Jiwon Choi

Artist Interview

May 19, 2021
Jiwon Choi is a multimedia artist living and working in New York City. Growing up in South Korea and the U.S. Choi developed a curiosity towards cultural phenomena that are relevant to both places. Through the mediums of video and performance, she investigates the spectacles that are relevant to popular culture and the imprint of modern Korean history. Cultural hegemony, the portrayal of women, and the ephemeral substance of contemporary culture led her into making critical commentaries. She applies both traditional video art’s performative elements and popular media techniques such as; fast cuts, vibrant color, and subtitles. Through the experience of living in different cultures, Choi has developed a curiosity towards cultural phenomenons that are relevant to the places where she currently resides and comes from.

Hello Jiwon, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a multimedia artist based in New York City, born and raised in Seoul. My works explore the identity of queer feminist immigrants and interpret my experiences in Korea in the United States. Sixteen years ago, I came to the United States as an international student, and now, half of my life is in Korea, and half of my life is in the U.S. I have an identity that is neither wholly Korean nor American. My own identity was the confusing and challenging matter for the longest time I had to examine, and the process of it naturally shifted into my work. I want to create a work that allows you to experience Korea in the U.S. and the U.S. in Korea through performances and videos. I express my thoughts on cultural hegemony, the depiction of women in the media, and popular culture in modern society on a daily basis. My work playfully contrasts or juxtaposes similarities between two opposing entities: reality and ideal, positive and negative, and Korean and American self and such.

How did you get into making video work? Is there a defining moment when you know media art would become your main focus?

In the beginning, I was fascinated by performance art. I was attracted to the vitality and energy generated by interacting with the audience. However, there were raw moments between the beginning and the end of each performance. Keeping the audience's attention for the entire duration of the representation was a big challenge, plus there is a limit to the number of spectators the work could reach. Still, I wanted to create experiences and an environment that could fully immerse the audience in the issues I problematize. I tried to exhibit my work through an installation, but it was a big burden to maintain physical objects when I lived in a small apartment in New York. The ideas of video works came to mind, with the idea of not being dependent on physical space. But at the same time, I was looking for a medium that could reach more people and keep their concentration on my work. People spend a lot of time watching moving images on television and social media. So I thought video art was appropriate to convey my messages efficiently and provocatively.

What first drew you to making work about and on K-POP?

K-pop is an important culture that you can't avoid if you are in Korea, so I naturally gravitated towards listening and was immediately interested in its visceral content. I understood that it's not just a trendy music genre; K-pop is a new hybrid identity that assimilates and transforms traits of Western pop culture, while reproducing the values of Japanese pop culture. A provocative audio-visual composition, a mechanical training system, a complicated choreography, an addictive melody, and a fan base make up this product that is re-exported as an autonomous phenomenon.

The depth of my focus on k-pop began in 2015 when I was doing research for my piece "Parallel." That's how I came across the news about a landmine explosion in a demilitarized zone that caused serious injuries to two South Korean soldiers. It was believed to have been caused by North Korean soldiers. In retaliation, the South Korean government put loudspeakers on the border with K-pop music, which was said to encourage North Korean soldiers to defect. At that time, I came to think of K-pop as a weapon, and I began to be interested in what it promotes through the lyrics and symbols in the music videos. I found implicit messages about capitalism, the image of women, exploitation of youth, nationalism, and imperialism.

Your work, Parallel, introduces viewers to modern Korean history and culture by contrasting the story of your grandfather, a Korean War veteran, with the rise of K-POP. Can you tell us more about it? What are your favorite memories of making this piece?

My favorite moment was interviewing my grandfather. I knew he was a refugee from North Korea. When I was growing up, he participated in meetings with other refugees from the North and still searched for his separated family. But I never had the opportunity to hear his story so closely. I had to cut out many of his personal details because of relevant issues I wanted to talk about in "Parallel," but he told me many things about his life that I didn't know. It was fascinating to hear from someone who lived through the passing of several generations and witnessed the great changes in Korea.

Your work is often ambitious and time-consuming, some of them take years to complete. What about long-term projects that you are drawn to? Did you experience any setbacks during the filming and editing process? How did you overcome it?

I think I just have a lot of interests and branches that I want to do work on. My mind tends to be very scattered. I draw maps of ideas, boil them down to the bare bones, and add more details. And to stay relevant during those processes, it takes me a long time to focus and trim.

My recent projects deal with a specific time and culture: K-POP and modern Korean history in an ever-changing era. The social and political situation changes rapidly, and new ideas and breaking news appear every day. This requires a lot of time. I don't try to fit my work to get a different conclusion from what is happening, but I try to present my subjects with observation through time.

When I shoot, except for my performance, I often have to shoot several times to get the right video sources, as I am not shooting with an actor or a montage situation. On performance filming, it takes quite a bit of time to prepare the wardrobe, hair and makeup, tone of voice, mannerisms, and nuances of the character I'm playing. I'm very specific when it comes to making video montages, but in the end, all that time is worth it.

