By Anina Lyck Uldum
Provoke was a Japanese photography magazine, that existed between November 1968 and December 1969. Only three issues were published, but the impact has been persisting, both within Japan and outside of Japan. According to Mousse Magazine, the photography of Provoke: “is regarded as one of the high points of post-war photography”. Some of Japan’s most well-known and influential photographers appeared in this magazine, such as Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki. The years during, before and after the active years of Provoke, are called the Provoke era, or the “Golden Age” of Japanese photography. Besides Provoke, similar ideas and styles in photography was also practiced by The VIVO group between 1959-1961, and showcased in photography journals such as Gendai no me and Asahi Camera. Miryam Sas describes Provoke as being a “seemingly flimsy doujinshi” (a fanmade, self-published zine or comic), thus related to DIY and punk-movements. The magazine is born out of an explicitly counter-cultural approach to art, photography, writing and publishing.
The period between the 60s and 70s in Japan was tumultuous and marked by protests by students, farmers and workers, who criticized the post-WWII alliance with USA, and the rapid modernization of the country. Provoke was born out of this zeitgeist, and as the titles refers to, the collaborators, writers and photographers sough to provoke critical thinking and new perspectives. Mousse Magazine argues that: “[…] photography was deeply implicated in the aesthetic and political debates of the time, challenging and renewing older documentary forms.”
In this blog post, I want to regard Japan in the 60s and 70s as a sort of liminal or transformative time, and in turn I will look at the photography of Provoke as visualizing this uncertain state. I want to discuss how photography can make us more reflective about political issues, and how it can be used as a means of protest. I want to explore how the photography of Provoke visualized and conceptualized the disorder and confusion, that people felt in the years of rapid westernization and modernization. I will use Anthony Giddens’ concept of modernity, a deeply uncertain, but also reflective, time period, and compare this to Miryam Sas and Philip Charrier’s exploration of the Provoke era. Through this, I will examine how the writers and photographers behind Provoke abandoned visual “coding” to construct a method, with the goal of undermining capitalism and oppressive power structures. I will then compare this to Roland Barthe’s analysis of Cy Twombly’s “gestures”, and compare the Provoke project to earlier modernist, avant-garde art projects — in this case, that of Dziga Vertov.
I will seek to shine some light on how art can be of political importance, and how art can function as a way, to be reflective about the kind of confusion that exists in countries, standing in the midst of big societal changes. Today globalization, westernization, technologization and modernization seems like a given in Japan, but many countries are in the midst of similar liminal processes, and a critical and reflective stance is as important as ever.
According to Asian Art Newspaper, the period after WWII was prominent with great changes in Japan, caused by an intense period of industrialization which resulted in an economic boom. This period was also marked by US-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo), which secured American influence over Japanese military and continuous presence within the Japanese border. Many Japanese citizens feared this influence and the loss of Japanese autonomy. During the same period, the rapid economic boom gave way to increased social inequality, which also caused anxiety and discontent among the Japanese. In an era of international protests, and with the rise of student uprisings in America and Europe, the same tendency grew and exploded in Japan in the 60s and 70s:
“This tension reached fever pitch in the late 1960s, when political radicalism and mass protests erupted across the nation. Two flashpoints were the imminent renewal of Anpo, which embroiled Japan in the Vietnam War, and the Expo ’70 The World’s Fair in Osaka, which presented Japan as a technological powerhouse.”
The photography of Provoke was infamous for a harsh, super high-contrast black and white photography, with tilted angles, blurry motives, soft focus and loud, grainy “noise”. This was referred to as “are-bure-boke”. A decidedly unpretty, chaotic and distorted style, consciously reflecting this atmosphere of tension and confusion. The photographer Daido Moriyama has stated: “Japan was moving fast and we wanted to reflect that in our work.” Often the images show distorted cityscapes, inky, dark and dirty, seemingly littered with the loss of tradition and the breakdown of secure, social practices and institutions.
