This article explores the dynamic forms of positive feedback found in Hiroko Komatsu's 2017 photography installation, The Execution of Personal Autonomy. This article details how Komatsu's installation generates an intensive interface among photographed materials and photochemical materialities that constitute a noise-like interface akin to the creative production of feedback in Noise music. As a redistribution of affective attunements that inhere within the urban landscape, this article discusses how Komatsu's photographic forms of feedback offer an evolving site for grasping, and potentially reimagining, the reproductive processes of capitalist society. Komatsu's photographic praxis reveals a novel understanding of photography's own role as a material and affective “infrastructure” critical to the reproductive relations of neoliberal and state capitalism.
In this essay, I explore how Hiroko Komatsu's photographic praxis invites creative ways of grasping the affective dimensions of the capitalist urban milieu. I do so by attuning my inquiry to the embodied sensorial intensities generated in her installations by looking at, and feeling with, an intensive accumulation of photochemical materialities.1 Komatsu's photographic praxis invites us to expand our understandings of photography. It offers valuable perspectives on the broader reshaping and reimagining of the manifold relations among energy, matter, and life and death, or, in other words, ecology in its broadest sense.2
I take up the 2017 installation The Execution of Personal Autonomy (Jinkakuteki-jiritsu-shori, 人格的自律処), at Gallery αM, the gallery of Musashino Art University, Tokyo, as one instance of Komatsu's ongoing photographic work (fig. 1). As I discuss below, Komatsu's installation practices generate an experience of photography that enables intensive forms of embodied sensations and affects precipitated by Komatsu's assemblage of specific photochemical and material processes. Komatsu's work, I argue, offers vital insights into how photographic materialities enable novel ways of feeling, and thus potentially unsettling, the intensive (affective and epistemological) and extensive (material and environmental) infrastructures of the urban milieu critical to the reproduction of capital.
Here I approach Komatsu's work as a material interface that amplifies the exchanges among photographic prints, photographed materialities, and the embodied affects of the “viewers” of her work. In many ways, to describe the active modes of engagement with Komatsu's work as “viewing” is insufficient; it is a full-body experience with multisensorial aspects. In addition, the specific forms of embodiment produced in Komatsu's work operate in at least two contexts: the immediate conditions materialized within the space of the installation, as well as in the experience of her work as a series of installation photographs. In this paper, my analysis relies on this latter body of images and the many hours I spent with Komatsu during the period that she prepared for the installation during the summer of 2017.
I will detail the multisensorial encounters of both modes of experience generated by Komatsu's photography as overload, drawing parallels with the forms of positive feedback invoked in experimental Noise music. I demonstrate how Komatsu photographically, rather than sonically, renders a noisy yet generative form of feedback that saturates the human body's sensorial capacities through the installation's specific assemblage of material processes. Komatsu renders a photographic modality of intensive exchange among matter, energy, and bodies amid the urban milieu, making sensible the unseen infrastructures critical to the reproduction of capitalist lifeworlds.3 As Komatsu's work vividly reveals, photography's entanglements among such lifeworlds afford a critical means of intervening within the shifting contours and structuring forces of capital's ceaseless reproduction.4
The Indescribable Sensations of Noise
Komatsu's installation The Execution of Personal Autonomy consists of more than three thousand eight-by-ten-inch photographic prints, 885 feet of photographic paper rolls (nine rolls each, almost 100 feet long by 4 feet wide), and nine photographic prints (twenty by twenty-four inches) mounted on panels and wrapped in packing wrap. In addition, there are three CRT monitors displaying video transfers of an 8 millimeter film recording of Komatsu's prior installation and a few short passages of text printed on tracing paper. While the significance of such a quantity of photographic material is difficult to grasp by numbers alone, the immediate impact on its viewers is the indescribable magnitude of photographs encompassing the viewer as they traverse the gallery space. Stepping precariously upon the carefully arranged prints on the floor, the viewer is at once compelled to make direct contact with, and become encompassed by, the installation. With floors and walls covered, the space is furthermore filled with long rolls of large photographic paper, both suspended at varying intervals by wires, unrolled in overlapping piles, and unfurled across the small prints on the floor (fig. 2).
