The exhibition, Lotus Land, showed at the Asian Cultural Center in Gwangju Metropolitan City from April 28th to August 4th, 2017. Art theorist, Choi Ji-hye, and I exhibited joint work titled Ass-vant-garde_2015.
26 sets of squared manuscript paper in 26 types were displayed on a platform with the letters A to Z marked on them and a single channel image repeated on one side. The different types of manuscript paper each had a different script.
Each script recorded the unfolding process of the space Barim, the new space of Gwangju City, fall apart. We looked at the phenomenon from a couple of years ago that a multitude of “new spaces” emerged only to vanish, and wrote a script naming all relevant spaces and figures “Barim.” The story reflects what could possibly and actually happen at Barim, though it was also a roundabout report of the current art scene – more specifically, one from the year 2015 when the script was written.
It has been a little more than three years since Barim was established. The definition of “a new space” varies, but I am considering it as one based on its work history rather than counting the years. It is fair to say that I was more interested in decentralized art practices outside of Seoul instead of the new space. It was only natural that since I began to spend more time thinking about new or local spaces that I began to run one in the “local district”. People who considered the word “province” demeaning used the term “local” instead, and those who behave according to the political correctness no longer seem to refer to other regions outside of Seoul as “province” or “the country”. The word “local”, unlike its dictionary definition, still struggles with having lingering implications of a place “other than Seoul”, “not in Seoul”, or “fails to be like Seoul”. Also, the word “local color” has been replaced by “locality”, but this new word still may imply that is “not in Seoul”, “only in the country”, or “specialties” (Seoul doesn’t seem to own its specialties), rather than by its definition from the dictionary. This is a product created by the Seoul standard as well as by regions in the non-Seoul area. The reason is that, without publicizing what is not in Seoul, it is difficult to express and make it accessible. Every region or city has its own culture and key industry. However, what prompted my problem with this issue, especially in the context of art practices, was that the differences between regions created a class distinction rather than merely dividing Seoul from other regions. That is, there are classes of Seoul and non-Seoul and classes created by the words “local” and “the country”.
I live in Gwangju Metropolitan City and run the space, Barim. I was not born in Gwangju, and I am still working with a vague identity that is not particularly welcomed nor disliked, an outsider one could say. Also, I did not move to Gwangju because I was passionately in love with or interested in the city. I did not move here for a job, my family or marriage. My immigration started from this unclear motive and occasion. Maybe. Normally, a founder or director who establishes a new space has a greater reason that transcends personal ambitions, such as altruistic reasons and community profits by supporting artists, growing their network or fertilizing the soil for the culture and arts in the local area. However, not being from Gwangju and still a stranger, I had another reason to start this space. What I aim to find out at Barim is whether I can be free from the personality of a particular region I reside in while I continue my artwork living somewhere other than Seoul. Of course, I have not found the answer yet, and I am doing various experiments with the assumption that I can.
Barim: Is it a local space, a space for young people, or a new space? In fact, Barim has similar features of any other new space in Seoul, and its rise and fall (which has not happened but will soon) will take on the typical pattern. Therefore, Barim is a “new space,” similar to an abundance of other spaces in Seoul that have once emerged and then vanished, characterized by points mentioned in some articles published about “new” spaces. Are there any special features of Barim that are different from other spaces in Seoul because it is in Gwangju and not in Seoul? (The general features of new spaces are listed in several articles and are omitted here.) There are not really. So, I expected Barim to lose its label of a ‘new space’ soon, and it will eventually transform into a ‘local space’ and ‘young artists’ local space,’ regardless. I am currently pondering what elements would distinguish a “local space” from a place in Seoul, and how it should and should not be different.
There are two major projects of Barim. There is a residency program that includes exhibitions and presentations as well as educational workshops. The former is a project for many non-Gwangju artists along with a few artists from Gwangju, and the latter aims towards Gwangju artists and those who are interested in art in general. For the past three years of the residency program, many non-Gwangju artists (including those from overseas) have participated for a week to two-months at the longest. One lasting curiosity I had was why they wanted to come here. Was it to be in Gwangju instead of Seoul? Or was it to simply be at Barim, despite its location? When Barim stabilizes itself (which still is a debatable issue, so we have concluded it is not stable for the time being) in the future, I plan to share these topics with former residency artists and create a piece on them. I expect that we will have reached a conclusion by then.
Regardless, my assumption is that the artists from outside of Gwangju came to Barim, not particularly because of its location nor Barim itself, but more because they sought a place other than Seoul. How does a “non-Seoul” region emotionally cater to those living in Seoul? What does the identity of “Seoul countryman” or “Seoul country girl” mean to artists working in Seoul? The words “local color and regional color do not apply to Seoul. People do not say “Seoul color”. Then, where does “Seoulness” come from? “Seoul color”, “Seouler”, “Seoulist”, “Seoulian”, the essence of Seoul can’t be verbalized. The desire to do a residency (or artwork) outside of Seoul may suggest that there lies something that everyone agrees with and shares?
The goals of my residency programs are very similar to others’, for example, strengthening artists’ capacities, expanding their network or fertilizing the culture and arts in the local area, as much as it is for my own research and work on the topics of Seoul and non-Seoul, artists’ moves, migration, residence and the motivation, and decentralizing aspects of art work. However, it is important to point out that the more recent public belief about residency programs may be different from mine.
