Note: ✅ This is a translated version of the original IAMAS article. ✅ The original copyright is owned by IAMAS. ✅ The translation has been made with permission from IAMAS. ✅ The translation was done by TART and the responsibility for the English text lies with TART. The original IAMAS articles: https://www.iamas.ac.jp/interview/_024-1/ https://www.iamas.ac.jp/interview/_024-2/
Shunsuke Takawo became famous overnight after his latest NFT artwork Generativemasks sold 10,000 unique tokens in a matter of a few hours. Professor Shinjiro Maeda––who was chief examiner of Takawo’s thesis at the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences (IAMAS)––interviewed him about the project. How did Generativemasks come about and why did it garner so much praise? Read below for an in-depth, two-part interview.
Maeda: You presented Generativemasks in August, and it’s generated some real buzz. I was surprised to learn in the news that all 10,000 unique tokens sold out in the span of a few hours after their launch on the NFT marketplace. The total sales broke records, and you garnered even more attention when you announced that all the proceeds are to be donated.
Takawo: I knew some people would find value in what I do and purchase a piece, but to be honest, I had no idea how much of a response the project would actually generate, so I myself was very surprised that they all sold out. I try to predict what will happen next before taking action, but every day the project develops in unforeseeable ways––the way the situation changes daily is eye-opening.
Maeda: Tell us about Generativemasks. Could you give us a brief introduction to start things off?
Takawo: Generativemasks is a work in which 10,000 mask-like graphics generated through “creative coding” and the graphic-generating code for each mask––as the asset associated with each token––are circulated in a crypto-asset-based art market.
Maeda: Does that mean there are 10,000 different mask designs?
Takawo: The mask graphics are created by combining two elements: shapes and patterns. I call the mask outlines “shapes” and the repeated symmetrical figures that unfold inside them “patterns”. So there are 10,000 pairs of these shapes and patterns. Whenever you reload the image, the color scheme randomly changes. The color scheme is also based on 29 different color palettes, so in actuality, there’s the potential for over 290,000 graphical variations to be in circulation.
Maeda: One reason why Generativemasks has generated so much support is that the masks themselves are aesthetically pleasing. They encompass the duality of masks used to cover or protect faces while also being ornamental. The graphics can appear cute, but also eerie. The color palettes are predominantly neutral, which prevents them from being either too flashy or too subdued. I realized that they are filled with many elements that can be read either way. While many images in generative art feature abstract works, I thought it was amazing how you discovered the motif of masks, reminiscent of human faces. Again, your work is situated between abstract and representational art. Following this line of thought, I started to see the mask as a powerful symbol located in an intermediate region, between the online and real worlds. Have you been working on this idea for a long time?
Takawo: There was a moment when working on the mask motif that I thought I was inventing something new. Every day, I write “sketches,” or short pieces of code, and share them on social media as an activity I call “daily coding.” The idea for the mask slowly grew out of this daily practice.
I first created pixel art graphics that develop symmetrically and found them interesting, like characters from Space Invaders. Then I tried out different things to advance my ideas, replacing the pixels with figures and letters. I think the real primitives for Generativemasks came out of the sketches I made around April this year (2021). It was a kind of breakthrough for me when I made those, I felt like it was good enough to use in some kind of artwork when the timing was right. Although it took me more than a year to get from my first aha! moment to the primitives.
Maeda: Right, it took persistent effort to get to such a strong work.
Maeda: Tell me more about daily coding. What kind of project is it?
Takawo: I first started it in 2015. Back then I was working as a research fellow at IAMAS, and kind of like keeping a journal, I started writing these sketches every day using a creative coding approach.
Instead of functional programming like developing a game or an app, creative coding is more free –– it focuses on creating something expressive. I defined the term daily coding for myself as bringing this type of coding into my everyday life.
Takawo: Actually, my idea for daily coding is heavily influenced by your video work “hibi” 13 full moons(*1). It references an idea that you and Professor Miwa were working on back then, an approach where you set certain structures or rules within an algorithm and then develop freely and spontaneously in various directions from there.
But it wasn’t like I started off wanting to create a code version of “hibi.” Hiroyuki Satake, a former classmate of mine, once told me that daily coding was totally based on the method of Studio 2 (time-based media)(*2), and that’s when I finally made the connection. After that, I became more intentional and really pushed my idea of reflecting my emotions and daily minutiae in code, of blending code and life.
Maeda: Do you really do daily coding every day, without taking any breaks?
Takawo: Yes. I’m writing code every day.
Maeda: That’s impressive. When you do it every day, I’m sure there must be certain meanings that come up based on the date––do you think about that during the process? Or do you even care about it?
Takawo: On days like the anniversary of the end of WWII, for example, there’s the potential that the social significance of the day will be reflected in the code, but for now I’m thinking more about personal aspects like what happened to me that day or how I’m feeling emotionally and physically. When I received the government-distributed Abe masks, I drew a sketch that looked like a cloth mask with a bit of dust on it.
Maeda: So you spoke about how the mask sketches that came out of your daily coding led to the primitives for Generativemasks. Tell me about how you ended up releasing it as NFT art.
Takawo: I’m part of this creative coding community called Processing Community Japan, and an artist there who was already selling NFT art asked me if I was interested in trying it out.
