*This is a summary and translated version of an interview by Wonchul Jung, Professor of Chugye University for the Arts, with the Founder Kyongju Park.
Kyongju Park started her career at a broadcasting company for immigrant workers in 2005, moved to Salad TV(An online media outlet that specializes in life experiences of immigrant workers in Korea), and founded her very own theater company Salad, in an effort to blur the cultural borders between immigrants and locals and encourage communication. The salad bowl concept(A concept that encourages acknowledging cultural diversity. The salad bowl concept shows how different cultures, with their unique characteristics, combine together like salad ingredients inside a big bowl called a country) has become more prevalent, as much as the world wide web forming one big cyber basket to connect the world, as settlers and immigrants busily intersect in the physical world. In particular, Korea has seen an explosion in the number of immigrants, even though Koreans cannot freely cross borders to enter other countries as the country is isolated like an island. However, Korea was not well prepared. This is why I, not surprisingly, am so curious to understand Ms. Park, who has been interacting with immigrants for the last 14 years despite such speedy changes. She shares her views on the changes, the roles of art and artists and the direction of arts education in the future.
1. You began your career in 2005 at a broadcasting company for immigrant workers. Back then, the word ‘multiculturalism’ wasn’t very well-known. What attracted your attention to ‘multiculturalism?’
- It was my experience as Asian when I moved to Germany in February 1993 to study. Back then, neo-Nazis were very active and I felt, for the first time, anxiety and humiliation in public places like the subway. That’s when I was strongly reminded of my identity - a yellow-skinned Asian. Since then, I’ve been trying to put myself in others’ shoes when I meet people, especially foreigners. After I came back to Korea, I could see that the foreigner population in Korea had grown. It was hard for me to not notice their situations once I got to know them. At first, I attempted to turn this into an art project, but it was hard. I wanted to focus on and cover the micro-stories that are not covered in reports by mainstream media outlets. So I started the multi-language broadcasting program for Asians.
2. You are directly involved in this social issue and interacting with immigrants. It’s very rare for an art major to do this and it’s not an easy thing to do. What motivates you and keeps you going?
- There was a time when I suddenly came to realize that I’m not part of the art history that I’ve learned at school. I reflect on how naive I was in learning this white- and male-dominant art history. I was skeptical on overall creative activities where you plan and practice within the flow of western art history. Such realization led me to study experimental film. The Korean society I witnessed after coming back also allowed me to be more active in converting my thoughts into actual art activities. I would also say that I felt I’m more of an activist artist who meets and interacts with people in daily life and scenes, rather than just being stuck in my atelier and working on something.
3. Korea is surrounded by the sea and our only continental route is pretty much blocked - which makes borders seem very distant, firm and stiff for Koreans. In that sense, we could say Koreans are exclusive of immigrants and different cultures. How did you assimilate yourself with immigrants and take their perspective?
- I wasn’t completely assimilated right from the get-go. Every December I wanted to quit, but my company members were so passionate. That’s when I told myself ‘ok, let’s give it another year or so’ (laugh). Once you experience being excluded by others, you can’t be exclusive of others either. It offers a chance for you to think about the borders between my business and your business. When I first started working at the broadcasting company, I covered and wrote articles under so many different nicknames. I’ve seen and heard different stories at the immigration services, and I’ve been investigating the death of a Vietnamese woman. The deeper you dig, the more truths you learn. And it is these truths that bind me tighter with immigrants. Once you know it, you have to tell. These things keep me going.
4. A question on the identity of Salad: what do you consider most important being part of it?
- We are strict on using our own experiences only. We performed a play about the Yeosu Detention Center fire(On February 11, 2017, a fire broke out at the Korea Immigration Service’s migrant detention center in Yeosu, Jeollanam-do. Ten foreigners were killed and eighteen people were injured. It is the worst in history as an accident that involves only foreigners and the fire brought to surface the issue of human rights of immigrant workers) and the audience were shocked. They said it felt as if the spirits of the victims were in front of their eyes. This is the power that only victims can exude. In that sense, a keyword for Salad’s identity would be ‘experiencer.’ It’s also about recording omitted parts of history. History is a record of incidents, and without history, you can’t write anything new. But the art history as we know it originates from the cartels of white men: so many things have been omitted. Stories of Asians and Asian women in particular are on the outskirts of the outskirts. I want to write art history of these people.
5. So you are pretty much a lawyer or advocate who helps social minorities and immigrants to voice their opinions and keep them afloat in the history flooded with mainstream groups. What would distinguish yourself as an artist in that sense?
