Expanding the Doors of Perception: An Interview with MMCA Curator Kim, Eunhee

By Nilesh Kumar ● September 08, 2017 12:00

In this piece, Nilesh Kumar (STEAK film) interviews Kim, Eunhee*, curator of The History of Visual Magic in Technology Pt.1: Canadian VR Films, on her collaboration with CFC Media Lab at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) Film and Video, in Seoul, Korea. You can read more about the show here.

Woman sitting at table in closeup.

Kim, Eunhee in her film, ‘Melo’ (2004).

As a child, Kim, Eunhee grew up in Seoul, relishing the imagery and language of Thomas Hardy novels such as Tess of the d'Urbervilles. While reading, she would vividly picture certain scenes and landscapes, imaginary worlds that became her impetus to study film.

After studying Drama and Cinema at Dongguk University in Seoul, Kim moved to Paris to further her study of film at Universite Paris 8 and Universite Paris 1. She directed short films both before and after her time in Paris. A fan of Philip K. Dick, Kim wrote a short sci-fi story and adapted it as a feature. Memory of Things (2003), one of her short films, took shape while working as a programmer for the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) and Seoul Film Festival. The film imagines a mirror remembering the experience of living in a house the day before a move.

After these years of imaginative filmmaking and programming, Kim decided to expand her world in a different way, which we discuss below.

Woman in long shot sitting at window and staring out it.

Kim, Eunhee’s ‘Memory of Things’ (2003).

Tell us about your turn post-Paris to post-programming and post-filmmaking.

Kim: In 2013, MMCA Seoul opened, a museum with a film theatre, and they advertised for curators. New kinds of film and cinema started crossing my mind similar to my previous film practice, so I applied.

I find the boundaries between cinema and museums intriguing, like a black box and white cube, and Joseph Beuys had been part of my research when I was in Paris. As a film programmer, I have tried to present moving images as a form of installation. In those contemporary art worlds, it's not unique to have a film department in a museum, such as MoMA’s and Tate Modern’s. Rather, it is a vital annex for the museum's wider social agenda.

What direction are you taking MMCA Film and Video?

Kim: I am seeking to create a platform for cinematic discourse in many of its diverse, hybrid forms – screenings, projections, installations, cinematic performances, talks, seminars – to expand cinematic experiences. Yet I am always thinking about the crucial question: what is cinema in the contemporary art world?

Woman standing and wearing a VR headset, with an abstract design on a screen projected behind her.

‘Small Wonders: The VR Experience’ at MMCA Film and Video, Seoul, in August 2017.

What was the starting point for this exhibition of Canadian VR Films?

Kim: CFC Media Lab has been continually researching new media and its production. VR film presents new perceptions from unknown dimensions, so a phase of artists’ practice and concepts of their works may also shift in the future as a result. So VR film offers a starting point to lead an audience into a new world of imagery.

Do you have any comments about VR in South Korea?

Kim: In Korea, we often talk about The Fourth Industrial Revolution, but VR film is not a new technology that connects to this declaration. I think VR film is a part of consecutive study on realism and its representations, more akin to holograms or 3D and 4D film technologies, which appeared in the 1960s but which did not develop and expand.

VR has ambitions to create illusions, but holograms and 3D and 4D film technologies seem more like environmental approaches that give people new experiences of space and time in real time, or in still reality-based environments. VR is trying to tell a new story, which raises the question: how is new narrative still effective? Narrative is a complicated concept, what we would recognize as a study of the order of things – the environment, dimensions, stories, and what lies beyond human consciousness – not unlike a science fiction from Philip K. Dick.

Tell us more about the title, The History of Visual Magic in Technology Pt.1: Canadian VR Films?

Kim: As a way of finding inner reality in fictive imagery, cinema always challenges us to develop an experience of space and time. I see Canadian VR attempting to expand and exploit this potential area, especially at CFC Media Lab. They are experimenting in new image-making and doing so on a national scale. I wanted to bring these VR experiences into a conceptual art exhibition, an installation of works of art instead of a showcase marketing and promoting the technology.

Man wearing a VR headset standing and leaning forward, with an abstract design on a screen projected behind him, and two standing microphones on either side.

‘Body/Mind/Change Redux’ at MMCA Film and Video, Seoul.

How did you choose the three pieces?

Kim: Ana Serrano from CFC Media Lab and I spoke, and she suggested a range of strong options. We chose these three VR experiences from different genres – animation, documentary and fiction – in part because CFC Media Lab is experimenting with the possibilities of narrative and genre to expand its grammar.

For example, Body/Mind/Change Redux uses the genres of thriller and horror while being driven by the structure of a game. Small Wonders employs a kind of animation to explore and see the carvings of a miniature boxwood prayer bead carvings. Invisible World functions as an interactive documentary in which audiences can be actively involved. And all three experiences contain elements that make us aware of what VR can be.

What were the reactions of the Korean audience to the exhibition?

Kim: The reactions varied depending on age. Younger people preferred Body/Mind/Change Redux, because of its horror movie qualities. Older people enjoyed Small Wonders’ classical documentary component. Cinephiles preferred Invisible World. During our lecture, there was a good question about the decay of cinema itself, and the expectations and fears of VR technology. Serrano said that VR would exist alongside cinema. I agree, and I believe that VR should interact with cinema in a symbiotic relationship.

Do you have any concerns about VR? Consider, for example, Doctor O’Blivion’s statement in Videodrome about television being more than reality.

Kim: VR works with, as well as challenges, the experience of limited visibility and movement. Like a panoramic landscape, VR uses film so that we can see the world from new perspectives.

I hope VR can be a great leap in the dark, like the expression of Thomas Hobbes, to reach the imaginary world, or perhaps offer the fulfillment of Georges Méliès Astronomer’s Dream, made back in 1898. Human beings can look at the moon, but if we look at the moon from earth, we can only see it with our imagination. Imagery from VR takes a shape different from reality, and I would like to learn more about new dimensions and unknown areas.

What would you like to bring with The History of Visual Magic in Technology Pt.2?

Kim: I have a plan to show classic films made in Technicolor, which dominated the visual elements from the 1930s to the 1960s in film history. About three years ago, the Berlin Cinematheque collaborated with MoMA on this, which enables us to really look at and see colour and how sensual it is.

*The curator’s name is written in the Korean format, which is family name first, followed by a comma and then the first name. This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.