Beyond borders: 12th Seoul Mediacity Biennale imagines new modes for navigating digital futures
Oct 18, 2023
Fall 2023 welcomes the 12th Seoul Mediacity Biennale into the heart of the Korean metropolis. Titled THIS TOO, IS A MAP, the biennale spans the breadth of the city, extending to six venues and 14 collaborating spaces. Under the artistic direction of Amsterdam-based curator, writer and scholar Rachael Rakes, this edition of the biennale attempts a layered examination of the concept of mapping, an endeavor aided by a similarly multi-pronged approach to media. Playing with the definitions of its themes, the 12th installment adds a linguistic element of encouraged chaos to tackle Western systems of control such as border management and wealth distribution.
Rather than limiting its focus to one main aspect, the 12th Seoul Mediacity Biennale looks at the various meanings of mapping, a concept which, in its traditional sense of surveying the land, has been used throughout history to divide and oppress people in the context of colonization. The advent of capitalism also introduced systematic forms of mapping, including mass media, as powerful means to control the socio-political mindset of populations and direct the flow of financial assets. The biennale conducts a disruption of these modes of mapping through the liberating capacities of language in its conceptualization and significant artworks that respond to this effort. In a similar vein, this year’s biennale performs its examination of media in terms of “mediating” rather than material. Media thus becomes an agent of connection and negotiation, balancing the fragmentation of mapping. Together, mapping and mediating serve as an interconnected web, facilitating the transition of ideas regarding the biennale’s deeper concerns of migration, diaspora, cultural displacements, and non-territorial systems.
“[The biennale] opposes the sense of rational clarity ostensibly offered by Western cartography and looks to the necessity of abstractions and hidden or obscured language. It sees the current and future world within these complicated, necessarily unclear, multiple, and speculative experiences.”
– Rachael Rakes, Artistic Director of the 12th Seoul Mediacity Biennale
This article will explore the concepts of mapping and mediating as they materialize through the artworks displayed at the three most coherently-curated spaces out of the biennale’s six venues: Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA), SeMA Bunker, and Seoul Museum of History.
Located in Jung-gu in central Seoul, SeMA acts as the main exhibition venue of the biennale with an extensive exhibition of artworks spread across three floors. On the museum’s second floor, Anna Maria Maiolino’s Indexes series (2000/2003) presents a geopolitical navigation of language, identity and the body. Her artwork consists of pieces of paper with black thread, sandwiched between plexiglass and hung in a semi-circle at the entrance of the viewing room. Some of the lines and patterns created by the thread resemble a map of mountains and valleys viewed from an aerial perspective. Others look like suture points on human skin, tracing the modifications done to the human body. The layered meanings of Maiolino’s work suggest that space and physicality are in perpetual conflict and cannot be dissociated – what is done to the land becomes mapped on the body and vice versa. By establishing these connections through the artwork’s effective medium, Maiolino destabilizes oppressive and restrictive notions of borders and boundaries.
In Isivivane (2023) by Nolan Oswald Dennis, 3D printers actively build plastic rocks that eventually join mounds of printed stones from South African geology museums piled on SeMA’s second floor, mediating deconstructed ideas of digital mapping. Geology merges with the printers’ mapping of the rocks’ design in an artwork that connects nature and technology, while at the same time underscoring the lack of said nature through the artificial medium.
On the third floor, Francois Knoetze adapts the idea of digital mapping to a reimagining of the colonial culture of extraction in Core Dump (2018-2019). The work consists of videos, some of which are shown on screens that are embedded in giant sculptures made of e-waste. Set in New York, Shenzhen, Dakar and Kinshasa, the films examine the ecology of global information technology in an attempt to unveil the virtuality of capitalism. Found footage, interviews and performances collectively depict the downfall of a digital nervous system. The installation as a whole suggests a world of imbalances built on the decentralization of media and decolonized narratives, perhaps even alluding to a possible failure of mediation through unsustainability.
Knoetze’s concept of extraction reappears as one of the pervasive themes at another venue, SeMA Bunker in Yeouido, a large island in Seoul that acts as the city’s main financial district. Among the six venues that comprise the biennale, this space stands out for its sheer physicality: an underground bunker suspected to have been made by the Korean military regime during the 1970s, now transformed into a gallery space that acts as a perfect mediating tool for the artworks showcased therein.
At SeMA Bunker, extraction and displacement are explored from the lens of decolonization and socio-environmental impact, taking a look at how industrialization and mining infrastructure have affected communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, and Canada. Material, geographical, and technological displacement are the results of such environmental exploitation, with the local communities having to pay the consequences of pollution and hazardous waste. The artworks here center around this locus of extraction and industrialization, interrogating the dynamics and frameworks that have persisted for much of colonial history.
There are four artworks in total by a mix of artists and collectives: Femke Herregraven, Lo-Def Film Factory (Francois Knoetze and Amy Louise Wilson), and Sasha Litvintseva & Graeme Arnfield. Save for two panels with prints and wall paintings, the rest of the exhibition is all in video and VR format. The use of these media is a message in and of itself. Both video and VR are inherently decentralized and removed from an explicit physical context or space.
