Jonathan Goodman: You grew up in Seoul, where you received your degree in art from Hong-Ik University in 1985. Then you went to Paris, to the University Paris VIII, where you studied fine art for a second BFA and also an MFA. How have these educational experiences affected your outlook and work?
Yong Shin Cho: I learned two lessons from studying in France: social systems and conventions influence the arts, and creative arts resist such conventions and systems. I realized these two lessons when I heard the crowd enthusiastically chanting “Revolution, Revolution” at the ceremony commemorating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in Paris in 1989. I shed tears of emotion with the crowd at that time and thought of my country. In 1987, when I left Korea to study in France, every political and social activity was subject to surveillance and control under the military regime in Korea. Thus, the artists had to adapt themselves to the military regime through self-censorship before publishing their ideas or works.
The voice of freedom against the military regime was soon forced to bear social burial. The regime promoted the fascist idea that an individual must act as an accessory for the great organization of the state. In order to survive, this kind of thinking was generalized as a convention, and the arts could not be were forced to take part. In 1990, Korea took the initiative to promote and support only those art events that would adhere to certain traditions under the slogan, “Things Korean are global,” while unnaturally promoting patriotism in the public. In contrast, most grassroots-activist art exhibitions, which were critical of social reality, were canceled, and the opportunities to present such works were not allowed. The corrupt regime intensively controlled the media and the arts to maintain power by dumbing down the public. Choked by the Korean situation, I was shocked to see the French and President Mitterrand marching with a crowd shouting for revolution in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. The sight of Parisians and political leaders shouting for revolution was shocking to me.
Paris was full of freedom in the field of art since political freedom was guaranteed. After realizing this reality of Paris, I felt that the meaning of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (1917), signed R. MUTT, engaged me with a completely different depth than before. I reconsidered the fact that, at the time, the art of the East, including China, which had been faithful to apprenticeship education for hundreds of years, has no current art and no existence in the international art fairs at that time. From this point on, I decided to get rid of the conventional and esthetic forms taught in the name of the academy. I wanted to find out what expressive medium would most realistically reflect the current reality of the absurd. I found it was television. My epiphany occurred In 1990: while I was attending an art class at the University of Paris VIII, a Korean political incident was broadcast on a black-and-white television in the school cafeteria.
At this moment, my eyes were fixed on the television. And the television image was an electronic pixel image that captured the reality in front of me. It showed the passage of time, but I realized that the image and time were being manipulated. I decided that this was the medium I was looking for. Beginning in 1991, I was completely immersed in the new genre of electronic art, taking video classes and interactive art classes at the University of Paris VIII. This is how my electronic media artwork began.
In 1992, I spent a few hours in front of a video installation I encountered at the Kassel Documenta. It was a black-and-white video installation that projected a human body limping slowly in the water on a six-meter-high screen in a completely dark exhibition hall. This vague and mysterious moving human figure struck me strongly. The artist's name was Bill Viola. He was not well known to the public at that time. Viola's exploration of human life and death coincided with my interests, and I was greatly influenced by Viola's concept of video installation.
In 1996, I wrote a thesis about Viola’s video installations for my master’s degree at the University of Paris VIII. I spent ten years of an enjoyable life working as a video artist in Paris. I returned to Korea in 2000, but my heart was still in Paris. When I started teaching at a university in Korea, I joined the HCI Society of Korea, a group that studies human-computer interaction. In cooperation with the engineering professors of this society, I focused on the artworks that bring together science and art.
JG: You moved to New York in 2014. Why did you leave Asia? What is it you like about New York as an artist?
YSC: The pioneers who set out in search of freedom broke the old conventions of the past and created a new social system. American art is a history of this change. After 1960, as Jackson Pollock and a group of Pop artists, conceptual artists, performance artists, and electronic technology artists, people who made use of the five senses as a medium, appeared. Literally anything imaginable has become a possible material for art. No distinction exists between material and non-material, existence and non-existence. The activities of the icons of innovation leading to the 21st century, such as Jobs, Gates, Musk (the owner of Twitter), and Google, are passionate and innovative–as if to claim that the pinnacle of science is art. In such rapidly changing times, I wanted to breathe in the same land of those who had a history of resistance and subversion, and I wanted to express my passion.
JG: Your work is not evidently Korean. Instead, it belongs to an internationalism not tied to any particular culture. Indeed, the only way we might know you are Korean is that the faces of the actors in the videos are recognizably Asian. Are we past cultural, racial, and geographic identification in art at this point? If so, why?
