Rhizomatiks Founder Daito Manabe Talks Past & Future Projects With Warner Music Japan’s Takehito Masui

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Rhizomatiks is a Japan-based company that has pursued new possibilities in technology and expression in various fields including entertainment, advertisement and media art since 2006. The creative team has collaborated with such artists as Björk, Perfume, Elevenplay and Squarepusher in the past and celebrated this year’s 15th anniversary with its first large-scale solo exhibition entitled “rhizomatiks_multiplex.”

Rhizomatiks founding member Daito Manabe sat down with Warner Music Japan Executive Chief Producer Takehito Masui to look back on the group’s 15-year journey, its anniversary exhibition, and elaborate on some of its future plans for post-COVID times.

Takehito Masui (WMJ): How does it feel to look back on these past 15 years?

Daito Manabe (Rhyzomatiks): We got started 15 years ago as a tiny design company, with only three of us founding members and a programmer. So the days felt more like an extension of handling university assignments than a business. From there, we gradually began to handle bigger projects, and the major turning point was becoming involved in the stage production of Perfume’s live shows. Also, being involved in a couple of ads that won awards at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity (formerly the International Advertising Festival) was a game-changer for us as well.

Masui: You had moving images produced through brain recording technology displayed at the solo exhibition. This was an experiment to extract the visual images that people see in their minds when they hear music, wasn’t it?

Manabe: When I was still a student, I used to listen to music with my eyes closed in a darkened room by putting up cardboard to shut out the light. Enjoying the various worlds that floated across my mind was my way of listening to music. Even now, whenever I listen to music, lots of images bubble up in my head, so I think that personal experience with music greatly influenced what I do now.

The world is overflowing with moving images now, isn’t it? But there are bound to be images bubbling up inside each person’s mind, so I thought it would be interesting if we could extract and display them. That was where I first became interested in this study.

Masui: So it’s the exact opposite of the “electric stimulus to face” project from 2008. From the aspect of the interaction between an artist and their fans, there are various features such as comments and billing functions for online concerts, but I feel this is an area that still has a lot of room for growth.

Manabe: Yes. Nowadays, people (in Japan) tend to be like, “I should have the same opinion as everybody else,” in part because of social media. Peer pressure, in other words. But I’m sure everybody imagines something different when they hear music. That’s what music is, intrinsically.

Masui: Another project that interested me at the exhibition was the “NFTs and CryptoArt-Experiment.” NFT is one of the hottest topics in the art world right now. Why did you choose it as the subject?

Manabe: Last summer, I witnessed easily downloadable image and video files being traded at several hundred dollars apiece, and thought that something extraordinary was happening. At the time, the environmental impact of NFTs and especially Ethereum was being heavily criticized, and even if that aspect could be solved by shifting towards chains that use PoS (Proof of stake) architecture like Polygon, I felt that it was necessary to be cautious in deciding whether or not it would become a sustainable system that supports artists and creators.

In the past, we’ve displayed installations visualizing the movement of data that can’t be seen, such as “traders” (2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkmKVVzgdNE) that used market data from the Tokyo Stock Exchange and an original virtual automated trading software, and “chains” (2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7omBlB095w) that visualized the automated trading of bitcoins.

The environment surrounding NFTs is extremely complicated, and we figured we couldn’t clarify it without analyzing data and actually creating a market, so we suggested the NFT data-visualization installation to Ms. Hasegawa (curator of the “rhizomatiks_multiplex” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo) around last summer to work on it.

Sometimes you run into legal issues when dealing with something new like NFTs. For example, with “traders,” we were going ahead with a plan to create and display an automated trading software that uses specialized high-speed lines, with support from the Tokyo Stock Exchange, researchers, and vendors. But we were informed that “displaying visuals of automated stock trading in an art museum could spark stock transactions” and had to shift to a virtual trading format right before the exhibition opened.

We started working on “chains” in 2015 and was displayed at an art center called ZKM in Germany in 2016. It’s a work that deals with automated transaction of bitcoins and visualization, but it might be difficult to do today. (So with “NFTs and CryptoArt-Experiment”) we decided go meta with it from bit of a panoramic standpoint because we might hit legal walls again with NFTs, and there also was that problem regarding environmental impact. That’s why we created an installation using the event data from OpenSea marketplace around the day of March 11, 10 a.m. EST, when MetaKova won Beeple’s NFT at Christies for $69,346,250.

Being able to express something in a realm where there’s no precedent or law is the fun part of the world of new technology.

Masui: What are your thoughts on the possibilities of using NFTs in the music market?

Manabe: One important aspect about NFTs is its durability. When you stream the music now that you used to listen to on vinyl, it’s often remastered and sounds completely different. So if you want to hear the music from long ago, sometimes you have to buy the CD or vinyl again. Utilizing blockchains and NFTs to preserve data for the long term is the direct opposite in direction from where the current subscription services is headed, so I think there’s possibility in that sense.

Masui: I see, so there’s a lot of potential there. [J-pop dance and vocal trio] Perfume’s virtual concert Perfume Imaginary Museum “Time Warp” is currently available on Netflix. The number of virtual shows have surged since last year in Japan as well. What are you thoughts on their potential?

Manabe: It’s really difficult. One practical issue is that they cost a lot. When you try to create a decent live show using green screens, photogrammetry and 3D scanning technology, it costs about the same amount of time and money as shooting music videos for all the songs. It might be possible to do it once by ignoring the budget and going full out, but it’s not sustainable.

Masui: When I see concerts online, I can’t help but miss seeing in-person live shows. So separating real concerts and virtual ones and placing a different value on the latter as a different experience might be a challenge to be solved from now on.

Manabe: Whenever I hear live music being played really loudly on the set of a virtual livestream or something, I can’t help but feel that real live music is awesome, too. [Laughs] Everyone knows that real live music is the best, and there are a myriad of free-of-charge visual content in this world now. So the hurdle of paying for a virtual livestream show is already really high. And the live concert business isn’t just about selling tickets, it also brings in huge revenue for the peripheral businesses as well, such as the restaurants that people go to before and after the show, the merchandise, travel and accommodation. Virtual concerts are only a single part of that. I feel this is a big issue, too.

Masui: That’s so true. Lastly, could you share what you’d like to take on in the future?

Manabe: We’ve had many projects never see the day of light since last year, so we’re trying to figure out how to release them without just accepting that it’s inevitable.

Also, up until recently, I was mainly motivated by what I personally wanted to experiment with, and didn’t put too much thought into how to monetize it or what should be done to get many people to use it. But around May 2020, we developed and released an extension toolkit for Zoom. So I’ve been thinking every day about what we can do to contribute to artists and staffers.

For example, even if a small independent company wants to host a virtual livestream event, budget constraints often get in the way. But when we worked on a livestream with (L.A. artist) Machinedrum the other day, we were able to provide a rich visual experience through a setup with minimal equipment that doesn’t need a studio with green screens and such. So we’d like to offer ways of doing things more compactly and affordably like that.

We also realized that we could just create our own streaming platform, so that’s what we did when we worked on Elevenplay’s “border” livestream. And up until now, we developed the NFT marketplace, AR system, and streaming system separately, so unifying these services is something we’d like to do as well. We hope to fight back against this difficult situation brought on by the novel coronavirus by developing our own platforms as well as creating content.

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