Cul de Sac Ville Project (2017-2019 on going)
In his book “What is a Thing” Martin Heidegger differentiates things and objects. Things are those which determine and enable our everyday life, like a hut, a bridge, or our shoes and oddly he also mentions the motorway snaking through the landscape. These are things, not ‘objects’, we are embedded between them and they enable our particular form of existence. He describes what Husserl came to call “Lebenswelt”1, or ‘the life world’, the world we intuitively inhabit during our lifetime with all the social and material aspects within which we are embedded and which we do not even notice. When we look around we experience them as ‘natural’: a shoe, a car, a chair, only when the shoe breaks, when it doesn’t function, is it properly noticed.
When we began to walk around Samseondong, late in 2017, we looked at the “Lebenswelt” of others; other people, other generations, other habits, traditions, quirks. We began an investigation. Jooyoung Lee lives locally, Klega commutes occasionally when in Seoul. We documented and categorized the materials and mannerisms we saw. First we walked more like a flaneur, disinterested and purposeless, we took images of a scattering of oddities. Later we operated more like detectives, detecting the hidden in plain sight. The photographing outsider, and even more the foreigner, is observed with suspicion. Taking a photographs, takes away anonymity and the document could be weaponised. More information about the area, the fears and desires percolated slowly from Jooyoung’s chats with local residents and ‘activists’. There may still be more to do but the time of this place is running out. We continue to collect our evidence of the lives of others, without romantic nostalgia. There is no nostalgia in the increased fly-tipping, which is seen around abandoned and collapsed buildings. Under the displaced vegetable pots, the concrete of uneven stairs, disintegrating and haphazardly mended roofs and behind the brick walls we felt a world which was to disappear in the perennial obliteration, engineered by “redevelopment”. In Korea, “redevelopment” is the standard euphemism for a systematic uprooting and extermination of the past. A past of broken things, mended over and again, not worth to remember. Mending the house, growing vegetables in styrofoam boxes, things made of other things, shards of glass and razor-wire protecting the tops of walls against real or imagined thieves, all these things are like tree-rings, evidence of the life of generations, year in year out, behind impenetrable walls. The vernacular style of mended things, improvements crafted in cement, plastic sheets, covers, pipes and strings. These are traces of inventiveness and mentality of “will do”. It is the purely functional and unaesthetic approach of a bricoleur. Now this tree will be felled.
We set out to ‘see’ this world before it disappears. Snaking along the Hanyangdoseong (한양도성), the old Seoul city wall, Samseondong is in Seongbuk-gu at its southern border to Jongno-gu, virtually in the centre of contemporary Seoul. Towards the end of Japanese occupation the place was used for primitive air raid shelters. After independence Korean diaspora, returning from exile began to use these cave-like shelters on the hill around Samseon-gyeo for housing. The writer Kim Dongni, called them “Hyeolgeobujok” (혈거부족, ‘the tribe who lives in caves’) in his book of the same title2. Most of the old houses are simple, traditional and often build illegally. They have a small yard (마당)3 to which the doors and windows face. It is the social centre used for family celebrations, weddings and shaman rituals, or just to watch the changing seasons and hear the birds sing. It is also a place for the persimmon trees, tiny gardens and pots. These houses are still small and frail. The area below the Hanyangdoseong (한양도성) was improved, while the wall was restored from the 70s until 2012 when it failed to be designated as a UNESCO heritage site (there seems to be a new plan for application as a heritage site in 2021). Walled off to the outside, the streets and alleyways there are still narrow and not accommodating to today’s oversized four-by-fours parking and blocking them even for pedestrians. Another part of the area, Jangsu (Longevity) village (장수마을) saw a “residents lead community regeneration”. While the area below Hansung University, which is younger and more modern will be demolished. Paradoxically, that housing has to make place for cars designed for exports, not suited for the small and old towns. This country seems a permanent building site, everywhere, in Seoul and around large conglomerations clusters of high rises and indeed, whole new towns are build. Unlike the bricolage of old housing, the ‘new’ is engineered, serviced, mass-produced and presented as the only future to aspire to. However, in this future, there is no space for the persimmon trees. A profitable new world of engineered ‘happy families’, is concreted over the bulldozed, embarrassing, poor and frail past. Capital, like dictatorships, need to uproot the past and traditions that could limit it’s force (even in the name of tradition, tradition is bulldozed), it can only accept it in a museum or an entertainment park. Although first conceived and executed under Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship, high-rise apartments look like the socialist urbanist’s dream. Indeed they mirror perfectly North Korean residential styles, imported from the Soviet Union and East Germany after the Korean War (as well as Le Corbusier’s pseudo functionalist “machine-à-habiter”).
This experienced incongruence translated into questioning the own gaze. Thus, we not only collected the mannerisms of the past and present, but also questioned our own gaze. In our gaze we remain other and make judgements. We remain other to the place and to each other, what is self-evident to one of us is utterly incomprehensible to the other. This form of experience is very productive to the artist’s gaze. It prevents routines and what is ‘taken for granted’ is swept up into perceptibility. Our ‘Walking and Chatting’, became a ‘Walking and Learning’, how we see things that are ‘almost’ familiar, how to perceive the gaps in the walls.