YSC: My work deals with universal questions such as desire, social and cultural conflict, pain, memory, wounds, and violence, rather than culture-specific themes or issues. That is why, while looking at the problems of Korea where I was born, I deal with the common interests of mankind through an artistic medium that the nations and peoples of the same environment face. But I don’t always work in the same way. Sometimes I think directly or metaphorically about a specific culture or existence through video media.
JG: How do you think of your work—is it installation or sculptural, or is it oriented toward performance? Do you think of yourself as an avant-garde artist? Would the work be considered avant-garde in Korea?
YSC: One of the cores of my work is electronic media esthetics. Also, in many cases, I regularly used analog or digital imaging devices or mechanical machine devices. My favorite material is an electronic medium addressing the human body. In other words, it is an electronic device, an installation work, in which a certain human problem is converted into an electronic image and a performance. The human body is addressed physically, mixed with the electronic image device. In order to vividly communicate with the audience, the problems of humans and society, I pursue the expansion of the field of view provided by new media and electronic media esthetics. Although my work style clearly fits the spirit of the avant-garde in that it breaks boundaries and pursues new trends, moving away from existing traditions, I do not regard my work as avant-garde, whether in Korea or elsewhere. However, as an artist, I am constantly pursuing changes.
JG: The actors in your videos are regularly naked. What does the nudity mean to you as an artist? Does it have to do with the vulnerability we all face in life? American viewers might see the nudity as sexual; is eroticism a theme important to you? Or do you use nudity more as a metaphysical statement?
YSC: Basically, the naked body of human beings not only reveals their emotions vividly but also makes people view humans as an animal with social intelligence. In order to remove any trace of race and locality from the naked body, sometimes I use transparent masks on their faces to convey universal messages. I think that nakedness can talk about our reality more directly and instinctively. Nakedness in my work refers to a reality composed of desire, violence, pain, wounds, and weakness. This is because the more beautiful the naked bodies are, the closer the fear of survival becomes.
JG: If it is true that your art is oriented toward metaphysics, what is the underlying message of what you create? My sense is that you are making a universal statement about existing in an increasingly conflicted and shallow world. Would you agree with this statement?
YSC: I am working on a piece titled “X-BOX Story”, with an interest in a structure that contains the narrative of human destiny. The bias of the work does not describe an immediate reaction to current social events. “X-BOX Story” is an exquisite tale originated with virtual reality, and it is a warm-up that seeks a structure that can sufficiently contain the narrative. Although I am no philosopher, the question I faced was how to overcome the limitations of human weakness. It seemed to me that, despite remarkable technological growth, human individuals have not been able to escape the constraints of genetic destiny. While I am very interested in exposing social problems and awakening viewers to an awareness of reality, I am even more interested in improving life. Therefore, my works concentrate on the fate determined by genetics and our resistance to it through virtual reality and simulation work. These efforts digitalize the records of past generations and behaviors of future generations. My piece is still in its early stages. I hope my audience will notice that my work should be seen not only as a broad statement about social problems or human beings, but also as a solution to those problems.
JG: Are there special technical difficulties making what you do? Is video work dominated by technology, or do you see it as capable of philosophically rich statements? Why did you choose to make videos in the first place?
YSC: The emergence of a new medium excites humans, and whenever a progressive medium appears, we need time to learn and eventually apply it to new production. Among the new communications, media that emit electronic moving images have been used omnidirectionally in human life, triggering the most rapid changes in human history. Media have also produced nearly infinite discourse about the excellence and harm of addiction to the images and communication it produces. One of the main reasons I chose video is the fact that video is a time-based medium.
However, no matter how innovative the media is, the media itself is only material. The media can be likened to the newest cookware–like the microwave–but it doesn't necessarily guarantee delicious food. A high-skilled chef's proficiency is absolutely essential for a media tool to be of high value.
Art chooses technology out of necessity, and technology does not rule art. I want to use my artistic skills to analyze humans and present the results artistically. The art form of electronic visual media, which started with video, is spreading to computers, the Internet, and mobile phone artificial information art. It is evolving into electronic digital information–artificial intelligence art–creative work that simultaneously interacts with vast images and sounds and narrative texts that can be realized more nakedly than reality, becoming more like hallucinations than might be imagined. Because electronic digital information media is a revolutionary catalyst that will change human civilization, Marshall McLuhan and Nam June Paik had already made it a subject of media discourse. Since artists want to express the value of human existence by selecting materials and themes that signify the times, and collectors want to own such art, it is expected that electronic art will play an important role in the art market.
