Digital America interviewed Jinu Hong in early April 2021 to discuss his work A Flexible Mode (2019) and the nature of collage in the virtual realm.
DigA: Present throughout A Flexible Mode are hints towards the act of rearrangement that is creative collage, from rearranging books in a library to items in a grocery store. It seems you pulled from open source online imagery to create parts of the piece itself. As more and more content is added to creative commons sites over time, one might imagine a world beyond individual intellectual property where everything that is shareable is shared. How does this kind of collage relate to your role as a video artist?
JH: As a graphic designer and video artist, I see my role as to keep pushing the boundary of conventional graphic design especially when the world of design is increasingly being dematerialized: it values flatness, a lack of tangibility. By constructing materials within reach, my practice entails a self-awareness of the fracture between physicality, body, and technology that we are taking advantage of. I see this act derived from the mind in its untamed state as distinct from the cultivated mind. It is such a small and flexible gesture you can improvise with materials that happen to be available around you, which is very timely in the advanced material world that we live in where practically you can make something high-end even with your phone. In the process of doing so, you will discover a new subversive meaning of existing things. I feel grateful that we are provided with a third eye to see and rediscover the world in a novel and extreme way.
But as things go extreme, I ask what the most complicated thing to do with free stuff is. What are the highest-end images, videos, or sounds we can rebuild with free and available stuff in the immaterial world? Sometimes the world of free stock images is more sophisticated than the real world. There is uncanny friction living witnessing this moment. I sometimes feel like cutting a deal with the devil.
DigA: What inspired you to draw an eye towards the nature of collage in the digital realm through the physical marketplace and what did your process look like as you approached this idea? For example, why place toilet paper next to bottles of alcohol?
JH: In design history, collage has been presented as a device for illumination and provocation to open up a novel perspective. And I was wondering what it means to collage things in the digital era and what exactly the contemporary vocabulary of collage is. In the video, what I was performing in the book stack and grocery store is to experiment and simulate the act of rearrangement and recognizing a new association of existing things. In the grocery store scenes, you’ll find repurposed sets of objects that read ‘truly charmin fat tire’ and ‘life savers devour angel soft natural ice everyday.
DigA: As the coronavirus pandemic spread, travel was restricted and many people rushed to stores for items like toilet paper, paper towels, and alcohol. These elements are featured in A Flexible Mode–how has your perspective on the piece changed as you now view it from within the COVID-19 pandemic?
JH: Undoubtedly, at the time, I’ve never imagined myself associating daily necessities with the current pandemic. I’d rather tie the situation to the next part where I performed in IKEA as if I’m walking around in the airport as a way to transpose and adapt what is around me to something else. We are already equipped with A Flexible Mode where we turn the laundry room into a first-class airplane experience and walk on treadmills with suitcases to recreate the airport walkways.
DigA: You end A Flexible Mode on a note of hope for the space the internet creates: that it might grant opportunities unimaginable in the physical world due to an endless supply of free things in an immaterial world. The piece closes with an image of Shutterstock, pointing towards company ownership of online content and causing us to question who really owns digital space. Where do you imagine the market of the digital art world will go from here? What concerns you, and what gives you hope?
JH: This is a very opportune question regarding the current art market. People expressed optimism on trading resources online due to its democratic and accessible aspect as long as you have an internet connection. Resources can be easily reproduced and owned by anyone. However, interest is growing in Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT), which claims the proof of ownership and protects the artist’s authorship. In the same vein, the transaction of virtual land in the metaverse is happening in the most technologically advanced way by using the blockchain making the transaction publicly unchangeable and verifiable. Digital real estate investing becomes very real once the corporate intervenes and the monopolies harm the market. Open source facilitates our making process and every single moment I feel amazed how open source is shaping today’s art, design, and the ideas behind it. It is exciting in a way that it opens up another perspective. At the same time, I occasionally feel lethargic and defenseless by witnessing the circulation of artworks as a meme and even after the process of self-rationalizing that it is all attributed to the characteristics of the digital age. We’ll have to see.
