Vi har taget en snak med udstillingsaktuelle Youngjae Lih (KR), der netop nu udstiller projektet Unseen på Fotografisk Centers digitale udstillingsplatform ON THE GO. Vi har spurgt ham om hans projekt, hans kunstneriske praksis og koblingen mellem kunst og teknologi. Den sydkoreanske kunstner er nu bosat i Malmø, og udstillingen er kurateret af Galleri Format i Malmø.
Interview af Isabella Aleksandra Fuchs og Pauline Koffi Vandet
In 2007 you graduated from Hong-Ik University in South Korea with a bachelor’s Degree in Electric and Electronic Engineering. How has your background within this field influenced your artistic practice?
“Yes, firstly a scientific background lets me use modern mediums in a more flexible way so I think it is beneficial for me in terms of practicality but also helped me to become disciplined and think systematically. Of course, because of my study and where I grew up, I am familiar with digital technology but this gives me a foundation knowledge for new mediums and approaches in its essence. For instance, even though it sounds far away from electrical engineering it is helpful to synthesize my own photochemical to process my analogue photographs and films as I could understand at a core level (lower levels). Not only in terms of work medium, but also the work perspective inspired me a lot. I worked as an R & D engineer in a semiconductor company, one of my tasks was to design and inspect tiny memory chips or writing patents or working manuals for operators. This experience makes me raise questions about how the micro(nano level) world coexists with macro(km or universe level) at the same time or inventing a way to convey knowledge to others.”
This field can be tied to many systems, logical thinking and linguistic structures. A way of thinking that might differ from the artistic field, which can be more abstract and analytical thinking. What made you want to connect these two – dare we say – parallel worlds? And when and how did your interest in studying images and its impact on humans start?
“In my case, probably because I have both backgrounds, I don’t see these as two different or parallel worlds. I know that there are different perspectives but in the end it converges to one. How to approach the problem and solve them requires a certain level of imagination and in this process you need to make decisions that fundamentally involve human nature. For example, when companies compete it is usual to do reverse engineering of their competitors’ products, which means the process of analyzing a subject system to identify the system’s components and their interrelationships and to create representations of the system in another form or at a higher level of abstraction. This is very similar to how we form the image in our mind, for instance, watching film. We perceive the partial scenes and sound or voice but also read the subtitles, which in the end are fragmental information that generate certain images by brain. These are different languages but share common ground on a fundamental level. And a more realistic and honest reason was that I wasn’t that interested in working in a large system and huge project for too long as a team, so I found another category which is that of “artist” that allows me to continue working independently pursuing my true interests.”
You work in the field within photography, video, drawings and text. How does the different media influence each other in your artistic practice?
“I work with various mediums so one of my interests is how the subject or information could be translated in different mediums and also its repetitive process. I think its influence on our culture depends on technological development is so obvious but wasn’t much attended in the art industry except some cases touching abstract level. In my practice, these are compensated in various levels by each other since I produce a simple device to take a picture or I 3D printed a self-designed instrument for 16mm analogue films. In other cases, engineering or scientific concepts act as stimuli to produce the works, too. I usually look for an optimized medium for the subject so my work is not stuck on the same medium and I can look for interesting aspects or patterns. For instance, highly representative quality such as 4K/8K of digital pictures is not my interest because digital cameras have a nature that develops to represent reality better in time.
As part of the academic activity we often try to systemize the idea of creation or origin of ideas. Where do we get ideas and how we are creative, in my case working in different fields has been pretty beneficial at a practical level but in the thinking process as well. Going back to the educational system of how we were taught to collect information from the environment and start manipulating it, then to interrogate the information, the knowledge. And the secret is that if you like to make a quantum leap into an idea you should let it go and try to forget it and realize that the brain or memory itself is what produces the idea. This distance from the image or from one medium allows me to be a spectator and participate in the interpretation and then to mutate narratives in different mediums. Knowing that I will not remember or be able to regenerate exactly the same thing in another medium, means that I have to approach it always slightly differently. So while I am working in different fields in art and science or engineering these knowledges naturally integrate into a certain form.”
It is tempting to look at your project Unseen and pose questions about the world we live in and the surveillance society. But your attempt is also to raise questions, asking us how we memorize what is seen and what we miss when looking at something. Why did you choose this approach in your project? How did you get started on this project, and why is the project called Unseen?
“I went to China in 2018 and stayed in Chengdu. It started by just curiosity that I wanted to experience or research about Silk Road which is an old route between West and East. There are several different silk road routes and one of them includes Chengdu, which is the largest city in west China now. Maybe several years of staying in Europe made me question how people in the past communicated in large distances and passed information? I read Marco Polo’s travelogue to China and wondered how his life changed when he was back in Europe. Was it possible to talk to people or did he even remember well?
Usually scientists say more than 80% of the information perceived is through visual formation and the rest is by other sensations. So, when I got there it made me find a way to archive most of my experience, mostly visually, while I was staying there. Apparently, for the visual archive you need to take a picture. Then I realized the blinking movement of eyes is similar to the camera’s shutter mechanism but completely opposite. Camera shutter controls the time to expose the film but human eye blinking is nothing about forming images, actually it disturbs to perceive signals from outside.
The project title is simple. The device was designed to take a picture every time when the person is blinking. So technically, these scenes are not seen by my eyes thus the title became ‘Unseen’. This image archive was produced later as a video which has 24 frames per seconds. Of course, human eye’s blinking is not regular so the speed of video is controlled by eye blinking timing – while frequent blinking makes a slower scene, less blinking tends to proceed fast therefore this generates a personalized visual rhythm. The sound track was generated by a full recording audio source during the performance then layered within video duration. Thus, this video is in a way a very compressed version of my experience but consists of materials filtered by eye blinking, unheard or forgetting. Actually, this is interesting for me as these ‘Unseen’ images remind me of the space and time that I have forgotten.”
