Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 6, 2023
Miryam Sas Feeling Media: Potentiality and the Afterlife of Art Durham: Duke University Press, 2022. 320 pp.; 53 b/w ills. Paperback $27.95 (9781478018490)

In the introduction to their edited volume Media Theory in Japan (Duke University Press, 2017), Marc Steinberg and Alexander Zahlten ask “What happens if the very conditions of thinking mediation arise from the particular media and media cultural forms with which we interact?” (6). For them, the answer was to “resist the universal language of theory in favor of a contextual and unstable practice of theory, without giving up on the belief that theorization—of media or anything else for that matter—is an indispensable tool with which to grapple with our times” (6). Steinberg and Zahlten look to media praxis, or “practices of theory” (7) to push against both universality and flattened cultural stereotypes.

In Feeling Media: Potentiality and the Afterlife of Art, Miryam Saswho contributed an essay to that earlier volume—picks up this methodology, combining theory with praxis to chart a halting trajectory from the late 1960s and early 1970s moment to the post-Fukushima condition of experimental media practices. To do so, Sas focuses on the evocation of feeling or affect as a response to the dehumanizing effects of the increasingly mediated social conditions and overwhelming infrastructures faced by ostensibly free subjects in liberal-democratic high-capitalist Japan from the 1960s information society to today’s social media moment. The urgency of this task for her is articulated in the introduction: “This book teases out the places where artists and critics grappled directly with a problem that we continue to feel strongly now: how to maneuver or put together a life, to create or simply survive within bigger structures that may overwhelm and that clearly take place at a level or scale beyond the individual, and also beyond local community” (3). Thus, she rightly looks to the existential crises artists and activists faced in the wake of the 1960s season of protest as a parallel for the sobering post-Fukushima mood of contemporary artistic production.

To deal with the conjunction of the personal with the infrastructural through the work of artists, Sas turns to the idea of “affective scale” to bridge the distinction “between the localized and the ambient, between first and third person, or individual and larger fields” (6), characteristics used theoretically to differentiate emotion from affect. On a practical level, this leads her to combine close readings via case studies with narration of condensed historical contexts that articulate the larger structural problems conditioning each work. While these historical contexts do some of the work of bridging the gaps between each case study, the temporal and genre jumps are still uneven leading the book to function more gesturally than fully narratively. Her characterizations of the larger storylines read as accurate, but we get a limited set of examples to illustrate these narrative arcs. In this sense, Sas’s book rests on the recent work of other film, art, and media historians—including K. Yoshida, Sakamoto Hirofumi, Hirasawa Gō, and the other writers mentioned in this review—that attend to finer-grained historical analyses. Although based on specific observations about atmospheric parallels between two historical moments, Feeling Media reads as a philosophical analysis of art: historical examples stand in service of and amend theory, but do not appear to drive the overall argument.

Feeling Media is split into two halves addressing historical and contemporary moments. Her first chapter deals with the arrival of intermedia in the late 1960s through the lens of the largest Cross Talk / Intermedia event in 1969, setting up intermedia’s engagement with large-scale infrastructures by tracing cross-genre experiments. Starting from Yamaguchi Katsuhiro’s Vitrine (1950s) series and Jikken Kōbō’s Ginrin (Silver Wheels, 1955) through Matsumoto Toshio’s documentary theories set next to his Ishi no Uta (1963), she turns her attention to sound works for the latter 1960s events From Space to Environment and Cross Talk / Intermedia. While bringing new readings to some familiar works, the chapter also introduces new works from familiar exhibitions. In a seminar, it could easily be paired with analyses of 1960s genre-crossing practices by Midori Yoshimoto, Miki Kaneda, Julian Ross, or Yasutaka Tsuji to consider how radically attention to different aspects of a practice, discourse, or event can shift our view of intermedia.

The second chapter addresses filmic mediation through experimental animated works shown at Sōgetsu Art Center and Art Theater Guild in the 1960s, with a heavy emphasis on Walter Benjamin’s analysis of violence as a framework for understanding the aesthetics of Ōshima Nagisa’s experimental film Ninja bugeichō (Tales of the Ninja, 1967). This gives her reading a much more allusive flavor than analyses of the mechanics of animation by Thomas Lamarre or of limited animation by Yuriko Furuhata, an approach that more readily supports Sas’s discussion of affective scales.

