Pioneering digital art museum director Roh Soh-yeong says no work, more play
The Art Center Nabi, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last December, is Korea’s first and one of the few museums specializing in exhibitions and research about the intersection of art and technology. Its founder and director Roh Soh-yeong, 60, is better known to the public as the daughter of former president Roh Tae-woo and wife of SK Group chairman Chey Tae-won. However, she has been active as the pioneering supporter of interdisciplinary art based on new technologies over the last two decades, breaking the stereotypical image of a chaebol’s wife.
“We have studied new technologies and explored how to play with the technologies and to create art with them,” Nabi director Roh explained, summarizing the 20-year history of the art center in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily earlier this month. For the next 20 years, Roh said her focus will be “play” rather than “study.”
Nabi recently received applications for people wanting to become “PlayMakers.” Applicants had to be under 40 and work in fields such as art, technology and filmmaking, for more than three years. Eight to 12 people will become PlayMakers and receive financial and educational support from the art center to create projects that are focused on play, which will be unveiled through the “Play Festival” scheduled for November.
In Korean, the verb nolda, to play or to enjoy oneself, is often used to describe when a person has fun.
To find out more about the “PlayMakers” project and other future projects of Nabi, the Korea JoongAng Daily sat with Roh at TazakMadang, a laboratory of the art center in central Seoul. The following are excerpts from the interview.
What kind of projects will the “PlayMakers” produce with the support of Nabi? Will they be different from artistic computer games?
I think all art is play. Play can be defined as something that's enjoyed without there being a certain purpose, unlike work, which is a means of achieving something. If you play a computer game in order to win game items to change into money, this becomes work. Playing is for play’s sake, therefore pure art activities can also be considered play.
One prejudice about art is that art is beyond all kinds of rules and restrictions. In fact, the art world is operated by tacit rules. And you know even when you play computer games, there are always rules. Accordingly, rules are important for all play including art. If you become a play maker, it means you become a rule maker. But if the rules you make are no fun or you cannot sympathize with others, you won’t be able to find people to play with. That’s why the ability to communicate while playing is important.
Fun can unite people of different thoughts and ideologies. Accordingly, playing is important for not only individuals but also societies and, if there had not been play, the world would have been much more terrible. We expect many new kinds of play that has such functions to be created by the PlayMakers. Art can be included in such new play.
Many of the applicants are in their 20s, so we can get a glimpse of what is of interest to that age bracket nowadays. Many of them proposed projects that link virtual spaces with real spaces.
What would you choose as the most meaningful or impressive moments of Nabi’s 20-year history?
After I recently reviewed the archive of our past exhibitions, performances, education programs and others from the year 2000, I came to know that, for the first 10 years, we did various experiments at random without much planning and preliminary knowledge. But the experiments received enthusiastic responses. And then during the 2010s, we explored the big questions like what is art and what is technology with more rigorous research. But the reactions to those were less enthusiastic (smiles).
What’s the reason? We played for the first decade and then we studied for the second decade. The exhibitions and programs made by curators under the pressure of study could not be fun. So, our goal for the next 20 years is to play, which is the essence of art.
One of the memorable individual programs that stands out was the four-day “p.Art.y” festival in 2007, which included many new multidisciplinary performances including that by DJ Spooky [Paul D. Miller] based on the classic 1956 Korean film “Madame Freedom.” It was the talk of town and almost all the hipsters involved in the intersections of art and technology came. I’d also like to choose the Incheon International Digital Art Festival in 2010, the Robot Party exhibition of robots made by artist and tech start-ups in 2015 and “Why Future Still needs Us- AI and Humanity” in 2016, perhaps the nation’s first art exhibition and conference about artificial intelligence.
When I opened Art Center Nabi, our focus — multidisciplinary art at the intersection of art and technology — was unfamiliar in Korea. But now all museums are dealing with it. And almost all the artists in the first generation of Korean digital art had Nabi exhibitions or programs.
What do you think about non-fungible token (NFT) art, which has emerged as a hot topic in the art world?
Digital art has faced limits in growth because its market has not been formed due to the infinitely-reproductible quality of digital art. In other words, nobody could claim ownership of ‘the original’ digital art. Now, NFT technology makes it possible to claim ownership of an original digital art piece, with the transparent and decentralized record of blockchain showing the provenance of the art piece.
Ownership is important. In the digital era, when individuals are dealt with as just data or fragments, ownership shows an individual’s subjectivity. If you own an artist’s work, it means you support the artist and agree with their philosophy, which is related with your identity and subjectivity. You can show the works in your art space which can be built in the digital space. I’m also interested in establishing a museum in a metaverse but it will require collaboration with a platform company.
The NFT technology not only makes it easy for you to own an artwork but also gives you incentives to create digital works. Of course, I know there are bubbles in the NFT market but I don’t think it will just be a temporary trend.
I heard you are also planning the “East Meets East” project? Can you describe what it is?
It starts with the question ‘What is East?’ Rather than just referring to a geographic region, it could include all the cultures that were marginalized by West-oriented modernization and that even we, living in the geographical East, don’t know well due to the breakup with the traditions during the compressed modernization and wars. Since modernization led by the West, non-visible things have been driven out from the public sector. But the world where only materialism and rationalism dominate has now reached a crisis. It is the duty of people in the sector of culture and arts to find the lost non-visible thing, that is, spirit. We have formed a team, which we call a caravan, with artists, filmmakers, a curator and others to travel to areas of ‘The East’ including Siberia, Russia, Mongolia, central Asia, and eastern Europe. The result might be an exhibition, a film or something else. It is a long-term project.
By MOON SO-YOUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]