What May I Hope?

Dr. Sunyoung Oh

The Song of the Wind project, held in Wando from May 2022 to November 2023, documents the process of how artists, architects, activists, and others interested in and involved in a socially collaborative art project approach such an activity. It demonstrates how they understand the project’s purpose and maps the stories that emerge as inspiration for artistic practice; it shows how they understand the local area and work with the local people; and it indicates the relational challenges and collaborative approaches they experience as they fulfill the agreements, I have made with the partner organizations to host the project.1

I am the organizer of the Song of the Wind project, but I am also one of the participants considering the ecological and social issues of the project’s theme; I have been observing the process of the project whilst engaging in some of the research projects by the selected participants. I have also helped to facilitate the process of dialog among the participants, including local residents, thereby expanding the project. As such, my role falls within the curatorial methodology of practicing socially engaged art with multidisciplinary research collaborators working at the intersection of art and ecology across communities and cultural institutions.2 In the cycle of years 2022 and 2023, the Song of the Wind project has Shinkoo Woo (Korea), Marco Kusumawijaya (Indonesia), and Tessa Peters (United Kingdom) as collaborative researchers. We are working with 29 artists, artist collectives, architects, activists, and curators from China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Ireland, the Philippines, Portugal, Thailand, and South Korea, along with residents of Gogeum-myeon and Yaksan-myeon in Wando-gun.  

A curating handbook would not find it easy to outline and explain the requirements of an art project that involves local community members and artists from different countries who occupy what Homi K. Bhabha would describe as a “third space.”3 This is not least because different countries and regions do not share the same historical perspectives, and no cultures are the same. Thus, how to organize an art project in a local context and with local people is bound to differ depending on where the project takes place. There are also limitations to understanding local contexts and in generalizing from the many unpredictable situations that arise in the process of connecting art and place, artists and local people. However, the very aspect, which cannot be generalized, is at the core of my curatorial methodology.4 It might be seen as an anthropological exploration through art and artistic practice for social engagement.5 I describe my curatorial practice as socially engaged because I invite artists who share similar social concerns and other relevant collaborators from different fields of expertise to work on a project to explore issues ‘together,’ and I help to guide the discourse through this participatory process, and collectively we determine the ‘common’ coordinates. In that sense, the purpose of the project’s ‘invitation’ is to create a ‘temporary solidarity’ for collaboration among the invited participants. This is also to emphasize the need for and importance of sustainable solidarity and cooperation in a human-centered, individualistic society. At the same time, it is to explore reasonable alternatives that respect individual rights and find collaborative ways for us all to ‘live together.’6 With this explicit purpose in mind, the role of dialog is an important principle of the Song of the Wind project.7 By foregrounding this approach, the project participants gain an understanding of the theme and intentions of the project, how to approach the particularities of an area through the project, and what kinds of cooperation can be drawn-up from the process of understanding the lives of the local people. It is to understand and develop ways of engaging participants within the relational specificities that arise in any collaborative process, including how project staff work with other participants, villagers, etc.8 As Grant Kester says, “Dialogic practice requires a common discursive matrix (linguistic, textual, physical, etc.) within which participants can share insights and form a tentative sense of collectivity.”9 This is how the Song of the Wind project functions in society as a public art project: by bringing together people with different, yet related interests, addressing the ‘publicness of the subject’ in a ‘public space,’ and ultimately finding ways to ‘live together.’ Therefore, its ‘dialogic mode’ or ‘dialogic practice’ is an integral part of the project10 and is at the root of the ‘socially collaborative’ nature of the Song of the Wind. For this reason, an audience member should not solely focus his or her perspective on the aesthetic merit of artistic output and its interpretation, but on the broader social issues and crucial discourses raised during the course of the project.   

