A Place without Memories

Sook-Kyung Lee

To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. He must search out totally new ways to anchor himself, for all the old roots – religion, nation, community, family, or profession – are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust. Before he can do so, however, he must understand in greater detail how the effects of acceleration penetrate his personal life, creep into his behaviour and alter the quality of existence. He must, in other words, understand transience.

-         Alvin Toffler, Future Shock[1]

Uncertainties around the future are often projected as fear and unease. When Alvin Toffler first coined the term ‘future shock’ in 1970, his main concern was how overwhelming the future would be to people who were not properly equipped to cope with changes in all areas of human civilisation. In a manner similar to ‘culture shock’ that emphasised unfamiliarity between different cultures and societies, Toffler’s term highlighted disparities within a society, but across time. The degree and speed of these changes are immensely wide and abrupt, according to Toffler, making the process of adjustment highly challenging. A great deal of his seemingly radical predictions have become reality, and the impacts of such changes are present in all corners of the world, including, or rather, in particular, developing countries. Our sense of disquiet for the future seems to persist, as the future is intrinsically unknown and unpredictable, therefore uncontrollable.

Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho have been exploring the future as an indication of our present, since their first collaborative project News from Nowhere in 2012. Both artists had been working actively in South Korea and internationally for some years by then, participating in a number of exhibitions, biennials and triennials. Their individual artistic practices were not similar or particularly related, but they were often invited to the same exhibitions, being it a survey of contemporary Korean art or a thematic selection. It is not unusual that a shared sensibility exists in a generation of artists from the same social and cultural environment, and Moon and Jeon also had some common concerns and interests. One of the most urgent questions they shared at the time was an almost mundanely fundamental question about art: what is art to society? For artists establishing serious careers in an increasingly complex and globalised art scene, reflecting their practice against the current social conditions can be understood as a small act of pause, a reconsideration of their rising position. For Moon and Jeon, it was a conscious act of creating a protective enclosure from a conspicuous force that could absorb and consume their art as a generic production rather than as a contextualised discourse.

By way of collaboration, Moon and Jeon began an open-ended quest to find the meaning of what they do as artists, when they were invited to take part in dOCUMENTA (13). They started questioning a number of professionals and experts in fields related to but distinct from visual art about what art meant to them and where they thought art was going in relation to human civilisation in general. What had started as a fundamental and somewhat abstract enquiry about art and its social position turned into an extremely pressing questioning of the function of art, when the earthquake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku area of Japan in 2011. Discussions around possible ecological disasters with architects, product designers and scientists became ethical and solution-focused debates for facing imminent issues, in particular for the participants based in Japan, such as the architect Toyo Ito and the design engineering firm takram. This unexpected turn of the project created a sense of urgency for the collaboration amongst the participants, and Moon and Jeon deepened their questioning of the fate of humanity in the future. In addition to questions like how art might support a sustainable model of human existence, they started to ask whether art would have a place in a future where our own survival is at the upmost stake.  

A need to transform the discourse of a distant future into the discourse of the critical present was a logical next step for the project, News from Nowhere. Borrowing the title of the 1890 novel written by the British artist and socialist activist William Morris (1834-1896), the project explored the ideas of utopia and dystopia as questions, without proposing any solutions. Moon and Jeon treated the future as a symbolic reflection of the present in this work, portraying the near extinction of humankind on Earth and the subsequent bleak survival in a highly corporatised world. Their two-channel film, El Fin del Mundo, was the centrepiece of the project, and depicted the portraits of a man and a woman, whose presence overlapped and interconnected across time and space. The breakage of linear time was a key element for interrupting the film’s narrative, enabling the viewers to imagine a situation not specific to a particular time or space but as a state of transience. The conventions of science fiction cinema employed by the artists were seminal in setting the film’s futuristic tone, while the signs of apocalyptic fate continuously yet subtly referred back to contemporary issues such as the destructive force of natural disasters and environmental crisis.

Dissident Desires

                  The collapse of linear time and discernable space is central in Moon and Jeon’s new project for the Korean Pavilion, The Ways of Folding Space and Flying. The title of the project refers to the Korean words chukjibeop and bihaengsul. Not dissimilar to the notion of teleportation in physics, but originating from Taoist practice, chukjibeop means a hypothetical method of contracting physical distance and of allowing one to travel a substantial distance in a short space of time by folding or reducing the Earth. There are several mythological tales and literary references related to this concept in the history of East Asian culture in particular, and it is still a relatively familiar term in everyday usage in many East Asian countries including South Korea. Just as the idea of teleportation notably featured in the US sci-fi TV series Star Trek, chukjibeop has a wide appeal in popular culture in these countries, often showcased in martial art films, comics and novels. Bihaengsul refers to another supernatural power to levitate and fly. Based on one of the oldest human desires, the idea is not specific to East Asian culture but reflective of a common desire to reach a state of complete emancipation of both mind and body from physical limitations and natural forces. Moon and Jeon’s approach to these concepts are somewhat anthropological, interpreting the illogical grounding of these ideas as an inherent element of human nature. Moreover, they attempt to imagine the relevance of such notions in relation to an unknown future, despite their apparent discordance with current mainstream science. While some scientific theories and hypotheses have supported the possibility of realising such ideas, both chukjibeop and bihaengsul remain largely in the realms of parable and fantasy, epitomising our collective yearning to surpass the barriers and forces that bind us physically and otherwise.

