Media Activism, still a “Transparent” Technology Society

Koh Yoon Jeong (Independent Curator, Director of Already.Org)

A desert with nothing, an unfamiliar house and a warehouse with nobody around, and the sound of the chilly wind sweeping the wilderness…

When you enter the exhibition hall, you will see old and rough scenes as in the post-apocalyptic world, which might appear in the ‘Mad Max’ movie series. It has already been nearly two years since the pandemic crisis of “COVID-19” began in early 2020, and if you watch this video at a time when your lifestyle has continued to change, the past crises might as well pass through your mind. The first-person view surrounding the ruins and the warehouse almost collapsing as in a scene in a game might keep you in suspense as if something might happen soon. Artist duo Bang & Lee (Jayoung Bang & Yunjun Lee)’s Trackback (2021), originally produced in a shoulder view from the third-person point of view, is a video that follows the camera action from the first-person point of view because it does not appear to be removed from the screen by making the main character invisible. The first- and third-person perspectives are cleverly mixed across the first-person view feel and the third-person omniscient view of virtual reality. They reveal a phenomenon in which the audience is likely to actually enter and go through something together, and the duo and the audience have a subtle sense of community at the same time.

Anyone who knows Bang & Lee’s past works well may find it unfamiliar to see their works full of images with the present rough desert. Bang & Lee, one of the early media artists in Korea, has been mainly working on visually intense works with colorful neon signs, dazzling LEDs, small accessories that make up sparkling lights, stretched electric wires that connect works, and shadows that transmit light. In their works with literary imagination, a goat called “Harry” appeared, and in the living room, there was an “elephant,” while heartbreaking words such as “friendship,” or sharp phrases criticizing the media-driven society were inserted.

Among their past works, I would like to point out several characteristics in connection with their new work Trackback (2021). The first is that as the duo explores the layers overlaid in the process of creating or installing their work one by one, the history of technology and social messages occurring in that moment meet at some point in the work. Bang & Lee expresses the process with the concept of “transparency.” This reflects the fact that the attributes of technology are revealed as they are in reality, that transparency as a social role of art, that their work has the property of physically transmitting light, and that issues of the media-driven society are revealing who we are utterly “transparently.”

Bang & Lee talked about Google’s power in the field of media and loopholes in open sources in the series of FAQ, Lost in Translation, and Revision History X (2012) exhibited in Media City Seoul. Contrary to the prediction that a technology-based society will be equal in addition to the fact that Gmail launching a paid version, technology also makes us more unequal in terms of accessibility. This is because an open source is open to everyone, but it is difficult for people to understand and use it without speaking a specific language, and it is also challenging to enter a new content or technology society unless they have enough capital to handle machines freely. In the case of YouTube, you can watch videos immediately without watching advertisements by paying premium service fees, and it has become difficult to catch a taxi without a Kakao taxi app. There are countless cases in which individuals cannot escape from the group network of large media, including the process of sharing images, just as wall pads in apartment living rooms are hacked and privacy is leaked online. Bang & Lee uses “technology” to make remarks as artists on the organic relationship between individuals and society as technology advances.

While FAQ structurally revealed Google Logic along with the properties of Google’s mosaic images through two monitors using data transformation, distribution, and diffusion via the current web search method, Lost in Translation touched upon the semantic reduction, distortion, and misunderstanding accompanied as the current media is changing. This work also exposes the errors of the system based on Google’s translation feature. In addition, Revision History X presents the possibility that technology can be a force to rewrite history. The information scattered on websites and the materials published continue to be newly used and modified regardless of its authenticity where the duo points out that accelerating the phenomenon and being able to track the truth are also what technology can do.

The second characteristic seen in the work is “total theatricality.” Arena Tour – Machine (2016) features a circular theater in which various elements such as a study, a TV, a monitor, a sofa, and “Harry” the goat coexist in one place. In their work, the form of the theater makes the work opaque as the audience’s body intervenes in the work, and allows the audience to penetrate the work and act as an individual element. Just as there are an animal farm in the work and an elephant in the living room, the audience is also settled as a small fragment of everyday life in the house. On the one hand, the gaze on TV and the monitor does not interfere with the “transparency” of the work and makes the audience look at it until the end, where TV and the monitor work as a medium that shows the work, but they are symbolic as one of the huge media systems we encounter every day. The reason for installing cool chairs in the exhibition hall together is to induce people in the modern world to engage in natural discussions for whom time to watch TV at home is important, and to simultaneously point out our attitude toward the media.

