Yoshi Sodeoka is a Japanese artist who moved to New York to attend Pratt Institute in the late 80s and has made it his home ever since. The work he started there, using the first wave of accessible digital tools, could be seen as a direct precursor to what became the modern new media art movement. He was a very early proponent of using the internet as a blank canvas for a new kind of creativity, exploring those possibilities with his groundbreaking work at Word.com, one of the first web magazines.
Today Sodeoka is best known for his mind-melting video experiments, often enhanced with his own textured musical compositions. His explosive visual style has led to multiple bands (including Tame Impala and Psychic TV) commissioning him to provide visuals for their sounds. Sodeoka’s work feels at once technologically complex and organically grounded. His fevered psychedelic visions are imbued with humanity and warmth, giving them an accessible appeal that is sadly absent from much contemporary digital art. Besides his own artistic endeavors, Sodeoka also is a tireless and innovative promoter of modern video art through his collective Undervolt & Co.
I spoke to Sodeoka about the origins of his interest in digital art and his journey to becoming a highly respected member of the contemporary new media art scene.
“Prototype #47: 3:20AM,” Monkey Town LA, 360° Video Installation
Christian Petersen: You had an art tutor as a kid. What did they teach you about art? What were your favorite things to create as a child?
Yoshi Sodeoka: I learned oil painting and sculpture-making as a child. And I remember having my first solo show with my paintings at a local art gallery when I was ten, lol. The tutor obviously taught me basic ideas of colors and compositions, etc.—the usual stuff. But I think he showed me how to live as an artist more than anything, both good and bad. He was a full-time painter/sculptor and had a small art studio near where my family lived. And the place was filled with many interesting art stuff. And he used to listen to strange music, especially for an elementary school kid’s ears. To be surrounded by that environment for eight years as a child had a significant influence in my later life.
CP: Your parents were clearly supportive of your creativity. How do they feel about the art you make now?
YS: Yes, they were just wonderful and supportive and still are. But I think they are pretty much confused by what I do now. Not that they aren’t happy about it. It’s just that I think what I do now is beyond their level of comprehension. The thing is, I even have hard time explaining what I do to people. So, I can’t blame them. But when I make an artwork for the New York Times, etc., they understand it and it makes them happy.
CP: What was your first experience of art made by a computer, and why did you first start using a computer to make art?
YS: I remember using Aldus Freehand very early on. But I quickly realized I didn't like making art with vector-based programs. Adding a bunch of squares and circles, dragging handles with a mouse to make an artwork just felt unnatural especially for someone with a traditional painting background. Then I discovered Photoshop and I felt better.
I went to Pratt Institute and they had a bunch of Mac IIcx’s. Everything about Mac at the time was fascinating. They had a class to teach Macromedia Director with it and I got totally hooked making interactive art with Lingo. So I ditched paintings and never looked back.
CP: When did you become interested in video art?
YS: I started to move toward making moving images because the painting simply stopped being enough. I also always had a passion for sound making. So video totally made sense to me. I felt like I could communicate my ideas better with videos.
Also, there’s another factor to this: there was a period when I made a lot of web art and interactive things, but I stopped doing that a while ago. What’s disappointing is any artworks that rely on browsers or computer hardware usually won’t work in 10 years. I know people are making efforts to preserve old websites and CD-ROMs and things, and I think that’s great. But to me, it’s personal. It’s about looking back at things I made on my own.
The art I make serves as a diary. I want to be able to look at what I made 10 years ago without worrying about the tech. I just can’t rely on other people to do that for me. Videos are a lot easier to preserve since it’s just of bunch of images sequenced together. Video compression and resolutions might change later on, but I can always easily convert it to a newer format by myself.
“Prototype #47: 3:20AM,” Monkey Town LA, 360° Video Installation (Bird's Eye View demo)
CP: Why did you leave Japan and come to America?
YS: I came to New York to study at Pratt Institute. Right after high school in Japan, I met an American art teacher who was originally from Philadelphia. He lived in Tokyo back then. He was a RISD alumni and was a founding member of Talking Heads. I also played in bands a lot, so he and I bonded well. I was a confused musician wannabe teenager with no real direction in life. It was his time to get back to New York to focus on art. He then suggested I should study more art in the US. Having a support from someone like him in a new land was a huge plus. And my parents were also into this idea since they didn’t like the other idea of me trying to make a living playing music. I grew up in big cities like Tokyo and Yokohama. So New York wasn’t that much different to me except for stinky sidewalks and dirty subway stations. Not to mention louder and taller people. But I instantly felt like I could fit in. I guess I still like it here because I still live here.
