This essay first appeared in AAA's previous publication Field Notes, Issue 04. To read the "Note from the Editors" for full context, please click here.
And is the web, which is cyberspace, like heaven, one big spy satellite above our heads, looking down on us, and taking care of us, or making me have to think about how I look, just in case it's looking at me.
—Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Artist’s Statement No. 45,730,944: The Perfect Artistic Web Site
In 2004, artistic duo Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (YHCHI) had its first solo exhibition, Bust Down the Door!, in Seoul, South Korea, at Rodin Gallery. The two members, Young-Hae Chang and Mark Voge, installed nine Internet refrigerators at the entrance of the gallery directly across from Rodin's famous sculptural work, The Gates of Hell (Fig. 1). If the name Rodin Gallery hasn't given it away, the gallery houses two famous works of Auguste Rodin purchased by Samsung (the company that owns the gallery): The Gates of Hell and The Burghers of Calais. In response to Rodin's work, YHCHI created its own version of the gates of hell using nine Zipel refrigerators produced by Samsung. These fridges were stacked three by three, creating a structure that indeed resembled a door. The "smart" fridges, or internet fridges, come with a 10'' touchscreen display boasting wi-fi connectivity. The quintessential home furniture guarantees that you stay connected even as you sort through your grocery shopping lists. A consumer product such as this shows how Internet culture permeates our daily lives, from televisions to mobile devices and refrigerators, making sure we stay "connected." It also speaks to the socioeconomic South Korean context as the government promotes ever-increasing Internet speed. It seemed fitting, then, that YHCHI utilised Samsung products to emphasise Internet-driven daily life, as well as high-tech culture and corporate influence on neoliberal capitalism in South Korea.
However, the exhibition caused a scandal among the art circle for a number of other reasons. First and foremost, YHCHI is known as an Internet duo that utilises the World Wide Web as the main platform for its works. By platform, I mean a virtual space in which they exhibit and restore their works. Thus, it seemed to go against the whole agenda of the artists' hitherto online practices. Critic Jung-Gwon Jin pointed this out in his article "The Politics of the Museum":1
It is awkward to see a work that had parodied Samsung being embraced by the company, but what is equally awkward is to see a work of web art in a museum instead of where it is supposed to be—cyberspace. This shows the power a museum holds.2
Jin's criticism rises out of the belief that net artists should primarily use the web as their circulation and exhibition platform. Once the work was exhibited outside the web, the artists chose another circulatory channel—a physical one with which we are much more familiar: a gallery. Furthermore, YHCHI has been known for its work Samsung Means to Come (2000), which criticised seductive commercialism promoted by international mega-conglomerates such as Samsung. In this provocative work, the female narrator, a housewife, imagines having sex in her kitchen with a fictional person who symbolises the company Samsung (Fig. 2). Of course, a kitchen is a domestic place where the company's products, such as the aforementioned refrigerator, are typically found. Interestingly, the housewife imagines Samsung as a person whom she talks to and becomes intimate with, and it learns how to satisfy her desires. Surely, behind this huge corporation are people from workers and employees, to managers, directors, and CEOs. However, if we exchange this "person" with commodities and products like electronics or home furniture, it becomes obvious that the story is a portrait of contemporary urban life in a capitalist society where things become objects of desire and pleasure. Because the Rodin Gallery is owned by the very company the artists mimic in Samsung Means to Come, the artists were subject to criticism for co-opting the very same capitalist power in their solo show that they were against in their previous work.
