A discussion between MOON Kyungwon & JEON Joonho and Heike Munder about the aspect of collaboration in their project News from Nowhere
Your project News from Nowhere has been grounded on collaborations from its very first beginnings. Both of you have worked as individual artists before and you are still. How did you meet and what was the inition of your co-working on this project?
Since 2007, we had many occasions to participate in the same exhibitions by chance. Through those occasions, we gradually exchanged our ideas on exhibitions and projects. Moreover, we had chances to discuss the many problems that contemporary art is laden with including the role of an artist and the position of a work of art in the larger context of our society. At the time, both of us were fed up with the experience of participating in exhibitions and creating works, which was consuming us without giving us a chance to reflect upon the practice itself. Instead of giving into the mannerism, we were desperate to find the meaning of our existence as artists. With the increasing sense of uselessness of art making, we also wished to discover the possibilities in the art. We, as artists, felt ourselves as useless to the society. That’s why we embarked on a project to meet different people from different fields to seek the potential for renewing a sense of responsibility.
Was it clear from the beginning that the project should evolve to a collaborative platform for contributors from diverse fields? What is your main intention in working collaboratively? How did you choose your collaborators in general?
It was clear and unclear at the same time. We were attempting to examine the social role and function of art, and the positive effect of art. We wanted to observe such a possibility by producing practical outcomes (whether they are called works of art or not), which goes beyond the discussion with those that work in the field of art other than the visual arts, e.g. architects, designers and fashion designers. This point was clear while we were initiating the project. However, we realized the necessity of art with relations to the society, the universal yearning for the notion of beauty, and the investigation of such issues. For that reason, we started an interview project where we would meet more diverse people from various disciplines. The interview project was the very necessary and sufficient condition that emerged during the progression of the whole project.
As mentioned earlier, the primary focus in developing the project was the restoration of art – which is currently afflicted with deformity – and an investigation into the positive relationship between art and life. In this journey of investigation, the point of departure that we shared with many people was, “Let’s go back to the beginning!” Though it is a rather stereotypical point to start from, it has been the point where we had to return to examine the status and role of art today. The set of suppositions we constructed were useful to approach this question: What if the conditions we are exposed and bound to are eliminated and the entire human civilizations has disappeared into the waters? The survivors of the catastrophe would start new lives in the barren environment. If one has to build a house for the newly exploring human race, what should be considered as the most important thing? What about fashion and design? And, what about art? Such questions and the answers we came up with have been at the center of the News from Nowhere project.
To find answers to our questions, we searched for a list of collaborators that we could share our ideas with. We wanted to find people with questions on the current state of affairs, looking for alternatives and raising questions to the contemporary society.
We think that art’s function and role could only operate when it exists outside of the system and authority of a society. And that was the reason we met the academics and professionals who has been resisting the system and authority of their time to establish an independent view on the world. We learned about their perspectives and voices towards art, beauty, and the Zeitgeist.
People whom we met include: Ko Un, a representative poet of resistance in Korea; a Japanese avant-garde musician Toshi Ichiyanagi; Lee Chang-dong, a film director who dealt with the negative aspects of the Korean society and the twisted desire of humans through a discerning perspective; Christopher Dobrian, an educator of music based in the U.S.; a young Korean neuroscientist Jeong Jaeseung; Eric Khoo, a pioneer of Singaporean cinema; and Joe Jeong Hwan, an active Korean academic who practices his studies in the real world occasions.
The second key feature of News from Nowhere is your vision of a post-apocalyptic future in which all of today’s social and cultural norms have been negated. You use this as a tool to reflect on our present times. Why do you think it might be easier to reflect on today’s society through a futuristic vision?
The imagination and desire towards the future are always connected to the present. The title of the project News from Nowhere is borrowed from a novel written by William Morris, a 19th century British designer and social activist. By depicting the future of the United Kingdom, he expressed the contradiction of the class society at the time and the nobility of labor. As seen in Morris’ novel, reflecting on the present through the future enables one to predict the future through the present.
How did your envisioned future develop? I know you use props, which have been designed by your collaborators like takram Design Engineering in your films, but have you had already the idea for your future setting in mind when you approached your partners?
