Since its very inception, Ars Electronica has been active at the interface of art and technology, dealing with things that are multilayered, that attract looks and double-takes, that confront us with cool innovations and, not infrequently, radical new ways of seeing both odd and everyday phenomena. And, happily, Ars Electronica isn’t alone in this pursuit. Now, an exhibition is showcasing one of the other institutions taking similar approaches: Tsukuba University.

Two years older than Ars, Tsukuba University established itself as a school of art & design by launching programs in Plastic Arts and Mixed Media, two fields that are taken pretty much for granted nowadays but raised some eyebrows 30 years ago when Japan’s reputation as a technological powerhouse was still in the process of emerging. The university’s conception of itself is as an institution oriented on the future; it’s not interested in conserving traditions but rather in blazing new trails.

Over the years, its students have been doing outstanding work, some of which not only questions the way we see things and how things function but also sometimes turn them completely on their head. Several of these works will be presented as part of the exhibition. Here’s a little preview.

Toshio Iwai has developed a musical instrument that combines music and graphics in a spectacular way. When you hold it in your hand, it feels like a nubby picture frame, and the many points that just seem like an array of big gray dots do not provide much of a hint as to what this device actually is. The fact that this is an electronic device is apparent from the tiny display at the lower edge; there are also a couple of ports to connect peripherals. When you switch on the Tenori-On, the grey points begin to dance and glow, and this means the time has come to don your headphones or crank your speakers or else you’re going to miss the best part.

The inventor plays his own instrument

Depending on which operating mode you’re running the instrument in, the x and y axes have different functions. If you want to keep things more or less conventional, enter the mode in which the horizontal axis represents time and the vertical axis is pitch and then just begin to touch points, each of which corresponds to a note. Which note it happens to be is defined by scales. And as you would expect from an electronic instrument, the Tenori-On is capable of producing sounds clear across the audio spectrum—from the tinkling of a piano to a frog orchestra, there are lots of ways to have musical fun.
In the first mode, Tenori-On actually works like a sequencer; you enter a series of notes, and it’s played back in a loop over and over again. So far, so normal. Things get interesting when we immerse ourselves in domains in which making music with the Tenori-On begins to veer off from how it’s done with other instruments—for example, when you start to draw on the matrix because you like how the notes swing back and forth in triangles or even more complex geometric figures, and the sound’s pitch is determined by the distances between the points. Or when circles start to spin and you totally rely on what the blinking points can reveal about making music. Then, it’s truly incredible how this instrument can tear you away from a characteristic style of making music that might be the result of many years of training and get you to start producing something totally new, something that you didn’t even know you had in you. And this is exactly the kind of thing that we at Ars Electronica find so great—and the folks at Tsukuba University evidently do too!