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From the Archive: Hatsune Miku at the Barbican

Nothing Concrete text
16 Sep 2020
16 min listen

Another visit to the archive – in this episode, we time travel to February 2017 to listen to a series of interviews with the team of collaborators who brought the three-dimensional Japanese vocaloid singer, Hatsune Miku, to the Barbican Hall. 

Following an idea initiated by artist Mari Matsutoya, Still Be Here was a project collectively created with music producer Laurel Halo, choreographer and visual artist Darren Johnston, virtual artist LaTurbo Avedon and visual artist Martin Sulzer.

In a way it’s a scary concept for dancers and performers because Miku is able to do things that are of course not possible 

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we time travel to February 2017 to listen again to a series of interviews with the team of collaborators who brought three dimensional Japanese vocaloid singer Hatsune Miku to the Barbican Hall.
Darren Johnston: In short, I guess I'd describe Hatsune Miku as a kind of super kawaii virtual pop star sensation from Japan.

BE: Following an idea initiated by artists Mari Matsutoya, Still Be Here is a project collectively created with music producer Laurel Halo, choreographer and visual artist Darren Johnston, virtual artist LaTurbo Avedon and finally visual artist Martin Seltzer.

DJ: In a way it's a scary concept for dancers and performers because Miku is able to do things that of course, are not possible. 
Mari Matsutoya: Every line and code that makes up the landscape of a body is collectively decided and made by fans for the fans.

BE: We speak to Mari and Darren about the project and will maybe even help hear from Hatsune herself.
How did you become aware of the virtual character and singer Hatsune Miku in the first place?

MM: So I had always been interested in the voice as a medium or a material, and I'd always had an interest in the recreation or the synthesis of it. Things like Bell Labs' Voder of the 1930s or Euphonia from the 19th century, both inventions that mimic the human voice. Then I was also interested in the soft power of the Japanese entertainment industry like manga or pop. It's a government endorsed idea actually of 'cool Japan',  'Kūru Japan', which is in the end a massive advertising campaign. But yeah, Japan is very much aware of this image, it feeds the world an evergrowing roster of strange and funny inventions so they just lay back and watch as these products are hyped and consumed. So Hatsune Miku incorporated both of these interests of mine.

DJ: The project has given me a window into, I'd say, the deeper, stranger, almost obsessive side of pop culture and allowed me further insights into the psychology and phenomena of Miku as a pop sensation. Also gaining a bit more insight into her relevance in this kind of Japanese Otaku world has allowed my mind to wander.

MM: What fascinates me about her is her fluidity of form because she has a collective identity made up of fans. And so her image is also made up by fans. So what is allowed and what is not allowed to be portrayed is largely decided by Crypton Future Media, the company who holds her Creative Commons licence. And then of course, her fans as well. It's really interesting to see what they allow and what they don't. For instance, there was a version of her where she was pregnant. And also there was furor when she was depicted wearing a wedding outfit where the fans went mental asking the question, who is she getting married to? So every line and curve that makes up the landscape of her body is collectively decided and made by fans for the fans. The Vocaloid software, which the image is supposed to endorse, can't be controlled. This is because the software is bought and once it reaches the consumer, they can do whatever they like with it. So she can be made to sing nasty lyrics, explicit lyrics or politically motivated lyrics, for example, but this is out of the company's hands. Yeah, it might be followed up by YouTube or the respective sort of publishing platforms, but the company can't control this. So I think these two kinds of planes interacting are quite interesting to me.

BE: Once you had the initial idea for the project, how did you choose the team of collaborators?

MM: I had a list of possible artists. I met Laurel through CTM And she was really enthusiastic about Japanese culture and I liked her music, and some the vocal tracks I especially liked and I thought they were really cool. LaTurbo was contacted through transmediale and she was especially relevant due to her own identity as a virtual figure. To this day, none of us - none of the team know who she really is, whether it's even a he or a she, but we always just communicate through Skype. She saw Hatsune Miku as a fellow virtual being, I thought this would also be a useful insight in the project.

DJ: My role in the creation has been quite broad actually, we approached this project as a collective and so have all been quite instrumental in the different aspects of bringing it together. I personally worked as a choreographer, but also contributed a lot to the structure, narrative, and also some of the ideas for the visual aspects. I also worked on the lighting design for the stage. 

MM: And then Martin [Sulzer] pulled everything together, technically, and actually, we all had really long discussions and to make sure that all of us would be represented equally, and not just sort of designated to our own specialisations.

