by Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle
Nana and Felix are a Korean-Finnish artist duo focusing on errors and symptoms derived from the leftovers of the on-going South Korean modernization process. In their artistic research they reflect on large-scale high-rise housing developments and entirely new cities that were built under government-run programs. We started our conversation talking about their artistic practice and their recent project WEAST1Nana & Felix. WEAST. Retrieved from: http://www.nana-felix.com/weast/ that include among others artworks such as You Are Where You Live2Nana & Felix. (2017). You Are Where You Live. Retrieved from: http://www.nana-felix.com/weast/you-are-where-you-live/ , a series of calligraphy works consisting of “high-class” brand names of apartment buildings written out on traditional Korean silk scrolls. The artwork highlights that the branding of the apartments is what differs one building tower from another, whereas the majority of new apartment construction in Korea follows the exact same construction techniques and designs. Another work from the series is ImpeCable lifestyle3Nana & Felix. (2015). ImpeCable Lifestyle. Retrieved from: http://www.nana-felix.com/expat-immigrant/impecable-lifestyle/ an installation staging a Korean housing gallery mirroring the industrially-produced housing interiors. Further on we continue the conversation around real-estate and smart cities discussing experiences and observations the artist duo had when working with the project Let There Be Motorways4Nana & Felix. Let There Be Motorways. Retrieved from: http://www.nana-felix.com/lettherebemotorways/. We also discuss in more detail their artwork New City5Nana & Felix. (2015). New City. Retrieved from: http://www.nana-felix.com/expat-immigrant/incheon-free-economic-zone-2015/ reflecting on the aesthetics of the imaginary and real smart city Songdo. We conclude our conversation by discussing the non-sentimental attitude Koreans have towards the builds, destruction, and rebuilds of their urban landscapes, also a thematic in their artwork House of cards.6Nana & Felix. (2016). House of Cards. Retrieved from: http://www.nana-felix.com/expat-immigrant/house-of-cards/
Andreas Zingerle (AZ): South Korea can be seen as a beacon of democracy in east Asia, recent developments include the peaceful impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, the at least temporary imprisonment of “chaebol” vice chairman Lee Jae-yong (Samsung electronics), and diplomatic harmonisation efforts between North and South Korea. In your recent project WEAST you deal with peculiar realities in modern Korea: a weird mix of cultural appropriation and cultural toadyism. How do you perceive ongoing developments in Korea and how do you translate your observations in your artistic research practice?
Nana & Felix (N&F): Well, Nana’s parents lived in a big apartment complex constructed by Korean steel giant (and chaebol) POSCO, one of these high-rise buildings that are so typical of the Korean urban landscape. The name of the apartment was POSCO The Sharp Lakeside, and it overlooked a small, artificial lake. Some years after the construction was completed, the small forest behind the apartment was plowed down, making way for yet another POSCO apartment complex. POSCO Lake City, as it was named, entirely blocked our view and access to the lake. This anecdote is a good example of how we work, always drawing from personal experiences trying to touch on larger issues – this little story was translated into on of our works, 107-15027Nana & Felix. (2016). 107-1502. Retrieved from:http://www.nana-felix.com/expat-immigrant/107-1502/.
Based on our experiences we try to understand the overall cultural situation, and we have a certain understanding of how society works in Korea but, if we want to translate them into an artwork, we have to make sure that things are in order and the factual parts stay as facts. We do quite a lot of research in historical texts, news articles with adjacent commentaries and other people’s experiences, as well as a lot of other Korean artists who work with similar issues. Korean traditional art history plays a big factor too, as we try to establish (mostly ironical) links between the past and present. There is a big and ruthless industry that is very fast and efficient in building these high-rise apartment buildings. The research and practice is very simultaneous, constantly influencing each other. We try to give our findings a visual form that is as straight forward as possible, nevertheless aesthetics remain a very important part of our work. Even when our work touches upon social or other issues we approach the subjects through aesthetics. This is both because we believe that this is the most practical way, but also because we like aesthetics!
When you change a landscape, it is a very aesthetic process; it is nearly impossible to not work with aesthetics in this context. When you look at the apartments they are very uniform and, funnily enough, not really that different from the North Korean ones. We try to understand how Koreans think about this: very uniform aesthetics, following a certain trend, starting with the tower blocks which, themselves, are based on a Koreanized idea of how westerners live. But nobody ever defines who these westerners are. In Korea, the term “Western” has a weird, never exact, definition; it has a very positive connotation, mainly referring to American culture, but nowadays increasingly European. The whole industry of high-risers originates from an imagined western lifestyle.
Linda Kronman (LK): Like luxury skyscrapers? For a lot of westerners these tower buildings have, in contrast, an association with the past, with a kind of communistic or post WW2 communal living.
