Animating the Inanimate: Geumhyung Jeong
Geumhyung Jeong and Matteo Mottin in conversation
In her work, Korean artist Geumhyung Jeong (b. 1980) establishes a connection between human beings and objects through a unique, almost animistic approach toward technology. In this conversation, the artist discusses her upcoming show Upgrade in Progress at Fondazione Modena Arti Visive, on how to transform the exhibition space into a theater—and vice versa—and how we can learn to listen to the language of machines.
MATTEO MOTTIN: You have a background in theater, dance, performance, and animation. How did you move toward art and sculpture?
GEUMHYUNG JEONG: I began my career in the moment when the term “multidisciplinary arts” was getting used more in the performing arts field, and it was also the moment when the art world started to focus again on performance art. An art critic mentioned my name, and some curators started to follow my works. Thus, from time to time, I was invited to exhibitions with my animation films or performances as a live event. Then I started to get opportunities to make installations and solo exhibitions while I continued developing performances in the theater field as well.
MM: The idea of control is central to your research. In Homemade RC Toy (2019)—of which Upgrade in Progress represents a further development—RC stands for “remote control,” but in my opinion the boundary between who’s in control and who is controlled always remains blurred. How does the project you are currently working on for Fondazione Modena Arti Visive (FMAV), Modena, develop on (or differ from) the one you presented at Kunsthalle Basel in 2019? From which initial reflections did you start to work on it?
GJ: My research has been about animating inanimate objects through my body movement. My relationship with the objects that I perform with could be compared to the roles of the puppeteer and the puppet. Indeed, it is always blurred who’s in control and who is controlled. Homemade RC Toy began with me being interested in the idea of controlling something from a distance, but specifically also in the remote controller itself as an object. My interest was about touching something here, in order to move something over there. I tried to make robots that can work as both remote controllers and remote-controlled objects at the same time.
After the first show of Homemade RC Toy at Kunsthalle Basel, I saw a lot of potential and possibilities of variations on the same story . My plan for the upgrade was to add a bit more complex movement and the ability to do more precise tasks, but just a little bit more, one by one—like adding one new function this time, and another thing next time. The idea of the upgrade project actually came with a desire to upgrade myself to gain advanced skills and knowledge to build more complex machines step by step, learning by doing. The upgrade project is going to be a long-term process, and the title itself—Upgrade in Progress—is like an announcement that this long story has begun and will be continued. I found that the whole process and efforts for the upgrade—prototyping models and testing, errors occurring, and solving problems—are already performative. The whole experience was dramatic and choreographic.
MM: You spent one month in the Palazzina dei Giardini, in Modena, which is also the location of the show. How has this spot influenced your work? And, more in general, how does the architectural space of a location affect your projects?
GJ: I was going to stay in Modena much longer, something like until the middle of April. I was planning to attend the venue of the exhibition and work on the machines using the space as my laboratory to carry out Upgrade in Progress literally. Although the stay was shorter than I planned, staying in Modena, concentrating on the production, developing the piece at the special architecture in the beautiful garden was wonderful.
The project began with understanding the architectures of Palazzina dei Giardini. I tried to find a way to develop the works in a suitable way for the specific space, hoping to generate an interesting narrative from the unique architecture. The structure of the architecture of Palazzina dei Giardini—consisting of a total of five rooms—formulated the configuration of the installation. Four rooms spread out from the central room in two different directions, two rooms on the left side and the other two rooms on the right side: it looks like a pair of wings off the central room. The installations start from the central room and extend to the other four in a progressive way. After learning about the basic assembly of the robots in the central room, the visitors could move to the next sections in other rooms, entering from the smaller to the larger one, and crossing into the others at the opposite side. The demonstration videos filmed at the same venue and the testing models on the stage/table in the rooms introduce what is in progress, and what kind of missions and tasks are added in each room.
The architectural space would have also influenced the live performance, titled Live Demonstration Tour, scheduled during the exhibition. As the form of the performance was going to be a tour of the exhibition space together with visitors (like a guided tour combined with demonstrations), the structure of the architecture would also affect the performance—for example, how to move together with audiences from a room to another room.
MM: We are living in an era where technology strives to adapt to human beings. In your performances—made by minimal, slow, and fluid gestures—you seem to establish a relationship with technology that goes in the opposite direction, in which it is the human being who tries to enter in dialogue with the machine by learning and adopting its very own language. How have your life experiences led you to develop this peculiar approach to objects?
GJ: As I said earlier, my research has been about animating inanimate objects through my body movement. The choreographic decisions made on the stages are often in order to make the objects be the focus rather than [focus on] myself as the human being. The slowness, the silence, and other related gestures could help us to enter a different time zone and listen to the language of the machines or the things.
MM: Your past projects seem to have in common the attention to the body combined with acts related to some kind of exploitation. I’m thinking about Spa & Beauty (2017), or Rehab Training (2015), which you’ll present for the first time in Italy at P420 Gallery in Bologna (on dates to be announced). Do you perceive your whole research as a narrative with its own internal continuity, where every project is like an episode or a chapter? If so, what type of research takes you from one chapter to the next?
GJ: I didn’t plan it each time, but there is progression and connection between my works. Sometimes I tell people that it feels like there is a story that continues from my earliest works to the most recent works. If my research suggests that I had, for years, worked as a sort of puppeteer, it could be described as a development of methods and training in the techniques of how to make things look alive in their way, and how to use my body as a stage partner for them.
For me, repeating the same topics (but differently, technically) is important. There are some missions and tasks that I set for myself to achieve. The rules and restrictions in the mission can help develop the methods or techniques. When it feels like it is time to change the rules, that is the moment to move forward to the next place.
MM: In your work, it seems that two phases can be distinguished, as if we had “tutorials” and “demonstrations”: On the one hand, the videos combined with the way you arrange your sculptures, which recall educational displays. On the other, your performances. Through this mode of presentation, do you want to give the viewer the keys to access your point of view, to indicate a path that everyone can pursue to get to your relationship with objects? How does the relationship with the public influence the construction of your projects?
GJ: In my works, the educational elements are often a part of the story. When I say my practice is like “building a relationship with objects or machines”, this connection with them starts earlier than the actual physical interaction on the stage. And it usually begins with the process of getting to learn about it. The component related to the learning experiences would be interesting for the audience as well, in order to be engaged with the narrative that built with those elements.
If the presentation mode for Homemade RC Toy looks like two phrases of educational displays and live demonstration, this it could be related to the difference between the form of exhibition and live performance that I played with. I tried to find a way to use both of them effectively to introduce the contents when I combine the two different forms. And I also questioned how to transform the space from museum to theatre and back again, in a place like the Kunsthalle Basel, for example. The presentation of Upgrade in Progress at FMAV staged with different strategies. My question regarding the two modes between displaying and performing was a little bit different in this project.
MM: Can the works you present live for themselves, independently, without the presence of human beings, or do you feel they need to be observed?
GJ: I guess it depends on the meaning of “living”—how we define it. The things don’t need human beings to “live” as themselves, to stay their own way. What would make them look alive for us would be only about our perspectives. If “living” for themselves means as a machine is designed to work, they need a person to use and maintain them. If the machines are not used for a long time, they become stiff and wouldn’t be able to work anymore one day. If the machines are used a lot for a long time, then they would get exhausted and stop working at some point. The batteries and the motors cannot run forever and have to be replaced with new ones when the old ones are used up. They need someone to do it for them. It is like they are demanding, and [it is] costly to keep them living as I hope. They wouldn’t need me, or they wouldn’t even need to “live” for themselves. But I need them.