Each plane of the gallery's dimensions, aside from the ceiling, contains multiple photographic points of view, denying the fixed distances through which the viewing of the photographic image is typically derived. Moreover, the viewer is confronted with layers of photographic prints and rolls of photochemical paper in defiance of the single frames of viewing that typically govern art objects in the gallery space. While the photographed images are lucidly perceivable in each photograph, the excessive presence of the photographic prints' very materialities threatens to unsettle the codified modes of viewing photographic images in isolation or in sequences through which meanings are produced.
According to photographer Mikiko Hara, who wrote about her experience of the installation in 2017, the embodied experience of Komatsu's work was quite intense: “Hiroko Komatsu's photographs were installed wall to wall, spread over the entire surface of the floor, and hung from the ceiling. I was swallowed up by the elaborately planned space while I stepped hesitantly on the prints. . . . All the photographs were taken in the storage facilities of industrial zones. Engulfed in a maelstrom of repetitive images of construction materials, scraps, wood, steel, aluminum, plastic, and concrete, an inexpressible sensation filled my body, unlike anything I had ever felt.”5
The sensations described by Hara reveal the affective dimensions of Komatsu's work. The Execution of Personal Autonomy was installed as part of a series of installations curated by Yuri Mitsuda.6 Collectively titled Mirror Behind Hole: Photography into Sculpture, the seven solo exhibitions by different image-makers sought to reconsider the changing conditions of photography, sculpture, and art in general. Mitsuda conjures up the background for the series as being the generalized conditions of digital data that have recontextualized analog forms and generated a different relationship among the material forms of artistic expression. Mitsuda mobilizes the figures of the “mold” and the “mirror” to explore the changing relations between photography and sculpture. The exhibition takes an interest in materiality and how data is given form in a world dematerialized by data, as Mitsuda noted in the artist's statement that accompanied the exhibit: “A mold is a kind of hole, which can be filled with all sorts of materials. By contrast, photography has historically been discussed as a mirror with 100 percent reflectivity, which shows actual objects while never revealing its own true shape. But today, photography can also be called a hole (i.e., a mold). There is no bottom to this hole because it does not distinguish between photographic images of actual objects and impossible, illusionary images—all of it becomes data.”7 This figuration allows for a useful framing of the wide range of works curated in each exhibition. It illuminates a guiding question of how each artist mediates, performs, and gives form to specific modes of exchange between data and materiality indexed by the “mold” and “mirror.”
In this context, Mitsuda describes the intensive nature of this experience of Komatsu's installation as fostering a sense of “endlessness”: “There is no end to Komatsu's photographs. This does not just mean that she shoots and exhibits a large number of photos. Of course, she does do this, but the individual photos are similar and yet different, and moreover, while viewing this huge quantity of photos, one does not know what each one depicts or why it was taken, creating a feeling of ‘endlessness.’”8 Together, the proliferation of materialities and the viewer's intense experience of the photographs are parts of an incomplete whole. This evocative sensation of “endlessness” describes the singular affective contours of this installation (fig. 3).
The enumeration of limitless variation among the accumulated materials does not negate the potential for generating novel forms of exchange among viewers and photographs. In fact, Komatsu's installation materializes specific forms of exchange derived through a range of material processes to amplify the interfaces among photographic prints, photographed materialities, and viewing subjects within each installation. As a practice of photography that does not rely on a communicative model of information or aesthetic transmission (e.g., models that rely on the institutionally codified relations among artist, artwork, and spectator), what are some ways we can make sense of the provocative embodied affects that Komatsu's installation generates?