The way this project is viewed and interpreted is, of course, open to interpretation, and I am sympathetic to the possibility that it could be expanded into an interdisciplinary study over its duration. In addition, there are plenty of philosophical and aesthetic elements to be found in this project. Before interpreting the project from various perspectives, I will first consider the practices of the first group of artist-participants in relation to the project’s theme from a social and ethical perspective, and identify arising methodological issues for the sake of expanding the sites and strategies of social engagement by the artists.11

This article describes the process of the first phase of the Song of the Wind project, which took place from May 2022 to June 2023 in Yaksan-myeon, Wando-gun, Jeollanam-do, South Korea. It focuses on the following aspects: (1) Approaching the region to plan the project; (2) Selecting the best participants for the region and the project; (3) The premise of the collaborative relationship of the participants, and their shared sense of the problem signified by the project’s theme. It covers, for example, the engagement and dialogic methods they utilized and the challenges that were encountered along the way; (4) The impact of the project on the local community; (5) The common tasks created by the project. In addition, I present the conclusions I have come to after examining the ecological interrelationships of art and society through the course of the project and discuss how I am expanding the project after the conclusion of the second residency in the fall of 2023.  

Ecology Check: Confirmation of Ecological Interrelationships in Arts and Society

May 2022 - June 2023 #1.

‘Wind’ in Korean is a natural phenomenon and is integral to the ecological cycle of all species on Earth. Just as when water ceases to flow and becomes stagnant, there is a change from a healthy and positive to an unhealthy and damaging environment, the same can be said of the air when it lacks the wind to drive atmospheric circulation. The same goes for all ‘relationships’ in human affairs.12 Recalling Kant’s question, “What may I hope for?,”13 the Song of the Wind project examines the ecological interrelationship between art and society and cautiously sets a direction for the future.

When beginning to conceive the structure of the project, I thought about many things. Questions that arose in my mind included: “What can we do to help humanity survive climate change?” “Is the problem of migrant workers in Korea limited to migrant workers from overseas?” and “Can art practice and projects be used to solve ecological and social problems?” As I prepare for the end of the project in 2023, many questions and challenges remain. Any things that I don’t complete this year, I will continue to develop in subsequent projects.    

I am well aware of the fact that art projects cannot fully address real-world issues, such as climate change, or social problems like human rights or sexism. I see them as separate for two reasons: Firstly, even if there are artists who share a sense of ecological and social concern, their creative practice and their role as environmentalists and activists are not the same thing,14 and you can’t force artists to be activists.15 Secondly, it is impossible for an individual or a single nation to solve a global problem. The limitations of these two issues rationalize the need to consider how we can practice ethical responsibility, even if we do not achieve all the goals and objectives stated in the introduction of the Song of the Wind project. At least within the framework of socially engaged art, I had the hope that by expressing an ugly reality aesthetically through ‘art,’ I could try to talk to more people and discover practical measures to address the problem. And, at the same time, I promised myself that I would trial this project, even though I knew it might never fully succeed. This is because I wanted to better understand what the reasons might be for any points of failure and to have the chance to analyze these in the hope of revising, adjusting and improving the conceptual structure of similar future projects. Thus, when I was planning the project, I didn’t have a set answer in advance, but started by looking at the region where the project was to be held. Then I decided to unfold the project process as I experienced it in the given period of one year and eight months.16

As a socially collaborative art project, Song of the Wind attempts a different methodological approach than that usually found in public art (which frequently involves simply erecting sculptures in public spaces). It is the antithesis of an ‘art for art’s sake’ project;17 it is very important that the participants fully understand and sympathize with the nature of the project’s theme,18 that their research contributes to the project’s purpose, and that they consider how art can be used as a tool to positively impact society. As such, the Song of the Wind project does not exactly correspond to a regular artist-in-residence program or international art project, such as a biennale. The project questions the nature of much art that is placed in the public realm, as well as gallery-based presentations of socially engaged art where visitors have no real agency and are simply given something to do. It advocates the need for ‘socially collaborative art projects’ outside of museums. Ultimately, it aims to raise awareness of the importance of ‘cooperation’ through the process of finding ways to think about what we need to do to live together in a human-centered, individualistic society and how we can work together to solve the ecological and social problems we face.19 Therefore, the Song of the Wind does not have the purpose or intention of promoting its activities by inviting famous artists with a huge budget to showcase the results of their artworks. Instead, it aims to contribute to the discourse of socially engaged art through the process of scrutinizing and reviewing the project’s process with the project’s participants.

