A Conversation with MOON Kyungwon & JEON Joonho 

Hans-Ulrich OBRIST

cRitic, aRt histoRian, contemPoRaRy aRt cuRatoR

at the 1st WoRld Biennial foRum in GWanGju
octoBeR 28, 2012

Hans-Ulrich OBRIST_ Many of the most interesting exhibitions in art history have been curated or co-curated by artists, such as Joseph Beuys or Nam June Paik. Today, we are able
to witness a whole new idea of artist-curated exhibitions, which is incredibly exciting, and quite interestingly, it has become quite common for many artists to curate exhibitions with their passion for architecture and design.
And it is quite meaningful to have this conversation with MOON Kyungwon & JEON

Joonho; they have worked together over the past three years on the project, NEWS FROM NOWHERE, one of the most accomplished projects in the 2012 dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel.
Today, we will find out more about the project, their future projects as well as their view on the future of biennales. To begin with, please give a very warm welcome to MOON Kyungwon & JEON Joonho.

Well, first of all, I would like to ask how you began in the first place. Both of you had various practices as individual artists, but about three years ago, you decided to collaborate.
How did this happen?

MOON Kyungwon & JEON Joonho_ Having participated in a number of exhibitions together since 2007, we began discussing our thoughts and concerns on contemporary art, including the meaning of art, the expendability of exhibitions, and the absence of the critique. Upon our discussions, it came to us that we should create art that is not only practical but also introspective, in the sense that it would provide us with the opportunity to reflect upon ourselves. We began asking questions like, 'What is the social function and role of art in the contemporary world?' 'Do our values and beliefs not flow backward in the current era?'
These questions led us to ponder, 'What would other artists of different fields think about our questions?' Eventually we organized a collaborative project in which artists of various fields including architects, scientists, and designers could share their thoughts with each other.

We came up with a more detailed and concrete plan to carry out the project - to make a dual-screened film based on the dialogues and discussions that we had with these experts. The scope of our questions began to expand as we drew up the script for the film, and our project was no longer limited to the visual arts. We began our search for advisers not only in the field of visual arts but also other fields including the humanities, science, religion, and culture in general, and thus NEWS FROM NOWHERE expanded into an open discussion platform for the society at large. In this way, we began a collaborative project involving experts of various fields such as architects, designers, scientists, poets, and musicians, aiming to reflect upon the objectives of contemporary art and society in general and moreover to envision the future. Through this project, we seek to discuss the situations or conditions that people face today and explore the possibilities of art and society in the future.

OBRIST_ Before we move on to the next question, let me give the audience a brief introduction of the NEWS FROM NOWHERE project. The project includes a mixture of means - film, installation, publication, as well as website. The title and inspiration of NEWS FROM NOWHERE comes from a book written by William Morris in the late 19th century about the post-apocalyptic future. This News From Nowhere book that you see here is a significant product of the project, and it was published in two versions - one with a red cover and the other with green. It includes many conversations with a number of different guests, who are interviewed by a person named William Guest. Could you please tell us more about this figure?

M&J_ William Guest is a fictional character who represents both of us. And as you've already mentioned, the title of the project comes from William Morris' 19th century novel, News From Nowhere. Morris was a great designer, writer, and social activist during his time. The novel is about a dream in which the narrator finds himself in a future 21st century London society. Morris writes of a Utopian society where everyone enjoys happiness and equality. Through the ideal world, Morris criticizes the hierarchical system and conflicting morale of his time, 19th century England. Like Morris, we present our vision of the world 100 years from now as a way to reflect on today's society. This line of thought was drawn from Morris, but we do not intend to envision an attractive future, nor suggest another kind of Utopia, nor a dystopia. Nor do we intend to offer ideal artistic forms and answers for the future. Instead, by reflecting upon not only the artistic discourses but also the present era, we seek to ask ourselves questions that allow us to reflect upon humanity and its society at large. It is William Guest who takes on the role as the questioner, asking questions on our behalf.

OBRIST_ I didn't realize this until you talked about this last night, but what I found most interesting about the inspiration behind the NEWS FROM NOWHERE project was the fact thatFuture Boy Conan by Miyazaki Hayao was a great inspiration for both of you. In what ways wasFuture Boy Conan an artistic inspiration ?

M&J_ We were born in the same year; therefore our experiences and memories of the past are quite similar. And, Miyazaki Hayao's Future Boy Conan is something that we both enjoyed very much as children. At the time, the future that we had envisioned was an astonishingly civilized world built upon advanced scientific technology. However, the future illustrated in Future Boy Conan was the complete opposite - a world of dystopia. Not just ourselves, but the social atmosphere had people generally expecting the future to be "a world better than now" that was built upon scientific technology. Thus, the dystopian future presented in Future Boy Conan was quite a shock for us. Nonetheless, the film, set in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity starts anew in the nuclear war-destructed earth, gave us an opportunity to contemplate over the ideal establishment of civilizations as well as true happiness and love for mankind. These thoughts were what established the very foundation of our NEWS FROM NOWHERE project.

