Sung Hwan Kim, From the Commanding Heights…: A Screening with Glenn Phillips
May 7, 2015
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé, edited by Berny Tan and Jane DeBevoise
A screening of Sung Hwan Kim’s From the Commanding Heights…, introduced by Glenn Phillips, Curator at the Getty Research Institute. This program is part of My Camera Doesn’t Lie? Documentary Aesthetics in East Asia, a panel and screening series initiated by the Department of Art History of Columbia University, co-organized by Asia Art Archive in America.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Today, we are going to screen a recent work by Sung Hwan Kim, a Korean-born artist, who now works between Seoul, New York, and residencies in other parts of the world. We’re really delighted to have Glenn Phillips here this afternoon. Glenn is someone who knows a lot about this work as well as contemporary video work. I’ll give a very short introduction and then Glenn will introduce the film, and after that, we will have time to talk informally about the film, when you all should feel free to ask any questions you may have.
Glenn is the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Collections at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. His exhibition ‘California Video’ won the International Association of Art Critics Award for Best Exhibition for Digital Media, Video, or Film in 2008. His other exhibitions, all of which sound by their name to have something to do with moving image and video work: ‘Time and Space,’ ‘Gravity and Light,’ ‘Marking Time,’ ‘Evidence of Movement,’ ‘Reckless Behavior,’ ‘Pioneers of Brazilian Video Art,’ ‘Surveying the Border: Three decades of Video Art about the United States and Mexico,’ and ‘Radical Communication: Japanese Video Art from 1968-1988.’ But Glenn is not a stranger to New York City. Prior to this, he worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art as assistant curator for Special Projects for five years and on numerous projects. We’re very excited to have Glenn here to talk a little bit about Sung Hwan Kim.
Glenn Phillips (GP): Thank you Jane, but I should say, that’s really my video bio. I actually do performance art and sculpture too, but I do a lot with video. I’m going to say just a couple of brief words. I think it’s better just to launch straight into the video and talk about it after. We’re going to explore the video together because I wouldn’t say I’m a specialist on this video–I’m trying to figure it out myself and it’s very hard work. This screening, the panel last week, and the other screenings coming up in the next few weeks, all tie together the documentary impulse in East Asian video art. When Jane invited me, I said ‘I’m not an expert in East Asian Video Art,’ and she said ‘that’s fine, no one is!’ I think that might be true. I have done a lot of work on Japan and I took my first trip to Korea last year and I’m now learning more. I met some really wonderful artists and I saw a mid-career survey of Sung’s work when I was in Seoul last year. This piece, From the Commanding Heights… is the hard one of the [Documentary Aesthetics] series and I love that about it, but if we’re thinking about documentary we might spend a lot of this video thinking, ‘well, this has nothing to do with documentary.’ I think that’s wrong. I think it’s challenging, and using a lot of tools, of which documentary is one of them. That could be one thing to think about: how is this documentary? Is anything we see true? Is it autobiographical? Is it even East Asian? After we screen it, I have a PowerPoint that is just stills from the video, and we can walk through it. I’m feeling my own way through this work still, which I think is better to acknowledge, and I think some of you may have some things to add that I don’t know.
GP: This is a hard one. I love this video but it’s hard to talk about in a really structured way, so I’m just going to walk through it and I welcome any of you to interrupt me if you have other things to say. I want to start with some information about the piece that says a little bit about how it came to be. From the Commanding Heights… was developed in stages, first as a performance in 2006 in a theater, then as a single channel video in an installation setting in 2007. And he also made an artist’s book that has the same name but different content. One day the installation was transformed into a performance space where he performed Pushing against the air. This was an hour-long performance, and the drawing video is part of that performance. The title, From the Commanding Heights… comes from an excerpt of Paul Virilio’s text War and Cinema, and we’ll go back to that text.
I’m grateful to have the lens of documentary to think about this video because it made me think about it in different ways than I would have otherwise. Starting out with ‘this is a true story,’ he tells the most untrue, mythological fantasy story that you could ever tell. So from the very beginning our narrator asks us to question what he’s seeing. One thing I like about this video is that he’s using every trick in the video artist’s toolbox—practically this whole video could’ve been made in the 1970s. He’s using really lo-fi techniques. I think he’s probably pretty well versed in video history and he’s paying homage to certain artists. This sort of layering in the performative mode of working, and telling this story about a woman—who might this woman be? What does she mean? And then, when he finally introduces this photographic image to represent her, it becomes layered.
