Interview with Seo Hyun-suk

Heterotopia: Tea Shop

 

In November 2010 for three weekends in Cheongghecheon 3-ga there was an event, a happening if you will. Seo Hyun-Suk conspired with what makes that neighborhood, and crafted a performance called Heterotopia, which led participants on a path that in the end made them the performers. His carefully constructed journey through the winding alleys of this metalwork haven was a brief, but profound walk through the past and our future. By using the alleyways as a backdrop Seo questioned urban renewal and the fallibility of city planners, but most importantly our relationship to perception by leading participants through a place that will in the near future no longer exist to a place that was once intended to be a part of a brighter future. Unlike many typical site–specific performances, Seo was not a physical presence or actor in his work, but instead directed extras, actors and audiences remotely by phone calls, recordings and business cards. He gave participants a phone number to call from which they obtained instructions as to where to go to begin the performance. At the second stage participants entered an old coffee house, to await further instructions. There they learned about the original construction and ideals embedded in the nearby Sewoon Mart. After receiving a phone call and a tape recorder at the coffee house participants then made their way through Cheongghecheon 3-ga through seven stations, each of which were designed to bring the audience closer to a reinterpretation of space and place. For those who fortunately were able to attend and play a part in the moment, they were treated to an experience of Seoul that they will not soon forget.

Over the weeks before and since the performance, I asked Seo some questions about his work via email. The following is that conversation, in an edited form.

Heterotopia: Shop

Julia Marsh: How is this work similar to other works you’ve done in the past? I am particularly interested in the correlation between this and what you did on stage last spring.

Seo Hyun-Suk: ㅣㅣㅣㅣㅁ (titled with Korean letters that loosely mimic the main components of a house) was intended to be a “site-specific” performance that happens to take place in and around a theatre building. Instead of staging a spectacle “in front of” immobilized spectators, I wanted to reflect upon the relationship between where the spectators are positioned and how they see the stage. It was a way of thinking through this idea by the scenographic artist Nadia Lauro that space determines gaze. A limited number of spectators were seated in the corner of the balcony, from which they could see what is going on in the off-stage pocket. Binoculars were given to them to make out details spread all over the auditorium, including writings on the stage floor. Eventually they were led through the dressing rooms and then to the stage, where a skeleton of a house had been built for them to touch and walk through. This arrangement was created as a result of dialogues with my collaborator Cho Jeonwhan, who designs and constructs wooden houses.

Working with someone in the architectural field was eye opening in thinking about the ways space interacts with our perception or vice versa. For Heterotopia, I wanted to work on the idea of site-specificity in relation to our senses, this time working more on auditory experiences. I am very much interested in applying what you might call “modernist reductivism” to theatre and reflecting on the fundamentals of theatrical experiences. I want to believe that questions on material conditions of media raised in the 50’s through the 70’s are yet to be exhausted. Theatre as a medium is innately heterogeneous and doesn’t come down to a concrete material like oil, canvas, or celluloid film. I think the post-medium conditions in visual art (as explained by Rosalind Krauss) are often theater-bound, because when you are beyond the idea of medium as the material basis, you face the apparatus of living experience, which theater is precisely all about. Theater, with its power to interrogate ”here and now” can bring the modernist question to an entirely different realm. In theater, space and senses take the place of a medium. Each of my performance pieces was initiated as a way to revisit the modernist question on how the apparatus of theater (re)shape our senses and ideas.

Heterotopia: Sewoon Mart

JM: You originally conceived of this project Hetrotopia as taking place in the old part of Sincheon near Yonsei University, where fortune-tellers were the dominant inhabitants. How is the project changed by its new location and what characteristics do these two site share besides their obvious age and embeddedness in the fabric of the city, not to mention their immanent and ultimate demise?

SHS: The area that is now occupied by Megabox Cinema Sinchon used to be an uncanny labyrinth of narrow alleyways inhabited by shamans and commercial fortune-tellers. I thought of creating an audio-guided tour in the area back in 2000, but before I concretized the plan, the entire area was wiped out overnight. My search for an alternate neighborhood ended in the area surrounding Sewoon Mart because I couldn’t find any other place that looks old enough and big enough for a little awe-inspiring stroll. One very special feature that this area has is of course the presence of Sewoon Mart, which has a unique, unfortunate history that seems to be so symbolic of the time it was built, the mid-1960’s. The building was initially conceived as a scheme to transform the entire surrounding area, which had been reshaped during the Japanese occupation, when they started demolishing buildings and vacating the area in fear of possible bombings after the destruction of Tokyo by the American bombers in early 1945. After the Korean War, the area was filled with illegal shacks and petty shops, and Sewoon Mart was built in the hopes of “modernizing” the surrounding area. Evidently, this didn’t happen. The petty shops gradually took the modernist mega-structure instead. I had known of the building since I was a kid, but only recently discovered that Kim Sugeun, one of the leading post-war Korean architects, who pioneered a modern concept of architecture, had built it. Sewoon Mart still preserves fragments of his vision and ideal in many corners. It was perhaps the most ambitious project in his early career. In short, the mega-structure was born as a bizarre hybrid of the myopic, aggressive city redevelopment plan, and Kim’s ambitious architectural vision. Due to bureaucratic complications at the time of construction, it failed as both. The building has stood as “the ugliest building in Seoul,” as voted in some newspaper poll in the late 1980’s. It was even disowned by the frustrated architect himself. Heterotopia became a project about the dimming fate of the modern utopian vision, unfolding through images that precisely contradict the common notion of “utopia.”