For me, the completion of the work is easier when the deadline is met. The level of perfection I want can never be reached, but thanks to the help of the people around me, who support me and wait patiently to see the result, I can finish it and present it. Without a deadline, I think it would be impossible for me to "overcome" the swamp of long-term projects. I could stay in the swamp forever.

Can you tell us more about Seventeen-Girlfriends?

"Seventeen-Girlfriends" is the second experimental film in my K-POP video series, in which I documented my process of forming a New York-based K-pop cover dance group. The nine of us in the group identify as Korean women (at that time) of diverse backgrounds and interests. Unlike the current K-POP industry, we were just human beings who wanted to dance or simply to make friends. Since we were minorities in the U.S., K-pop was like our religion and church of those diáspora community, uniting us.

During the months of practice, I wanted to capture my positive experience of our relationship and the synergy we created together. I believe we built a community that we could belong to as we shared the moment of rehearsals recording a K-pop cover dance video. The group members willingly shared their stories in front of my cameras. From former idol trainees to an art film director, people with different narratives talk about their experiences in America, religion, gender norms, beauty standards, and K-pop.

"Seventeen-Girlfriends" revealed my internal and external look at K-pop in contrast to myself, being a minority outside of Korea but not feeling a sense of belonging in my home country. But here, everything is different; I feel like I fit in and feel accompanied.

You mentioned that in Korea, K-Pop is often propaganda of gender discrimination, corporate economy, and nationalism. In the United States, however, the fandom often serves as a safe space for women, queer people, and people of color. As a New York-based Korean artist, what are your thoughts on this?

As a mainstream cultural product in South Korea, K-pop promotes idolatry and monopolizes the cultural market economy with capital power. However, a significant percentage of the K-pop market depends on the overseas market. Because of the global networks that the country was weaving, Korean culture began to be exported as a cultural commodity. What is known as "soft power" precisely defines an audience of young people whose sole objective is to consume, feeding the subsistence of the capitalist system on a global scale.

However, the essence of K-pop is that it appropriates many other cultures. It is created from Japanese and American pop influences, and then copies minority references from POC and queer cultures in the name of uniqueness. In my experience with the K-Pop community in New York, some fans sympathize with the minority references that K-pop acquires instead of mainstream American pop culture. Some fans make their solidarity stronger by re-signifying K-pop within their community.

How has your work evolved over the last few years?

In my early twenties, I started to think about my identity, which had always been questioned, in terms of feminism and queerness. After that, I went through many changes in the last few years. Living through the pandemic under Donald Trump, I realized that being who I am is a political act. At the same time, as I went through changing my visa from student to artist and renewing my artist visa, the way the U.S. government treats immigrants also became one of my studies.

Lastly, I am researching to create accurate and more compelling videos to carry my narratives with the ups and downs of new social media platforms.

What are you working on these days?

I'm currently working on a new series of vertical videos of "Boys on Top" characters from "Parallel," using a Tik Tok 'Challenge' format. These videos are usually 20 seconds long and use the most popular songs and hashtags from the feed. The challenge consists of recreating a viral Tik Tok video with your personal touch. By doing this, I am featuring the members of "Boys on Top" and giving them a real personality. I'm working on the acting elements to portray them more intuitively and accurately by using graphic design and editing methods to foster viewers' interest.

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What are you watching, listening to, or following that you would like to share?

One thing I've been doing lately is meditating. I often struggle to sleep because I have a restless mind. I'm so used to watch, listen to music, and everything I see has a lot going on; I'm drawn to visceral content. I feel it's also important to make a room of empty space so I can fill it up again. That's why I try to meditate before I go to sleep and sometimes when I wake up. When I am going through deep down on the stream of consciousness, I find myself often landing on negative thoughts. But meditation helps me rest, stops the busy mind and clears my head to start again from the ground.

Do you have any bad habits? How do they affect you?

I am an anxious and obsessive person, often too obsessed. There are many times that I spend a whole day with details that no one notices, and I suffer myself. If that happens and I notice it, I try to look away to find another distraction or watch K-pop videos to get my guilty pleasure.

Is there anything else we should know about you and your work?

My K-pop practice that started from "Seventeen Girlfriends" is ongoing. I'm participating in a group called "열정취미생활/MUSTACHE" (My Ultra Super Totally Awesome Crazy Hobbies, Etc. or M.U.S.T.A.C.H.E.) It's a version of Jiwon as a girl group, which is actually performing. Through this group, I have created another character that is different from "Boys on Top". I am also practicing my dancing and video editing skills through the videos I post on our YouTube channel. If you are also interested in K-pop and the solidarity of my community, feel free to visit us at https://youtu.be/Z4dzLxgqV7s

For more of Jiwon: talktojiwon.com  |  @geewant

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