Harry1, Practice “Becoming-Artist”

SHIN Boseul
Curator in Chief, Total Museum

Scene 1. A Misunderstanding: Bang & Lee’s Work Is Difficult and Unfriendly

Viewers of Bang & Lee’s work sometimes feel helpless, unsure of what to look at or what message to read. They naturally complain that the work is difficult, and that they do not know what it is. They are correct. Bang & Lee’s works contain a huge number of cultural references, not just from contemporary society, but also from world history; and that is not all. As so-called “media artists,” the work they create is rife with complex programming and technical language. Uncovering all of these things and fully understanding the work is (almost) impossible. Could this complexity be due to Bang’s interest in literature? Their works contain many metaphors and investigations. Furthermore, there is a sense that the technology and equipment behind their new media works are not fully shown, and that only one part of their theatrical stage is on display in their exhibitions. Trying to get any clues from their artwork titles, as one might assume, only leaves us in vague territory. Revision History X, Cul-de-sac, Elephant in the living room, Farm: Freindƨ & Twitterers, Bury Your Head in the Sand Like an Ostrich: these apparently significant titles do not seem to help much in understanding the individual works. Admittedly, their work is difficult, and it is not friendly for the causal viewer. But now I must ask: Does a work of art have to be easily comprehensible? Does it have to be friendly? Their work certainly cannot be read entirely at a single glance. But can we then say that their work is difficult? Or are we, perhaps, just missing the protocol for reading their work?

Scene 2. The Trap of Collaboration and the Collective

“We have already taken a boat. We don’t know when we will meet a storm and become shipwrecked, but that tension and fear empowers our collective work.”
— Bang & Lee

Bang & Lee is a two-person collective consisting of Bang Jayoung and Lee Yunjun. Bang studied French literature in Korea, as well as art theory in her native country and France, and also communication design in Germany. Similarly, Lee studied painting in Korea, applied arts in France and media art in Germany. Due to their projects with ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medien) in Karlsruhe, a German cultural institution that focuses on cultivating new media, the duo is associated with the label “media art.” Their work — based in new media, research and design — takes on various forms that include not just interactive media-art installations, but also kinetic lights, data processing and video mosaics. Their collaborative work contains abundant and varied formal experiments and meaning. This two-person collective, furthermore, has many collaborative peers who are also media artists. When they need “friends” with a variety of knowledge and techniques, they gather and create works together. Occasionally, Bang & Lee will temporary expand their collective, seeking to venture into new areas, including performances and stage productions. There certainly are works that are only possible to be realized by collectives. While mutual understanding and a process for coordinating various opinions are necessary, collectives are effective for executing works of significant scale. However, since the existence of collectives depends on faith and trust, there is an underlying premise that failure to uphold these two elements can lead to disbandment at any time. After all, promises of faith and trust that appear unwavering could be more vulnerable than one expects. Before completing a painstakingly created project, some collaborators may defect, for whatever reason, which would then lead to the accumulation of unfortunate misunderstandings. No matter how long a collective has existed, they sometimes end up disbanding in absurd ways. Camaraderie is more easily broken than we think; which is why collectives have good reason to emphasize “friendship” in their works.

Scene 3. On Friendship

“Friendship refers to a collaborative relationship between two or more people.”
— Wikipedia

The “friendship” that appears so often in Bang & Lee’s work seems to have developed out of their own experience. They have fond memories of the times they have excitedly shared their ideas with one another and how, in the face of unpredicted difficulties, they put their heads together and solved those problems. However, it is not too difficult to presume that this process did not always ended happily. Is it excessively empathetic, then, to read one of their light installations, titled Friendship Is Transparent (2012), as ironically suggesting that friendship is, in fact, not transparent?

As one may have guessed, “friendship” is an important keyword for Bang & Lee; but it does not simply refer to personal relationships. Their 2012 exhibition, “Nonzerosum Society,”2 held at Insa Art Space in Seoul, showed this well. For this exhibition, Bang & Lee showed Friendship Is Transparent, made from optical fiber, together with Friendship, 1945, an epitaph installed at the exhibition entrance. The year 1945 was when George Orwell wrote the novel Animal Farm, which is a major point of reference for Bang & Lee’s oeuvre; the epitaph at Insa, which announced the death of “friendship,” was inspired by the book — a dystopian allegory that satirizes the rise and fall of the Russian Revolution, whose communist ideology was ultimately corrupted by Joseph Stalin. In “Nonzerosum Society,” Bang & Lee featured the word “promise” together with “friendship” through their works, perhaps also alluding to how often (and wantonly) politicians use the terms “friendship” and “promise” in their stump speeches. It is clear that the kind of “friendship” Bang & Lee reference in their work does not have just a one-dimensional meaning.