Felix (F): Yes communistic; they also look like ghettos. There is one photo series we did, called Real estate8Nana & Felix. Real estate. Retrieved from: http://www.nana-felix.com/expat-immigrant/real-estate/, that compares the high-risers in Apgujeong, one of the most expensive and elite neighborhoods of Seoul, Korea, to Bellvitge, one of the poorest neighborhoods on the outskirts of Barcelona, Spain. When you walk through Apgujeong, and look with foreigner’s eyes, it looks like somewhere you are likely to get stabbed and raped, especially at night. In contrast to its aesthetics, it is a neighborhood of celebrities and millionaires, with valet services and concierges – you can only dream of ever having enough money to afford to buy property there. This visual-aesthetic contradiction raises intriguing questions on both cultural differences and value creation.
Nana (N): When we started investigating we realized that this has more to do with Sadaejuui, or “toadyism,” a word that Korean people are very well aware of. Saadaejuui means, roughly, service to the great buy the small. The tendency of accommodating, appropriating and copying cultures that Koreans perceive as more advanced is not a new phenomenon. Back in the Joseon Dynasty9The Joseon dynasty lasted for approximately five centuries. It was founded by Yi Seong-gye in July 1392 and was replaced by the Korean Empire in October 1897. Wikipedia contributors. (2018, December 4). Joseon. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseon, there were certain intellectuals who thought that in order for Koreans to be more resistant to Chinese influence they had to open the door to western ideas. Well, it went a different direction than our ancestors wanted to.
F: Korea doesn’t carry the colonial baggage that a lot of European countries do, so there is a sort of freedom to freely appropriate and copy whatever from wherever, which kind of makes it heavier and uglier. But this is a tricky topic and people easily oversimplify things. To actually pinpoint where it is appropriation or lending or where it is just the world running its course and we get impressions from different places is very difficult to distinguish. And it is always a matter of whose perspective it is. In Korea, it seems that they just don’t care, everything and anything goes. It is just this weird in-between of following and blindly taking up. I could also observe that they appropriate it in a weird kind of way, as there is no real concern for what the original ever was. So is even really appropriation? I don’t have an answer, I just find it really interesting to observe.
LK: So the big construction corporations have a lot of power because they design and in the end decide how Koreans are living.
F: The beginning of this is not sinister, even though from my perspective the present is quite so. The construction of the Apartment complexes started at the same time, around late 50s, early 60s, as social housing after the Second World War in Europe. The interesting part is what happened next. Whereas in the West social housing early on caught a bad reputation, and turned in to slums, in Korea it became the most desired way of living. You could even say that the social housing dream of Europe was successfully realized – only on the other side of the world.
N: The father (Park chung-Hee) of our previous president (Park geun Hye), really believed that the old living traditions were antiquated and started the modernization process of the entire economy – housing included. He entrusted a lot of power as well as national resources in the hands of a few, handpicked companies (some of which later evolved into the mega chaebols we know today) to carry out this modification of the entire landscape10Park Geun Hye’s father Park Chung-Hee served as the President of South Korea from 1963 until his assassination in 1979. While some credit him for sustaining the Miracle on the Han River, which reshaped and modernized South Korea, others criticize his authoritarian way of ruling the country and for prioritizing economic growth and contrived social order at the expense of civil liberties. The Park government rewarded chaebol (large South Korean industrial conglomerates such as LG, Samsung and Hyundai) with loans on easy terms of repayment, tax cuts, easy licensing and subsidies. Wikipedia contributors. (2018, November 26). Park Chung-hee. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Park_Chung-hee. That’s where Samsung and Hyundai come into play. Back then Koreans got rid of a lot of old houses, there was little or no regard for beautiful and historical houses anymore. Property speculation started and people thought it was a good thing to make money out of it. Koreans in general seemed to be very eager and focused on making money. Individuals were ready to sacrifice the past so that the entire nation could have a very fast profit.
F: The way they built got much faster but, as a result, the quality decreased. It’s not that different from what happened elsewhere. In Finland, for example housing is built in a equally poor way, but the properties are constantly maintained. This notion doesn’t really exist in Korea. It is all about progress, and that means new. Renovation doesn’t really exist as a concept. When any building gets old, it’s knocked down and a new one is built in its place.
LK: Korea is quite a technocratic society: technological development and progress is pushed by dominant family companies that run the Korean economy; the “chaebol” companies, such as LG or Samsung. Korea has been very keen on being a forerunner in the smart city business and therefore I want to talk about your project in Songdo. In the New City artwork, a 2-channel video installation, you compare the official imagery of Songdo, created by the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ), with your documentation of the areas of day-to-day life. the work is contrasting a perfectly designed city with its reality. Can you elaborate about the issues you observed when creating and exhibiting this artwork?