Why would net artists choose to do something that seems to directly contradict the logic of net art? Was YHCHI's exhibition at Rodin Gallery directed against Samsung? Was the duo symbolically busting down the doors of the leading company? Or, does this incident simply betray the power and influence of the company on which the South Korean economy depends so heavily? Did the company reappropriate and neutralise critical voices by supporting the duo? Is net art busting down the doors of museums and the histories those institutions signify? On the duo’s part, did it really matter as long as its works gained exposure outside the web? And why would it need that exposure? In this article, I will examine the utopianism associated with cyberspace as an alternative platform for exhibition and circulation, showing how YHCHI's works playfully engage with digital technologies by using and commenting on them. In order to do so, I will briefly trace the quintessential aesthetic YHCHI has developed thus far, and explore how it differs from that of previous web artists. YHCHI serves as a counter example to digital utopianism, even as it ambivalently engages with the idea. Its works provide us with a case study that reveals the readily inextricable nature of media, technology, and globalisation as we consider cyberspace and physical space hand-in-hand. That YHCHI shows its works outside of its original venues does not go against the logic of net art, but rather, I argue, strategically points to the limits of its practice and challenges the utopian assumptions associated with cyberspace as available, transnational, expansive, accessible, and connected.
As mentioned, the exhibition Bust Down the Door! seemed to raise a number of assumptions and problems associated with net art. Jin's criticism reveals the peculiar place net art holds in contemporary art, particularly in comparison to the readily common reception of television, video, and satellite art in museums. Consider the question YHCHI asks in their work Artist's Statement No. 45,730,944: The Perfect Artistic Web Site:
The newest multimedium: the web. The biggest art space: the web. . . . or should I stand back and think about the metaweb or the postweb, or web metaphysics such as: will the world wide web just go away? Or is it really even there and if it is, where is "there"? and do I want to get there? (Fig. 3)
The adverb "there"makes the viewer realise the simplest questions that are often forgotten. What is the nature of this cyberspace—how is it formed, and what sustains it? How do we understand this "there" in relation to the physical "here"? These questions show how YHCHI regards cyberspace as an ambivalent place for exhibition and circulation and certainly not a simple utopian destination where radical art experiments, completely ungoverned by the economic and political systems, can take place.
The Internet doesn't provide a space that is immune to commercialisation. In fact, Julian Stallabrass discusses Internet art as belonging to the inextricable sphere of culture and commerce. Let's return to a segment from Samsung Means to Come, for example. Bright, flashing texts narrate the story of a female protagonist, a housewife, who imagines making love to a personified Samsung and realises that she loves "power, egoism, megalomania, calculation, the inhuman, the corporateness." While she walks down a city street, a huge company logo appears atop a building on a digital screen, enticing customers to enter the store and have a taste of its new products that will make life easier—such as the aforementioned Zipel refrigerator. The word "Samsung" appears on the viewer's screen in white on a blue background. A colour scheme as such resembles the symbolic logo of the company Samsung. These flashing texts end up creating effects that are oddly similar to flashing neon store signs we see in the streets of Seoul at night. In many cases, these neon signs stand for East Asian commercialism and urban culture. It isn't only the neon signboard but also the annoying advertisement pop-up windows that share a similar flashing effect with YHCHI's work. The visual language YHCHI adopts in this particular work thus could paradoxically advertise for the company whether it is intentional or not. The use of the particular visual language—synchronized text and sound using flash animation—reveals that the nature of most information on the net is advertisement, controlled by corporate interest.
Since 1997, the artists have made text-based flash animations in their signature style using Monaco font accompanied by jazz or bossa nova-style music. Their works emerge from the context in which the desire for faster speed, instant connection, and drive for telecommunication technologies govern daily life, corporate interest, and governmental policy. Because Chang and Voge have been using Adobe Flash, there are certain features of their works that set them apart from other net artists. A viewer cannot rewind, pause, or fast-forward a work. She cannot predict the length of a work, either, unless she views it from beginning to end, after which the work starts all over, creating a cinematic loop. In fact, the artists don't seem concerned with utilising high technology per se. Once a chosen work is set to play, there is little room for so-called interactivity, which is explored by many artists interested in the web's hyper-textual mode of viewership and readership. In fact, in an interview, YHCHI commented on its lack of interactivity by saying, "we would like our own work to exert a dictatorial stranglehold on the reader." This is an interesting observation given that it is easy to assume interactivity is at the core of net art pursued by many earlier and contemporary web artists.
