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Emi Kusano’s first job was taking fashion photos in the streets of Tokyo. She has always known that she was meant to be an artist, but she didn’t think she could make a living from it. Besides photography, she found other ways to be creative, such as playing in the band Satellite Young. Emi dressed up as an 80s idol and sang about technology. When Emi started working with AI, she understood that knowledge and taste are reflected in art more profoundly than ever before. She imagines fictional pasts and futures inspired by Japanese Futurism and subcultures, advocating for a mindful engagement with the world around us.

In conversation with Anika Meier, Emi Kusano discusses retrofuturism and nostalgia, street photography and AI, mass media and social media, feminism, and the digital art market.

Anika Meier: Emi, you are a musician and an artist. But you started your career as a fashion street photographer in the late 2000s. How did you get into fashion photography?

Emi Kusano: I was born and raised in Tokyo, but in 2007, I went to study in Utah, USA, for a year. When I came back, I was shocked by Tokyo's unique fashion culture, where each train station seemed to have its own fashion tribe, each with its own distinct aspirations, reflected in a diverse magazine culture. I started working as a street photography site photographer, using the DSLR camera I got for my birthday. This was my first job.

Emi Kusano with her camera in 2009.

AM: What have you learned from fashion street photography that is now helpful for you as an artist?

EK: I was actively taking photos from 2007 to around 2010. What I felt during that time has become the foundation of my creativity today. Around the time I graduated high school in 2009, social media was on the rise, and fast fashion was becoming widely popular. The colorful fashion of the youths I saw in 2007 had, by the time I graduated, shifted to Normcore, with trends globalizing and everyone starting to wear brands like Zara and H&M, leading to the decline of many fashion tribes.

As for the technical aspects of photography, I wasn’t able to master them, but the sensation of wanting to capture the essence of a world’s inhabitants instantaneously feels quite similar to when I’m creating works with AI.

Furthermore, since my childhood, before I even started photography, I was a fan of 1980s idols and 1960s special effects animations. I've always wondered why I was drawn to such retro things. I've realized that the aspiration culture formed by mass media in each era is something that couldn't happen in today's era, where everyone follows various influencers on social media. This realization has become an inspiration for my creations.

AM: Aren’t artists also influencers in the age of social media?

EK: Absolutely, I believe so. The mindset in a world dominated solely by mass media versus one where social media exists is vastly different. Not just in pure, traditional art, but across all content creators, we're seeing the emergence of globally niche scenes, transcending borders to form small communities with diverse genres. Previously, specific scenes might have been localized to areas in London or around a station in Tokyo, but now there's a sense of multiple global niche streets existing virtually. The proximity to the audience has changed, allowing for immediate feedback, which indeed makes it an era where anyone can become an artist. Charisma has become democratized, and AI accelerates this, democratizing aesthetics and craft. As audiences can infinitely generate content they wish to see, the role of artists might also change.

Emi Kusano, Synthetic Reflection #6, AI generation, 2024.

AM: When did you know you wanted to be an artist? And has it always been clear to you that you want to be a visual artist?

EK: First, as both of my parents were artists, I've always known since childhood that I was meant to be an artist. Until middle school, I was the best at drawing in my class. However, seeing my parents' financial struggles, I thought it would be difficult to make a living with art alone, so I didn't pursue an art college but went to a technology university and joined a design branding lab. 

Nevertheless, I've always found myself engaging in creative activities, not just photography. I also performed in a music unit called Satellite Young, dressing up as an 80s idol and singing about technology. Additionally, I've created installation art featuring artificial life forms. Consistently, my theme has always been about creating a retro-futuristic world, and this motivation to create such worlds has always driven me.

Satellite Young is a Japanese synth wave band founded by Emi Kusano and BelleMaison Sekine in 2013.

AM: You’ve mentioned two decades: the 1960s and the 1980s. Why these decades? And what can we learn from these decades? Are there any artists from these decades that have had an influence on your work as a musician and an artist?

EK: I also like the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s. It's easy to imagine the fashion and music of each era; maybe that's why everyone wants to time-travel. Since the spread of the internet, that clear, mass-experienced aesthetic seems to be disappearing.

However, when I became conscious of it, it was the 1960s. I watched a lot of 1960s cartoons and loved the streamlined design of the Jetsons. I played with a reissued Blythe doll dressed in a Mondrian dress and made lots of 1960s-style clothes for dolls.

As for music, I love the 1980s the most, especially catchy mainstream songs. I've been listening to Kylie Minogue and Journey since I was a kid. I also love 1980s Japanese idols. Now, looking back, the flamboyance and prosperity of this era seem to define its aesthetic.

When I was little, I loved Fujio Akatsuka's magical girl genre manga and anime, "Himitsuno Akko-chan (Akko-chan's Secret)," the precursor to Sailor Moon. I watched the 2000 version of Akko-chan, but the original was from the '60s, and it was also animated in the '80s, each with slightly different settings, personalities, or parents' occupations, which I enjoyed comparing. I also loved Powerpuff Girls, collected the comics, and learned English from Powerpuff Girls. It's a 2000s show but has '60s illustrations, and I loved the maniac settings like Beatles trivia.