Originally, residency was an artist community, or sometimes a colony of artists who united for survival (ie. The MacDowell Colony). Now, it is another form of accomplishing an artist career. In other words, one’s desire to have an opportunity to reside, live, and work on art outside of one’s current location has become an important element in an artist’s CV and portfolio, not a means to build networks for survival. A good example is a residency that is run by a national and/or public institution. As a matter of fact, many national and public residencies run and support programs, with the purpose of publicizing the district or the institution rather than simply supporting the artists. It is well known that most artists of national or public residency programs must run a program that involves “citizen participation”. Naturally, the requirement of “including citizen participation programs as an extension of the artist’s work” has conveniently been transformed to a rule that “residency programs must promote citizen participation.” Even more, “citizens” changed to “residents” of the district, changing the phrase to “resident participation”, as an obligation to provide something to the residents of the community where the residency is located. Some residencies are intended to connect residents and citizens with art in the first place. However, we all need to acknowledge that the current residency system clearly has set a standard, that good residency artists do and should provide their artistic talent to residents and citizens. What is the price of inspiring residents and citizens and helping national or public institutions and arts and culture foundations? The average residence artist fee provided by most arts and cultural foundations is about 300,000 won (app. 254 USD) per month, with the maximum of 500,000 (app. 443 USD) won and a minimum of 0 won. Arts and culture foundations benefit from community promotion and a very efficient system which develops and executes new ideas, while 300,000 won falls into the hands of the artists. If I needed 300,000 won and working space, and my needs coincided with the institution’s, it would be just a beautiful ending to the story.
My random thoughts on the residency system go back to the topic of Seoul and non-Seoul. As I mentioned before, it would be difficult to discuss the value of non-Seoul areas without talking about what Seoul does not have. However, local art and culture organizations whose job is to realize their logic and ideas as above rather seek to use the easier and more efficient system of residency instead of finding their own ways. Can we ever be free from the notion that a 300,000 won artist fee with studio space and promotion by the foundation is already a gracious offer to an artist? My “miniature” public organization is not so different from other national and public institutions except for the smaller space and budget. Not even pushing that much, my concern is if my space becomes a “local space” whose identity changes to local specialty art rather than a general art space and if it will end up a part of the inescapable cycle. When Barim ends its grace period for a new space, it will inevitably become a ‘local /regional/rural’ space (in the worst case, the label “young people” may be added) in the Seoul and non-Seoul dichotomy. I suspect that, in the future, this space and I may be working on subjects not available or found in Seoul, like local color and local specialties, and eventually specialize in promotional art for the region. In short, it will be art for the region rather than just art itself (with an additional 300,000 won a month).
Only if one day, something like that will happen no matter how hard I try. There are a few things not so predictable for me so far, such as whether Barim will shut down as <Ass-vant-garde_2015> had projected.
What about artists not native to Gwangju who come into the city? Famous artists from around the world visit Gwangju every two years. They spend a few weeks at a Hanok (translator: a traditional Korean wooden house) guest house, touring Gwangju city with a guide, and experiencing Gwangju first-hand at historical sites, hip bars and cafes and traditional markets at Daein market, Yanglim-dong, the Asian Culture Center, Dongmyeong-dong, and Mangwol-dong. Venues of Gwangju Biennale will have art pieces including a note stating what the artist saw and the historical research done while staying in Gwangju.
At the same time, many directors and artists of Gwangju have unwillingly, or for contractual reasons, created artwork, at least once in the past for the citizens and residents of Gwangju, which were about and solely attributed to the city of Gwangju. I am sharing stories of the artists who are merely obliged to make art about Gwangju, not those who have an actual interest in it.
What is the difference between these groups of artists? On the surface, they are similar in that they share the same work of creating art of or about Gwangju. Also, research and site-specific art are important elements in and a common approach to contemporary art. Frankly, it is a reasonable and common approach to create art based on the research of a location and its relics, ruins, cultural characteristics along with the people in it.
However, there are a number of differences as well. The differences may lie between biennale artists and local artists, between invitation and support, between royalty and 300,000 won per month, and by popularity, excellence of work, and the art center. Strangely, we do not evaluate the work of outside artists who spent a couple of weeks in the city as local artwork or regional specialty work even when this is the case. Rather, catalogs state that the pieces are a reinterpretation of Gwangju and how it is perceived by the eyes of outsiders. The way that they would arrive in a certain city, exploring it and drawing the participation of the citizens and audiences is not much different from that of Gwangju artists who are struggling to do the same in national and public residencies. The structural difference here is between those who can’t make other choices but to create promotional art of regional specialties in order to be qualified for financial support from the local authorities and those who are not under such pressure or willingly make promotional art for the region with no strings attached. In more plain words, they do the same work, but they do it for different reasons and under a different level of pressure and perception of the audience.
The liberty of living in Gwangju without having one’s art accounted as the product of the location; it may sound impossible and even contradictory. My dread that Barim may “establish” as a local space or young artists’ space after the period of being a typical new space might just be my personal anxiety. My efforts and concerns struggling to exist as an art space in itself may not seem like a problem to others living in Gwangju as they can simply say “just move somewhere else”, but the same problem would remain in any other new location.
If I ever find a way to separate a location from its personalities, in other words, a way to practice art free from the hierarchical division between Seoul and non-Seoul, or if I never have to do promotional art of specialties of the location, Barim will be different from other national and public institutions that live off of “local art”. I will be able to unshackle myself from the addicting life of promoting things that are not in Seoul and the sweet 300,000 won per month. That will the ultimate and beautiful ending to the subject of my study, something that is unlikely going to happen.
After graduating from Tokyo University of the Arts with a master’s degree in Media Art, Kang Min Hyeong is working in various fields in visual arts as an artist, curator, interpreter/translator and chairperson of the open art district, Barim. Deeply engaged in the decentralizing practices of art in places away from Seoul, she continues to study feasibility and sustainability of artist’s work free from the influences of the local region for work and life????. More information about Barim is available at barimart.wordpress.com.