Artist Cinemas presents
Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, Framed | Faraway, So Close: Week #1
Monday, April 19–Sunday, April 25, 2021
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Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, Framed (still), 1989.

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Bruce and Norman Yonemoto’s Framed (1989), on view from Monday, April 19 through Sunday, April 25, 2021.

Originally presented as a complex, layered installation, Framed is presented here in a single-channel version using two elements that were extracted from the installation. The first element is the film footage that was found by the artists at the U.S. National Archives. These staged films, produced by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), captured a fictional idealized life of Japanese Americans in the American concentration camps during World War II.  More than a hundred thousand innocent civilians of Japanese descent were incarcerated solely based on their ancestry. To legitimize the abrogation of civil rights, the WRA produced this wartime propaganda. The second element is the slide show in which the still images reframe the raw material of the WRA films. Describing the work, curator Karin Higa has written: “The discrepancy between still and moving pictures, the physical proximity and distance to the multiple layers of images, and the contrast between the vigorous activity as projected and silence with which it is received reproduce the conceptual space of personal and collective memory, suppression, and recovery.” (Karin Higa, “Bruce and Norman Yonemoto: A Survey,” Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, Memory Matter and Modern Romance, Japanese American National Museum, 1999, 10.)

The video is presented alongside an interview with Bruce Yonemoto conducted by Rika Hiro

Framed is the first installment of Faraway, So Close, a program of films and interviews convened by Koki Tanaka, and comprising the sixth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

Faraway, So Close will run from April 19 through May 31, 2021, screening a new film each week accompanied by an interview with the filmmaker(s) conducted by invited guests. 

Bruce Yonemoto in conversation with Rika Hiro

Rika Hiro (RH): 
Framed (1989) is your and your elder brother Norman’s first video installation. Can you start by talking a little about some of the earlier works that led to Framed?

Bruce Yonemoto (BY): 
Norman went to UCLA’s film school and got a writing degree from the American Film Institute. Whereas my background was in fine arts, and I was also involved with the beginning of the third world studies movement at UC Berkeley[1]. After I came back from Japan where I studied art for three years, I started working at Santa Monica City College’s video department.

RH: 
Was it part of the college’s art department? 

BY:  
It was separate, and was about video communication. While there I made a documentary about the famous drag queen Goldie Glitters, who was running for the college’s homecoming queen. Then Norman and I made a midnight movie, Garage Sale (1976), with a video component.

RH: 
You were already working between film, video, and art before you started Otis College of Arts and Design. 

BY: 
Yes. At Otis, I studied under Germano Celant, who defined Arte Povera. I examined my environment and thought soap operas and television had become a new site for the generation of human behavior. I decided to make one but wanted it to look like a real TV soap opera, so I asked Norman to work with me. 

RH: 
From there, what exactly motivated you to work on an installation? What were media installations like around then? 

BY: 
The Long Beach Museum of Art’s video curator at the time, Carole Ann Klonarides, was putting together an exhibition about Japanese American internment and wanted us to make a new work.[2] I knew that John Hanhardt, then curator at the Whitney Museum of Art and one of the first to promote media installations, believed that the only way that people would look at media and television differently was to take it out of the context of the living room.

RH: 
Can you walk us through the structure of Framed and how it might reflect your ideas of memory and archive? Was Norman flexible about doing an installation?

BY: 
Norman was a structuralist and was intrigued by our creating a mediated installation space. I came up with the ideas of reframing and creating a model of memory. 

RH: 
The method of framing and reframing was already there from the beginning.

BY: 
Since we were never interned in a concentration camp, the films were difficult material for us. While viewing the War Relocation Authority (WRA) footage we thought about Sigmund Freud’s 1899 article on screen memories. You experience something as a child and when you try to remember that experience, you always gravitate towards something more positive while repressing something negative. The WRA film stands for something very positive, propaganda for the USA basically, showing that the Japanese were happy. What’s fascinating is that it’s much of the only material left of the concentration camps, because the WRA was meticulous in destroying all evidence of the camps. 

RH: 
Very true. What was the impetus for you to dig into the WRA images of the incarceration camps? I imagine accessing archival footage was not that easy back then. Had you thought about using different media images that were readily available, or your family photographs?

BY: 
By chance, David Thaxton, a friend of Norman’s then-partner Nick Ursin who was the cinematographer for our earlier soap opera videos, came upon the WRA footage of the incarcerated Japanese Americans. 

RH: 
How did you select the specific footage from pools of films and photographs in the WRA archive?

BY: 
The footage in Framed, played on a monitor in the installation [see diagram], was all we had.[3] The installation tries to bring forward the hidden real meaning of the WRA material. By reframing the WRA material we show something of the trauma that actually occurred. That’s what that screen in front of the mirror represents. 