N: There are hardly any critical voices against these new city developments. It is hard to find any Korean who sees the issue in a negative or critical way. When we talk about these issues, Koreans can get offended because it can easily become a nationalistic issue, and then Koreans feel attacked and offended. Even when you talk about it with friends, there is a great sensitivity, and they can take it very personally. So most people like the “Free economic Zone” with it’s eco, green and LEED certification, all this words sound really good when you don’t question them. They fit with the view that Korea is a modern and global leader.
F: I specially like the use of the term eco because you can put it on nearly everything, a car with eco label on and maybe painted green is less polluting, right? What happens in Songdo is that as long as it looks good on the outside it’s good. It is very much about “us looking good as a nation” and, therefore, most Koreans are happy.
N: Songdo still remains a “gold” city. IFEZ wanted to attract a big population to settle there, but we all know that is not how a city works. Our approach was very aesthetical, basically because the entire city looks like an advertisement picture. The whole place is a façade, adorned with the slogans and the central park in the right places. The marketing and corporate image is really coherent with everything we should find cool in this day and age. They market the city as entirely walkable, but the distances are so big, windy and cold half of the year that pedestrians mostly shine with their absence. A big chunk of Songdo has already been completed built, but the streets are still empty and it doesn’t feel like that there are people living there.
On a visits to one of the many housing galleries (temporary constructions where the different apartment-modules for sale are displayed) we overheard a conversation between a young couple: “This flat here costs that much? We can get a similar flat in the center of Seoul for the same price.” They also try to attract foreigners to the area through tax incentives. If a foreigner acquires property in Songdo he/she is tax-exempt for ten years. So there is a lot of tax evasion and speculation going on.
L: Songdo is promoted as Korea’s showcase of a smart city. They have implemented a lot of new technology there and the high-tech innovations they want to sell to other cities. How do you see the technology coupled with real estate?
N: Before we go into that… two months ago there was breaking news that Songdo residents were complaining about this unknown decaying smell that was coming from the underground. Authorities said they didn’t know its source and the resident’s thought that the decaying smell came from a gas leak. Others thought that the waste disposal system was clogged or trapped seawater and decaying sediment, as Songdo was built as a landfill on top of a a mud field in the sea. The smell just went away so, clearly, someone seemed to have solved the problem. In general, I have a hard time swallowing the whole smart city package.
F: Technology is not our main focus area, but then we come into the question of smart city property, which is very different. The smart city definition is a slippery thing. According to its proponents it’s a way of improving everyone’s life through the application of technology into the city’s structure. According to critics of smart cities it is about social control of people, something that is already present in today’s Korea and which people here seem to quite enjoy. For example, the whole traffic system in Songdo is surveilled from a central control room where they can see and control everything. It is easy to become a critic of smart cities if that is the way we are going, which is definitely what is happening in Korea. How these developments work in Europe or somewhere else might be a different thing. For me it feels like the true potential is buried under more of the same marketing nonsense and quick profits. Smart City sounds and looks really cool, you can sell it flashy and tear it down some years later and build it again.
AZ: Korea’s unofficial national motto “Hongik Ingan” was coined by Dangun, the first ancestor of all Korean people. It can be translated to “Benefit Broadly in the Human World/ devotion to the welfare of Humanity.” One of many manifestations of “Hongik ingan” is seen to be an outward and forward-moving orientation, like the much vaunted entrepreneurial spirit and global mindset of the Korean people. In your project series, Let There Be Motorways, you question Korea’s constant striving for progress by focusing on the Korean housing-landscape. Korea went a long way from the traditional “Hanok” housing to smart city initiatives such as Songdo in Incheon or Eco Delta City in Busan. Constant progress seems to be top ranked on the national agenda. Do citizens endorse these developments? What did you find out in your research?
N&F: We think the majority of Koreans actually really like the idea of smart cities and other urban redevelopments. Generally Koreans don’t see the problems that we see and this can be frustrating sometimes. There are those who do understand our approach, but they are very few and far apart, while the majority are asking: “why do you go on about this?” Many get insulted by us questioning Korea, and ask questions like: “So who cares? We have to develop things else there is not enough resources and land for everyone.” Whereas these are completely valid questions, we still think that it is always healthy to be critical.
F: A good example, for me, would be the community centres of neighborhoods that are about to be bulldozed. To date I have never seen one that would fight for the preservation of the neighborhood. The banners, slogans and movements are always about how to collectively organize so as to ensure the biggest possible profits of the sale of the properties to the redevelopers. I find this fascinating and rather sad at the same time. The older neighborhoods in Seoul were built in the 60’s, so people have been living there for over 50 years. Even so there doesn’t seem to be any will to preserve, any sentimental feelings about their neighborhood. In the end I guess the cultural gap is too much for me to grasp.
N: We are talking about big areas where large companies are competing. From time to time newspapers cover stories about these companies bribing residents and corruption that happens alongside these big redevelopment projects. It seems that citizens like their neighborhoods, but making money is just more important.