An interview with Takeshi Murata

, 13 September 2016

Sitting down in his new home in Mount Washington, Takeshi Murata still has a few boxes lying about to unpack and organize, alongside a hunt for a new studio. It would all seem pretty stressful given his recent move to Los Angeles from Upstate New York, but as we speak, it becomes apparent that the adjustment should not be terribly difficult. Murata previously lived in LA in 2004, drawn to it for far more traditional reasons than its renewed preeminence amongst the international art circuit. After all, considering the legacy of artists like John Whitney or the LA-based Center for Visual Music, the intersection of animation and art has long had a home here and, likewise, Murata is best understood for his work as an animator.

Since his graduation from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 1997, Murata has been exploring the boundaries of animation as they are precipitously expanded by the increased sophistication of software, video technology and computer rendering —each allotting individual artists greater control over their own creative process. His early experimental video piece ‘Melter 2 (2003) picked up largely along the lines of the psychedelic art from the 60s and 70s, with undulating abstract shapes emerging out of a multichromatic background. Subsequent works like ‘Monster Movie (2005) and ‘Night Moves  (2012) showcased varying strains of datamoshing to dissolve notions of both narrative and physical appearance as objects are broken down and reassembled into surreal, abstract vortices, blobs and vectors.

Aside from these works, Murata has also covered narrative territory seen in his films ‘I, POPEYE (2010) and ‘Om Rider (2013-14), done in collaboration with musician Robert Beatty. Most recently, he presented a solo show called Second Nature of video and digital prints at Kasia Michalski Gallery in Warsaw, Poland, which included digitally-rendered prints that some might remember from Oneohtrix Point Never’s video for ‘Problem Areas (2013).

Takeshi Murata, Second Nature (2016). Photo by Marek Gardulski. Courtesy Kasia Michalski, Warsaw.
Takeshi Murata, Second Nature (2016). Photo by Marek Gardulski. Courtesy Kasia Michalski, Warsaw.

As the field of animation moves further into the digital process, it is important to note that Murata started off very non-digitally, working frame-by-frame with film and without the aid of computers. He graduated with a degree in animation from RISD one year before computers were introduced into the animation curriculum. He still fondly remembers shooting 35mm film with the massive Oxberry camera to achieve the kind of panning and motion effects easily done now with any range of software available on a laptop. While the transition to computer processes has greatly eased the amount of labor and resources necessary to produce animated work, Murata continues to appreciate the attention to physicality from his educational background, and this sensibility is seen in some of his most recent work.

As we chat, it becomes very apparent that the process of animation, at least for Murata, is not just the realization of a vision, but the conception and articulation of vision —something that is born of an incredibly rigorous process that nonetheless carries the immediacy, unpredictability and ephemerality of other time-based media such as music. In addressing this balance between the ephemeral and the preconceived, Murata and I begin to chat about his recent work, close collaboration with musicians and, ultimately, how he continues to explore the visual language of animation as it evolves further away from the cells and film where it all began.

I was looking at some of your earlier work and noticed the glitch process that you were using. There was the ‘Night Moves’ piece where the camera goes into this room and all the figures become anthropomorphic and tear apart and come back together. It’s interesting to see an evolution in your work to something that’s photorealistic from earlier when you were using technology as a blurry, obstructionist and diffusive process. Is this kind of how you have used your tools throughout your career in that you’re moving towards this direction?

Takeshi Murata: I’m glad you see that, I feel like there’s always been clearly psychedelic roots. I was so interested in altered perceptions of things and getting outside of my normal constrained way of seeing and existing. Early on, especially, that was really exciting to me. The glitch stuff was this kind of methodical process that existed. Actually I was in LA, when we lived here before, just downloading and seeing that happen, the early kind of initial feeling of having something that you’re looking at shift slightly. The new compressions were doing it in a way that was different from analog, in that it had that same kind of tactile feeling to it. Most of the time it was maintaining the movement or maintaining some kind of quality of the original that could be seen. So that shift could be, once you got into a completely abstract space, you were still seeing it and experiencing it as something that was representing what it was originally, if that makes sense.

Where the shift started to happen was I started to want to build more, it was more about breaking down things and examining things that existed and I became more interested in building these kinds of spaces and experiences that coincided with the advances of technology, of CG animation and those tools. That was just kind of a great timing because it allowed for that to happen and also allowed to happen with one person —which I should add is an important part to not be have to hire a team of people —I could just still do it in my studio or my room at that time.

One thing I’m hearing too is that basically the idea of psychedelia was really important in that framework. Do you look at psychedelic art or look at surrealist art and try to channel those ideas into this narrative you’re constructing in your work?

TM: I did a lot. Especially in those early times it was very exciting to see it a lot, especially the filmmakers when I moved out to LA. I had never seen these guys like the Whitney Brothers or Jordan Belson, these animators that for me were much more about the experience. They had this show called Visual Music at MOCA, that had a lot of that work and was really inspiring to me at the time that this work had existed. There was this huge history I was unaware of, so there was psychedelic artwork for one.

