Interview with Shin HyunJin

Shin HyunJin/신현진 photo: sitecited

Independent curator Shin Hyun Jin, is currently a PhD. candidate in Art Criticism at Hongik University, Seoul, where she is researching the effects of neoliberalism on the Korean art scene. Previously she was the curator of the Ssmazie Space Residency Program from 2002-2009. In 1998 she received here MA in Arts Administration from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has been involved with numerous art projects in South Korea and in the United States including work as the Program Manager and Development Associate, at the Asian American Arts Centre, NYC (1998-2002), Head of Exhibition Team at SAMUSO: Space for Contemporary Art, Seoul for Platform (2009); TACIT: perform[0], at Doosan Art Center, Seoul (2009); Site Santa Fe: Lucky Number Seven, (2008); Sound Art 201, SSamzie Space, (2008); and Shift and Change II: Alternative Spaces What Now?, SSamzie Space, (2008).  Needless to say Shin’s participation in the Korean art scene is deep, and her topic of interest is critical to understanding the dynamics of the Korean art world, which is complicated by social mores and political histories. You can also follow Shin at Blog.naver.con/artfirm. I was interested in speaking with Shin because of her experience as a curator, and an arts administrator working within an international residency program, who was educated in the west. When we sat down in January our conversation focused on the changes in the Korean art scene since the late 90’s and how social work has become part and parcel of art work, due to the structural changes in economies at the end of the last century.

The following interview questions, which where answered via email, are based on the conversation we had in January.

Julia Marsh: Previously you worked as a curator for SSamazie Space. Can you say what you see as the greatest loss of this residency program?

Shin Hyun Jin: Yes, there is a feeling inside me wishing I could do some more at that place.

Other than that, I do not think the closing of SSamzie Studio Program is a great loss because SSamzie Space, along with other alternative spaces and residency programs in Korea of the late 90s thru first 10 years of new century had successfully played a role in the development of the globalization of Korean art world. For that matter, SSamzie Space and its residence program are considered critical components of the development of Korean contemporary art practice at the time. The form of its residency program, in particular, was instrumental in such trends. I see the late 90s and first 10 years of 21st century as a period in which the Korean contemporary art scene globalized parallel to the development and adaptation of Korea’s economic neoliberal logic, which dictates principles such as survival of the fittest. In that, residency programs provide artists with honor, feelings of advancement, relevant tools for promotion on a global level and the opportunity to network. SSamzie Space’s studio program was customized for all of these objectives, which allowed SSamzie Space its fame to a certain extent until other bigger, public art institutions performed the same tasks for artists around the time SSamzie Space announced its permanent closing.

JM: And what do you think are the benefits of the artist residency in the age of globalism?

SHJ: In 1998, Nicolas Bourriaud wrote a book entitled, Esthétique Relationnelle(Relational Aesthetics). In his book, he stated that he wanted to grasp what was going on in the art practices of the 90s, and pointing out making relations was a common denominator of those practices. In other words, it can be said that creating meaning(s) in art production was shifting from making art objects to inducing it through the process of creating relations, like Rikrit Tribanija’s cooking. Another example, one I personally organized was an exchange project at SSamzie Space entitled “Publicly Speaking,” which included a residency exchange between Korean artists and Art Initiatives of Tokyo.  Among the artists included were Kazz Sasaguchi and Hiroharu Mori who’s project “Student Driver” explored the mentality of student drivers’ learning experience of traffic rules compared to that of travelers’ awareness of foreign country’s customs. The project needed administrative assistance from the host institution to recruit volunteer drivers and instructors, not to mention the period of time and a place for the artists to stay while conducting the project.

Another factor that requires residencies in the art world is globalization, and the growing demand for international art events. The need for the presence of international artists here in Korea, combined with the causes that I stated above, has for a long period of time grown at the same time. While the mechanism of art production is in transition in this direction, the residence program is a necessity.

JM: Do these programs support or exploit the circumstances of being an artist in the contemporary climate?

SHJ: That depends on institutions.

JM: You are currently enrolled a PhD candidate in Art Criticism at Hongik University working on ideas around informal economies, especially social entrepreneurs and how contemporary art developed in Korea in relation to the rise of Neoliberalism. How do these ideas differ or merge with what you previously worked on?

