THE INTERNET AND UNITING OBSCURE ARTISTS: HOW I BUILT PAINT YOUR TEETH

By David F. Hoenigman

In an April 2009 interview, Ian Svenonius asked Mike Watt (bassist of seminal 80’s hardcore punk band the Minutemen) if he thought the anger that fueled past countercultural youth movements stemmed from a lack of access to the kinds of information or art that young creative people needed in their lives, and if the current generation suffers from too much access. Watt seemed impressed by the theory, and almost instantly replied, “That’s a good point.”

In the interview, Watt relates how The Minutemen were born and developed in an environment that had no awareness of fringe culture or obscure artists, it was almost as if the young Watt and his cohorts needed to create their own standards and their own art form to bridge the enormous identity gap between themselves and the music fed to them through mainstream 70’s radio. Watt explains how this unawareness led to uncurbed experimentation and eventually a West Coast hardcore scene springing up around The Minutemen and like-minded bands.

It could be said that lack of access to the type of art they could identify with led to an urgency to stretch the bounds of existing archetypes, recreate the world around them, and produce something utterly new. Though Svenonius asks about the creative force of anger, it seems what the mild-mannered Watt is saying is that in the case of his band unworldliness in more sophisticated artistic realms was something they reveled in, something that infused their innocent delight.

You can find similar stories throughout the history of countercultural movements. The Bohemians, the Dadaists, the Beats, jazz, hippies, punks, gangsta rap, death metal and on and on all speak of a point where young artists rally around a common sense of alienation from established society and collectively forge a new path. While the anger Svenonius speaks of certainly plays a part, it’s intermingled with a joy at having traversed a desert of the commonplace and uninspiring to wade in oasitic waters of self-discovery and justification. The emergence of the Internet causes us to ask what happens if we remove the desert and give everyone access to the pool.

When I happened upon this interview, Svenonius’ question instantly struck a chord with me. The question was able to verbalize an issue that had been elusively floating around the periphery of my thoughts concerning the Internet and community. It was something that vaguely worried me when I considered the effects of the Information Revolution on younger generations of artists: Is excessively easy access to highly self-identifying online communities overindulging the expressive urge and blunting the creative sensibilities of today’s youth? To answer this question I will look at some of the research that has been done concerning youth Internet habits, I will give historical context to some of the fears concerning these habits, I will interview three young artists about the impact the Internet has had on their lives, and I will discuss the role the Internet has played in the development of the artistic community surrounding my Tokyo-based Paint Your Teeth avant-garde live event. I intend to show that though Svenonius’ theory is thought-provoking and consistent with many anecdotal accounts of past developments in the arts, it is perhaps an oversimplification of how today’s young artists are responding to and utilizing the Internet-generated onslaught of information.

I expected my research to confirm my nagging concerns about the welfare of youthful creativity amidst the bombardment of cyber-information, but instead what I’ve discovered has gone a long way to alleviating such concerns. To illustrate my point I will proceed with my initial assumptions intact and show how I was able to gradually (and happily) move beyond them.

 Youth and the Internet, Like-mindedness and Friendship 

It is well-known rock n’ roll folklore that Keith Richards and Mick Jagger’s musical alliance first began in 1960 when Keith saw Mick with Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry records under his arm at the Danford train station. Fans of American blues and rock were rare in England at the time so Richards felt compelled to ask Jagger about the records. Their conversation moved from the platform onto the London-bound train, through their exchange of ideas they’d realize that they were of the same ilk, outsiders looking to change things. The two would go on to form the Rolling Stones and forever alter the course of rock n’ roll music. One wonders if the two young men would have even spoken to each other if the chance meeting happened today. 

 

It’s possible that the 2014 equivalent of a young Keith happens to glance at a nearby iPhone screen in a local train station, recognizes that the young man near him shares his passion for a certain rather obscure music but does not feel overly inspired to start a conversation. After all, he belongs to an online community where fans of the music gather and he’s aware of dozens of such individuals in his area (though he may not have met any of them personally). The like-minded young man in the train station is no longer a relationship to urgently jump at. Our 2014 Keith has been given the illusion of sympathetic community through the Internet, it saves him the trouble of having to make real world chitchat.

