Eye to Eyebeam: Symbiosis between traditional art and technology – diving into Jayoung Chung’s mind

Photo by Celso Urroz

Jayoung Chung (정자영) is a Korean digital artist born in 1980 in Pohang, South Korea. At a young age, she started learning Gukak, Korean traditional classical music, through musical instruments like Gayageum, the Korean cithara, and Samulnori, a musical genre with Korean percussions. 

In 2003 she studied painting at the Ewha Women’s University, then design at the Seoul National University in 2005. And finally, she graduated with a Master of Interactive Telecommunication in 2010 from New York University.

Thereafter, she received many awards for her art and participated in artistic residencies in a lot of museums and nonprofit organizations around the world. I had the chance to meet her during her residency at Eyebeam in New York in 2016 when she was working on her project called “Empathy”.

By creating a symbiosis between art and technology, Jayoung explores the concept of empathy, thus feeling what another person feels. Her work is therefore mainly humanistic.

She grew up during a political transition period as South Korea went from a series of dictatorships (before 1987) to the gradual establishment of a democracy around 1993. She explained that South Korea had to sacrifice a lot to be able to develop as it did in only 50 years. Devastated by the Korean War and numerous Japanese invasions, Korea was still only a feudal civilization until the beginning of the 20th century. Moreover, the Korean culture has been shaped by a number of religions: Buddhism, Shamanism, Confucianism and more recently, Christianity (Korea is the only auto-converted Christian country). Recently, it is also heavily influenced by the western way of living. All these cultural aspects and historical hazards led to an identity quest constantly renewed. This, in turn, has served as inspiration for many local artists.

Thus, we can wonder how Jayoung’s work, “Empathy”, is a tool that tries to make us understand each other as human beings.

Empathy is the notion of recognizing and comprehending the feelings and emotions of another individual, but can also be applied to non-emotional states such as beliefs. In the common language, we qualify this phenomenon by using the expression: “To put ourselves in someone else’s shoes”.

For Jean Decety, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago, empathy, the capacity of sharing emotions with others without confusion between ourselves and the others, is a powerful way of inter-individual communication and a key element in therapeutic relationships.¹

We can divide empathy into three main components: The first, unconscious, is the capacity of sharing emotions and others’ intentions. The second is the desire of helping and comforting. The third, is not only about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes but visualizing yourself and others from an exterior point of view.²

According to Jayoung, physical contact is paramount to feeling empathy for the person you are in contact with. With physical contact, we enter the “intimate sphere” stated in Edward T. Hall’s theory about proxemics.³ Thanks to this feeling of intimacy we create a close familiar and affective connection with the other. By trying to understand another individual you can be empathetic even if this person is really different from you. Sympathizing doesn’t require you to put yourself in someone else’s “world” whereas empathy does require it.

In her work, the physical contact often takes place when the two participants touch each others hands. This is a powerful tool to use because the gesture of holding hands signifies comfort as well as a breaking of silence.

Jayoung thinks empathy leads to a better future that is more altruistic, more selfless and open minded. She is not the only one to think that. The psychologist Carl Rogers has done studies to demonstrate that difficulties in understanding others and in social interactions are, inter alia, connected to a lack of empathy. The artist Barbara Kruger shares the same idea. She has created a sign in a tramway station in Strasbourg, France, on which she has written in big letters “L’empathie peut changer le monde” which translates into: “Empathy can change the world”. ⁵

Photo by Celso Urroz

The humanistic will of Jayoung’s work is certainly linked to different factors. First of all, the fact that historically, Korea has been destroyed several times. It had to face a lot of difficulties, rebuild itself countless times and hence overcome many psychological traumas. For much of its history, during the end of antiquity and the middle age, China invaded Korea multiple times. In fact, China used to claim the Korean peninsula as part of their own territory. Korea also underwent a Mongol invasion in the 13th century and a Japanese invasion in the 16th century. More recently, from 1894 until 1950, Korea, a coveted territory by Japan and China, endured a lot of successive wars (the Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War and the Korean War). Korea also endured a violent Japanese occupation from 1905 until 1945 during which numerous crimes were committed on Korean civilians, such as forced work, violent sexual slavery, arbitrary arrests, torture, forced recruitment in the army, sterilization of and involuntary abortion for lepers, and the slaughter of farmers. Moreover, after the colonization, Japan never admitted these facts and it still hasn’t been sanctioned by the International Criminal Court. A few years after the end of the Japanese colonization, in 1950, the Korean War broke out, a product of the Cold War. Again, Korea was devastated. The territory that is now North Korea suffered from one of the biggest bombings by the Americans in it’s entire history. All the North Korean villages had been destroyed, a third of the population had been killed. In a short period of time a lot of bombs including Napalm bombs were dropped over North Korea, proportionally more than over Vietnam. This war led to the present separation between South Korea and North Korea. A large number of families have been separated without ever seeing their relatives. Since then, North Korea has been under a dictatorship regime and South Koreans have seen a lot of tyrants in power.