According to several sociologists like George Simmel, Anthony Giddens and Max Weber, “modernity” is defined as an area of unstable social constructions. This poses a series of problems for the individual, who has to navigate a society of fluidity and uncertainty. Postmodernity is further characterized by a an erosion of stable, overarching narratives — what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls the evaporation of the “grand narratives”. It is an era of plurality, which centers around the individual and in turn breaks down the importance of family, religion, national identity and so forth. According to Giddens, there is still a belief in Lyotard’s concept of postmodernity, that there is a coherent way to describe this period. That there is something general about postmodern social life. Giddens turns away from this and writes:
“The disorientation which expresses itself from in the feeling that systematic knowledge about social organisation cannot be obtained, I shall argue, results primarily from the sense many of us have of being caught up in a universe of events we do not fully understand, and which seems in large part outside our control.”
According to Giddens modernity is a period of profound change and uncertainty. The shift from one historical period to the other is always marked by discontinuities. But modernity is unprecedented in the extent of this uncertainty. Instead of seeing postmodernity as a distinct period, Giddens sees it as an extension of modernity. The attributes of modernity becomes even more radical, universal and global. It is not a shift to a different historic era, but a deepening of the discontinuities, that are witnessed throughout modernity. Giddens list a series of different properties of modernity: 1: Seperation of time and space, 2: The development of disembedding mechanisms, and 3: The reflexive appropriation of of knowledge. In modernity the connection between time and space is torn apart. Time is ordered in a standardized way all around the globe. In this way, time is “emptied” from its social and spatial dependency. It has no inherent meaning besides its function as a series of standardized units. Social interactions are also separated from space, thereby taking the “place” out of the “space”. Social life is therefore disembedded from time and space. Where traditional societies are ordered around continuities, modern societies are “discontinuous”. When the workings of the world are displaced somewhere else in time and space — the mechanisms are intrinsic and no overview is possible. We have to trust that systems works the way they should: That processed food is not poisonous, that cars won’t break down in the middle of the road, that the money we earn has value and an atomic bomb won’t be dumped on a populous area sometime soon. Trust is the awareness that there are risks and that things can get messed up due to human error. A drought is no longer caused by God, but by global warming. Trust, not just faith, is necessary in a society of contingency. There is always the feeling of the weight of something that is about to crash down due to the increasingly complicated systems, networks and structures of our societies. Great risk calls for great trust. A consequence of the discontinuities of modernity is the loss of “truth”. Turning away from dogmatism towards rationality, gives place for a new form of knowledge: “reflexivity”. Nothing can be definitely proven, nothing can be completely exhausted. Knowledge is always shifting like sand, and modern knowledge is constant reflexivity, instead of “truth” based on tradition. Knowledge resurfaces as the opposite of certainty. In Giddens’ theory of modern society, it is presented as vast, complicated and constantly shifting. Modernity is accepting that things cannot be fully “grasped”, that everything is always slipping and sliding. That meaning is not intrinsic to things and always changes.
Japan in the 60s is a society that is simultaneously expanding and collapsing. Globalisation, westernization and industrialization opens Japan to the world, creates opportunities for the individual, and the economy is rapidly growing. It is rearranging society for both good and bad. Traditions and family structures lose their meaning, a new kind of poverty surfaces, social relations and symbolic values are disembbed, old institutions are not the same anymore and distrust is growing. Youth revolts, and it is affording young people a voice, but is creating political unrest and anxiety in the streets.
After the last issue of Provoke, a retrospective collection was published the following year in 1970. It was called “First Let’s Abolish the World of Apparent Certainty”, a title that is much aligned with Giddens’ description of the discontinuities of modernity. The uncertainty and reflexivity of the modern era becomes a political and aesthetic expression in the hands of the people behind Provoke. The anxiety, the fluidity and collapse of meaning and tradition in 60s’ Japan becomes something potent in the hands of the artists and writers behind Provoke.
According to Miryam Sas, the era of Provoke represented a turn towards “reality” and away from arbitrary constructs like language. It was an abandonment of beauty and commercial value in order to gain some new realization of the world. To confront the power structures of society, it was believed that photography could express something “direct” — a non-semiotic, non-discursive “zero degree” form of communication. As the name implies, aesthetics was something that could provoke and could perform some sort of “shock therapy” to the senses. Photography had the power to unsettle rigid and repressive thought structures. The “are-bure-boke”-style was a means to achieve this “zero-degree” visual language, that would wake the senses, not lull them into a commercial dream-sleep.