- Art is a tool for communication. A good artist, I believe, owns unique ways or methods of communication - be it drawings, pictures or movies. When dealing with social issues, artists are differentiated from other social movements or NGOs in that they are very cautious and strict about which methods and tools to use. I also try to devise new ways and methods and explore, develop and utilize new, appropriate tools of communication. On the other hand, I try to stay away from using or objectifying the social images of minorities and the vulnerable. Quite a few artists would choose them as the subject matter for their articles and act as if they have solved their problems. But that is not what artists are supposed to do. I have my own conviction as an artist who focuses on social issues, so when I meet new people, I tell them I’m an ‘writer.’ But I only learned to communicate at Salad, not in high school or university. This is the sad part. The tool I most needed as an artist was only given to me after I started working with immigrants.
6. You just mentioned an unfamiliar word - experiencer. I believe it’s a word that captures your view on the world and art very well. And Salad really holds the power of experiencers, as people from different backgrounds come together and turn into a play what they’ve gone through. Is this why the company actually goes around to perform the play?
- We’ve done it on YouTube, Ustream and Facebook, since we need more audience to watch and learn. But face-to-face is definitely much more effective. I can feel that beautiful energy as I travel between the stage and audience. When all goes well, at the end, the energy explodes like fireworks. I mean, how can you stop? The atmosphere, breath and all other things blend together. And I’m there myself to interact. It’s about sticking to these unforgettable senses.
7. It reminds me of the saying by Marshall McLuhan, ‘media is the message.’ The same content can be delivered differently depending on the format, and in that context, I believe the role of artists who talk about social issues become more special. In that sense, we need proper learning on how to communicate. But before doing so, we must explore and put ourselves in the shoes of the other person. Do you think our arts education teach these to students?
- As I said before, if we look at communication as the essence of arts, then a professional artist would be someone who appropriately serves as the medium in between. Next week we are performing a musical in Daehak-ro. I wanted to include songs in Korean so I hired a number of Korean actors who received the typical arts education at school. But it’s stressful, because these actors studied acting at school and they strictly follow what they were taught. For example, they would only turn in circles on the stage and never ever want to show their back on the stage. They do not break the rules school taught them and never recognize what their problem is. Ideal arts education must include teaching students the importance of being the character themselves. It starts from someone else’s experience, but once an artist brings it into his or her world of art, then the artist must be the entity of the story. Only then can the artist amplify the power of communication.
8. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is something we all need to do as a member of a community, not only for artists. What can arts education do to foster such attitude?
- The first thing children should learn at school is not knowledge but the will to adapt to new environments and pursue happiness in life. I sometimes think, what if our welfare system improves and everyone gets universal income? What would Koreans pursue in that situation? Koreans work over 52 hours a week, borrow money from the bank, buy a house and work harder to pay off mortgage. And you are nearing death by the time you have time to take a break and enjoy life. It’s hard labor - it’s less than a month off work in a year. Do Koreans have time to look at other people’s lives and different aspects of society, when they are striving to keep their head above water and survive? Our view on life and the values we pursue need to change. If education were to contribute in this endeavor, then different curricula need to be combined with arts education at the core. Art embraces anything and blends anything - like a salad bowl. It’s worth examining the North European way of education that combines curricula together to foster problem solving skills and the ability to think.
9. You once said that you “want to be an artist who finds what to do within the society and invest creative capacity in doing so, instead of unleashing creativity within the expected role of artists.” I can really relate to your view. Could you share some of your recent achievements that were successful, thanks to your creative capacity?
- I feel I’m naturally attracted to achieving social justice and finding truth. Maybe that’s why the word truth is very common in my scripts. I’m investigating the death of a Vietnamese woman for 10 years. I learned that everyone takes a different attitude in facing or dealing with truth. The truth the victim’s mother was looking for, the one I was looking for, the one civil organizations and others found, what the police found - everything was different. People were simply looking for the truth they needed and used it. They weren’t interested in the weight or value of the truth itself. It made me question then what truth am I looking for. And I named it ‘personified truth.’ I was obsessed with truth that holds values, one that must be protected and respected like a human being, not truth that is used for or by someone. I believe this is the realization we need - how artists should view the world and where art talents should unleash their creativity in. I want to continue to work vigorously so that the value of truth can shine like an independent person. Art must carry the truth.
A Path of Promoting Inclusiveness and Diversity through Dance Performance
Soul Signature, a dance initiative founded by Sufri Juwahir (Singapore) and Sheriden Newman (Singapore/Australia) aims to bring together a new strand of contemporary dance works, to outreach to Singapore and further abroad. Soul Signature focuses on performing cross-collaboration in culture through dance and music and works with dancers and artists together from different parts of the world.
They participated in the forum "What's in Asia - Art, Community, and Education" which shared the cases of transformative art education around Asian countries, held by KACES on 27 September, and presented their path on promoting cultural diversity in dance performance.