And now, the story: ‘Please don’t pay attention to what is going on inside this room,’ which is like saying, ‘please don’t think about a pink elephant.’ ‘Only pay attention to this screen’ is another one. In general, using this green screen that appears over and over—and that eventually becomes the entire ending of the movie—in this interesting way he is inviting us to join the film, to air our own thoughts and the reaction that we have. When the imagery disappears, our subjectivity joins into this construction and becomes part of it. The story he tells is the most documentary-like part of the video. He’s telling the story of the apartments and the blackouts and the rumors that it was all a cover for this affair. So this is interesting too–that the most documentary-like part of the film, where he interviews people, is a story about a rumor, so again who’s to know if it’s right or wrong? But this is an example of the imagery he creates of the secret police, which becomes important—their story of making sure that this never happened, and their talking to people about it is an attempt to make sure it never happened.
The next part of the video is all 16 mm film. Now we’re in Amsterdam where he lived, and Seoul was a place that he lived. More layers start to come in now and perhaps there’s a little bit of an autobiography that’s starting. But of course, that’s not him; he says, ‘I take a walk in the botanical gardens,’ but that’s not him. That is David DiGregorio, the man who composed all the music that you hear in the video and I think he’s a real collaborator in the video and partner. Here, in saying, ‘I take a walk in the botanical garden,’ is he lying? Are there multiple subjectivities bleeding into one another? Well, it’s true, he does take a walk in the botanical garden: he’s just behind the camera! It’s also asking us where we want to place ourselves. Normally with your ‘I’ you want to see the person depicted, you don’t think of ‘I’ as the person filming.
Going to this zoo and looking at the animals that are caged and on display, he thinks it’s cruel to keep them caged. The zoo transitions into the part of the video where he’s quoting this Paul Virilio text, which is from the introduction of the English language version of this book, but he changes it a little bit and makes it his own. I’ll just read it: ‘From the commanding heights of the earliest natural fortification to the architectonic innovations of the watch tower, the development of observation balloons, satellites, surveillance, there has been no end to the enlargement of the field of perception. Whether I know you or not matters less than how you appear to the objective eye.’
I’m still trying to decide how important this text may or may not be to him or whether he likes the poetics of this phrase. War and Cinema is a text I haven’t read in quite a while; it’s a text from the late 80s. It’s looking at the parallel developments of the film industry, and video camera and film technologies, and advancements in war technology, thinking of this notion that as war became more destructive the need for photographic images became more urgent, because we were reshaping the landscape so much with war that there were no longer landmarks for soldiers to follow. This expansion of technology carried with it this expanding need to possess the images of your enemy and have that information. In Virilio’s text, it takes us to surveillance, it takes us to computers, in the mid-80s he talks a lot about Star Wars (the Strategic Defense Initiative) but I think he could have extended it to a lot of places today. One of the overall notions in the book is that at a certain point, your vision and weaponry become the same thing. Certainly in this video he is thinking a lot about different technologies of vision and the way that his own life is examined, layering these technologies together, taking it back to his own experience of growing up in Korea, where it was an authoritarian regime. He’s having his own reaction to reading this European text about technology, but how much deeper it goes than that, I’m not sure.
The next half of the video is trimmed away and becomes less and less and less. We get this performance of communication, which is a video performance. This is a two-camera set-up where he has one camera that is videotaping him and broadcasting [the footage] to a monitor, and he has a second camera turned on the monitor to catch everything. This was really common in the 70s and it was particularly common with his teacher Joan Jonas, who was a pioneer video and performance artist in the late 60s and 70s. She did a lot of work with masks. She was doing a lot of work where she was manipulating the screen—never in such an assaulting way as the strobe effect becomes in this video. This is a point of reference, and there are some other points of reference; immediately after somebody like Joan Jonas we have somebody like Tony Oursler, whose earliest videos usually played with reflection or drawing in a kind of punk aesthetic.
In a way, at the very end of the film, the authorship almost transfers to David DiGregorio. The music becomes more and more important. So what is he singing? ‘The snakes constrict all my thoughts’—is he singing about a mythological figure? Is he talking about the actress? And then we switch almost to nothingness, the singing voice goes away, and we have just an image and sound. We have one brief moment of Park Chung-hee, who was the president of South Korea until he was assassinated in 1979 (incidentally the year that Sung’s talking about with all the power outages). The music just trails off into abstraction and then eventually just stops. So where does that leave us? Again I think that at the end of this video we’ve been invited in as well, and our own thoughts start to take over from the video itself. It’s very open-ended; as he noted it’s been assembled in parts, it’s been rearranged, it’s free form, a lot of ideas have been put out there and it also is gradually putting together a portrait of a life, of his own life, of his friend’s life. So I don’t know that I have a whole lot more to say, like I said I was going to struggle through together with you, and then we can have a discussion, or if anyone has questions or things to add…
JD: My question may depart from the specificity of the video a little bit, but first I wanted to say that in putting together this program, one of our struggles, as you mentioned in your introduction, was to ask people to speak to a work that may make them uncomfortable or on which they’re not a specialist. So thank you very much for your reflections. They are very helpful. Now my question. From your perspective, how are [different institutional or discursive] categories negotiated? How [do institutional categories] impact how collections are managed or exhibitions are put together?