Their new work Trackback (2021) signals that Bang & Lee’s world of art is undergoing change for various reasons, while being connected to their critical approach to the media. The three-channel work shows a gas station, a warehouse, and an old house in the middle of desolate land in three scenes. “Harry,” who was seen in the living room, is outside the house and only looks at the abandoned house together with the audience: the comfort and tranquility of the house no longer exist in the scene. The media system that has been up and running so far is not working anymore, and informs that the audience, artists, and society are entering the unknown world whether we didn’t know or turned a blind eye to it. As the audience experiences the tactile sense of ruins like a virtual surface with their eyes, they recall events of the past, and the process is transformed into a reality that exists beyond immaterial memories. The memories of the past projected by reversing the flow of time while experiencing space make the audience realize that the cross-section in front of them is what exists in the “present” moment.

The three episodes are divided into A rental car is running, Trackback, and The place that has no name. The videos produced by going back and forth between various media including poetry, essay, drawing, painting, photography, 3D modeling, simulation images, objects, sculptures, and models allow the audience/visitors to experience exploring space in three-dimensional reality. In the idea sketch – although not exhibited in the hall – is a process of experimenting with various patterns and textures in advance in the idea sketch for the construction of this work. Bang & Lee has long experimented with objects close to architectural models produced by 3D printing to find a way to implement a three-dimensional world similar to realistic space in images. By testing various types of building models with textures and surfaces, they explored the intersection of two-dimensional planes and three-dimensional dimensions, showing the possibility that the feeling of the surface unfolding in a virtual space can ultimately operate in the domain of tactile sense.

As written in their Artist Note, “Every time we find a repeated pattern in human history, we realize how deeply we are connected even though our bodies are separated,” this work has a repetitive cyclical structure and draws out some memories deep in our hearts that anyone would have. The series, which tells the story of unknown land and unexplored fields that Bang & Lee has been thinking about for a long time, reveals the difficulty of continuing to discover and incorporate new technologies into art as media artists and the concerns faced by the art scene now in the pandemic crisis.

As mentioned at the beginning, unlike Bang & Lee’s past works, which actively introduced interactive light art installation methods, the reason why this work came to be present only as a video is that they felt a crisis derived from the collapse of the manufacturing industry that has been carrying on for a long time. Beyond the survival of the artist, Bang & Lee pays attention to what they can do as artists and explores what needs to be changed going beyond their mere survival. The sheer volume of by-products and large wastes that are not recyclable and reusable left after an exhibition is incredible. It is almost impossible to ignore this phenomenon from the standpoint of pursuing practical work on the media-driven society. With the advent of the pandemic crisis, the pace of their concerns to go green and corresponding practices became faster, and their exhibition around the summer of 2021 began their steps toward carbon neutrality.

Recently, various platforms for NFT, including Metaverse, have emerged in the art world, and artists and planners not only communicate for the sake of online channels but also fully utilize them in the preparation process to create an exhibition. In addition, the experience of immersion in videos is expanding instead of appropriating the format of a game or intending for a physical and phenomenological one through objects. As Bang & Lee already reflected a background and policy where Google was up and running in their work about 10 years ago, they use contemporary technology in the process of producing works while practicing their message in response to the crisis of climate change. In the case of Trackback (2021), technologies such as 3D printing, 3D animation, and camera tracking were used.

Artists who engage in artistic activities based on installation will probably separate all the small modules that made up their objects and classify them in their studio when their show is not on. Electric wires, various wires connecting monitors and works, beam projectors, speakers, and various glittering cubes occupy the artists’ space physically and realistically through the process of mobility, moving out, migration, disassembly, and assembly. In recent years, Bang & Lee’s trajectory, which has been underway in line with actions against climate change, has also led to their works raising questions about global warming and ecosystem crises in Jeju Island. Looking at Trackback (2021), I wondered if these issues were satisfactorily solved when their large installation work was reduced and small accessories and visible electric wires were not revealed. “Transparency” still works as a central concept of media activism in their works even if times change and technology transforms itself.

I pin my hopes for them to pioneer and expand new territories, overcoming the chronic problems faced by artists and works – long-distance flight, transportation, and by-products – and moving toward carbon neutrality.

Bang & Lee’s Artist Notes
Natalie Boseul Shin, et al., brilliant critics 2017, Korea Tomorrow, 2017
Meeting Room et al., Share Me: Art After Disaster, Imagining the Future, Sundri Press, 2021