Ayoung Kim
Scene from "In Search of Petra Genetrix". Photo: Disclosure

* By Bernardo José de Souza

Boundaries establish boundaries between one space and another, or between something and something else. When demarcating territories, they impose themselves as an arbitrary mapping, devising zones of power and control over human, information and goods flows. Boundaries also signal the limits between the known and the unknown, between what is possible and what is not possible – or between what is given to us to see and what remains invisible. Real or virtual, they also serve to mark differences, forge antinomies and stop fluid forms of knowledge.

Allegorical in essence, the work of Ayoung Kim (currently on display at the Videobrasil Online) moves in time and space moved by the speculative spirit that blurs geographic and epistemological boundaries. When she takes science fiction as a political platform, the South Korean artist recovers passages from universal history while updating her diverse mythologies in search of a common, timeless language. In this vein, excavating the past and prospecting anomalous forms in the present and in the future constitute dynamic processes for the development of audiovisual and performative epics narrated by the artist.

If Kim's early works account for the neocolonial onslaught of the West towards the East in the 20th century, his later works advance from the future on the past in reverse, forming a fictional landscape where utopia and dystopia are confused to the point of becoming if only one thing; by blurring the historical horizon, the artist ends up relativizing categorical judgments about the nature of technological advance. Especially in his most recent works, technologies become tools so naturalized by humanity that they become living entities, invested with their own animist, ethical and political dilemmas, whether affective or moral.

Artist Ayoung Kim. Photo: Min Gyungbok


Unequal Accumulation of Times

Interested in the modernization processes that gained momentum in the post-war period, Ayoung Kim's first videos investigate the impact of Western culture on South Korean lives and cities. In Every North Star Part 1 and 2 – Tales of a City (2010), faced with the port city of Busan, we follow the decadent trajectory of a racing star – Jin Hee Park, the only female jockey in South Korea until then – subjected to the pressures of a historically masculine sport, whose perverse competitive logic reproduces the features of a globalized world in the wake of Anglo-Saxon cultural hegemony, and of the capitalist market in general. This competitiveness is also revealed in the triptych Please Return to Busan Port – Tales of a City 2, in which the 1988 Seoul Olympics is presented in reverse mode, with the athletes moving in the opposite direction to the podium (and to victory, therefore), while on another screen, simultaneously, it is possible to observe a cyclist stealthily hiding drugs on his racing bike – an allusion to the doping, but possibly also to the contraband that flows through the sea there. Both works are urban tales about lost dreams in a world of apparent prosperity, albeit doomed to the arbitrariness of its neocolonial heritage.

Located in East Asia, South Korea is a democracy along the lines of the West, despite the trauma of its recent history marked by authoritarian governments and the autophagic Korean War (1950-1953), still without an end point, but whose The objective outcome, in the midst of the volatile context of the cold war, was the secession between the north and south of the peninsula, orchestrated by Soviet and American forces. During the last decades of the 20th century, the country became known as one of the Asian tigers, becoming one of the richest and most dynamic economies in the world.

Using a passage from his paternal biography – he, an employee of a Korean oil prospecting company in Kuwait –, in Zepheth – Whale Oil from the Hanging Gardens to You (2014), Ayoung Kim goes on to explore issues related to geopolitics, but also to geology and ecology in a broad sense. With this work, the artist proposes another media arrangement for her narratives, leaving the audiovisual momentarily in the background to privilege sound experimentation, the musicality of voices, performance and the use of algorithms in the composition of texts. in the trilogy Zepheth (which in Hebrew means pitch), it is the mental images that will take shape; sometimes bureaucratic reports, sometimes poetic passages that deal with oil and its derivatives, about the sea, divers and pearls, about the desert, the heat, the change of landscape in the rainy season and the displacements of the Bedouin tribes on the land. arid, among so many other ancestral or imminently current archetypes and iconographies – or even both, at the same time.

Amidst the Babylon of accounts that overlap in Zepheth (voiced by a chorus echoing Greek antiquity), a narrative arc is unveiled that reaches times as remote as those of the Old Testament, and then advances towards modernity, bringing together a set of apparently disparate stories, but which in the end, and strictly speaking, they are responsible for the necessarily syncretic landscape with which we live in contemporary times. From the bitumen-coated Noah's Ark to the sources of oil and its flames, from the oil of the whales in the lampposts to the air conditioning that softens the temperatures of the desert, a globalized world emerges in which the geographic space is so much the result of geological formations, and the technologies developed to transform nature. Faced with this tumultuous historical panorama, the nomadic presence in the desert landscape gives way to the intensive architecture of cities and oil fields in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere – a fossil supply whose dividends feed back the war conflicts that only “thrive” between the territorial borders of the Middle East, seen under the sign of European neocolonialism, persistent in its contempt for the historical, ethnic and cultural formation of native peoples.