Though I’ve used two rock icons to illustrate my point, it isn’t exactly the issue of whether or not certain young musicians connect with each other that causes me concern. It’s the illusion of a sympathetic community that permeates many online social networks that I feel may be doing damage. I say “illusion” because in many cases we find that the friendships forged online are insignificant and easily abandoned. Kraut et al. (1998) state that “by using the Internet, people are substituting poorer quality social relationships for better relationships, that is, substituting weak ties for strong ones”(p. 1028). According to such theories, teenagers will shun contact with their classmates in favor of online companionship. Valkenburg and Peter (2007) sum up some of these findings, “Because online contacts are seen as superficial weak-tie relationships that lack feelings of affection and commitment, the Internet is believed to reduce the quality of adolescents’ existing friendships and thereby, their well-being (p. 1170). As the Internet caught on, such theories abounded, “In the 1990’s, it was often believed that the Internet would especially attract socially anxious adolescents (Valkenburg, Peter 2009). Mesch (2001) showed that teenagers with fewer friends used the Internet more. Nie (2001) stretched the idea further when he showed that it wasn’t limited to adolescents, revealing a correlation between how much time adults spent on line and how this caused them to spend less time with friends. Perhaps people (like myself) were eager to believe these findings because it seemed to agree with our common sense, more time alone in one’s bedroom was antisocial, right?

Part of my thinking with how the Internet could be slowing down youth creativity relates to the role it plays in people expressing their political beliefs online. Papacharissi points out, “political expression online may leave people with a false sense of empowerment, which misrepresents the true impact of their opinions (2002).” Turkle knew this very soon into the personal computer era, she saw that espousing politically through one’s machine at home gave individuals a delusionary feeling of power in “one small domain” (p.175). Lasch would build on this a few years later, writing that computers “satisfy a need for mastering and control denied outlets elsewhere (1987).” A decade later Jones contends that the Internet encourages one to “shout more loudly, but whether other fellows listen, beyond the few individuals who may reply, or the occasional “lurker”, is questionable, and whether our words will make a difference is even more in doubt” (p.30).

When I take these issues into consideration and combine them with how young people use the Internet, I become a bit uneasy. After all, for many young people art is politics. They extol or condemn a certain artist or work of art in accordance with their most deeply held personal beliefs. I worried that if the young were expending themselves on this, if they were pouring their hearts and souls into blogs and posts only read by a handful of like-minded enthusiasts, then were they not in danger of mitigating themselves, was not the most essential part of their artistic selfhood being diffused and scattered inconsequentially across the nether regions of cyberspace?

My concerns were compounded when I looked into whether or not adolescents viewed their online activities as important to their self-identity. While in the past selfhood was intertwined with family and surroundings, it’s become more malleable in recent decades, “youth identity, once held to be rooted in issues of class, gender, race and ethnicity, is now regarded as a more reflexively articulated and contingent project of the self” (Bennet, 2011). As the young are eager to have more of a say in their identity development, it makes perfect sense that they would be attracted to information technology, particularly venues where they can connect with others who share their interests and opinions. Rheinghold points out the power of online exchanges to validate the collective identities of Internet communities (2000). Williams (2006) does not seem inclined to dismiss these relationships as inconsequential, “the Internet is more than a medium; it is a social space through which personal and social identities are constructed, given meaning, and shared through the ritual of computer-mediated interaction (p.95).” Whether we like it or not, what teens do online has a profound effect on how they view themselves, and will play a role in determining how they move into adulthood.

The assumptions we make about the negative effects of the Internet on youth are grounded in a long history of older generations looking at their children’s embrace of new technology with incertitude and concern. In the early 1900’s, movies were under such scrutiny. Society enthusiastically welcomed the new art form and the new possibilities for entertainment and social awareness now available through film. However, some had their reservations and believed movies to be a source of immoral influence luring the youth toward criminal activity and sexual debauchery (Davis, 1976). We see a similar wave of criticism when radio comes on the scene in the 1920’s. It was feared people would stop reading books and attending church (Eisenberg, 1936). “Newspapers reported parents’ complaints about children gulping their meals so as not to miss a favorite radio show and waking with nightmares from listening to radio bedtime stories (Wartella, Jennings, 2000).” Television came to prominence in 1948, launching similar discussions on its negative impact on young people’s artistic sense, ethical values and willingness to socialize (Schramm, Lyle, Parker, 1961). Once we view the introduction of the Internet in this historical context, it’s not surprising that online technology has its detractors.

