Ayoung Kim’s POROSITY VALLEY 2: TRICKSTERS’ PLOT
POROSITY VALLEY 2: TRICKSTERS’ PLOT, which Kim presented for the 2019 Korea Artist Prize, is an expanded version of the POROSITY VALLEY, PORTABLE HOLES (2017) that offers a more dramatic extension of the previous work’s imaginary narrative surrounding “migration” and its implications. Like the earlier work, “Petra Genetrix” from Porosity Valley appears as the main character, and the narrative – a blend of classical fable and futuristic sci fi centering on this imaginary “trickster” figure – uses “data migration” as a way of invoking the contentious political issue of refugee migration. In addition to being more driven by imagined narrative than its predecessors, POROSITY VALLEY 2: TRICKSTERS’ PLOT also has a far more complex story. The fiction overwhelms the documentary aspect, with archeology, futurism, and sci fi imagination predominant over realism. On one hand, this is a continuation of the same montage techniques, algorithms, and nonlinear narrative used by the artist from her EPHEMERAL EPHEMERA series through TALES OF THE CITY and PH EXPRESS and on to ZEPHETH. On the other, she also incorporates the tendencies of her documentary/fiction-leaning video works since the 2000s – for which she has used fiction as a basis for reconfiguring social and historical facts into a form of resistance history – as well as speculative fiction and its use of science fiction to imagine alternative realities.
Tricksters’ Plot, Imagined Narrative
Petra Genetrix, the central figure who figures in the beginning and end of the video work, is a kind of data sculpture deposited in Crypto Valley after an explosion in Porosity Valley. Cubic in form, Petra is a manifold being that repeatedly divides, (self-)replicates, and combines as s/he follows a dramatic video narrative of swimming through different virtual spaces, traveling from Porosity Valley through a portable hole and on through Crypto Valley, a Smart Grid, the portable hole, and a data center. Upon arriving in Crypto Valley, s/he is classified as an unregistered alien life form and submitted to a rigorous migration review at the Crypto Migration Center; in the process, s/he receives the designation “non-recognized alien migration applicant G-1-6-2564.” The review process ends with Petra being deemed an “abnormal pattern of life” – akin to a virus posing an ongoing threat to the autonomous immunity system and security – and imprisoned in the Smart Grid, a special region of Crypto Valley that serves as an alien life protective custody center with round-the-clock monitoring. Trapped behind the Smart Grid’s bars, Petra escapes by separating into cubes of different sizes and ends up encountering the “Mother Rock,” a collective intelligence and transcendent presence that connects the whole island together. The story ends with Petra becoming a sublime, independent entity and a fully-fledged xenogenesis matrix in his/her own right through biological hybridization with the Mother Rock.
The literal “trickster plot” that Ayoung Kim traverses and redevelops into fiction with POROSITY VALLEY 2: TRICKSTERS’ PLOT is set against a backdrop that is both immemorial past and distant future. The video’s narrative leads us both to infer the ancient past 350 million years ago (Petra’s date of birth) and to envision a futuristic city where a Cloud Passage Integrity Program (CPIP) operates and daily life is governed by the surveillance and controls of a Smart Grid. A peculiar world where ancient past collides with unfamiliar future, it intersects with the Afrofuturist world view merging ancient Africa with outer space imagery. Whereas Afrofuturism has delved into artistic genres such as literature, music, and cinema since the mid-20th century, recontextualizing Africa’s ancient mythology into a futuristic vision while ironically critiquing the ethnicity and gender issues faced by black people, Ayoung Kim’s video work POROSITY VALLEY 2: TRICKSTERS’ PLOT holds up a speculative mirror to our reality today with a sci fi imagination that juxtaposes mythology with technology. Kim’s fictional narrative within Crypto Valley is not intended to prophesy or represent the information age of the 21st century, as exemplified by its data flows; rather, it operates on an imaginative level to twist the social divisions and contradictions that surround the migration and refugee issues as a way of critiquing the reality and examining an alternative reality. In that sense, the sci fi vision that is presented in POROSITY VALLEY 2: TRICKSTERS’ PLOT should be discussed within a context of “speculative fiction,” rather than in science fiction terms.