Sure, from the beginning of the project, we precisely had an idea of what we wanted and found collaborators who could understand our direction. Then, we did research and investigation on our collaborators. Before engaging in the collaboration, we sent a detailed scenario of the world and life that we envisioned to help them understand the nature and premise of the project. Such a careful process is very important in selecting whom to collaborate with, too. For example, MVRDV had already been running The Why Factory project with the Delft University of Technology to envision the future. They have also been consistently raising questions and reflecting on the reckless urban development through their vision of the urban society in the future. We empathized with their project and built the city of the future that appears in News from Nowhere. The city also appears in our film El fin del Mundo.
What reactions did you get, when you first spoke to possible collaborators? Were they immediately willing to contribute to your project?
No, they didn’t. It involved a long and challenging process to convince them. When we made an invitation to our collaborators and explained the significance of our project, none of them immediately accepted our offer. It involved an additional time for communicating our sincerity and dedication towards the project and the reason why we wanted to work with the specific candidate. Only then did they agree to work with us.
For example, takram Design Engineering did not show much interest in the project when we first met them in Tokyo and proposed to create a portable water purification system of the future. According to them, Japan will not suffer from the lack of water in the version of the future where the world is submerged in the water. Since Japan is an island country surrounded by the sea, the water supply will be sufficient with the desalination system. A few months after the initial meeting that didn’t work quiet well, an enormous tsunami from an earthquake hit the Tohoku area. We received an email from a member of takram after a few days. He wrote that he was experiencing a sense of helplessness as a designer and an engineer while preparing for an emergency evacuation at his apartment in Tokyo without any supply of electricity or water. He also wrote that he wanted to produce the water purification system that we had proposed. After that, the project took up the speed. The water purification system using artificial organs was the result of a number of workshops and meetings.
At dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012 you have presented the project for the first time in an exhibition format. Alongside with your film El Fin del Mundo there was an installation which contained documentation material and prototypes of the works of your collaborators like Toyo Ito, takram Design Engineering or MVRDV. And there was a presentation of your first book that expands on the theoretical background of News from Nowhere. It was quite an overwhelming setting Can you give us an abstract about this exhibition design? What was your intention?
Before we started working with our collaborators, we had provided the scenario of our film and explained it to them. We did not do it simply to make props for the film but to get sufficient understanding about the content and environment that we would deal with through the work. We installed the 2-channel film installation El Fin del Mundo at the entrance of the exhibition space to introduce the starting point of such process. The produced outcomes of the collaboration were exhibited in another space that could be reached by going through the two screens. We exhibited the video, the outcome of the collaboration, and the publication about the process of collaboration. By doing this, we wanted to show that all works in the project were organically connected, and that the collaboration involved a commitment over the course of a long period.
Part of the preparation was also a workshop & seminar on making the bare necessities needed in a post-apocalyptic condition were held. What were the results?
The Rotterdam-based architecture group MVRDV created I-City/We-City, a structure in the form of a bubble that floats around in the world of the future filled with water; the Tokyo-based design and engineering group takram produced a water supply system that uses artificial organs; JUNG Kuho, a designer who works in New York and Seoul, created the clothes of the future; the Tokyo and Paris-based fashion designer Tsumura Kosuke designed the uniform for the people of the future; and the architect Toyo Ito created an urban planning for communities that start to build themselves again in the tsunami-affected areas in Japan.
The exhibition in Kassel has been the result of three years’ work. In one regard it seemed like a summary but on the other side it was more like the actual starting point for your project which sort of materialized at documenta and gave itself a direction for future installments. Has it always been clear to you that it should be an ongoing project that travels all over the world?
Our project is an ongoing process. The aim of this project is to meet new people by visiting different cities around the world, develop new discourses, share ideas with local communities, propose alternatives, and generate questions. If the things that happened in different cities are accumulated to become documentation and inspire someone, we will be able to find the meaning of being artists in our time, which is what we have been searching for.
After Kassel, in 2013News from Nowheretraveled to Chicago where it was re-installed and re-imagined as Chicago Laboratory. Could you describe the process? Which ideas on your and on the site of the Sullivan Galleries in collaboration with the School of Art Institute Chicago were discussed before the exhibition? What parts of the previous installment in Kassel were integrated?