DigA: In the final portion of your piece, the subtitle reads, “We identify with an improved version of ourselves” online. Do you think it is possible to internalize this virtual self until it becomes reality? Should we become these “improved” versions?
JH: It’s something that I would only vaguely assume. We live in the transitional phase where we keep striving to compare and integrate our material body and immaterial body. The concomitant experience of this cycle taking place over and over either
voluntarily or compulsorily is to undergo different types of falls: social, personal, psychological, or sensory. We 3d-scan and transfer our body from reality to the virtual world, capture and portray the actual landscape on the virtual screen with graphic tools, and present ourselves online in a way we think is better. Material-based real-life and digital personas take hold differently in the process of interpreting and reproducing. There is no obligation of becoming “improved” ourselves; it’s never possible to recognize which version is an “improved” one. We will have to keep questioning ourselves to clarify where the real and the virtual exist or if they even coexist. We will have to contemplate and fight against the fall between the two.
DigA: In a social media feed, each post is contextualized by the other accounts each viewer follows and by the algorithm built by the platform itself. This context influences the way we understand the posts, not unlike the effect of collage. How do you see the art form of collage taking hold, if inadvertently, in the algorithms of social media feeds?
JH: The fact that the current algorithm on social media feeds is not yet too sophisticated is very thrilling I think. Mistakes algorithms make visualize contingency and indeterminacy in a playful way that creates hybrids. I try to see any absurd, improvised, or spontaneous outcome as a positive and generative force. It is what it is whether it looks non-sense, or a bit too wild. In other words, it is such a positive and playful energy to step forward. It is an antithesis that goes against the thesis of the time. This attitude of pushing back continuously, tinkering and improvising, and looking for the potentials held by smithereens work towards explaining the unknown very well while AI, a rising curator, struggles to tell the difference between a chihuahua and a blueberry muffin.
DigA: In your graphic design work, what are you thinking about when considering how it will physically and psychologically influence the viewer’s perception?
JH: My work is a response to the world of design that is formulated by engineers and their vision. The culture of Silicon Valley and mega-tech players has shaped the interfaces that we utilize so that our daily experiences are framed into seamless and streamlined communication. We have to come to just accept them as if they are neutral and intuitive but actually they are designed and accomplished by the whole world view of engineers.
My practice is materialized and framed through my lens to the nowness of the world that I live in. It is especially about physicality and resistance to technology in its search for an alternative and symbiotic antidote to the technology-driven world realized by engineers. Themes vary, but they all reflect the same interests. As a way to transpose the possibility at the moment, it is thrilling to bring different senses into my work. For me, design has been an effective tool to awaken affective and perceptual change, a device to create recreational socialization, and a means to generate new content.
DigA: Are there any projects in the works you are excited to share?
JH: Karaoke video is a perfect platform being played out when it comes to catching the spur of the moment when a brain spark processes visual information into a spontaneous vocal reaction. I had a fascinating experience at the bus terminal in Lima during the summer of 2019. People were repeatedly shouting the name of the city, and that word suddenly sounded like a melody. Using karaoke video simply as a score and genre, I was curious to see and hear how different kinds of utterances would be transcribed differently from the lyrics that I wrote. I documented and compiled a range of how, premeditatedly, people interpret the visual into the sound.
What You See Is What You Hear (WYSIWHY)
Jinu Hong is a graphic designer, video/image maker and educator currently based in New York. As a graphic designer, he pushes back continuously to create the antithesis of the time where our daily experiences are framed into seamless and streamlined communication accomplished by the whole world view of engineers. He has been very much interested in physical intervention and connection taking place in the spur of the moment under certain instruction. He has also been exploring how graphic design physically and psychologically influences the way people interact with a place. He currently works independently with architects and artists on prints, videos, websites and exhibitions. As well as working as a digital content manager at Center for Collaborative Arts and Media, he teaches at Parsons School of Design. He holds an MFA in Graphic Design from Yale School of Art, US. Hong had an exhibition at Art Council Norway, Portable Museum Project, 401 Seoul, and Yale University Art Gallery. His works are permanently collected at Haas Art Library and Yale Health.