There are some people you meet who you just know from the very first moment have a fantastic story to share, Kasumi is one of those people. Initially friends of friends, over the past year, we have grown to form our own friendship, and I always enjoy hearing about her latest creative endeavor. Sometimes that is public art shown at The Cleveland Museum of Art or the DC Tower in Vienna, Austria. Other times it is silk scarves, works on paper, a Tedx Talk, her new large-scale piece at the Rocket Morgage Fieldhouse, or her soon-to-be-released app (which is incredible and I can’t wait to share soon!). She was awarded The John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for Shockwaves, an 82-minute long experimental feature film that explores the formation of memory and our collective consciousness. Upon debut, it was deemed a “masterpiece of contemporary media art” and was a Vimeo Staff Pick for Best of the Year (you can rent it here). Oh, and she has performed twice at Carnegie Hall, published a book, and was nominated for an Academy Award for her soundtrack performance of Oginsama. Yeah…
In addition to being incredibly humble about her creative genius, the breadth of her work is what truly inspires me. And the fact that she is able to utilize so many different mediums while still maintaining her distinctive style of collage and montage. A couple of weeks ago, we sat down together to converse about all things career, curiosity, and where she finds all those crazy samples.
+ Where did you grow up?
I have grown up in many different places. In a way – you can relate to this – growing up in different countries, you try to find a common thread in your life. Especially when you live in radically different cultures – like here [Cleveland], Germany, Japan – all places I have lived. Living in a culture is about communication, and if you can’t communicate, then you are left as an outsider. You have to strip away all your acculturations and then start from scratch. But, that process also helps you get to the core of what is truly necessary for life and understanding who you are at your core.
+ At what point did you start creating art?
My earliest memories are of making art and music – so probably by about age 4. Now, everything I do incorporates all of my art forms and methods from over the years. Different techniques can be
used to say similar things, but some art methods are better at expressing certain ideas.
+ What are you trying to convey in your work?
In my collages and montages, both on paper and film, I crunch and smash together different
elements and media together. It is a reflection of those different parts of your life that you have
developed or gathered from your comings and goings. In a way, it’s like creating something out of
the thousands of facets of our lives. Your memories, encounters, things that happened to you,
people you know, things you perceive, these are what make you, you. That is what my art is
always about. I have just followed this thread throughout my life, even though along the way, I
have changed mediums.
+ Tell me about playing music.
I played baroque music, which is rich in expression, layering, and variation. The idea is to create multiple ways of saying the same thing – seeing something from entirely different angles – theme and variation. So a lot of the techniques and concepts I learned playing baroque music can be applied to my artwork. The cool thing about this weird art practice I’ve created is that I can deploy completely different methods, techniques, practices – even art forms – along the way and somehow make them all play nicely together.
+ Are you all self-taught?
Mostly self-taught, although I’ve had some fantastic teachers along the way.
+ Did you go to art school?
I went to art school, but only through foundational stuff. I dropped out and started touring around the world as a musician. I didn’t learn any technology until much later and didn’t even own a computer when I was in Japan!
+ At what point in your life were you in Japan?
Um, before here.
+ After Germany? After University?
After Germany, I went to Japan.
+ And so that whole time you were a musician?
I still did artwork but was primarily a musician, and then I started writing. I published an illustrated humor book about Japanese men.
+ So one thing led to another?
Yeah, so I got married and had a baby in Japan, eventually got a divorce, and came here.
+ To Cleveland?
Yes, I knew some people who helped me settle in. I got to work on the English version of the book. In the late-80s, it was all the “me” generation, the Sharper Image catalog, and a feeling of “let’s make money, money, money.” In other words, the Reagan era. When I was in Japan looking at all this stuff issuing forth from the USA, I was thinking, “What is this? What is going on?” So the book I wrote was an answer to that ugly American misunderstanding of what Japan was. All these books came out like “Japan As Number One” and “Business The Samurai Way,” stupid shit like that. I wanted to tell the real story of the way of the urban samurai, which was the name of the book. It’s all funny and silly, but I wanted to dispel the myths perpetuated by American Mass Media. After it was published, I developed a two-year cottage industry of Way of The Urban Samurai byproducts: t-shirts, calendars, prints, etc.
All the research I’d done for the book got me interested in doing editorial columns for newspapers talking about the Japanese economy and culture. My publisher pushed me to do it because she said it was an excellent opportunity to promote the book. So I wrote for about a year and was published in some fairly prestigious publications! It was miraculous!