Mary Jane Jacob, the Director of the Sullivan Galleries at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, had invited us to the city after seeing our project at dOCUMENTA (13). We visited Chicago and willingly accepted the invitation. The historical significance of the city, especially concerning how Bauhaus experience a period of renaissance after having been expelled from Germany for political reasons, was one of the thrilling aspects. The building where the Sullivan Galleries is housed was the founding stone for Chicago’s urban planning. We immediately started preparing for the exhibition, planning to use the exhibition space as if it was a laboratory. We came up with an idea of organizing an exhibition in the practical form of art, centering around the spirit of Bauhaus and the folk art movement in Japan and Korea. As a result, the installation yielded an outcome very different from dOCUMENTA. We also organized workshops and seminars.
The important parts of our project lie in the authentic process to create certain outcomes. All of them contain the meaningful time that we created from discussions and the sharing of ideas, which continues while the exhibition is on display after the outcomes are produced.
The exhibition in Chicago was titled as News from Nowhere – Chicago Laboratory. There was a public lecture by the architect Toyo Ito and an open discussion on the issue of beauty. The discussion was moderated by Yusaku Imamura, the Director of Tokyo Wonder Site. Participants of the discussion were a Chicago-based artist Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, Toyo Ito, and both of us. Meanwhile, the design engineering group takram conducted a workshop with the students and professors of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The workshop was about different items that will be needed in the future society. In addition, the fashion designer JUNG Kuho also led a workshop on the costume of the future with the students of the fashion school at the Institute. The outcome of the workshops and the recording of the process were also presented in the exhibition.
Through this process, the museum did not simply stay as a venue for an exhibition. The exhibition constantly changed its shape via different workshops and seminars that continued throughout the exhibition period, which were accompanied by the records and outcomes of the process.
What else differed from the project’s presentation in Kassel?
In the Chicago exhibition, we introduced Avyakta, a two-channel sequel to El Fin del Mundo. We also reinterpreted JUNG Kuho’s clothes of the future and reproduced them. In addition, we added the documentation of Toyo Ito’s contribution as well as takram’s involvement.
dOCUMENTA was an exhibition with an ideal history and environment for our project to be introduced for the first time. However, it was a large group exhibition with many artists. Since our project was one of the many works within the exhibition, we could not lead seminars and workshops as an active agent of the event. The exhibition in Chicago had a completely different nature. Since the exhibition was solely devoted to the presentation of our project, there were many things we could lead. We were able to organize many programs during the exhibition period after consulting with our collaborators. However still, the invaluable experience we had at dOCUMENTA and the support we received from many people also made it a remarkable journey.
In each city in which you are exhibiting, you try to adopt the geographical, environmental, historical and social-cultural background into your exhibition. What were your initial thoughts about Zurich?
Politically a permanent neutral state, Switzerland does not join any coalitions or alliances that potentially get involved in conflicts or wars. However, Switzerland plays a humanitarian role, resolving various conflicts as many important institutions are stationed in Switzerland. Such history and demeanor align with the characteristics of our project's platform. Zurich, in particular, is the largest and wealthiest city in the Swiss Confederation, as it has been the crux of finance and transportation since the 16th century through craft guilds. Also, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), a world-class university, along with art museums and galleries make Zurich a suitable cultural environment for collaboration of art, science, and architecture.
When we were first offered the exhibition in Zurich, unconditional basic income was a hot potato. This idea is to provide all adults with 2,500 Swiss francs, to help sustain basic livelihood. This bill was later put to a vote but failed in the national parliament to achieve a majority. At first, we tried to incorporate this idea in the Zurich exhibition, but we have expanded to community design for ideas and opinions for the realization of such ideals in the background.
How is this topic of community design related to your art practice?
If art operates and remains only among the art community, then it can no longer be referred to as art. Art should be created, shared, enjoyed and promoted by anyone. This freedom of creation and enjoyment leads to diversity, and this diversity should portray individual voices. It is when these different voices combine to create harmony that we will be able to arrive at an ideal system of art. According to Dr. Joe Jeong Hwan, the trend to actively introduce the elements, chances, scenes, and characteristics of life excluded by the artist-art system into artistic elements or instruments seems to be presented as alternative measures of the system, which has been positioned as a pure act separated from social life and its necessities until now. He mentioned that propositions such as “Everyone is an artist (Joseph Beuys),” “Noise is also music (John Cage, Paik Nam June),” and “Art is establishing new circumstances (Guy de Lord)” embody direct self-criticism and measures to overcome the limitation of the artist community that has established the special world of art that is detached from life. Moreover, he emphasized the efforts of the people of the present to discover their artistic will and express what is intrinsic and loyal to art by mentioning their will to become artistic people. Such diversity and free will leads to new development of technology and establishment of the common in art through artists and people and moreover allude to the possibility of creating a new human community.