Despite all these hardships, Korea and its inhabitants always succeeded at recovering and keeping unity through their belief in humanistic values, which has thus become part of their shared identity. We can connect this to the characteristic collective Korean feeling of “Han”. It represents both a silent melancholia and the power to overcome this desperation.

More personally, Jayoung also takes her inspiration from present day tragic events like the sinking of the Sewol ferry causing the death of approximately 300 high school students in 2014. The government stayed very silent about this disaster. This showed a lack of empathy for the victim’s families.

The emptiness left behind after the loss of a loved one can be even more difficult to process if the corpse is not found. The grieving process becomes more complicated. To accept the grief, we often need an outlet, something that pushes us to exteriorize and share our pain. Thanks to her work “Empathy” Jayoung was actually able to help some victim’s mothers. They used her installation as an outlet, they were able to make others feel their sorrows and thus, be understood. (They mainly wanted this recognition from the government).

Jayoung also experimented with more of her work in similar contexts. In another project in which she organised her mediums in a different way, her work was made to make people feel what Syrian refugees felt who escaped the destruction of their country and overcame countless difficulties to finally settle in Germany. It’s thanks to her meeting with Eyas Adi, a war refugee, during her residency in Berlin, that she envisioned this project.

During her residency in Germany, her thoughts about empathy also became influenced by the book “Ich und Du” (I and Thou) of the German humanist philosopher Martin Buber. In this book, Buber emphasizes the concept of Alterity, the significance of the other as a “person” (there is no “I” without “You”), as an absolutely vital dimension for all human lives.

Jayoung thinks : “Humanity has been silent too long, it is time for us to take on an active role in truly opening up to others”.

From a global perspective, her ideas are a big contrast to the traditional Korean custom to not open up to the outside world. It may be noted that there are 4% (2 million) of foreigners in Korea of which 40% are members of the Korean diaspora in China and very few are not Asian. Jayoung thinks it is time for Korea to recognize that it is a part of a whole, that it is a part of the world as a united entity, linked, interconnected. Thus, as human beings, we should be concerned with the happiness of the other human beings on earth.

The project “Empathy” can be perceived as an artistic tool that allows one to embrace others without using verbal language, but more directly by touch, sounds, and images. Her work takes the form of an installation with conductive tapes on the ground divided into 2 areas (2 electric poles). There is one person in each area, either barefoot or equipped with conductive shoes. These two people bring their hands together and the human touch between them acts as a switch and allows the electricity to pass from one pole to the other (the human body being naturally charged in electricity). When the switch is on, computer generated images are projected on a wall behind the participants. At the same time, sounds are played. Images appear progressively, only when the two participants are touching each other. These projected images are often a reconstruction of randomly generated patterns. These patterns were generated from original drawings on which she used black chalk on paper. Her drawings often represent nature, for example in the form of trees and waves but also people in the form of spirits. She has created algorithms using “Processing” that generate these image patterns. In her more recent works she has started to make an animation based on a human story instead of making computer generated visuals. The animation is mainly composed of dancing human figures. They are dark shadow silhouettes at first, then, once hands are held, the dark shadows light up and show a person. For example, in her work about the Sewol sinking, dance silhouette images turn into crying mothers. The lighting is also emphasized by an actual light bulb that brightens up when hands are held. In addition, the sounds produced by these contacts are often words about sadness or words connected to the events she illustrates. These sounds can also be piano notes or gayageum notes.

Photo by Jayoung Chung

This staging, like a shamanic rite, leads to the creation of empathy. Moreover, the role of the electricity is primordial; it has a really important symbolic meaning. It is the metaphor of the energy that is moving from one body to another, from one self to another, that depicts how emotions also move between two different minds. The connection symbolized by the electricity is a key element for the empathy quest. In addition, for certain stagings, participants must wear the (conductive) shoes of the person that they are trying to feel empathy for. Again, these shoes have a very important symbolic meaning. They represent the main feature of a human being, as feet allow humans to move and explore. By moving, we human beings experience our environment and that defines us. In addition, Jayoung is literally putting the individuals participating “into someone else’s shoes”. This allows the participants of her work to cross a line from what is usually only a saying, and transform the words into a real visual image and experience. Through these processes, which are symbolically important, we can better understand and feel the other individual.

Her work can also take the form of a dance show. Thanks to dancers that execute long and wide moves light-footedly, they enforce the image of the passing energy through the “connections” of their bodies. Together with the visual and musical background, the spectators are able to feel empathy for the work’s topic.

Even if it is a project that can be adapted onto different topics and the message can be transmitted following different techniques, it always forms the same ecosystem.

Person 1 touching [visuals + sound] touching Person 2

Or rather a bidirectional transmission as both individuals can feel empathy for one another.