JM: Does “the dimming fate of the modern utopian vision” mean, beyond accepting the constraints of capital, as Heteroptopia perhaps shows that we have particlized visions of a, our own utopia, perhaps akin to the manner in which we watch films, or dream?

SHS: There are clear, practical reasons for the failure of the project, namely the ill-managed process of actualization in the part of the government agencies and construction companies. Also, the architectural laws at the time did not make things easy for Kim to realize his design. The failure, in other words, was due to particular circumstances that have little to do with the conceptual demise of the modernist ideal. Perhaps on a symbolic level, however, these constraints did contribute to it.

JM: By what standard do you think these areas have become obsolete?

SHS: I think Heterotopia is about changes in our ways of thinking about history and space in any case, not just changes in the outlook of particular sites. I think the essay by Michel Foucault that the title of the performance comes from precisely shows differed ways of looking at pre-existing places. What he calls “heterotopias” are not recent inventions but rather conceptual markers of new perspectives. He presents the concept of “heterotopias” as a heterogeneous, conceptual counterpoint to the obsolete model of “utopia.” Heterotopias reflect his hetero-topological ways of looking at architectural functions instead of being specific categories of actual places. The writing is quite performative in this sense. I wanted the visitors to acknowledge different ways to interpret space, not just to mourn the disappearance of the historic sites and meanings. This new interpretation can perhaps come from acknowledging the failure of modernism.

By the way, Sewoon Mart shares the fate of Foucault’s text in that the essay was sort of abandoned by the author, not unlike Kim’s creation.

Heterotopia: Rooftop

JM: Do you think this work as an ode or a political statement, in that the action takes place in an area that is slotted for demolition in a city overwhelmed by new construction projects that purport to be for the common good but whose benefit is suspect? Does making this kind of work imply a political stance, whether or not you intend it to?

SHS: The area is indeed loaded with political conflicts, among the tenants, building owners, the city government, and construction companies. The project is bound to be political. There’s no way of avoiding it. But, this project is not about my resistance to the redevelopment plan even though I do protest the plan personally. I don’t intend to make a blatant critique of the city plan or propaganda for preservation. My primary purpose is to question how the history of a “city” is formed, how memories and history function in relation to the banality of everyday, and how individual senses contribute to the construction of the concept of a “city.” Interesting enough, the construction of Sewoon Mart created very similar political conflicts back in the late 1960’s as it has at this time. It is amazing how the city government repeats the same error without ever being aware of it. I certainly want the visitors to recognize that pattern, but that’s certainly not the end goal of this piece.

JM: It seems that the awareness your work requires is mostly in and of the self, that is participating is a way to elaborate what is political. Do you feel there is a need to reestablish participation in and of society?

SHS: It may sound too much like the old Russian formalist argument, but I certainly believe that political actions without perceptual or sensory self-awareness would be hollow gestures. Big changes can and must start with the defamiliarization of the everyday space and revitalization of one’s senses. This is not to say that Heterotopia can defamiliarize history and go as far as stimulating political actions. Again, it’s far from being a piece of propaganda. But, I wanted there to be a fusion of senses for everyone that resituates his or her own body within history; an aesthetic experience that is in essence more fundamentally political, as it were, than say, voicing certain views for or against a specific issue. Isn’t it through bodily senses that aesthetics can truly be linked to politics, as Ranciere suggested? In any case, these issues were raised as questions, not as answers, in the course of working on the project. I am still thinking through these questions. I am more interested in going back to the starting point by rethinking through the modernist questions on medium than acting or creating actions, and I hope revisiting modernist issues, however ghostly they may appear, will open up entirely new discourses and actions in today’s social contexts.

JM: In Heterotopia you act as a kind of invisible hand, but what you ask of the participants is more pointed than to simply follow your lead. It seems you would like them to have an experience. What is the importance of experience in art making, whether it is site specific or performative work, as it is with your work, or even painting?

