New six-screen visual installation draws on some of the oldest footage of Japan

Conceived by The Light Surgeons, Tokinokawa – which is free to experience at BFI Southbank until January – is inspired by the BFI National Archive’s treasure trove of moving images from early 20th century Japan.

Tokinokawa (2021)

Free to access at BFI Southbank until the end of January, Tokinokawa is a new six-screen installation conceived by UK media artists The Light Surgeons. It draws upon and recontextualises the BFI’s Japan on Film collection, which includes some of the earliest surviving moving images of Japan, preserved by the BFI National Archive and dating back to 1901.

The installation at BFI Southbank mixes our newly restored films with contemporary recordings gathered in Japan in 2020 by London-based filmmaker Christopher Thomas Allen, along with newly composed music by Japanese percussionist and composer Midori Takada and immersive sound design by audiovisual artist Tim Cowie. The soundtrack has been spatialised across a speaker array supplied by Yamaha, with an infographic visual created using machine learning software tools to ‘read’ the archive films. 

“While we were planning our large-scale BFI Japan season, we were mesmerised by the BFI’s new restorations of early views of Japan on film, showing ordinary Japanese lives at the turn of the century,” says Stuart Brown, head of programme and acquisitions. “We knew we wanted to bring these films to life for new and diverse audiences. The BFI National Archive is a living, breathing collection that continues to inspire creativity. By collaborating with The Light Surgeons, one of the UK’s most innovative artists using moving image, we’ve been able to bring a new dimension to this rare archive, opening up a new way of seeing the past.”

The multiscreen work has been created as part of a performing arts collaboration entitled Tracing the Circle, originally commissioned to open BFI Japan in spring 2020 as a live cinema performance at the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Sadly this event was curtailed and postponed by the pandemic but will hopefully be realised in 2022.

Narrative structures originally developed for the live cinema performance have been reimagined to form the immersive installation. Tokinokawa, literally translated as ‘river of time’ or ‘time stream’, retraces the themes and locations found in the archival views of Japan to re-examine their subjects in the present and transport the viewer into a future where archives are continually examined and analysed by artificial intelligence.

Uniting film, music and creative software, the resulting audiovisual installation weaves together a range of universal themes, including our relationship with landscape and nature, modernity, tradition and rites of passage, to transcend one culture and place.

Tokinokawa is presented as part of the BFI’s new year-round BFI Expanded programme, which showcases new forms of visual storytelling by artists’ who work across different media. The commission of Midori Takada’s new score was generously supported by The Polonsky Foundation, with additional support for the project provided by The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.

Tokinokawa will be open daily from midday to 10pm at BFI Southbank.

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