Virtual and Real
The interview with media artist Hyun Jean Lee was conducted in November 2013 via email exchanges. Currently living and working in Seoul, Korea, Dr. Lee is actively engaged in art and research projects while teaching young media artists at Yonsei University. In this interview, she earnestly talks about balancing herself as an artist and theorist, and explains her process of creating art. All photos and videos are courtesy of the artist.
You started as a painter but took up media art in the late 90’s and have been working with media art since. How did you make that transition?
Although I am working with different media now, my previous experiences with painting have influenced my sensibility and my way of thinking. I painted more than 10 years. During those years in art schools, I practiced to become a professional painter. But when I learned how to use video, I realized that the video medium was also very attractive.
Around that period, I gradually got interested in video, and I explored how to include the passage of time in painting. I also put an effort into making three-dimensional qualities by adding tactile layers onto the visual layer, although a painting is basically in the two dimensional realm. However, when I started to create video installations with the three dimensional screen structures, I found the video medium would be a more appropriate form for me to convey my idea efficiently and imaginatively. I could create my screen as I intended, for example, regarding the size, volume, and its form. So I started putting more time in creating video installations. Then I wanted to learn video art. That’s why I decided to study in the U.S.A. By the time I entered the ITP program at NYU, my interest had extended to incorporate interactivity. At ITP, I concentrated on learning computer programming, physical computing as well as how to manipulate video interactively.
Although I don’t paint now, I still often make drawings. Particularly when I work with installations, even when the overall creation process requires a mechanical and logical approach, I try to push my perceptual intuition and sensibilities into my work that I have accumulated from painting.
You are also a theorist. How does your study/teaching affect what you create as an artist?
Well, I am still not accustomed to introducing myself as a theorist. ^^ But I think I really enjoy studying and researching. During the Digital Media program at Georgia Tech, where I completed my Ph.D. study, I had to read lots of books and theoretical articles to pass the qualifying exam. It literally took several years.
Over the course of such years, I gradually became a researcher and got interested in the theories of digital media and media art. In fact, I had an interest in art history and theory before entering the ITP program. In order to understand them more thoroughly, I also read many books on philosophy. Although I had to spend most of my time obtaining technical skills at ITP and putting much effort into learning interactive media technologies at the Georgia Tech’s media lab (syn-aesthetic media lab), the years I had to focus in navigating these diverse theoretical realms gave me a chance to extend my previous theoretical interest.
I think that the attractive part of studying theories is the very process of understanding diverse theoretical perspectives and finding a map of how one theoretical issue can be connected with others. The feeling of drawing the map and expanding it bigger is really intriguing to me, and it makes me want to be involved in such theoretical practices more often. This practice sometimes helps me look at my artwork in a more analytical and critical view.
I think that the process of researching and writing is very creative like the process of making artwork. It is also a system of generating and developing new ideas. However, grasping theory and applying it at the same time is not always good. Sometimes theoretical work and art work conflict inside me. I think theories help me look at the world in logical and analytical ways. But when I habitually apply the similar approach to create my artwork, this analytic way of thinking blocks me and makes me hesitate sometimes. When a critical view advances too much, it becomes hard to work on my art, because artwork creation requires sensible perception, which differs from logical thinking. Theory can affect artwork creation in a negative way.
Recently I thought that I would have to try harder in order to strike a balance between artwork creation and theoretical research. I think the best way would be spending my time more evenly for both, although it is difficult to focus on them simultaneously. I tend to concentrate on theory and art separately, with a very long interval of time in between. These days, I thought of spending more time on artwork creation in earnest, since during last ten years, I spent more time on the theoretical studying.
You asked me how teaching affects me. Teaching is always great fun and productive for me. I learn a lot from students and actually I got many artwork and research ideas while teaching. When I see what and how I teach would influence how my students think and create, I feel a strong responsibility in teaching.
You recently re-created a previous work of yours “The sea – recognition of sea space” (1998). What made you revisit the old project, and how is it different from the original production?
Yes, last May, I revisited my old video installation piece, “The sea – recognition of sea space” (1998). I re-created the work and entitled it as “The Cubic Sea” (2013). The reason I revisited this work is simply because the art museum of Ewha Woman’s University asked me to show this work for the museum’s exhibition.
