AI, Algorithms, and the Machine as Witness
Words ANDREW RUSSETH
Photography BORA KIM
Through collages of found footage, computer renderings, and his own filmed material, Heecheon Kim presents a reality that’s slippery and uncertain, where the digital is bleeding into the physical. This is a reality in which “screens are now disappearing, and the world itself is becoming a screen,” as he put it in a 2020 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries. With his razor-sharp investigations into how technology flattens and reorders the human experience, Kim has quickly risen to prominence. Just a few years into his career, he’s already a veteran of major biennials in Istanbul, Gwangju, and his native Seoul.
Seeing Kim pop up on my laptop screen for a video interview feels uniquely jarring because he appears in so much of his work in similarly remote ways. His face is pasted atop countless people walking outside Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Gate in a black and white passage of Sleigh Ride Chill (2016), and it is smoothed and made up via a filter in a section of Deep in the Forking Tanks (2019). Kim gets inside these ubiquitous appearance-altering apps, teasing out uncanny effects.
What effects do Kim’s gimlet-eyed videos have on the viewer? While I binged ten pieces one weekend, a line from the philosopher Marshall Berman kept coming to mind. “To be modern,” Berman wrote, “is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, the transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” Kim’s art revels in the destructive threat of modernity, often using Seoul as a backdrop, a city that is undergoing wrenching transformations via soaring real-estate prices and massive development projects.
In Kim’s early works, including Soulseek/Pegging/Air-twerking and Wall Rally Drill (both 2015), the 123-story Lotte World Tower and its neighboring theme park act as fantastical monuments of unbridled capital. In the latter piece, Kim’s camera makes its way high up into the building while it is under construction, hauntingly empty. It homes in on nets to protect workers (or prevent suicides), and South Korean flags are plastered to the skyscraper’s windows, creating a sense of an economy, and a nation, undergoing out-of-control, even unhinged, growth.
Kim’s body of work is a delirious, fractured, mashed-up, and ever-evolving portrait of Korea through intertwined physical and virtual manifestations. In Sleigh Ride Chill, a gamer character named Porky Daddy declares in a v-log that he will undertake a race in Seoul in Gran Turismo 4 for a marathon of 30-plus hours. (Kim, for his part, is “very bad at finishing video games,” he tells me, explaining, “I get bored very easily, and I hate the repetition.” But he plays them because “I want to know what makes gamers so crazy about a game.”) As we watch Porky Daddy’s car fly along Sejong-daero and around Sungnyemun Gate over and over, passing iconic sights, he remarks favorably that the game does not insert stereotypes of what some might imagine an Asian city to be. He also mentions that the Gate was torched a few years earlier—not the only disaster invoked in Kim’s universe.
Violence looms in his art, as it does in contemporary life. An online suicide club is discussed in Sleigh Ride Chill, while Soulseek has footage of the Daegu Safety Theme Park (built after a 2003 arson attack in that Korean city killed nearly 200 people), as well as snippets of a fire at an anonymous building that sent people fleeing.
Kim’s art often focuses on the traces that people leave behind, which can be traumatic, even if they exist only as digital records. Lifting Barbell, a film he made in 2015, the same year he graduated from the Korea National University of Art, touches on a personal tragedy. In the film, Kim uses smartwatch data to reconstruct his father’s final hours. Through maps and charts, Kim constructs a partial, unsatisfactory portrait of his father. “I picture my father entering the woods of data, the forest of gravestones,” he explains in voiceover.
People regularly figure in Kim’s work at a removal, or through some type of mediation. We glimpse them as digital avatars or through Skype or FaceTime windows (or even real windows, as in the dancing K-poperos in Deep in the Forking Tanks, 2019). A charismatic vlogger in Writing The Five Caretakers (2020) fades away before our eyes as she speaks. In Every Smooth Thing through Mesher (2018), Kim muses about Pokémon Go from a video chat program on his phone, complaining that the game can insidiously turn banal sites into instant landmarks where people can hunt for Pokémon items. Talking in our own video chat, he proposes that, even when no one is playing, “the Pikachu stays there” out in meatspace, which means “this game cannot be finished.”
Kim explicitly probes the blurring of the real and fictional in HOME (2017), in which a detective goes in search of her missing father. Shots of Seoul are overlayed with cartoon versions of the same settings, an allusion to how anime fans make pilgrimages to places featured in their favorite comics. HOME has a fairly concrete plot, a rarity for Kim. Usually, he constructs 20 to 40-minute videos with disparate cuts and radical juxtapositions that suggest an idiosyncratic but meticulous structural logic, a sensibility that is tempting to connect with his training in architecture.
Recently, Kim began working with a commercial gallery in Seoul (BB&M), a rarity for artists in the video. He jokes about the marketability of video art, noting that people will often say, “I heard there is a market, but I’ve never seen it, but I heard about it.” He has also been exploring other time-based mediums. When we speak, he is working on a sound piece, and last year, he produced an entrancing VR artwork titled Ghost(1990). It includes videos of weightlifters with a narrator who describes a failed deadlift that still haunts him. In an offhand comment that feels painfully of the moment (and deliciously emblematic of Kim’s critical art), the bodybuilder admits, “I look in the mirror to check: Hey, do I even still exist?”
The field that Kim tracks—videogames, apps, digital trends—is in constant flux, and he rolls gamely with the rapid-fire changes. “Before the v-log era, it was quite interesting for me to do a lot of recording by myself,” he says. “Now everybody is recording, so I feel like I don’t have to record it.” The apps that Kim toys with today may feel like distant memories in 10, 20, or 30 years. But as technology advances, it is easy—comforting, really—to imagine Kim experimenting with each new tool, manipulating it, reworking it to make his art, showing us what we are becoming.