Another of their works based on the notion of friendship, Friendship Is Universal (2013), is simple yet powerful. The work is an interactive light installation in the shape of digital text that spells out the title phrase. Though not immediately obvious, the light’s brightness and patterns are controlled by electronic signals that continuously respond to environmental movement, sound and data. Bang & Lee see friendship as a common feeling among people that leads to a cooperative relationship founded on mutual trust. Today, the concept of “friendship” also extends beyond physical space, social background and even the specific interests of an individual or race, and expands infinitely within cyberspace. The title of Friendship Is Universal references a phrase that appeared on a series of propaganda posters in the popular 1980s American television drama, V; these posters were put up by aliens in an attempt to promote an alliance with the citizens of Earth. “Friendship is universal” is an uncommonly expressed sentiment in the present day, despite the rise of networks on the internet aimed at overcoming separations of culture, nation and distance. What does “friendship” mean for our time, in which threats of terror and war are unending, and everyone is virtually connected within a “global village”? In Bang & Lee’s installation, a minimal flashing of its lights seems to warn us to further contemplate the concept of friendship, and to analyze the state of our world more thoroughly.

Scene 4. The Illusion That a Society Based on Technology Is a Transparent Society

Some time ago, I got a notification in my Gmail account. It said that I had used almost all of my free storage, and that I now needed to convert to a paid account to gain more space. In order to avoid converting to a paid account, I had to organize my mailbox by sorting through years of accumulated mail, which was a laborious task. It seemed like it would take entire days. I first started by saving most of the important files that I found attached to email messages; but for some reason, the idea of actually erasing my mail left me anxious. In the end, I gave up, and converted to a paid account. This led me to contemplate the fact that Google has all of my personal information, including my acquaintances’ contact details, my schedule (Google Calendar), important documents (Google Drive) and even records of the places I have visited on vacation (Google Maps). I suddenly became afraid of this transparent society, in which we can access these things anywhere, at any time.

Bang & Lee’s project Lost in Translation (2012) is based on a similar experience. It’s a generative, network server–based data processor that utilizes the Google Translate API (Application Programming Interface) v2, to demonstrate the mechanics of how a machine learns new information in real time and in space. Through it, a screenplay, written in English, is translated into several different languages and posted live on Twitter,). In April 2012, there was an announcement on the Google Translate API FAQ page stating that version 1 of the Google Translate API, with which Lost in Translation was originally made, was no longer being offered, and would be replaced by a second, paid version.3 This led to the installation’s Twitter account to no longer function as intended. Due to the halt of the older Google Translate service, the screenplay’s original lines were left in the Twitter feed in English. In reality, Google and other social media companies ending services that had once been offered as open-source, or converting them to paid services, is nothing new. Most people will, as did I with my Gmail account, begrudgingly convert or quit the service. Bang & Lee, however, actively reacted to this phenomenon and transformed it into a work of art.

Lost in Translation took the process of handling and consuming translated data, and combined it with the APIs of Picasa (Google’s image-organizing service, now Google Photo) and Google Translate, visualizing them as a real-time video mosaic. The work visually represents the loss of meaning in the process of translation, which is presented as being parallel to when a service, once claiming to be open-source, changes from free to paid. A related work, FAQ (2012), shows the act of processing images as (or converting them into) language. It is a video mosaic, made from images and messages that online users uploaded to social media, which makes one contemplate issues of privacy and the power of the media that has penetrated into our daily lives.

In FAQ, images on the screen, which at a glance appear simple (and sometimes lacking any particular meaning), connote a variety of issues produced by today’s society that are rooted in technology: ownership and sharing; open-source services; collective intelligence; the right to privacy; the power of consumers; and intellectual property. As Bang & Lee have said, people in today’s social media–dominated world believe that they are able to communicate freely and multifariously. Through their work, the duo critiques this mentality, which is ever so casually regarded as “truth” by many people, and in what ways it may be wrong. Unlike what many assume, in the words of the artists, “communication is neither free [as a personal liberty] nor free [in terms of money].”

