The mutual transformation and influence between everyday life and practice of art is a common experience among many artists. The experience is intense for artists with an art practice that necessitates the recording of their process and art form into the cells of their bodies, particularly performance artists and performing artists who have to enact the work of art. Sometimes it would feel like living the work rather than producing it.
Misunderdance, which was introduced to New York as a work-in-progress version this spring, was first attempted in Wales in 2015. It was derived from the research I was undergoing in other projects in 2013 and while I was focused on exploring various connections between body and language. I was particularly interested in how different cultures have their own language and how similarities exist between different languages. Wales Summer Camp, which was an excellent program, was a great opportunity for me to meet and work with various artists who can speak more than one language. By the end of the program, three videos were created in collaboration with video artist Caroline Vasquez and other talented artists.
Several years after the Wales Summer Camp program, I wanted to make a live performance using the same inspirations and got a chance to present it at SOAK in New York. So I got back to work on this project in the US in the spring of 2017. This time, however, I had gained a new perspective. If my interest in communication between different languages and people were initially from a place of curiosity and research, as I started living in the US with the possibility of staying longterm, they became a subject matter at the center of my everyday life.
The United States I first encountered was obsessed with ‘diversity.’ By moving to a new environment where many different race and ethnicities gather to live—which was simultaneously exciting and disorienting—my thoughts on how to live our differences began to swell.
In this work, four actors, artists from Russia, Japan, Mexico, and South Korea, attempt to converse with one another in their languages. There are strategies to keep the conversations going however fundamentally the conversations are impossible without repeatedly trusting that the other is not saying anything with an intention to be hurtful.
I was happy about the immersion into the work especially because my environment has changed which made most of the experiences I had garnered prior to my move obsolete and in many cases, without any way to know the feelings of others, the days of heartaches prolonged in the accumulating misunderstandings—or perhaps simply by the thought of it—while feeling I have not righteously defended myself. Whenever I felt that I lacked the power to maintain a healthy amount of will, the rehearsal served as psychological support for me.
The dialogues in the piece essentially create an endless conflict and chaos. We strived to embrace it rather than push it out (and laughed often). We tried to find positive elements while staying in confusion and leaving the differences as they are instead of forcing to creating a unity. The strategy to generate a drive for the work was not much different from the one I use to keep my life going—of course; there was an episode caused by excessive immersion.
One day, I got lost near my studio due to GPS error on my iPhone and set foot in a residential area. There was a group of teenage boys on the front porch of a house. As I passed by them, a boy tried to startle me. He sneaked up on me and screamed ‘Whoa!’. I was startled, but when I saw that the boy looked as though he became awkward by his action I felt friendly and spoke out to him in Korean “wae graeyo?” (why are you doing this?). It wasn’t the first time I was provoked in public in New York, and perhaps I could’ve just ignored the incident, but I reacted simply because of a naive expectation that arose from repeated rehearsals of the piece. I made additional comments in English as I was afraid the kid would think that what I had said was offensive. As I moved on the kids yelled from behind me something like “whaeeeeon.”
The reason why I wanted to create an environment in my work where language loses its original function was perhaps due to a dream to fulfill what someone else worded “living without culture and society.” If that were possible, at least it would’ve been a strategy to protect one self’s heart while learning from conflicts. So to remain open to you.
I have two months remaining in New York for now. I feel a little more comfortable compared to when I was making that work. As people began to appear as individuals, the feeling of being abandoned by the entire city when hurt by one person abated.
Today, in a society that’s made by various cultures leaning against each other, we will have no choice but to be a stranger to each other to some degree. What can one do but to continue to open oneself and to hope and assume that the other will reciprocal as there won’t be a relationship without disquiet and wound.