New York and o.blaat: No Absolute Good-Byes

Based in Brooklyn, New York, Keiko Uenishi, a.k.a. o.blaat is a sound artist, composer, and core member of SHARE. She is known for her sound works formed through experiments in restructuring and analyzing one’s relationship with sounds, through kinesthetic response as well as aural cognition.

poster for Whitney Biennial 2008 Installations at Park Avenue Armory

Whitney Biennial 2008 Installations at Park Avenue Armory

at The Whitney Museum of American Art
in the Villages area
This event has ended - (2008-03-06 - 2008-03-23)

In Interviews by Ann Adachi 2008-04-23 print

Based in Brooklyn, New York, Keiko Uenishi (a.k.a. o.blaat) is a sound artist, composer and core member of Share, a multimedia open jam in the East Village (http://share.dj/). She is known for her sound works and experiments in restructuring and analyzing one’s relationship with sounds through kinesthetic response as well as aural cognition. She moved to New York from Japan in the late 1980s and since then has been exploring her curiosities.
Seventh Regiment Armory
On a recent magical evening, Keiko and I found ourselves at Jennifer Montgomery’s presentation, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, in the Park Avenue Armory building during the Whitney Biennial. From the moment we sipped our first absinthe, we felt naturally situated in the dark, ornate hall, conversing with barmaids and storytellers from the 1880s.

Let’s segue from your little talk with the elderly lady at the bar comparing the sense of history in the U.S. and Europe. She seemed critical of the U.S.’ lack of history, that there is not much to be offered compared to the old history of Europe. What about you, what do you think of New York? Why did you choose to come to New York? Why not Europe, or Japan?

I wasn’t satisfied with what was going on in Japan at the time when I left. Well I’m not sure if it’s changing radically even now. The social system in Japan for single women is generally not favorable. What I wanted to do back then was to test a lot of things. I didn’t have anything particular in my mind, but I just wanted try out many things. In Japan, this was not so easy to do. I wanted a job that was only for survival, to feed myself. I wanted a job that wasn’t my ultimate goal and allowed freedom for me to do other things. But this kind of idea is strange for Japanese society, especially for women, who need to decide either between a career or marriage. Women can only choose either/or: if you want to stay single, you have to nurture your career. I wasn’t thinking of anything particular, but I wanted to do something. So I was traveling as a tourist, and I decided to test London, where I really liked. But I found out that it’s not the easiest place to live in. Without any particular visa, one has to find little jobs to make a living under the table, but this situation does not come to you easily. Then I made a short trip from the U.K. to New York. I didn’t like New York, but in the 80s, the living situation in New York looked easier compared to London. In the U.K., there is no tipping system, and the cost of living, though it’s not as high as now, was significantly higher than New York.
So I told myself that even if I’m not crazy about New York, I’ll consider it as a starting point. After one year, I’ll move elsewhere, probably somewhere in Europe. But this didn’t happen.

Because you liked New York after a year?

Well, I still wasn’t crazy about this city. It looked like just a big city with tall buildings with not much history to talk about. I was into the history part of Europe. Heavy history. Moving from a country with dense history, Japan, to another place with long history, Europe, made sense to me. I’m from Osaka, a big city, and I didn’t see any point in moving from one big city to another. But then I just had a hunch: maybe if I lived here not as a tourist, but a resident, things may be different.

New York is not so much about the buildings and sites to look at, but it’s about the people who lives here or visitors who are just passing by. There’s a certain dynamic of people who makes this city very interesting and brings character to certain city sights and neighborhoods. I realized this dynamic and it started surfacing after some years of living here. One friend triggered ten friends, which triggered another ten. It’s easy to make friends here. Maybe I got lucky, but things happened naturally, like bumping into quite interesting underground artists. For anyone who moves here, they seem to bump into people all the time. Right now my loft-mate is a Portuguese girl who just moved-in two weeks ago. Besides making friends from her school, people in our loft introduces her to friends, and before trying much she probably made many friends already. New York has this open dynamic. You don’t even need an effort.

Would you say this is because once you are in the ‘scene’, there is actually a fairly small group of people who know each other from common interests?

You don’t need to know millions of people to be part of a network. Your friends know other friends. You met my friends here tonight, and I met your friend. If you start counting your friend’s friend’s friend’s friends…that becomes a huge network, but you don’t need to know each one of them. The person you briefly meet will somehow remain in your memory and you may have connections later on, sometimes in really unexpected ways. In New York, well, now wherever I am, I carry around this attitude of being positive that there are no absolute goodbyes. It’s kind of a vision I obtained. I think I started this belief in New York, but now I’m traveling and find that it happens wherever I go.

Do you think this sense of a network that is not only citywide, but also international is a recent phenomenon? Even ten or twenty years ago, there weren’t so many exchanges as now.

I think the Internet has tremendously influenced the exchanges between artists. Skype is great. It has helped in the collaboration process between remote places. With iSight, you can communicate minute details of what you like or don’t like in design works. I can easily tell the other person details like “adjust it about 2mm to the left.” The communication is definitely better than phone. Also, files can be transmitted instantaneously while you are on Skype.

I’m wondering: so what are the effects of correspondences that are or were carried by letter exchanges? Some people are missing communicating with letters very much. What’s interesting is the time gap that happens. By the time you are reading someone’s letter, that person may not be in the same status as the one described in the letter.

As if you are corresponding with a person who is not there anymore.

Letters are not for communication anymore, but they have become a medium where you can express with your handwriting. There’s a lot of personality in one’s handwriting that you can’t read into in a digital text.

Does your work reflect this theme? I think your work reflects your interest in interacting with the audience, and somehow personalizing or humanizing an environment. I’m thinking of your work where you hung speakers in a meadow, or the piece, vibr, where you sent personal text messages to the audience’s cell phones during the concert to organize a concert of vibration sounds. You had a bed of sound coming from your computer setup, and on top of that our phones, which were set to vibrate mode, would make sounds when they received a text message from you. There were buzzing sounds here and there throughout the concert, and the best part for me was after the concert when we opened our cell phones and saw 15 messages from you!

I’m interested in and work in many different forms. I’m just curious about the phenomena of sound. With vibr, I wanted to organize the vibration sounds so they all happened at once, and to also have individual vibration sounds appear here and there. The whole audience experienced the same performance and sounds, but later on they would discover individualized text messages on their phones. The audience received different performance outcomes, although they were physically situated in the same room. I like to pay attention to these kinds of phenomena.

When creating a piece, of course one has to start with what you are familiar with, and then it’s your life experience that leads you to ask, ‘What is it?’ You interact with cell-phones everyday, and it makes a vibration motion, but it also makes sounds as well. I wanted to pay attention to the fact that it makes sounds and I wanted to hear it with many cell phones all together at once. Sound is a vehicle for me because it’s the closest format of phenomena I’m familiar with, and I’m very curious about. Naturally by giving some organization or intervention, you humanize a situation.

To find out more about o.blaat:
http://obla.at
http://www.myspace.com/oblaat

Ann Adachi

Ann Adachi. Born in New York City, 1983. Began classical piano studies at age six in Nasu, Japan, and continued lessons after moving to Olympia, Washington. She studied composition at Brevard College in North Carolina and Berklee College of Music in Boston. She combines performance art and video, as well as acoustic and electronic compositions in her performance pieces. She also plays in acoustic ensembles that base their compositions on intense listening and improvisation. Her collaboration with Gregory Reynolds(saxophone), Light in August, has toured in Seattle, Japan, Boston, New York and Baltimore. Currently she divides her time working at a nonprofit video art archive, observing and making. » See other writings

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