What Words Give You and Other People Energy and Warmth?
Katerina Vatsella in Conversation with Kyungwoo Chun

KV: You worked first with photography, later with videos and performances that were executed according to your instructions by a few or many participants. In recent years you have greatly expanded your work in the direction of action. There have been large projects extending over a long period of time and involving many participants. This is also the case with The Invisible Words.
How do you view this project in connection with your work? What do you yourself see as being different and new about it?

KC: The project The Invisible Words is closely connected with my other works. I am always interested in similar aspects and issues, regardless of whether I use photography, video, or the possibilities of performance. The choice of means and medium is ultimately dependent on the circumstances and imperatives, on what I want to achieve artistically. In contrast to photography or video, here it is a matter of a project that is extremely abstract. It cannot give rise to an exhibition in the classical sense, because an important part of the work is not visible, so there is nothing to put on display. And no limits can be set to the site; the project takes place throughout the entire urban area.

KV: Two elements seem to me to be central to your work: time and how the individual experiences it; and the communication, the dynamic energy that arises in the encounter with the participants. What is also important with the performances and actions is the site where they take place.
In The Invisible Words, the site has been greatly expanded in spatial terms and now takes on a new quality by remaining hidden. How is it with time? Did you limit the whole undertaking to a specific period? When will the work be completed in your eyes?

KC: Yes, the project is limited in terms of time. The realization over two years is comparatively long, but there are individual stages, some of which have already been completed. For instance, the introduction that began in January 2011, the internal discussion, and the presentation to the employees lasted for more than half a year until the first installation was realized on September 27, 2011. Until the end of November 2011, the firm's employees had time to pass their words on to me, and the number of answers was limited to one hundred. And until the end of 2012, all the words are supposed to disappear underground. Then in my eyes the work will be finished, even though the dialogue with people will continue independently.

KV: Of course, the work continues to exist. And not only the words on the pipes, but also over the time until at some point after many years, they have to be replaced through a new installation site—the likely irritation of the construction workers who unexpectedly encounter them is also part of the work and its impact. But it goes on as a theme among the employees. During a discussion about the project at the swb Netze, one employee spoke quite excitedly about this; it was clear how personally involved he was, and how important that was to him.
How was the communication process organized between the participants? How did they react?

KC: All the employees of the swb Netze were invited to write down their thoughts. Some were immediately interested. Others were skeptical for various reasons; many discussed the matter but could not come to a decision to take part. The project probably seemed too out-of-the-ordinary to them. Among those who did participate, there is often a mixture of pride and pleasure in being involved in the project, but also some anxiety that they might not have come up with a good saying—although from my end of things, there is no evaluation of their contributions.
Many participants actually feel personally involved. They speak of "my street" where their name and their words are invisibly located, talk with their family and friends about it. And they suddenly see themselves and their function in the company quite differently because of this action. The lifeless pipes with which they concerned themselves for years suddenly almost become "human organs."

KV: The city map shows the locations of the words that have already been written. How do you decide which words are to be used at which installation site? Does it go in the order in which they were submitted to you, or how do you choose them?

KV: I do it according to a random principle; there are no criteria for selection. Certainly there are a few especially interesting sayings, but they are all equally important in principle, and each one stands for a very personal relationship. Furthermore, I believe that there is no such thing as an absolutely random occurrence. We just don't know it.

KV: What does the communication with the individual participants mean to you? Always with large projects like this, an encounter is only possible from time to time, differently than with your photographic works.

KC: There is a difference between the photographic works and the actions. In my photographic works, the encounter is quite intimate, quite personal. The direct connection and the time that we spend together are very important to me. Things are different with the performance actions. Here I am much more distanced. I express my ideas, give appropriate instructions, and then withdraw into the background. The participants should be influenced by me as a person as little as possible. Instead they should turn their attention to themselves and their surroundings, and conduct a serious dialogue with themselves.

KV: Do you primarily take up the position of an observer?

KC: Yes, by all means. I always have to do that. Otherwise I am too involved emotionally. For that reason, it's important that I maintain a certain distance, and so I have assistants who help me in carrying out the project. In The Invisible Words, the communication among the participants is also important. It is a matter of seemingly banal things, everyday things, but in this way they suddenly come to see a new meaning in their work. Previously, they experienced their installation sites as an obstacle in the city, as a disturbance. But this disturbance has now induced them to see the work differently. What comes into focus is the importance of the repairs that are necessary in the city's subterranean system that provides energy to everyone. This work is fundamentally concerned with the attempt to make possible a new perception, in an unusual form outside the prevalent categories. The work doesn't have a fixed form. It is inherently dependent on the time period and the citizens' memory process. One can't speak of observers here, because the work isn't exposed to view, it doesn't have to be seen. It's enough that one has simply heard about it.