Scene 5. Living Room/Study and Modular Works, Separate and Together

“When we make works of art, we often ask if they are progressing. With the advent of social media, art that takes aesthetic approaches to data visualization sometimes appears to lose meaning, and art that uses social media as a form of protest doesn’t appear to reflect reality. In these cases, this question [regarding progression] is still valid. We cannot pose questions more fundamental than that. Whenever the the privacy policy and terms of service surrounding the information and data we produce as a collective is changed, or when we have to readjust our personal information and the degree to which we share it, we wonder: what is universally accessible and useful user environment? The internet — which may have changed the modern humans’ philosophy regarding ways of life, language and communication — has made the interdependencies of society even more complex.”
— From the artist note of Bang & Lee

Questions are important in contemporary art. In particular, in a technological society that disguises itself behind a facade of democracy and transparency, contemporary art (specifically media art) must be able to question. Questions are even more important when society is fragmented into countless pieces, and when it is difficult to grasp its larger picture or structure. But these questions must constantly evolve their methods, because it is difficult to arrive at the heart of today’s problems using the logic of yore. Questions and answers must be sought out simultaneously, on a variety of levels, and in tune with the complicated modern times. Bang & Lee’s work is interesting in its steady questioning of our changing world. Of course, since the artists have a particular method of questioning, it takes us, as viewers of their work, some time to adjust to it. In each work, they do not simply focus on a single message. For projects such as Elephant in the living room (2013),4 Freindƨ in the living room (2012) and Transparent Study (2014), Bang & Lee created a physical stage that the viewer could enter and inhabit, and where modular works spot the space, which poses a variety of different questions simultaneously.

Elephant in the living room features a stage set up like a living room, complete with a carpet, chairs and a television. It is, in their words, “a place of images and a stage for action. It is also an inverted space, a space for movies and plays, a place for the reflections of media’s mirror.” It is decorated with lights, television monitors, video cameras, replica furniture and other paraphernalia that reference famous political debates throughout history. A montage of YouTube videos, featuring enticing speeches, debates and cinematic conversations, is projected onto a surface riddled with thousands of tiny holes, which is connected to a sculpture of the Chinese character for elephant (象) through various fiber optic cables.

Bang & Lee explain that this work was inspired by the “life and death of images.” In today’s Information Age, we can access everything; yet paradoxically, in many cases, we cannot “arrive” at anything. It is as if — seeing that the problems and reality we face are too big and complex to grasp — we believe (or pretend to believe) that those problems do not exist as our own. They are instead represented through ever-changing images and in symbolic form: the Chinese character for “elephant” is also the one used for the word “image,” which literally suggests the metaphor of “the elephant in the room.”

Freindƨ in the living room — based on the misspelled word “freind”5 that appears as a key element in George Orwell’s dystopian allegory Animal Farm — tells of friendship, collaboration and coexistence, which are considered important states of being, in not just contemporary art but in modern-day society. Another set of Bang & Lee’s work that comprises video-mosaic-generated lm and fiber optics is Can’t take my eyes off you and You were my sunshine, my only sunshine (both 2012), which remix footage uploaded by YouTube users in real time, and transforms them into a projection and light installation that fills the surrounding space.

The stage for Freindƨ is, again, a living-room-like setting. The space, however, goes beyond the kind of private atmosphere of an intimate living room inhabited by one’s close friends, acting instead as a setting that brings to mind more superficial relationships, such as between individuals and their social media peers, large corporations and clients, or users of communal networks. Through this living room setting, Bang & Lee urge viewers to discuss the limits of collaboration, coexistence and friendship, but, simultaneously, how these relationships could still be carried forward despite such caveats. Incidentally, there have been countless similar discussions throughout history and — while they have often been paradoxical in their treatment of collaboration, coexistence and friendship — I believe discussions of such issues have always been important. The critical thing about having a discussion is not arriving at a fixed answer, but that, through its indirect process, one obtains deeper thought and directionality. As Bang & Lee have referred to in their production notes, “If one can have a dialogue through art — and if an ethical life that approaches artistic value can open up the possibility of enriching all of our lives — the process of discussion itself can become a standard for a life of value, and embrace the restrictions of legal, social and cultural customs.”

With the work Transparent Study, the stage is, appropriately, a study room. At the center of this room is an installation that looks like a bookcase full of various materials, collections and reference cards that the artists accumulated while researching for their art. We also see words spelled out in neon lights: “friendship,” “distance,” “time” and “thought.” The Chinese character for “elephant” that we saw in Elephant in the living room is also featured on a mirrored panel, which is accompanied by videos, monitors and closed-circuit cameras. A goat named Harry,6 who also appears in Freindƨ in the living room, is featured here as well.