The idea behind Provoke was to abandon the concept of images as language — something we can “read” and “know”. The manifesto of Provoke reads as following:
“In this present time when words have lost their material basis or in other words their reality and are doing nothing but floating/dancing in space, what photographers can do is to continue to capture or grasp with our own eyes the fragments of that which already existing words cannot possibly catch, and we must actively present a certain number of documents in relation to words, and in relation to concepts. It is with this kind of meaning that we, and Provoke, with a certain amount of embarrassment, add the subtitle “Provocative documents for the sake of thought”.
There is an emancipatory project in this: That from chaos and destruction, something new can surface — something more “real”.
Taki Koji was perhaps the leading theoretic force behind Provoke. He described the project as not being about politics, but something “[…] beyond and beneath politics, at the sphere of negation”. It negates the premises of politics, but is political in this denial of the system that politics are built on. He describes the project as being inherently negative. But negative in the sense, that the denial of rationality and structures will open up for a higher consciousness or awareness. That breaking down established concepts of the world will open up for something new. The point is to encounter something new, to be provoked and torn apart in order to let something new rise from the ashes. He defines this move as a “leap”, which is an: “[…] attempt to decide how to exist ‘towards’ something, and toward what, within the theorization of what we cannot see”. The photography of Provoke can be said to disturb and break down existing modes of “reading” pictures like signs or text, and therefore opening up new ways of seeing the things we “cannot see” — the things we cannot fully know or understand. Something that is beyond the idea exhaustive knowledge, perhaps more like the reflexivity that Giddens describe. A new kind of knowledge that is open-ended, unfixed and uncertain.
Sas describes how Moriyama Daido, who was a part of the movement, won a prize for showing the native and folk-y sides of Japan. Moriyama rejected this, his images of Japan was not supposed to capture some sort of national “essence”. On the contrary his photos were against any idea of an essence or fixed national identity. Sas describes a “blowing off” of meaning. The photographs try to catch something fleeting, something that cannot stick to the surface like signs. The photographs, and the specific way they were arranged and (dis)organized in the magazine, are on purpose presented like fragments, something cut-out of reality, where the indexical properties are lost. Sas calls this the: “anonymity of the real”. She describes how Moriyama’s work rejects meaning and “authenticity” in a couple of photographs taken of sakura in bloom, something she calls an: “overblown symbol of Japanese aesthetics” — the fantasy of furusato. She describes how his images unsettles the symbol of Japanese uniqueness:
“Seen too many times, relentlessly reproduced in the history of Japanese art and commercial tourist photography, the fetishized beauty of rural Japan in the scene of sakura viewing turns into a darker, more ghostly, more terrifying world. A resolutely unattractive child — reminiscent of the photographs of Diane Arbus — seems to stumble forward on this landscape, his arms out to the side awkwardly. A bottle litters the ground, making the beauty of the cherry petals into perhaps yet another form of litter, white dirt against the dark earth”.
The photographs has the characteristic blunt style of the Provoke era. Harsh light, perhaps a powerful flash, overexposes the branches closest to the camera. The perspective is tilted and awkwardly composed. It has a spur-of-the-moment snapshot aesthetic, rejecting any rules of “good taste”. It is decidedly unembellished, which is even more apparent in many of his photographs from Tokyo’s slum and commercialized sitescapes. Ads, stray dogs and transvestites are often shot with harsh flash and is processed in the dark-room to achieve an extreme contrast of black and white — almost erasing the majority of the visual cues. Many of his images, or Provoke era photos in general, seems like they have corroded by harsh sunlight or unstable chemistry. With his camera, Moriyama catches glimpses of thing barely visible, something that only exists in the darkness or in the blink of an eye. Something that is too real and fantasy all at the same time. Something that arises in the chaotic and increasingly rapidly moving modern life. In-between old and new.
According to Philip Charrier, Provoke was very radical in its aesthetic theory of photography, capable of revealing something profound about the Japanese post-war society. According to Provoke, photography could undermine oppressive power structures like capitalism and change society:
“[…] Provoke was more radical and theoretically inflected than is conventionally understood, its project being the forging of a ‘scientific’ photography capable of unveiling the ‘untruth’ of established relations of power and knowledge production in Japan.”