Processes of Photographic Overload
In the ten years since she began her photographic praxis, Komatsu has continued to develop a shifting assemblage of processes since her first installation in 2009, including a year of monthly installations between 2010 and 2011, and numerous large-scale exhibitions. The evolution of the material processes she has developed with each exhibition takes center stage in the description of her work in Komatsu's essays, interviews, and talks.9 The delicate balance Komatsu undertakes between opening these processes to the contingencies of each installation and a continual evolution of each component of her installation work is significant. In this sense, one way to regard the “endlessness” that Mitsuda attributes to Komatsu's installation is the open-ended nature of the evolution of her material processes and the tireless labor that defines Komatsu's photographic praxis. Each instance of Komatsu's work consists of an evolving set of relatively fixed components that are then assembled and arranged differently in each installation based, in part, on the dimensions of the exhibition space (fig. 4). Not only does each component reflect a continual process of gradual change, but the assemblage of components reflects an ongoing process of modulation across installations as well. In a conversation with Komatsu, curator Yuri Mitsuda highlights both the specificity of each part as well as the singularly consistent process that traverses these evolving iterations of Komatsu's installations.10
So how does the “viewer” fit within this assemblage of photographic materialities and photographed things? Here I want to outline the dynamic interplay of Komatsu's installation practices and provide a provisional name to the intense affects hinted at in both Mitsuda's sense of “endlessness” and Hara's “inexpressible sensation,” in relation to the musical anti-genre of Noise music. In David Novak's seminal study of Japanese Noise, Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, he details the predominance of the generation of sonic feedback by Noise musicians making use/abuse of commonly available musical equipment patched together in creative ways. The hallmark of these performances is intense forms of exchange between the “noisicians,” their assembled sound systems, and the audiences through which feedback is unleashed and modulated in a variety of ways. Crucially, Novak describes the literal and figural instabilities that emerge through the positive feedback loops generated in these performances and differentiate Noise from other modalities of experimental music:
Negative feedback is fundamentally comparative and reductive; the differences between intention and actual performance are used only to create a steady state for the entire system. Rather than being absorbed in homeostasis and control, individual differences can also be accumulated and amplified. In fact, feedback often spins out of control precisely because senders and receivers are not invested in continuing a holistic social field of transmission or in emulating past performances. Instead, they change direction. When feedback becomes generative of something new—in the case of audio circuits, when it becomes a sound in itself—it is described as “positive.” Positive feedback loops are not self-regulating but self-reinforcing. They amplify change with each cycle, emphasizing the gain of new results over continuity and balance.11
Novak details myriad, indeterminant approaches to generating positive acoustic feedback loops wrought from the interactions among musical equipment, PA systems, the acoustic qualities of performance spaces, and the bodies of the audience therein.12 In addition to the emergence of positive feedback loops that arise within amplified audio systems, Novak further highlights the central role of the concept of feedback not only in histories of audio engineering but also in other discursive contexts such as Norbert Wiener's theory of cybernetics and Marcel Mauss's notion of the gift. We might add to these related uses of the notion of positive and negative feedback loops that contribute to either the homeostasis or collapse of ecosystems in the environmental sciences.
However, without flattening out decisive differences among these notions of feedback and their respective discursive contexts, I would like to highlight the affinities between “noisicians’’ predilection for positive feedback and Komatsu's photographic process. Although I would not reduce the reasons for such likeness to Komatsu's own background as an experimental musician, there is a profound resonance among these two modalities.13 The key differences are also telling of the different forms of embodiment they generate: one is based on primarily sonic intensities mediated by the interactions among spaces, bodies, and audio systems; the other is based primarily on visual intensities mediated by the interactions among spaces, bodies, and images (although both are arguably multisensorial as well).14 Recalling the “endlessness” and other indescribable embodied affects described by Hara and Mitsuda, I locate an experience of “overload” as the basis of the kinship between these photographic and sonic forms of feedback.
