Digital Art Week 2022 in Tokyo: Interview with Yoichiro Kurata and Warren Wee

This week Digital Art Week 2022 has opened in Japan presented by Shinwa Artex and is currently on its second run after a successful first edition held in February. This interview brings together Yoichiro Kurata, founder of Shinwa Artex and a long-standing art supporter in Japan, and Warren Wee, creative director and curator of Digital Art Week. A hybrid presentation featuring physical locations inside the Ginza district in Tokyo and Shinwa Space Ship, a virtual gallery accessible worldwide for audiences. It can be accessed through this link. In this conversation we discussed how digital transforms the real and what it means to curate the physically non-existent. 

Yoichiro Kurata
Warren Wee

Nina Mdivani: Mr. Kurata, where did the idea of the digital NFT 2022 originate from? How is your company, Shinwa Artex – subsidiary company of public listed Shinwa Wise Holdings, involved?

Yoichiro Kurata: We started to sell NFT as a company from April 2021. And although we just made good sales, we also saw that NFTs represent a growing industry and a field in itself, although the quality of this art is not really very high. So, I thought that we need more aesthetically oriented NFTs. Because what normally is presented as NFTs is pretty generative, relying on the aesthetics of apps or mangas. And then I wanted to look out for the possibilities, to find a real alternative. And this was an idea that I have discussed with Warren Wee, to pick up artists from the real world. Following this conversation Warren picked up 22 artists in a very short period of time. 

Warren Wee: For the first edition there was a mix of international artists and also very high-quality Japanese artists. It was a good synergy between the International and Japanese artists showing for the first edition. The participants of the ongoing Digital Art Week include ORLAN, Yoichiro Kawaguchi, Jahan Loh, The Jayder, Saki, Elisa Insua, Justin Lee, Kesson, Mojoko, Riniifish, Hayato and Manabu Koga.


NM: So, you had from what I read, quite successful first edition in February of this year. What made you decide to follow up with the second edition in the same year?  

YK:  Yeah, the first edition of the Digital Art Week was very successful, and well received by the market. So, I thought that this type of art requires more regular showings, that presenting it once in six months will grow the right audience.

NM: Right. I just wondering when you’re saying has been successful in terms of the reception? How can you define success in with something so intangible? 

YK: The first step was the reception from the mass media and a lot of publicity. And also, the sales itself, of course. But for me, over the year that I sold more than 1 million US dollars’ worth of NFTs art. 

NM: In terms of the NFT sales I have been just in preparation for this interview, I read a couple more recent articles on it. And it seems that at least in the US, the market for NFTs has been slow. And did you notice that in any way, in Japan or in Asia in general? Or it’s pretty much at the same level as you when you started working on this concept?

WW: I think for the general PFP (Profile Picture) NFT category there has been a decline, because it is highly tied to cryptocurrencies and is based on a lot of hype. For contemporary art, or rather, for the contemporary artists who are progressing to digital art, it is a standalone segment as they already have a strong following and collector base. So, in the sense for the current showing, we actually tap on the expertise of all these digital, and traditional artists. Some of them are showing digital art for the first time, they already have a strong collecting base for the physical work, and I don’t see the market, declining for them. These artists might be seen as working on a separate medium. For instance, these artists could be doing paintings, but progressing towards sculpture. Collectors could also be collecting both segments. And then in this case, digital art is a third category for them. 

YK: Yes, demand is very resilient. But on the other hand, real art collectors who are really   interested in collecting digital, they actually try to find good art. Our auction results are also increasing every time. It is a good trend we are observing. We try to cultivate the digital market as well as other markets for artists with whom we collaborate.

NM: Great. One question I am curious about is why did you select the artists that you did for this edition?

WW: There are thirteen artists showing as part of the Digital Art Week. Recommendations for the Japanese artists came from the Shinwa team due to their extensive expertise in the Japanese market. I mostly worked with the selection of the international artists. In terms of the curatorial and creative direction of the show I could really term it as an “intersection”. Intersections between digital and traditional artists from various eras, geographical borders, and, of course, technological backgrounds presented within one digital and physical space. In this way we have established artists showing alongside very fresh artists; various styles and practices present, but also a synergy, all tied within digital presentation. And, it basically shows the technological advancement throughout the years. Also, the intersection is the theme of this Digital Art Week because it presented a challenge for some traditional artists to create works in digital realm, without no prior experience or technical backgrounds. So, there were some artists such as: Justin Lee, a traditional contemporary artist from Singapore who made an animated stop motion digital rendition of his physical painting which is also on show at Digital Art Week Tokyo. Saki, a young Japanese artist who animated her color pencil work and brought it to life. And Buenos Aires based artist Elisa Insua, who worked with Strata to add an Augmented Reality element to her physical sugar-coated sculptures which are actually expired South American candy encased in resin.), they actually made some digital work, you know, alongside physical objects. 

Elisa Insua
Justin Lee

YK: Actually, I started to collect for my personal digital art collection, since 2005. It was when I went to New York where there were many western digital artists working in this medium. And I have been collecting them for the last twenty years. And this part of collecting also mirrors the shift in the art market, such as NFTs coming up and with the proliferation of the blockchain technology, we found that a digital art is a growing part of the global art market. This trend is here to continue because the digital world is expanding now. I really wanted to support this direction by creating the opportunity, and also put all the great art into the metaverse.