Since my video installations are often big, it is hard to reserve the work as it is shown in an exhibition. So I break down my installations after exhibitions and whenever there is a request of showing, I just consider recreating for the new context. Actually every installation, I think, needs to be reconsidered based on the context of an exhibition. Spatial context is very important. When a show is decided, I visit the actual space where my work will be located and decide how to install the work in that place, based on the size and the moving route of the room, entrance and exit, lighting condition, and so forth…
This time when the museum asked me to show the work that I created a long time ago, I thought of creating an entirely new work. But when I visited the space they provided me, I kind of understood why they asked me to show that specific work. Thus, I decided to just recreate it. Based on the very specific spatial condition and the situation of how my work is inter-related with other works, I had to decide the cube size and position of it.
Most of my work, including “The Cubic Sea”, is a video installation using beam projectors. I always think about how many projectors to use and how I can provide them, whether I have to prepare them or the museum/gallery provides them. Budget is always an important issue to consider.
In the 1998 version, I used four projectors and could not make a projection on the top of the cube. For “The Cubic Sea” this time, I used a projection mapping technique with two projectors, to cover all five sides of the cube. The entire cube became bigger in size. I wanted to make the viewers feel as if they were in front of the sea at the seashore. To provide such a feeling, a certain amount of size is important. But at the same time, I wanted to make the cube to look like an object when it was viewed from a certain distance, for example, from the entrance of the room. I needed to finalize the exact dimensions of the cube to support these two conditions. This process was fun and personally meaningful for me.
In many of your works, the natural scene made with video projection seems to offer a soothing experience to the viewers. It reminds me of the effect of natural phenomena described by Alain de Botton. Is there a reason why you often work with the landscape/natural imagery?
“Vast landscapes can have much the same anxiety-reducing effect on us as ruins, for they are the representatives of infinite space, as ruins are the representatives of infinite time. Against them, or within them, our weak, short-lived bodies must seem of no greater consequence than those of moths or spiders. Then, too, whatever differences exist among people, they are as nothing next to the differences between the most powerful humans and the great deserts, high mountains, glaciers and oceans of the world. There are natural phenomena so enormous as to make the variations between any two people seem mockingly tiny. By seeking these out, and experiencing a compelling sense of the insignificance of all humans within the cosmos, we may mitigate whatever discomfort we feel over our inferior position in the social hierarchy.”
– Alain de Botton, on the effect of natural phenomena, “Status Anxiety”
Encountering Two Times (2012)
I know most of my artworks are using natural scenes. Probably it is due to my sensibility and personal preference. I like to use natural scenes to provide calm and meditative experiences for viewers. Such experiences could be called soothing experiences, as you pointed out. Also, I think it is somewhat related to the soothing effect of natural phenomena as Alain de Botton said. But the difference is that I don’t care too much about the insignificance that a human being feels in front of nature. What I want to borrow, simulate or represent from nature is that we are also a part of nature. I also want to express the beloved feeling that nature gives us.
I was born and raised in cities. I am not a person who has grown up in nature. But my sensibilities are strongly attached and refreshed in nature whenever I experience it. I think most people also share this kind of experience and I want to share this with them. I want to create a work to transport the viewers to their own old memories of nature.
In the summer forest you created in “Light Green Leaves with Light”, you hear the sound of the bugs, see the images of the sunbeam and can walk between trees full of leaves. With the projection light, is it also warm like the real summer?
Light Green Leaves with Light (2012-2013)
Yes, it is! At least, I think so. No, I think it is really warm at the center of the work.
In “Light Green Leaves with Light”(created in 2012 and 2013), I used three 6500 ANSI lumens projectors. Since the projection screen material is a fabric that is used for a silkscreen print, the projection light penetrates into the screen a lot, so there is lots of loss. Therefore, I had to use very strong and bright projectors. Also, I had to create a certain feeling of surroundedness in the space. Three projectors were the minimum number of projectors for this purpose.
In this work, I intended to use the projection light as one source of light. Projection light is an artificial light. But I always think that the projection light or RGB lights in it provides a very similar feeling as the natural light. Another source of light that I wanted to present was the sunlight in nature that I captured in the video. Thus, in the work, the videotaped sunlight and the projection light are inter-mixing and provide the feeling of surroundedness. Because of the multiple sources of light with the actual heat generated by three 6500 ANSI lumens projectors, I felt really warm surrounded by the lights in the middle, when I walked around the work.
You made several iterations of the interactive project “Ripplecast” over the years. I believe you do this in order to provide the viewers an ideal sensory experience. How has the process been? Is there a next step for this piece?
“Ripplecast” was an ongoing project for me over the past five years.
The first “Ripplecast” used a still picture as its background image underneath the ripples layer, but gradually I switched it to moving images with sound. And I have kept changing the moving images of water. In the most recent version “Ripplecast 2012”, I scaled it up to be supported by two channel video projections. The reason I changed the water images is because I wanted to provide the viewers with the feeling of standing in front of the water.
