Roselee Goldberg: There is much excitement about your forthcoming Performa Commission, inspired by your rehearsals in Yokohama last month.
Yeondoo Jung: Yes, we did it twice in Japan.
RLG: What was the scale of the venue?
YJ: It was a medium size theater that housed about 256 people, but since the audience were seated lower than the stage and the camera would have obstructed their view, we had to take out about 150 seats.
RLG: So your performance in the auditorium of the Asia Society in New York will be your first live performance, right?
RLG: What is it like for you to move from making video to making a live performance?
YJ: Actually, when I am practicing fine art I do not think at all about the live audience. I produce something and then have an exhibition, and afterwards I have to go round and round to collect feedback from the audience. When we did the first run-through in Yokohama, I was really, really excited, and at the same time really nervous, because as an artist it is quite difficult to get a simultaneous reaction from the audience. But it was a really great experience for me and that’s the reason why I am so happy to do this performance. When I shoot a film in a movie studio, of course there is a lot of excitement. But when the movie is projected in the exhibition space, the audience is pretty relaxed. What they are receiving is very different from the process of making the work. With this performance, however, I am bringing the experience of shooting the movie into the theater, so the audience sees the results of what I am making while at the same time they are also very involved in the process of making it.
RLG: What else did you learn from your run-through in Yokohama? Did it suggest new directions for the performance in New York?
YJ: Well, I understood that there are really two parts to this piece; one is the production of the video — which is the performance itself — and the other is shooting and editing the video, and we thought very carefully about how we would deal with both. But, there is another part that I wasn’t really familiar with at all, which is how to handle the audience, so I put two people in positions to interact with the audience. One is a drummer, who plays throughout, and who increases the tension according to the magician’s movements, and the other is a kind of invisible ninja character, who kind of interferes with the action. There is a lot of tension in the work, because people in the audience are talking while the film shoot is taking place and on stage. At the same time there is this kind of ninja person, who is not visible for the camera but who is visible to the audience. His role is to reduce the tension of the audience and the performers.
RLG: That’s an interesting idea — to reduce the tension of the audience. Can you expand on that?
YJ: For example, everyone on stage is nervous. The lighting technicians and the stage help are really anxious, because they are not professional performers — they are people who normally work in the movie industry. So on the stage, in front of an audience, they get really excited, and they are only hoping that the movie shoot is going smoothly. Whereas the ninja, the invisible man, is playful and sometimes interrupts the shooting while the performance is going on.
RLG: Is he on the stage and in the audience as well?
YJ: Sometimes he is in the camera angle, at other times not. On the stage there are two sections: one is the visual area for the camera, the other is outside of the camera angle. The ninja is wearing black clothes and he goes in and out of the camera angle and a spotlight follows him. Sometimes you see him and sometimes you don’t, which gives him a kind of humorous aspect. Sometimes he performs really well, at others he works against the process of making the film.
RLG: Where did you get the idea for the drummer? Does it have anything to do with Korean theater traditions?
YJ: No, it has more to do with the way a drummer is used in wartime. It’s not a drum from a musical set; it’s a snare drum. Like when soldiers are marching, the drummer increases the tension and therefore the strength of the soldiers. So the role of the drummer is to increase the tension.
RLG: As I understand it, you are switching back and forth between something that’s filmed and something that’s live. What are your other thoughts about the difference between the two?
YJ: I first got this idea from George Méliès [French filmmaker, 1861-1938, often called the Cinema Magician], who used very fundamental and primitive film techniques with truly magical results. Even though he was a magician himself, there is nothing much about magic in Méliès’s films; rather their effects were magical. So we are trying to create a camera experience that is really magical. The magician’s role in the film is not that of a magician; actually he is a stand-in for myself, as the artist who is creating certain scenery that I wish to construct for the camera. Sometimes if a cable is levitating in a magic show, the magician will illustrate the levitation of the cable, and will show wings floating. The audience doesn’t really think it’s magic, because somehow it’s so natural, but when you think about it, it doesn’t really make sense. I put the magician in the position of an artist who is creating something that is not realistic; it is more of a surreal idea.
RLG: Tell me about the magician. I know he is very well known in Korea.
YJ: First when I thought about working with a magician, I realized that a lot of magicians are very self-conscious. They try to be very safe, and they never want to make mistakes on stage as all the tricks they make could be revealed. So I went in search of the best magician in Korea. I found Lee Eun-Gyeol who told me he would perform together with me. He had been on the Las Vegas stage, he’s been in competitions and been to most of the places where magicians like to go, but he believes that there are certain kinds of limitations for the magician, so he was looking for the opportunity to be able do something other than conventional magic. We both agreed that we would really like to try out something together.
