Filmmaker Kim Heecheon is Using Technology to Test the Limits of Reality

“I think the screens are now disappearing and the world itself is becoming a screen.”

– Kim Heecheon

Filmmaker Kim Heecheon and Hans Ulrich Obrist discuss discuss world-building, virtual reality and Pokémon GO.

For South Korean artist Kim Heecheon, reality is as fallible as perception is flexible; a single moment in time is a frame and memories are simply reconstructed pixels. Kim Heecheon is interested in the processes through which human cognition changes as a result of the invention of new devices and tools. In his moving image practice, he uses GPS, VR, and Face Swap technologies to create borderless realms of existence that question the limits and capabilities of consciousness.

The Serpentine’s Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist spoke to Kim Heecheon in April 2020 on the occasion of his participation in Out of Blueprints, an online exhibition of film from East Asia-based artists, realised in direct response to the closure of Cao Fei’s solo exhibition, Blueprints, at the Serpentine. Out of Blueprints is curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Joseph Constable, with advisors Cao Fei, Yuko Hasegawa, Venus Lau, and Yang Beichen, in collaboration with NOWNESS and K11 Art Foundation.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: To begin with the beginning, I wanted to ask you how it all started, because you originally studied architecture. How did the crossover into art happen?

Kim Heecheon: My decision to study architecture was not an intrinsic one, but via a rather spontaneous decision at the moment when I had to choose a career path. In Korean high school, your field of study gets divided into natural sciences and mathematics, liberal arts, and arts and physical education. I was a natural sciences and maths student, and I found out that architecture, a common major that a student of my field chooses, can be studied at an art school. As I was enrolled in an art college, I chose architecture as my major.

My architectural background has definitely impacted my work, but when I began to work with video, I had quit studying architecture and never thought about its influence in depth. In fact, I think I consciously opposed thinking much about architecture as many began to ask me how my architecture major has influenced my work. I was more concerned with the medium of video itself at the time.

In 2016, I was invited to participate in the exhibition entitled VOID at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), and was commissioned to do a project on the architecture of their Seoul branch gallery. During the process of preparing for the exhibition, I had a chance to think about the relationship between my work and architecture. In my opinion, the biggest impact my training in architecture has on my work is in scale and perspective. Perspectives zoom in and out depending on the scale–from the perspective of an urban scale to a project scale, and to a user’s perspective interacting with the project. The multiple perspectives in such various simulations freely fluctuate in my work. In the exhibition VOID, I applied a similar framework to earn the perspective of an architect, and through this angle, examined the architecture of MMCA’s Seoul branch.

Deep in the Forking Tanks, 2019, single channel video, HD (16:9), stereo, 43mins. Commissioned and Produced by Art Sonje Center. Supported by Seoul Foundaion for Arts and Culture

HUO: Who are the artists, or perhaps the architects, who inspire you in your work?

KH: I haven’t thought much about an artist or an architect who has directly inspired me. Instead, I think I am often inspired by conversing with my peers. For example, rather than drawing inspiration from an elder, or different artists and architects, I believe we can be in mutual conversation through our works without meeting in person, even.

Stan Douglas’ work just came to my mind. I was recently very intrigued by his work, and I felt like I was in conversation with him, although our works do not align thematically.

HUO: And who are the peers from your own generation with whom you exchange? Are you part of a group of artists?

KH: Out of my peers, I talk to artists Kang Jungsuck and Jung Jihyun the most. Kang Jungsuck was the founder of an independent screening programme of young video artists. I attended one edition and I think that this was the starting point for making moving image work. Outside of that, I consider Park Daham a peer although he is a musician, and I am often in dialogue with novelists such as Lee Sangwoo and Jeong Jidon about our works.

Deep in the Forking Tanks, 2019, single channel video, HD (16:9), stereo, 43mins. Commissioned and Produced by Art Sonje Center. Supported by Seoul Foundaion for Arts and Culture.