                  However, what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari termed as “nomad” or “minor science” seems to provide an alternative reading of chukjibeopand bihaengsul. In their collective writing A Thousand Plateaus (1980), Deleuze and Guattari have argued that there is a kind of science, or treatment of science, which is different from sciences established by history.[2]Using a hydraulic model, according to them, this kind of science defies a theory of solids; in this model, ‘one no longer goes from the straight line to its parallels, in lamellar or laminar flow, but from a curvilinear declination to the formation of spirals and vortices on an inclined plane’; the difference is ‘between a smooth (vectorial, projective, or topological) space and a striated(metric) space’.[3] The distinction between the two kinds of science proposed here is closely bound up with Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of the “State”. As with other dimensions of their “nomad” thoughts, their view on natural science and other apparently objective fields of knowledge is decidedly critical, posing questions on the underlying conditions of the construction and dissemination of prevailing thoughts within the “State”. The seemingly illogical notion of folding space or reducing the Earth, associated with chukjibeop,can find a reasonable explanation in this “nomad” scientific model, as space itself is not solid but in flux. According to Deleuze and Guattari, the sea is a smooth space par excellence, where the line is a vector, a direction and not a dimension or metric determination. They have also argued that ‘the force of gravity lies at the basis of laminar, striated, homogeneous, and centered space’,[4]questioning conventional or what they refer to as “royal” science. Bihaengsul, or the way of flying, is also a certain possibility in this sense, if ‘speed is not merely an abstract characteristic of movement in general but is incarnated in a moving body that deviates, however slightly, from its line of descent or gravity’.[5]The critical stance entailed in Deleuze and Guattari’s thoughts is also implicit in desiring such abilities as folding space and flying, in the sense that these abilities are against presumed human limitations in natural and social environments.

The revolutionary repercussion of chukjibeopand bihaengsul is apparent in the widely known Korean novel Tale of Hong Gildong. It is believed to have been authored by the progressive intellectual Heo Gyun (1569-1618) during the Joseon Dynasty, when Confucian hierarchical laws were most strict. The novel is a story of a noble man’s illegitimate son Hong Gildong and of his becoming a righteous bandit leader, not dissimilar to the story of Robin Hood. In the story, Hong could command such techniques as chukjibeop and bihaengsul in fighting the rich and the established, distributing his gains to the poor and eventually establishing a utopian island nation Yul-do with his followers. Both abilities are described as key parts of his exceptional characteristics, following the conventions of attributing these techniques to superior and celestial humans such as Shin-sun(or xian) in Taoist beliefs. The character of Hong was in fact inspired by a historical figure, Im Kkeokjeong (?-1562), the leader of a failed peasants rebellion in Hwanghae province in 1559-1562. Like in the case of the fictional figure of Hong, Im was believed by his contemporaries and future generations to be able to reduce the Earth and to fly, projecting common people’s dissident hope of transcending restrictive rules and repressive power. The very presence of these tales and their continuous re-telling throughout history, even in the forms of video game and animated film in recent years, can be understood in the context of radical desires, which are not just inherent in human nature but also assimilated by historic events and shifting social conditions. Deleuze and Guattari have explained the tension between regulating force and its counter-force:

What interests us in operations of striation and smoothing are precisely the passages or combinations: how the forces at work within space continually striate it, and how in the course of its striation it develops other forces and emits new smooth spaces. […] smooth spaces are not in themselves liberatory. But the struggle is changed or displaced in them, and life reconstitutes its stakes, confronts new obstacles, invents new paces, switches adversaries.[6]

Moon and Jeon’s affinity to social transformation within and beyond the realm of art is evident, however remotely, in their use of the Korean words chukjibeop and bihaengsul. As with the notion of smooth space Deleuze and Guattari proposed, these words manifest what is repressed and erased in the official and proven history, something that cannot be surfaced into the collective consciousness unless it is in the forms of myth and fantasy. The project is therefore a proposal, a challenge against what is perceived as facts, unchangeable and universal truth. While the political nature of their practice is not overtly noticeable, the articulation of their vision of the future is highly detailed and concrete. Their vision is neither completely new nor cliché-driven but recognisable enough, with familiar formal and contextual references from widely known sci-fi films.

Future Ruins

The artists’ fascination with multi-layered time is evident in the film, also titled as The Ways of Folding Space and Flying, which is the seminal element of the project. The film’s protagonist is an embodiment of accumulated human knowledge and experience, a necessary product to maintain the essence of human civilisation in a post-apocalyptic future. The nature of the character’s construction is unclear in the film but it is implied that this is the type of human being that could carry forward what is necessary for human survival, in terms of physical, biological, psychological and behavioural traits. Mechanical accuracy, emotionless task-taking and solitude seem to be at the core of this person’s existence, while routines and repetitions suggest a circular, recurrent timeframe. By collapsing notions of past and future in what can be regarded as a probable present, the film negates linear narratives and historical continuities. The multi-channel installation of the film is also critical in ensuring the film’s non-linear unfolding of the multiple narratives; by layering distinctive paces and seemingly fragmented scenes in a complex loop, Moon and Jeon create the parallel presence of different tenses, being it a past, present or future, all only plausible, not definitive.

