February 11, 2013

Meeting in the Medium: Leo Kang’s I Want To at Tjaden Hall

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For Leo Kang grad, the medium is everything. He is most comfortable where art and science come together, and he is fascinated by the places where individuals and technology meet. He is currently conducting human-computer interaction research at Cornell, but he graduated from Korea’s Advanced Institute of Technology in 2009, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2011 and holds advanced degrees in interactive telecommunications, information science and culture technology. His exhibit, I Want To, on display last week in Olive Tjaden Hall, is the culmination of several years of efforts to understand the ways in which an individual negotiates his or her desires and identity in the digital age. In the installation, custom-designed wooden robots are wired to a screen and set of speakers, and every 20 seconds, a system pulls Twitter messages starting with the phrase “I want to,” altering the message to read “I have to.” The robots march in unison as the speakers announce the doctored phrase.

Kang chose Twitter to fuel the project because he says it is an ideal space “where we can observe our ‘own desires’ and ‘presented desires’ easily.” It also has an edge over other social media sites, Kang said, because on Twitter, “self-presentation is easily watched by the public, which might lead people to standardize their behaviors to satisfy social expectations.”  Twitter is the more universal of social media sites and therefore it is most susceptible to those societal norms that exist on a larger scale. Kang said he expected to see overwhelming evidence that people are compelled to conform to societal ideals when making choices about their education, careers, relationships and financial prosperity. These pressures, he believes, are global ones, differing from culture to culture only in their specifics.

Though the project started as a blanket statement on the insidiousness of social conformity, Kang spent more and more time with the constant Twitter stream and started to recognize a previously unconsidered trend.  A lot of the modified Tweets were as he expected: People’s wants were recast as them talking about having to go to law school or find a job, buy a house or clean up the garage, reflecting the constraints that public expression of our desires can put on us. What surprised Kang, he says, was that “people are very romantic.” A lot of people expressed a desire, and after his alterations  — a need, to find love, to see someone that they missed, to “be liked or disliked for exactly who I am and right from the beginning.” So, in a paradigmatic shift, Kang took a detour to create the 100 Desires to See the Sky installation in the Fine Arts Library of Rand Hall last fall. Cut-outs of some of the more human and beautiful “I Have To” phrases  covered the windows and encouraged the audience to “look up to the sky through the carved holes,” a goal somewhat inspired by Yoko Ono’s famous Painting to See the Sky.

This readiness for change and improvisation has had to become a part of Kang’s artistic story, as it has been a part of his personal story from the beginning. He says his work cannot be examined without considering his cultural background. Kang grew up in South Korea which is, in his words, “a conservative country where many controlled desires exist,” and a country in which people who follow artistic aspirations can be seen as “surpluses of the society.” In this environment of immense pressure, he struggled to realize what it was that he really wanted to do with his career. The turning point for him? Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, the ISBN number of which is featured on the faces of all of the wooden figures in his display. On the surface, it is a book about the massive overhaul of Western penal systems, focusing on France and on the evolution of the modern prison system. But underneath, Kang found examination of “the social and theoretical mechanisms that control our bodies and perceptions,” and the idea of internalizing self-discipline in order to conform to the needs of society. It begged him to ask the question, “What is my real desire in society?” and subsequently, to try to share and address the question through his art.

Kang hopes his work will have an effect on his audience that is similar to the effect it has had on his life. While creating the installation, he had to watch the Twitter feeds for hours at a time, and eventually, he says, “I got really confused between ‘I Want To’ and ‘I Have To.’ Every time I said ‘I want to’ do something in daily conversation, I started asking myself, ‘Is it really what I want to do?” This is the sort of daily consideration that he hopes to instill in his viewers. To maximize this impact, Kang is continuing to construct more of the hand-made wooden figures in his studio, hoping to eventually accumulate thousands of them.

Kang’s work consistently focuses on the idea of being human in an increasingly technological age, as well as the notion that an individual must fight to remain their own person inside a highly-pressurized social system. In addition to Foucault’s work, he says, he is inspired by the “the conceptual authority called ‘Big Brother’ from George Orwell’s revolutionary novel 1984 and by the idea of negotiated identity in Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” Almost all of Kang’s recent work has involved the idea of living in the everyday world of face-to-face social-construction and, concurrently, in the secondary but increasingly powerful world of technological representation. The Mirror in the Backstage, an exhibit from last spring encouraged people to look in a mirror that shows their physical reflection as well as self-presenting information extracted from various social media sources to examine the ways in which they have striven to construct their identity. His 2010 project called New York Story enabled participants to record their favorite memories of New York City which were shared on mobile devices and a 2009 project Let it Out asked participants to contribute text via mobile device to a collaborative music performance. Both of these projects were designed to celebrate the potential of technology. Another 2010 project, Jump Jam, aimed to pair the metaphor of jump-roping which “physically discourages others from entering your personal space,” to the omnipresence of cell phones. The project operated on the principle that kinetic energy created from a person jump-roping could jam a cell phone network in the immediate vicinity, thus establishing what Kang called “a spherical electronic personal space.”

Projects like these both embrace and critically evaluate the presence of technology, while at the same time insisting that we must “look for a better way for our society to communicate.” As Kang states, “independent action is empowering, but group action is powerful.”  This dichotomy is at its most obvious in Kang’s most recent project. I Want To explores the way technology binds us tighter to social expectations, but the necessity of its sister-project, 100 Desires to See the Sky, shows that there is a cry for originality and heart that is begging to be heard, no matter the medium.

Original Author: Kaitlyn Tiffany

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