The most ideal scene would be where viewers feel as if like they are standing in front of the water, forgetting the gallery and museum context. By expanding the screen, I thought it could approach the ideal scene one step further. I wanted to create the meditative feeling, as if we felt we were within nature. Thus I changed the video image of water several times. Also, since I had many chances to show this work at galleries and museums in Korea, as well as other countries, I wanted to show the beautiful scenery of Korea. I wanted to present the four seasons of a river depending on the actual season of the individual exhibition. Thus, I prepared different video images of water and changed it depending on the context.
What does audience participation and interaction mean to you and your work?
Well, I often create interactive works but I do not want to use interaction or participation just for the purpose of it. Interaction for interaction is not something that I want to create. Because I was a painter, I always think that there is an interactive experience when people look at paintings, between the viewer and the painting. Although it is more like an interactive experience happening in the mind and heart, I thought it could be said as an interactive experience as well as it is an experience with the work of art. I try to involve the audience’s interaction more actively when I want to create bodily and engaging experience for the audience. The experience that a viewer has during the time he or she spends with the work is an important element of my work. I would like to invite the viewer to experience my work and extend their engagement with it.
It is somewhat related to the phenomenological experience that the viewers can perceive while experiencing the artwork. I like to convey this phenomenological experience in order to provide the viewer chances to meet themselves, while they experience the work. Meeting themselves would be like meeting their old memories. To create this kind of experience, I used to make big size works where an audience can walk into and walk around.
For me, audience participation and interaction involved in the artwork become the very means of leading the audience to experience his/her individual self.
Most of your works are not about personal issues, but in your recent work (Playground series), you talk about your experience as a mother (the boredom of watching kids in the playground). Is motherhood affecting your work? If so, how?
Surely, motherhood has affected me and my work. But mostly it is because it takes up considerable amount of time for me. … Yes, I am somewhat agreeing with you that my works may seem as if they are not related to my personal issues. When I was an undergraduate student in the painting department, I was deeply concerned how to find my style in my work, thus I had to know myself. I thought when the work dealt with a personal issue in its theme or subject matter, it seemed authentic as an artwork. But I gradually found that I was more comfortable bringing my personal issues indirectly into my work. My works may not seem to deal with my personal issues, but I still think that my sensibilities and memories are deeply affecting my work. I never start with a very abstract idea or a general perception. My own sensibilities and memories motivate me to start a project.
Many media artists collaborate with other artists or engineers. Some of your works are also collaborative. Do you work with others at the moment? How important is it that you understand recent technology?
Yes, currently I am working with others. As I said above, I began to learn how to use media technologies at ITP. But when I graduated from ITP, I felt it was not enough for me. I felt that I needed to learn more about technology in order to achieve more hands-on skills and technological knowledge. Since I created my artwork individually before entering ITP, honestly I was not familiar with working with others. I continued my studies at Georgia Tech (GT) to get more proficiency and ability. But at GT, I gradually realized that maybe I would not achieve the level of skill and knowledge that I wanted in the end. Instead, I learned how important it is to work with other collaborators. I realized that the skill of communicating with other collaborators, in order to figure out the common problems as the work progressed, is far more important and difficult. In this process, I got to know that the most difficult part is finding a proper collaborator to work with, rather than deciding how to work.
After moving back to Korea, and working at Yonsei University (teaching media art), it was not always easy to find collaborators for my art projects. Since I am in a school now, most of my collaborators become my students or other professors. Sometimes I work with my old school and lab colleagues that I met at GT. Since I cannot learn and follow every rapidly developing media technology, learning from collaborators becomes more valuable. Recently I have worked with engineers, computer scientists, and HCI experts for diverse projects. I also work with my husband, Jeong Han Kim, who is a media artist and art school professor.
As you mentioned, both you and your husband (Jeong Han Kim) are media artists and work in academia. Though you two are not an artist collective, you do collaborate with each other. How do you decide when to work together and when just to stay supportive? Do you discuss work at home?
We have helped each other often, but for a while we did not collaborate for an art project. I think there is no specific reason for it, but when we got married, one of our professors said that we shouldn’t work together naively just because we were a couple. Actually, in some ways, our working styles are very different. Most of time I work with a single initial idea, and develop it until it is actually implemented. On the other hand, Jeong Han keeps changing his ideas while working; maybe his idea keeps evolving during the working period. Therefore, his initial idea is completed with a very different result. But for the last more than ten years, as closest collaborators, life partners and colleagues, we have discussed our ideas a lot, whether it is for a theoretical work or artwork. As we discussed a lot, we also fought a lot. We try to be very honest when we criticize each other’s work. Hearing harsh critiques from each other is always very painful, but since we can agree with the critique from the other, it soon becomes very helpful in developing our work. In fact, after graduating from an art school, it was very hard to hear really helpful critiques from outside.
