Story By Derek Ferrar
Photos By Sue Hudelson
A few years ago I was guest-teaching a Mass Media for Dummies course at the University of Hawai‘i, and to blow the kids’ minds a little, I asked the brilliant, trippy UH futurist Jim Dator to come talk to them about possible media of the future. He greeted them with: “ Well, I hope you’ve all learned how to farm.” Then out of the blue he started to talk about South Korea. Korea, he said, could have the makings of a new kind of “ dream society of icons, images and aesthetic experience.”
A couple of years before, the so-called Hallyu, or “Korean Wave” of pop culture had begun flooding through Asia and even lapping on Western shores. Movies, TV dramas, video games and especially bubbly K-pop music—fans from Taipei to Kuala Lumpur couldn’t get enough of it, and it looked like the rest of the world might be ripe for a case of K-fever, too.
Dator talked about how government policies in Korea had been encouraging the export of entertainment as a major industry. Just maybe, he said, Korea has been pioneering a new post-information economy, where the driving force is not data but image. “Who knows?” he postulated. “Maybe Korea is on its way toward replacing Gross National Product as its measure of socioeconomic success with ‘Gross National Cool.’” I had no idea what that meant, but I sure liked the sound of it.
So here I am, sipping a pricey cocktail on the rooftop deck of RufXXX, an ultrahip bar and artists’ collective in one of Seoul’s swankest hilltop neighborhoods. With a few days to kill in Seoul after attending an international media conference here, I’m looking to soak up as much of that Korean National Cool as I can, and a plugged-in local friend pointed me here.
Down in the bare-walled performance space I take a seat on a bleacher fashioned out of bales of flattened cardboard. On the concrete floor, stone-faced musicians in classical Korean garb pound on traditional drums and gongs that merge with a synthesizer in skillfully crafted waves of sound that rise and fall through time—now ancient temple rhythm, now industrial techno. Crouched in a corner, a woman chants, screams and whispers half-intelligible syllables into a distorted mic. Naked, flashing light bulbs reveal the ghostly, contorted figures of a pair of dancers pulling lithe, posthumous-looking moves. I came looking for Korean Cool, and it looks like I’ve found me some.
The mastermind behind RufXXX is high-fashion photographer H. Nam Kim, who returned to Korea a few years ago after working for a decade in London. Joining me on the rooftop, Nam is a portrait of artistic intensity with his shoulderlength mane of hair, plain white dress shirt and air of gravitas. He tells me he started staging performance pieces several years ago and that the RufXXX shows are essentially test performances for works in progress, with the performers drawn mainly from talented regulars at the bar. Tonight’s piece, Dead Man Walking, is based on a traditional Korean shamanic ritual for communicating with the dead. Nam says he’s trying to pierce some of the superficial materialism he has seen accompanying Korea’s rapid economic rise. “There’s a lot of development here—it’s very fast-paced, but it’s not really coming into our quality of living,” he says. “I really love all the energy in Seoul, but I want some deeper communication as well.”