+ Did you feel imposter syndrome at that point?
Hell yes. Oh my god. But I learned a kind of cool way of getting over it: I would visualize myself as an archetypal journalist – like one of those hard-boiled cigar-chomping reporters as depicted in one of those 40’s crime movies – you know, wearing a fedora – and then just become that guy. And, I cranked out the articles. It truly worked because it helped me get over my insecurities about writing – at least for newspaper and magazine articles. And fortunately, it turns out that the writing was further training structurally for making films. By this point, I had the music, the drawing, the writing, and the discipline. All these techniques and skills, and disciplines practice allowed me to develop my current art practice.
+ Did you ever plan-out which skills you wanted to develop?
Not specifically, but if I need to learn something to develop a particular piece, I’ll study, develop, and hone a new skill – like video editing. That was never anything I had planned on.
+ Because that is where your interest was going?
Exactly. When I saw how amazing video editing could be for my art, my brain nearly exploded. This started in the late 90s with my first computer. I was a total newbie, still getting used to Microsoft Word. I would be reading the manual for Premiere Pro thinking, “What does ‘timeline’ mean…?” “What’s a ‘bin?’” “What’s the ‘viewer window?’” “How do I even get the clips into the computer??” “And what’s even a ‘clip?!?’” They were completely foreign concepts to me. It was like learning how to walk.
+ How do you know when (and when not) to trust where your curiosity is leading you?
I think everyone works best if they have a purpose. When I first started getting into film, there was a lot of weird political stuff going on – the crimes of the Bush Jr. and company – and I felt that things were coming off the rails. (little did I know how much worse it would get with our current administration). I was interested in how political actors used propaganda techniques to express their ideas – for good or bad – and that led me to want to use this propagandistic form of communication in my artwork…kind of turn it around back to those who use it for evil purposes. Around the same time, I got interested in sampling and appropriation, so while my work isn’t as blatantly political as those earlier pieces were, I learned a lot of new techniques on the way.
+ Where did you find those samples?
You could buy DVDs that were like “100 public domain movies for $10,” and just painfully slog through them – the world’s most god-awful movies – and find the perfect sample of someone making a particular gesture. When I studied propaganda techniques – and there are plenty of public domain resources online – I learned how by combining powerful gestures, you can condense a complex message down to just one expression.
A particular technique I had to learn for my now distinctive style is cutting these gestures out of the background. It is a giant pain, but well worth it. There is a method called motion-masking, where you draw bezier curves around the object, enabling you to lift it out of its background. It’s actually very similar to how I make collages: carefully cutting an object from its background with scissors. It’s insanely time-consuming, but I now have thousands of these little gems that I can composite together to make my loops, video-art, and films, as well as to use in my live VJ performances.
+ When did you start showing your films?
In the early 2000’s I made a couple of short films – 2, 3-minutes – that I started sending around to film festivals. They not only were accepted but did very well and went all around the world. It was another one of those truly, crazy things.
+ Because of the technique or that political slant?
Both. Free Speech Zone was named after a Bush policy where protesters were confined to barbed-wire enclosures called “free speech zones.” I felt I’d been given a gift on a platter: I was like, “that is the name of my next film.” It was the perfect example of Orwellian “Newspeak,” now reaching even greater heights in this era of “alternative facts.”
+ What are you working on now?
An app called Shufflehead, coming soon to an iPhone near you! A collection of video-loops to be installed in a new bar in Houston. I’m doing a live show in Germany early next year, and of course, I’m always working on my stand-alone loops and some wearable products for a new e-commerce website to be released in the nearish future. Plus, I was invited to be a guest artist at the Little Italy Holiday Art Walk this year. We’ll have an opening party that includes video projections and artworks for sale on Friday, December 6 (5-9 pm), Saturday (12-9 pm) and Sunday (12-7 pm).
+ How do you stay motivated to do all this?
I think that I definitely must have some innate drive that makes me keep going. When I’m not making art, I get cranky, panicky, and depressed. For me, art is what gives form to my thoughts and emotions, my conscious and subconscious mind. And it helps me make sense of the wonder, terror, and mystery of the world but at the same time escape from it. It’s also a way for me to test the limits of my endurance and capabilities. I just really love what I do.
For more from Kasumi, follow her @kasumifilms.