But also, there is participation by the audience. You see yourself in a mirror with a backdrop of a painted sky, the type used in TV commercials. When the installation’s lights go off, the audience experiences what happened in the camp for the first time and that becomes their formative memory of the experience.[4]

RH: 
President Ronald Regan had just issued an official apology (1988). In a way, the exhibition at Long Beach Museum of Art was ahead of how the 1993 Whitney Biennial dealt with identity politics. Did it seem easy for the audience to get the mechanics of the installation? And were there other venues for Framed? If there were, do you think that the viewers’ reactions shifted as the display context changed?

BY: 
The work is complicated, but also theatrical and affects people differently. Because of its complexity, Framed hasn’t shown in that many places.[5] This material is still not so well known either. Most first-generation and second-generation Japanese Americans tried never to speak of the whole traumatic incident.

RH: 
This is quite typical to Japanese Americans, who consider the experience shameful.

BY: 
Always! I would just hear positive stories. Again, only the positive “screen memories” remain.

RH: 
Were you expecting to see that kind of positivity in the WRA footage? Was it something close to what you heard from your parents and grandparents?

BY: 
My mother was actually vocal about her experience in the camp. Both my grandfathers were arrested and imprisoned right after Pearl Harbor. Since my mother was the oldest child and bilingual, she had to help her family by dissolving my grandfather’s clothing business. She never forgot the racism and abuse she suffered. One of my great uncles was murdered in the most horrific concentration camp in California. 

RH: 
The notorious Tule Lake incarceration camp.

BY: 
Yes. The only way my grandfather could be reunited with his family was for everyone to stay there. 

RH: 
You and Norman immediately recognized that the WRA documents didn’t show the truth.

BY: 
Therefore, we did not want to make this normalized documentary.

RH: 
The installation is non-didactic and ambiguous. Your reworking of the WRA footage is very much about postmemory, close to what Marianne Hirsch theorized about the second and third generations of Holocaust survivors and how they engaged with their parents’ or grandparents’ traumatic memories through images and stories.[6] Framed witnesses Japanese Americans’ trauma by adoption. At the same time, the witnessing can become an endless exercise because of this emptiness of truthful image concerning Japanese Americans’ lives behind barbed wire. Stories have not been actively told either. In other words, the hidden meaning seems unattainable. Framed thus can also be about this dilemma. 

BY: 
That’s why audience participation is important—creating this new screen memory as if the audience are children forming a memory for the first time.  

RH: 
Indeed, and watching Framed now would bear a renewed meaning. We are even more aware how precarious our lives are with the new virus, recent political disturbances, and persisting systemic racism. What Japanese Americans were forced to endure was different from the current situation, but there are some commonalities. How do you frame Framed in the context of the present crisis? 

BY: 
You’re right. I think that in this moment of disarray, things are still particularly traumatic after our last president. There was no strategy to overcome the pandemic, and it was all about his desire for power. In many ways we are in a sort of war-type situation. During a war, people can be lost, and many lives are ruined in the resulting hysteria. Even before the pandemic, people of color were being attacked.

RH: 
And we hear about hate crimes against Asians again. What are some of the projects that you have been working on? And are there any links with Framed?

BY: 
Essentialism has taken center stage, while racial inequality has become the focus of the art world. Last year was the 75th anniversary of the end of incarceration. I decided to create an artwork dedicated to my Japanese ancestry for an exhibition, that was supposed to happen last fall in Vietnam. I did some research and found that both areas where my parents are from, Wakayama (of Western Japan) and Sendai (of Northeastern Japan), had a long tradition of lacquerware! 

RH: 
Yes, recent archaeological discoveries suggest that Neolithic clay vessels with lacquer existed in Fukushima, Hokkaido…  

BY: 
This simultaneity is so interesting. In Vietnam, too, there are lacquerware artists. I thought of this project called Ladders of Love, in reference to Plato’s Symposium, where one, in a relationship, climbs the steps of love till they reach enlightenment—a perfect type of love. It’s a good metaphor. I planned to take ladders made in the U.S. to Vietnam and pour lacquer over them. The lacquer represents the East, which essentially “covers” the West. 

RH: 
Your family history, art and material history, and the East-West binary are all entwined.

BY: 
I also have a series of photographs called Suspected Japanese Houses from the 1970s. I would drive around LA and identify houses that must have been owned by Japanese Americans. I may make murals out of these photographs, surrounded by lacquer-covered picket fences.

RH: 
That sounds like a fascinating project. I hope you also show it in Southern California where I, too, unavoidably spot Asian features in architectural details and yard designs. 