GP: By categories, do you mean categories like documentary [versus film or video art?]
Audience Member: Exactly, because this documentary doesn’t quite fall into clear categories; it can be about film or it can be video, and there are these regional distinctions. Is it a piece of Korean video art, or not?
GP: At the Getty we collect video art, but we don’t collect film. We don’t collect documentary; we collect documentation. One thing I neglected to mention about this work, at a certain point during these video performances we have shifted from documentary into documentation. These are live performances, they’re meant as events that you experience, and all that remains afterwards is documentation. That may be another type of documentary. Documentation is typically footage without commentary. The camera is capturing and creating a historical record. Documentation can turn into something else, the artist can manipulate it, but it’s a sort of raw footage. We don’t collect film because in Los Angeles there’s the Academy Film Archive, and it’s redundant and unnecessary to start another collection, so we don’t have a lot of reason to compete with other collections in our own city. We also don’t have film preservation, and we don’t do conservation on-site, because moving images have their own issues to address. So video and audio we can take care of on-site. There are no other video collections in Southern California so that’s how we’ve built out. We don’t think about genre so much as important figures, and then [we] think about certain areas where we can go into more depth. For instance, we’ve tried to go into more depth about Southern Californian artists, and we may choose other areas where we’ll collect in more depth. What we used to do—and this is how the Japanese project that I did years ago came about—is look at an area where our collection was weak and then spend two years filling it in. I spent time meeting artists and adding certain works to our collection. Right now I’m doing the same thing with Latin America. It’s a four-year project traveling to many different countries in Latin America, which is twice the size of Europe. It has twenty different countries with completely different histories; we can’t collect it all but we can make a survey and then decide where are the areas we want go into depth. I guess we do a lot geographically rather than looking for specific types of work.
Audience Member: One thing I wanted to ask, which you mentioned in the very beginning and then didn’t get back to, is whether this work is East Asian or not? The second thing is something that just came up—the differentiation between documentary and documentation, one being raw footage implying a certain artlessness. The interesting thing in this work, in the section that documents a performance, is that an extreme ‘lo-fi’ moment where there’s a flickering, seizure-inducing television, which flips it around again, to such an extreme that the ‘lo fi-ness’ becomes artificiality. I found that one of the most interesting parts of this film, because by not manipulating it very much, it becomes very deliberate and artful.
GP: Well, he has actually manipulated it quite a lot. He’s using lo-fi technology. He has the two cameras, one going to the monitor and another on the monitor, and it’s not normally the case that your recording device will be set out of sync with the monitor. He’s had to tune both of them to get that. You see this all the time in 70s video art recordings of television; there are never flickers so I think he is specifically trying to make this an assault. And I think you’re absolutely right, it’s to make it more detached, appear more lo-fi, less trustworthy, more difficult, less beautiful… It’s an interesting set of decisions.
Xiaofei Mo: I was thinking how the text War and Cinema is related to this piece. In a discussion Sung refers to two texts, one is War and Cinema and the other he wrote himself, in which he was referring to a NASA photograph of the sky and the stars. It almost reminds me of the connection between the counterculture of the 60s and 70s and the cybernetic culture later. One of the words that really struck me is surveillance. You also said that this work could have been made in the 70s, but it’s not; it’s made today. So do you think there’s any urgency for him to raise discussion of what is true and what is not? Is he concerned with something more current in terms of surveillance and looking at society in this way?
GP: I see this as a very personal work. It’s about his life in a lot of ways and your life is also the things you think. I think a lot of us think about surveillance—you should if you don’t—and it’s becoming even more permanent. As for the NASA photograph, once it became possible to take a photograph of the Earth from outside of it, that’s a major shift in knowledge. No one had ever seen that before. This does impact our cinema, our technologies are going to expand and expand the field of vision, telescopes look deeper into space than ever before, we’re looking deeper into the body, and we’re going further and further back in time. I think for the Virilio text it’s more about Reagan’s Star Wars, having satellites and how their totally capturing images on earth can lead to their own form of control for countries that have that data. It may be about how imaging technology is an ordering of knowledge. How does that fit into the film except being alluded to over and over again? For me what it comes back to is he is now living in New York, he was in Amsterdam, he lived in Korea until 1996 and he did spend the first half of his life there. South Korea went through such radical changes in the film, then later in the 80s and 90s, so he’s thinking about his childhood and his life now, which is very much that of an international successful artist who is living in a lot of new places. That’s a very different world of possibilities than when he was four or five years old. In that sense, going back to the stories and rumors, those are also about surveillance. How did they know? He’s also thinking about when he was four years old and this word-of-mouth surveillance.