Heterotopia: Resting Area

SHS: Yes, my directorial intervention is probably as imposing as in any theatrical production. But, I am hoping that the act of walking would subvert or transform this condition. The route is predetermined and thus can be expressed in lines. But, experiencing places is a lot more than drawing or following simple geometric forms. I guess I am very much intrigued by Michel de Certeau’s idea of walking as an act of “writing,” in that walking re-interprets, re-vitalizes, and re-inhabits places. The theatrical setting limits bodily senses even when it involves the corporeal presence of the audience. It might be too ideal to say that this piece attempts at liberating or mobilizing the body, but I think the idea of the total theater offers a lot to work on. Luckily, there are more than enough elements of natural mise-en-scene in Cheongghecheon 3-ga to make the act of writing/walking self-revealing. When I walked through the alleys in the area, the smell of steel and fumes struck me as a kind of shock in the Benjaminian or Baudelairean sense, only in extreme or perverse excess. For me, the immediate sensory intensity almost works as the iconic sign of the idealization of modernity, or rather its failure. The utopian idea is not in the future tense but in the past one. The modern ideal as an obsolete remnant of the past fascinates me as a kind of anachronic dilemma. Future is really a projection of the past in many ways. I hope to reconstruct this dilemma in a set of bodily experiences. Moreover, it’s about the uncannyness of the return of the obsolete, in the Freudian sense. My job was to shift the contexts to evoke the uncanny. The performers and settings on the street are mostly reconstructions of what you might encounter there during the week. They become alienating when the shops are closed and the streets are deserted on Sundays. In turn, they defamiliarize the bodily presence of the visitors. In order to make them become more self-conscious, I have them record the surrounding sounds on a cassette tape (another obsolete thing) as they listen to what they are recording through an ear set. The amplified sound removes the listeners from the already unfamiliar space. The monophonic microphone also deprives the audience of the sense of direction. In this sense, this walk can become quite cinematic, but the absorption is not towards a flat screen but towards the body.

JM: On a basic level, what in the end do you hope the participants come away with from your work?

SHS: First of all, I want the visitors to feel intimate to themselves. Ironically, focusing on one’s own bodily presence can be a totally alienating experience. The real in its barest state can also be dreamlike or cinematic. The hypersensitive state of being can be experienced and remembered as a kind of ghostly impression. This contradiction is very important for me in that they have to do with the ways we interact with or become a part of history. In fact, I am very much interested in the idea of the ghost in that, according to Derrida, it destroys the oppositions between the real and the immaterial, the presence and the absence, the visible and the invisible, and most importantly, the present and the past. In a way, the main intension of this project is to dislocate the present by evoking ghostly layers of reality or turning the participants into ghosts. This area may or may not be around as it is next year. Each participant will have his or her own memory of the place, somewhat similar to but essentially different from others’. The recorded audiotape will be one form of documentation of his or her experience. But, I don’t intend to create an impression that somehow the place is properly experienced or documented. In fact, the visitors won’t even keep the cassette tape they recorded their sound on. Their auditory trace will be recorded over by the next visitors. Oblivion is a part of this game, as it is a part of history. I want to convey the idea of history as a process of constant loss. Ghosts come back as reminders of the loss. History seems to be formed by the ghostly revenant of the past, the real function of which is to dislocate the present, as Derrida puts it. How do we come to terms with the evasiveness of the historical knowledge? How do we interact with “the past as a ghost”? I wanted the tour to end on the barren rooftop of Sewoon Mart, from which you can see so many things including northern mountains, Jong-myo, and the endless waves of crumbling rooftops of adjacent buildings under the vastness of the open sky, to convey the sense of evaporation, as well as to pose these questions in openness.

Heterotopia: Seoul 1967

JM: In doing this site specific installation or perhaps performance, or rather both, in Cheongghecheon do you think of your role as artist in a sociological or a archeological framework, or otherwise?

SHS: I dare not position myself as a social scientist. I’ve not trained as such. But, certainly there’s lure in the ethnographic approaches to the urban landscape and its history, because dealing with the real is always inspiring. This kind of inspiration perhaps requires similar endeavors to construct understanding to those of sociologists or archeologists. In making these endeavors, I am very much indebted to the writings by de Certeau and Marc Augé, among other anthropologists and thinkers dealing with questions on urban spaces. The intensity, fragility, as well as the scale of the historical reality and everyday details in Cheongghecheon have been remarkable to observe and interact with. I want the visitors to do the same, whatever it means to them. At the same time, I am with Hal Foster’s critique of the artist’s self-assumption as an ethnographer. Ethnography has its own complex problems that have lingered on for so long, and artists shouldn’t pretend to have solved them. In a way, this project comes down to the simple acts of walking and feeling. The rest of the experience is in the hands of the visitors’ as a kind of shared responsibility, and there are enough clues, there already, that will be available for their own interactions and re-interpretations. My invitation is to share the responsibility as living urban dwellers/anthropologists, not simply to take my own understanding as given.

JM: In the scope of art making, in Korea, do you think the kind of site-specific work you and others do is perceived as on the edge of artistic practices or part of the overarching dialog?

