When more than a century ago, Thomas Edison invented the motion picture camera and its viewer, he thought of moving images as nothing more than some insignificant flickering images, which briefly appear through a tiny hole in a coin-operated machine. But with technology transitioning from film to digital media, there has been a bewildering evolution in moving images. Today, they are no longer just a form of entertainment or an artistic medium, but have become a default mode of social environment where people exchange information and interact each other. If our everyday routines, like watching YouTube or Netflix, reading news by scrolling their smartphone screen, making video calls, looking at navigation windows while driving, and taking selfies with video game monsters, all make up an experience of moving images, it has been drastically changed and yet felt banal and ordinary.
If in the last century, movies tried to capture the live world in moving images, today, the whole world, including us, always seems to be swept into the movements of images mediated by digital data. The video installation artist Heecheon Kim has explored this swirling world and composed a sort of fieldwork report on video. His works, which started out as what looked like a personal video diary, has rapidly gained breadth and depth through feedback of his new social life as fluid images of his own as well as an artist behind them. Constructing a video installation portraying a weird complex of human beings penetrated and extended by data flows and their audiovisual images, he generates ambiguous movements of looking down from a bird's eye view and tumbling down into a deeper and stranger world at the same time.
While 《HOME》(Doosan Gallery, 2017) rendered Seoul undermined with media images and disparate memories like a haunted house, it is a haunted body that 《Deep in the Forking Tanks》(Artsonje Center, 2019) conjures up. As moving bodies are continuously documented to extract data that replace the environment and the bodies themselves, the body images aggregate into a mirror labyrinth where the real and the virtual, the self and the others are incessantly diverging and converging to rearrange themselves. In such an environment, where, when, and to what extent are we ‘ourselves’? How could we keep moving neither to be locked in nor lose ourselves? As a thought experiment on these questions, 〈Deep in the Forking Tanks〉 juxtaposes images and voices that could not be specifically identified and follows a series of temporal paths emerging through them.
The screen set up at the exhibition venue is immersed in double layers of darkness. Viewers must walk through total darkness to approach the screen, which in turn shows mostly images enshrined in darkness. With occasional sounds like detonation or thuds, and some flashes of light, nothing is perceivable as though one is swimming in murky waters, except a pair of hands that come into view from time to time. A first person narrator in voice-over by Kim claims that this is his own video log of scuba diving simulation training in a float tank that he started in order to recover the corpse of a diver who had died in an underwater cave and left a video log until her last moments, which was in turn used as his first training materials. But it is not clear who this narrator is or when and where he is speaking.
While here he speaks as though he is a professional diver, elsewhere, he talks about his experience as a cameraman of filming amateur dancers practicing K-pop dances and their fantasy about disconnecting themselves from the body. Although the two appear unrelated at first, the dancer episode plays a variation of the diver episode’s theme with an opposite direction. Both the dancers and the divers separate their body from the mind as a machine and its operator, and replace the latter with the records of others’(diving or dancing). But in the case of the dancers, their goal is to free themselves from their bodies through switching off their inner surveillant function that constantly checks who they are, when and where they have been to maintain continuity. Thus, the dancers literally become dancing machines to make their new body images and set those filmy slices of themselves free. The self is not concentrated to the subject of control but distributed to the agents of liberation. In other words, with the help of what is not the self, the self becomes a non-self and is scattered into unknown times and spaces.
Meanwhile in the world of divers, the disconnection between the self and its body only means death. The Diver is trained to be able to control his body in the most rigorous environment that numbs the senses so that he can reach the depth where his predecessor lost her body and take it back. But the obsessive preoccupation about the body only increases the body count in murky waters. The attempt to maneuver the present body according to the records left by the past body in order to perfectly control the future body only multiplies self-obsessive body images, which turns out fatal for the diver, a sort of biological submarine operator. In the last diving scene, the diver perceives a few spots of gleaming light in darkness and swims toward it. As he approaches it, the light changes its shape, looking now like distant stars, now like a mottled skin of the drowned body. Only when he is right in front of it, the bright spots are identified as a surface of rock reflecting light and he collides with it.
The screen turns red, suggesting that the diver’s road ends here. However, in a world where representation has become a new basis for reality, death is only the endpoint of a routine which can be endlessly repeated for infinite variations. Another search and rescue diver will come along soon enough to follow in the footsteps of the missing diver. What would ultimately come out, what unexpected itinerary could diverge from this repetition? These are questions that pervade Heecheon Kim’s video work as a whole. His camera, in search of an unknown exit, turns an inquisitive eye on every little gap and opening, lunging into one and gets lost and wanders. With the repeated escape attempts, Kim’s images, voices and memories are fragmented, proliferated, and reassembled to be differentiated more and more from himself.
As narcissistic variations on himself as well as byproducts of failed escape attempts, his multiplied selves are aggressively moving toward multifaceted non-selves. This maneuver consists of several actions, such as filming others instead of himself, becoming a camera without the suffix ‘-man’, mutating into someone else on screen, or remaining a nameless image or a bodiless voice. In 〈Deep in the Forking Tanks〉, he makes use of the entire arsenal of methods he has previously experimented with in his past works to build up a microcosm of his non-selves. Traversing a new world where showing and seeing turned into a short-circuiting tactile interplay between the self and the outer world, he presents a panorama of the selves being decomposed and reconstructed between the obsession on integrity and the urge for breakthrough as if through a kaleidoscope.
What does all this show? Much like the float tank lengthily talked about at the introduction, the exhibition venue cuts the viewers off from the external sensation to make them forget their bodies. Although the cinema also demands its spectators to virtually leave their bodies, it is a price to become an omnipotent eye. In the case of 〈Deep in the Forking Tanks〉, on the contrary, the viewers are displaced into a blank without body, surrounded by delirious moving images of other blanks also disconnected from their bodies. The entire video installation is a kind of training program made up of empty images manipulated and left behind by Kim to instructs that you must not pursue to fill these blanks with a body but use them to navigate in the media-saturated world. The message is, however, remains anonymous and thus fictional to the end.
If Kim’s video works captures today’s world with an eerie sense of reality, that’s because he reveals the present time when the age-old dream of turning life into a movie has more than come true, to the extent that now our reality is nothing but an esoteric fiction generator we don’t fully understand its mechanism. Oscillating between new technologies and the old body, between the cultural conventions taken for granted but recently invented and the psychological impulses regarded absurd but deep rooted, the world is reanimated by dreaming a new momentum for the future and disappointedly awakening over and over. Kim observes and follows this world from within to seek out its weak spot. Neither driven by a desire to wake up nor to plunge into the dream, his work is based on a shear curiosity on how this world activates its dream through blindly mobilizing its human and non-human components, and this is what sets him apart from other futuristic dream-mongers.
Wonhwa Yoon is an independent researcher, art writer, and translator based in Seoul.She published 『Can Document re/create time?』(Seoul: Mediabus, 2017), 『1002nd Night: Arts in Seoul in 2010s』(Seoul: Workroom Press, 2016) and translated Friedrich KITTLER’s 『Discourse Networks 1800/1900』(1985), and 『Optische Medien: Berliner Vorlesung 1999』(2002) into Korean. She co-curated 《Human Scale》(2014) at the Ilmin Museum of Art and co-produced Soft Places for the Seoul Mediacity Biennale 2018.