Critic 

An Artivist for Migrant Labor, Park Kyong-Ju

Gim Jun-Gi (Independent curator)

Photographs, Videos, and Installations: Identities of Migrant Labor in Arts

 

Photographs of ‘migrants’ in Germany were artist Park Kyong-Ju's first efforts by on her life-long journey through the theme of migrant labor. She started the Project of Berlin migrant workers in 1999. She documented around 300 migrant workers in front of the Berlin immigration office. In Order to cross the borders of races, states, and nations in the lives of diverse people, she approached them and opened a dialogue.

 

She continued her works on migration with Koreans in Germany. As her legitimate residency as a student expired, she started to work as a secretary for the Korean Association in Berlin. By having an increased accessibility to Koreans in Berlin, she could photograph around 50 Korean nurses and miners there. Her supplementary endeavor to hold the lives of Koreans in Germany even by working as a secretary signaled the beginning of her consistent undertakings on the theme of migration and labor.

 

The history of Korean diaspora has been a century. During the last years of Joseon Dynasty, Koreans moved to Mexico as Henequen laborers and to the Russian borders as Koreiski who were later forced to relocate to the central Russia by Stalin. The history of Korean migrant workers continues as Korean were drafted as Japanese soldiers during the World war Ⅱ and as Koreans moved across the Pacific to the United States for their American dreams. Korean also moved to Germany in the 1960s and 70s to be miners and nurses and started their new lives there. Even the lives of young Koreans who left their poverty -stricken homes in the rural areas to become factory workers in the 1960s and 70s are similar to those of migrant workers in the 1990s.

 

Park Kyong-Ju has produced several installations works and single channel video works on migrant labor. She reminded the existence of Korean miners in Germany through the installation work of ‘Memories of Germany’(Young Artist Exhibition, the National Museum of Contemporary Arts, Korea, 2000) which filled the floors of an exhibition hall with charcoal blocks from Germany. Also, she shared the nostalgia of migrant workers in Korea through another Installation which recorded and played voices of migrant workers talking on the phones with their families at homes. ‘Home’ (Walking Across, Sungkok Museum, Seoul, 2001). The single channel visual work of ‘Where are you from?’ (lnsa Art Space, Seoul, 2001) highlighted the existence of 'strangers' exposed to public glances.

 

While Park pictured photographs of migrant workers in Germany from a foreigner's perspective - they were diverse ethnic backgrounds of Spanish, blacks, Turks, Pakistanis and people from Asia-, those in her later works in Korea showed foreigners exposed to public glances from a native's point-of-view. She took pictures of around 100 migrant workers in Korea at Kyungdong Church which they visit for medical services on Sundays.

 

The photography works in the year 2004 are more meaningful. Park documented lives of 10 women’s migrant workers and while working closely with them, she could show different aspects and events on their lives. she followed the tremulous journeys of the women migrant workers in Korea who were under double burdens of life as migrant workers and as women.

Music CD, Election Campaign Performance, and Internet Broadcast: Social Performances

 

Pak Kyong-Ju, who pushed herself to the lives of migrant workers and worked closely with them, has also materializes her efforts through social performances. They are 'Migrant Workers' Music project', 'Migrant Workers' Election Campaign Performances' and 'Internet Broadcast for Migrant Workers'.

 

With the start of ‘Migrant Workers’ Music Project (2002),’ Park deepened her roles as an activist. Since then, she could have identified herself both as a visual artist and a cultural activist.

 

For 'Migrant Workers’ Music Project,’ she scouted a migrant workers’ music band Eureka, composed of 7 migrant workers from Burma, completed a Music CD and prepared a debut concert for the group. The title of the music CD is ‘What is Life’. The songs on the CD manifest the desperateness in lives of migrant workers in Korea.

 

Until the official disbandment of the group in spring 2004, Park had to see off members of the group returning homes and visited members of the band confined and handcuffed at a detention center for foreigners. Through her active roles as a sincere supporter for migrant workers, she has overcome the observatory distance which objectifies migrant workers and established herself as an activism artist.

 

Park’ s artistic activism has finally carried her to a political slogan of ‘A Migrant Worker Politician to Parliament’.  With the start of ‘Migrant Workers’ Election Campaign Performances’ in 2004, Park, has jumped into politics. Through the election performances, she shared with citizens in Korea her idea that it would be a good option to have a migrant worker politician in Korea in order to set up right policies for migrant workers. While the artist fully utilized her imagination, it was not a lethargic imagination of a feeble-minded artist. She launched the Project with a specific goal in mind, to set up a migrant worker as a proportional candidate of a labor party.

 

While migrant worker candidates campaigned for votes on streets in downtown, Park video recorded interviews with citizens on streets. Utilizing campaigns trucks, shoulder banners or campaign handouts and even megaphones to speech before Crowds in downtowns, she watched and documented the reactions of the citizens. The Migrant workers’ Election Campaign Performances began as a part of 'Anyang River Project Exhibition’ autumn 2004 which invited Kim Titon (Bangladesh), a staff at Seoul Migrant workers Center, to participate as a candidate. The political performances continued with other migrant worker candidates participating in different cities across the nation: Aziz (Daegu), Park Utti (Daejeon), Lee Haemini (Changwon), and Im Arisa (Gwangju).

 

‘Will you cast a vote for a migrant worker candidate?” The question the artist Park has thrown to Koreans on streets in Korea returned positive answers. By video-recording the interviews with citizens and sharing them with visitors to the exhibition, she also showed that one of the most fundamental roles of an artist is to ‘report reality’.

 

Park, standing on the border between an artist and an activist, builds new communication networks using the new media, internet. While the internet Broadcast for Migrant Workers (www.migrnatsinkorea.net) is another experiment for the artist, the project is also important in the field of art since it would prove the potentials of arts that a task which is not possible in the field of real media politics can be reality through works of arts.

 

By exploring a new field of media, Park offers an alternative communication channel for migrant workers, artists, alternative media journalists and activists of migrant workers’ centers.

 

“Internet Broadcast for Migrant workers would provide a public square. We reject the closed way of communication as seen in some migrant workers’ centers.  Information should be shared and become accessible to anyone. That is a democracy. I believe that the democratization inside the movement circles must be preceded. The buds of revolution would begin to sprout when ideas on problems and alternatives are discussed and shared.”

 

The Park’s announcement reflects her aspiration for an alternative media. According to her, there are around 130 centers for migrant workers across the country. Her project of an independent media would not only deal with issues of migrant workers but also include collections of materials and information on migrant workers, unification of communities and establishment of human networks.

An Artivist on the Border between an artist and an Activist

 

Park’ s social performances are on the borderline between a visual artist and an avant- garde activist. As an avant-garde artist, she has set her position in life. ‘The place nobody has ventured to go to’ or ‘the place everybody deems impossible’ is what the artist has set for herself. And that’ s what makes her an innovating artist.

 

Park Kyong-Ju, who heals the wounds of migrant labor and tries to hold on an insight on identities of migrant labor, uses her artistic imaginations to fill the gap between reality and art. With the name of anti-capitalism, she runs freely across borders of states, regions, races, nations, and classes.

 

I would like to call Park Kyong-Ju an ‘artivist’ who has earned double identities as an artist and as an activist. And I understand her achievements as one of major alternative art movements in the contemporary art scene and as a public art activism toward a new harmony beyond the gap between arts and reality. (2005)