And here, we had an opportunity to dive into their ideas on transformative art and its educational aspect. (*The following answers were written by Sheriden Newman)
1. Soul Signature introduces itself as a dance collective which aims to combine diverse cultures and genres in dance performance. What makes you come up with the idea, and what is the main motivation to form this hybrid dance group?
- Soul Signature has focused on bringing in hybridism of dance forms, music and culture into their latest and current dance works, in particular the work Decipher. Decipher was first created in 2017, choreographed by Sufri Juwahir (Singapore) along with myself, Sheriden Newman (Singapore/Australia) for the International Choreography Competition in Hannover, Germany (2017). Since then, Decipher has developed and evolved with the inclusion and collaboration of different dancers and musicians from Singapore and abroad. The work has received a number of awards and has been presented and performed in Singapore and Internationally across different festivals, including the recent Gwacheon Festival 2019 in South Korea.
As a result of Decipher, the work has become the make up of Soul Signature’s style and identity. The reason for this focus and direction of cross-collaborations in culture through dance and music, is due to the ideals of the two co-founders of Soul Signature, Sufri and Sheriden. Both Sufri and myself have acquired a vast background of dance forms learnt throughout their dance careers, including hiphop, Ballet, modern dance, contemporary and Classical Indian (Bharatha Natyam). As a result of this, we both view dance as a universal and open language and tool to learn from different cultures and cultivate different aspects of dance genres' and its’ culture together.
From Learning dance in Bharatha Natyam, a Classical Indian dance filled with culture and traditions, both Sufri and myself have taken on the aspects of the Classical Indian musical rhythms and the vibrancy of the dance form and style to connect and find similarities with Hip hop /Street dance and also how a contemporary dancer would relate to music and rhythmical beats. Through this exploration, as a duo, we have discovered the correlation of dance, the body, and connection with music and rhythms, despite the difference of cultural background and style. Classical Indian (Carnatic) rhythms are usually performed by the drums (Mridangam and Tabla) or through vocals (called Konnakols) and are complex and exciting to listen too and decipher. Therefore this has created a platform for Soul Signature to explore how their bodies (and other project dancers) respond to the complexity of classical Indian rhythms, with their own background of dance vocabulary and culture.
Through this research and application of deciphering Classical Indian rhythms with the Contemporary dance bodies, Soul Signature has discovered their way of sharing dance and culture with audiences in Singapore and abroad. It has also been a way for Soul Signature to provoke audiences to question or open perspectives on the idea of hybridism in the arts, through traditional art forms combined or collaborated with modern / contemporary dance forms. As a results, with dance and music, naturally the cultures that come along with are shared and intertwined.
Overall, for Soul Signature, bringing in the diverse cultures and genres of dance forms, with the Classical Indian rhythms into a performance, is a means of sharing the space between artists and the audience, regardless of cultural background.
2. How do you think your dance performances affect your audience and community from different cultures? Have you ever felt that Soul Signature's performance has sort of educational effect on the audience?
- The artists do have a sense of ‘educating’ the audience, by either through creating dialogues with one another, critiquing the work or raising more questions afterwards with the audience members. A work should not be a full stop, but one that can be a catalyst for future investigations and development of topic/concept presented. This is what Soul Signature hopes to achieve and share through Decipher when we present the hybrid of culture in our works in and outside of Singapore. (Stated by Sufri Juwahir)
I believe Soul Signature does create some educational impact to audiences, especially to those who may not have seen before a presentation of the cultural mix of Contemporary dance with Classical Indian dance and music. Even through the inclusion of hip hop/street dancers as our project artists, we attract a crowd from the street dance scene as part of our audience, and to them, the work of Decipher is something new and an eye-opener to their thoughts and ideas on dance in hybridism. I do also see there is a breaking of stereotypes through the response of the audiences, especially from those from Street dance, and Classical Indian dance. For the street dancers in the audience, they are made aware that they do not have to dance to hip hop music only, and can work with and learn from others from different genres and cultures. Same for the classical Indian dance and music audience members, not only can they stay within their traditional ways, but there are avenues possible for them, where they can expand and collaborate with contemporary and modern dance forms and ideas.
As this collaboration is relatively new to some of the audiences, we have received comments and responses saying that they did not realise that this hybridism is possible, or could turn into a good standard of artistry, respectful of each culture, and presented in a light-hearted, entertaining manner.
The majority of our audience members are appreciative of the work, Decipher, and they can see that each artist, despite their background or cultural differences, can come together conducively.
