Game on: Media_City Seoul 2004, the capital's third electronic-arts biennial, examined the social and psychological implications of today's video saturation and digital gamingRichard Vine
If one biennial is good, four must be four times better--right? Such seems to be the thinking in Korea lately, where last fall major international art conclaves took place in Gwangju and Busan [see p. 72] and the World Ceramics Biennale is currently in its third installment [through June 19] in Icheon, Yeoju and Gwangju. Sandwiched between these massive events, Media_City Seoul 2004, the capital city's third biennial of video and electronic-based art, made a bid for critical notice with a calculatedly up-to-date theme: "Digital Homo Ludens, Game/Play."
Organized at the Seoul Museum of Art by artistic director Yoon Jin Sup, the show was diminutive in size with only 42 artists and groups, yet designed to generate popular appeal beyond the scale of its modest $1-million budget. The thesis of Dutch historian Johan Huizinga's 1938 book Homo Ludens--that play, a defining human characteristic, is the basis of all culture--was hitched to today's prevailing rage for computer games. Artists were selected by a team of hip international curators: Johan Pijnappel, a Dutch art historian, living in India, who was previously co-curator of the Worldwide Video Festival in Amsterdam; Liz Hughes, a filmmaker and the artistic director of the Australian media-arts organization Experimenta; freelance German curator Hans D. Christ, co-founder of a new-media "platform" called hartware medien kunst verein; and Tilman Baumgaertel, a critic, curator and teacher who divides his time between Berlin and Manila. With only seven Korean participants, the artist mix was decidedly global. Ancillary activities included "Funny Furniture," an exhibition in which "concept" chairs from 23 Korean designers were scattered throughout the museum's common areas, as well as a lecture series, workshops for children, an "artist cafe" where visitors could confer with show participants, and an information center containing printed matter and computer links to 10 media-arts organizations abroad.
Ironically, this populist approach served to highlight the technological shortcomings of much of the work. Korea, home of Samsung and many other high-tech firms, is exceptionally advanced in digital media, its everyday environment saturated with high-speed Internet access, high-definition video imagery, dazzling computer-game options and sci-fi cell phones. In this context, the equipment and formal ideas displayed by artists--who usually work without cutting-edge facilities and huge commercial budgets--tend to come off as rudimentary and quaint. Success, whether with critics or the general public, depends more on esthetic strategy than on hardware or programming skills.
Many artists confined their efforts to the personal and experiential. At one corny extreme, a four-member Australian group led by Stephen Barrass offered ZiZi the Affectionate Couch (2003), a shaggy, sea-slug-shaped vibrating sofa that purrs when stroked or mews for attention if neglected. At the discomforting pole, viewers confronted black-and-white videos showing Marina Abramovic and Ulay, in a 1977 performance, sitting face to face and repeatedly slapping each other, or Korea's Lee Se Jung, in 2001, placing a plastic bag over her head, drawing a face on it and then sucking the entire sack into her mouth. The color video Slow Service (2003), by Australia's Marcus Lyall, found a humorous middle ground in slow-motion studies of people anticipating, then being hit with, great globs of foodstuff--pea soup, mustard, beans, etc.
A few pieces, like the Swiss team Collectif_Fact's video showing parts of a deconstructed cityscape in seemingly random motion, emphasized classic modernist anomie. But many others highlighted the intense, predatory violence that now seems to have displaced old-school fragmentation and drift. China's Feng Mengbo, once known for slide shows rife with family nostalgia, presented a game-based 3D animation in which floating figures, including his own, blast bloodily away at each other in undefined space. Inside Australian artists Stephen Honegger and Anthony Hunt's brown shipping container one found a virtual-reality schema of the museum interior. From a viewpoint behind a pistol, visitors searched the barren galleries and corridors for an intruder. Once found--where else?--inside the depicted container, the stranger was immediately shot dead, with abundant gore.
If Container (2004) directly implicated the viewer in the thrill of slaughter, Shooter (2000-01), by Germany's Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, shows the deadening effect of such "play" on its adherents. The work's oversized video projections scrutinize the mesmerized, slightly twitching faces of young gamesters as they maneuver, kill and die in the cyber realm of a network combat game.
Indeed, the insidiousness of new media was a subtext in a number of works. The three-person Australian team ENESS placed a hobbyhorse before a video screen showing a bucolic stylized landscape, with the speed and direction of the virtual journey determined by each rider's rate and vector of rocking. Far less anodyne was Cinema in the Woods (2003), Japanese artist Kenji Yanobe's installation composed of a kid-size puppet wearing a yellow anti-radiation suit as he stands--and occasionally dances--on a barrel before a little rough-hewn cabin, wherein video clips of duck-and-cover exercises and towering atomic explosions are constantly screened. The work's antiwar message seems clear and commendable enough, at least to an adult. Much creepier, however, is the subliminal import of Expecting (2003), an interactive video installation by Australia's Van Sowerwine, Isobel Knowles and Liam Fennessy. By squeezing a small teddy bear, viewers cause a semi-realistic cartoon figure, identified in an accompanying text as a lonely eight-year-old named Charlotte, to swell with pregnancy, lie down on the floor of her bedroom and give birth to a small male playmate.