This uneven accumulation of times (Milton Santos) – these layers of natural and human history superimposed on the physical space, but also on the symbolic level – perhaps constitute the real semantic operation promoted by Ayoung Kim in his speculative impetus against the grain, both of history and of the forms assumed by memory . By juxtaposing inorganic elements, geologically consolidated over millions of years (the memory of the stone) to the narrative traces compiled by humanity in the course of its adventure on the planet – whether through orality, whether the word and image recorded analogically or digitally –, the artist goes beyond the borders of the real, opens a gap in space-time and enters the realm of fiction, or virtuality.

Scene from “Porosity Valley 2”. Photo: Disclosure

porosity valley (2017) comes precisely to amalgamate various strata of information that are dispersed in the spheres of nature and culture & technology, spheres in theory that are different if taking into account the Western epistemological paradigm structured from the dual premise subject/object - that is, the subject separated from nature via culture; or, to put it another way, humanity and its second nature.

In the speculative field formed by the artist from this new audiovisual narrative and its sequences, magnetized by animism, mythology and science fiction, the dichotomy real vs virtual it seems to have already been overcome, if not entirely on the existential level, at least on the technological level. It remains, however, to understand how the artificial intelligence that emerges in the future dimension of porosity valley will project its metaphysical mantle over nature and its humanity.


Porosity Valley & Petra Genetrix and its sequels (2017–2020)

Amidst the rugged landscape of Porosity Valley (a kind of stone/motherboard) are deposited post-human creatures whose origins refer as much to the geological ancestry and mythologies of antiquity as to the information age and the sphere of virtuality. Animated by an artificial intelligence – a kind of DEUS ex machina, guardian of a new, hybrid nature, made of big & meta data & psycho-emotional residues -, some inhabitants of this distant future are led to answer about their ambiguous condition on planet Earth, as well as about their promiscuous relationship with the human factor, with the feelings and prerogatives proper to humanity, whose essence invariably implies freedom of thought and action; in short, free will.

Petra Gentrix, the mysterious character of this saga sci-fi, is in search of a place in the world, an identity and self-preservation. After an environmental disaster (an eruption caused by aggressive oil extraction), she is forced into an untimely escape whose fate must be arbitrated by a higher authority - an instance that lies between the virtuality of artificial intelligence and the bureaucratic apparatus mediated by humans. serve the greater purposes of technology. Constituted as a timeless entity, without a defined gender (or not applicable), Petra Genetrix is ​​the result of the accumulation of information obtained throughout its useful life in contact with the human species - a parasitic form of intelligence, despised by time and deposited in the nature as technological waste, a mental vestige contaminated by human drives and desires; or a virtual receptacle for humanity's most cherished existential dilemmas: its ontological concerns, its sufferings and pains of the soul, as well as its redundant pleasures that operate against the grain of notions of efficiency.

In the current stage of our civilization, when humanity approaches technology more and more – physically and intellectually –, the meta-narrative proposed by Ayoung Kim has the power to articulate metaphors and allegories that respond to the pressing political-philosophical questions of our time. . Like her character Petra Genetrix, the artist is also looking for meaning in the set of transformations undergone by nature (also human) in the wake of cultural and technological processes whose results are as opaque as they are unimaginable. Thus, the science fiction formulated by Kim operates more as a hermeneutic tool to inquire about the present than as an exercise in futurology or mere diversion – although there is an underlying desire to both explore future scenarios and make fun of the vicissitudes now imposed by technology.

Scene from “Petrogenesis Petra Genetrix”. Photo: Disclosure

By investing the anti-heroine with an ambivalent character regarding her hybrid nature (mineral/human/technological), the artist asks about the ethical-political dilemmas contingent on her condition of virtual guardian of human memory, as well as those related to the autonomy of thought. and information flows in contemporary societies that are gradually more refractory to individual rights. The lack of freedom experienced by Petra Genetrix, due to her banishment and the instability attributed to her emotional charge, will largely mirror the social status of individuals whose states identify as harmful to the political environment – ​​terrorists, Muslims, rebels, immigrants, women, transsexuals, blacks, indigenous people, among many other “risk groups”.

When she deposits in her fables ingredients of a world in disarray, similar to the one that looms over our immediate horizon – in the face of the Anthropocene, the pandemic, war, socio-ethnic-racial and gender discrimination –, the artist tries to establish correspondences between the future and the present, thus positioning the spectator vis-a-vis its imminent reality, namely, that of a contemporaneity surrounded by obscure forms of social control. Petra Genetrix, in her capacity as a monstrosity – that is, an entity whose ambiguous, potentially subversive and stateless nature poses a risk to the status quo –, responds, by analogy, to the human contingent today excluded from cultural, political and economic life by virtue of the control society (Gilles Deleuze), from biopower (Michel Foucault) and the necropolitics (Achilles Mbembe) – ideological instances cultivated by States and corporations whose discriminatory role separates citizens from the means of production and the social welfare system; or else, surreptitiously submits them to political manipulation through the insidious algorithms generated by big tech.

