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Interview with Speculative Artist Masaki Iwabuchi

Masaki Iwabuchi is a New York City-based Japanese designer and artist. His work is called Speculative Art, and he is one of the most prominent artists in the field. Through designed artifacts, Masaki speculates possibilities and envisions novel ways of perceiving the world. His aim is not to predict the future but to explore radical ways in which the future could unfold and alter current human behaviors to reach prefered futures. Therefore, he experiments with and unpacks the politics, history, meanings, assumptions, and human nature behind the aesthetic representation of alternative worlds using various media: drawing, photography, writing, video, objects, diagrams, performances, workshops, and so on. 

Your works are called Speculative Art. Can you tell us what is Speculative Art?

Speculative Art is a broad umbrella that encompasses various concepts. One of the most important aspects is the exploration of future scenarios. From technological advancements to environmental/systemic changes, artists speculate about different possibilities and visualize them in their work. In doing so, artists can ask the audience if that is their preferred future.

Another essential concept is the use of interdisciplinary approaches. Artists often incorporate scientific, technological, philosophical, and anthropological ideas, creating a unique blend of art and knowledge. Speculative Art encourages critical thinking, challenging us to question our assumptions and explore alternative worldviews.

You often use photography to manifest your speculative worldview, as evidenced in your work “Photography 100 Years After.” Can you tell us more about this artwork?

I believe that photography is one of the most powerful mediums for expressing possible futures. It is possible to represent a futuristic worldview with animations and illustrations. Still, these will look like fantasy, and the audience will not recognize that we are talking about the real world. On the other hand, using photographs to represent future scenarios through real-life subjects naturally conveys to the audience that this is happening in the real world.

Photography 100 Years After” is my art photography series depicting the lifestyle of Japanese people in the 22nd century. 

Photography 100 Years After by Masaki Iwabuchi, exhibited at Recto Verso Gallery, Tokyo, Japan.

Each work comes with a provocative prompt. It poses questions about what the world will be like in the future and makes visitors think about what will or will not change from the present. 

Photography 100 Years After Prompt #5

One day in the 22nd century. 

It was the last day to take pictures.

Since everything is recorded in your external memory, people don’t need to hold the camera and release the shutter. 

What do you want to “shoot” on your last day of photography?

I decided to shoot my robotic wife. 

Your work, “People in Japan (2050 – Present),” tells the story of people’s lives in the year 2050 through video. How was this work created?

Adolescent depression is one of the Wicked Problems unique to Japan. Statistics show that the self-confidence and hope for the future of Japanese youths are significantly lower than those of overseas countries, and their willingness to contribute to changing the nation is also little. However, everyone wants a better future. So, what does the preferred future in 2050 look like? How can we envision and visualize it? This was the starting point of this work.

Finally, I created a documentary video program from the future depicting the history and lifestyle of Japanese people around 2050. I conducted this project in Kyoto, a historical city in Japan, and projected Kyoto’s 1000-years history into the future. Based on my anthropological research, I reached a hypothetical and humane vision that “the life of the nobility in the Heian era (A.D. 794–1185)” will be again the future utopian lifestyle. One thousand years ago in Kyoto, they already had sophisticated desires such as desires for approval, self-fulfillment, and mental gratification like us today. In front of beautiful scenery, Heian nobilities expressed their feelings using poems called Waka to receive social credibility. There is an intriguing synchronization with current people’s behavior to post beautiful images to collect “Likes” on social media. In this way, I speculated on the place-based and decentralized future vision with appreciating the culture and history. 

I believe in the possibility of generating visions and solutions rooted in local culture, tradition, and history rather than science and technology. If you’re interested in this work, please check out here.

Now you are using your artistic skills in your university lectures and workshops for business. What are your purposes in this?

In the 21st century, tragic wars are still raging around the world, and no national or international organization can point us toward a preferred future. For many, the future is unfortunately broken. We need to envision preferred futures by ourselves.

So, I would love to create a space and hold a participatory workshop to generate optimistic future scenarios together. I openly share my artistic process and tools and ask what would a preferred future look like for “you”? This approach is called Artistic Intervention and has been adopted by forward-thinking tech companies and others to create new concepts and services.

I believe it would be better to proactively include citizens and industry professionals rather than create future scenarios on my own. I want to increase the number of people who can envision the future together, thereby creating more extensive power to change society as a whole. My life mission is to unlock people’s imagination and surface the preferred worldview that lies in different local places and people. 

Finally, what is your next challenge?

Regarding design and art, final deliverables are often featured and reported. However, I’m curious about the process and methodology of artwork. It is essential to open the process, include everyone in the artistic process, and conduct creative projects together. How can designers and artists share their beautiful thinking, creativity, and philosophy beyond their final deliverables? This is my next creative question to pursue.

So, I’m constantly writing my artistic process and sharing my practical knowledge with the public through Medium articles. Also, my new project, “Design Manifesto,” is the world’s first experimentation to issue a personal design manifesto as NFT (Non-Fungible Tokens). 

I’ve organized my notion of the word “Design” in this century and minted the initial five NFTs on OpenSea. Each piece crystalizes my design processes, personal philosophy, and subjective knowledge from my practices. However, I also made them open, collectible, and tradable as an NFT. My vision is to cultivate the community to share the designer’s own manifesto and innovate creative design processes in an open and decentralized way. Please feel free to contact me if you’re interested!

You can check out Masaki’s first NFT Design Manifesto series on OpenSea platform. 

About Masaki Iwabuchi

Masaki Iwabuchi is a NY-based Strategic Design Futurist and Artist. His expertise is vision design for organizations and new concept creation for businesses leveraging Futures Studies, Speculative Design, Transition Design, and Artistic Intervention. He is a visiting associate professor at Tohoku University. He was invited to be a Design Researcher in Residence at Kyoto Institute of Technology in 2019, and served as a judge for the Good Living 2050 global vision design contest in 2023. He holds MFA in Design and Technology at Parsons School of Design and BE in Information & Communication Engineering at the University of Tokyo.