We have to remember that art is a universal language that doesn’t necessarily need verbal language. If the work is successful, it targets a universal public and therefore must be understood by all. Here, Jayoung uses technology as a tool allowing an interaction with her audience in order to show them her philosophy. However, it is also a way of looking to the future. Her use of technology can be seen as a way of putting distance between her work and older, more traditional art forms, arguably even improving them to suit her intentions.

The academic practice of Gukak through gayageum and Samulnori percussions during her youth had a big influence on her recent projects. This kind of music and its instruments are traditionally connected to notions of nature. Jayoung likes to use gayageum sounds to symbolize the sound of the wind blowing through leaves. Samulnori is composed of four instruments that represent climatic elements: rain, thunder, wind, and clouds. Because Koreans are originally agricultural people in a very mountainous country, they are really close to nature. Jayoung also takes her inspiration from traditional Korean dances.

Thereafter, Jayoung learned creative coding to make mainly generative design. The overall idea of generative design is to make a machine (usually a software) that generates forms given a determined behavior instead of manually drawing every form. So, she combined her art of painting with technology in order to create randomly generated paintings which can be modified by the function of music. We can consider this as an interaction, a symbiosis between traditional arts and technology.

In the aforementioned case, the music generated the drawing, but in contrast, Jayoung also makes works where the act of drawing (on paper) generates music. By drawing the first strokes using a special chalk that deposits conductive matter (graphite), she can make this drawing an electric network connected to an electric pole. She then adds other drawings on it using a chalk connected to the opposite electric pole. Each time she draws again over a stroke of the “network”, she creates a contact between the two poles and thus electricity flows through the network. It actually works like a “sampler” with different “buttons” which are the different branches of the basic network. Each time a “button” is pushed, a sound corresponding to the button is played. This “sampler” is controlled by a computer.

In certain cases, Jayoung can use every technique that has been mentioned earlier at the same time. For instance, in her theater play “With You”.

Photo by Jayoung Chung

For Jayoung, relationships between men and nature are immensely important. She also takes inspiration from East Asian culture, in particular the Feng Shui philosophy. It is a philosophy in which the harmony of an “energy flux” between different elements (wood, metal, fire, water, earth), but also other geographical elements, are very important. The notion of duality present in our universe is also essential. In addition, we can mention the Korean mythology as another influence of her works.

These concepts are really important to understanding Jayoung’s art, they are the base of her reflections. In her drawings, human shapes with strokes inspired from elements of nature are often based on the soft curves of the water, the waves, the wind or the sharper forms of the fire.

In her work, Jayoung attaches importance to human beings, to their emotions and the feelings that inhabit them, as well as their interactions between each other, such as compassion, sharing, and empathy. She shows their life through metaphors of nature. She frequently uses the shapes of trees and leaves in her work. Nature is huge, complicated and magnificent. Celestial bodies are also essential in her visions: the stars, the sun, but also the moon. The moon is a very important astronomical object in East Asian culture, it is behind the organization of time. Its product is the lunar calendar. It is also the cause of important celebrations like the lunar new year and the mid-autumn festival, Chuseok in Korea. The moon also has a cyclic value that Jayoung likes to represent.

Like other digital artists, Jayoung has also been heavily influenced by Nam June Paik. The Korean Nam June Paik is an emblematic figure on an international level, more specifically of the artistic movement that uses digital technology to create art works.

What we can say about Jayoung’s art is that it is linked to various inspirations, mixing the traditional culture of her native country and technology, the symbol of renewal. It could be suggested that she embodies the new identity of her country. By the social context of the present world but also by the cultural and historical context of her country, Jayoung makes works aiming to develop humanity by improving social intelligence. She acts mainly in creating tools that allow the understanding of the importance of empathy, and also makes people feel empathy for strangers.

The use of technological mediums is employed here to reveal and get closer to a natural phenomenon, empathy, but also to the concept of nature itself. However, paradoxically, wouldn’t technology be a way of moving away from nature, raw materials, the tangible? Isn’t it a way of making interaction less direct between humans and nature? Doesn’t a human being only exist through his relationship with his real, natural environment? Furthermore, we have seen that empathy can only be experienced when we enter an individual’s intimacy sphere (here, thanks to the touching).

These thoughts make me wonder, can we experience empathy in a virtual world?

Jayoung Chung’s website : www.jayoungchung.com

References :

1 — Jean Decety, 2002, « Naturaliser l’empathie » [Empathy naturalized], L’Encéphale, 28 : p.9–20
2 — S.D. Hodges & K.J. Klein, « Regulating the costs of empathy : the price of being human », Journal of Socio-Economics, vol. 30,‎ 2001, p.438
3 — Edward T. Hall, 1966, « The Hidden Dimension », p.254
4 — Carl R. Rogers, 1961, « On Becoming a Person »
5 — 
Photo : Barbara Kruger, 1994, « L’empathie peut changer le monde »


Written by former Eyebeam Intern Celso Urroz.