As Novak points out, “noisicians” often describe the performance of feedback as the “overloading” of sound systems:
Overload is a kind of distortion that uses the limits of an amplification system to create and change sound. Neither the English nor the Japanese words for “amplify” are really adequate to describe the transformative qualities of overload. Though the English word suggests that a quiet sound is aurally magnified and made louder, the Japanese term zōfuku, based in the root zō (increase), implies a staged additive change that raises the gain from one distinct dynamic level to another. In a feedback loop, amplification does not merely increase a sound's volume to make it louder; it changes it entirely by saturating the entire system. The process is something like magnifying and photocopying an image over and over again, until the details of the original form are totally unrecognizable.15
In Novak's example, the reproductive processes of amplification and photocopying can increase the audio signal or magnify the image. It can also be pushed to destabilize the coherence of the signal or image by overloading the system with feedback. Feedback here describes a specific operation of the reproductive process of the signal or image by inducing repeated cycles or circulations of the signal through the system of its reproduction. This can be a fairly rapid process for a microphone feeding back through a PA system or a video camera feeding back when pointed at the screen displaying its image. It can also be a relatively slow process for images reproduced on a photocopier or even the process of making photochemical prints. What the affinities of sonic and photographic feedback loops thus reveal are how the specific material affordances of technical systems of audio or visual reproduction can be made to enter disruptive states of uncontrolled transformative processes of “overload.”
Novak highlights how Noise artist Masami Akita, known as Merzbow, understands Noise to be a critical response to the changed landscape wrought in the decades after Japan's postwar recovery and its integration into the US-led Cold War military economic alliance. Overload is above all a process of positive feedback within the circulatory flux of reproductive systems in both technical and social ways. Novak relates that “Merzbow became Akita's way of making audible these excesses of Japan's self-destructive capitalism. Noise . . . could sound out the frozen modern landscape of Japanese consumption: . . . ‘It's very difficult to escape from our system. We're already involved in the system. So if I can put something into the system, I want to change its direction to one kind of way, a private way.’”16 What system, or systems, does Komatsu's work seek to “overload” and induce unsettling processes of change within? In other words, what is being “sounded out” through the materialities that inundate the gallery spaces of Komatsu's installations?
The Invisible Infrastructures of Urban Life
According to Komatsu, she has been photographing “industrial sites” (kōgyō chitai) around Tokyo for the roughly ten years since she took up the camera, never returning to the same place more than once. Of these, most are secondary industrial sites, places where materials are being stored as part of the processes of manufacturers and recyclers of construction materials, food processors, and utilities companies. Many of these sites are located in Chiba prefecture adjacent to Tokyo Bay, including Yachiyo-city. Such areas are defined by a dense mixture of small-scale industrial sites, small farms, military installations, and housing developments as part of an ever-evolving constellation of agricultural, industrial, and postindustrial landscapes.17 Komatsu further describes how these sites make up a vast continuum of small to large companies that constitute the base (kabu kōzō, which means both infrastructure or substructure in the Marxian sense of the word) of the capitalist economy.18 In this sense, each photograph is the photochemical abstraction of the material base of contemporary capitalism.
However, rather than illustrate or express legible meanings, these photographs appear attracted to the seemingly endless variations among the arrangements, conditions, and multiplicities of the material things found at each site. Komatsu has described her efforts to photograph the ever-shifting appearances of things that have been arranged by obscure rules determined by their use at each site, whether discarded scraps or unused materials.19 For instance, in Komatsu's photographs we find the chaotic-yet-ordered piles, such as steel forms used in concrete construction, photographed from a relatively fixed proximity, often including different angles on the same clusters of objects as she traverses the site.20 Although the rules governing the ordered arrangement of accumulated materials may be indeterminate to both Komatsu and the viewer of the photograph, Komatsu's methodical acts of photographing the vibrant lifeworlds of things neither beautifies them nor denigrates them (fig. 5).21
What emerges through Komatsu's photographs of industrial sites might be described as the unseen material residues of the innumerable and indeterminate metabolic processes at play in the ceaseless reproduction of an urban expanse.22 Komatsu's photographic residues make present, if only indirectly, the endless proliferation of things suspended between consumption and production. Such photographic traces evoke the immense circulations, logistical flows, and unfamiliar infrastructures essential to the reproduction of the urban order, always co-present just beyond the thresholds of our awareness. Thus the proliferation, distribution, and arrangements of industrial metabolites make up the photographic materials of Komatsu's installation. These form the visual “signal” that is feedback through the material processes assembled within the gallery space of the installation. However, it is not yet clear from this “signal” how Komatsu generates a positive feedback loop. For this we must consider some additional dimensions of the reproductive processes entangled through Komatsu's installation.