Last year, Jeong Han and I started to work together as a team in order to create a project that was entitled Emergent Mind of City (EMC). Jeong Han currently leads this project along with another designer, Jeong Do Kim. Our team is called AM (Art of Mind group). For this project, AM is collaboratively working together with the BiKE lab (Biomedical Knowledge Engineering lab) of Seoul National University (The director of this lab is Professor Hong Gee Kim). The EMC project is still a work in progress, but we have presented it in several media art and technology venues already.
What is the “screen” to you now?
Since I started working with video in 1997, the screen has replaced my canvas. Like the canvas, the screen is the realm for my artwork imagination. My Ph.D. thesis is about the screen as a boundary object between the real world and the virtual world. The screen, as a boundary object, is a conceptual realm. It simultaneously contains diverse times and spaces in it. Therefore, the screen becomes a psychological and philosophical domain. I think that the screen is the realm of imagination where artists can create the imaginative experience through it.
My dissertation begins with a sentence “Screen becomes everywhere”. Now we are really in an era where screens are everywhere, and screen experience will expand more and more into our daily life. I attempted to create a malleable screen display when I was at Georgia Tech, at the beginning of my studies, but I realized that it would not be possible due to my small budget and the limitation of technical knowledge. But nowadays the flexible screen becomes an actual product. Screens still continue to evolve along with other emerging technologies, creating new kinds of experiences. It is still a means of communication and expression. The question of what contents to show on the screen, and how to create the screen experience as a perceptual and interactive experience is still wide open to be explored for me as well as other media artists and designers.
Any artists that you admire, feel influenced by and want to introduce to the readers?
In recent years, I felt I needed to know more about Ólafur Elíasson’s work. I visited his solo show at MoMA PS1 in 2008. Before visiting the exhibition, I didn’t know about him and his work. But one of my friends who I met in an artist residency program told me to check out his work. So, on my way home after the residency, I dropped by his show in New York. The show was titled “Take your time” and it was fascinating. It was an unforgettable experience for me. I liked how he used the materials and created the naturally engaging experience by using media technologies. He often uses analog and mechanical technologies, but they create a very attractive and interactive experience for the viewers. After I saw several other projects of his on YouTube, and also at his solo exhibition in Seoul, I thought that I needed to research him and his work. I wanted to understand more of his sensibilities and methodologies that he incorporated in his work.
How do you want to define yourself as an artist?
Hm… this question is the hardest one to answer in this interview so far. I have thought for a very long time about how to answer this. But I still cannot define myself either as an artist or a theorist. Maybe I can, but at the same time, it may not be correct or appropriate. Or maybe I don’t want to define myself at all.
It is easier to define myself as a mom and a teacher. Being a mom and a teacher is a given fact for me, although I have tried hard to achieve those titles in my life. But being an artist and a theorist is not the same as being a mom and teacher. I write articles and papers, and create artworks with ideas I want to express. But how these creations would be read, perceived, and received as artwork and theoretical work is beyond my personal intention.
So, I just keep exploring and creating what I am interested in showing and sharing. Maybe I am an artist who hopes to create art that can generate substantial value and meaning for the viewers. Do you think this answer is too general? Hm, yes, this is surely a very difficult question.
Please share with us if you are working on any new project at the moment.
Jeong Han and I, with others, are developing the EMC project now. The EMC project has been presented at the Seoul Media Art Biennale 2012 (Media City Seoul 2012), Re-new Art Festival (2013, Denmark, Coppenhegen), IEEE Viz conferences (2013, Atlanta, U.S.A.). It will be presented at the Siggraph Asia, Art Gallery in November 2013 in HongKong. In addition, I am further developing “Encountering Two Times” by collaborating with Jeong Han. We are working on how to connect “Encountering” project with the concept of qualia landscape.
I am also involved in a project experimenting with the next generation of screens such as transparent displays and flexible displays. This project is created for the experience design and interaction design research purpose. I am working with many other scientists and artists on this.
Also during recent years, I have gradually thought of making my personal art projects more in earnest. My last solo show was held in 2009, and I have not found a proper chance to continue it since, so now I am thinking to put more energy to resume it.
More on Hyun Jean Lee: http://hyunjeanlee.com/
- Interview by Inhye Lee
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