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.