital footage back on analog tape formats before re-digitizing it for the final video file. While each pass through to a lower resolution video format distorts the image, and in technical terms is a form of image degradation (similar to the way in which saving to a JPEG image file or mp3 audio format goes through a form of lossy compression), to me it is the opposite effect. In mere technical specifications and visual representation, the image slowly becomes illegible from its original crispness of high definition, but to me, this loss of visual clarity, from a technical standpoint, is because there are layers of emotional and narrative complexities infused in the original raw and blank slate of the high-definition frame.
With each granule of digital noise or the passing through of each aberration in the magnetic tape of VHS comes a hint of the salt spray and the spikes of Monterey Cypress and eucalyptus—a richness and complexity packed into little digital blips on the screen which blankets the original frame, as the particles of mist fog the clarity of view over the San Francisco Bay.
And today, just over a decade beyond the standardization of high definition in video playback, we are in an era of increasing the integer value preceding the letter K in image resolution. This number represents the number of thousands of pixels which stretch along the horizontal length of the frame. The capabilities of cameras and screens to represent higher quality images is only accelerating. Current consumer cameras are capable of recording 6K and 8K imagery, and it will not be too far off until we see 16K resolution become readily available. As the image resolution capabilities of video recording become higher and the images become sharper and clearer, there approaches a point where the image on screen appears to be finer than what our naked eyes perceive of the actual world. While this may not be the case in actuality, the sense of hyperreality which resolves in the newest video cameras reminds me of Masahito Mori and the concept of the “uncanny valley.” This principle refers to the field of robotics and the human emotional response as robots became more humanoid and lifelike. Mori hypothesized that at a certain point, human emotion would shift to a negative space when a realization of falsehood is recognized. An example is when a limb originally thought to be real is upon closer inspection revealed to be a prosthetic. This emotional descent is what Mori referred to as the uncanny valley. As image resolution becomes increasingly refined, I cannot help but feel we have crossed over the sterile horizon occupied by full high definition and entered the uncanny valley of the hyperreal. By accentuating and exaggerating the sharpness of image resolution in their raw material, perhaps contemporary video recorders can once again have utility. As we navigate a world anxious over topics such as the climate crisis, perhaps the eeriness and revulsion of uncanny clarity can speak a visual language which resonates with and creates an emotional (dis)harmony with viewers of video works.
III. Electric Moonlight & the Language within the Leaves
My most recent film is an eight-minute short entitled, Electric Moonlight & the Language within the Leaves. The film serves as a modern retelling of the Japanese folk tale of the bamboo cutter and the moon princess. In the tale, a bamboo cutter cuts down and finds a newborn baby inside a stalk of bamboo. The man and his wife raise the child as their own and as she grows older, she is pursued by male suitors each of whom she rejects. The child eventually reveals herself to be the moon princess and returns home to the moon at the tale’s end. In my retelling, the moon princess is an independent botanist who seeks the guidance and wisdom from the trees to return home. The trees act as silent observers and recorders of knowledge of the cosmos as they grow skyward through the years. The prospect of using trees as a reserve of knowledge came from scientific research on the communicative abilities of trees through mycorrhizal networks as evidenced by scientists like Dr. Suzanne Simard, and through poetic observations by Henry David Thoreau. In a winter journal entry Thoreau observed how the sun moved through the ice on the pines and how, when doing so, it acted as if some electricity and divine awakening was passing through them.
I became fascinated by the prospect of utilizing the speculative and nonhuman communication as generative narrative material. For a work that relied on trees as a messenger, it made sense to return to analog film. With most motion picture film being constructed of an acetate base, it felt conceptually apt to transcribe the stored language within the leaves back onto a surface partially built from plant material. When the botanist moon princess holds a microphone up to a tree and carefully listens to the instructions on how to get home, I wanted to have this language course through in a powerful, almost violent storm. Using the Super8 camera’s native speed of eighteen frames per second, this effectively limits the photographic shutter speed to capture each frame at 1/36th of a second, a relatively slow speed. By quickly whipping the camera across the treescapes, this created streaking and kinetic blurs of the green-yellow leaves and blue white of the sky. In creating these electrified passages, I hoped to somewhat recreate what Thoreau may have seen when noting a heavenly presence passing through the pines.
Upon receiving the message hidden within the leaves, the film concludes with the image of the moon princess by the water looking out on the expanse of the horizon as the waves wash ashore. As the princess looks out, the embedded grain of the film image rolls across the frame, containing within it a cosmic intelligence that is yet to be translated into our common tongue. And as I draw this essay to its end, I find myself sitting along the rocks of the Eastern Promenade in Portland, Maine, looking out toward the horizon with the finite resolve of my naked eye, reflecting upon the essence of materiality in my practice as I have expressed in these pages. And as I gaze out into the distance I am once again approached by the scent of the brine and oceanic vegetation wafted by a cool sea breeze, rekindling the presence of being.
Constellations of grain and noise wash ashore from the distant horizon, a meeting place of where I have been and where I am to go.
Mori, Masahiro. “The Uncanny Valley: The Original Essay by Masahiro Mori,” IEEE Spectrum 9 Feb. 2023.
Higgins, Richard. “Calling the Pines to Life.” Thoreau and the Language of Trees. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017 (see p. 109).
Image at top: Takahiro Suzuki, Land’s End, San Francisco, iPhone photograph, 2018.