Social commentary, often tinged with humor, loomed large throughout the biennial. The CD-ROM projection Talk Nice (1999-2000), by Canada's Elizabeth Vander Zaag, stars two trendy teenage girls who prompt visitors to sit at a microphone and chat with them. Only by adopting their lilting, Valley Girl voice inflections can one gain their growing approval and, ultimately, an invitation ("omigod") to join them at a party. In a similar vein, American artist Robert Arnold's video The Morphology of Desire (1999) melds a seemingly endless succession of romance-novel cover illustrations one into the other in a wry meditation on stereotypical male and female allure, as well as the relentless commercialization of coupledom. The seven-member French collective PLEIX contributed two videos satirizing sex, science and marketing: one, an "advertisement" for a do-it-yourself plastic surgery kit for young girls; the other, a quick-cut study of the links between a fictive company's increasing sales of growth hormones for pigs and mounting passions among members of the office staff.
More somber in tone were works like 0.000km Zero Sum Game (2003), Korean artist Kira Kim's installation involving speeded-up videos of exercise classes and thronged city streets, a ramp with no walls or handrails, flashing lights and a bull's-eye on the floor--all evocative of the social pressures from which, in another video clip, the artist is seen to escape by plunging from a rooftop. Jung Dong Am and Jung Moon Ryul, game artists from Korea, created Andy's Dream (2004), a large-scale projection of a genetic engineering dystopia replete with winged, breastlike forms that swarm menacingly around human marksmen. Spain's Jose Carlos Casado was more celebratory of new biological options in his video installation newBody.v01 (2004), which portrays many identical nude, clay-toned male figures (human clones, cyborgs, androids?) dancing, tangling and gesticulating in a live-action version of a Classical frieze. Takuji Kogo (Japan) gave vent to cultural resentment in Audiences (2004), a multipart video installation centering on a split-screen mirror image of a little Japanese girl being embraced by Snow White at Disneyland Tokyo. In one quick, endlessly repeated motion, the Western woman in fairy-tale costume seems to shake the Asian child--an act of menace, "disguised" as beauty and sweetness, that expresses the artist's distrust of globalization.
Most of the event's implicitly political works were antimilitaristic. In Babylon Archive (2003), shown on a row of video monitors, Spain's two-member OVNI Archives (Abu-Ali and retroyou) zeroed in on the nexus between war, commerce and digital "play" by juxtaposing commercial combat games with official interactive training software, featuring bearded adversaries in Middle Eastern settings, used to prepare American infantrymen for street-to-street operations. Meanwhile, Anne-Marie Schleiner, Brody Condon and Joan Leandre, from the U.S., exhibited a modified version of the post-9/11 game Counter Strike in which peace messages were inserted into portrayals of military reprisal. A comparable intervention by Greek-born Miltos Manetas left a single computer-game soldier, bereft of a mission, sitting perpetually on a set of steps and tapping his foot. The ambiguously titled Seoul: Killing Time (2002), by Brazilian artists Angela Detanico, Rafael Lain and Jiri Skala, comprises a model of the city and an altered flight-simulation video that portrays a warplane landing safely and taxiing peaceably through the street of the capital. Eddo Stern, born in Tel Aviv, constructed a model of a medieval castle with a U.S. military training video playing on its unbreached gate, suggesting both a bunker mentality and the futility of current anti-insurgent tactics.
Combining a shadow play of mythological figures, painted on Mylar cylinders, with video projections of bomber takeoffs and massive explosions, India's Nalini Malani lamented the timelessness of organized violence. More pointedly accusatory, her countrywoman Shilpa Gupta screened a wide-projection video in which she appeared simultaneously as seven different characters moving in unison, each distinctively clothed in some form of camouflage and shouting "terrorism," a performance intended to comment on mind-numbing social conformity and political regimentation.
Perhaps the only piece to acknowledge that real evil might lie somewhere outside a consumerist society and the Euro-American defense network was Wang Jian Wei's video installation Ceremony (2002). On opposite sides of a screen the artist replays classic Chinese war films and excerpts from the handful of Revolutionary Model Operas officially sanctioned during the Cultural Revolution by Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong--two people, with power over the lives of millions, for whom mind-control strategies were not a game.
The most thoughtful and emotionally engaging work in the biennial was one of the technologically simplest. Frederic Moser and Philippe Schwinger, Swiss artists who live and work in Berlin, projected a video in which a gaunt, skillful actor stands alone in a pine forest and, speaking to the camera, recounts the My Lai massacre, using the words of actual participants. As he shifts from character to character, his stark words and few haunting gestures--herding Vietnamese villagers into a group with an imaginary rifle, etc.--evoke the psychological and moral complexities of war as it is lived by troops in the field, continually torn between duty and horror, efficacy and conscience.
The impression left by the most recent Media_City Seoul is thus one probably not intended--and certainly not emphasized--by the organizers. Attention to the emergent technical possibilities of new media is certainly warranted, since these are undoubtedly the tools of the future. But, as the works on view concretely demonstrated, no amount of digital gimmickry alters the underlying need for art to connect on a direct human level. The best works will always be those that convincingly convey exceptional intelligence, deep feeling or genuine humor.
The 3rd Seoul International Media Art Biennale, Media_City Seoul 2004, was held at the Seoul Museum of Art [Dec. 15, 2004-Feb. 6, 2005]. It was accompanied by a 222-page catalogue in Korean and English, with essays by artistic director Yoon Jin Sup and curators Johan Pijnappel, Liz Hughes, Hans D. Christ and Tilman Baumgaertel.
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