Though social ineptitude and moral corruption are certainly interesting issues to consider, I would like to focus on the concerns people had of new technology deteriorating creativity: Will the kids stop reading books? Will they lose the ability to distinguish good art? Will they lack the emotional depth to paint exhilarating pictures and write meaningful songs? I now believe the answer to all these questions is “no.” All the fear mongering surrounding the advent of film aside, it must have inspired a few directors and actors to chase their dreams, as radio must have, as television certainly has. Sure, today’s oversaturation of exactly what we’re looking for may soften young people’s anger a bit, but is the resulting emotional condition really one from which they cannot express themselves?

Is it possible that some young people thrive in the oasis despite the lack of having to pay their dues in the desert? Perhaps not everyone sees the Internet as a place to piddle away time, as a place to upload pictures of their breakfast. Svenonius and Watt would probably be lamenting the loss of that certain something in younger musicians as the two progress through middle-age anyway, regardless of the information boom. Overall I think the Internet is especially beneficial to creative types, that we will reap the artistic fruits of it for lifetimes to come.

Artistic communities are often built on friendship. To go back to the example of the Minutemen, Mike Watt (in the same interview) reminisces about afternoons spent in D. Boon’s bedroom, the two of them plucking away on their instruments, cultivating a profound connection to each other. Watch any documentary on any band or art scene and the genesis is always friendship, interviews about the early days are often delivered with laughter and a theme of “we had no idea what we were doing.” So if, as some of the findings I’ve alluded to suggest, the Internet is hampering young people’s ability to create meaningful relationships, it would follow that the art world has suffered serious blows since the mass movement to be online.

However, not all studies point to deteriorating personal relationships. In some cases technology has been shown to deepen existing friendships (Bryant, 2006). In fact, on closer inspection, much of the time teens are alone with the Internet they are doing just that, nurturing connections and deepening bonds through exchanging ideas (Gross, 2004) (Subrahmayan, 2000). Shaw and Gant (2002) show that Internet use can boost self-esteem and decrease loneliness. I believe well-being and friendship can be just as crucial to the development of one’s art as anger and alienation. Even movements at the darker and angrier end of the spectrum, like West Coast Gangsta Rap or Norwegian Black Metal, had friendship as their basis. If the Internet allows young, creative people to strengthen their artistic alliances more efficiently, then so much the better for all of us.

The Internet and My Development as an Artist

When I started using the Internet in my early twenties, it had an immediate impact on the kinds of music I was able to get my hands on. Growing up I had never been interested in learning to use a computer, the black screens with glowing green numbers and letters didn’t attract me, and it certainly didn’t seem like something I’d want to spend my free time doing. By the time I graduated college, I still had no desire to own a computer, I didn’t see it as connected to my interests in literature, film, music or travel. However, the Internet and what it made attainable would soon have a profound effect on me. In the summer of 1994, a friend lent me Daniel Johnston’s Fun album. I was blown away on first listen. It seemed Johnston had reached a level of self-disclosure other artists rarely ever approached. The songs ranged from fragile odes of loneliness and yearning to screaming cacophonous wails of alienation and despair. The imagery he used seemed on a whole other level of expression, like he went deeper back into his childhood consciousness than most others were capable of doing.  I became obsessed with the album, I remember just dying to get off work so I could go home and listen to it again.

The friend who lent me the album knew very little about Johnston. There was a brief album review in one of the major music magazines, but that was all we could find. The article explained that Johnston suffered from a rather severe case of schizophrenia, it had a few anecdotes about his bizarre behavior, and mentioned that he’d been recording cassette albums in his bedroom since 1981. According to the story, Johnston gives these cassettes away on the streets of Austin, Texas. The article went on to suggest that there were dozens of such albums in existence and that these recordings had built his reputation to the extent that he was signed by major label Atlantic Records who had gone on to release Fun. I could find no more information about Daniel Johnston. I didn’t even know what he looked like, though my friend had seen a picture somewhere and claimed that Johnston bore a resemblance to actor Oliver Platt, meaning he had dark curly hair and was rather pudgy. It all made Johnston an anti-hero rock star to me, I had to hear his early recordings.

The local indie-record stores in Cleveland, Ohio were not especially helpful, they didn’t know who I was talking about and didn’t seem to have the connections necessary to put me in touch with someone who could lead me to the cassettes. I asked many people who I knew were interested in indie rock if they knew anything about Johnston, but most knew less than I did. Fun had not been a commercial success, it didn’t appear that Johnston was on tour, it seemed I was at a dead-end. Then I got a computer in my office at work.