SHS: It is true some of the most discussed artists have dealt with specific places. Lim Minouk, Park Chan-Kyung, Jung Yeon-Doo, Nam Hwa-Yeon, and Yang Hae-Gyu, among many interesting others, have worked on projects that stem from or take root in specific places. It is no coincidence that they also raised questions about recent Korean history or the processes of modernization. In doing so, they often question the conventions of representing history, and the ways institutions and individuals communicate their own memories of particular places. I think these are extremely important questions. On top of the passion for ethnography in art, we might want to add history as another common object of desire that threads together some of the most discussed art practices in Korea right now. One significant tendency noticeable in this direction is the ways that artists raise problems on representation and interpretation.

JM: Do you think the passion for history and ethnography is due to more than the breaking down of authority and tradition in Korea?

SHS: Yes, definitely. But, there seems to have been different kinds of motivation lately as well. I mean, dealing with the recent political history, especially that of military dictatorship, had been a channel for many artists in the 1990’s to discharge resentments or frustration from the previous era. But, I don’t think such sentiments are still active these days. There clearly has been some kind of historical break in artists’ representations of history. Demands to get at historical truths no longer weigh down young artists. With this weight of political historicism lifted, there seem to be more attentions given to private memories that only loosely refer to historical contexts. There are even sentiments of resistance against overtly political discontents or resentments. I believe this indifference or solitude is another form of dealing with history. History is now more privatized, loaded with fantasies, desires, ambivalence, or boredom. Now the social realities that artists respond to, however cynical or ambivalent their attitudes may be, are not necessarily charged with political tensions. Take Song Sang-Hee’s impersonation of the late Yook Young-Soo for example. It involves more of the artist’s desire and fascination than a politically motivated critique of how history had been fabricated through mass media. It precisely questions how much historical or political responsibilities each artist has to take as an individual and how valid it is to read into the political aspects of the work. This sense of political apathy or disconnection tends to distance us from the questions on how signs are constructed and panders to numerous possibilities to reinterpret or reinvent signs. It’s as if today’s artists wage a war, a frail one if you will, against the Althusserian assertion that the subject is a historical construct. I am not sure what all these efforts to personalize historical realities indicate or amount to, but they pose a different mode of engaging with the present as well as with the past. Today, we live with the specters of something like individuated freedom, not the specters of oppressive authorities.

Heterotopia: Kim Sugeun’s Sketch

JM: Your attention to details and the care you take in both bringing the participant to the work and in dealing with the denizens of the area bring to mind the process of making a movie. Do you think site-specific work requires an interaction that goes beyond intervention, in that your work although offering a service resists some of the more administrative tendencies of site-specific works of the last decade or so? My question comes from my own dissatisfaction with what has come to be known as site-specific works. Is Heterotopia in anyway a response to or even a strategy to resist certain tendencies in site-specific or participatory works?

Heterotopia: Inn

SHS: I don’t know if I am proposing a good dialogue with other site-specific works, but I certainly think places, especially urban places, deserve much more delicate and careful attentions and researches. Places not only “belong” to the denizens, and there are always much more than the lives or memories of the occupants. Ipjeong-dong, or the district surrounding Sewoon Mart, is certainly an everyday work place for those who run shops there. They are clearly the legally rightful denizens of the area, and they deserve respects when visitors like me interact with the area. There’s no question about it. But, at the same time, the space has multiples layers of history that even its denizens do not have access to. The denizens are certainly the primary subjects of what this project interacts with, but, at the same time, I feel there are hidden layers of historical meanings that I want to evoke. Also, there are parallel trajectories that no one will ever have access to. I don’t know if this will be a good example or analogy, but, for instance, the area is also inhabited by a number of cats. If you look down the area from a certain rooftop, you will be suddenly struck by the remarkable number of cats that barely touch the ground but instead move around from rooftops to rooftops, along the fences and through their own catwalks. You can almost draw an entirely different kind of map according to their routes and behaviors. Then there are semi-domesticated cats that don’t mingle with the rooftop cats. History is not just a straight timeline of people’s names or occupancy. There are so many unseen trajectories of different kinds, which you can’t even begin to excavate in just one short journey. When you are lucky enough to get a glimpse of the multiplicity of time, you get a kind of vertigo. The immensity of signs overwhelms you all of a sudden. They are the slices of time, appearing before us as revenants of the past. They linger between remembrance and oblivion, between communication and disconnection, not unlike stray cats. According to these slices, time is far from being singular and linear. It is “heterochronic,” as Foucault puts it as one of heterogeneous principles of heterotopias. I think this is why aged buildings or districts are so interesting and important. If there is to be any kind of “interaction” for any participant, I hope it would be with these hovering slices of time, not just with the bits of lives of the legally rightful denizens. I staged fictive or fantastic settings to invoke these layers. Once you encounter these multiple layers of realities, not only your interactions become richer but also you form a very different kind of relationship with the space. You become parallel occupants, so to speak, however transient or ghostly, of the space.

