The Highest Point

from You Saw Nothing: Sight, Digital Video, Post-3.11 Japan

I fell asleep in the car on the way to Tokyo from the disaster sites. I must have slept for a few hours at least; when I opened my eyes the car was in heavy traffic on a highway driving between skyscrapers. It was twilight. The megalopolis, expanding its reach to the furthest and highest point in the sky, dizzying vertical lines of the dense concrete forest. An empty horizontal line of tsunami-affected areas, and loose even lines of the mountains contaminated by radioactive substances. All the other flat landscapes seemed distant already. You saw nothing.


The view from the car window is now a stream of endless buildings and electric lights.


Tokyo is home for many corporations. Billions of windows of buildings lit up at dusk, the people are known for working hard. It is a daily landscape of one of the world’s largest economies. I arrived at a hotel in downtown Tokyo. The night was shiny. I slipped into a favourite dress with high heels on to attend a concert by Keith Jarret, an American improvisational pianist, at a music hall. The one-off piece of improvised sound was composed exclusively for the night and for Tokyo.


Next day I flew back to Hong Kong.


The Highest Point


Manifesting the Greater Tokyo Area, Tokyo, the designated location of power in the country, rests on the historical spatial order of centre and periphery as the monopolistic political, economic, and cultural centre of Japan. The monuments of growth built on the ashes of World War II are located in these discrete contemporary landscapes of the country: the vertical metropolitan cityscape of the centre and the dispersed, depopulated, and rural horizontal landscape of the periphery.

Nuclear technology (NT) is a monumental inscription of the grand narrative of growth that began from the atomic ashes of 1945. Power sufficiency was considered as the drive and foundation for the post-war growth. Within this narrative, nuclear-led power generation was accepted as a civil use of the technology, discrete from military use, by the post-war nation that had lived through the atomic ashes. Self-sufficient power production was also considered as a matter of sovereignty. NT developed politically and socially in a unique way in post-war Japan.*

Sociologist Hiroshi Kainuma asserts that the civil use of the technology functioned culturally as a medium that delivered modernist aspirations, which remarkably grew to be a common ground that brought together the centre and the periphery for the attainment of their dreams. Those dreams were unique and different in their respective discrete landscapes of growth: the complete nuclear fuel cycle for the disarmed and resourceless nation state and the development and sustainability of rural life for the supposedly backward and underdeveloped village. Kainuma describes the inclination of both the centralists’ and the peripheralists’ modernist values as “the highest point of modernity”,** the imperative for development and growth towards the supreme point. The nuclear power plants (NPPs) were projected by the periphery in particular as a means to attain the affluence of the city, the centre; in Raymond Williams’s sense, a means to get rid of “backwardness, ignorance, limitation”.*** In the dichotomous city–countryside relational identification, as experienced by the periphery, the NPP was praised as the replica of the highest point of modernity built in their backyard. It was a self-portrait of their identification within a spatial relation to the centre.

The civil use of NT was politically inaugurated in the larger context of the post-war restructuring of democratisation and industrialisation of the country, which resulted in a reconstitution of the hegemonic spatial relation. This reconstitution was a continuation of the exploitative integration of the periphery; the advanced centralisation of the market that embedded the periphery in an “addictive” spiral of dependence on central capital.**** The former fishing villages in abject poverty were transfigured into NPP-hosting villages. With geographically uneven development, the periphery’s addictive spiral of dependence evolved into “automatic and voluntary obedience”.***** Kainuma asserts that the civil use of the technology functioned to advance and perpetuate centralisation.

This chapter auto-ethnographically positions the artist-researcher from two perspectives: the political and economic spatial relation of the centre–periphery structure, and the cultural construction of relational peripherality to the centre. These sociological conditions of the periphery are discussed through the studio-practice You Saw Nothing in Fukushima (2012–). It is a digital video work interlaced with Marxist theories, the automobile, and the forward movement of digital video. The interlacement creates the semiotics of speed, which You Saw Nothing in Fukushima employs to discuss the identification of the nation with growth.

This chapter consists of three parts.

In part 1, we focus on the automobile and review its cultural history, its representation in visual culture, in particular that of the moving image, and the filmic reference of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), in order to establish the semiotics of speed. Through that film, set in the United States, the cabin and car window are investigated as a site of liminality and separation between classes in capitalism.

In part 2, we examine how the semiotics of speed is manifested through the studio-practice You Saw Nothing in Fukushima. The manifestation of the semiotics is dedicated to an examination of power designation between the centre and the periphery and the identification of the Japanese nation with speed. Grounded in the political and economic concept of the compression of space, speed is an agent of such compression for the purposes of growth. Manifesting an aesthetic embodiment of such speed through the forward movement of digital video, You Saw Nothing in Fukushima examines the identification of the nation with the post-war growth from the post-growth and post-3.11 perspectives.

In part 3, as the textual recall of the title You Saw Nothing suggests, we examine the nothingness of knowing and understanding of the other through sight. Digital video as data embodies the compression of space, crosses borders, and reconfigures the here and now as part of information and communications technology (ICT). We examine the semblance of knowledge through seeing within the contemporary embodiment of ICT through You Saw Nothing in Fukushima.

You Saw Nothing in Fukushima (2012–) is a digital video work of variable dimension based on my trips to the 3.11 disaster sites in 2012, 2014, and 2018.˜ Despite the exclusive presentation of Fukushima in the title, You Saw Nothing in Fukushima is not geographically confined to Fukushima but includes other disaster sites documented during those trips. The exclusivity of this presentation is not intended to generalise or reduce the discursive area to Fukushima or to nuclear disasters. The digital footage is either digitally photographed or videographed from the automobiles I travelled in and aligned in sequence through the slide- show function of editing software. You Saw Nothing in Fukushima encompasses four pieces of videographed footage titled Wind and Rain (2012), A Seabird (2012), Shore (2012), and Dead End (2014).˜˜ The majority of the footage was photographed or videographed from inside the automobiles, with the exception of a few pieces of footage recorded from outside the automobiles.

The forward movement, a significant characteristic of the aesthetic language of You Saw Nothing in Fukushima, also ties automotive and nuclear technologies together in an affinity of culturally projected advancedness in the past century. They were, as we will see in part 1, both the projection and the materialisation of the supreme state of advancedness dreamed of by the nation, “the highest point of modernity” in Kainuma’s words. This advancedness represented a bright hopeful future, dreamed from the perspective of the last century. The phrase “the highest point of modernity” is interchangeably used with the fastest point of modernity in this examination, by the forward movement of digital video within the semiotics of speed.

*See Hitoshi Yoshioka, Social History of Atomic Energy in Japan, Tokyo: Asahishinbun-sha, 2013 for further details of the Japanese inauguration of the technology in the contexts of politics, economics, and academia.
**Hiroshi Kainuma, Theory of ‘Fukushima’: Why the Nuclear Power Village Was Created, Tokyo: Seidoshya, 2011. p. 52.
***Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1973. p. 1.
****Kainuma, ibid., pp. 249, 323.  ***** Ibid., p. 41.
˜The production of You Saw Nothing in Fukushima started in 2012 with my first trip to the post-disaster sites. It has no specified production year of closure because its concept is oriented to durational continuity. The variable dimension of installation might take the form of monitor replay or wall or screen projections of variable size. It might also be played as a file on one device or separately on multiple devices.
˜˜The production years indicate the year of the particular trip.
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