RLG: So how would you describe working with him, the conversations…
YJ: Basically, the way I work, I am not like a director. Rather I put everything on the table and we discuss it together. If you ask me, I know nothing about magic, and I know nothing about theater, or about film. So I am working with a playwright and a camera director. What we do is meet regularly and discuss issues and ideas. We come to conclusions and then we act. People who participate in this project all understand what is going on. Then again in New York I do not know the crew yet; who is going to be on the stage and handling the theater lighting, or the person who is going to be on the stage helping out the magician. Because we are all in discussion (in Korea), we have this kind of process. Once we are in New York we will be inviting other people to be part of the conversation to understand what we are doing.
RLG: What is the role of the playwright? Did she create a narrative for you?
YJ: As I said before, handling the live audience is something that is very exciting but also very new to me. The playwright helps me deal with a live audience, although of course she does not yet know how New York audiences will react. In Japan we had a great experience with the audiences.
RLG: And what is the role of the film director?
YJ: This whole thing is not completely a movie, not completely theater, not completely magic. For each camera there is a blind spot. For the movie crews, once the camera is rolling, they are completely frozen. For the magician, who is very obsessed about not making any mistakes on the stage, I am actually asking him to make mistakes. Each person on stage is in a kind of blind spot, as they don’t know where the cameras are pointing. This is important. For example, theater lighting technicians have difficulty using camera lighting equipment and yet sometimes we will be running both together. We don’t memorize or record the lighting patterns on the computer, so during the performance the lighting technician has to adjust the lighting while watching the screen to make better images. Everything is really live.
RLG: What do you think the audience’s experience will be? What do you want them to look for?
YJ: They will be constructing or making the experience together with us. They are not separated into an audience and a well-made construction on stage. The audience experience will be very vulnerable and very simultaneous. Their position is not as spectators; rather they are almost making something together — at least they witness the making of the creation. After the Japan performances, we realized that the audience actually got very anxious because they were in the same position as the producers. So I’m hoping that this intensity continues in the next performance. Because it is a process, nobody knows what will happen and how it will end. Those kind of tensions are really enjoyable to me and at the same time the audience enjoys it as well.
RLG: So, you have the film on stage, and a live audience as well. Where are you during this process?
YJ: I am sitting amongst the audience. I am the person directing the performance from the seats. I have a megaphone and I start by saying “we’re gonna shoot” and then I ask the cameramen and they will answer, and then I go “ready and shoot,” and then the camera is rolling and the whole thing starts. When everything is finished I say “cut,” and then the act is finished.
RLG: Is there a script as such, or a storyboard?
YJ: We have a script and loose directions. When I announce the start of the shoot, the theater lighting technician will use spot lighting to locate me amongst the audience. When I ask the cameramen to start, the spotlight moves onto the cameramen. So the audience is aware that the person making the film is sitting in the audience with them.
RLG: Will you make a film of the performance as well?
YJ: There are two cameras in the theater. One is on the front wall of the audience pit that will project it onto the screen simultaneously, so people will watch the film on the screen at the same time as it happens in the theater. Then the second camera is recording from the back of the audience and will catch the reaction of the audience and the performance on stage. The first camera has a very restricted area of the theater that it can shoot, whereas the second camera gets all of the theater and the audience.
RLG: The preview images are incredibly rich and beautiful. How were they made on a live set? They are very different from your other work…
YJ: The photographs I sent you are from the documentation of the Yokohama rehearsals. I had photographs taken during the performance. The images that make up the set on stage are mine. They were made on the mountains in South Korea where I spent most of my twenties. I selected images that I feel had great influence on my youth.
RLG: How will you use the images of Korean mountains? Are they part of the film?
YJ: The whole film is being made by me as an artist creating the scenery by hand. At the last minute it becomes an illusionary pictorial view. The entire process will be witnessed by the audience, everything is made one-by-one by hand. In a way it’s a very non-effective way to do it. The images I am creating are similar to blue-screen effects, but they also have an imperfect side. What you see on the screen is a mix of illusionary images, but one centimeter outside the camera angle, something very different is going on. People will watch it all come together.
RLG: How do you think that the experience of creating this live Performa Commission will change your approach to making video in the future?
YJ: I cannot predict too much yet. It’s a trial and I am still in the middle of the process. I’m sure that after the New York experience I will have answers to your question…
RoseLee Goldberg is an art historian, the author of Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, first published in 1979, and the Director of Performa, the first biennial of new visual art performance.
Yeondoo Jung was born in Jinju, South Korea, in 1969. He lives and works in Seoul.
Cine-Magician will be staged during Performa09, as part of the biennial’s “Commissions,” a series of new performances especially conceived and produced for the festival.
Solo shows: 2008: Kukje, Seoul; Gebr. Lehmann, Dresden. 2007: Tina Kim, New Yor k; National Museum of Contemporary Art, Gwacheon (KR); ACA Gallery, Atlanta; Red Gallery, Savannah College of Art and Design; Espacio Minimo, Madrid.
Selected group shows: 2009: Prague Biennale 4. 2008: Liverpool Biennial; Seoul International Media Art Biennale. 2007: “Peppermint Candy: Contemporary Korean Art,” Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Santiago de Chile; “Wonderland,” National Art Museum of China, Beijing.