 

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“Spring Circulation”

Anyone who’s seen the beotkkote (벚꽃, aka cherry blossoms) this last week knows that spring has arrived here in Korea! In this way, too, there is a fresh start with sitecited’s fifth “issue,” in that, for the first time sitecited will be featuring its intended content: supporting through discourse and advocacy as well as funding, the exhibition or distribution of art projects with a special emphasis on site-specific works in and around Seoul. At the start of this web journal in 2011, my aim was to collaborate with artists and writers to help bring focus and attention to these interdependent cultural endeavors. So although it took 10 months for the site to germinate, the wait was well worth it. When Kristina Dziedzic Wright suggested bringing Cynthia Gray’s “don’t give up” project to Korea, in Korean last fall, it was for me as near to perfect a project for sitecited as any could come. The compatibility of Gray’s project with mine goes beyond Dziedzic Wright suggesting a project to feature on the website, but also because her proposal was specific to the Korean context, and it was with Gray’s project, which I have known, loved and distributed. Gray’s “don’t give up” magnets reflect many of the subtler ideas I have about this web journal, including ideas of exchange and interaction. Moreover the collaboration between the three of us: Gray, Dziedzic Wright and myself, has represented a convergence of the past, present and future: Chicago, Seoul, and what is worth striving for next. Therefore, I am thrilled and proud to present Cynthia Gray’s “don’t give up” magnet distribution project in Korean “포기하지마,” as introduced by Kristina Dziedzic Wright’s essay: “The Universal Language of Hope: Cynthia Gray’s ‘don’t give up’ Project in Korea,” on sitecited.

Beyond Gray’s work having relations to site-specific and conceptual art, from the start her “don’t give up” magnets broke away from the cynical reason of the late nineties and offered something else: sincerity.[1] As a distributor of the “don’t give up” magnets since 2007, I’ve come to realize the essence of this project is in the gestures: the giving, the taking and the displaying. All of which involve people and personal interactions, things that in the art world can come at a cost or are the cost of success or notice. Embedded in Gray’s project is the slow build—connections made over time—adding to a stream of interconnectedness between the givers and receivers. Having long ago given up any belief in any god, and then replacing it with a now nearly defunct belief in culture, specifically art, this kind of work does more for my faith in humanity and our culture than most other things.[2] In this way “포기하지마” has personal significance that goes beyond the website, by bringing together disparate threads of my life. I knew when I moved to Korea I was looking for a new challenges, and so it has been for me: an effort to reinvigorating meaning and the imposition to understand culture through shock, juxtaposition and adaptation. Having landed on my feet (once again) I can say that Gray’s “don’t give up” project has been like a low mantra since I came here. The magnets are on the whole an offering, and not a campaign, so I hope that those who come across them here in Korea will take them as such.

In our effort to bring this project to Korea, Dziedzic Wright and I were fortunate to receive the financial support of pianist and Seoul National University Professor of Music, Aviram Reichert, who will, along with Dziedzic Wright and myself, be distributing the magnets in Korea. As an additional way to support the project, and extend its reach Gray sponsored magnets for two friends: Oh Siwang and Park Gunhee, co-owners of Coffee Connexion. They are more than familiar with the ideas of persistence embodied in the concept of “포기하지마,” as they have worked hard to make the most excellent café in Nakseongdae, and perhaps in Seoul.

The free distribution of the magnets through sitecited will be done by self-addressed stamped (830KRW) envelop (SASE) to:

Julia Marsh
Seoul National University
Bldg. 3, Rm. 201-1
Gwanak-gu, Seoul 151-745

Meaning you send me an envelop with your address and postage and I’ll send you a magnet. Also as part of the project sitecited welcomes recipients to post images of the magnets in situ on Facebook, along with comments. Each week an image from the Facebook posts will be featured here on sitecited.

Another aspect of this new beginning on sitecited is the introduction of a series of interviews with Korean art professionals. Next month I will be publishing the first two: Kim Heejin, director of Pool and a Shin Hyunjin, former curator of Ssmazie Artist Residency. These two are the first of 12, which will include Jung Yeondoo, JoSeub, Gu Minja and Shin Sungran, among others and be published over the next 12 months. Another part of this interview project is that each interview will be published in English and Korean, as will all future posts on sitecited. I look forward to bringing more such focused content to the web in the coming months.

I want to again thank Aviram Reichert for his generosity and interest. I am grateful to Cynthia Gray for trusting me with her project. I can’t thank Kristina Dziedzic Wright enough for her keen interest, daring spirit and for shaking things up around here. Lastly I need to thank Park Gunhee and Oh Siwang for their kindness and the relaxing environment they provide at Coffee Connexion. Please join us there next Monday April 30th at 6:00pm to celebrate the release of “포기하지마.”