SHJ: I worked at two alternative spaces for more than 11 years: Asian American Art Center in New York and SSamzie Space. Asian American Arts Center celebrated its 27th anniversary when I first started working there. I was very lucky and privileged for the opportunity because there I was exposed to the alternative art scenes as well as its history in the United States and the rise and fall of alternative spaces in Korea. I worked at the Asian American Arts Center till 2002 when most New York based alternative spaces were either closing down or changing their organizational structure. I learned that alternative spaces were opening in Korea and got a job at one of them. Then by 2008-09, which was 10 years since the first alternative space was established in Korea, many alternative spaces here either closed down or moved to the fringe areas of Seoul. It seems that it only took 10 years for Korea to follow the same ill-fated course of the alternative space in the US that took 30 something years to occur. Other spaces such as City Racing in England, Nordic Institute of Fine Arts in Stockholm, Sweden, and Rooseum in Malmo, Sweden, organizations performing similar roles to alternative spaces in their respective local art fields, also either changed their institutional structure or closed down between 2005 and 2006, proving institutional changes are global in nature.

After Ssamzie Space closed it was time for me to move on to next phase of my life, career. Before make my decision, I wanted to see the state of art field in terms of society, economy and history so that I could make educated decision. It also meant that I wanted to contemplate what I had done more on an academic level in order to figure out where I fit in. This process naturally led me to study Neo-liberal economy and its policies, economic theories and sociology.

At the same time, I am conducting case studies in the art field; what new approaches are being taken, what do these kinds of art production mean in terms of social and economic development today. The ideas will later become part of my dissertation envisioning the future. As per your question, social entrepreneurship is one of the possible components of art in the future. Smaller government and privatization of social welfare projects are a few of the contingent outcomes of government’s adaptation to Neo-liberalism worldwide. Korea is no exception. Starting from the Roh Moohyun administration (2003-08), organization apparatuses that perform public service handed that role over to private organizations and companies. Even social welfare became a subject that individuals and corporations had to take care of. These trends coincided with the government’s policy to promote social entrepreneurs by providing a two or three year salary subsidy, while their companies were obliged to create social services that ensured profits. The same policy applied to cultural institutions that included social good. However, the policy presented a dilemma. In the 60s the economist W.J. Baumol hypothesized that in cultural economics a productivity lag is bound to cause a long-run increase in the real cost of the performing arts.

This theory became a justification for public subsidies, both in Korea and in the US for The National Endowment for the Arts, and was often cited by advocates for the arts since 1965. If his theory is still reflective of economic conditions and the market, social entrepreneurship in the arts is oxymoronic. Or conversely, while we hear about the end of Capitalism, and Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that herald such social change are imminent, success of social entrepreneurship may indicate the direction of social change in which involvement of individuals become necessary instead of being managed by government or representatives. I am not that fond of a direction that insist that individuals must be responsible for their own welfare even though they are paying high rate taxes to government to take care of the people.

I would be more supportive only, if DIY welfare structure meant less taxation. I do not know if there is a countervailing logic that such a direction is beneficial for humankind yet. Time will tell.

JM: How do you think the differing forces of business and aesthetics influence the art world in Korea, currently and in the decades since democratization in Korea?

SHJ: Characteristics of this influence over a majority of art practices in this period can be connected to theories of labor. My argument to connect art and theory of labor is limited to experimental, conceptual art practices that often involved with installation, project-based practices, and relational art.

In 1991, Maurizio Lazzarato wrote a paper entitled, “Immaterial Labor,” in which he argued changes in the labor conditions of the post-industrial era show how the simple manual labor style of the previous industrial era were replaced by more complicated, subjective and flexible methods due to the production mechanism’s focus shifting to managing customer relations and reflecting on collected data through the relation fed back by their production. This caused changes to the personality of laborers into populations that constitute the subjective, networking, self-promoting, and individualistic. People slowly adapted to such traits that the new economic system required.

If production today is directly the production of a social relation, then the “raw material” of immaterial labor is subjectivity and the “ideological” environment in which this subjectivity lives and reproduces.[1]

This phenomenon has a great resemblance to the art practices of relational aesthetics, which is the term Bourriaud coined to define certain art practice of the 90s. Audiences assume the role of feeding data to complete an artist’s project, while the social relation, the participating audience, experience becomes the foundation of the data. In this sense, economic theory influenced the art practice of the time.


[1] Maurizio Lazzarato. “Immaterial Labor,” Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, eds. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

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