HUO: To come back to the Out of Blueprints project, I wanted to connect to a central idea embedded within Cao Fei’s Serpentine exhibition, which is the significance of world-making or world-building. This is what her exhibition does through a sci-fi film and a virtual reality project, produced in collaboration with Acute Art, in which many parallel realities exist through acts of time travel. I am interested to know what this idea of world-making means to you in your practice, because you use certain technologies, such as GPS, VR and Face Swap, which facilitate a certain blurring of temporalities and worlds.

KH: I would say my practice is trying to learn about the realities of how this world operates via these technological interfaces, rather than setting or creating a world. One can say technologies are a tool to read a world rather than to create a new one. GPS has existed for some time now, and VR and Face Swaps are technologies that we use daily and are constantly being updated. My work deals with the observation of global change through the trajectory of technological development. To reveal this change, I establish a narrative that the audience can follow. I let the narrative be automatically run by technological interfaces, and at times the resulting narrative becomes a type of a world view in the work.

HUO: You mention the city, and there is a beautiful book by Italo Calvino, which talks about the invisible city, whilst Paul Klee talks about how art can make the invisible visible. I was therefore wondering to what extent you use these technologies and that relationship to the city in order to make the invisible visible. We are surrounded by so many devices, technologies, and yet they often remain invisible. We are surrounded by invisible algorithms. Can you talk about this idea of the visible and the invisible and whether you agree with Paul Klee’s statement?

Deep in the Forking Tanks, 2019, single channel video, HD (16:9), stereo, 43mins. Commissioned and Produced by Art Sonje Center. Supported by Seoul Foundaion for Arts and Culture.

KH: My current work as well as the work Every Smooth Thing through Mesher, made in 2018, definitely has a departure point from the contemporary condition in which technology is becoming invisible. For example, Every Smooth Thing through Mesher starts with a setting that the new Pokémon Go demo, technically perfect AR, is developed in the near future. In this world, Pikachu exists as an overlay, but it hides behind a flower pot. The screen we are looking at is a simultaneous view of the technically-captured world and the Pokémon Go game, and Pikachu hides behind the image of the real world. If Pikachu never comes back out, one may not be able to distinguish between the devisualised situation and the real world. As you said, I also think the screens are now disappearing and the world itself is becoming a screen. I think that often I have been trying to use technology to make the invisible visible, but my feeling is that I have failed to do this thus far. I am still trying.

HUO: Your film Every Smooth Thing Through Mesher, commissioned by Gwangju Biennial, takes AR and Pokémon Go as its subject matter, but then there is your most recent work, Deep in the Forking Tanks, originally exhibited at Art Sonje Center, Seoul, and which is included as part of Out of Blueprints. In this film there is a sense of being inside a simulation, but also a sensation of defying gravity, of weightlessness, a kind of out of body sensation, a feeling of losing contact. In my mind, it is a film about consciousness. Could you speak about the genesis of this work and why you decided to work with these flotation tanks?

KH: The floatation tank [aka sensory deprivation tank] was invented in the 1950s by John C. Lilly, an eccentric scientist. The tanks are filled with epsom solution so a person inside it floats and experiences a non-gravitational state. The tank also deprives all sensory information from outside, and induces an experience of a new dimension or some kind. In Deep in the Forking Tanks, a diver going through image-training in the float tank confuses the state of neutral buoyancy with the feeling of floating in the tank. Neutral buoyancy, which occurs during diving, is the state in which the force of gravity and buoyancy are equal, causing an object in between to float. The work departs from the diver’s disorientation between the image-training simulation and diving. The training process is recorded and exported into a simulation video; the diver loops back and forth between the recordings and his real experience. He tries to escape, but finds himself only diving deeper.

Deep in the Forking Tanks, 2019, single channel video, HD (16:9), stereo, 43mins. Commissioned and Produced by Art Sonje Center. Supported by Seoul Foundaion for Arts and Culture.