                  The film is set in a closed space reminiscent of a scientific laboratory. Again, this stems from the familiar lexicon of sci-fi film conventions, but upon closer investigation, it becomes clear that the place is somewhat distinct from an ordinary laboratory. Gradually it reveals itself as the Korean Pavilion building in the Giardini, Venice, but in a different time, perhaps a near future, or in a different dimension, like a parallel universe. Meticulously replicated in the smallest details but transformed from an art venue to a futuristic laboratory, the place is presented as a site that is specific yet groundless. The rich and complex history of Venice as the city of thresholds and the recent history of “La Biennale” as the world’s largest international art event have been deliberately muted here. Instead, what we are facing and immersed in is a site where the past is present in the architectural residues yet no longer accessible as tangible memories. The exploration of this site becomes somewhat archaeological, for the site is enacted as a ruin, or what Robert Smithson referred to as “ruins-in-reverse”.[7]

                  Smithson was one of the first artists to identify “the monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory traces of an abandoned set of futures”.[8]Observing the vast expansion of suburbia and the creation of a place with no prior history in New Jersey, he recognised the buildings that do not fall into ruins after they are constructed but rather rise into ruins before they are built. These “ruins-in-reverse” are the opposite of the “romantic ruins”, the picturesque ruins that portray a better past while simultaneously legitimising a present that in turn promises an idealistic future. A belief in the linear and progressive construction of history is behind this traditional understanding of ruins, and the decaying process of the building establishes an historic and aesthetic distance between the past and the present based on the concept of continuity. Antoine Picon has also articulated the divergence between traditional and contemporary ruins: ‘in traditional landscapes the productions of man, his constructions in particular, surrendered themselves progressively to nature in the form of the ruin. […] There is nothing of the sort in the contemporary city where objects, if they don’t disappear in the one go, as if by magic, are instead relegated to obsolescence, a bit like the living dead who endlessly haunt the landscape preventing it from ever becoming peaceful again’.[9]

                  What Moon and Jeon seem to suggest in the film is an absence of progressive time, that is, a rupture of history. By depicting the Korean Pavilion as a site where neither architectural remnants nor memories function as a catalyst for temporal integration, the artists are disrupting the continuity of the place’s history. It is a kind of erasure of history from a place that is almost too saturated with historic and symbolic memories and identities. Instead, Moon and Jeon inspire a place not integral to the earlier places, but indicative of an interrupted future where we have survived its ruin. Marc Augé has established a clear connection between ruins and their temporal underpinnings in his analysis of modern life:

What we perceive in ruins is the impossibility of imagining completely what they would have represented to those who saw them before they crumbled. They speak not of history but of time, pure time. What is true of the past is perhaps also true of the future. To perceive pure time is to grasp in the present a lack that structures the present moment by orienting it towards the past or the future.[10]

                  Augé has proposed the notion of “non-places” to characterise the places without history, places in transit; “spaces of circulation, consumption and communication”.[11] They are airports, superstores, motorways and international hotel chains that exist beyond history and relations. While an “anthropological place” shows inscriptions of the social bond or collective history, “non-places” represent the ephemeral and the transient of modern life. Cities like Venice have numerous non-places; the city’s many attractions are also becoming non-places, as they are increasingly inhabited by people who have no lasting connections, relations or bonds with the places. Both place and non-place exist in the relative sense of the term, according to Augé, as the distinction between the two is a way of measuring the degree of sociality and symbolisation of a given space.

Moon and Jeon’s reimagining of the Korean Pavilion as a non-historic space can be understood as an attempt to disengage the space from its complicated social and symbolic functions in order to stage the condition of pure time, where the role of art can be configured without the burden of history. The anonymous and appeasing solitude of the non-place might be an illusion, but it could also be the only way of enduring and surviving the current world. Can we imagine a future where there is no history? What would art mean if a future is as arbitrary as a present? Stripped bare of memories, identities and histories, the site of the Korean Pavilion is at least temporarily an enclosed present, a present that is in transit and becoming. Moon and Jeon’s question of art’s role in society can acquire a renewed significance in this place, despite the fact that it is a sort of space that eradicates the very existence of sociality.

[1] Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, London and Sydney: Pan Books, 1971 (first published in 1970), p.41

[2] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987, pp.361-374

[3] Ibid., pp.361-362

[4] Ibid., p.370

[5] Ibid., p.371

[6] Ibid., p.500

[7] Robert Smithson, “A tour of the monuments of Passaic, New Jersey”, in Jack Flam ed., Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996, p.72

[8] Ibid., P.77

[9] Antoine Picon, “Anxious Landscapes”, Grey Room, no.1, Fall 2000, pp.76-77

[10] Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, London & New York: Verso, 1995, p.xvii

[11] Ibid., p.viii