Artists Under Quarantine: NONOTAK

Some art is only possible because it is made alone. Some art is only possible because it is made together.

by David Icke Turner

Approaching one of NONOTAK’s ethereal and dreamlike environments is conspicuously distinct from other milieu in their discipline. Their highly nuanced mise-en-scène is unmistakably NONOTAK.

This ritualistic pairing of innovation and familiarity is created by a duo, disparate yet entirely complimentary personages. Takami Nakamoto engineers the patron’s experience with space and sound, while Noemi Schipfer introduces deft work using kinetically visual geometric illustrations. Custom built technology has become their hallmark.

To say NONOTAK is prolific would be an understatement. Since the installation and performance group’s inception in 2011, they have executed projects at Tate Britain, Sónar Barcelona, TaicoClub, Day For Night, STRP Biennial, Melbourne Music Week, Jerusalem Light Festival, and MUTEK Montreal among dozens of others. Their light and sound installations have dotted every continent on the globe. It seemed like they were never going to stop. Until now.

What will this pandemic mean to our species in 5 years?

Noemi: It’s a hard question. I hope the world will get better even if I’m scared it will not be that easy. I wish that our society and things in general will be based on quality than quantity. 

Takami: This crisis has been so global it is pretty hard to keep track of everything to be honest. I feel like there is a huge confusion around that subject and it’s totally understandable as long as we feel confused.

First of all, I’m not sure if the definition of COVID-19 is exactly a pandemic but sure the disease spread makes it become one. When you think about it, the worst memories of a pandemic we have experienced claimed the lives of 50-million people.

This time the consequences are fortunately much lower but the measures that have been taken is something I never experienced in my whole life.  I think it’s affecting a lot of people’s lives. 

And because we all feel like we are on the same boat, I first felt a sense of unity generated out of this situation. There are of course many conflicts about how people see the concept of quarantine, but in general I feel like people understand the notion of being safe to make sure our neighbors are safe too. I also feel like we are all agreeing about governments being questionable in such an obvious way in a period of crisis that is related to public health. Everyone wishes political leaders would be more transparent about information, or at least not openly lie about important information that is a question of health. What happened in France is that the government totally lacked sanitary material while the spread was rising but instead of admitting it, they just told the population masks and gloves are totally not mandatory and even not advised. A few weeks later it became mandatory. That’s when I started to have mixed feelings about all of this.

While governments choose which businesses are essential, other small businesses get told they are not essential and that providing for their family is not essential anymore either because a virus with 99.9-percent survivability is spreading. So instead of giving people the choice of being responsible and understanding the meaning of it, I feel like we have allowed the development of a society that lacks the ability to take accountability of their life and take responsibility for the actions they make. What a time to be alive.

The priority now seems like getting things to normal while governments announce a new normal. I totally understand the notion of public health and I was the first to get into quarantine and agree to the rules but I feel like it is just trying to erase the notion of civic responsibility to people. Some people are even wishing they were in China. This is where facial recognition is everywhere and they are able to track people anywhere at any time.

It makes people prefer a peaceful surveilled-society rather than a free and more risky society.

Imagine society in five years within that current context. I think the side effects of COVID reflect a lot about our excess and our failure points. Everyone waits until it spreads too much to react. We only react to close danger and I think this will change and we might experience a world with a grater threshold in the way we share, travel and exchange. The physically and financially weak have been affected the most and it will for sure require a radical social transformation as well.

How does NONOTAK envision adapting their art for what maybe an entirely new normalcy?

Noemi: I would love the art to still be able to be presented in exhibitions, live shows to exist and be experienced in real life. I don’t believe in an online way to translate an immersive installation. It’s really different to look at art as physical, to see the materiality of the light, to feel the sound in an environment. When we think of an art piece, space is a fundamental part of our decisions. We like to make an art piece according to the constraints of an environment.  Some of our work is also really site specific to a particular space.

When you see people reacting to your art piece it’s something really fortunate, and motivating to do more as well. The exchange part is really important in art. As an artist you want to show your work to people and to see the feedback is such an important part of it. 

One pleasure in making an art piece is also to meet people, from the moment you set up the installation to the moment you present it to the audience. The travel part is also something really inspiring. Meeting so many people from different cultures is really rewarding.

I think going to an exhibition, experiencing an art piece or going to an event is also a moment that creates memories. It’s also an occasion to create a moment suspended in time. You would remember a day on tour doing something new than a day you spent at home. For immersive installation I think it’s the same, you would remember much more of an art piece you experienced in real life than one you watch online. I’m not saying art forms can’t be appreciated online, but it’s just different when it comes to materiality, physicality and art related to space.