Once I started using the Internet, I soon discovered that for the first time I wasn’t at the mercy of chance and timing to find the information I wanted. I could find at least some material on anything that crossed my mind, it wasn’t long before I did a search for Daniel Johnston. I found what I was looking for instantly, I could now confirm that he did indeed look a bit like Oliver Platt, but more importantly there was an order form to request the early recordings. Twelve cassettes were available at $4.00 a piece, I ordered all twelve.

A package came in the mail with a hand-written note from Daniel’s friend who was handling album distribution, I dug into the pile of cassettes and my conception of art has never been the same. Exactly how the music affected me and augmented my development as an artist (I’m a novelist) is a topic for another paper, suffice it to say I used much of what I learned from these albums as a creative blueprint going forward.

As an extension of my ideas on enhanced artistic networking, it’s also worth mentioning here how the Internet would have helped Daniel Johnston himself. It seemed Atlantic Records wasn’t up to the challenge of finding a way to market Johnston’s music effectively, perhaps he’s more of an artist that people have to discover on their own terms. The Internet was the ideal way to get the word out, through the remainder of the 90’s his reputation as a songwriter would grow, he’d achieve international indie-rock fame, tour the world performing his songs, and be the subject of award-winning documentary film The Devil and Daniel Johnston. It’s clear that not every artist is cut out to be a traditionally merchandisable commodity, it’s also clear that not every fan is looking for this, Johnston and the Internet were a perfect match.

Eventually the Internet became not only a vehicle for me to uncover esoteric art, but also a format to begin meaningful relationships with other artists. I first encountered the bizarre work of author Kenji Siratori on a literary website and was soon following what he was doing on Myspace and YouTube. His work seemed as if it was generated not by a human, but some kind of doomed, malfunctioning, cyber-punk android. At first glance it looked like computer code, but it drew me in with unsettling mentions of meat, embryos, and body parts:

The anus-protocol of the megabyte of the dog that encrypted the impulse of the assassin::the drug embryo stimulates chemical annihilation to the brain surge body that was abandoned::vision is cancelled:://coefficient of the cadaver-mechanism of the pleasure of cold-blooded disease animals//ADAM strand of retro-sperm abortion:synapse of control external abolition=caused the despair machine spasm::the synthetic scene of the reproduction nature of the masses of flesh//>>the eyeball of self injects the soul/gram of the mutant/cobalt rock death in Sarcophagus City/. (2002, p. 90)

Through a relentless bombardment of Internet material (writing, noise music, visual art and videos) Kenji was gaining attention and adulation. David Bowie was reportedly a fan. Kenji’s book Blood Electric had been translated into Russian. In online interviews, Siratori spoke only nonsense, bits of computer code interlaced with gore and vulgarity. I wrote him an email and asked if he’d like to read at an event I was organizing in Tokyo. He invited me to work on a collaborative album with him, I sent him recordings of my voice. I lived in Tokyo and he lived in the countryside, so we didn’t meet right away, but after a few months he came into the city and we planned to meet up. He always disguised his physical appearance online, many knew his name and reputation but no one knew his face. I admired his work but I thought he must be a pretty scary guy, I envisioned him scrawny and sickly looking with long, unkempt hair and sunken eyes. He emailed and said his wife would be joining us, I was stunned that he was married and could only imagine a woman in heavy goth make-up and bondage gear. The day before we were going to meet Kenji sent a picture so I’d recognize them at the coffee shop, they were a perfectly normal looking couple posing with their two small dogs.

We’d become friends and work together on projects often. I was impressed by how he had used the Internet to build up an international following and collaborate with artists from all over the world. I was inspired by how he systematically established a sinister cyber-ego that fascinated all who encountered it, and left people wanting more. Siratori showed me the value of online networking and what it was possible to achieve, how one could use the Internet to morph into a multimedia artist. I decided I wanted to do more online than just scatter excerpts of my writing around, I wanted to tap into the worldwide fascination with the underground Tokyo art scene and generate something new there, stir up chaos that I could unite with the experimental nature of my writing and find a unique way to present the resulting work online. I began to build up my live event Paint Your Teeth, relying heavily on the Internet to recruit artists and promote the shows. There have been twenty-three Paint Your Teeth events since January 2009.