I will briefly turn to an earlier moment in the formation of Japan's Cold War urban order to better situate Komatsu's intervention into the urban landscape within a longer genealogy of critical urban vocabularies. As I have written about elsewhere, photographer and critic Takuma Nakahira (1938–2015) undertook a deepened pursuit of a photographic praxis that could clarify an emergent landscape of power from within the relations among humans and the material realities of an urbanized archipelago.23 In his critical writings of the time, Nakahira grasped the multiplicity and fluidity of perspectives afforded by photography as a critical method of enumerating the changed contours of urban social spaces and media ecologies themselves. For Nakahira, this inundating flux of materialities and information compelled him to seek an equally dynamic locus of critique situated within the expanding circulatory infrastructures and flows of urban and media systems. Nakahira's varied pursuits of an intermediary form of critical reflection embedded within the flux of relations among an urban landscape was, moreover, shared among a number of critics and artists in the early 1970s.24 These perspectives emerged to question the changed ways that capitalist state power circulated and proliferated through the increasingly controlled urban and media environments of the Japanese archipelago.
Likewise, alongside contemporary transformations of the urban milieu, we find a similar moment of critical attention to the modulated and intensive infrastructural contours of capitalist power that inhere within the urban expanse. As Sabu Kohso has illuminated in his geopolitical cartographies of the operations of post-disaster capitalism in Japan, the urban landscape has become subsumed within the integrated spectacles of an all-encompassing apparatus: “What is Tokyo? Tokyo is material and immaterial. It is space and force, a particular place and an expansive movement at the same time. After all, its substance is nothing but the desire and energy of people. In an abstract and machinic term, it is an assembly of energo-signaletic flows: labor, information, and capital.”25 In the wake of the ongoing disaster of Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdown in 2011 and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (held amid the global pandemic in 2021), this desire-coordinating apparatus of controlled flows has played a crucial role in the reproduction of capital. The remaking of the urban landscape plays an increasingly prominent role within the ever-shifting geopolitical terrain of neoliberal and state capitalism. Together, the historical and contemporary moments of reflection on the emergence and evolution of the urban landscape in Japan illuminate the critical horizons of the reproductive infrastructures “sounded out” by the photographic overload generated in Komatsu's installation.
Feeding Back the Unsettling Materialities of Photography
It might be useful to flesh out the self-reinforcing loops informing the material processes assembled by Komatsu in The Execution of Personal Autonomy (fig. 6). First, Komatsu's installation cannot be regarded as being invested in the reproduction of a fixed state of homeostasis and equilibrium. We have seen how Komatsu's work troubles the self-contained circuits of static meanings; the unsettling, embodied affects that the installations generate are not products of a unidirectional process of representation or signification originating in the photographed things and terminating in the viewers' gaze. Instead, a positive feedback loop is generated through the viewer's embodied experience of two discrete domains of “reproduction” within capitalist relations of production and consumption. By means of Komatsu's assemblage of photographic materialities and processes, themselves the substrates of the reproductive apparatus of the camera, a momentary self-reinforcing interface among two aspects of capital's infrastructured modes of reproduction is established between industrial sites and the gallery space itself. Second, the continuous evolution of Komatsu's installation praxis establishes an intensive mode of positive feedback among each iteration of her work, amplifying and modulating the interface of the installation anew each time. Komatsu's continual process of reinstalling portions of prior works and modifying the installation's contours with additions and subtractions further overloads the given distribution of spatiotemporal boundaries that ensure the reproduction of value within the circuits of capital.