DJ: I think the fact all of us come from very different backgrounds and are quite defined in what we do. So I personally find the process quite liberating as we all had  to come together as one entity in the pursuit of realising Miku.

BE: Were you surprised that a virtual creation like this has gained so much fame and fascination? A few examples being her appearance on David Letterman or supporting Lady Gaga?

MM: I think there's always been this kind of fascination of the immortal pop figure. It's not really far off from how real life celebrity figures are portrayed anyway, whether it's sort of obsessively botoxing or airbrushing away wrinkles. Apart from the Gorillaz, the other holographic stars have been kind of post mortem, so like Michael Jackson or Tupac. Yeah, I think this is a natural progression to what we already see in the media.

BE: Why do you think this pop star has been created in such a young, attractive body, is this a realistic role model for those who have become her fans?

MM: Well, she has such a young and attractive body because this is what the illustrator, who happens to be male, and the company, who are also mostly male, think that fans, probably also mostly male, will be looking for. So the whole point of her is that she's an advertising mascot for the vocaloids software. So yeah, this is just basically looking to sell so she has to have a young and attractive body or so it's thought. This is obviously seen as problematic perhaps from a feminist point of view. Of course she's wearing a school uniform with a very short skirt and long pigtails. So yes, it's very close to sort of male wet dream. But there are girls and boys who dress up as Miku equally in cosplay, such as we encounter Rudolph featured in the piece as well. And girls and boys who dress up as Miku often say they feel empowered by dressing up and becoming this other character, which is the whole point of cosplay. As long as empowerment occurs for the right reasons, I think this is fine, but of course in Japan, it's seldom questioned. But then I think we have to critique the whole industry and culture because I think it goes way beyond just a few characters. It should start with these characters, but yeah.

BE: Taking one aspect of what you contributed, what are the challenges of creating movement for Hatsune?

DJ: There were quite a lot of challenges actually. I think, initially the challenge was deciding which technique we were going to use to create the movement. I wanted her to have a very anime style movement quality, but I also wanted to maintain details of articulation of human ability. I was quite drawn to the doll-like choreography of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and J-Pop choreography in general. Then started drawing deeper into traditional Japanese dance which as a form tells stories through the body. So I experimented with choreography that was doll-like and literally motion captured the characteristics and also movement from my own body and another dancer.

BE: I presume you can do things that aren't possible in the real world. If so, is this liberating?

DJ: In a way it's a scary concept for dancers and performers because Miku is able to do things that of course are not possible in physical reality. For instance, she doesn't get tired, she can't complain, she never needs rest or sleep, and you're not limited by things like gravity. So technically, once you've captured the movement data, you're able to just keep working with the choreography and body pretty much endlessly. I was also drawn to the physical impossibilities choreographically like speed manipulation, and things like achieving true stillness in isolation. Also, in a sense, you can create perfect reversals of movement. Then when it comes to the stage, I was also quite interested in how she can appear and disappear in physical space.

BE: Is there a journey in this piece, a story which you are helping to guide us through? What should we expect from the Barbican show?

DJ: I think with my own work, I often try to steer away from linear stories as such, and prefer to focus on concepts and how to evoke those ideas as an experience. I think we agree collectively in the idea of merging forms, so you could say this piece is part performance, part documentary, part video installation, part music, and so on. Therefore, I think how the audience interprets is kind of open and I think can be seen more as an art project than a narrative piece or straight concept.

BE: Lastly, has Hatsune Miku become real to you in this process? 

MM: I think as soon as anyone has an idea of her in the mind, she already exists and is exerting her presence, but she could never be. Siegfried Zielinski talked about sort of existing online and being offline, and I think that's quite a good portrayal of her existence. It's also possible to have emotions towards an existence like that. We do it through books, we do it through other media as well. We portray a case like this in the piece as well.

DJ: Well, oddly through the process, I guess I had a kind of close relationship with the character in the sense that a lot of the more, I'd say, existential movement patterns you see in a project come from my own body. So there were moments in the studio of me moving and seeing how my movement looks on her. From this, you could say, at times, I had to embody the character and at points become Miku alongside the other dancer I worked with. So in that sense, she became very real, and I became her in order to achieve, I guess, authenticity. What was most amusing to me, which I guess a lot of people won't be aware of is that her whole physical presence in this project, and personality come from my own body and movement, and then the dance sequences I choreographed and captured from the body of a six foot four Japanese man.

BE: Thanks to Mari, Darren and Hatsune who had a little cameo. I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And, if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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