OBRIST_ I see that you're also interested in the musical works of Toshi ICHIYANAGI. He's obviously a great composer, but I'm curious to know how he came to be involved in the project. Also, please give us a description of the soundtrack of El Fin del Mundo (The End of the World). What I find most impressive about the project is that it really goes beyond the art realm and collaborates with professionals of diverse genres including scientists, designers, architects, filmmakers, and even musicians. What was this collaboration about, and what was it like to collaborate with professionals from various genres?

M&J_ What drew us to ICHIYANAGI was his original graphic music sheet, which he had composed in the 1960s in conjunction with other composers including John Cage. What was even more impressive was that his works are not those of the past, but part of an ongoing process. His continuity both in terms of attitude and practice was what we wanted to incorporate into our project, under the belief that it may be reflective of the way in which we ultimately come to view art once the project is over. So we requested him to join us, and he accepted without any hesitation. El Fin del Mundo is a dual-screened film that depicts the story of two artists, a man and a woman, representative of the new mankind in the post-apocalyptic world, who survive in a new environment after a series of natural catastrophes has brought an end to the human race, and presents how humanity and art adapt to the new environmental conditions. By depicting how the artists attempt to prove and practice their existence during the last moments in the face of human extinction and how the new mankind attempts to suggest a new self-established definition and concept of aesthetics when all the original values and concepts of aestheticism have disappeared, the film questions the functions, roles, and meaning of art. Based on this futuristic setting of the apocalypse and its aftermath, we collaborated with JANG Younggyu and Dalparan as music directors for El Fin del Mundo. We were able to come up with various scores after countless discussions and attempts. Our installation work, Voice of Metanoia, is a product produced from various collaborations with experts from diverse fields. We designed and created props, including basic necessities and environments of the post-apocalyptic future, in conjunction with architects and designers who shared with us a similar vision of the futuristic setting brought on by extreme climate change.

Through this process of creation, we came to realize the aesthetics of the present, which was triggered from the gradual understanding of aesthetical concepts as we actualized our designed products, and also the social function and role of art. Thus, our discussions did not merely remain as words. Rather, the results were displayed in the form of an exhibition. To give you a bit more detail, the actualization of the future housing, clothing, and food were made possible through collaboration with the Dutch architectural firm, MVRDV; the municipality of the future with The Why Factory; the design of artificial organs to supplement the human body with the Japanese design-engineering group takram; the futuristic garments and clothing with the Korean fashion designer JUNG Kuho; the uniforms of the future with Japanese fashion designer Kosuke TSUMURA; a new, re-constructed city plan in the tsunami-hit area of Tohoku prefecture in Japan with the subject of 'Mind Shelter' and examining what constitutes human refuge with Japanese architect Toyo ITO; and last but not least, the light of the future, called the 'Lucis,' with ophthalmologist Dr. CHUNG Sangmoon and neuroscientist Dr. JEONG Jaeseung.
All of these collaborative products were created based on the scenario of our film, and they appear as actual props in the film. The entire process of the creations is recorded in the book News From Nowhere that you introduced at the beginning of this interview. The book is a close documentation of our journey together, and moreover it is a collection of the views and opinions on the values of the present and the visions of the future held by our advisers from various fields. Although the essays, interviews, and works within the book discuss the end of the world as one of the paragons and particular conditions of our era, the end of the world nonetheless presupposes a new beginning.
In the book, KO Un, a venerated Korean poet, talks about the beauty and spirits of the era; Toshi ICHIYANAGI, a Japanese composer of avant-garde music, shares his views on what 'avant-garde' is; Eric Khoo, a film director from Singapore, discusses the fears of the era; Dr. CHOE Jae Chun, a Korean zoologist, discusses the evolution of art from a zoologist's point of view; Misan, a Buddhist monk, talks about the religion of the future; Professor Chris Dobrian shares his opinions on the education of the future in the form of a letter; Yusaku IMAMURA and Kayoko IEMURA, Japanese architects/directors, discuss the concept of new community design; JOE Jeonghwan, a Korean sociologist, together with LEE Changdong, a Korean flim director, share views on cognitive capitalism and the resistance spirit of art; and last but not least, Andreas Giangiotto, an Italian poet, shares his views on the resistance against oblivion. We were extremely privileged to have been able to meet such great minds and learn from their thoughts and philosophies. The project was truly an invaluable experience for us as it gave us an opportunity to question and reflect upon values and aesthetics, as well as the irrationalities and social absurdities of the current era. Based on such invaluable experiences, our hopes for now are to make this project an ongoing one.
And we've already told our close acquaintances this, but although we are only creating the basic textiles, packing each strand with our knowledge, experiences, and learnings, it is our expectation that others will use this fabric to create curtains and blankets, delving into greater depth and adding new voices.

OBRIST_ You asked ICHIYANAGI the question, "Where is the Avant-garde today?" I found very interesting, and I would actually like to ask that question back to you. Where do you think the Avant-garde is, today?

M&J_ The spirit of 'avant-garde,' for us, will always be something continuous. We consider the avant-garde to be the attitude and spirit of verification that we must always be aware of, rather than a movement or
attitude that was sparked momentously in the past. The avant-garde is the ability, attitude, and spirit to stand at the opposite of the prejudiced, fixed, and concluded, and constantly question oneself and society. Thus,
the 'avant-garde' spirit can be found not only within the spectrum of art, but in all parts of the world. For example, we can even discover the avant-garde from a blooming flower.

