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When Communication Transcends Gender Boundaries: Meet Cyborg-Wannabe Sputniko!

<p>Japanese artist Sputniko! explores gender dynamics in technology through science fiction-esque machine installations, music, and video art.</p>

As a mixed Japanese-British girl born into a family of hard-core scientists, Hiromi Ozaki’s youth was devoted to math and computer science—a natural progression considering her background. However, revelations take place when you least expect it. One day, she reached her hand out to the unfathomable stimulant called Art, and savored its taste like the forbidden elixir soma. Lo and behold, the alter ego Sputniko! was born à la Virgin Mary's immaculate conception.

Working as Sputniko!, her advances know no bounds. Her three graduation works produced in 2010 at the Royal College of Art in London were presented a couple of months later at the “Tokyo Art Meeting—Transformation” exhibition held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo alongside artists such as Jan Fabre and Matthew Barney. In July of the following year, she crossed the Pacific to show in MoMA’s “Talk To Me” exhibition in New York. While Japan continues to clings to its insular style even in the 21st Century, we can only stare green-eyed at the rapid pace with which Sputniko! blazes forward.

Sputniko!'s works center around devices and concepts that seem likely to exist but don't, with a touch of gender critique. In one of her representative videos, Menstruation Machine—Takashi's Take, Sputniko! plays a boy called Takashi who, in order to fulfill his desire to become a girl, straps on a 'menstruation machine'—a device that simulates bleeding and dull pain to mimic that of menstruation. The video follows the boy's experience with the machine from beginning to end. The juxtaposition of Sputniko! and Takashi, and the menstruation simulation machine both convey the message that gender barriers can be transcended, and that the two sexes may one day be able to see eye-to-eye.


Crobot Jenny, 2011

The Creators Project: The first time I saw your work was in 2010 at the exhibition at the MOT. Your three pieces really stood out amongst the other works, despite it being quite an expansive exhibition. I assumed that you were well into your career, but apparently that was your first public show?
Sputniko!: My first exhibition was the graduation show at London's Royal College of Art in June 2010. The three works I showed were Sushiborg Yukari, Menstruation Machine—Takashi's Take, and Crowbot Jenny. I posted a message online calling for collaborators who were interested in my ideas, and I got a lot of responses. They gave me all the help I needed to produce the three works. Then just before graduation I received an offer to exhibit the pieces at the “Transformation” show at the MOT in October of the same year.

Crowbot Jenny, 2011

The following year, you exhibited at MoMA. It seems like you're taking giant strides in the contemporary art world. Initially though, you studied math and worked as a programmer. Can you tell us about that?
I began with Visual Basic during middle school, then went onto C language and C++. During college, I got into Java and ActionScript. ActionScript is a creative programming language that not many people use, so there are fewer rivals in the market. Programmers with a science background tend to be hardcore C++ and Java users, while ActionScript programmers are usually art school graduates. I had all the basics covered from my previous education in math and computer science. Once, when I was short of funds for my graduation piece, I made quick money working as a programmer for a month.

During middle school and high school, I was devoted to math contests like the Mathematical Olympiad. When my school competed against other international schools, I won first place three times and second place twice, in the span of five years. I was a bona fide math nerd (laughs.)


Skype Song, 2008

And when you tapped into your scientifically-wired brain to create art, what resulted were works that predominantly focused on gender issues.
Compared to developed countries in Europe and America, the likelihood of women in Japan quitting their jobs upon getting married or giving birth is much higher. Despite a high percentage of Japanese women receiving higher education even amongst first-world countries, they often end up staying at home without being able to go out and work. Part of the problem is the mass media. There aren't any vocal, smart female role models making intelligent remarks. On the contrary, women tend to be depicted as petite, weak, intellectually challenged pushovers. In Japan, the majority of men favor this kind of female figure, and girls aspire to meet those expectations. I find this so frustrating. I think that in an ideal society, women should be allowed to do whatever they want to do, unreservedly.

When I was 20, I felt greatly encouraged by artists like Laurie Anderson and Miranda July. I thought that, if there are intellectual, vocal, active women like them in the world, there might be a chance for me too. That's why I'm driven to use my artworks to address taboos and sensitive gender issues that are often skirted.

Sushiborg Yukari, 2010

You not only develop devices that allow people to vicariously experience worlds unknown to them, but also create videos that portray those devices actually being used.
Both Menstruation Machine and Crowbot ultimately come from the realm of product design. My aim is to present product ideas to the world to stimulate a debate about what might happen if devices like these came into existence in the future. In essence, my main theme is to create designs that generate discussion.

During these last couple of years, society has changed due to social media, but I think the next 30 years will be dictated by biotechnology. For example, the British have recently developed artificial blood (Oxycyte). It's blood, but it's white. Blood doesn't even have to be red anymore. Someday you'll be able to choose green, yellow, or whatever color blood you want, as a fashion statement. This is the kind of world we'll be living in soon. So I think it's interesting to pose questions about the future through art, at this point in history. My Menstruation Machine video is one example of this, because it was based on the question, "What if men had periods?"

Coming up with products that seem likely to exist but don't. Sounds a bit like Doraemon (the robot-cat manga character who pulls out gadgets from the future out of his pocket.)
I actually coined the term 'Doradical design.’ You know how that Doraemon manga series depicts somewhat controversial topics in the context of mainstream entertainment? The term 'critical design' was born in England during the latter half of the 90s, but things like that had already been around in Japanese popular culture since the 60s. Amazing, right?

Healing Fukushima (above) is a pair of shoes that plant rapeseeds into soil through mechanical high heels! Stay tuned for more on this project in our upcoming video.

Text translated by Yuriko Yamaguchi. Photos courtesy of Sputniko!

@TOMOKAFLEX