SPUTNIKO!, The Moonwalk Machine – Selena’s Step (2013), stills from video with color and sound: 4 min 30 sec. Courtesy the artist.

Girl Power


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Hiromi Ozaki’s first boyfriend could deliver affections on demand. “I love you.” “You are so beautiful.” “You’re everything to me.” He would coo to her in stilted, motorized syllables from the speakers of her iMac computer, which she had programmed to “converse” with her through a text-to-speech function as soon as she returned home from her all-girls school in Tokyo. This was in 1998, the year Ozaki turned 13, and when Apple released its first all-in-one computer a few months before two Stanford students launched Google. Blogging and email usage swelled steadily in tandem with the migration of data to online networks. Ozaki, however, had been cognizant of the World Wide Web from an early age. “My parents are both mathematics professors, so I would go to where my mum worked at the university, and play on that computer there, and then I would go to my dad’s research institute and play on his computer there,” she explained. “My very first memories were of my parents working in a lab and playing with the internet.” Through this early exposure to data sharing and digital communication, Ozaki began to hypothesize alternate strands of realities in her personal life and in society, particularly in the lack of gender parity. Her virtual boyfriend was the first experiment, stemming from her nonexistent interactions with the male sex and the oppressive social codes of Japanese society. At home, she could romanticize and imagine with free rein.

This discovery propelled her into a career that merges her contemporary art practice with her work at the MIT Media Lab’s Design Fiction group. Her exploration in peer-to-peer sharing and the dissemination of ideas through popular media, as with her music videos, manga-esque costumes and narratives, makes her an idiosyncratic alloy of geek, artist and pop star. Using this identity, Ozaki invents futures for other people as well as herself; this penchant for experimentation extends to even her artist moniker. Sputniko! is a mutation of her highschool sobriquet “Sputnik,” also the name for the series of artificial satellites that the Soviet Union launched into space in the late 1950s, and translates as “fellow wanderer” from Russian. In many ways, Ozaki’s indefatigable search for new modes of living and alternate realities mirrors society’s desire to connect, share and distribute.

At the Royal College of Art in London, where Ozaki studied for her Master’s degree in design interactions, for example, she created three fictional characters that modified their physical forms to fulfill specific fantasies, such as talking to crows. One of the objects to come out of this project was a prototype for a menstruation machine, an empathy device that recalls the design of a chastity belt, meant to be worn by anyone. Non-life-threatening yet painful electric shocks are intermittently released into the lower abdomen, and a vial of blood is programmed to release liquid sporadically—80 milliliters over a single day—to mimic the experience of menstrual cramps and bloodletting. This was accompanied by further investigation into ovulation cycles and another fundamental part of Ozaki’s practice, a three-minute video for which she wrote a synth-pop song and documents a transvestite male’s day with the device while attempting to walk, sing karaoke and take purikura (photos in booths). Eventually, he doubles over in agony, the fluorescent orange wig, makeup and aqua pleather jacket he so playfully donned in the morning restricting movement as the shock of female pain sets in. All the while, Sputniko! sings in girly auto-tune in the background, “you can learn / if you really dare / so feel this new reality / can you ever feel the same?”

Post-graduation, Ozaki began to channel her inquiries into themes of mythmaking, while still developing her style of progressive social commentary conveyed through tongue-in-cheek song and dance. An example of this is Teshima 8 Million Lab, a research facility and shrine moored within Kou in southwestern Teshima, Japan, that opened during the Setouchi Triennale in 2016. The impetus for this site grew from Ozaki’s visit to another shrine, Kanda Myojin, which is kept in the Shinto tradition and is lauded by CNN Travel as the world’s “geekiest temple” for its plethora of amulets and charms guarding against digital threats, including online identity theft and Trojan viruses. Building on this contemporary outlook, Ozaki wanted to advance the ideas of Asian mythology and religion. “I began working with these Shinto priests and they explained to me that from the Shinto point of view, every living thing is a spirit, so once you create a new animal, that can be worshipped too and we can create an amulet for it,” Ozaki said. She had been looking into an age-old destiny fable, called the Red String of Fate, which suggests that soulmates are connected from birth by an invisible, unbreakable thread, and began to genetically engineer silkworms that spooled out fluorescent-coral fibers and produced puffs of oxytocin: a veritable love bug that romantics might truly pray to. Visitors approaching Teshima 8 Million Lab see hanging votives for the hybrid caterpillar leading up to a renovated 60-yearold townhouse, which hosts exhibitions of artworks that ruminate on contemporary faith systems rooted in science—including the permanently featured music video Red Silk of Fate – Tamaki’s Crush (2016), in which a lust-crazed protagonist develops a modified silkworm to ensnare the object of her affection. In the future, Ozaki will focus on mythologies from an Asian view, where eight million deities might be worshipped, seen in Shinto belief, as opposed to Westernstyle monotheistic faiths. This direction—of millions of possibilities instead of one—is reflective of the artist’s view of the world.

Ozaki’s multidisciplinary practice has resulted in invitations to exhibit at Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, as well as commissions from fashion label Gucci (for her glowing silk threads), and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, which collaborated with her on a lunar rover that was incorporated in the work The Moonwalk Machine – Selena’s Step (2013). The video, which imagines a young girl steering the contraption on the moon, was most recently screened in Hong Kong on the façade of the soon-to-open H Queen’s building in Central. Weary, downtrodden office women would look up and see inspiration in Ozaki dressed in silver warrior armor, brandishing a katana. Lyrics such as “I’ll party where no man’s partied before” rebuke the male-centric world of astronautics as a pair of high heels, attached to the rover, triumphantly imprint tracks on moondust.

Ozaki’s commitment to equality manifests in the form of a new project, a suit that mimics the psychological effects of cyber-bullying toward women, which would hypothetically beam waves of hatred— however that might be interpreted physically, or in scientific terms—through one’s body. At MIT, her team is developing a proposal by one of her students, in which any cell from the human body can be replicated to create either a sperm or egg cell, making samesex reproduction and even single-parent reproduction a reality. One thing is clear: she aims to take one giant step for womankind, science and contemporary art.

Portrait of Sputniko! Courtesy the artist. 

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