His focus is on Taki Koji, who he claims was responsible for introducing structuralist thought to Japan. Provoke was thus not only influential because of its radical and shockingly new style of photography, but also had great philosophical impact. The philosophy of Taki focused on an idea of a capitalist“[…] unified and self-regulating ideological ‘environment’ (kankyō) that is made manifest in a variety of seemingly neutral and benign cultural forms.” By focusing on the mundane and over-looked parts of daily life and by purposely “mishandling” their cameras, they believed they could see these things in a new way, for what they really are, outside of their ideological “environment”. The camera could dismantle the lies of discourse, embedded in everything. The Provoke photographers sought to dismantle this “environment”, by stripping it from semiological content though photography.
The idea is that the “readable” image contains culturally dependent signs, that are products of hegemonic ideologies. Eg: a fashion spread in a magazine will contain signs, that will reproduce the power of capitalism. The ideological, capitalist “environment” seeps through every nook of society and determines a specific way to read and understand reality — it forms the minds of people though signs and structures. By escaping, distorting or undermining readable signs — visual codes or language — photography would have the the power to transgress “ideological superstructures” and thereby, photography could be a means of protesting — something that could “change reality”. Taki had a vision of a “codeless” or “deconnoted” image, which he believed to be achievable. Something that doesn’t refer to something besides itself — a typical modernist ideal of art as being “pure”. To achieve this “codeless”-ness, the photographer could let himself be controlled by the camera and let the images be ruled by accident. He could detach his mind, which was deeply influenced by ideology on an unconscious level. Charrier writes about the photographic method:
“It is a product of surrendering creative action to the camera, and has the semiotic power to dispel the illusory reality shrouding elite manipulation of society. […] Taki and Nakahira, in particular, regarded such photography as a kind of X-ray machine, a weapon that could unveil the ruling elite’s ‘invisible’ ideological domination of Japan’s socio-cultural circumstances.”
The photography of the Provoke era is on purpose uncertain and hard-to-read, as it tries to destabilize meaning. The idea of art as something that can evade semiology and destabilize the meaning-making process, comes from Roland Barthes, who Taki Koji was influenced by.
In “Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper”, Roland Barthes describes how words always fall short in describing the painter Cy Twombly’s works of art. Barthes claims that Twombly’s works does not reject language as such, but instead displaces, detaches and puts “words of culture” into a new light. The works asks the viewer to “traverse the aesthetic stereotype”. Twombly uses something that resembles writing in his artworks, but it isn’t quite that. Instead his scribbles on canvases are “gestures”. According to Barthes, the essence of a thing is only revealed in its destruction — what it left when it is not in use. It is allowed to linger this way. It is when “code” is abandoned, that the essence of something comes forward. What is left when “code” gets messed up and fails in being readable — it is the traces of something. The “writing” of Twombly is produced without deliberation, according to Barthes — which makes it a “powerful erotic action”. It is not childish, since children very deliberately try to reproduces and emulates the codes of society. Twombly lets his hands slip and make mistakes when writing, in order to reveal something. A “gesture” for Barthes is something to be distinguished from the “sign” — it is the surplus of an action. The “gesture” made by the artist is something that disturbs the causal logic of things — it has no immediate value, except just being there as a gesture of something. Barthes links this with the zen buddhist concept, “satori”: “[…] by some tiny, even ridiculous, aberrant, preposterous circumstance, the subject wakens to a radical negativity (which is no longer a negation”). Twombly’s writing is recognizable as writing, but is does not participate in the formation of code. As a gesture it is almost semiotic, but it fails to produce meaning via any form of causal logic. It serves only the function of being a positive negation, that leaves the process of reading, seeing and understanding open to the viewer. It is continuous and spiraling. The concept of the gesture has much in common with “reflexivity”, as a reaction against dogmatic “knowledge”.
We can compare the Provoke project to Barthes’ ideas. The photographs are, as stated, purposely vague, but yet they are still discernible. They do represent something, but due to the vagueness the meaning cannot easily be settled. The photographs of the sakura, clearly shows sakura. But the photos evade the reading of sakura as something “beautiful”, harmonic and authentically Japanese. They do not bend to the established aesthetic codes surrounding the portrayal of sakura in ads and classic paintings. Instead they are garish, grainy, harsh and seemingly accidental in their framing. Instead the photographs can be said to be a “gesture”, as they have no apparent meaning, expect the evasion of meaning. Interpretation and “seeing” is left free to the viewer. The process of looking and interpreting is meant to be open-ended and uncertain, gliding and slipping. This is, as we saw in Giddens’ analysis of modernity, a quite modern perspective on things. Meaning can no longer be fully settled and determined in the modern era of post-war Japan and the Provoke era uses this confusing, uncertain energy to produce something radical: An emancipation project, where photography can help us break old and new worldviews, in order to achieve a truer understanding of the world: The process of “satori”. One where things are always open to discussion and interpretation. One where meaning is continually and reflexively disturbed. The fluidity of modernity is grabbed by Provoke and used against itself in a self-reflective gestus.
