Song Ho-Cheol was born in 1970. He graduated from the University of Seoul’s Department of Environmental Sculpture and earned a master's degree in sculpture from Chung-Ang University. He traveled around from region to region, participating in local projects, until he settled in Mullae-dong, where he has worked for over 10 years, mainly in digital media. He has held three solo shows just in Mullae-dong, exhibiting works made of materials he scavenged from the vicinity.
There are approximately 200 to 300 artists living in a community in Mullae-dong, Seoul, who have gathered in the process of searching for affordable studio space. Once filled with a flurry of metal powder and the constant clang of hammers, the old manufacturing mecca is now inhabited by bars and young people with cameras. There he was, in this rowdy, gentrifying neighborhood, artist Song Ho-Cheol, who claims to diagnose urban changes through trash and “rescue wild trash.”
Q. You seem to have your own way of categorizing trash.
A. I don’t sort trash by food, general, and recyclable wastes like the public standard, but divide them into “visible trash” and “invisible trash.” A major example of visible trash is paper cups brought into the neighborhood by outsiders and thrown on the street. Invisible trash is trash hiding on rooftops or in odd corners, which is hard to spot and therefore takes two to three years, or sometimes even ten years, to be properly disposed of.
Q. What led you to observe the trash in Mullae-dong?
A. In 2013, I was working on a project, creating an observatory on the rooftop of a building in Mullae-dong. It was a project inspired by my childhood memory of the night skies I used to look up to in the countryside. And while I was examining the unused or neglected rooftops in the neighborhood, I realized that half of these spaces were filled with mounds of trash: mostly garbage and things left behind by the former tenants or the movers. Then I noticed, around the time I finished the project, a sudden decrease in the amount of trash on the rooftops. I later learned that rooftops are cleaned out once in a while when the buildings go up for sale. In this sense, the more outsiders flow into the neighborhood, the more visible trash and the less invisible trash are generated. At this point, I thought I should do something, which led me to this project.
Q. You chose documentary as your work format.
A. I chose to work in documentary format because Mullae-dong’s situation is largely contingent upon other societal situations. The first half of the film takes the form of a parodic social documentary, informing of the visible changes in Mullae-dong’s commercial district and the trash in the area. The second half is a record of my art project, a rescue robot with six limbs observing and “rescuing the wild trash.”
Q. The robot you built is impressive—it looks like a Mars rover, examining the rooftops of Mullae-dong. But it seemed like its ability for actual rescue is limited. How would you describe the purpose of this project?
A. The point of this project was to use excessive advanced technology, deploying a drone or a robot to execute a ridiculously simple task, like picking up a piece of wood or a nutritional drink bottle. People could just put on a glove or use tongs to pick them up, but the robot, developed over two extensive years, puts on an illogically dramatic performance. It does rescue some trash but it can’t dream of picking up large objects. Through this project, I wanted to point out how far things, or ways of this world, can deviate from our general perception of rationality and logicality when inoculated with something like capital. I invested science and technology in a trifling task to ridicule such phenomena. This video won’t change society at large, but I think it would be able to inform and alert, to a degree.
Q. Does this wild trash share the same destiny as the artists residing in the area?
A. In a situation like Mullae-dong’s, we could just as well turn out to be like the objects we call “wild trash.” Observing the trash here, I thought we weren’t in a much better position. We’re bound to be pushed out.
Q. How does rescuing trash become art?
A. What is art if not picking up after ourselves? I use media and technology, my personal interests, to depict an everyday action in an artistic way. This is only possible because it’s art; otherwise, people would think I’m crazy.
Q. Rescuing wild trash seems like social participation. What other works have you done in the past?
A. I moved around a lot to work on projects related to each region. In Mullae-dong, I recorded the sounds of the neighborhood over ten years to create 〈Soundscape in Mullae〉, and I also produced 〈Cityscape in Mullae〉, projecting pictures of downtown display windows onto the shutters of the manufacturing workshops. When I discover external elements that interfere with my works, I observe them and address them.
Q. What kinds change do you expect to see in Mullae-dong in the near future?
A. I wish the first floor manufacturers in the neighborhood would be sustained by the owners, but as they retire and the manufacturing industry declines, I think gentrification will be inevitable. Luckily so far, there hasn’t been as many entertainment venues opening in the neighborhood as Hongdae (Hongik University area). I just need to speak up so that the process isn’t accelerated.
I’m “Manager Park,” a week-old employee at the junk store Cheoneokbul Jawon (Hundred-billion-dollar Resource). But I am an artist before a manager. When I told my neighbor, the owner of the junk store, about my exhibition and showed him pictures, he said, “We have tons of stuff like this in the store. In fact, they look exactly the same. If you’re into this stuff, you should work at the store and work on your art after hours.” And just like that, I was lured into working at the store. He gave me a business card with the title “manager” printed on it, a desk looking out at the mound of junk through the window, and a one-ton truck. The business is honest. I work with factories that produce waste metal or paper, or drive around in the truck to collect whatever I can sell, and get paid according to sales.
Being in a store full of junk, I realize how long the relationship between me and used goods has been. For a long time now, I’ve been rummaging through the city as a scavenger-artist. I once even took a picture right on top of the wastepaper mound of this store in 2009. Anyhow, thanks to the long experience of producing wallpaper, newspaper, and object collages, I find myself well-trained and well-suited for this job. Plus, with a truck, I feel more confident picking things up than when I had to shove them into my own little car. Taking from the story of an artwork being mistaken for trash and thrown out by museum staff, and the story about artist Jeon Soocheon’s work going missing then being found at a junk store, it’s fair to say that “avant-garde” has always fallen somewhere in between art and garbage. This kind of thinking also makes my job at the store more fun.