[1] The student movement across college campuses in California that coalesced in 1968 and 1969 as the Third World Liberation Front, demanding self-determination in education through, among other things, the establishment of a third world curriculum designed for, and taught by, faculty and students of color.

[2] Entitled Relocations and Revisions: The Japanese-American Internment Reconsidered, the exhibition featured mostly third-generation artists and was held from May 10 to July 5, 1992. You can find more information on the history of Japanese Americans and their internment at the National Archives https://www.archives.gov/research/japanese-americans/internment-intro as well as Densho Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.densho.org. For the general understanding of Bruce and Norman Yonemoto’s oeuvre, see Karin Higa et. al., Bruce and Norman Yonemoto: Memory, Matter and Modern Romance (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 1999) and the artist’s website, bruceyonemoto.com.

[3] Karin Higa has described the installation as follows. “Spectators enter a small and narrow room. In front, a mirror reflects their images against a painted backdrop of clouds floating in a clear blue sky. Suddenly, the room plunges into darkness and the mirror becomes a window through which a still image appears on a transparent scrim. Behind the scrim, a monitor silently plays the unedited WRA footage [...]. On the scrim, the blue sky slowly dissolves as photographic images of the Japanese American incarceration, […] hover in front of the moving images. [...] The footage on the monitor and the stills on the scrim fade to black, leaving viewers in darkness. Suddenly the lights come on and the viewers face their own reflections against a blue sky. Not unlike the controlled environment of the concentration camps, everything in Framed is controlled” (Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, 10).

[4] Yonemoto quotes Juli Carson’s text about Freud: “Freud asserts that we only have memories related to our childhood, which is to say the nature of childhood memories, the manner in which they suddenly appear and disappear in simultaneous modes and forms demonstrates that one’s earliest years are never experienced as they were. Rather, these past moments are paradoxically experienced in the present, triggered by related events taking place at the time of memory formation, which is now.” (Juli Carson, “On Critics, Sublimation, and the Drive: The Photographic Paradoxes of the Subject” in Art: Sublimation or Symptom, ed. Parveen Adams [New York: Other Press, 2003], 82)

[5] Framed has been shown at the University Museum at Cornel (1987), Phoenix Triennial (1993), the Getty Center (2008), and most recently at the Municipal Art Gallery in Los Angeles (2017).

[6] Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

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Bruce Yonemoto has developed a body of work which positions itself within the overlapping intersections of art and the cinema screen. He believes that the composition of mass media has become a new historical site for the domination of human behavior. 
He has been honored with numerous awards and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Film Institute, and the Maya Deren Award for Experimental Film and Video. Bruce’s installations, photographs and sculptures have been featured in major one-person shows at the ICC in Tokyo, the ICA in Philadelphia, and the Kemper Museum in Kansas City. A retrospective of work by Bruce and his brother Norman was exhibited at the Japanese American National Museum Los Angeles in 1999. His work was featured in Los Angeles 1955-85 at the Pompidou Center, Paris, the Generali Foundation, Vienna, the Gwangju Biennial, Korea, Pacific Standard Time, Getty Museum, a survey show in Kanazawa, Japan, a retrospective at the Hong Gah Museum in Taiwan, a survey show of work he produced in South America at the Luckman Gallery in LA, a solo show at the JACCC Los Angeles, and a retrospective at the Tate Modern London. Bruce is a Professor of Art at the University of California Irvine. 
bruceyonemoto.com

Norman Yonemoto (1946-2014) was a Los Angeles video artist. His early works include the film Second Campaign(with Nicolai Ursin, 1969), which documented the events around the struggle for People’s Park in Berkeley, California. After studying at a number of institutions, including UCLA and the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Studies, Norman and his brother Bruce embarked on a joint art career, creating their first video, Garage Sale, in 1976. Collaborating for nearly four decades, Norman and Bruce created video works that often deconstructed and rewrote the hyperbolic vernacular with which the mass media constructs cultural mythologies, ironically employing the image-language and narrative syntax of popular forms such as soap opera, Hollywood melodrama, and television advertising. They also produced collaborative multimedia installations, many of which address issues of Japanese American identity in the context of multimedia representation, history, and autobiography. Their work was widely exhibited in museums, and is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Japanese American National Museum, the hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, and other institutions.

Rika Hiro is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Her doctoral dissertation looked at the aftereffects of the atomic bombs in arts and exhibition culture in postwar Japan. She co-founded the non-profit art space Art2102 in Los Angeles and co-curated Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art: Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970 and Radical Communication: Japanese Video Art, 1968-1988 at the Getty Research Institute. She is currently researching Japanese diaspora artists in mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles with a fellowship of the DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion. 

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

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