HUO: Another aspect of this film is the way you use the different Face Swap apps. You use these apps in this film, but also in previous works, often on yourself, as a form of augmented reality. Recently, a lot has been discussed around the experience of VR within an exhibition space and the fact that within this context you very much isolate the visitors from each other and prevent the common experience of the exhibition with other bodies. With AR, however, there is huge potential to have coexistence of different parallel realities in exhibition spaces. This is why I believe that the future of AR is much more significant than the future of VR in terms of exhibition making. This is of course even more relevant now when we think about things like social distancing, because VR headsets present an issue here. Could you talk a bit more about AR, how you use this technology, and whether you have used VR before?

KH: In a variety of AR applications we use today – whether we can call them truly AR or not – the most important factor that entertains us is their realtime-ness. We are amused when a face, an object, or space is recognised in real-time, or at a speed that we can’t perceive, and they are immediately overlayed on top of each other. The camera captures the world, behaving like real eyes. This is a bit of a hyperbole, but I sometimes feel anxious from the fear that these virtual layers or filters, which have instantaneously stuck to my face or body, will never come off. For the AR to be in ideal operation, the world, which is to be overlayed, has to be constantly mapped in the highest detail and resolution. In a way, I think this is how the world is becoming a moving image. However, I have never used VR or AR as the main body of my work. As I’ve said, VR and AR appear in my work as a tool to read this world’s various transitions, but they have never been the main ‘body’, or the medium of my work.

HUO: Music also plays an important role in your films, for example I was thinking specifically about Deep in the Forking Tanks, where a group of young Mexicans are practicing K-Pop. As you may know, the Serpentine recently collaborated with BTS on a project by the artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen, curated by Ben Vickers and Kay Watson. This project comprised a large-scale projection of a virtual forest, a permanently changing simulation. On the occasion of this project, we did an interview with BTS, so I wanted to tap into this connection to K-Pop and this scene in the film. Could you speak about the significance of music and K-Pop?

Deep in the Forking Tanks, 2019, single channel video, HD (16:9), stereo, 43mins. Commissioned and Produced by Art Sonje Center. Supported by Seoul Foundaion for Arts and Culture.

KH: I never had a huge interest in K-Pop, but I could answer by explaining how I came to work with K-Pop dancers in the work itself. In 2018, I travelled to Mexico with friends and there we visited a library named La Vasconcelos in Mexico City. While I was looking around the library, I saw Mexican K-Pop fans outside practicing their dance moves, on the other side of the glass windows, using the windows like mirrors. Of course, since I was inside a library it was very quiet around me. But as I kept on staring at the dancers, I felt like I could almost hear the background music. They were dancing the choreography of a song called ‘Bad Boy’ by a girl group Red Velvet. It felt very strange, like I was connected although I was physically severed from them.

After that event, I reflected on what that feeling was. I began to watch YouTube videos of K-Pop groups practicing dancing in ‘mirror-mode’. The mirror-mode videos are for K-Pop cover dancers to learn the moves more easily; the left and right are reversed on the video so the learner can follow the moves in the same direction of the video. And after looking up K-Pop cover dance videos that must have been created after practicing with the mirror-mode videos, I finally encountered the K-Pop Random Dance via Carlos a.k.a. Cas who stars in the video [Deep in the Forking Tanks]. K-Pop Random Dance is when a large group of K-Pop fans gather to dance to a randomly playing K-Pop Song for about 10 to 15 seconds each. When I saw this, I thought each choreography streamed through the body of K-Pop masses; synchronisation of their moves wasn’t important at all, everybody was concentrated only on the music and themselves. That is the story I wanted to deal with in terms of K-Pop in the work, and I think Cas explains the rest well in the video.