Julia Marsh, April 24, 2012


[1] Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA and London, 1996, p. 122

[2] See Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, WW Norton & Co. New York, London, 1961, p. 21-24

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The Universal Language of Hope: Cynthia Gray’s “don’t give up” Project in Korea

            Since I moved to Seoul a year and a half ago, I’ve found that concepts in English don’t always translate well into Korean. Few, in fact, do as precisely as “don’t give up,” or pogi hajima (pronounced “poh-gee hah-jee-mah” and written in Hangeul as포기하지마). Actually, Pogi hajima is a very popular phrase in Korea. As one of my Korean graduate students explained: “In our culture, we often say this to children growing up. So when I hear pogi hajima, I think of my father and I feel encouragement.” There is even a K-pop song with pogi hajima in the refrain. But I didn’t know any of this the first time I saw one of Cynthia Gray’s “don’t give up” magnets, which she created “to acknowledge and confront despair in everyday life.” The magnets were in part a response to her brother’s suicide, as well as a way to encourage other artists to continue their work. Since she began the project in 2000, over 11,000 magnets have been given away for free by distributors who fund the project’s production costs.

            Julia Marsh, founder and editor of sitecited.com, has been one of about 48 of the “don’t give up” distributors since 2007, when she moved to Seoul. Last year, she brought these magnets to a dinner party in Seoul, and there the Korean incarnation of Gray’s project was conceived. One of the guests, a friend who is a nurse at a large public hospital, had come to the party from a continuing education course in public health. The “don’t give up” project clearly resonated with her as she had just been discussing Korea’s high suicide rate in her class earlier that evening. In 2010, Korea had the most suicides per capita of the 30 countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Our conversation that night got me thinking about a Korean version of “don’t give up,” and sitecited.com seemed an ideal platform for launching such a project, since the website is “an online venue for the exhibition and discussion of art with a special emphasis on site-specific works in and around Seoul.” My initial conception was that the website could feature photos of “포기하지마” magnets situated in various public locations throughout the city, as there are a lot of metal surfaces around Seoul. When I suggested the project to Marsh, she was enthusiastic and thought the idea fit well with her original goals for the website to feature projects proposed by other writers and artists. Gray’s “don’t give up” magnets in Korean offer an active art project that is both reflective of and enhanced by the environment of Seoul.

            But before Marsh approached Gray about producing a Korean version of her magnets, I wanted to be sure that pogi hajima would resonate among Korean speakers. I was concerned that the phrase might actually send a detrimental message to recipients in the context of this high-pressured and fast-paced society. After all, isn’t it possible that certain ingrained cultural paradigms should be given up in order to allow for a more contented population, which would hopefully reduce suicide rates in Korea? The intense societal and familial pressure that students face to excel in school was surely a contributing factor to the suicides of four students and a professor last year at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), one of South Korea’s most prestigious universities. A KAIST student council member explained in a New York Times article about the suicides, “Day after day we are cornered into an unrelenting competition that smothers and suffocates us. We couldn’t even spare 30 minutes for our troubled classmates because of all our homework.” If students under such pressure were to be given a “포기하지마” magnet, would they read a message of hope or simply feel pressed to work harder?

            My concerns about the phrase pogi hajima, however, turned out to be baseless. Every single Korean speaker whom I queried (including friends, colleagues and my graduate students) unequivocally extolled the positive message inherent in pogi hajima. When I asked my own Korean teacher what pogi hajima means, she launched into the refrain of Shinee’s song A-Yo, “Jeoldae pogi hajima ah, ah (never give up),” with what I assume were dance moves from a music video, and explained “Oh yes, this is a very good thing to hear. You cannot help feeling better if you tell yourself pogi hajima.” As another Korean speaker said, “If I see this phrase pogi hajima, it gives me positive meaning. If I’m in trouble, it inspires me to overcome my problem.” Furthermore, every native Korean speaker whom I asked provided the exact same translation of pogi hajima into English. There were few variances even in regards to the contraction “don’t” versus “do not,” which I find very interesting. “Don’t give up” is truly one of the few expressions in English that seems unambiguously translatable into Korean!

            Although it was a discussion about suicide in Korea that initially led me to suggest a version of the magnets in Korean, my research into the phrase pogi hajima has led me to realize that “don’t give up” is expansive as a message of hope. Most people at some point in their lives could use a little encouragement, and “don’t give up” is a simple directive that offers both inspiration and reassurance. Gray chose this particular message because it is unassuming and to the point. As she explained, “in ‘don’t give up’ we place a value on the process of working towards something, even if it is difficult, and even if it doesn’t work out as planned.” Gray’s magnet design with its simple font and muted background mirrors its plain language. She does not sugar coat her message with flowery phrasing or overly cheerful images, but rather allows the words to speak for themselves and reach their audience in whatever way they happen to resonate. And because Gray had never translated her “don’t give up” project into another language, she was also especially interested in the cross-cultural perceptions of her message. As she explained, “I know suicide is a major health problem in South Korea, [which] is obviously a concern for me. I realize the magnets are a very small gesture, but we can still hope they will touch someone – in a simple way – at a difficult place in their lives and acknowledge; validate what they are going through.”