The approach that the Provoke photographers takes towards politics and aesthetics is similar to earlier modernist projects. One example is Dziga Vertov’s and his approach towards film. He was deeply involved in the communist project in its beginnings and was active in producing propaganda film, agitki. His movies, such as Man with a Movie Camera from 1929, uses documentary material and artistic, experimental cutting rhythms and techniques. He developed the concept of the “kino-oki”, the cinema-eye, and he writes:
“Our eyes see very little and very badly — so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope … now they have perfected the cine-camera to penetrate more deeply into the visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.”
His project was like the Provoke photographers, in the way it appropriates the camera, something mechanical, to see the world more clearly. The camera could create an image of the world, that would reject capitalist power-structures. Vertov and his group write in their manifest the following:
”We are purging the Cine-Eyes of its hangers-on, of music, literature and theater, we are seeking our own rhythm, one that has not been stolen from from elsewhere, and we are finding it in the movements of objects.”
They wanted to create a world that was entirely new and the arts and the camera was a weapon towards this goal. It was a utopian project directed at a specific ideal future, and the harmonic city shown in Man with a Movie Camera, efficient like a machine, was the communist society he imagined.
This is the kind of ideal that Lyotard calls the trust in “grand narratives”, which is characteristic of early modernity. Late modernity is characteristic of abandoning these ideals, as it is not viable anymore to believe in a definite “truth”. Provoke is a negation of this — the idea of a perfect society or future. It is against crystallized readings of codes accepted as truth, since these lead to rigid power-structures. The negation of “truth” is the closest we can come to truth and to actually see the world. Their emancipation project is not teleological, but requires constant critical thinking and reflexivity. There is no utopia, only continually trying to actually see and always be critical. Accepting the uncertainty of modern society, to use it, is the only way towards a better society, in the eyes of the Provoke writers and photographers. Nothing can settle, everything is always forming.
In this blogpost, I explored how the Japanese society in the 60s was an unstable and uncertain time for many of its citizens due to protests, the Anpo-agreement, economic growth, poverty and loss of traditional institutions and practices. This period gave way for what is called the “golden age” of Japanese photography, also called the Provoke era, named after the short-live doujinshi, Provoke.
The photography of Provoke was characterized by the “are-bure-boke” style, which was high contrast black and white, grainy, unsharp and spontaneous compositions. The Provoke project was meant to dismantle hegemonic ideology by disturbing the meaning-making process or “reading” of visual codes, reproducing the power of society’s superstructure — what Taki Koji calls an ideological, semiotic “environment”. Photography was believed to be able to see things better, due to its mechanical properties. Photos could be spontaneous “gestures”, that could provide a sort of “shock-therapy” to the senses — what Barthes calls “satori”. They could “provoke” forward a purer way to see they world. Modernity is according to Giddens characteristic of a deep, unsettling uncertainty and discontinuity, but also “reflexivity” — a open-ended, non-exhaustive approach to knowledge. Provoke takes the uncertainty of the 60s, but uses it against the oppressive power structures in society, as a form of protest. It is against crystallized power and meaning, and instead it promotes a reflexive way to see the world, that does not rely on ideas of utopias. Instead it relies on the belief that constant reflection, criticism and openness is the only way forward.
Sas, Miryam. “The Provoke Era: New Language of Japanese Photography” in Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagines Return”. 180-200. Harvard University Asia Center, 2011
Giddens, Anthony. “Introduction” in The Consequences of Modernity. 1-54. Stanford University Press, 1990
Barthes, Roland. “Cy Twombly: Works on Paper” in Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper”. 157-194. Whitney Museum of American Art, 2004
Charrier, Philip, “Taki Koji, Provoke and the Structuralist Turn in Japanese Image Theory, 1967-1970” in History of Photography 41:1, 25-43 DOI: 10.1080/03087298.2017.1292656
Gillespie, David, Early Soviet Cinema: Innovation, Ideology and Propaganda. Wallflower, 2000.
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