The structure of the bookcase is important in this work. Bookcases not only indicate materials of knowledge, but also recall libraries and civilized society. The latter two are ordinarily represented by large, sturdy buildings. Bang & Lee, however, think that libraries and other repository of knowledge in today’s Information Age are more “transparent” entities. As such, the bookcase in Transparent Study takes on different appearances depending on the space in which it is exhibited, and can even serve as a wall or a door. With its open, steel frame, the bookcase connects and separates the outside and inside of the installation, reflects images from the video screens and is projected. It functions as a space that simultaneously is and is not transparent. And, of course, transparency does not always have a positive connotation. A study is traditionally an intimate space, where one can express and show one’s tastes in a private manner; but to practice transparency means to reveal everything. As such, a society that demands transparency is one that would expose an individual’s private space to the outside world, whether or not we want to do so. Here, we must again confront a digital society represented by big data, as well as the problems of publicizing and sharing personal information.

In this way, works such as Elephant in the living room and Transparent Study approach a society rooted in technology in metaphorical terms, asking viewers if they are okay with the state of the world in which they live today. If many existing works of media art foreground technology or make claims of social activism through the process of critiquing information society, we can say that Bang & Lee’s work similarly approaches these subjects in metaphorical, indirect and distinct ways. The content of their work is interesting, but such an observation alone overlooks the function of the different elements contained within their art. In order to tell a single story, their works contain various components and minute details that act in a modular fashion. Each piece functions as independent works, but within the realm of collectively staged installations, they work together to emphasize their messages and develop their voice. Acting as diverse variations on a single theme, Bang & Lee’s works cannot be pinned down by a single interpretation; they serve to open up new questions and problems.

Scene 6. A Short Explanation of a Misunderstanding

There are certainly many literary references made in Bang & Lee’s work. I had to reread the artists’ notes several times, as well as revisit George Orwell’s Animal Farm and biblical passages on the sacrificial lamb. The artists’ intentions are not clearly explained anywhere in their work, and there are only hints of what they are. The misunderstanding that Bang & Lee’s work is “difficult” comes from this aspect of their practice. However, in order to appreciate Bang & Lee’s art, there is no need to laboriously uncover what each individual object in their work means. This task is secondary to viewing the work and only provides supplementary enjoyment. It is enough to enter and become the protagonists of their artwork — to sit in the living rooms they have prepared and enjoy their details, and to enter their decorated study and consider the objects on the bookcase. It is more important to connect the words the artists use in the works and to contemplate our responsive feelings. Bang & Lee, in fact, include many clues in their work in unexpected ways. Yet we feel that their work is difficult, because this method of appreciating art is unfamiliar to us. Once we become familiar with it, Bang & Lee’s stories start to unfold more clearly. While they may not be able to be fully explained with words, they often resemble experiences with which we are familiar.

Scene 7. Artists Who Practice “Becoming- Artists”7

An artist in contemporary society, at the very least, knows how to ask appropriate questions of the world. By asking questions, an artist approaches the essence of things and observes the world with sharp eyes. In this respect, Bang & Lee are artists of keen observational power. They pay attention to the cracks in society that are hidden by its polished, modern and ever-changing surface, and question whether things are okay as they are. Bang & Lee are media artists. Even when their works sometimes appear to just be simple installations, the two use a variety of cutting- edge technologies in them, such as ones that control light and sound, among other things.

But they are not considered media artists just because of the technology they incorporate. They have consistently produced work regarding the structures and systems of our technology-based society and the kind of changes they bring about in this world. “Media art” is not just about using a variety of technology; it also refers to and questions the changes that these things produce. In this sense, Bang & Lee are certainly media artists. However, they are somewhat unique media artists. While many artists have the goal of producing finished works, Bang & Lee are always immersed in the process. Each of their works also resembles props on a large stage. Though these things naturally have value as individual works of art, the important thing in Bang & Lee’s practice is how the individual elements serve to create a stage and setting. Their works are like endless variations of a specific melody. Their pieces, thus, always in progress. Always creating works that are in progress, Bang & Lee are artists who “practice becoming-artists,” a reference to the ideas of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Often collaborating with practitioners from different fields, such as scientists and businessmen, the artists fail in some instances, but in others experience the enjoyment of creating something new. All the while, they are in the constant process of “becoming-artists.”

Creating a work about process is different from making a painting or a sculpture. For the former, one must know how to react sensitively to the world and its current situations, maintaining a critical eye and recognizing the structures of its systems. Especially in times such as our own, where things are changing rapidly with tremendous developments in technology, an artist’s sensitive insight is more important than ever. This kind of sensitive insight comes in the form of process; it is part of the endless practice of “becoming an artist.” As that practice builds up, meaningful works are produced — as is the case for Bang & Lee.