In Komatsu's installations, the interface among industrial and photographic materialities are visually overloaded through this dual-loop exchange. The installation saturates the viewer's sensorial capacities with the proliferation of both photographed industrial sites and industrial photographic materialities within the gallery space.26 Flows of matter and energy are diverted and re-mediated from their established circulatory pathways and further amplified through the overload of photographic reproduction. The viewer's own embedded position within capital's logistical ordering of the world is made sensible as parts of a momentary assemblage which both encompasses and exceeds our individuated embodiments. The unsettled affects unleashed through Komatsu's photography register these flows as the embodiment of the destabilizing feedback circulating through the overloaded systems conjoined in the assemblage. This amplified affective and material feedback photographically overloads the habituated conduits of capital's intensive and extensive infrastructures of reproduction, making them sensible in creative ways akin to Noise. Komatsu's photographic praxis generates an embodied sense of capital's interminable, creative-destructive flows, humming away beyond our individuated perceptions, much in the way that Noise artists such as Merzbow engulf the listener in a harsh sea of howling feedback loops and overloaded signal processing systems.
Komatsu's photographic overload thus offers a crucial counterpoint to the normalizing, sensorial inundations that inform the urban milieu. By transposing the ordered chaos of industrial sites into the art complex, Komatsu's photography furthermore “sounds out” art's own managed environments, unspoken codes, and normative hierarchies of value. Becoming engulfed within the material substrates of capital's reproductive infrastructures and aesthetic superstructures simultaneously, the viewer's bodily capacities become enmeshed within an overloading accumulation of photographic materialities within the gallery space. Komatsu's installations enact an embodied affective response to diffuse processes that supersede human-centric understandings of autonomous subjectivities and hierarchies of meaning. As such, Komatsu's work generates an acute attunement to our embeddedness within innumerable material processes of an urban expanse critical to the reproduction of our everyday lives. It is, after all, our habituation to diffuse reproductive processes of a vast urban metabolic system that renders us complicit with the ongoingness of capital's myriad forms of distributed violence today. As an urban apparatus of coordinated flows, distributed forms of violence secure the regulated regimes of waste management and pollution control, the indeterminate influences of autonomous algorithmic data processes, and the involuntary administrative protocols governing whose lives and deaths matter, for instance. The prospects of this capacity for attunement within systems of (unevenly) distributed violence pose useful contrasts to the proliferation of spectacular images of environmental disaster and climate-change induced calamities. Such commonplace spectacles do very little to “educate” viewers about the structural violence of the planetary histories of colonialism, extractive capital, and untold magnitudes of Cold War–induced ecological devastation (to say nothing of recent decades of neoliberal and state capitalist catastrophes).
The intensive modalities of feedback and embodied affects they generate suggest that Komatsu's photographic praxis is not merely an artistic practice that expresses an artistic vision of the world, nor is it one that contains meanings or illustrations of a given image of capitalism itself. Such dispositions toward photography often reify the given distributions among artist, spectator, and world, with each understood as discrete components in the reproduction of capitalist values. However, Komatsu's praxis reveals how photographic forms of feedback work to delimit a continuum of entanglements that erode the distributed boundaries among these seemingly discrete series within the larger reproductive processes that inhere within the urban milieu. To consistently work through such a vast continuum of relations is a full-time commitment. We see this reflected in the ways that Komatsu has committed her life to the unceasing work of her photography, essentially reshaping her lifeworld around all aspects of the work of analog photographic materialities. Komatsu demonstrates this committed photographic life through the ceaseless activities of taking photographs, shooting 8 mm films, developing film, and making photochemical prints in her home. She is also active in semiweekly photography workshops with photographer Osamu Kanemura and critic Kenji Takazawa, as well as regular artist talks. In her own words, Komatsu describes the importance of her work as a site where the structures of society are made visible: “What I'm revealing, what you can see here, are the foundations of society. I think it's crucial that there are places where things are exposed, where both the power of construction and the power of destruction are visible.”27
Komatsu's installations and the ongoing proliferations of the generative feedback loops enacted therein create an evolving site for grasping, and potentially reimagining, the reproductive processes of capitalist society. Photographic practices such as Komatsu's materialize deepened attunements to the generative forces of feedback and noise among the circulatory flux of capital's logistical and aesthetic domains of reproduction. These have a decisive role in opening up the entanglements among shared human and more-than-human worlds to potentially noisy and intensive forms of mutually reparative and regenerative relation. As Komatsu's work demonstrates, such transformative relations can emerge in unsettling the homeostatic repressive forces intensively and extensively infrastructured through our enmeshment within urbanized landscapes.
