Performance as Labor

Enna Bae, curator

Bona Park and I have shared many stories behind the performances we have respectively experienced. During these talks, Park frequently spoke about the structure of labor in society while I criticized the structure of the administration in museums. In her practice, Park often activates the conditions of labor through her performances. In a way she is like a storyteller who tells stories about these conditions. I myself often play the role of a facilitator who mediates between artists and the conditions set up by museums. This is done in order to execute artistic performances and play the role of the agency in order to cast, hire, and train the performers from various professions. One can imagine that Park might have faced problems with irrational administrative processes, unreasonable labor conditions, misunderstandings between experts and amateurs, and big and small personal conflicts while producing her performances. These problems are symptomatic of the conditions wherein contemporary art is dispersed and transferred from artist to audience, object to process, production to reception, making the participation and the experience of the artist, curator, and audience more important. This only becomes more apparent in the overheated capitalist society of Korea.

In her performance I tell what you believe 1 presented at Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in 2014, Bona Park is concerned with the fact that museum invigilators did not make enough noise with their tap dancing shoes because they felt uncomfortable wearing the shoes in the museum. In her video piece, I tell what you believe 2, she empathizes with the performers’ uncertain future – they go through many auditions in spite of failing or be not being rewarded as promised. In another performance, Domestic-scale Choreography 2 at SongEun ArtSpace, 2015, Park asks a museum invigilator to mop the floor in order to not mess up the gallery space (even though she originally intended to make the space wet and messy with the dripping water from the laundry hung in the gallery). These unintended but unavoidable situations often construct Park’s works. In 2009 at a residency in Italy, Park took the place of a Rwandese artist who could not participate due to a visa issue. However when she found herself having the same visa problem she decided to leave the residency early, announcing that she would complete her work, the missing, by going herself missing instead of making a work about a missing woman as she proposed at the beginning of the residency program. For 2’33’’ presented at Gallery Chosun, 2013, Park hired a pianist to play Für Elis throughout the exhibition. Rather than playing the music, the pianist mostly had to bear with the time of just sitting in front of the piano, making the piece closer to a sculptural work rather than a performance. We cannot consider Park’s processes as errors or mistakes. It points to the reality in which we live, where we wait for the unstable future while dealing with unexpected problems from unintended situations. In light of this, how does Park construct her reality?

Bona Park is an artist who clearly understands her given circumstances. Her works seem to carry the concept of site-specific art and to focus on social contexts, political conflicts, and historical events extracted from these sites. However, what she actually pays attention to is not a general identity of a place, but the invisible power and the structure of capital that constructs the identity. Where can we find the ideal relations to form a balance where this capitalist society that is based on materialistic civilization and freedom, and the individual can form a subjectivity and new identity through labor?  What about an individual’s happiness in a society where a human is just a means to maximize profits? Where can we find it? Where is the labor of an artist? Is subjectivity as art, capable of escaping capitalism? From this point of view, Park hires performers (laborers), taking form as performance (labor) and practices art as a daily politics under the conditions of labor (performance). Park doesn’t insist on having a popular identity, like artist as creator, artist as activist, or artist as economic failure. Rather, she is willing to be a supervisor, an employer, a curator and a speaker who ‘actually’ negotiates with ‘real’ people in ‘real’ places. Some might say that this condition she places on herself results in inconsistency, ambiguity, and the uncertainty of anti-art or non-art that her works possess. However, they should also admit that this is the minimum gesture the artist must submit herself to in order to allow a vulnerability and insecurity through the terms of the negotiation.

In 2005, Park applied to the SINDOH Artist Supporting Program and the SongEun Art Award. She has subsequently become a so-called winner of the competitive structure of the art world in Korea. At that time Park was interested in the invisible but indispensable labor of the Foley artist, an acoustic professional who creates sound by recording various props and bodily movements. Foley artists work in quite different working conditions from office workers who have well-defined tidy places where they regularly commute. In order to meet the deadlines they often work all night in the suffocating environment of the Foley studio. A Foley studio is usually very dusty and a mess. It contains many props (including dirt, sand, straw, and stones) on the floor to make footstep sounds. Even though Foley artists have to be imaginative - possessing superhuman abilities for psychological and behavioral understanding of characters, an intense concentration, a driving force to plan and to make it happen, and communication skills to read what a film director wants, - their labor is not visible. Park seems to juxtapose this labor with artist’s.

Kotakina Blue 1 is a video work that shows a Foley artist producing sounds that might be heard in vacation spots. The work reveals the poor working conditions inside the Foley studio which contrasts the clean office (where an office worker from SINDOH photocopies a tourist postcard with a copy machine) in Kotakina Blue 2. The video performance, Kotakina Blue 1 brings to the forefront the identity of the place where the situational performance Kotakina Blue 2 takes place, which politicizes the body of the Foley artist and the SINDOH office worker as an agent of labor. 1967_2015 isa video in which a Foley artist reproduces sounds from the Gubong coalmine accident of 1967. It is produced and inspired by the fact that SongEun was funded by the Samcheok Tanjwa Foundation, which was a major coal mining company in the 1970’s. After the rigged election scandal of 1967 the government needed performance in order to distract the public. This is the main reason the rescue operation of the buried miner in the Gubong Mine was given such a spotlight in the media at the time. Juxtaposing the dictatorship of President Park Chung-hee in 1967 and the capitalism of President Park Geun-hye in 2015, the artist draws parallels of a performance for political tactic with the performance for the museum’s spectacle, politicizing the performance itself.

When I met Bona Park again at the SeMA NANJI RESIDENCY she was almost finished with her new work, Paradise City, commissioned by Anyang Public Art Project for the autumn of 2016. She constructs a 4 channel video where 4 amateur musicians in 4 different places in Anyang play instrumental renditions of “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses. She always questions what public art can be. In the sizzling heat of last summer she may have undergone various difficulties in empathizing with the performers. Park is under no illusion that art will improve the living conditions of a laborer. This does not mean that she is being skeptical. She seems to be actively searching for the conditions where art becomes labor and labor becomes art. I would like to conclude this essay with the “labor, work, and act” of Hannah Arendt. Arendt defines a human’s active life in ‘labor’ as the minimum unit required to maintain one’s survival, in ‘work’ as an activity to create more productive and valuable objects, and in ‘acts’ as political activities to construct relations with others and to manage conflicts. Perhaps Park’s art practice involves herself as a political entity where she works, produces, and confronts conflicts through art.

By questioning the duality inherent in art and labor, she embodies situations in/with paradoxical nature. We then have to ask ourselves why we should awaken from the surroundings, inevitably building necessary relations.