It can be a quite overwhelming experience watching Unseen I/II with all the visual impressions and sounds. Not only do you visualize the fragments of what is seen (and what is not) which is linked to memory and remembering, but you also give us a representation of what we can experience in a day. It made us more aware of how the structure of the city shapes our experiences and interaction with each other in the urban space. What do you want the viewer to gain from your project?
“It was a personally interesting experience but I thought maybe through this way I could capture the cityscape that reflects its infrastructure but also ordinary citizen’s lives as well. Modern Asian mega-cities, especially China these days, tend to be developed very fast. So, sometimes you get a strong feeling of city planning rather than its time and cultural heritages. For instance, Chengdu has built and expanded ‘train lines and roads’ at the same time. Usually, it is natural that the central area has an old system or patch works because it has been there longer, and you find more newly built stations outside. But in the case of these cities that were built very fast, the building complex and blocks become quite similar in appearance not only its design but even in its aging status. I think that this monotonous scheme granted by the top-down system makes individuals experience desolated, and contributes to a misinformation of the collective memory.
As part of my exhibition in the Luxelakes A4 Art Museum, one of the activities encouraged the audience to select the printed images among 10,000 prints on the floor from my performance then try to post its location on the city map on the wall. Apparently, the images were very lacking in distinction, mostly concrete buildings and big streets, and most of the audience wasn’t able to identify exact locations. But at the same time it was fascinating that these trivial scenes were still well perceived by the audience, probably forming some common experiences in daily life. We used to say that all the things you’ve seen, listened and read form ourselves. In relation to this project, I would say that even what you haven’t seen and heard is somehow part of you.”
This project can also raise questions about the constant surveillance in our cities as well as our relationship to technology and data harvesting. In your artistic practice where you work with both video and photography, what influence do you think these media have gained in our society today? And do you believe Unseen can tell us something about the ‘surveillance society’?
“I think Unseen calls attention to the fact that even a densely constructed image database would have a certain perspective constructed thus there is no objective image at all. Although, as long as the quality of imaging technique has been refined so we made it resemble the reality into another level, there is always a purpose and concept behind it. In the opposite sense, with strong purpose and materials whoever could fabricate the scene as real which means not only the surveillance system surrounding us but also even potential surveillance we should be aware of. Considering that technically everything from an individual is traceable these days by mobile microphone and camera, gps data, internet log, credit card log etc… and visualise them and they can be combined with certain aims, this surveillance mesh becomes exponentially dense. In that sense, I rather find that this medium has become even weaker in its position. The more modern technology is integrated into invisible systems such as integrated chip and software algorithms, the more risk of distrust exists with photography and video in terms of that they used to be believed to convey ‘real’ moments and experiences which now can be easily manipulated.
In relation to this tightened surveillance environment we might need to think about our attitude so not necessarily to be over defensive or hysterical. It is a valid point to be aware of danger but how to react or perceive it is a completely different subject. For instance, I could produce the device but I don’t feel like performing Unseen I/II the same way in Malmö or Copenhagen precisely due to this high concern with surveillance devices.”
Maybe this is an extension to your response above but can we have your perspective about this project in response to authorities’s use of these mediums to control. Do you believe that media such as photography and video have become ‘a weapon’ to use for authorities to control the way we interact with each other?
“I would say not by photography or camera but by photographer. I work with lens-based mediums but my main interest is how they are used or the making process and the algorithm behind. For instance, we easily see these days the visually tracking system in sports game broadcasts such as football games that shows the players movement or ball locations which was quite common in computer games. This high performance tracking concept originated from computer games but it has been developed by military-industrial complexes mainly from Israel and US with the purpose of missile tracking or special surveillance aims, then it was installed in some stadiums in Europe.
Obviously, this can be applied to manage crowds and to track certain potential suspects, as we have no information at all how they select the targets. But I am not seeing the situation only negatively. As authority has rapidly changed, we as individuals are also getting equipped with modern technology. We can access most of the knowledge that we need more than ever, I observe how individuals perceive this environment and go against it so in the end come up with new hacking techniques for the systems created. Probably that’s where I find joy in working with my project as it is not an ordinary commercialized product and does not require more than an individual level technique but uses the knowledge which is supposed to create something useful or with a clear goal.”
About the artist
Youngjae Lih (b. 1984, South Korea) is currently based in Malmö where he works in the field within photography, video, drawings and texts. He graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Electric and Electronic Engineering from Hong-Ik University in South Korea, 2007. In addition, Youngjae Lih holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art from Korea National University of Arts in South Korea, 2014 and a Master’s Degree in Fine Art from Malmö Art Academy at Lund University in Sweden, 2016.
Youngjae Lih has exhibited in both group and solo shows in several countries such as South Korea, Sweden, Norway, Japan, Belgium, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates and China.
For more information please visit: www.youngjaelih.com
About Galleri Format
Galleri Format has curated this exhibition. Galleri Format is a non-profit gallery, located in Malmö, Sweden since 1983. The gallery presents six exhibitions annually with a focus on art and documentary photography as well as other lens-based mediums such as video.
For more information please visit: www.galleriformat.nu
We would like to thank Youngjae Lih and Gallery Format for their cooperation and contributions during the online exhibition on our digital platform ON THE GO. The exhibition ends January 24th, 2021.