            Art historically, Gray’s “don’t give up” project can be traced back to the concrete poetry movement and other text-based conceptual art of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, as well as the site specific works of the same period. Comparisons to Jenny Holzer (b. 1950) immediately come to mind, especially her early works like “Truisms” (c. 1977-1979), in which Holzer plastered printed lists of phrases on buildings and street signs around lower Manhattan. In contrast to Gray’s magnets, Holzer’s phrases such as “Raise boys and girls the same way” and “Abuse of power should come as no surprise,” printed on plain bond paper, were anonymously pasted to public surfaces, and intended primarily as social critique, rather than social outreach. That Gray’s magnets are not a public service announcement, but are, in fact, a type of site-specific art is evident in that each is nonetheless specific to its giver and receiver, and the interactions that occur between them. And being that the magnets are quite small and exist in multiples, they are more ephemeral as art than icons of site specificity, such as Richard Serra’s monumental metal sculptures or Robert Smithson’s earthworks. Other differences between these projects and the “don’t give up” magnets are that they are portable and free, with the distributor’s name hand-stamped on the back of each. In this way, even magnets that are left in public places have a personal dimension to them. Furthermore, the primary intent of “don’t give up” is to encourage anyone who receives or views a magnet, and although social commentary about the causes of suicide can be read into Gray’s project, that is not her main purpose. While, Holzer’s current works are more visibly part of established art world institutions, Gray’s “don’t give up” magnets persist as understated and their continued circulation through individual distributors can be read as a means of connection and, therefore, a rejection of the alienation these other works point to.

            German artist Klaus Sievers (b. 1962) creates art magnets that are somewhat similar to Gray’s. His “Streit” and “hier” series feature phrases related to the themes of “dispute” or “conflict” and “here” or “this,” respectively. However, like Holzer’s text-based work, Siever’s art magnets provide social critique by repeating common colloquialisms that German speakers often use during times of strife or conflict. Furthermore, Siever’s magnets are more abstruse in their purpose and less unequivocally kind in tone than Gray’s. For example, a magnet from the “hier” series that says “hier kennt man jede Form der Liebe” (here one knows any form of love) conveys an ambiguous message. Siever has combined the impersonal article “one” (man) with the more intimate concept of love (Liebe). As such, his magnets have a dry, distant tone while referring to love, which we typically associate with romance, passion, warmth and/or kindness. In most of his art magnets, Sievers’ tone can be read alternatively as caustic, sarcastic or sympathetic. I first encountered Sievers’ magnetic works on the refrigerator of Chicago-based curator Teresa Silva. From the “Streit” series, “das kann doch nicht so schwer sein” (it can’t be that difficult) initially reminded me very much of Gray’s “don’t give up” magnets. However, upon further reflection, I found “it can’t be that difficult” alternates between an encouraging message and a demeaning one. Some things certainly can be that difficult indeed! On the other hand, “don’t give up/포기하지마” is unambiguously kind and obviously intended as help.

            Gray’s goal as an artist “was to engage with people as they dealt with despair or crisis in their lives.” She created, for example, a trio of bluebird sculptures that sang to the audience about depression. However, Gray felt that museum and gallery-based art works kept her too removed from the people she hoped to reach. She has since shifted her focus to socially driven, collaborative projects such as the “don’t give up” magnets, the Writing Machine, and the Love Letter Collection, all of which collaborate directly with her audience. With the Writing Machine, Gray invites authors and poets to engage in a collaborative writing exchange, with Gray acting as a responder. Texts are published on the website as a working space, with language and content often crossing over between authors. The Love Letter Collection invites people to anonymously submit love letters that they have sent, received or would like to send. Gray and guest editors publish a selection of these letters three times a year. The collection, which has been published since 2001, expresses an array of desires, frustrations, triumphs and tribulations concerning the complex emotion of love. Gray’s artistry lies in her ability to tap into personal experiences that are both individual and collective, and help her audiences to understand that the seemingly singularity of their emotional landscape can actually be shared. It is, after all, the connections to people, places and things that give our lives meaning. Through socially-engaged and participatory projects such as “don’t give up,” Gray creates opportunities for us to connect with one another. Going about our busy days, it is all too easy to ignore the people we pass because of obstacles, such as language barriers, inattention or any number of distractions. A small magnet that says “don’t give up” or “포기하지마” provides a means to overcome such obstacles and connect with another person whether it be a stranger or a close friend. The small object with a simple message says, “Hey, I see you! I recognize you, and you are not alone in whatever you are going through.”

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Kristina Dziedzic Wright teaches writing and art history at Seoul National University, and works as a freelance curator. She is the author of Jua Kali Lamu: Art, Culture and Tourism on an Indian Ocean Island (2009) and is currently co-curating an exhibit of paper-based art at the Nairobi National Museum in Kenya.