Rather, YHCHI's works aren't concerned with interactivity or exploiting new technologies, software programmes, or graphics. Instead, the text-heavy nature bears resemblance to a generation of conceptual artists. Yes, a viewer can connect to the work through the artists' website anytime with a modem connection, but what lies at the core of the duo's works are the texts. Often the texts are played at such speed that they border on illegibility. Flashing and disappearing, the words become concrete elements that interfere with our reading speed and consciousness. It's the idea that flashes on screen for a moment that leaves an imprint on our minds. It's easy to slip through our minds as well. Understandably, YHCHI refers to Marcel Duchamp often in its works rather than any "new media" artists. In the strictest sense of the word, Duchamp employed ready-made objects, which were considered to be a "new" medium of the time. The artist's Fountain (1917) became a source of inspiration and a motif for many subsequent conceptual artists. Hans Haacke's Moma Poll, a work proposed for the exhibition Information in 1970, probed into the utopian assumptions of museum space through institutional critique, invoking the close relationship between exchange of capital and corporate sponsorship of art through museums. Likewise, YHCHI's works bridge such previous conceptual art historical movements and the "new" medium, the web, probing into the relationship between physical and virtual spaces.
For sure, it is hard to overlook the power of the museum as an institution that is central to contemporary art practices. Take note of how video and television art have also become a canonic category under the genre of "new media" art in most contemporary art museums. Amongst contemporary works that utilise and draw on any sort of digital media technologies, net art occupies a subfield whose relationship to previous art historical genres such as television, video, and satellite art still remains to be explored in depth. If television piqued an interest in the imagination of the global village on screen in the 1960s for artists such as Nam June Paik, it was the Internet that rapidly promoted the belief that the world was only a click away. If the museum as an institution is demystified in the age of neoliberal capitalism, can net art be an alternative to traditional viewership in art museums? How does a work of net art reveal itself differently to the audience when the work is brought to the museum? A work of art online may travel faster than any traveling exhibition, but it also requires means of distribution in order to reach audiences in dispersed locations. That YHCHI's works gained global exposure through exhibitions at renowned museums such as the Tate, Pompidou, and New Museum speaks to the difficulty imposed on any net artist. The web is not absolutely circulatory even if it is an effective platform for exhibition.
An understandable assumption that net art should first and foremost utilise the net as its medium belies Jin's earlier statement. The medium-specificity is lost when YHCHI's works are shown in the traditional viewing setting, the museum, instead of the original context of web browsing. And when this specificity is lost, when net art spills into the physical world, the subversive character that was inherent in net practice is lost as well. Early net artists emphasised the use of the net as an artistic and technological apparatus in their works. Just as artists used television and video as a means for exploring the communicative capacities of new technologies, artists explored the web as an artistic medium for connecting with multiple audiences in time and space through technology. Naturally, net art has developed alongside the commercialisation and privatisation of the internet since the 1980s when early eastern European artists showed interest in the World Wide Web.
What stands out in YHCHI's works is the recognition that the web is a "multimedium" itself. In other words, the web does not exist by itself. The informational cyberspace is made possible only through physical infrastructure, material conditions, and the technologies that sustain it. The term "heavy industries" holds East Asian connotations as many companies from the region use that name in referring to materials that are heavy in weight, and necessary for the production processes from shipbuilding to construction. These heavy industry companies symbolise the material infrastructure necessary for telecommunication technologies and circulation of goods and capital—things that are transnational in a neoliberal free market context. Certainly, what YHCHI produces is immaterial and far from heavy or weighty: information on a website. Information can be reduced to a series of binary codes, ones and zeros, and YHCHI makes this clear by replacing the alphabet "O" with a zero in every text. Yet, the artists introduce themselves as the CEO (Young-Hae Chang) and CIO (Mark Voge) of YHCHI. Then, the paradoxical name "heavy industries" signals the often forgotten interdependent relationship between digital and physical territories. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that anyone can roam freely like a digital nomad on the web, a place that stands for borderless cyber-territories. In fact, it is undersea cables and orbiting satellites that control, censor, connect, as well as disconnect people on the web. The digital utopia is sustained by sidestepping the materiality of communication technologies we have grown used to in our daily lives.