Although it covers much of the same ground as her contribution to Media Theory in Japan, chapter three deals in more depth with the reactions of Japanese cultural critics and media theorists to Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s 1973 visit to Japan. The chapter’s attention to theoretical discourse and media infrastructure, especially from Nakahira Takuma, could be interestingly juxtaposed with a chapter from Franz Prichard’s Residual Futures or Furuhata’s Climatic Media. Whereas Sas’s first chapter grants intermedia artists some leeway in the efficacy of working with institutional power to critically address the scale of infrastructure, though, here Sas emphasizes the Marxist critiques of cultural critics over the more practical responses of media practitioners, in the end characterizing these historical media experiments as aligned with the loss of radical activist energy in the 1970s.

This allows Sas to preface her analysis of Ishiuchi Miyako’s photographic practice in her fourth chapter with a shift to more intimate points of entry into social infrastructure, setting up a parallel between the sense of loss in the 1970s and that of the post-Fukushima moment. Focusing on Ishiuchi’s practice from the late 1970s through the mid-2010s, this chapter feels like a radical departure as it follows a longitudinal analysis of a single practice rather than reading a historical practice through one or two case studies. By contrast, the flurry of contemporary artists (five in all, all featured in the 2013 iteration of the Mori Art Museum’s Roppongi Crossing) addressed in a similar number of pages in chapter five reveals Sas’s desire to address undertheorized subjects despite her apparent discomfort with drawing primarily on work sans critical texts.

Chapter six returns to historical material to address ideas of community and collaboration through artworks and artists’ writings, ostensibly as a critique of contemporary artistic practices. While her historical analysis of critical perspectives on community contributes to scholarship on both the political stakes of art and the historical precedents for ideas central to socially engaged art, her engagement with contemporary practice is uneven. She mentions a few new examples of recent works (from Japan and abroad) that mobilize collaboration, but the links between these practices are unclear and represent only a small corner of a vast field of production. Beyond these, she deals with artists from chapter five through their artworks, but not through any of the contemporary writings or debates on community identity or collaboration (a hot topic in the socially engaged art sphere) by artists, curators, cultural critics, or art producers in Japan over the past decade. Thus, while enlightening on a historical front, this chapter reads more as a retreat to the familiar ground of Japanese engagements with poststructural theory than an attempt to find resonances with the contemporary moment on its own terms.

Notably, over the span of the book there is a shift in her focus from artists and theorists engaging with cutting edge technology in the 1960s to those who engage critically with media and infrastructure through often anachronistic methods or formats. Multichannel electronic sound combined with projections on inflatable surfaces and experimental animation techniques of the 1960s give way to daguerreotypes, woodblock prints, and large-format photography (alongside video and assemblage) in the contemporary moment. Thus, despite the oft-remarked affective ecology of social media, we only glimpse such media contexts obliquely: in the electronic glow of screens in Asakai Yōko’s photographs or the explosion of Twitter birds from a URL-engraved manhole-cover-like magic circle in Kazama Sachiko’s black-and-white woodcuts. Instead, global contemporary art is the circulatory context of the media practices on which Sas largely focuses in the latter half of her book. The contexts of Sogetsu Art Center, pre-Expo ‘70 intermedia events, and art press discourse set up a quasi-art institutional context to parallel Ishiuchi’s later uptake by biennials and museums alongside the contemporary artists of chapter five. However, the matches across time periods are not clean: the film, intermedia, and media theoretical practices of the 1960s and early 1970s often exceeded or actively resisted the kinds of art institutional sites her contemporary artists are absorbed within, even when these earlier experiments were sanctioned by state or corporate authorities. Still, the advantage of this approach is that Sas is able to address the idea of global contemporary art circulation “as the infrastructure” within which her examples of post-Fukushima Japanese artists work.

Sas’s strength lies in her ability to tie theoretical insights from both Japanese and Euro-American critical theory to close observations of works of art. Her discussions of Yuasa Jōji’s sound work or Ishiuchi’s polaroid series are pleasurable to read and theoretically convincing. But at times important details are missing or misleading (for instance artist Iimura Takahiko is listed as Iimura Takashi, a critic’s reception of a performance by Niwa Yoshinori is applied to a photographic series without noting the shift in context). None of these significantly impact her larger arguments, but it is a caveat close readers should bear in mind. Ultimately, Feeling Media is an important contribution to the longitudinal theorization of localized media practices, providing an alluring proposal for how to coherently address cultural specificity without slipping into cultural essentialism.

Nina Horisaki-Christens
Postdoctoral Fellow, Getty Research Institute