by Linda Kronman
South Korean artist and activist Binna Choi is a member of the collective UnmakeLab that has been following the developments of Korean smart city initiatives such as Songdo for over a decade. Her special focus has been on artificial nature and “smart” waste, topics that she covers in artworks and publications. In our discussion we talk about UnmakeLab and the research that she did for her works Generic Nature, a book and a video installation about the The Four Major Rivers Restoration Project in South Korea1Choi, B. (2012). Generic Nature. Seoul:mediabus. ISBN 978-89-94027-47-0 90600. Generic Nature is a work that critically examines what Choi calls “ecological gentrification”: showing how programs regarded social or ecological are reduced to “green background or green alibis” to increase land value. Further on, we discuss the collaborative Summer Research lab: U-city Songdo, our visit to the most famous smart city initiative in South Korea.2Kairus. (2017, August 1). Summer Research lab: U-city Songdo IBD, Korea. Retrieved from: htttp://kairus.org/summer-research-lab-u-city-songdo-ibd-korea/ Finally, we conclude by trying to understand the core of a smart city through “smart” waste, a topic Choi was researching for her Smart city and garbage bin, a bright future for all zine.3Unmake Lab. (2016). Smart city and garbage bin, a bright future for all. Retrived from: https://www.slideshare.net/disco-tech/zine-uplaod
Linda Kronman (LK): Together with Sooyon Song, you are working as the artist/activist collective UnmakeLab. You also run a space in Seoul of the same name, which is a maker, artist, activist community in Seoul where people can connect to make anything in the context of politics, marginalized labor, technology, urbanism, art, and activism. Tell me a bit more what UnmakeLab is and does?
Binna Choi (BC): Actually we have an interest in the technological society, especially things that went missing when Korean society changed from the industrial era to an information technology society. Therefore we are trying to open a public program for artists, hackers, activists and normal people to try to find their perspective into these changes. I want to find something important in their perspective, that’s why we try to open our processes, organizing research labs and public programs like exhibitions and events.
LK: Korean companies such as Samsung and LG develop a lot of technologies and the 4th industrial revolution including Internet technologies, creative industries, automation and self-reproduction is often mentioned in a Korean context. Can you talk about what it means for the Koreans?
BC: Yes, it is quite hard to explain because there is a very strong Korean context to the 4th industrial revolution. Korean society just follows what happens or what is offered to us. That is what Koreans do. It is the same with the technological era. The 4th industrial revolution is another thing that people have to follow, we have to achieve it without any critical thinking.
LK: So a lot of top-down decisions on things?
BC: Yes, the government decides on policies and we citizens have to follow. There is no space for critical thinking, to re-think whether or not these technologies are really helpful for our lives? Do we really need this new technology or that new technology? We don’t have time to think about that, just to follow along as we are directed. UnmakeLab suggests that we need to stop and think. We are an artist group and, of course, the top-down power is really strong so we cannot make any changes, but we want to create a small autonomous space for people who want to think and talk about it.
LK: You have been critically reflecting on the development of smart cities in South Korea and followed how Songdo has been built as part of the Incheon Free Economic Zone west of Seoul. You have observed, over time, how a fishing village turned into a smart city showcase. You have recorded the development of Songdo in the book Generic Nature that you have also exhibited as an installation with complimentary video footage. Could you share some of the observations you have made while working on this project?
BC: My initial interest was nature: artificial nature. Actually my basic interest is not in the smart city, but more in the mind and philosophy of “smart” in this society. So, this means it includes every other creatures and species that are installed in a city under the smart policies and philosophy. My interest was not the smart city itself but through the long period of research I found that the artificial nature in Songdo are smart devices in some meaning. There were fishermen there in the marshland where the sea was reclaimed to create land to build the city. There is a deer cage in the central park and these deer are “smart” devices that are planned and planted in the city. They are not “native” in the surrounding. Through the research I found what the meaning of smart in this area is. Nature, animals were installed in Songdo, like items in a game environment.
LK: When I visited Songdo with you the smart city showroom was full of buzzwords such as greenness and sustainability. How can this be read in a Korean context?
BC: Also eco-friendlyness, that is all part of the smartism and how it is promoted. I started my researched about Songdo in 2008, so already 10 years ago. I observed the changes of the city and it failed in its initial purpose, just a city for middle-class. It was called “u-city” in Korea before but they changed the name from new to smart city, and they tried to create a new vision of the smart city. Even though they talk about the participation of people and the other values of smart cities, they didn’t talk about the purpose of the new city of Songdo. We need to talk about that because it happened in the past and it will happen again.
LK: So there were not really any citizens involved? Were they planning the city for imaginative citizens?
BC: This is true, they were also talking about citizens participating in new cities like Eco-Delta City in Busan. But I don’t think they have, even if Eco Delta is different from a smart city like Songdo, they still don’t have any chance to research city issues, they just make a showroom that looks like that citizens participate.
LK: Do you think Korean citizens would be eager to participate and are there platforms of participation in general? And are Koreans used to participating in grassroots level activities, like demonstrations?
BC: They would participate if they think that they are going to loose their money. Like with the smart trash-bin issue4This refers to Songdo’s Automated Waste Collection System. A underground system of pipes in which garbage is sucked directly from people’s apartments into the a waste collection plant. The waste collection syste was designed to eliminate garbage on the streets and the need for trash trucks., some citizens made it an issue because they lost their money. They bought an apartment and in the housing fee is the trash-recycling fee included. So since the recycling is not working well they wanted to have their money back since the housing prices were much higher. This doesn’t mean that they are thinking critically about the system, they just lost money and want a refund. However, this does not mean the essence of Korean citizenship. Citizenship in Korea is sensitive to democracy. This desire for democracy can be seen from the resignation of the president through the recent civil revolution. Korean citizens are highly conscious of political democracy. But when it moves to techno-political issues, the story is different. There is no accumulated discussion about it. I think it will take time. And on the other side, there is another problem embedded in the Smart Cities itself. Smart City is a concept that makes citizens work as consumers. As we saw earlier with the smart trash bin, there was no civic process of why it should be installed. So when problems arise later, it directly becomes a consumer movement. I am worried about this nature that is embedded in Smart Cities that there does not occure a citizen debate but it only causes consumer movement.
LK: Now we are getting to the topic that I wanted to discuss with you – Trash. Waste management is a part of the smart city business and you have been researching into its innovations and failures. You often publish your artistic research in a zine format. In the Smart city and garbage bin, a bright future for all zine you present a wide range of technologies that are connected to waste management such as the pneumatic waste management system developed for Songdo by the Swedish company, EVAC, and all the different kinds of versions of “smart” trash bins. I would be interest to hear your conclusions from this research?
BC: I think this also connects to the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) and the maker culture. There are so many “smart” trash bins connecting a lower level of DIY to an upper level of government policies and social infrastructures. So it is a really interesting device. It connects various levels and contexts in this era and the bins have some technopolitical empowerment in their abilities as well. The smart city and the “smart” trash bin have similar mechanisms: sensing data, generating data, sending it to control centers and generating feedback. So the trash bin is a compact version of the smart city. Songdo is a totally ubiquitous city, in those kind of cities smart trash systems are hidden in the city infrastructure. I chose to work with the “smart” trash bin because people think that the smart city, itself, is too big of an issue, but a “smart” trash bin is a small device and therefore more approachable. That’s why I chose this device. I think you can understand the smart city through the “smart” trash bin.