Building the Paint Your Teeth Community

In a recent conversation with a colleague, I was surprised to hear him say that he had never initiated contact with a person online and later met that person in real life. I was surprised because I have done this dozens, if not hundreds, of times in the course or organizing Paint Your Teeth. I almost feel that not taking advantage of the opportunities the Internet gives us to build real-life relationships is denying online technology its greatest attribute, the ability to enrich our creative lives and expand our horizons. I first began networking as an artist with the goal of getting my novel published, I soon began interviewing other authors for literary websites, I organized a book reading involving various authors in Cleveland, and I put together a book launch including bands and performing artists in Tokyo. I saw that the Internet was a powerful tool for connecting with other artists, sharing ideas, and organizing events. I was fascinated by the introduction of YouTube and the possibility for anyone to upload their own material. I saw that whatever I was able to establish in Tokyo had the potential for worldwide attention if I could find a unique way to use video media. Eventually there would be two short films, a short documentary, and dozens of live PYT performances available online. The links provide a succinct way to show others what we’re doing in our community, and to garner interest through images and videos.

The concept of Paint Your Teeth was developed through my research on past art scenes and movements (Andy Warhol’s Factory and New York City’s Blank Generation are two that come to mind). I wanted my own scene with experimental music, literature and dance at the center, featuring performance art and audience participation. André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double and the work of Samuel Beckett also greatly infused my thinking. I believed I could find everything I was looking for if I could make the right connections in Tokyo. I wanted a lighthearted avant-garde that embraced the fleeting, absurdist, overwrought pop that covered every surface of the city. I wanted to unite kitsch with highbrow, the enticing with the alarming, and the adorable with the obscure. I believed the artists I was looking for were out there. I believed enthusiasts of offbeat art everywhere would take notice if I could get it up online.

At first Myspace was the ideal tool to recruit artists. I could immediately reduce my search to just the Tokyo area, and exactly the genre I thought best complimented a certain line-up. Due to the convenient design, I could instantly read an artist’s sensibility as soon as I clicked on their page. If I was drawn in, I’d listen to their music, perhaps be linked to videos, and many times be linked to the artist’s official website. I could gather information and contact addresses at a very efficient pace, what would have taken months or years of going to local shows (not that this wouldn’t have been fun, but it would have been expensive and time-consuming) to compile. Especially convenient was how Myspace allowed artists to strategically display links to their friends’ pages, I could often happen upon one band whose style and attitude I liked and be instantly connected to the bands or artists they usually performed with, it was possible for me to familiarize myself with an entire cluster of artists in minutes.

At the time, I preferred Myspace to movies or television as a way to spend my free time, the possibility of discovering a new artist or establishing a promising connection seemed much more meaningful to me. My ability to read and write Japanese was greatly improving, I was driven to understand what these artists were posting about themselves, and I was eager to make them understand what I was hoping to construct. At times it could be frustrating, sometimes I’d find an artist I thought was a perfect fit only to have them decline my invitation or leave my message unanswered. I knew that if I could have a few successful events with dynamic artists under my belt, PYT’s reputation would grow and my recruiting attempts would become increasingly fruitful. Soon I was able to use images and videos from previous shows to entice the artists I was approaching. Step by step it worked, the line-ups became more impressive and the events became easier to plan.

In addition to the very tangible life enrichment of establishing dozens of new friendships, I also found that I now had a much deeper connection to the city. Being a foreigner in such an exotic metropolis, even after living here for many years, can cause one to feel like a perpetual tourist, the language and cultural barriers are real, the novelty can wear off and one can settle into a disgruntled resignation. I often felt homesick before I started Paint Your Teeth, I felt a distance between myself and the other inhabitants of the city. Once I started using PYT as an engine to create interactions (online and in real life), I found I was proud to be a Tokyoite and that it was becoming part of my identity.

Nowadays I don’t rely on Myspace as much, it fell out of favor with people and became an undependable way to make contact. For a while, I heavily used Mixi (the Japanese equivalent of Facebook) until it was eclipsed by Facebook. At this point I have enough connections that I could continue PYT indefinitely without ever having to search for new artists online. Often people who attend the event are artists themselves, and we can make arrangements for future performances on the spot. I had a mailing list (of email addresses) that I used to use to promote new material or upcoming events, but I phased it out when I realized that people greatly prefer to be contacted through Facebook. I feel I am one of the few who laments the passing of Myspace’s heyday, I can’t scout artists or bands as enjoyably on Facebook which seems more focused on celebrating life’s everyday things, and whose users seem more territorial. These days, with our community now firmly established, my focus has somewhat shifted from recruiting acts to maintaining existing local interest in PYT and publicizing the event overseas. I upload live footage to YouTube and use Facebook to disperse it through various channels. Though sometimes, when a certain mood hits me, I’ll take to the Internet and search for new blood. To keep PYT vibrant we need a steady influx of new faces and ideas, the Internet will continue to be an integral part of the process.

