Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries
April 8, 2013
Named after the tiny Mediterranean principality in the French Riviera, Monaco is a font, released in 1984 by Apple. Once commonly used by computer programmers, Monaco’s characters are clearly distinct to reduce a user’s confusion of 0 and O (a zero and an uppercase “o”) or 1, I, l, and | (a numeral “1,” uppercase “i,” lowercase “i,” and a vertical bar), allowing for precision when writing long strings of code.1 The font also serves as the medium and conceptual foundation for the work of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (YHCHI), a Seoul-based collaboration between Young-hae Chang and Marc Voge. YHCHI creates simple, text-based Adobe Flash animations with jazz accompaniments, released on the Internet.
YHCHI’s animations simultaneously embrace and restrict the freedoms offered by translating poetry to a digital medium. The flashing texts, changing colors, and interplay between the narrative and the soundtrack create an effect that is impossible to replicate on the written page. Even visually rich concrete poetry can’t accomplish what the simplest of animated and audiovisual tasks can. But watching YHCHI’s animations can be frustrating. The texts change just quickly enough that sometimes it’s impossible to read an entire frame before the next frame appears. YHCHI provides no option for a viewer to pause or rewind the works, forcing slow readers to either start over (maybe even several times) or accept that they won’t be able to read the entire script. When reading any text or watching a video that one can pause or rewind, one is able to adjust to a comfortable pace or re-read a passage indefinitely. By removing a viewer’s sense of autonomy, YHCHI’s work suppresses the interactive and anarchistic promise of the digital world.
Representative of their work, Cunnilingus in North Korea (2003) is an animation that features a text that YHCHI claims the late Kim Jong-il wrote and asked them to distribute. The piece champions the sexual prowess, sensitivity, and selflessness of North Koreans, as compared to their South Korean neighbors. “Dialectical sex,” Kim explains, is a national priority for his government and people. His message takes the form of generic communist propaganda speeches, with talk of equality, Marxism, bourgeois inhibitions, and capitalist gender oppression. But instead of preaching usual proletarian morals of hard work and party loyalty, Cunnilingus in North Korea instructs on the instrumentality of free and frequent cunnilingus.
The message of the piece is confusing and layered. The absurdity of Kim lecturing South Koreans on sexual freedom and happy living is the most apparent element. But one also gets the sense that there is a genuine critique of South Korean sexual mores in the piece, especially given YHCHI’s lighthearted jabs at South Koreans in other works and in interviews.2 South Korea, after all, ranked last among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development members for equal treatment of women in the workplace and has a high incidence of rape.3 Meanwhile, some defectors from North Korea have reported moderate sexual rights and a blind-eye policy to some sexual behavior.4
Nina Simone’s rendition of the American folk song “See-Line Woman” (1964) accompanies the text of Cunnilingus in North Korea. As Simone croons, “For a thousand dollars/She wail and she moan,” YHCHI possibly alludes to Gippeumjo, a corps of thousands of women (including the barely pubescent) employed by the North Korean government to provide sexual favors to members of the Worker’s Party of Korea.5 The only clear message in this quixotic piece seems to be that—at least in regard to sexuality and women’s rights—chest thumping from either side may be premature.6
Traveling to Utopia: With a Brief History of Technology (2006) takes the frustrations of keeping up with YHCHI’s characteristically schizoid narratives to a new level. In this piece, the majority of the screen is devoted to a black-and-white text detailing an individual’s relationship with technology, ranging from initial childhood interactions with an elephantine computer to sending faxes as a college student, to being courted by entrepreneurial Nigerian princes, to finding an electronic tracking device embedded in his or her own body. The story follows a familiar arc, even for those among us who have always viewed fax machines as relics of some long-lost Mesopotamian culture. Due to the exponential development of technology, technophiles and Luddites alike navigate new ways to see and interact with the world. The narrative of Traveling to Utopia is a common one: it begins with fascination and ends with surveillance and alienation.
The work itself alienates those who are watching it. Just below and above the main text are two additional texts, one in English and one in Korean, though it’s unlikely the piece is meant only for bilingual viewers. YHCHI has explicitly said that their translations aren’t always identical, and it is unclear to me if these two texts even tell the same story.7 The English text is a vignette about a person questioned and detained by a police officer in a subway station in a foreign country, and, with screenshots, I attempted translating Korean selections from the piece. Finding no exact matches, however, I am left wondering what, if anything, I am able to grasp when viewing Traveling to Utopia. Regardless of the language, these texts are impossible to read while following the main narrative; though one can glance down at the secondary storylines, one risks missing important details in the main story. The immediacy of the Internet—a realm where long-form journalism has given way to easy-to-read lists about Kim Kardashian’s posterior—is subverted, forcing viewers to re-watch the piece at least twice (and at least three times if they can read both languages).
Whether meant to be read and understood or not, the flashing Monaco text in all of YHCHI’s works elicits memories of early computer operating systems, sci-fi movies, and the naive promise of a techno-utopia. It seems appropriate that in 2009 Apple replaced Monaco with a new font called Menlo, seeming to signify that the romantic optimism of modernity had been razed and atop its ruins a new world order was established with its spiritual heart in Silicon Valley. YHCHI’s wily and sarcastic animations appropriate technology and aesthetics from both the Monaco and Menlo eras in order to poke holes in whatever ideologies are present, whether it’s communism, anti-communism, techno-fetishism, or even technophobia. The twenty-first century Riviera is an office park with catered lunch.
1. Sunny Lee, “‘Pleasure squad’ defector sheds light on life of Kim Jong Il,” National, January 28, 2010, http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/asia-pacific/pleasure-squad-defector-sheds-light-on-life-of-kim-jong-il/.
2. In their talk at Kadist Art Foundation, YHCHI recalled that they received many e-mails after posting Cunnilingus in North Korea to the Internet, and most of them asked one of four questions: “Why do you hate North Korea so much?,” “Why do you love North Korea so much?,” “Why do you hate South Korea so much?,” and “Why do you love South Korea so much?"
3. Hyun-Joo Yoo, “Intercultural Medium Literature Digital: Interview with Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries,” Dichtung-Digital, http://dichtung-digital.mewi.unibas.ch/2005/2/Yoo/index-engl.htm.
4. Chris Foresman, “Font changes coming to Mac OS X Snow Leopard (Updated),” Ars Technica, June 12, 2009, http://arstechnica.com/apple/2009/06/font-changes-coming-to-mac-os-x-snow-leopard/
5. YHCHI claim that South Koreans love Samsung and big corporations. They also stated that their piece Samsung Means to Come (2000), billed as “a true story of sex, multiple orgasm and, surprise, money,” is “a paean to a dominant and attractive lifestyle in South Korea.” In Yoo, “Intercultural Medium Literature Digital.”
6. “The Glass-Ceiling Index,” Economist, March 7, 2013, http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2013/03/daily-chart-3; Statistics on Crime: Sexual Violence, United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/statistics/data.html.
7. “Love and Sex in North Korea,” Radio Free Asia, April 14, 2008, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/korea/nkorea_sex-04162008122100.html.