Such disciplinary, surveillance and control mechanisms, which can be seen here and there – whether in fiction or in reality – allow us to think about the virtual dissemination of information from at least two distinct categories: one viral, the other viral, since information can either respond to “infectious” stimuli given to it by artificial intelligence, or can reproduce itself exponentially in an autonomous and anomalous way in communication networks. Hence the conclusion that, in the viral case, AI robs us of the ability to think freely, chasing critical judgment whenever it imposes itself as a totalizing narrative (via algorithms and fake news, for example); in the viral case, information is insidiously disseminated on the networks, in a fortuitous way, obliterating the mechanisms of virtual censorship (WikiLeaks is a good example of this; which would be equivalent, in the field of fiction, to the leakage of human emotions by Petra Genetrix) . When, however, the result of the process is consonant with the coercive system, the gear would have accomplished its goal by avoiding damage; when, alternatively, something escapes the control of artificial intelligence, then quarantine or neutralization of the virus (thought, feeling or information) would proceed.

what the project Petra Genetrix signals us, in its speculative future, is the notion of affection as a risk: residual human elements to transit through data circulation networks, but which must be stopped, controlled, or else classified as mental waste (mental residue), and therefore sent to permanent exile whenever there is an affront to the system's efficiency standard. In this minefield of virtuality, Kim beckons with a sui generis of “passive” cyber terrorism, that is, the danger represented by the manifestations of humanity and affection in the supposedly stable flow of AI As soon as psychic fragility is introduced into the information matrix, perceptions of error and inefficiency would end up corrupting the system, producing failures and imbalances, causing the collapse of the (utopian or dystopian?) hybridity between man and machine.

As it happens under the tectonic plates, by analogy the “lava” of human feelings and doubts penetrating the network can cause an instant eruption, like a volcano – or a fatal error that compromises the integrity of the operating system. It is when the volatility of affection finally meets the solidity of the hard disk, despite the much-heralded virtuality of the network – the affective (disabled) would then reach the matrix of technological efficiency.

Ayoung Kim
Scene from “In Search of Petra Genetrix”. Photo: Disclosure


Nature doesn't exist yet

In the fictional universe of porosity valley e Petra Genetrix (and its video or performance sequences), the migratory movements of tectonic plates, individuals and information, as well as the confluence between the most diverse cultures – which have met and contaminated each other in the course of history and technological advancement – ​​take us all rolling, as in a cataclysm, relativizing the notions of utopia and dystopia by jeopardizing the very understanding of nature.

According to Theodor W. Adorno, “Nature does not yet exist” – rather, it is a construction undertaken by humanity since its second nature, that of cultural convention and technology. The symbiosis between humans and artificial intelligence proposed by Kim would possibly configure another stage, or a third nature; no longer the second, so naturalized by humanity as to demand a romantic projection that could account, at least on an ideal level, of what would be the kingdom of the first nature, deprived of the forms engendered by culture: that is, the idea of ​​a redemptive (primordial) nature, capable of freeing humanity from the bonds imposed by second nature – paradoxically, the latter the result of human work and ingenuity.

In this third nature, so to speak, men and women become objects, and no longer subjects in the face of artificial intelligence. By reifying eminently human feelings as degrading material to be definitively excluded from the matrix (a kind of bit rot), AI ends up removing humanity from the subject/object equation that well characterized Western Enlightenment culture, namely: we humans as transforming agents and controllers of nature. In Ayoung Kim's work, on the other hand, it would be us, humans, who are subjected to this other force that mimics nature and, consequently, humanity itself, namely, artificial intelligence.

SANTOS, Milton. 2007. Thinking the Space of Man. Sao Paulo: EdUSP.
DELEUZE, Gilles. 2010. conversations. Sao Paulo: Ed. 34 Ltd.
FOUCAULT, Michel. 1999 In Defense of Society🇧🇷 São Paulo: Martins Fontes.
MBEMBE, Achilles. 2011. Necropolitical. Barcelona: Melusine.
ADORNO, Theodor W. 2013. aesthetic theory🇧🇷 New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

*Bernardo Jose de Souza is a curator, teacher and art critic. He was Artistic Director of the Iberê Camargo Foundation until 2019. Currently, as an independent curator, he resides in Madrid. He was Cinema, Video and Photography Coordinator at the Porto Alegre Secretariat of Culture between 2005 and 2013 and was part of the curatorship team for the 9th Bienal do Mercosul (Porto Alegre, 2013) and the 19th Bienal Sesc_Videobrasil (2015).

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