Working at the store, I came to see how junk-dealing requires as much sensitivity and delicacy as art-making. Even junk has grades. Waste paper, metal, and non-metal junk vary tremendously in unit price. Waste paper is worth KRW 100 per kilo, while fine stainless steel goes for about KRW 1,000 per kilo. The “purer” the piece, the pricier it gets: wastepaper, for example, is worth more as it goes from boxes to color-coated magazines and flyers to single-color (black and white) prints. Similarly, glass is more expensive the more colorless it is, which is why a secondary purifying process is mandatory. Electric wires have to be removed of the sheath and stickers. Separate the iron screws out of the aluminum windowsills, and you can sell them both and earn double.
But like I said, I am an artist before a manager. I stay sharp, looking for things I could use in my work. I also often find myself torn between money and art. I had to let go of the ATM machine that came in fully intact—what a thrill it gave me. I was also prying on a plastic playground set but it was too large, and I had a feeling I would see more of those, so I let go of my greed. But I make sure to stash rare and one-of-a-kind stuff like a wooden doorframe ripped out of a century-old European-style house. My boss would blurt, “How is it that you manage to pick out the most worthless pieces out of all the junk?” and I would reply, “You just watch how this junk transforms!” In my head, I was already picturing a new work to follow 〈Byeongmatpung〉 (2016), a folding screen made of meme collages.
Once, I picked up some wastepaper from the house of a retired art professor. There were all sorts of exhibition catalogues and pamphlets. People may wonder why exhibition catalogues must be made, but an artist like me, who reassemble and reinstall objects every time I have an exhibition, end up with nothing to hold onto so I try to make big fat exhibition catalogues.
My plan at the moment is to work here at the store for about a year and a half, collect enough junk to hold an exhibition entitled 《Cheoneokbul Jawon》with my boss. I wonder: when that day comes, do I sell my works as art or junk?
I am somewhat of a hoarder. I realized my predisposition for hoarding when I was introduced to the “collecting” sort of people. Most of the upperclassmen I met at the college pop-music club collected vinyl records. In their eyes, my classmates and I, who had been listening to cassette tapes and CDs and had just opened our eyes to the new world of Napster, were amateurs who didn’t know how to appreciate music. One of the seniors would work at construction sites every time he got a vacation from his military service duty to trade all of his wages for a few vinyl records. Another one told me how he purchased an album described as “mint condition” on eBay, only to find a cassette tape inside the shipped box. I was often secretly jealous of them.
They were the kind of people who imbue objects with spiritual value beyond exchange or utility value. They were extremely deliberate in choosing each album, and sometimes even truth-seeking in attitude. I, on the other hand, would buy an album according to my moods and whims, whenever I had some cash to spare, or would download a bunch of anything from Napster (until I realized this was illegal). Sure, I knew the pleasure of trading in hard-saved money for a CD, but those CDs always ended up cracked inside my backpack, their covers ragged or lost. The upperclassmen always clicked their tongues at my tattered CDs—these were the kind of people who would literally perform a self-cleansing ritual before putting on a Beatles record if it was serial-numbered. I slowly lost what little I had of musical taste, surrounded by CD cases with missing CDs and randomly downloaded music (the joy of listening to music was later forever ruined for me by the series of shifts in music devices from iPod to iPhone). Thankfully, I never earned enough money to own enough CDs, which saved me from the serious anguish I would have felt come moving season, but music files piled and piled up until they took over my hard drive. Through a series of computer replacements, most of the files vanished off to somewhere (to where, I wouldn’t know), but I still have over 500 albums that are missing covers or CDs (this number is an indicator of both my financial status and the decline of physical sound storage media). I don’t even own a CD player anymore, but I still can’t dispose of the CDs because of the heart and effort I poured into the totally spontaneous and random purchases. I’ve never managed to collect enough CDs to be buried in them, but now I see that ultimately, I was never a collector but a hoarder, and that even hoarders initially have some kind of taste.
Hoarders start stockpiling the things they like, soon to find themselves focused more on the act of stacking rather the value of the things being stacked up. They feel joy as the number grows from one to two to a hundred to two hundred, and think that perhaps, one day, these things will be utilized to fulfill their purposes. Amateur hoarders are people who linger on such long-stretched hope while keeping practical space in pawn. Being a trained yet hardly-professional hoarder, I am suffocated every day, stuck in between piles of things and limited space.
Collectors’ items, at least by current standards, fall in the category of “valuables.” Hoards, on the other hand, are generally seen as garbage. Ever since the introduction of iTunes and other streaming services, physical music storage media lost their utility value, and even exchange value unless they’re rare finds. Helplessly sitting in stacks and collecting dirt, my CDs are unlikely to ever be played again. I would gain some practical space by withdrawing my affection for these objects, which are bound to be trash or maybe already are trash, but I don’t know why I don’t feel like doing that. To make an obvious and belated confession, CDs aren’t the only things that I’ve been hoarding. This “stuff” is seen as either “clutter” or “trash” depending on the perspective, and my denial to see it as trash would lie in my measly sense of attachment. But how will these belongings be sorted when I’m buried, returned to minerals? Where would they go if they’re lucky enough to escape the fate of grave goods? I simply can’t get myself to throw this stuff out; I can’t select nor separate myself from it. Maybe I could finally call myself a bona fide hoarder when these piles of things weigh down and squeeze the life out of me, but for now, I just wish that moment would never come.
Editor, Art Magazine [Wolganmisool]