KV: The concept has been decided upon, the participants have acted and sent you their words; these were printed as lettered adhesive strips, and the first Invisible Words have already been installed. It is possible to follow the further progress on the Internet at the website of the project. Until the end of 2012, presumably around fifty planned installation sites will make it possible to situate all the words. This number comes from the average calculations of the swb Netze as to how often replacements or repairs take place.

How does the actual realization look? Are you called and do you come by? Do you have to do that, or can someone else take care of it? How important is your personal presence during the implementation?

KC: I am informed as soon as there is a new installation site; either I or my assistants attach the printed strips to the pipes and observe how the whole thing proceeds, including the reactions of the participants. My presence is not functionally important, but it is an additional experience for me, because at each installation site, I observe a new situation and experience how differently people deal with it. That enriches my work and gives me new inspiration.

KV: At many of your performances, for instance those with sitting participants, one has the feeling that the arrangement of the human chain, its form and composition, is important for you optically. There are open or curled forms, loose or strict arrangements.

How important for you is the formal realization of a project? In general and in detail? Here, for example, there is the typography of the words. What is of primary importance for you in the implementation, to what must attention be paid?

KC: I believe that the connection between my work and the viewers is more important than any aesthetic forms. What is of primary significance is the spatial situation in which the performance or the project takes place. That's what I react to with the arrangement. I exercise caution, because I don't want any specific, culturally related associations; I wish for everyone to find a place there. But the implementation is often quite free and adapted to the circumstances. We imprinted a legible, vivid typography on a background strip that is supposed to last a long time. But other than that, design does not play a role in this project; the form of the realization is determined by the contents, and by the guidelines that have to be followed exactly.

KV: When you have the idea for a work like this, how important is the space in advance? What space did you imagine for this project? Here it is completely open.

KC: For me, the space is not a site for the presentation, but instead a surrounding context to which the contents of the work are related, and with which a new dialogue arises.

The space for this project is urban space, city life, its structure, this complicated system that provides energy to the city. No one talks about it when everything is working fine. It's like with the breath, with oxygen. We don't think about it as long as it is functioning properly. But when it doesn't, then that is immediately life-threatening. The technology utilized in the network is highly developed, but from time to time there is a problem. My project demonstrates that a problem doesn't necessarily have to be negative; it is also always an occasion for people to come together, so that it can also have a positive impact. I picked Bremen as the site, because I experience most of my daily life here and have a deeper insight into many processes, although I frequently travel in other countries.

KV: How did you get the idea for this project? How did the company react?

KC: I was faced with the installation sites and thought about what this disturbance means in daily life, but what it can also mean otherwise. I always need a relationship for a work, and at the place where I spend my daily life, the relationship is of course quite close.

The company first examined the project from its commercial aspect; there was a calculation as to what it cost, an evaluation that it would probably not be productive, and so forth. But luckily, there was also an intellectual connection to people in the company who considered the project to be important for the employees. It's not possible to say definitely what influence it can have, but it could support production even more than purely technical means can. It's quite difficult to see and to understand something like this, but in this case it worked!

KV: Your manner of working is internationally oriented, but a role is also played by the fact that you come from East Asia, from Korea. That comes to light for me, not only in certain works such as Thousands, but also in your special handling of time. Not in the manner of artists who make time the direct theme of their work, for instance On Kawara, but as an essence; it is a characteristic part of your conception.

To what extent to you yourself see an East-Asian influence in a work such as The Invisible Words? Or do you view them as being fully detached therefrom?

KC: I do indeed see an influence, but I don't want to call it that, because then I feel it to be very foreign. Various cultures determine my life and hence my work. I also live in various places. But of course it has to do with me, with my childhood, and with a somewhat different concept of time, although I have been living for many years in Europe, in Germany. For example, I don't believe that time necessarily has a direction, that it proceeds in a linear manner, but instead I more intuitively see it as moving in cycles. The original notion of time that is quite close to me was also deeply connected to nature in Korea. For example, there was a different time system there until the sixteenth/seventeenth centuries, a 12 Si-Jin (somethng like "hours" in Korean) system, 6 Si-Jin for the night, and 6 for the day. But the system was elastic; during the summer, the sections for the day were much longer than in winter. Then, however, the Jesuits came; they brought the calendar to China along with another way of dividing time which is oriented toward function alone, not toward the condition of people and nature.

KV: This type of artistic work cannot be clearly classified—concept, participation, encounter, action: these are only a few of the terms that apply to this project.

Can you imagine—just as with the performances—that you might realize a further work of this sort? Or does the project stand by itself, fully completed?

KC: I could very well imagine realizing this work at another place. But I do not actively seek new sites, or cities—that would be too arbitrary. There are always other people who wish to participate and establish a dialogue between themselves and others, so I can repeatedly realize a project such as this or a performance—and it will always be different and new.

(English Translation: George Frederick Takis)