The other thing in the culture was music sharing, all of a sudden I remember getting on these private servers where these dudes were ripping psych albums that no one had heard. It was insane. It kind of paralleled the time maybe in the 60s where psychedelia was a fertile area for people to be working and experimenting. It wasn’t necessarily new drugs as much, or as radical in politics and social change, but there was something about this moment, there was something really in the air that was feeling connected to those things.

Because it also seems like it’s getting at this idea of things being synaesthetic, the idea that a certain medium can convey another medium. Something visual can actually kind of infer something that is auditory too.

TM: I’ve always been interested in sound. I guess it has always been the model because it’s so immediate and abstract and understandable and all these different things. Whereas visual artwork is more challenging I think, with video and motion and movement, working in time allows for that to be a little loosened for me. Maybe because I’m coming from a visual side but it’s always about getting towards that kind of immediacy of music and using those same kinds of tools —that rhythm and volume or even key and pitch, those things that are sound but can relate to visuals and video. So when those are the primary focus of components in video, and you can avoid other things that are powerful in video like narrative—which in my later work I’ve gone kind of a different direction with —I think the synaesthetic can happen.

Do you see a 1:1 to what you’re using and producing, or is it different? How important are your tools to achieving this kind of product that you’re creating?

TM: It’s funny because film has always been completely tied to it. One of my more recent works is this sculpture that animates, [‘Melter 3-D’], have you seen it?

Takeshi Murata, Second Nature (2016). Photo by Marek Gardulski. Courtesy Kasia Michalski, Warsaw.
Takeshi Murata, Second Nature (2016). Photo by Marek Gardulski. Courtesy Kasia Michalski, Warsaw.


TM: So that’s using a really old technology of animation and that’s one of the few things I can think of that’s not tied to too much technology. But that’s one of the things that in early experiments like zoetropes, they didn’t rely so heavily on technology, but then as soon as film happened, it heavily relied on technology. And a lot of the people that I look to whose work I’ve admired started in those early times and were tied to the technology and really worked with it. With video, thinking about Nam Jun Paik getting the first Sony Portapak, he got the first video camera and it was completely tied to his work. You saw that with Steina Vasulka too.

I think because it’s so rooted in technology it makes sense to me to try to keep up and continue to see where it’s going. It’s exciting, I love having that element that there’s a totally different way of having to work with software and have to understand these things alongside my work. The way those things can kind of come together is really exciting. Now especially where you can do it all yourself. It’s not completely that way but it’s the closest we’ve ever been. It’s personal, I think there’s these personal, very personal animations in film that can be made more easily than I think they were in the past, which is exciting.

I wanted to talk about how you reference horror. I know artists who really like horror and are interested in its psychological characteristics that they use to bring out aspects of their own subjective past. In mining that idea, is horror for you a convergence of psychological alongside visual ideas or is it more or less one or the other?

TM: They’re tied together. I try to trust instinct with looking at visuals with why I’m interested in a certain visual thing… I try not to analyze it too much because I feel like you’re trying to figure things out and that it wouldn’t benefit the work. It’s kind of better to be interested in it to me and then see what weird stuff that is, and maybe it exposes something about yourself. Just kind of go with that. I find if I try to find out, ‘Well, why I’m interested in that, what does that mean?’ too early in the process it kind of kills some things. It’s kind of a way to be less guarded with work.

I love horror, I guess there’s a couple different reasons, the reason something is horrific or affects you is often something tied within your own psyche, what your fears are. And then there’s this side that’s fun to have that and fun to see that. It’s enjoyable and it can be poppy in this way. I love the fact that that’s the history of it. My favorite horror movie films are completely psychological but also super popular. It’s not like other forms where you delve into it it gets less and less popular. There’s something in the subconscious or subconsciousness of the culture, the better the things does. I think it ties a similar thing to me as comedy. It’s another thing that when it hits right it can really connect with people.

What I find interesting too is you’re coming from a different perspective to a lot of digital art in terms of producing things through digital means. There’s a lot of other people out there who are producing and playing around with the aesthetics of presentation, like commodity aesthetics. It seems as if your work isn’t playing with that idea. How might you characterize the way you use digital means of production and how do they correspond with you versus how they might correspond with some other artist?

TM: I’m trying to think about what I’ve seen. I guess as far as a critical idea, I try to avoid direct critical or political or philosophical directions to the way because I feel like that’s not what I’m good at. I feel like had I been a philosopher, if I could have ever been a philosopher, I would probably be writing dissertations. I wouldn’t be trying to make a print of it. So ultimately I try to stick with something that I know, a visual language that I can use to express and connect that I’m relatively proficient at and use to explore my own personal interests. I’d much rather make something and not know what it is than know what it is, like trying to tell someone something. I’m not trying to be didactic. I love work that’s horrible. Like, what’s the title of the magazine?

Aqnb? Atractivoquenobello–I think it means attractive but not pretty.

TM: Yeah that’s sort of the direction that I’m going towards. Something that’s attractive but horrible![laughs]**

Takeshi Murata is a Los Angeles-based artist. His solo exhibition Second Nature was on at Warsaw’s Kasia Michalski gallery, running June  to July 28, 2016.

Header image: Takeshi Murata, ‘OM Rider’ (2013-14). Photo by Marek Gardulski. Courtesy the artist, Salon 94 + Kasia Michalski, Warsaw.