Interviews with Paint Your Teeth artists

I interviewed three artists from three different countries, all in their mid-twenties, all heavily involved in the Paint Your Teeth live events and video projects. All three of them now live in the Tokyo area. I asked them about how the Internet affected their teenage years, and how it affected their artistic development. I kept in mind Svenonius’ theory about too much access quelling constructive anger. I asked if the Internet played a role in developing personal relationships or the decision to move to Tokyo. All were very eager to share their feelings.

Cara Maehata, performance artist, originally from New Mexico, USA, in Tokyo since 2009:

When I was in high school it was before Myspace was popular, so I didn’t have the cyber-bullying problem that a lot of kids have these days, but I was a nerd and I’ve always been so. The way that I could find a lot of other people who were also nerdy, were also interested in what I was interested in, was through the Internet. I was very interested in Pirates of the Caribbean fandom and I met this girl online and we’d write stupid stories together, it was fun, whatever teenagers do, we’re still friends on Facebook. Once the Internet came around, it was cool to be able to talk to other people about Lord of the Rings. At least you have someone to join you in giving the finger to the jocks, so it was good.

What I learned through the Internet definitely affects the performances I do now, I’m really influenced by Japanese kawaii culture and when I first performed at Paint Your Teeth I really wanted to take the piss out of the kawaii thing. I took it so over the top, made it so ridiculous, so cute, I wanted to see if people were gonna buy it and if they were gonna say it’s cute, and they did. I discovered all of the Japanese stuff through the Internet. When I was in high school I watched an anime called X/1999 on video tape and the ending song was “Forever Love” by X Japan. I was blown away by it, and thought –who are these X Japan people? I took to the Internet from there and found Dir En Grey, Gackt, and Malice Mizer, it all spun out of control from there, Lolita fashion and all these other offshoots.

Knowing about X Japan totally changed my life. Aside from the fact that I think they’re an amazing band and their music as art truly affected me, obviously with my tattoo and everything, I love them. It influenced me to come over here and maybe build a life out here. And that totally changed the entire direction of my life. It’s sad that there are awesome artists in any place that maybe you might never know about. So the Internet really helps with that, look at this cool band or look at this crazy performance guy.

If it wasn’t for the Internet, I wouldn’t be living in Japan. Getting into X Japan was a catalyst for me, and I got into anime because of Sailor Moon. You know …Sailor Moon,  …X Japan …husband.  (chuckles)

Kawaii is the Japanese word for “cute” and refers to a hyper-aesthetic of much Japanese pop art. The bands Cara mentions are all Visual kei bands. Lolita fashion is associated with the Harajuku area of Tokyo. Cara has an X Japan tattoo on her wrist. She met her husband on Mixi.

Veronika Senda, illustrator, originally from Emsdetten, Germany, in Tokyo since 2010

With my first Internet contact in my teenage years, there were no social networks, there were chat rooms, but I used it for looking for pictures and sources of inspiration. Social networking and talking about fandom was a bit later. When I really got into the anime scene in Germany, it was through a magazine and not the Internet, that had a big impact, but before that I didn’t have a chance to find stuff I liked, just consuming whatever was on TV and drawing by myself. Once the Internet came, through the links you could find other similar related art, later I found a lot of horror stuff, not only mainstream stuff which was on TV.

I remember I went to the record store and asked them to order some X Japan, and they said they didn’t know it and couldn’t order it. They couldn’t get it, the only source was anime conventions where people imported demo tapes, the few CDs they had were incredibly expensive.

I’d be living here even if it wasn’t for the Internet. After a while I discovered that everything I liked was from Japan, when I was a child watching anime or certain characters, I wasn’t aware that it was all from Japan at the time I was in elementary school, I continued liking that stuff and discovered other stuff and thought –it’s all from Japan, it led me here. I would have figured this out even without the Internet.

Cara and Veronika first met on a website devoted to Lolita fashion.

Alex Paillé, filmmaker, originally from Quebec, Canada, in Tokyo since 2005

Ever since I had the Internet installed, at 14 years old, I would spend all my nights in chat rooms, talking to people from all over the world and learning tons of things! My teenage life revolved around the net. I wouldn’t say it hindered my development, but I doubt it helped it either. I think it just gave me different views on things and gave me access to more information. Before owning a computer, I would spend my days drawing in my room and reading comic books.