CP: When did you start to realize that there was a new media community that you could be part of?
YS: I’m not sure. I’ve been doing this type of thing for so long. I’ve seen more than a few different new media art communities passing by; people come and go. I always feel like an outsider looking inside. I stay low-key most of the time, but I’m always around somewhere making stuff.
CP: A lot of your work could be described as “psychedelic.” Are you interested in psychedelia generally or did you arrive at that aesthetic independently?
YS: I should say that none of those “psychedelic” aesthetics are actually intentional. No matter what I do, it’s just how it comes out. I do like a lot of psychedelic art, but that’s definitely not the only thing I’m into. And I’m definitely NOT a drug user…
CP: There is also a cosmic/new age element to some of you work. Are you a spiritual person?
YS: I would not know. Sometimes I read things about spirituality and I find some things in common. But then sometimes I don’t. I have to say I don’t trust someone who says he/she is a spiritual person. The idea of labeling something like that is kind of shady.
CP: Your work is sometimes very mellow and sometimes confrontational—does that represent two sides of your personality?
YS: Maybe. I’m never a confrontational person in nature. But I am probably hiding my angry emotions inside ; ). Art is just my good outlet. It’s a good thing that I have that. Otherwise, I would be going totally nuts.
CP: How does music influence the work you make and how does art influence the music you make?
YS: I always think of music and art all mashed up and together and don't separate those two. But attitude wise, I’ve learned everything from music, especially hardcore punk. DIY ethos and the idea of anti-establishment are something I am always conscious about. Being in the scene at an earlier age taught me a lot about that way of life.
CP: There are a lot of vintage aesthetics in your work, but it is not retro. How do you get that balance right?
YS: That’s great. I appreciate your observation. I just like the look of wear and tear. Something about that shiny perfect look makes me feel uncomfortable. A decayed look gives it a more human-made feel. But I don’t have that so-called “retro-fetish.”
Distortion IV, 2013
Distortion II, 2011
CP: You were part of an early webzine called Word.com in the 90s. What was that experience like? What did you do for it?
YS: We did a lot of different things with Word.com. Unfortunately that domain name was bought by Merriam Webster for obvious reasons after we got shut down in 2001. But we had that domain name before them. It was registered in 1994 or so, we fully intended to make a webzine called Word.
The best I can do to describe what it was is to invite you to look at the archive. My title was art director. So I was in charge of all the visual aspects of Word.com. Basically it was a mash up of writings, art, music, and games that happened in a chaotic dotcom era. A Forbes article described it as “the first truly multi-media web originated ezine, in an age when websites were repurposed print.” That pretty much says it all. The New York Times even used Word’s screenshots to explain what a web browser was in 1995. Yes it's that old. I think it stood out because there was no one else making a website like that at the time. Almost every website was with default gray page with flush left text. We pushed the boundaries of HTML to explore the real potentials of web design by using a lot of hacked codes. We used to get many complaints because we crashed a lot of people’s Netscape.
Luckily, Word has been acquired by a couple of art museums worldwide as a permanent collection piece.
NYTimes article on August 19, 1995.
CP: How would you describe your relationship with GIFs?
YS: I think it’s just one of the mediums that happens to be good and works. There's nothing complicated about it technologically. I don’t have philosophical and artsy things to say about it. I use it when it fits well with my idea. But I leave it out when it doesn’t.
CP: There is a strong science fiction feeling to your work. Are there certain things in that genre that have inspired you?
YS: I think I’ve gotten into sci-fi more from music rather than movies or books. I was into space rock, prog-rock and avant-garde jazz. Looking at the artwork of bands like Hawkwind, Yes, Pink Floyd, Sun Ra, just to name a few, had an impact on me.
CP: It’s notoriously hard to make money as a digital artist. Is that your experience? What are your thoughts on that?
YS: I think we aren’t just talking about “digital artists”—it’s about “artists” in general. It’s definitely not easy. I haven’t had a regular day job in a while. Office jobs make me crazy. I don’t teach in school, and I'm terrified of public speaking. Basically I have no stable side income. Fortunately, I have just about enough of a stream of commissions to get me by, mostly from bands to make music videos and album art, illustrations for newspaper/magazines, and sometimes branding projects for fashion industries and electronic brands. Maintaining my portfolio website always helped.
I just happened to make a type of art that can be applied to many different formats. If my passion was to build gigantic sculptures like Richard Serra does, I know I would have been screwed.