JG: Is video a popular art medium in Korea? Or is it seen as occurring on the margins, being too esoteric a genre of art? By the same token, do you feel that video art in America, like performance art, is a specialty with a small audience. If this is true, why does video remain on the margins of art?
YSC: I think we need to pay attention to the fact that video art is limited, professionally, to art exhibitions but exists in our daily space as well. There are many excellent video arts in various forms, which are widely consumed by the public in commercial spaces. Video occurs on street billboards, and in the metro, cafés, and department stores, all of which exist outside of the art exhibition hall. This is the popular spread of video art. Numerous video media devices such as Apple's iPhone are rapidly infiltrating our lives, and these media tools inevitably extend beyond information transmission to tools expanding artistic expression.
Taking photos and videos with Apple’s iPhone, and uploading and recording visual materials on the Internet has become a daily routine in modern life. This is the popular spread of video art. In the capitalist market, where art is simply sold for money, it is a commodity that is still easily dismissed, so there is only a small supply and demand.
JG: How do you regard the art scene in New York? Do you find it challenging as a progressive artist? How does New York compare with the galleries and museums in Seoul? Are you seeing a lot of good video art here in New York?
YSC: To be honest, in recent years I haven't seen enough New York art. As for my fragmentary impression, the buildings and facilities of art museums and galleries in Seoul are better maintained than in New York, but in terms of content, I feel that New York is more presently presenting new content. Galleries in Manhattan are larger than in Europe, but there are more commercial galleries in Europe than you might think. Overall, I feel that there are far fewer video and media art exhibitions in New York than in Europe and Korea. I feel that there are few experimental avant-garde exhibitions in the year-round exhibition programs of major art museums in New York. I do know there are enjoyable and challenging media exhibitions at The Kitchen, the Chelsea arts center, as well as a large number of galleries in that neighborhood.
JG: Please name two or three contemporary artists, from anywhere in the world, whose work makes a difference to you. Please explain why you like the art as much as you do.
YSC: I respect Nam June Paik, the first video artist who made artistic experiments with video. He was an eternal avant-garde artist who continued experimenting with the global electronic network. His art included strong work, such as “Good Morning, Mr., Orwell,” and also laser media visuals, which he worked on until he died. I was also inspired by Jonathan Borovsky and Anish Kapoor, who try to contact the public directly by installing huge sculptures of public-friendly shapes in public places, including Borofsky’s “Man Walking to the Sky / Hammering Man”, and Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate and Sky Mirror”. I also like Zaha Hadid, who designed spaceship-like architecture, including the Dubai OPUS Hotel / Hardar Aliyev Center; Jeffrey Shaw, who produced “Legible City,” which shows the future of human beings through virtual reality: and Elon Musk. who produced Space-X Projects.
JG: How do you see contemporary art generally? Is this a good or a bad time for image-making? How do you feel about artists politicizing art here in America? Does it help or harm the causes they support?
YSC: I think that contemporary art is developing alongside the evolution of mankind. I believe that art is a song celebrating human survival and enables us to express our passion for life. Political statements in art are vulnerable, even desperate expressions supporting the survival of an individual; however, if they lack universality, or are too strong, the audience may feel uncomfortable, or the content is violent. Nam June Paik said that the public rides the bus, and the artist rides a motorcycle. When a motorcycle guides the masses too quickly, the masses will not follow. The average public does not try to understand radical progress.
JG: Can you describe the future direction you wish to take? Will you continue to make videos? Will you concentrate on a career here in New York, or will you go on showing all over the world? Does your recognition in Korea still mean a lot to you, or do you prefer to concentrate on your reputation in New York?
YSC: I am like a cat who is interested in the various phenomena around us. I'm not even a philosopher, but I have a very difficult question in my heart. Why do humans talk so differently even when they are experiencing the same events? Why can't human fate be changed? What is the answer to these questions? I'm probably going to die while exploring these topics using video. Even so, if possible, I would like to complete a simulation system using sophisticated virtual reality. Now that I have chosen New York as my work site, I am living in a mysterious place where artistic histories of hope and despair intersect. I am currently indifferent to worldly fame. I just want to leave behind at least one thing that will be helpful to the world. I want to leave behind a museum and an educational institution of virtual reality if I am lucky enough.