HUO: My next question is concerned with repetition. Gilles Deleuze wrote a wonderful book called Difference and Repetition, which comes to my mind when I watch your films. Deleuze says that ‘repetition is never identical. Everything is in permanent transformation…reality is a becoming and not a being’. This is interesting because your work incorporates loops and repetitions, often in a non-linear temporarily. Joseph Constable shared with me a text by Kwon Siwoo who wrote an essay on your work, stating that ‘the hierarchy of time is invalidated as data entities are transposed more or less arbitrarily or undergo repeated accumulation and disintegration as junk images’. Can you talk about these notions of difference, repetition, loops and also the relationship between data and time?

KH: The text you’ve cited was written by Kwon Siwoo talking about my work in 2015 to 2016. In the work Sleigh Ride Chill, 2016, I’ve directly dealt with data, time, and space as you just mentioned. To roughly summarise: data is constantly roaming around the web as it always has. As many people simultaneously access the same data, those people’s time together forms a singular space. Hence in data, time no longer functions in a linear fashion and momentarily becomes a space, constantly disappearing and appearing again. The created space can also be exported into the physical world.

HUO: The city of Seoul plays a big role in your work, especially in Sleigh Ride Chill. I came to Seoul for the first time in 1996 with Koo Jeong A and Hou Hanru as part of the exhibition series, Cities on the Move. Obviously Seoul is now in a very different moment; it is the moment of COVID-19, but perhaps also a different mode of living together. Roland Barthes wrote this book on how we live together, and in many ways this virus has changed our perspective on this. The situation in South Korea is different to the current one in Europe, because at the time of us speaking the UK is in lockdown, but Seoul is not. But in a wider sense, the city has continued to change over time, and you have documented this process in several of your films, such as Sleigh Ride Chill (2016) and Lifting Barbells (2015). Can you talk about the changing relationship to the city and how you experience it now? I am also curious to know whether you are making any new work at the moment in response to the current situation.

KH: Seoul usually appears in my work and languages that reference it are often used, but I don’t think my work deals with the city of Seoul as the core theme, or in depth. I consider Seoul as a given environment, and I simply try to treat it as realistically as possible. I don’t think the relationship between me and Seoul has changed from that. Seoul is sometimes the main character, but in a larger sense, the world is the main character.

I’m also slightly on pause in relation to the current situation, as I am still digesting what is happening. What I have been thinking recently is that people are tending not to believe the science. For example, before the virus I already had many face masks, because of the air pollution issue in Seoul. At that time, nobody was wearing the mask. Now, people are reacting to the act of wearing a mask in various ways. People tend to think that they understand an issue based on how they feel it within their body. So I think that this is an interesting aspect of this moment, but I am not yet ready to think about it in terms of a new work.

HUO: So it’s too early?

KH: Yes, I think so.

HUO: When we came to Seoul in the 1990s and again in the early 2000s, we met many architects, such as Seung H-Sang and then later Minsuk Cho of Mass Studies. There was a lot of dialogue between art and architecture in these urban laboratories within Seoul. Given your background in architecture, I was wondering whether you have any connections with architects, or have any unrealised projects involving architecture, to bring this discipline back into your practice.

KH: I am actually thinking of developing a sculpture that is within the realm of architecture. I cannot yet say how it will materialise, but it involves creating individual parts closely related to the human body in an ergonomic or highly functional way, focusing on the scale of the human body and its outline as a form of limitation. I can imagine the increased scale becoming a kind of architecture, but at the moment I am trying to experiment between art and architecture in that way. I am also waiting for my friends and colleagues at the university to become architects, so that I can start to collaborate with them!

HUO: Exactly, it takes longer with architecture. What are you reading right now?

KH: The other day, I ordered ‘Junkspace’ by Rem Koolhaas, because it has recently been published again with the Fredric Jameson text before it. I think it is quite an interesting and relevant text to read right now. I am also reading some detective, ‘whodunit’ novels, to help pass the time whilst isolating at home.

Translation by Dain Oh

“I think the screens are now disappearing and the world itself is becoming a screen.”

– Kim Heecheon

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