AM: In the age of artificial intelligence, it’s somehow possible to travel in time. Everyone can ask Midjourney to imagine any era we can think of for creating images that reference films, music, art, and fashion. For your solo exhibition titled COGNITIVE CHAOS at EXPANDED.ART in Berlin, you traveled back in time to the 1970s with the present and future in mind.

EK: The theme of my current body of work is Japan in the 1970s. The 1970s had occult and paranormal phenomena in the mainstream, not just subculture, and I hear Japan was enveloped in anxiety due to the oil shock and pollution. We might be experiencing something even more severe with the COVID-19 pandemic.

COGNITIVE CHAOS also draws inspiration from Japan in the era leading up to the bubble economy's collapse in the 1970s and 1980s, projecting contemporary values onto the fervor and occult culture of that time. Back then, the prophecies of Nostradamus were taken seriously, and conspiracy theories about aliens were featured during prime time on television. It captures the Japanese Futurism of that era while simultaneously paralleling the modern AI era, marked by the rise of Vision Pro and Deepfakes. Examples include young people experiencing bubbles and virtual glasses in a bathhouse, a half-android woman posing in front of the latest television equipment, and a full-body-suited virtual human spotted in a video store.

Emi Kusani, Cognitive Chaos #20, AI generation, 2024.

AM: You weren't born in the 1970s. How do you approach working on a project like COGNITIVE CHAOS?

EK: Yes, for the 1970s lifestyle, I heard stories from my mother. I also referred to domestic Japanese archives like horror manga by Kazuo Umezu, popular around that time, and occult magazines like Mu. There's a cafe near my house with a vast archive of magazines, where I occasionally look at photos.

However, the materials used in the stable diffusion SDL and MidJourney I'm currently using are heavily skewed towards Western data, so a complete reproduction isn't possible, leading me mostly to create new things from my imagination.

Emi Kusano, Cognitive Chaos #22, AI generation, 2024.

AM: What does this, the Western perspective, reflect in your process of working with Midjourney and Stable Diffusion?

EK: Working with large-scale AI models like Midjourney and Stable Diffusion indeed makes it easier to draw upon globally recognized aesthetic genres like glam rock. However, it's more challenging to reflect very localized and specific trends like Japan's "Takenoko-zoku" without the models having a direct understanding of these subcultures. To express these unique facets of Japanese subculture, I often have to get creative with the prompts, using a combination of existing English words in innovative ways. This process of adapting and combining prompts to hint at specific subcultural elements is a fascinating aspect of my work.

Emi Kusano, Pixelated Perception #23, AI generation, 2023.

AM: Are retrofuturism and nostalgia an escape from today’s fast-paced life?

M: Are retrofuturism and nostalgia an escape from today’s fast-paced life?

EK: Retrofuturism and nostalgia offer us a lens to reexamine our perceptions, acting not as an escape but as a bridge connecting our past experiences with current and future innovations.

Observing the rebellious spirit of the past's youth—their hope for the future, their enthusiasm, and their despair—evokes a curious sense of nostalgia, even for eras we haven't lived through. Watching these images might be an attempt to grasp the brevity of our own lives or explore the essence of humanity.

The fictional futures imagined by me or science fiction writers could be seen as extensions of current realities or mirrors reflecting them. After all, the present I'm living in will be considered part of the past from a future perspective.

Emi Kusano, Neural Fad #70, AI generation, 2023.

AM: Are there lessons we can learn from looking at generations before that have imagined the future of art and technology?

EK: Exploring different eras and regions allows us to embark on parallel journeys, revealing the cycles of innovation and societal hopes and fears unique to each. This exploration also provides an opportunity to examine what is universal and delve into human nature.

Historically, both utopian and dystopian visions have been portrayed, reflecting the circumstances of their times. Many scientists who develop technologies today are likely influenced by such fictional futures, motivating their real-world actions. Understanding the impact of AI and brain technology is crucial. The future is shaped by creative inspiration, with contemporary scientists and innovators drawing from novels, movies, and animations. We must also consider various potential futures, both utopian and dystopian.

AM: As an artist, you do not limit yourself and seem to be an explorer. You’ve been part of the team of Shinsei Galverse, a 1990s-style anime that includes a PFP collection; you have created three AI collections, two of them with Bright Moments; and you have released a generative art project titled MELANCHOLIC MAGICAL MAIDEN on Art Blocks Curated. What drives your curiosity and creativity as an artist?

EK: I have a strong desire to experiment with various mediums as an artist, but above all, I value concepts. Consistently, I've harbored a desire to create and inhabit a fictional past. This has evolved as I continue to ponder the purpose behind my creations.

AI artworks were my first solo creations, but typically, I've collaborated with others. From installations with engineers and architects to sharing melodies with music producers or concepts with music video directors, collaboration has been central. Even my initial work as a photographer was dependent on the subjects I wanted to capture.

Galverse started as a crowdfunding project for an anime before I knew of NFTs, intended as a sci-fi anime starring my music video character, created with director Ayaka. Though I've stepped back as an executive due to my solo activities, I'm excited to see it complete, as I was heavily involved in the scriptwriting.