As mentioned, the name "Heavy Industries" points to East Asia's specific situation within economic globalisation. The South Korean government launched the segyehwa (globalisation) policy in 1995, which was partly an outcome of American pressure on the Korean market to open up, followed by the 1997 IMF crisis (also known as the Asian Financial Crisis). The governmental attempt to become "global" may account for the "catch-up" mentality with the West and Japan in post-colonial Korea. The financial crisis took place only two years after the erection of the South Korean pavilion at Venice Biennale and the inauguration of Kwangju Biennale, Korea's first contemporary art biennale. Just when the nation aspired to engage with the international audience through contemporary art, it was hit with the harsh realities of neoliberal capitalism vis-à-vis pressure to open up the market. Globalisation was a survival strategy for South Korea, whether in the market or cyberspace, even if it was a delusion. As much as globalisation was a policy, it also led to a realisation of the international economic order with ambivalent undertones of westernisation and economic survival for South Korea.
YHCHI explores and questions the logic of globalisation by continuously bringing up the nation's closest neighbour that has been decidedly anti-global: North Korea. The artists' reference to East Asian industrial firms signals the global reach of modern economic aspirations and the transnational circulation of objects and capital in the market. In contrast to the borderless image of South Korean capital and products is the historical reality of a divided country. For instance, the duo provocatively asks "Do North Koreans have the web? Does Kim Jong-Il have his own website?," thereby revealing the limits of the web and governmental controls of cyberspace, as well as the ongoing historical remnants of Cold War politics in South Korea (Fig. 4). In particular, the image of technologised, connected, and modern South Korea stands in sharp contrast with its closest neighbor, which has been decidedly anti-global. This division shows the conflicting communication and information technologies that coexist in East Asia as survival tactics for gaining global presence (particularly in the case of net artists) and means of control (think of Ai Wei Wei's twitter accounts and blog activities). The continual question of North Korea's web presence in YHCHI's works reminds the audience of this thorny issue as well as the ostensible national boundaries implicit in media technologies and virtual territories. As such, YHCHI’s approach to the Internet as information technology and a convenient artistic tool is far from simply celebrating, utilising, and romanticising cyberspace or network technologies. Its works reveal the way such technologies or digital utopianism may conceal immanent regional politics and historical disputes.
During the artists' residency at Asia Art Archive, they created a work titled I Saw Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (Or Did I?) (Fig. 5). Since anonymity is one key feature of cyberspace, the rhetorical question "did we really see the artists Young-Hae Chang and Mark Voge?" complicated the boundary between physical and virtual space. It is confounding to reconsider the question that asks the "location" of cyberspace—"where is there?" When we can stay "connected" through screens on our wrists, refrigerators, and even glasses à la Google, how do we start thinking about cyberspace and physical material conditions together? Going back and forth between museum and the web addresses precisely this question, and gestures at the ambivalent relationship of net art with museum practices and other traditional art platforms. By embracing the ambivalence of the digital utopia, physical and virtual displays of net art are not simply in contention with each other. They expand on meanings of place and engage with regional histories by foregrounding global technologies. The question, "Did I really see Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries?," seems to ring poignantly at that juncture. YHCHI's practice lies in playfully masking and unmasking the digital utopia, signaling both dilemmas and potentialities of the web situated between virtual and physical platforms.
2. Translation by the author.
3. Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Artist’s Statement No. 45,730,944: The Perfect Artistic Web Site.
4. Julian Stallabrass, Internet Art: The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce, Tate Publishing, London, 2003.
5. Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Samsung Means to Come.
6. Hyun-Joo Yoo, "Intercultural Medium Literature Digital: Interview with Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries," Dichtung Digital, 2005, accessed October 20, 2014, http://www.dichtung-digital.de/2005/2/Yoo/index-engl.htm
7. Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Artist’s Statement No. 45,730,944: The Perfect Artistic Web Site.
Ahyoung Yoo is a CLIR/Mellon Fellow for Dissertation Research and a PhD candidate in Art History at Ohio State University.