Masami Kubo is a Brooklyn-based new media and performance artist who explores themes of identity, trauma, and power staging. Often altering and transforming the space she exhibits in, Kubo navigates her viewers through immersive narratives. We met at her studio and discussed Philip K. Dick, the concept of religious spectacle, and cults. We showed her recent VR piece at our group show Re:Core at Institut für Alles Mögliche in Berlin (August 11th - 21st).
How important is it to you that people know the backstory of your religious upbringing at the Unification Church when viewing your work? For those who are unfamiliar with its practices, what would you want them to be aware of?
I prefer that people don’t know anything about me when first experiencing my work. I don’t want any preconceptions of “cults” or religion playing into their first impressions, especially when it’s so easy to sensationalize and alienate those experiences. I’d like to think that any person of any background could view my work and have at least one relatable touch-point. I always strive for that, and it’s something I constantly stress out about. My biggest insecurity is that people might think less of my family or their religion. Perhaps, if anything, I want people to know that I never intend to be negative towards any lifestyle. I’m just trying to create a safe platform for being critical and asking questions.
Architecture plays a great visual role in your pieces - how did you become interested in it?
I’ve always felt that spaces can communicate emotions in a way that objects can’t. Perhaps it started with a series of woodblock prints I made in college that featured abstracted solitary rooms with a single window. It’s something I saw in my mind all the time, a sort of symbol of liminality. In my most recent project, I created a 3D version of that room for a VR performance. In other projects I recreated a small church, a throne room, or a ritual setting. I’m interested in these spaces as mechanisms of indoctrination and social programming. I think that replicating them in secular art spaces is a way to subvert and reproduce similar reactions.
What's your favorite type of architecture and how does it resonate in your work?
Hah, well I wouldn’t say that the architecture I reference is my favorite type, by any means. I’m fascinated by stage displays designed for politicians, pop stars, and religious figures. They all build temporary architectural facades that reference other paradigms of power and authority, whether neoclassical Greek buildings and French rococo estates. In Trump’s case, his RNC looked like a throwback to popular reality TV shows of the 2000s. For people in power, so much money goes into these ephemeral displays, as if it’s more important how they look in photos than in real life. It reminds me of Evangelical churches, or going to art fairs. When designing my performance installations, I try to abstract these theatrical tactics to present myself as a questionable authority figure.
The chair is a recurring motif in your pieces, what is the story behind that?
There are a lot of recurring motifs in my pieces, I like to imagine them as symbols within a personal mythology. I love reducing lofty topics to mundane objects, sometimes it’s easier to talk about trauma that way. Chairs are definitely one of my favorite motifs. Whenever I see two chairs next to each other by themselves, I get a little nervous. I was raised in spaces where two chairs were used to represent the messiah and his wife. These chairs were revered almost as tantric objects to be worshipped in place of a literal messiah. Religions all over the world use objects in this way, and it’s not so different from the “commodity fetish” of secular objects such as designer perfume or smartphones. I’m really interested in how different cultures, big or small, give inanimate objects so much power and authority.
In your exhibition at Kimberly Clark gallery you transformed the entire space by painting the gallery pink and building into the structure of the gallery. In your piece "Do cyborgs dream in red and white" you build a literal stage for viewers to step on in order to view the work in virtual- why is it important for you to transform the physical space in order to create a narrative?
Getting people to empathize with something is easier if they can experience it for themselves. Creating a closed or claustrophobic space, whether physical or virtual, is the first step of manipulation. It’s one of the best ways to get people’s undivided attention, especially when doing performance. I try to create psychological spaces that mimic my own identity issues, and appropriate aesthetics that were part of my childhood indoctrination. If I can transport my audience to that closed space, while knowing it’s all a temporary facade, then maybe I can expand their perspective a little.
Your recent work "Do cyborgs dream in red and white?" is a virtual reality piece - what drew you to this medium? What's the future of VR in a contemporary art context?
At first I shied away from VR, it just seemed like another tech gimmick that artists weren’t using thoughtfully. However, the first time I experienced VR I found myself immediately sucked in. It’s both disorienting and comforting, like being inside a cult. For my practice, VR is a great medium for creating an isolated and coercive experience.
But VR is still pretty primitive in a sense, and the technology isn’t exactly new. I think it first manifested in the 80s, but for some reason didn’t gain traction until recently. I see it as a continuation of the phenomenon of the moving image, the stereoscope, or big panoramic Kanō school paintings. I already know VR is going to be huge in the porn industry, but once the technology is more accessible it might become more ubiquitous. I think of how “internet” artists became “postnet” artists, and how most artists resent those affiliations now. Perhaps the same will happen with VR as a medium, but for now I think it’s still important to use the format with some self-awareness.
The piece is inspired by Philip K. Dick, does sci-fi literature often play a role in your pieces? What other authors do you like?
Definitely, I love sci-fi everything, from anime to books. I reference other cyborg themed classics like Metropolis (the French original and Osamu Tezuka’s version), and of course Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell. I relate to any cyborg protagonist, since my conception was more about creating a prototype for an “ideal race” than traditional family values. I also love the subtle sci-fi mechanisms in Haruki Murakami novels. He manages to seamlessly weave history, trauma, and fantasy into sometimes completely mundane plots.
What contemporary artists are you looking at?
Hito Steyerl is one of my favorite artists. Similar to Haruki Murakami, she often uses documentarian content to drive a more poetic conversation about global issues. Walid Raad is another favorite artist who walks a fine line between fiction and biography. Recently I’ve been researching an artist movement called “stiob,” which was a unique approach to political satire in response to authoritarianism in Eastern Europe. Any artist who is making political work right now should look into it.
Tell us about any upcoming projects, talks, residencies, etc.
I just got back from a conference in Bordeaux, organized by various international cultic study societies. It was the first time I presented my research and practice to both an academic audience and an audience of ex-cult members from all over the world.
In August I will be showing my latest VR project “Figure 03: Do Cyborgs Dream in Red & White” in a group show at Institut fur Alles Mögliche in Berlin, curated by Alt Esc!
Many of your works introduce a performative aspect whether live or in video form, is the human presence and the spectacle an integral part in viewing your work?
I personally hate being the center of attention. I never wanted to do performance, but it feels necessary to have these stories come directly from a physical product of these experiences. It’s so easy for people to dismiss a culture that they don’t understand, but I find that people can’t disregard it as quickly when it comes straight from the source. In the case of VR, the viewer is alone with me, in a world I created for them. This allows them to have their own experience, without the influence of fellow audience members.