I would like to acknowledge Hiroko Komatsu and Osamu Kanemura for the hours they have spent with me since 2016 to share their singular outlooks and ways of thinking about photography. This project would be impossible without such provocative ways of sensing the world and feeling our entanglements among myriad forms of life. A short, earlier version of this essay titled “Komatsu Hiroko's Photographic Overload,” appears in English and Japanese in the forthcoming exhibition catalog from the first major exhibition of Komatsu's work in North America, Komatsu Hiroko: Creative Destruction , carefully curated and edited by Carrie Cushman, available online at https://simplebooklet.com/creativedestruction. I would also like to express my gratitude to the anonymous TAP reviewers for their generous and insightful suggestions and to Deepali Dewan for her inspired editorial guidance.
The essays assembled in the path-making Brown and Thy, Feeling Photography, are revelatory in demonstrating the fruitful nature of an expanded scope of inquiry into ways to both think and feel with photography.
Inspired pursuits of the ecological dimensions of photography (in contrast to a reductive focus on the representation of damaged environments) can be found in Zylinska, Nonhuman Photography, which considers the affordances and nonhuman nature of image technologies in the context of the Anthropocene, and Schaefer, “Photographic Ecologies,” which revisits the nature-culture rift from the vantage point of contemporary Chinese photography. Schaefer, moreover, elucidates how photography is, by its material nature, ecological: “A photograph, that is, is never really ‘still.’ It is merely a moment in an ongoing and unending process. Hence, by attending to the materiality of grain and bokeh and to the random marks and stains of liquid intelligence—much of that which makes an image ‘photographic’—the photographic practices I am describing here can be seen as not detached but emergent from or interacting with larger ecosystems composed of matter, objects, bodies, spaces, surfaces, and markings, the atmosphere, liquids, and light” (63). While in Komatsu's case, the urban milieu is a specifically industrial and capitalist ecosystem, the affective dimensions we find here do not allow us to constrain photography reductively to one side of the human-nature dualism or another. It is precisely this dualism that has obscured an understanding of the ecological aspects of photographic materiality. The foundations for such inquiries are the ecosophical outlooks elaborated in Guattari, Three Ecologies.
The potentials of this approach to the urban as a crucial reproductive milieu, not only a privileged site in the circuits of capitalist production and consumption, are vividly developed in the work of feminist science and technology scholar, Michelle Murphy, who shifts our attention to capital's “distributed reproduction” as found in the historical emergence of economization of life in her The Economization of Life . Murphy writes, “If production names the generativity of the economy, then distributed reproduction, at its most extensive, names the larger variegated process of becoming with the many into the future that stretches beyond ‘economy’ to include the making, breaking, and remaking of lifeworlds” (144).
My interest in the infrastructural is related to, but not quite equivalent to, a broader “infrastructural turn” in urban and media studies discourses, which places an emphasis on disclosing the “material” supports and substrates sustaining the dematerialized “virtualities” of an increasingly technologized and networked world. See for instance a compelling collection of essays, Parks and Starosielski, Signal Traffic. The ecological and affective entanglements enacted in specific photographic practices such as Komatsu's enable an expansion of our understanding of the infrastructural itself.