OBRIST_ Another thing interesting about your project is that it began from a concentric circle, from a very local and regional manner. First, you involved Korean professionals and then you expanded your resources to people from Singapore and Japan, and then to the United States and Europe. One participant drew my attention: film director LEE Chang-dong. What brought the three of you to discuss art from a realist point of view? Please share with us the interview you had with director Lee, and the reason you came to include him in your project.

M&J_ Director Lee throws deep, meaningful questions on the relationship between the world and mankind, transcending the rather unique historical and realistic situations of Korea. Sometimes he presents reality in a more realistic way than the actual, and at other times, he presents illusions of ambitions and dreams that drift among us in society. He does this in a very thoughtful way, just like an alchemist.
The consistency in his work from early on to the present as well as the consistency in his personal life that is so similar to his works have been a great inspiration for us, so we wanted to take the project as an opportunity to meet him personally. Lee, despite our sudden and sometimes intrusive visits, has always greeted us with kindness, and in every single meeting, he spoke passionately about the realism in his films and its implications. Moreover, under the basis of our ideological concept of the apocalypse, in which the end always bears the notion of a new beginning, we explored many different situations of the future together. We asked questions about life after the end of the world such as "Will the social system of the present still be relevant in the future?," "What values will sustain our existence?," "Will art still be around?," "What would we eat and wear?," and "Will the sunset be just as beautiful as it is in the present?" When we asked Lee the question, "What is art?" He answered, "If religion provides answers to our life, art, in return, is what questions life." His words continue to echo through our minds.

OBRIST_ I have two last questions. First, what are you working on since the NEWS FROM NOWHERE project? If so, could you tell us a bit about it?

M&J_ As we've mentioned earlier, we want to focus on the NEWS FROM NOWHERE project for now, expanding it both in terms of breadth and depth. We plan to take the project into a slightly different form and approach from what we had shown in Kassel. But to answer your question, we are planning a new project, which has a North Korean restaurant in Beijing, China—the Pingrang

Kafeiba (平壤咖啡吧) - as its motif. The place is an extremely well- known restaurant in Beijing that serves North Korean cuisine. Presumably one of the main sources of the North Korean government's source of earning foreign currency, the Pingrang Kafeiba is a place where the visitors—customers—may not only enjoy the food, but also experience the culture, such as songs and dances, of the secretive country. But more importantly, it's probably the only place where the North and South Koreans can meet each other, free from their respective government's watches. The two Koreas, which were divided due to conflicting political ideologies, have followed completely different paths since the armistice of the Korean War 60 years ago, and the culture and sentiments of the people, too, have developed differently with age, widening the invisible gap between the countries and its people. However, at this restaurant in the foreign land of China, the citizens of the two Koreas carefully confirm each other's long lost interests and compassions, which had been prohibited by barriers, both physical and ideological. Our project is based on an episode of a fellow artist who had dinner at the restaurant following his exhibition opening party in Beijing. The film will include mimes, improvised dance, and performances on a motorized set that mimics the interior of the exclusive venue, with actors enjoying their dinner and meanwhile expressing their subtle changes in emotions. The film will present the meaning of art, its system, and its principles as well as our own image of being in the world, beyond our physical and political boundaries set between the two Koreas. The exotic interior filled with North Korean propagandistic murals; the overall drunkenness of the participants that leads to wordless discussions on the stories and different thoughts on art; the encounter of the impregnable, opposing beliefs; and the expression of fragile thoughts will be presented to the viewer as if he or she is witnessing illusions at night. In addition, we plan to build a fictional platform of Pingrang Kafeiba and invite, once again, various experts to have in-depth converstaions on politics, society, culture, religion, and art, and ultimately publish the conversations as a book.

OBRIST_ While observing your project, I became curious about how you envision Biennials. Today, we have so many of them going on: art biennials, architecture biennials, design biennials, dance biennials, and so on. So I was wondering, from your practice, what would be the ideal biennial of the future?

M&J_ Before we share our individual ideas of how the future biennials should be, we believe artists must first change their perception on the term 'Biennale.' They must shed themselves from the common understanding of a biennale as something that happens every two years and start to regard it as a semantic concept of a 'meeting of attitudes' to question the meaning of each another’s existences within our lives. In this aspect, we believe the artistic biennales of various forms, including art, architecture, design, and film, should merge into a single form. Art, after all, originally included all fields of known disciplines -- sciences, medicine, philosophy, and even sorcery.
However, art was divided up with the beginning of the modern era as 'experts' in each sector called for specialization, severing other genres with daringly high boundaries. Art, by nature, is autonomous, and thus it cannot be confined to such foolish boundaries of expertise. As all elements tend to return to their original forms, the biennales of today--divided into fine art, architecture, design, etc. -- must step forward to approach the original, comprehensive meaning of art. It is our opinion that the biennales of the future should newly establish an attitude of exchanging, sharing, and moreover accepting ideas and questions derived from various perspectives.