Not only that, but the video artworks by Herregraven employ a meta commentary on existing software technologies used by financial markets and international companies for the purpose of digital mapping, perhaps even here in Yeouido itself. I See What You Don’t See (2019) consists of three parts: two panels with prints, and a single channel video that is a little over 49 minutes long. The video consists of an overhead panning view of a South African landscape. This perspective mirrors the satellite views used by financial markets to assess topography and map material indexes, all without actually stepping foot on-site. While such software is used for the purpose of land capitalization, Herregraven’s video works to decolonize the topography from these exploitative practices.
The video, upon first glance, looks almost serene. However, the audio adds a more unsettling edge. A placid voice narrates the title of the artwork, stating that they “see what you don’t see,” before naming off materials within the sweeping landscape. This poetic recitation highlights what is unseen and erased by the commercial use of digital mapping, providing the needed context to recenter the land outside of the scope of capitalistic development. The accompanying panels with print comprise a survey of the materials that can be found in the landscape, from their names to photographic representations.
A Prelude to: When the Dust Unsettles (2022-2023), another video artwork by Herregraven, mimics the usage of a “digital twin” in extractivism, which references a virtual representation of the physical world that simulates mining infrastructure to secure funding and optimize efficiency. This is yet another means to “see what is unseen,” which Herregraven subverts by showing the digital twin of Manono in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where megacorporations are building megamines. The video is projected from an overhead perspective onto a 3D topographical map surface. As opposed to the clinical, purely technical concept of a digital twin, this artwork shows the actual landscape, community, and people impacted by this industrial push.
Meanwhile, at the Seoul Museum of History, Jesse Chun’s solo exhibition, titled 시, language for new moons, takes on a more abstract approach to the biennale’s themes. Chun tackles the nexus of mapping and mediation through language. Her immersive poetics across various media – video, installation, drawings, sound – convey the dissolution of language and the inability to ascribe set parameters and limits upon it. Within the artworks themselves, language continuously falls apart, rather than coming together to make a definite meaning or whole. Language, in Chun’s eyes, cannot be mapped, as it is hybrid and adaptive, and thus our understanding of mapping must also be seen as mediation to make space for myriad possibilities and states of being.
Notes on new moons/oak/sun (new moons after often invisible to the naked eye; notes by my grandmother Lee Oak Sun–buddhist name Jeong Gak Haeng; other notes on history; my offerings–on speaking together) (2023) is an installation of the artist’s grandmother’s belongings, including handwritten pages from a diary, letters, photographs, and various objects and memorabilia, scattered across a trio of music stands. The artist’s grandmother, Lee Oak Sun or Jeok Gak Haeng, was a Korean folk dancer and later Buddhist nun, removed from the annals of familial and historical records as fallout from the Japanese colonial period of Korea.
From the perspective of conventional written history, Lee Oak Sun may as well have never existed, but this artwork can be seen as asserting that her existence, whether remembered or forgotten, is worth celebrating and cherishing. Countless names, faces, and communities that are left by the wayside in the march towards modernization, and as a consequence of colonization, are reflected in the keepsakes, arranged like a memorial offering. This deeply personal, down-to-earth artwork highlights the gaps and cracks that inevitably form in mapping and historiography.
While the previous installation touches on the past and memory, 술래 SULLAE (2020) has a more immediate frame of reference. The artwork came about as the artist attempted to process the surge of anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the announcement of American plans to colonize celestial objects such as the moon. This single-channel video installation is based off of Korean women’s moon dance, called 강강술래 (pronounced "gang-gang-sullae"). By yelling, crying, and singing, women would collectively release their silenced anger. The artist connected traditional dance and the moon as conceptual frameworks with the global unrest unfolding in contemporary times.
The resulting video presents a deconstruction of the English language, undoing not only the language itself but also the oppressive systems and embodied violence associated with it. Chun calls this a process of “unlanguaging,” or mistranslating. Deconstruction, dissolution, and decentralization of unlanguaging can then be considered its own form of healing and non-territorial mapping, a mediation with no capitalistic resolution.
Taken as a whole, the 12th Seoul Mediacity Biennale offers lively, engaging discourse on alternative modes of mapping in our modern, media-laden world. By deconstructing existing hegemonic power structures and exploitative histories of mapping, the myriad artworks and venues create an alternative network for mediating that supersedes physical space. This interplay between mapping and mediating can be seen as both a two-pronged question and answer. It is through mediation that mapping – and all its complexities and repercussions – can be reevaluated and reinvented for a more decentralized, decolonized future. The backdrop of Seoul ties into this symbiotic relationship, as the city presents itself as a bastion for future-minded innovation, re-envisioning the link between past and future with new paradigms. Most emblematic of this is the Seoullo Media Canvas, a giant media screen installed on the city streets near Seoul Station, accessible to the public and fully immersed within the fabric of daily life. As a medley of video shorts play on the screen throughout the deepening autumn night, this venue feels like the future that the biennale advocates for: in motion, free, limitless.
The 12th Seoul Mediacity Biennale, THIS TOO, IS A MAP, is ongoing until Nov 19, 2023. For more information, please visit here.