Daily coding is the most important part of my personal practice, so I felt like it would be difficult to create something new, given the restraints on my time. I was also worried that incorporating a business element would distract me from coding, so I said I could perhaps make it happen if we kept that side of things separate by donating the proceeds.
Maeda: So, donating the proceeds was a premise of the project from the beginning, right?
Takawo: I decided on donating for the reason I just mentioned, wanting to keep the business aspect distinct, and also because I’m a university professor. So, rather than thinking about personal profit, I wanted to give something back to the community and make an investment that would further energize creative coding activities.
Maeda: I see the donation aspect as an ingenious action that is a soft criticism against NFTs. I think that Generativemasks is a brilliant work of media art. Currently, what people do is to turn existing digital artwork into NFT art and then sell it. While taking that into account, your work was created to explore the possibilities of the platform through an idea like selling 10,000 variants at the same time. In this way, we can say that it has a certain meta perspective built into it.
Takawo: In my daily coding, I try to sustain the executability of the program while rewriting the code with some clever spontaneity––this became a major focal point for the project. When I rewrite the code, I'm getting a grip on a highly fluid situation that changes from moment to moment. It feels a lot more like live coding rather than meticulously creating a generative art piece. I think it’s natural that, at the root of things, it ties back to the community that supports my practice.
Maeda: It’s very interesting how you emphasize the immateriality of digital artworks by connecting the work’s alterability with the creative coding community. I also felt it was important how you mapped out future plans for the project, such as further developments in the metaverse, creating a photo book, and wood-carved physical versions of the masks, which takes it beyond the online experience. The multifaceted nature of Generativemasks as a project must be instinctively clear to anyone. These are some of the reasons why I see it as a brilliant work of media art.
Takawo: I’m very honored to hear that.
Maeda: Did you have the intention from the start to create a work of media art with Generativemasks?
Takawo: It was when I started selling it that I truly considered how I was creating a work of media art. Of course, when the project was at the discussion stage, I was creating the work with a kind of hacker-like mentality or with a perspective of wanting to change the way that NFTs are perceived in society, but that wouldn’t have panned out if the work hadn’t sold or circulated. While I had the basic concept pretty much laid out, there was also a part of me adapting to the situation as I went, similar to the way I think while writing my code every day.
Maeda: I’m sure that you’re still in the midst of things, launching the work as an NFT artwork and having it sell out, but could you tell us what you think about the possibilities of NFT art?
Takawo: Sure. In media art, the propositions of “how can artists monetize digital productions” and “how to arrange the economy so artists can work sustainably” have long been discussed in various spaces. When I was studying at IAMAS, we talked about selling our works as postcards, so I’ve personally been very excited to see this now become a possibility through the system of NFTs.
At first, my ambition to connect everyday life with code may seem incompatible with a reputation economy, but looked at from a certain perspective, sustainable activity might itself be a source of economic value. Of course, some individual transactions are done with speculative purposes, but I think there’s also genuine trust and excitement toward artworks and artists. I feel hopeful and still somewhat bewildered that part of my personal, small-scale coding activity has circulated beyond barriers of language and geography, creating networks of connection through the acquisition of my art work. I feel like all of these elements coming together is almost serendipitous.
*1: “hibi” 13 full moons (2005) is a work directed by Shinjiro Maeda, which features approximately 90 minutes of 15 second shots filmed every day for 366 days, from the first day of 2004. The cycle of the moon determined the time of the day to film.
*2: Between the academic years of 2006 to 2007, when Shunsuke Takawo studied there, the Department of Media Creation at the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences (IAMAS) had five studios, separated by research areas. Professor Masahiro Miwa and Associate Professor Shinjiro Maeda oversaw Studio 2, which had many art-focused students interested in pursuing video art and music.
━ Interview conducted online ━ Editing and photography by Tomoko Yamada
（Creative Coder / Class of 2008）
Shunsuke Takawo was born in 1981 in Kumamoto Prefecture. As part of his research on ways of viewing unique to digital photography during his studies at IAMAS, he presented Processing Photography Blink Series, a work that uses the viewer’s blinking eye as a trigger to show large amounts of digital photographs. In 2011, he personally hosted an event called “#takawo杯 Prize: IT Pun Contest,” in which contestants engaged in serious wordplay on social media. In 2015, he began writing short code in a manner akin to journal entries. He proposes and practices daily coding as a way of connecting one’s everyday life, background, natural environment, and indigenous culture. He is a member of Processing Community Japan, and one of the Selection Members for the 25th Japan Media Arts Festival’s Art Division. He is also a college professor at the Department of Creative Media Studies at Konan Women’s University.
（Professor at IAMAS）
Shinjiro Maeda was born in Osaka Prefecture in 1969. He has presented his work, which spans video, media art, and documentary, at film festivals including Image Forum Festival, the Ebisu International Festival for Art and Alternative Visions, and the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. Professor Maeda actively collaborates with artists from theater, fine art, and other fields to plan exhibitions. He has been supervising the DVD label SOL CHORD since 2005. His web movie project BETWEEN YESTERDAY & TOMORROW won the Excellence Award in the Art Division of the 16th Japan Media Arts Festival held in 2012. He also won the 20th Keizo Saji Prize for a performance in which he directed the live-streaming, MUSICA CRAS GIFU 2020 Masahiro Miwa Festival -Purified Night-, which was held without in-person audience members.