I first got interested in Japan in elementary school when our teacher taught us how Japan, without any natural resources, was able to keep up with the rest of the world with their high education and manufacturing. Then in high school, we saw a TV report in class that showed high schools in Japan and how different they were from North America. They showed this kid who was a “delinquent” for holding hands with a girl in the hall. That left an impression on me, as everyone my age in Quebec was into drugs and alcohol. I thought it would be a nice place to live someday. And of course there was the Saturday morning anime on TV, but that’s another thing.

It’s hard to say if I’d live in Tokyo if it wasn’t for the Internet, because my first trip to Japan was for martial arts training. But deep down, I always was an otaku at heart. Now that I think about it, I did Japanese martial arts, read manga every day, watched anime, listened to Japanese music …wow!, I was more of a geek than I thought!

As for personal relationships, I’ve made lots of friends online, I’ve made tons of enemies as well. I love it.

Otaku is the Japanese word for “nerd,” it can also mean an enthusiast of a certain subculture. Cara and Alex use the words “nerd” or “geek” to mean subculture enthusiast rather than the more traditional meaning of the word, as one who’s bookish and socially awkward. Manga is the Japanese word for “comic books.”

Though all three of these artists seem very affected by the Internet, it’s interesting that their answers vary on the issue of whether or not the Internet was instrumental in their decision to move to Tokyo. Cara answered the question affirmatively, Veronika answered negatively, and Alex seemed to be uncertain. It’s noteworthy that they all mention anime. It’s also interesting that the word anime (referring to Japanese animation) is now included in many English dictionaries along with the other Japanese words that pepper these three artists’ interviews: kawaii, otaku, manga. Though all three mention their initial fascination with Japan beginning elsewhere, it’s clear that the Internet played a role in nurturing their curiosity. It’s thought-provoking to consider what will happen as the Internet continues to disperse various countries’ pop cultures around the globe. To many fans, Japan got a jump on being the command post of cool through the allure of its anime and manga. Perhaps in the future multiple countries will gain ground in these realms, and online interests will lead young, developing artists to increasingly unlikely destinations. Perhaps Estonian or Swahili words will sneak into our dictionaries, and American kids will imitate their street fashion.

Toward the end of Alex’s interview, he makes a lighthearted comment about creating online enemies. Both Cara and Veronika, a bit more ruefully, address the issue of disparaging feedback from the Internet community. Cara states, “The only way it could negatively affect you is by maybe frightening you off. It’s intimidating, the Internet is scary. I don’t want to hear what people have to say about my art. I don’t want to hear it because I can’t handle it.” Veronika expands, “It’s good and bad, so you just have to find a way to personally deal with. Some people wouldn’t care about bad comments, other people take it personally.” These interviews only skim the surface, I would like to talk to more artists, and I would like to see more studies done on the Internet and creativity. I’ve focused mostly on the positive effects, but I’m mentioning the demoralizing aspects of online communication here to avoid being seen as presenting an oversimplification.

Is Paint Your Teeth a success?

In some ways I view Paint Your Teeth as an experiment I’ve conducted using the Internet. A high percentage of the emails and texts I send, nearly every YouTube clip I make public, and the majority of what I post on Facebook is in some way related to PYT. I have used it as an engine to discover exactly what the Internet makes possible, and the most encouraging facet of what I’ve found is that there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. PYT started generating media attention within the first few months of its existence, and hasn’t stopped since. In print Paint Your Teeth has been featured in Bizarre Magazine and The Japan Times.  Online PYT has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Animal New York, Horror Sleaze Trash, HTML Giant, Laughing Squid, Paraphilia Magazine, RaiseART and Zaeega. International Cable TV station Souvenirs from Earth broadcasted Australian filmmaker Simon Hill’s short documentary Paint Your Teeth – an Introduction to the Tokyo Underground throughout France and Germany. Hill is making a feature length Paint Your Teeth documentary movie that is currently in post-production, he intends to screen the finished product at international film festivals. In short, I’ve been amazed at the attention PYT has been able to gather. The wheels are in motion to start regular Paint Your Teeth events in Australia, Germany and Peru.

Kate Ruby of New York City-based website RaiseART, after watching Simon Hill’s film:

After watching Paint Your Teeth – an Introduction to the Tokyo Underground, I would sum up the night in two words: show & spectacle. But, perhaps Paint Your Teeth is best described by one of the “Donuts Lolitas” who explain the show as “A bunch of weirdos doing weird art performances for other weirdos”. Revealed through a montage of the crazily costumed performers combined with interviews with the aforementioned artists and audience members, it’s clear that the Tokyo underground is in its own galaxy, and Paint Your Teeth’s stars shine like none you’ve ever seen before.