The exhibition design reflects on the idea of an ancient Greek agora? How did you come up with this?
The Agora in the ancient Greece was a democratic place for discussion. It was a horizontal ground for discussion where all citizens expressed their opinions on art and philosophy as well as politics. In Zürich, we want to create an open platform where the positions between the audience and the lecturer or performer are not divided. We want a platform with a horizontal structure without any hierarchy, where anyone can gather, tell one’s thoughts and listen to the others. In fact, Korea also has a similar space, which is called madang. It is an open space located at the entrance a traditional house, and it changes its use and function upon specific occasions. It can be used as a place for holding a party, working together, and even for presenting a performance. Though it has very similar properties to Agora, madangcould not hold democratic discussions since the society of Joseon (the dynasty that ruled Korea before modernization) was a class society. Though Agora came well before madang, it is more progressive and democratic than madang. In the Zürich exhibition, we want to reinterpret the notion of Agora and share the result with many people.
Your main collaborators in Zurich are the Urban-Think Tank and the Future Cities Laboratory, both located at ETH Zurich. Where do you see the connection between their work and yours? Why did you choose them as partners? Which new impulse or direction do you hope they can contribute?
We are trying to talk about community design through this exhibition in Zurich and with our collaborators. Normally, community design is thought to be just city planning or environment planning, but we are trying to expand the meaning of it.
Horizontal society, it is what people dream of. However, this means that this is impossible to have. The reason we are collaborating with Alfredo Brillembourg and his Urban-Think Tank and the Future Cities Laboratory is that they stir us up with questions and solutions about our current state. For example, Urban-Think Tank they have built a cable car in Caracas that connects the informal part to the formal part of the city. It’s a simple solution to a common problem in large cities with great social dimensions. And Gerhard Schmitt and the Future Cities Laboratory have actually a very similar approach to ours. What we try to envision with art, i.e. the unknown aspects of our future society, they try to predict with information technology and computer simulations. Both of our collaborators from ETH Zurich, are comprised of experts with critical minds in many different fields, who share their own philosophies and views, which create questions about our life. This helps us to take a step closer to a horizontal world, which would look completely unobtainable otherwise.
In the beginning there was the question about the role of art in our society. Have you found some answers?
We mentioned that art has its proper role and function when it moves away from the established system and authority of the society. Art is what makes one to discover the unfamiliar from familiar things and to find newness from the unfamiliar. This requires one to examine the way of thinking and the environment where he or she has been staying. The realization of such function and role of art leads to the questions on the reason and meaning of existence, generating new attitudes and actions. We think that art has existed with the human race since it is the realm where an individual awakening leads to a common awareness and a place where free will is expressed with respect to diversity.
Would you say News from Nowhere speaks a universal language, metaphorically?
Yes! We want to say so. Our project is a platform where different perspectives and opinions on our current state are collected and accumulated from diverse people from different cultures and environment. It is a shelter of thoughts and a station for encouragement from which many people get their inspiration and moving on to another destination. One thing that is unique in this station is that it does not stay at one place. It freely wanders around the world. Our project is not confined to a specific locality. It is indeed a project where many people from different countries are involved. We don’t see any specific difference in reaction among people from America, Europe, or Korea. We think that our project has a sense of connection that could be shared beyond different cultures and environments because it deals with a discourse that could resonate on the global level.
Let’s talk about the actual future. What are your plans with the project?
Getting an answer means that there comes another question. In that sense, there will be no end to this journey. We do not know what kind of people we will meet in another place, but we are sure that the encounter will generate a new meaning. The future is fascinating since we don’t know how it will come about. We are already anticipating for the next encounter.
Do you have already thought about the end of the project? When and how could that be?
We have long been thinking that Pyongyang in North Korea would be the final destination of this project if there shall be any place for the project to do its last iteration. As well known, Korea is the only and the last nation in the world that is divided into two countries. Over sixty years, it has been divided by the difference of political ideologies.
Time has passed without any free exchange, which deprived people of the chances for mutual understanding and reconciliation. We want to meet North Korean people and develop thoughts on art and beauty, going beyond all political ideologies confined in the history of the Cold War.