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“Site-specificity in a Shifting Field”

I came to Korea hoping to continue making a contribution to visual culture. After many discussions with friends, here and abroad, I came to the conclusion that my efforts had to be easily movable and multi-layered. Therefore, sitecited will be more than a web journal, but rather an integral extension to a larger, future, activity in a physical location—a flexible and adaptable entity that will respond to both sides (writers and makers) of the ongoing conversation about art on and off the web—a point of departure for works in situ. The aim of sitecited is to be a forum that showcases and discusses how art increasingly occurs in situ and to ask as many questions as it answers, maybe more; bring artists and writers together in an equal and interconnect way, without privileging one over the other, provide a space for the articulation of ideas, both visual and written; support contributors by paying them and giving their work proper respect.

Shifting mores and artistic attitudes, funding, access, critical and commercial reception and acceptance have over the last 50 years or so, challenged the definition of site specificity. If the earliest entries into this field were defined by their physical, set location, today clearly that which claims to be site specific does not necessarily mean art about a specific location, let alone a locked in position. Without doing an entire review of the history of site-specific work it can be said that the work of the last two decades has taken place where definitions are formed, as well as spaces defined. These works are moveable, re-doable, temporary, even hard to identify and still perhaps difficult to find. What current works in the category are can be comprehended in part through the history of Earthworks or Land Art, projects strategically placed outside the then normal parameters of exhibition in the remotest landscapes in the American Southwest. But with few exceptions, works made since the 1990s bare little or no relation in scale or intention, to those singular and iconic works. Those works, defined as a rupture with the history of sculptural practices,[1] placed the audience in the position of having to engage with the site or place, forcing a dialog that could mean driving far distances to reach the work. Works by artists, such as Smithson, Heitzer and Holt, moved away from the drama of modernist principles to more real theaters of the senses and time.

Today we have quite the opposite sense of time and space, particularly due to media. This is not to say that the origins of site-specific art were not mediated, as their remoteness dictated that their documentation would be the work in fact for most that have seen them. Nevertheless, if these earlier works were can be defined by the geological time of their locations, contemporary site-specific works may be defined by the quickness of sight and technology, or the persistence of vision. What that means for site-specific artists working outside of museums and institutions is that access to their works or their work’s accessibility can be trumped by the very speed at which we move through and take in space. Meaning that depending on where the work is, it may not be seen. In this way, site-specific works in general rely on documentation to support their existence. Furthermore, it seems as we enter fully into this new century that site-specific art can be defined more by where it does not happen, as it happens just about everywhere—online, in the street, on buildings, in discussions, in stores, at home. Additionally and because the global art scene has become incredibly small and large at the same time, with artists and curators traversing the globe in pursuit of exhibition opportunities, following the nearly endless cycle of biennales, artists are more and more likely to make sited works related to these events, rather than actual sites, with the exception of some large scale well funded projects that purport to be sited.[2] The former spaces mentioned are, granted, no longer considered entirely anti-institutional per se, but compared to works made within institutional frameworks or more exactly its authority, these more ambiguous spaces are perhaps where we can find raw, new interventions that embrace anti-instrumental ideas of resistance to institutionalism and administration of culture.

All this is not to say that funding is in someway negative, for without funds artists would make no work. The issue, though, as it relates to site-specific works, especially, shows that funding can and does influence outcomes. For instance, grant applications in the United States will frequently ask how the artist’s work will impact the community. Regardless of intent or methodology, this question requires artists to develop a way to think about their work in relation to the public. Maybe it is cynical to linger over questions how defunding the NEA affected art making. Yet the mandate for institutions to promote educational programming over the last 20 years, created to satisfy the critics of funding solo art projects, have clearly affected both the kind of works are funded and how those works are made. Specifically because work that is funded by government coffers must in some way reflect, if not be representative of the community, as defined by the state. But as community and public are both slippery slopes that are essentially tools of states and governments to appeal to citizen desire for inclusion and identification, yet denied, the only real outcome for artists is, that this kind of management, has diluted artists’ authority as the sole arbiter of content. Of course funding does not preclude agency. Here the concern is that money and support have yielded more complicity and co-optation than may be readily apparent, but more importantly shaped the content and intention of art making.[3]

Ultimately all these concerns rest on a single question: what is at stake in making site-specific art? As the scale of the art world or market, if you will, grows, what constitutes sited work continues to shift. Therefore, this site asks what is site specificity in a moveable world? Does it matter anymore? Where is this kind of work being seen and made and by whom? Has the backlash against galleries and the culture industry in the 1990s yielded anything important for society and culture? How has DIY responded to the chokehold of capital or is it merely an answer to the volume of product or something else?

In this first issue of sitecited, a seemingly small offering, I am pleased to feature an extended interview with Seo Hyun Suk on his latest work Heterotopia, a (wee late) review of the Gwangju Biennale and my first editorial essay. sitecited.com continues to invite proposals for visual works that are have been or are scheduled to be installed and essays about these works.

Julia Marsh December 31, 2010


[1] Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October Vol. 8 (Spring 1979): 30-44.

 

[2] The Editors, “Inside Out: Art’s New Terrain,” Artforum International, (Summer 2005): 263

[3] For a full discussion of the relationship between site-specific works and community involvement see: Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).

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