Filmed in December of 2012, this documentary is one that most will find enthralling, a trip down the rabbit-hole into an entirely new art world. To quote Alice in Wonderland, each act becomes “curiouser and curiouser.” David Hoenigman, the founder/organizer of PYT, captures the spirit of the show early on in the film with a quote of his own: “It’s kind of a lighthearted avant-garde, I guess, which hopefully is kind of unique.” David’s hopes have materialized. Paint Your Teeth is entirely, not kind of, unique. (Nov. 2013) 

UK-based Bizarre Magazine describes the Paint Your Teeth short film:

Kinky Japanese schoolgirls with a penchant for patricide. A whip-cracking dominatrix with luscious lips like a bicycle inner tube. A pink foam octopus having a love affair with a monster whose head is covered in bulbous tumors…

Welcome to the whacked-out world of Paint Your Teeth: The Movie!! This 20-minute film from French-Canadian film-maker Alex Paille, is an homage to the Japanese event of the same name, and has the Bizarre team obsessed ever since it set eyes on it. (June 2012)

Though I’m delighted by all of these developments, one of my happiest PYT moments came very recently when I ran into local musician Dave McMahon in the lobby at the Neutral Milk Hotel concert. He was excited to talk to me and very animated, “I keep hearing this story that Marilyn Manson read about Paint Your Teeth in Bizarre Magazine, that he watched the documentary and got really into it, he came to Tokyo with an entourage of people and they all went to Asagaya looking for you but the club was closed so he was really disappointed, but they had nothing to do so they had to just leave. I keep hearing this story everywhere, can you confirm it? Is it true?” For years I’d been wondering if I wasn’t over-documenting the PYT events, if perhaps putting so many images and clips online wasn’t limiting its ability to generate its own exaggerated myth. What I admired most about past countercultural movements was the mystique they were able to formulate around themselves, a framework that allowed the space for overactive imaginations to inject captivating (yet dubious) oral history in. McMahon’s tale of a famed US shock rocker dragging his associates through the back alleys of Tokyo looking for me, led me to believe that Internet transparency hadn’t hurt me, that fostering the unbelievable was still within my grasp. I came home and checked the Internet to see if there was anything about Marilyn Manson being a Paint Your Teeth fan online, repeated searches came up empty, but I sent his management an email letting them know how to reach me, just in case.

Conclusion

I began this report thinking I wanted to look into Internet-based subcultural communities (Bronies, Living Dolls, Furries, Otherkin …etc.) and question whether or not such communities weren’t a little too comforting, if they weren’t somehow draining the creative essence of young artists eager for a taste of sympathy and a bit of self-identification. I felt that Svenonius’ theory hit the nail on the head, that access had pacified the youth, I took it a step further and began to see the young generation as divided and conquered, groups of separate clusters with their backs turned to us, giggling at their own inside jokes. I began to gather sources on youth subcultures and the negative effects of Internet use, I figured I’d throw in some studies on the positive effects as a counterpoint and everything would fall into place. However, I soon found that the studies that dealt with the Internet in a positive light rang more true to me, and I began to see my own experiences as perhaps being relevant to the argument.

One of the reasons I had initially kept my own experiences out of the conversation was that I am no longer young. Though I was in my early-twenties when I first started using the Internet, I didn’t start Paint Your Teeth until I was 36. I also felt that my experiences were too atypical to do anything but muddy the waters in a general discussion on Internet use. I thought the way I used the Internet was rather different from other people and I didn’t want to overcomplicate the issue by speaking at length about its role in my life. However, the more I thought about it, the more I felt I had something relevant to share, so I shifted my focus from youth subcultures to Paint Your Teeth.

Ultimately, I believe no amount of theorizing or research can lead us to an invulnerable environment that ensures artistic self-realization for everyone. The Internet may help some and hinder others, but it will always come down to individual perseverance, talent, the right set of circumstances, and a tinge of what-was-meant-to-be to achieve artistic success.

 

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David F. Hoenigman

David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings (2010 Jaded Ibis Press) and Squeal for Joy (2014 JIP). He’s the founder and organizer of Paint Your Teeth, an avant-garde live performance event regularly held in Tokyo. He’s an assistant professor at Meikai University and also writes for The Japan Times. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he has lived in Japan since 1998. He’s currently working on his third novel Man Sees Demon. (Photo By Mayumi Hoenigman)

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