While walking and seeing and documenting, we see different things differently. We notice how our understanding is determined by the “Lebenswelt” from which we come. Slowly we also become aware how the challenge to see, widens a crack in the other’s “Lebenswelt”, and beginning to see ‘eye to eye’. Draped with national flags the abundance of red brick walls tries to hide everyday life, protect the life of the family, excluding the gaze of the other. Community does not happen here, despite politicians hallucinating the ‘revitalisation of a local community’. “Community”, “initiative” and “revitalisation” have been declared the new paradigms to safeguard some remnants of the old, at least where no high-rise will fit.
Soon most houses will be abandoned. Their windows will be empty eye-sockets staring blindly into the future. We met residents, artists, ‘activists’, visited an abandoned temple, the “Longevity museum” and the remnants of an even older layer of the local history, a shaman’s rock called Ppyojogbawi (뾰족바위). That rock is now virtually concreted into the fabric of the alleyways and houses. We also spoke to artists who worked in the same area some years earlier, who gave us more understanding of the local desires. They reported that most of the people don’t care and sell out to developers as soon as they can. As for artist’s interventions, they saw them purely as a possibility to increase the value of properties. This made us aware how such “redevelopments” succeed to convince enough people to sign away their properties. That is a subject for another research, for now we concentrated on the place itself and its uses.
Fairly soon Jooyoung Lee began to categorize the things we saw, using the style and numbering of forensic evidence photographs. She developed twenty different categories putting a number next to the specific item or situation she documented. This gives her images a more sober dispassionate and objective feel. The forensic attitude is helpful to isolate and focus on the particular trace in view. It becomes literally an ‘evidence of life’. Her categories, like “Buried (decomposition)”, “Blocked Windows”, “Fake Materials” or “Local Texture” seem at first unintuitive to the Western mind. However, they describe perfectly the way the place appears to the viewer. They give directions to our interpretation, open the habits to narratives of the past and the possibilities of the future. They sometimes also overlap and then the clarity suffers, but there is little clarity in the tiny snaking alleyways anyway.
During the project we presented some of our collaborative works, a poster with a QR code advertising the first video based on our images of Samseondong called “Forensic Gaze”. It shows Jooyoung Lee’s forensic images and the Klega’s walls. The images are ordered by categories in an index-card box at the space together with the video. A second short video “Cul De Sac Ville” shows unnumbered images by both of us but with phrases from Korean poets. Yi Sang’s writing is paradigmatic for Jooyoung Lee’s use of disjointed phrases from Korean poets. Yi Sang describes the marginality and pessimism of Korean intellectuals at the threshold of technological modernity and political disasters of colonisation and war. It is positioned somewhere between expressionist poetry like Gottfried Benn and the surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire. The phrases have relevance for the gaze we cast on this area, expressing the pain of the “time out of joint”. The contemporary poet Park Nohae is quoted with the advice “don’t run in a straight line” from his poem “There is no straight line’. This could also be an advice on the modernist grid, the suffocating grid of high-rise apartment blocks and factories. The sound track meanwhile is Korean trot by Yeonsung. This genre originates from the 1930s, it is a fixture in the local life of the ‘elderly’, often heard blaring from portable K-‘[ghetto-]blasters’.
Grouping the manifold appearance of things in the video “Forensic Gaze”, Klega focuses his curiosity on how a place is used, how habits, speculation, desolation, entropy impact on the visible and invisible. Neither of us grew up here, we hold on to the moment we pass through. Documenting not just what is there but also how we perceive it. The images show the physiognomy of walls, mostly bricks but a number of them covered with cement, which freely absorbs the dirt from air and rain creating a patina of its own patterns on the surface. The walls create a parallel series to the categorized items of Jooyoung Lee’s work of the changing nature of the area’s life. Instead of being visible or transparent the walls hide. Walking in the area does often feel like ‘hitting a brick wall’, this collision wakes us up to the fact, that what we seek is not open or not given freely. Just like the many ‘cul de sac’ alleys of the area, the picture is labyrinthine. We have to wrest the hidden habits into visibility. At such points we need to point back at our own gaze and our ideas of ‘merely’ documenting. Is this invasive, a sort of ‘poverty porn’, trying to visualise at all cost? By intersecting the categorisation of Jooyoung Lee’s works with the obliqueness of walls, Klega tries to counterbalance the visible with questions about the appropriating gaze.
This is very much a work in progress, possibly the process itself is the work. That is, the learning about one’s own gaze. The result should be a differentiated sensibility towards what is or is not visible. When Walter Benjamin discusses the Aura, he mentions the awkwardness of gazing at something, only to be suddenly met with a pair of eyes looking back at us.4 What we look at seems a mere object, but when it is looking back we realise it’s humanity.
During the residency Jooyoung Lee organised a workshop on (non visual) tactile experience and writing. She asked blindfolded participants to touch things she found discarded in Samseondong, and write a description of this experience on a piece of paper. The results of this direct translation of the internal experience into discontinuous written words may refer to surrealist ‘ecriture automatique’. Afterwards the descriptions were cut up and pasted together in the form of a poem.
Jooyoung Lee & Klega
1 Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, 1954
2 Kim Dongni, book title: Hyeolgeobujok, Jongno Seowon 1948
3 Seo Hyun, Red City, Hyohyung, 2014, p. 25
4 Walter Benjamin,“On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”(1940), trans. Zohn, Selected Writings vol.4 p.338