Takami: I think audio and visual experiences involving space and body can’t be really replicated. One thing that I enjoy with NONOTAK is that we are able to merge our piece within an existing architecture or environment, and narrate stories using lights or visuals. In our installations, there is always a particular attention to how the visitor will experience the piece and how we could disrupt the public’s visual perception.

I like the fact no one actually owns our piece, but just experience it and define a certain personal relationship with light though the piece. There is no normal for what we usually do. A lot of the time context and space dictates our ideas. If society does not allow us to continue expressing ourselves within that context, we’re going to have an issue. But at the same time we don’t want to reduce our experiences into something adapted. I don’t think it is about normalcy but the format of expression. Our goal will still remain the same: Offer a unique experience that will create a strong connection between light sound and space.

Has this quarantine been a time of productivity or reflection? 

Noemi: It was more a time of reflection for me. The last seven years were really intense, in terms of work and travels. Since NONOTAK started we never had breaks. I realize how lucky I am to have been able to discover so many places and travel so much for my work. It was a little bit of a shock when everything was getting canceled and then stopped. It was hard to believe.

Our lifestyle has become affected and for now I have no idea when we will be able to do shows, exhibitions or fly. I’m still not sure if I realize all the consequences of this quarantine and how it will affect the culture industry or people interaction. I guess the quarantine will still continue for us and I would like to take the next months to think of new projects at the studio and see how the situation evolves. 

Divisions of class, race, gender and worldview are seemingly more entrenched than ever. What can we do to step away from the brink?

Takami: Actually talk with each other and share perspective. It is all about perspective and that’s the most important thing I’ve learned by touring worldwide during these past seven years.

The issues you are pointing out have been omnipresent in the past as well. One reason I consider art powerful is that you can break the borders and connect with people who would never connect otherwise. That is what I believe.

Will this pandemic move the arts towards a collectivist state of mind or will we continue a march towards absolute individualism? 

Noemi: I guess the notion of a collectivist mind state or absolute individualism depends more on the nature of the project. Some art projects have a collective spirit, some art projects are appreciated based on a strong personality and vision. As an artist I feel important to keep a certain amount of control in what I do when I need to create.

Takami: I think one aspect of art that drives a lot of people comes from wanting to excel doing it. Some people do it with others and some find satisfaction in doing it alone. It is all about ego and I don’t think you can change the way people process ego, especially through art.

I think this pandemic could help artists who have that collectivist mind state and want to reflect that in their art. Some art is only possible because it is made alone. Some art is only possible because it is made together.

NONOTAK has been nothing short of prolific for the last four years. What are your favorite projects?

Noemi: Among the last installations we did, I really loved ZERO POINT ONE & TWO and MOON.

ZERO POINT is a series of installations playing with 1-millimeter diameter thin light made out of fiber optics. We used them to create light and sound controlled sculptures.

The fineness of the line light source is really impressive and when you controlled it could really disappear and appear. You can trace them in space and they are almost invisible, turned off and super bright when they are turned on appearing out of nowhere. It makes it look like the light line is really moving inside the space.

I’m really attracted visually to lines, so finding such a material to play with is a pleasure. For MOON, the volume of the space was really strong and atypical. It was designed for an opening exhibition in a new art center built by Neri & Hu Architects in a utopian city called Aranya in China. The space was in the middle of the building, in a big cylinder-esque well where you can appreciate the sky in a circle shape. This space was really strong by itself and it was important for us to keep this cylindrical shape so we decided to exploit the ground as a reflection of the sky.

We placed a circular movable LED screen on the ground. For the visual the idea was to remind the viewer the movement was something liquid. We offset elements to remind of the movement of water and wave, like a lake at night in the bottom of this architectural well.

The path of this installation had two layers as well. First you discover the installation from an outside view and then you can go on top of this bright matter and your perspective on the installation will change completely. Your notion of balance is triggered as well.

It was a good surprise even for me when we tested some of the visuals on site and we realized how powerful it was to have bright visual movement coming from the ground and how it could affect and challenge the body balance. Even if the ground is physically static the perception makes your body feel it’s moving. 

Takami: Each project tends to be unique to the context and I’m not only talking about the piece itself but also the country and culture we are drawn into while making the piece

I personally loved an installation called “VOLUME,” curated for the first edition of the Day for Night festival in Houston. The way this installation filled this huge warehouse with moving shadows and the capacity of people it could have inside was totally unbelievable. People were totally immersed and collectively.

I couldn’t stop observing the reaction of the visitors going through our installation. This was a site-specific installation that had been made from scratch on site. I still keep warm souvenirs from the whole process. I think it’s still one of the largest installations we ever worked on.

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