MELANCHOLIC MAGICAL MAIDEN was a significant challenge, blending coding and blockchain in a highly conceptual manner, embodying the essence of NFTs, a field I was eager to explore and developed concurrently with studying AI over two years.

Emi Kusano, Melancholic Magical Maiden, 2024.

AM: You describe MELANCHOLIC MAGICAL MAIDEN as an “artwork that reveals the duality of magic and reality, mirroring your childhood memories with magical girls." Would you describe yourself as a feminist artist?

EK: I consider myself a feminist artist. Much of my work reflects on the past to challenge gender roles, always aiming for inclusivity to ensure everyone, regardless of gender or attributes, has equal rights.

However, my approach isn’t merely about being politically correct. I’m both critical and captivated by the past, finding it crucial to explore this duality.

Human ethics are evolving, and instead of cancelling everything, it’s vital to reflect gradually. Magical Girl anime from our childhood, for example, showcased strong female figures, yet some narratives focused on traditional roles.

I can’t dismiss what I loved as a child and still respect its aesthetics. I adore feminine attire and parody girly 1980s Japanese female idols. Western dolls like Barbie, despite promoting lookism, are also empowered through various careers. The self-parody in revisiting these themes suggests that raising voices against wrongs was crucial in the past decade, but in the divided 2020s, reconstructing past entertainment might inspire change.

AM: You’ve started as a street photographer working with a camera and now create images without having to leave the house. Do you see parallels between working with a camera and using AI as a tool?

EK: When it comes to the similarities between photography and AI generation, both mediums allow us to view the world through the creator's narrative. This is a key similarity. Additionally, both allow for endless opportunities to capture moments, yet the need to select from these captures is a shared challenge.

However, the major difference lies in post-photography through generative AI, where an individual's knowledge and taste are reflected more profoundly than ever before. This distinction enables the visualization of narratives set in fictional parallel worlds that have previously remained unexplored. Such advancements, I believe, mark a significant revolution.

Emi Kusano, Neural Fad #50, AI generation, 2023.

AM: What is your response to critics saying images created with AI aren’t art?

EK: Facing the critique that "AI isn't art," it’s essential to remember that historically, what was once dismissed often ends up defining the future of art. Notably, Banksy was viewed as a vandal and Warhol as too commercial, yet both are now icons of art history.

This pattern shows that art criticized for not fitting traditional definitions frequently becomes pivotal. In working with AI, we're at the cutting edge of contemporary art, pushing boundaries and expanding what art can be. Critics might see AI as a shortcut, missing the depth of interaction and intention artists bring to guide AI towards meaningful creations.

Art is about challenging perceptions and exploring new frontiers. If AI creations can provoke thought and evoke emotion, they deserve recognition as art. Like Banksy and Warhol, we're exploring new territories, proudly contributing to the evolution of art.

AM: Speaking of Banksy and Warhol, has the role of the artist in the age of AI changed?

EK: The democratization of aesthetics through AI has certainly transformed the role of the artist. Just as Banksy and Warhol revolutionized the accessibility and distribution of art in their times, AI empowers modern artists to visualize narratives from every angle, introducing unprecedented diversity to art. In the near future, the lines between creators and viewers may blur further, with viewers potentially crafting their own experiences through the lens of an artist's custom AI model. This shift is poised to redefine the creative landscape, making art creation and appreciation more interactive and personalized.

Emi Kusano, Pixelated Perception #10, AI generation, 2023.

AM: Which artists do have a significant influence on your artistic practice?

EK: Mariko Mori has been a significant influence on my artistic practice. Her work in the 1990s, which intricately wove together technology and spirituality, often featured her as various fictional characters and mythical entities. Her approach to 'cosplay' in art, where she explores visual culture, history, and the future while crossing the boundaries of self-identity, has inspired my exploration of similar themes in my own work.

AM: With NFTs, digital art is now part of the art market. When you create an NFT collection, do you have the art market in mind?

EK: Certainly, marketing in the artistic sphere is often undervalued, yet I see it as crucial. When buying art, personal appreciation is paramount, followed by the artist's skill in marketing. My ambition is to keep creating into my later years; thus, I craft my works with market support in mind, having had wonderful encounters with collectors worldwide.

I focus on offering a range of artworks at varying prices and ensuring past works are accessible on my website. While considering tokenomics to avoid oversaturation, my desire to be prolific persists, aiming to one day present a vast variety of my works at a museum.

AM: What is your advice for artists who are thinking about embracing NFTs and AI?

EK: Keeping up with new tools and finding expression through them can be exciting, offering the potential to capture attention. However, creating timeless work likely involves reflecting your personal experiences and thoughts within a strong message. It's crucial to contemplate the underlying message of your art. Don't be deterred by a lack of technical savvy; even simple tools like Chat GPT can produce unique pieces.

Recently, the ability to craft complex custom models was highly valued, but not anymore, as demonstrated by artists like Niceaunties. The power of prompting is immense; try spending a day experimenting with it.