JD: There’s an image in this work that particularly struck me. It is the image of a window in the housing block where he lived. It appears when he starts to introduce the story of the actress, the mistress, who may or may not have lived in his housing block. He isolates this one window. It creates the feeling that you’re peeking into someone else’s window, into someone else’s life. Then he starts talking about this story that they heard, about the rumor, and about how they were being watched, how the police were watching them, and how he was watching the woman in the window. To me this ties back into the issue of surveillance that he explores later in the film.
GP: And paranoia.
JD: And then there’s the image of the map that we see from above. There’s a circle and a point on this map. Is that the location of his apartment? Was his apartment under surveillance, just as his housing block was under surveillance when he was young. [Was he imagining both incidents or were they both real?] I see this as a very personal film in many ways. There may be many parts of Sung Hwan Kim and his life revealed through this film.
GP: But it’s being fractured into different facets.
Audience Member: The green screen reminded me of a photo booth where you can pick different backgrounds, which accentuates the personal aspect.
Audience Member: He graduated from university in Seoul?
Audience Member: He studied in Seoul and then he graduated from MIT in the architecture department under Joan Jonas.
JD: Going back to the question, ‘Is this an East Asian film?’ I’d like to talk a little about that because it relates to how we decided to put together the films in this series. It’s certainly a valid question and one that I think is important to ask. As an archive based in Asia and focused on art from Asia, we always like to say that Asia is not an adjective or a definition; it’s a location, a large geographic region, and our mandate is to focus on contemporary art produced in that region. We’re not saying there’s something ‘Asian’ about this art practice, we’re not exploring Asian-ness or Chinese-ness or Korean-ness; we’re just documenting, researching and making visible information about art from that region, to provide opportunities for discussion and the creation of new knowledge. And, of course, when I am in Asia, this question never gets asked, but once we start doing programming outside the region, this question always comes up, as if we are somehow seeking to reveal some kind of shared identity, as if somehow the work that we’ve chosen is supposed to perform some sort of cultural profile.
However, one of the reasons I think it’s interesting to continue to do what we do here in New York is, despite the risks of ghettoizing the work, I feel that in the U.S. there is still not enough awareness about interesting art practice in Asia. Oftentimes what you see in New York are artists that are already famous because they circulate on the art market or in highly visible biennales. But there are so many more than this handful of artists.
Also, I wonder whether this focus and these Asia-Asia juxtapositions will produce new and productive lines of sight? Is there something in Nishijin that you see in Chen Chieh-jen from Taiwan, or is there something in Sung Hwan Kim’s work that you might see in Zhou Tao’s work from Mainland China? Is there something that this perspective allows us to see that we wouldn’t otherwise, if we are only looking at the work with an East-West lens?
GP: You start cutting yourself off from the reality of the world today if you look at it only with an East-West lens. Big parts of the population are living only in this region. I had my own version of this problem when I did the ‘California Video’ show [at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2008], it became very hard to decide who represents California; it’s harder than you think. What I came up with, and I still use this rule, is that I need to believe it as a curator, and that’s it. Sometimes in an intuitive way, you have a reason why you want to make an exception, and you shouldn’t spend a lot time trying to talk yourself into something you already know you want to do.
Audience Member: When you worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art, this question must have also come up, for what does it mean to focus on American art? What is ‘American’ art?
Audience Member: I was actually going to bring that up because they just reopened with a show that’s titled ‘America is Hard to See.’ Whether or not it the exhibition successfully addresses that issue is a question, but the title seems to question yet also confirm the notion of an American identity. So I wonder if that notion could be transported to other regional, continental markers. Politicians use these [regional] categories, financial markets also use them, so why not art? But maybe the role of art of a place is to [tear] these notions apart because there are enough people drawing straight lines already.
GP: These are all good questions and comments.
JD: But I think we have to conclude our discussion, as there is another class using this space. So thank you Glenn, for coming to both the panel on Friday and this screening. We look forward to staying in touch.
All images: Sung Hwan Kim, video stills from From the Commanding Heights…, DV and 16mm, 27′, color, sound, written by Pado, musical collaboration with dogr, 2007. Images courtesy of the artist.