Hara, “Mirror Behind Hole,” 78. This translation of Hara's account was included in the “Artists' Artists” series of the December 2017 issue of Artforum. Hara was the winner of the 2016 Ihei Kimura Photography Prize and Komatsu of the 2017 Kimura Ihei Photography Prize. Unless noted, I have made the translations from Japanese originals unless existing translations are available.
Although I did spend many days with Komatsu during the 2016–17 academic year and subsequent workshops thereafter, I was unable to view the installation in person myself.
See for instance, Komatsu, “Artist Talk.”
A crucial aspect of Novak's approach is to emphasize the contingent rather than intentional nature of Noise. Accordingly, rather than see Noise as the later stage in a linear development from Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, experimental musicians such as David Tudor or industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle (and with these, an unbroken chain of influences), the accidental affordances of feedback in Noise render sensible the nonlinear processes of circulation and exchange that characterize capitalist techno-cultural and social systems: “Noise's techne of feedback diverges from epistemologies of musical intentionality. Its modes and techniques are abstracted beyond self-expression, beyond even the flexible constructs of improvisation and experimental sound. Noise is more than merely indeterminate: it is out of control” (Novak, Japanoise, 159).
As Tina Campt has evocatively demonstrated in Listening to Photography , we can also consider the haptic modes of “listening” to photographs.
Komatsu maintains an Instagram account with her current exhibitions, publications, and events. She often includes references to the location of her photographic shoots in her Instagram posts.
This is especially clear in the handmade photobooks such as Port Area, Sakai, Osaka 12:00–14:00, May 4, 2010 , self-published in 2016.
Komatsu's laborious photographic attention to the messy specificities of each site carefully renders them more like 1970s conceptual art installations than the ready-mades of high modernism or a typology of vernacular industrial architecture akin to Bernd and Hilla Becher. In fact, Komatsu has spoken of her interest in Mono-ha (literally translated as the “School of Things”) artists such as U-Fan Lee and the resemblance of these industrial sites with art installations in her interviews and talks. As critic and curator Gen Umezu has written, “If Mono-ha was the manifestation of a keen response to the dawn of post-industrial society—with materiality as its medium—Komatsu Hiroko is an artist who manifests a keen response to the twilight of post-industrial society, with photographs and images as her medium” (“Walk the Apocalypse,” 51). For an excellent overview of the materialist and phenomenological dimensions of Mono-ha work, see Yoshitake, Requiem for the Sun,
Obviously, for those working at such sites, the connective relations among these materials and their role in the reproduction of a normative urban order would be felt in different ways.
For instance, see the chapter “An Illustrated Dictionary of Urban Overflows” in Prichard, Residual Futures, 113–49.
Film and media critic Masao Matsuda, along with Nakahira, were instrumental in the elaboration of a radical discourse of landscape (“fōkei-ron”) in the early 1970s. In Yuriko Furuhata's exhaustive study of Japan's radical cinema of these decades, she reads the emergence of fōkei-ron as “a way to look beyond the documentary qualities of images of urban landscapes and to extract a particular diagram of power from them—that of governmental power, which operates through subtle, noncoercive, and economic forms of policing and managing the urban population” (Cinema of Actuality, 19). I have also described the urban contours of fōkei-ron moment in Prichard, “Introduction to ‘City as Landscape.’”
Kohso, Radiation and Revolution, 74. Importantly, Kohso's study also reorients prior approaches to the urban milieu toward the pursuit of transformative political potentials within the planetary emergence of varied and resonating upwellings of movements reimagining lifeworlds beyond the reproduction of capitalist futures, or what he calls “lives-as-struggles.”
As Komatsu points out, her understanding of photochemical paper prints and rolls that she produces depends upon their status as industrial products. “I am constantly aware that I am making works using industrial materials. For instance, even the photographic paper—these days it is sold in twenty- or thirty-meter rolls, but I use it as it was made. I don't alter the standard size. I don't cut it and use only the parts that I need.” Komatsu, “Artist Talk,” 36.