When we perform overseas, some of the audience members question on how and why did we derive to this work Decipher, and why the collaboration of Contemporary /Street dance with Classical Indian music. The inquisitiveness and curiosity is good for us to realise that we are evoking or provoking thoughts to the audience, and hopefully opening up perspectives in dance and culture. We hope the work will continue to reach out, connect and open up ideas and perspectives to audiences across the world.
3. There are many dancers from around the world in Soul Signature. How do you think the cultural diversity in your group affect the relationships between the dancers and performance?
- Bringing dancers and artists together from different parts of the world exposes diverse language, not only through the use of communication, but also through the way each artist interprets and brings in their dance vocabulary and response to music. Through Soul Signature’s work Decipher, the collaboration with Indian Carnatic music uses specific verbal counts (konnakol) that contemporary/street dancers may have not be exposed to before. Even though the konnakol rhythms are not primarily used in contemporary and street dance, it does not mean that the dancers are not able to understand the concept and receive it well. It is all about being aware of each other’s cultural sensitivities and bringing forward knowledge and learning from one another. This will in turn generate interests and hopefully inculcate discussions between artists.
Again, this is why Soul Signature believes in collaborations and hybridism in dance and cultures as it is a healthy way where we can bring inclusivity of cultures, through understanding and respect, and in making connections.
4. Have you ever felt that Soul Signature's work is trying to show another way of dance education through the collaboration of different styles and cultures, compared to the pre-existing dance education?
- Collaboration of different styles and cultures in dance is only barely touched on the surface in dance education, this being based only on personal experience from myself and Sufri. We have both been made aware of collaboration and merging of different styles through our dance education and experiences. Exploring and experimenting ideas is highly encouraged in tertiary education for dance. Both of our education in dance encouraged us to delve into the ideas, research, and be highly significant on the concept and intention of the exploration and to outlay the discoveries, whatever the direction or hypothesis the students choose to focus on.
For Sufri, his thesis for his final BA Honors (Dance) year at Lasalle College of the Arts, was actually a catalyst for Soul Signature and our current work Decipher to be birthed and created on. Sufri’s Thesis topic, “Rhythms in Modern Contemporary Dance: Enhancing the dynamics in rhythms with Inidan dance aesthetics,'' focused on how Contemporary dance can collaborate and include the ideas of Classical Indian Dance and musical rhythms, to highlight, enhance, and create interesting dynamics in the body and change the aesthetics of movement. Although the inclusivity of collaborating or fusing different styles, genres, mediums is not new in Contemporary dance, we, Soul Signature have also been inspired by the works of Akram Khan, a renowned international contemporary dance artist who uses his background in Kathak dance (Traditional Indian dance) with Contemporary dance and ideas, as well as collaborates with a range of different artists, to create provoking and dynamic contemporary dance productions that tours across the world. Akram Khan’s works have been an inspiration to us, to know that it is possible to bring in hybridism of culture and art forms, to create interesting and ground-breaking works,that audiences can relate too and respond positively.
Since creating Soul Signature and our work Decipher, we wanted to create something unique and personal to us, through our experience, not to be a carbon copy of someone else’s ideas. So therefore, we did our research and had a lot of discussions on how we want to implement and explore using Classical Indian dance rhythms with our contemporary/modern dance skills. Through all of this, we realise that maybe yes, we are approaching the collaboration of culture and dance in a different and specific way, which we have not yet seen before through our own personal education and exposure to dance. However, the dance world is vast, and education is forever expanding and changing, so we do hope to see educational institutions more open to the idea of researching and exploring on the intertwining of cultures and art forms, as it will only lead to more discoveries and new perspectives to the arts and its impact, and of the world around us.
5. How do you think cultural diversity affects art and have you found any advantages which diverse culture brings to artistic idea?
- For me personally, I believe culture diversity significantly affects art. As art and the performing arts has always been a reflection of society, or is a means to challenge society and preconceptions, I truly believe that through the exploration and presentation of cross-cultures it can have a positive affect on audiences and fellow artists.
We have seen it through our own experience of creating Decipher and collaborating with dancers and musicians from different cultural backgrounds that each one of us experiences a deeper understanding of each others’ culture and have learnt a great deal of music and dance from one another.
Through learning the Carnatic rhythms from the classical Indian musicians, the dancers have gathered more insight and possibilities of exploring movement and how rhythms can affect how they feel, respond etc. And vice versa, the musicians have been exposed too and learnt more of the possibilities of how contemporary and street dance can respond and collaborate with their traditional rhythms and music. It has been a great platform of sharing our passion and values in our art forms.
The possibilities of collaborating and bringing together a diverse culture in dance and music are endless. Soul Signature is just approaching it through one way, where we are familiar with and have some experience and understanding of different cultures and genres in dance and music. However, it will forever be evolving and a discovery of more of the possibilities and challenges along the way.