  1. Since Freindƨ in the living room, a taxidermy goat referred to as “Harry” has occasionally appeared in Bang & Lee’s work. Harry represents both the sacrificial lamb and the artists’ own personas. Harry’s name comes from the master escape artist, Harry Houdini (1874–1926). Houdini was an American magician born in Budapest, Hungary, and was also a stuntman and an actor. In October 1926, when visiting Montreal’s McGill University, he boasted of his strength by guaranteeing that no matter how hard he was hit in the abdomen, he would not budge. However, when punched by the student Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, Houdini fell over. While it is unclear if this incident was the cause, Houdini died two days later of appendicitis and peritonitis. He was 52 years old. (“Harry Houdini,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed November 9, 2016 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Houdini).
  2. “Zero Sum” is a noted term adopted from Lester C. Thurow’s book The Zero-Sum Society (1980), which is often used as reference in the areas of game theory and economics. “Zero sum” describes the logic wherein the winner’s points earned and the loser’s points lost always add up to 0. In a “non-zero sum” situation, it is possible for the combined points to add up to something other
    than 0. For example, a “win-win,” in which all participants gain something, is possible. Of course, the opposite case, in which all participants experience a loss, is also possible. In this exhibition, Bang & Lee explored the possibility of a society based on friendship that would be a win-win situation for everyone involved. However, there is also an implicit allusion that such a romantic and rose-tinted “non-zero-sum society” may not happen.
  3. “Google Translate API v1 is no longer available as of December 1, 2011 and has been replaced by Google Translate API v2. Google Translate API v1 was of officially deprecated on May 26, 2011. The decision to deprecate the API and replace it with the paid service was made due to the substantial economic burden caused by extensive abuse.” (Excerpt from Google Translate API FAQ, cloud.google.com/translate/v2/faq, last up-dated April 20, 2012.)
  4. In the English lexicon, there is an idiomatic expression that involves saying that there is an “elephant in the room.” For an elephant to be in a human-sized room — it must be stressful to the animal. But to get it out of the room, with its huge body and great strength, is not easy. So it is quite possible that whoever is in that room would instead resort to awkwardly pretending that the elephant is not there, as trying to resolve the situation would only make things more complicated. This kind of sensitive situation, in which there is a problem that everyone is aware of but pretends not to notice, is referred to as an “elephant in the room.”
  5. This is taken from an episode in the novel, when a group of farm animals, the protagonists of the story, banish their farmer from his property, and subsequently adopt the human language to create a manifesto for their new life. In the process of writing their “Seven Commandments of Animalism,” they mix up the “i” and the “e” in the word “friend,” and write the letter “s” backwards in one instance.
  6. Though Harry’s name comes from Harry Houdini, it is only loosely associated with the eponymous escape artist. Bang & Lee took from Houdini’s tricks the concept of the scapegoat or sacrificial lamb. (“Scapegoat” is an English translation of the original Hebrew word; but in Korea, the word for “goat” literally means “mountain lamb” — so in the Korean language, the term “scapegoat” is expressed as “sacrificial lamb.”) While in some religious traditions, the “sacrificial lamb” is thought of as a virginal lamb or a goat, the animal that Bang & Lee reference in their work is the concept of a filthy lamb or goat. The Bible’s Leviticus 16:7–10 tells a story of two goats: “Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.” The goat chosen for Azazel is sent into the wilderness, where it is sacrificed to the hyenas and other wild animals. In a similar way, Bang & Lee believe that Houdini made a sacrifice of himself in his escape performances. With well-planned tricks such as his, one could dramatically transform oneself from a non-artist to an artist. But, such tricks could unfold in uncertain directions, where one could escape with success or fail miserably and, ultimately, we don’t know whether we will become scapegoat or sacrificial lamb.
  7. This subheading is in reference to the concept of “becoming-artists,” which is further explored by Bang & Lee in their work, (deep sighs) untelevised, revolution on wheels (2015). In describing the work, the artists state: “The word ‘revolution,’ from the Latin words ‘re-’ and ‘volvere,’ means ‘a turning around’ or ‘rotating in a circular course’ and back to a starting point. Revolution[s], as ‘the locomotives of history,’ are on wheels, so to speak. These wheels are interlinked with numerous gears, while being connected to one another through a sophisticated device. Generators and motors roll their wheels in high speed. The forward- moving power, generated through constant rotations, makes us advance, but we cannot stop at this speed until the route changes. In the frame of ‘production,’ this locomotive was designed to be destined that way. We are also a part of the output of the production, so we are practicing ‘becoming-artist[s]’ by tightening the screws ourselves. We dream of changes that have not come yet.”

Extract from Brilliant Critics, Korea Tomorrow