Mirroring the Reality
POROSITY VALLEY 2: TRICKSTERS’ PLOT features numerous intricate hidden devices that mirror reality. To begin with, the migration pathway that Petra Genetrix experiences – a perilous process of migration, review, surveillance, incarceration, and escape – mirrors the social issue of refugee migration at a real-world level. In particular, POROSITY VALLEY 2 has its starting point in a heated debate that unfolded over 561 Yemeni refugees who migrated to Jeju Island in 2018 to escape a civil war in their home country. Three Yemeni refugees that the artist met – named Yasmin, Ahmed Aska, and Yusef al-Rami – actually perform in the video, acting as a chorus and embodying entities such as “strata,” “waves,” and “stones” that carry within them the earth’s own memories; alongside Petra, they represent another set of protagonists driving the migration narrative. The designation of “alien migration applicant G-1-5-3407” assigned to Petra by the gatekeeper when s/he arrives in Crypto Valley corresponds straightforwardly with the “refugee applicants G-1-5” classification actually applied to refugee applicants in South Korea. Crypto Valley, the place where Petra undergoes his/her migration review, alludes to Jeju Island as a maritime base region situated in an imaginary archipelago; the Smart Grid where data that fail to receive stay permits are kept in custody until their deportation from Crypto Valley, is modeled on the grid layout of the Hwaseong Immigration Processing Center, where foreign migrants without permission to stay are placed in custody. The cold lines of dialogue spoken by the Crypto Valley gatekeeper to Petra – “If your review is not completed in the next six months, the Crypto Migration Center will temporarily extend your sojourn status. Once your eligibility has been confirmed, you will be implanted with an Alien Registration Chip as part of CPIP – our ‘Cloud Passage Integrity Program’” – call to the mind the rigorous refugee application system in South Korea, where applicants must renew their humanitarian sojourn permit every six months and only a small few end up receiving a visa. Just as Petra has his/her right to freely move about Crypto Valley taken away as an “alien migration applicant” in POROSITY VALLEY 2, so refugee “applicants” who do not receive officially humanitarian sojourn permissions are left as unseen presences, unable to belong to any system or take on any employment.
From nameless symbol to mythical presence
The human dignity that is lost when a being is substituted with a symbol for control and management is akin to an “unfinished task” for Ayoung Kim to restore in the realm of art. When refugees are referred to as numbers, they become like phantom presences in South Korean society whose voices have been stripped away. The long, narrow green path leading into POROSITY VALLEY 2: TRICKSTERS’ PLOT is reconfigured by the artist into a six-channel sound installation space blending the voices of three Yemeni refugees. It is, in effect, a virtual space where the uncounted – people who are denied a part of life – can make their voices heard as political agents. The artist has also conferred a divine dignity to Petra Genetrix, a figure that drifts in the same way as the refugees; indeed, the “Petra Genetrix” concept originates in icons of the god Mithras, who was born (genetrix) out of rock (petra), referring to birth as well as a “matrix” while literally signifying the “mother rock” that gave rise to Mithras. “Petra Genetrix” thus carries the sense of a rock that gives birth to a god – a mineral that carries life.(1) As both an ancient deity that has successfully migrated and a divine, gender-defying presence that possesses life, wisdom, and transcendence, Petra Genetrix serves in POROSITY VALLEY 2 as a dramatic medium representing the exceeding real and political issues of “refugees” and “migration” in mythical and metonymic terms. This is also the powerful mythical implication proposed by the artist for restoring the identity of refugees who are denied dignity and left to drift as migrants.
The narrative of POROSITY VALLEY 2 ends with Petra Genetrix achieving hybridization with the Mother Rock – a superintelligence, storehouse of memory, and general data center that remembers and foresees all of Crypto Galley’s past, present, and future information. Its immune system effectively weakened by inbreeding, the Mother Rock has consistently asked for different forms of information for the sake of its system’s stability. Petra Genetrix is like a vaccine that erases this boundary of “inbreeding/hybridism” and strengthens immunity. The mythic ending of POROSITY VALLEY 2 is a critique of South Korean society’s rigid hierarchy and “pure blood” ideology, which shuns heterogeneity and “otherizes” difference, and a reference to the possibility that abstract space dominated by uniformity and heterogeneity might accommodate a “differential space”(2) that acknowledges discontinuities and fissures. It is an open-ended conclusion, one drawn from the experiences internalized by the artist over the years as an “unstable outsider.” As they leave abstract space and enter differential space, the genealogies of solitary figures(3) – such as migrants, deportees, and refugees – can become our own stories. As we come to recognize more complex modes of living than the imaginary “state/nation” community and reject the exclusivity of “pure blood” ideology, these lone figures – like Petra Genetrix in the conclusion – can attain both political legitimacy and divine dignity.
(1) Ayoung Kim et al., Porosity Valley, Portable Holes (Seoul: Ilmin Museum of Art, 2018), pp. 114–115.
(2) Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Korean translation by Yang Yeongran, Seoul: Ecolivres, 2011), p. 106.
(3) Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (Korean translation by Na Byeongcheol, Seoul: Somyung Books, 2002), p. 278.
Bae Myungji (Curator, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)
from the Catalogue of the Korea Artist Prize 2019 at MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art), Korea, January 2020.