NM: Also, Mr. Kurata, one of the questions that I had for you, it was fascinating for me to read about this Edoverse and this new technological initiative spearheaded by your company. At what stage of development Edoverse is at the moment. 

YK: We had an original idea and when I met Mr. Tokugawa who is a Shogun and descendant of the Tokugawa shogunate, the topic of Edo period of Japan came up. We talked to him about what it would be like if we recreated this ancient city (Tokyo) in the modern world with the help of the metaverse. I thought that if we just create the world, if were we to create a city, I think the city should be more realistic. The Edo castle is so real and so beautiful. And then we can just add a suitable real avatar and become part of this new ecosystem that does not have pollution, extinction, or extraction. If you just lived in this world, there will be less waste. And you are not consuming energy. If you just get into the metaverse and follow the arrow bars, and then you can just enjoy the art and a beautiful landscape. And if you can play the game that is also part of the Edoverse you can also earn money. So, this can be a sort of human life, a better human that I try to create. Inside the buildings I want to create the museums by putting contemporary digital art and NFTs inside there. At the moment it’s still in an alpha version and the real version will be available from the end of the next year.

NM: It will be fascinating to see and experience. What and I had a question for you in terms of the format of the Digital Art Week. As I saw, it’s a hybrid format, can you expand a little bit on this?

WW: So basically, by hybrid format, we mean that there will be a physical exhibition and a digital component. Throughout the Ginza gallery digital works will be presented using high-definition monitors and also laser projections. But In addition, this second edition of Digital Art Week will have an immersive 3D, virtual exhibition space in the form of Shinwa spaceship. Dual modality of the presentation will allow for the viewers to actually experience the art, both in person and also in a virtual setting. 

NM: What do you think about NFT being a new segment of our industry doesn’t have the future? Is this where you see the future of art, kind of material disappearing into digital? 

YK: I have no doubt that NFT market is going to expand in the future. It is going to be a new huge industry linked through the metaverse and blockchain technology. It will be very important for the human infrastructure in the future. This is not the very near future, but we are going to experience a big change in the lifestyle for human beings, because this is the new capitalism. This new sort of capitalism is connected to the mass production, mass consumption, mass waste, and then the people just, you know, ignore the mass waste that and try to just enjoy the profits. But these kind of unsustainable structures of the existing capitalism are not going to continue forever. So, the humans have to change their routes. But how we can change? We can reduce waste, or we can just tone down and slow down our lifestyle. If you are living in a digital world, we can be more active, it’s going to be much more efficient, and could lead to a better life. That’s actually, you know, the possibility of NFT art and NFTs in general. I foresee that the future that the metabolic world actually, is going be the major part of our life. Probably, I think that you’re living in the existing world now. But probably one and a half of the human life will be lived in the metaverse in the future. This time is going to come very soon, in about 10 years’ time. So, a major part of our lifestyle is going to change, you do not have to go to the office anymore. And you will be having a very nice private loop then you just get into the mental bars that were having in the meeting and the business and then games, everything. Yeah. So that the real lifestyle change coming up. So, our life is going to look very differently.

NM: It’s very interesting to see the future from your perspective. What’s your vision with this Digital Art Week? Is it something that you were saying that you’re thinking you’re planning of kind of implementing it every six months?

YK: We want to continue presenting the Digital Art Week on a regular basis, maybe twice a year. And then I really want, this event to grow. So, in this case, we might need a partnership with various art players. And then if I want to invite more artists from the world, digital artists as well as traditional artists. We want to just expand this operation, and year by year and for our audience to be ready and wait for it.

WW: Digital Art Week will be bigger as long as it progresses. Starting with the first edition in February that was purely a physical showing we have progressed into this hybrid model. But For the current edition, we have built up an immersive 3D space in the form of a spaceship. The idea for this spaceship came from the exterior of the Ginza gallery which has a metallic sheen to it, it’s very reminiscent of a very generic, futuristic building. In that way, giving a very cosmic feeling to it. There’s a lot of steel in the visual language of the spaceship design. The whole concept was because in the futurewe have NASA exploring the moon as part of the Artemis program with the idea to bring a sustained presence of humans, to live beyond the Earth. In the case of Digital Art Week, the Shinwa Space Ship concept is like an ark carrying artworks. As a travelling capsule, that encapsulates culture and a slice of history in a point in time. Once the spaceship is launched, the viewer can explore the spaceship and artworks. And, look at the artworks differently between both the physical and digital realms. So, in summary, that’s the concept of the spaceship and the hybrid art event.

NM: Cool. And in the future, you pretty much will do you think you will reuse this concept of the spaceship? Or you would think about a different mechanism of delivering this kind of static goods?

WW: It is a good question, regarding the spaceship concept. We have not decided if we are reusing it yet. Every year, we try to make things very different and very interesting. We want to transport the viewers to a different kind of dimension where you are immersed into a distinct universe (similar to the Edoverse concept), and able to experience a different type of life beyond the every-day.

YK: Museums within the museums too and maybe we will think about collaborating with different platforms, because they would this is something that they should be potentially interested in. I think what we have to just seek the seek these opportunities as they are presented.