Between techno-orientalist constraints and the freedom of infinite possibilities: Ayoung Kim’s Syntax and Sorcery
Sep 19, 2022
Since the evolution of modern times – specifically post-industrial revolution – humanity has constantly been fascinated by dystopian narratives, depicting hyperbolic futures due to the inability to cope with peculiar aspects of the present. As far as recent history is concerned, we have been exploring the possibilities of speculative fiction, from novels to cinematic works, telling stories about everything we feared would become reality: totalitarian regimes, corporation-led worlds, post-apocalyptic futures, and cyberpunk cities, among others.
The captivating and unsettling aspect of the dystopian genre consists in its capacity of delving into the structure of our society and culture: it creeps into things that we think are far from us yet are very present, highlighting the monsters of our times. If on one side it reassures us that those representations are far from our current times, on the other hand dystopias often leave a bittersweet sentiment, making us reflect on our possible futures. Following that line of thinking, Ayoung Kim - Korean media artist whose practice investigates speculative fiction and narrative structure – presented her most recent solo exhibition Syntax and Sorcery at Gallery Hyundai in Seoul (Aug 10 - Sep 14, 2022). Often drawn to conceptualise unattainable places, ideas, as well as impossible imaginations, Kim’s new body of work looks into some pivotal aspects of contemporary Korean society by developing a unique fluid and multi-dimensional worldbuilding.
Presented in a varied mediums, Syntax and Sorcery features a series of new works centered around the figure of “Ernst Mo” (anagram of monster), a female delivery driver working in Seoul for an AI-led omnipotent platform called “Delivery Dancer”. The lead character has been modeled following a research-based experience in which the artist conducted ethnographic work with female delivery drivers operating in Seoul. In this case – and differing from her previous body of work - Kim’s intended to research on the bodily experiences of the characters in relation to the AI generated algorithms they would constantly refer to.
“I was interested in the way our bodily experience is shaped by these algorithms.
Contrary to my previous work, I really wanted to focus on the human body. I asked myself questions such as: which kind of lives do they conduct? I started to wonder about their labor and logistics, which are almost invisible to us […] After conducting my research, following a female driver and sitting on the back of her bike, I realized that their movements and directions are all behaviors synchronized with the algorithm they refer to all their bodily experiences are governed by the delivery apps.”
Kim’s research positions itself within the realm of Foucauldian body politics, not only as it questions the systems surrounding the contemporary gig economy (system that temporary independent contracts are common) from the experiences of a female body, but because she locates the whole narrative in an exaggeration of our reality, where the power dynamics of discipline and punishment are enhanced.
The video work Delivery Dancer’s Sphere (2022) represents a dystopian version of Seoul, conceptualised through the lenses of Asian futurism, following a line of philosophy that enquires how speculative fiction can be a way of depicting possibilities for racial and gender minorities. The dystopian setting reminds us of the techno-orientalist approach of “Neo-Seoul” in Cloud Atlas (2013 film by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer where multi plots occur in six different eras in time), or the infinite series of movies inspired by Asian cityscapes which have captured our imagination in the last decades. However, Kim’s narrative emerges beyond western ethnocentrism, revealing the possibilities that Asian futurism unfolds, freeing the work from the “orientalism” aspect which has often been affected by the constructed asymmetrical relationship between occident and orient from the western standpoint.
In the story, the protagonist Ernst Mo works for and interacts with the god-like “Dancemaster”, an AI algorithm system that records, manages, and supervises the female delivery workers’ movements, contracts and loyalty. The omnipresent algorithm could be seen as an evolution in the digital-scape of Jeremy Bentham’s concept of Panopticon (belief that power should be visible and unverifiable), which strongly influenced many dystopian movies, such as the infamous Metropolis (1927 film by Fritz Lang about a futuristic city divided between the working class and the city planners). However, whereas in Metropolis (1927) the whole dystopian construction is shaped in a vertical manner, Kim’s worldbuilding is rather designed in a maze-like aesthetic, with infinite horizontal spheres intertwining with each other, following the structures of the directions created by delivery-app algorithms. In this design, the strong influence of a particular shape used in topological mathematics can be seen; which has an infinitely repeating fractal structure (pattern that repeats forever). Kim uses this structure as a conceptual labyrinth, one that Ernst Mo – as well as real life delivery drivers – are well acquainted with in the infinite creation of their paths traversing Seoul.
Among many other abilities, Dancemaster is able to distort space and time, allowing drivers to travel at the speed of light, finding the shortest path, and shaping their bodies through those experiences. Space and time, as well as other concepts derived from physics, are another important subject of research for the artist. Captivated by theories of particle and quantum physics, Kim modeled the world inhabited by Ernst Mo following the “possible world” theory, for which multiple parallel universes exist, and each world must not intersect with the others - they shouldn’t meet or communicate. Within this theory, it is possible that each physical being has their own copy in the other universes, and each of us possess multiple parallel selves. Ernst Mo encounters several times with her alter-ego “En Storm”, unfolding the plot; every time they meet, time slows, and space collides, as the theory of relativity intended.
“I am a big fan, and very impressed by analytic philosophies and possible world theories (in the physics sense). Every world theory is a door to a hyperbolic imagination as part of speculative logic. For this work I asked myself: what if there are other possible worlds, identical to ours? […] When I want to apply mathematics or physics elements to my work, I always consult with professionals of the field, to make sure I got the theory clear, and then I can start my own speculations”
As the story continues, the relationship between Ernst Mo and En Storm becomes ambiguous, in between friendship, antagonism, death, and queer love – the latter been developed in the installation work titled, Evening Peak Time is Back (2022). The build-up of the plot, which alternates poetical elements to a constant underlying anxiety, is additionally charged by its non-linear narrative; in one moment Ernst Mo stabs En Storm with Vajra - a Buddhist ritual weapon symbolising the properties indestructibility and irresistible force - and right after the two characters meet again on a rooftop and drive together, despite the Vajra should be able to stop reincarnation. This is emphasised by the words of En Storm:
“Ernst Mo, we’ve died a few times already. We are ourselves as we are all of us, and we've already died many times over... We’re just terribly intertwined”.
Many questions are raised about the possibilities entailed by the existence of several parallel worlds, most importantly because there doesn’t seem to be a causal relationship between Ernst Mo stabs En Storm. And perhaps this is the most intriguing feature of Kim’s worldbuilding: that in the midst of an AI-centred and strictly ruled world, in which body politics of contemporary labour are exaggerated, there is still space for infinite possibilities. Thus, a realm of different life-chances is unlocked, symbolised by the open ending where the two characters drive along the Han river (river that runs through the middle of Seoul). Sometimes we see just one of them (and we don’t recognise who), other times they drive together – and we are invited to follow their adventure and imagine how their lives will continue, enquiring whether a redemptive possibility outside Dancemaster exists.
For those who are familiar with Korea, and Seoul, the techno-centered dystopian world might sound like something we live daily, hence the importance of questioning its hyperbole. As I was recently reflecting with someone, the stories we create and the possible futures we believe in heavily influence our perception of the present time. To us, the choice of imagining our bodily experiences consistently yet unconsciously shaped, or to take agency and willingly dance, and dance again, expanding in an endless system of repeated patterns across space and time.
Ayoung Kim’s work is a remarkable example of the importance that resides in humanity’s capability of narrating stories and being receptive of their meaning, nurturing the prism of imagination with the speculations on who we are and what we could be.
Ayoung Kim's recent solo exhibition Syntax and Sorcery at Gallery Hyundai in Seoul was on view from Aug 10 to Sep 14, 2022. For more information, please click here.