I’ve done plenty of gallery shows in the past. But I’m not sure if I fit in. I realized that there’s this idea in the art scene that you aren’t a fine artist if you aren’t working with galleries and selling your work in fairs and auctions. I don’t agree with it. I know doing gallery stuff isn’t the only way to be a good artist. I realized a long time ago that I will never be a big rich gallery artist like Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons. I’m not into the pretentiousness of the art world anyway. It’s over-intellectualized and I feel that a lot of gallery artist types are making art just to impress curators and competitors and living inside their own art world bubble. So, instead of trying to engage with that scene, I wanted to focus on finding a different path. That’s not to say I would not work with galleries at all in the future. I’ve met some gallery owners with good intentions. But I still only see gallery activities as one of many outlets. I am just not fond of the whole system.
New York Times, Sunday Review, “Addicted To Distraction,” 2015
In any case, I still had to find another way to make a living and still fulfill my artistic desires. My answer is to take a wide range of commission opportunities from outside of the art world that are presented to me. People usually come to me understanding what I do. And they grant me creative freedom. So I am still able to work on projects without compromising my artistic integrity. Good music people are always open-minded and creative. And I’ve worked with very creative newspaper/magazine art directors. They let me do whatever I want, and I feel lucky. But I take it as a reward for being in the industry for so long, not giving up, and taking no break all this time.
I don’t make a lot, but I’ve been able to break even so far. One of the keys to attract interesting commissions is to be open-minded. It’s important to blend in with what's going on in the real world, and understand and be curious about what other creative people in different fields are doing. It’s always a terrible idea to look down on people by thinking “I’m better than you because I make fine art.” You know that type ; )
There still are demands for good art in this economy outside of the art world. So why not take those? If I didn’t have that sort of mindset, I would be limiting myself to a lot of interesting opportunities that are out there.
CP: What are your favorite tools for making digital art and why?
YS: I’ve used After Effects since version 1. I know a lot about it, and I think it’s still one of best tools around to make moving images. But I’ve gotten a little tired of the slow rendering time lately. You can make pretty cool VR things inside After Effects now. I’ve tried making a few things and posted them on Facebook. There are a lot of potentials in that. But I’m not into the idea of making VRs for VR sake. I have to see if I have the right idea and reason to make artistic VR content. Plus, the stuff that I usually want to make is too complicated and it takes too much time to render. It makes it less spontaneous. So, I decided to wait till the technology is matured. I’ve gotten one of those Google Cardboard goggles but I find it awkward. I’m already addicted to my iPhone—I don’t like the idea of attaching it to my big freaking head.
So lately, I’ve been taking a break from rendering hell, going back to basics. I’ve been experimenting a lot with real time video processing using Syphon with Modul8. I can create endless visual variations of digital video feedback with that combo. My latest project called YSRT50 with electronic music producers Rain Text was entirely made with that technique. I’ve always liked working in video feedback. The video I made for Tame Impala’s “Elephant” was mostly using analog video feedback with cheap gear. And the process was totally spontaneous and quick. And I think it turned out well for the music. I'm still proud of what I could achieve with that limited setup. A lot of time, you don’t need complicated 3D software or trendy new tech stuff to make something interesting.
CP: Can you tell us a little about your video art collective Undervolt & Co?
YS: I originally started Undervolt & Co a few years ago wanting to start a label to distribute video art in the same way music is distributed. I always liked the idea of self-publishing and I’ve done a few before. The first DVD that I published was back in 2001 called “404031”. It has a 31-minute noise video. At the time, DVD burners used to cost a fortune and there were no small DVD replication services. So, I had to send it out to a big major replicator, which also produced Harry Potter DVDs, to have it made. They were totally confused by what I wanted to publish. That was funny. Anyway, I thought I knew a thing or two about publishing video art. And I hadn’t seen a good place where modern experimental video artists are represented in a respectable manner. So I wanted to make a label with great video artist friends I’ve met over the years.
Undervolt has been evolving and shifted focus gradually. We’ve become more like a collective rather than a label. We’ve had good opportunities of being invited as a collective to great festivals like Moogfest, Mutek IMG, Pittsburgh VIA, and the Museum of Moving Image in the past couple of years. So it's been rewarding so far. Also, I guess this is just my small way of contributing to the video art community.
CP: What projects do you have coming up?
YS: I’ve been given an opportunity to work on my own art book. I’m not sure if it will be a monograph book of my past work or if everything will be made new just for that. I’m still contemplating ideas.
Also, I started to think about what the new edition of Undervolt & Co for 2017 will be.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he selects a Web Artist of the Week.
(Image at top: Noise, 2010. All images and videos: Courtesy of the artist)