As previously stated, the Song of the Wind, 2022-2023, has been taking place in Yaksan-myeon, Wando-gun, Jeollanam-do in South Korea. Yaksan-myeon is a small island that is not well known to people among the many island areas in Jeollanam-do. The area of Yaksan-myeon is 28.74㎦, which is equivalent to 7.5% of Wando-gun, and as of March 2022, the population of Yaksan-myeon is 2,246. Every year during the kelp harvest season in May and June, more than 250 migrant workers come to Yaksan Island to work. They are mostly migrants from Thailand, Vietnam, Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Kazakhstan, with about 70% of them being Thai citizens. The Song of the Wind project in Yaksan Island involves artists, architects, and activists from countries across East and South East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The project tells the stories of the participants’ experiences as migrants in the region during their participation in the project.

The Journey Hasn't Been Easy: Project Initiation and Development Process

In November 2021, I received a proposal from the Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation. They wanted to apply for the Arts Council Korea’s ‘ARKO Public Art Project’ program and asked me to be the project director to work with them on the proposal. The proposal was for a partnership project with the foundation.20 The representative of the Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation and I were on equal footing in signing the ‘agreement.’ At the time, I was in the middle of finishing my doctoral thesis and facing my dissertation defense, but I felt I knew exactly what was needed for the development of culture and arts in Jeonnam region, as I had participated in several audits, evaluations, and consultation meetings for the Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation over the past few years. I believed that my participation would definitely contribute to the development of the foundation and the local cultural scene. I, therefore, accepted the offer. 

In order to write the proposal, I had to select a project site first, and before I could compile a list of potential locations, I made it clear to the foundation’s project manager that Shinan-gun should definitely be excluded from the project. I requested that the list be narrowed down to the areas of Jeollanam-do with the least cultural benefits.21 The foundation suggested that the project would take place in Wando. I respected the foundation’s opinion and decided to finalize the project site as Wando.

Wando-gun, Jeollanam-do, consists of several islands. I had to choose a specific area among the islands of Wando, so I went on a trip to Wando with the foundation’s project manager. It was the first time I had visited Wando (although since my first visit to the region, I have made several research trips by myself). In the course of my visits, I was able to try some of the island's specialties, visit different places to see if they could be used as a base for the project, meet and talk with a family from Seoul who were supported by the Wando Salary program to live in Wando for a year, and to begin to get to know the culture of the area, talk to the people I met, and get the feel of it. During my initial period of research, I met Yukyung Lee, the representative of ‘Haeum,’ who was active in Kogeum-myeon and, through her, I visited Yaksan Island for the first time. When I visited the island, the only sign of art was a mural completed by Haeum.22 Of the many islands in Wando that are connected to the mainland by road and bridge, it is not frequented by tourists. It is quiet and inhabited only by locals. I liked that. I made a plan for the ARKO Public Art Project program, considering Yaksan-myeon, Wando-gun, Jeollanam-do, as the project site, and I submitted an application through the Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation. We were fortunate to be selected to host the ‘2022-2023 ARKO Public Art Project’ as a project organized by the Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation.

After receiving the news that the project had been selected, I visited Yaksan Island several more times before the project began in earnest. It was only then that I fully realized the actual physical distance from my usual work location, and the reality was very different from what I thought it would be. I had to let go of the expectation that I would be able to live in the village for the duration of the actual project to see how things were going. In fact, I had to start the project with no chair for me to sit on, no desk for me to put my laptop on, and so forth. (Even now, just a few months away from the end of the project, there is still no space for me to work here).23

When the project started in May 2022, I began to gain an understanding of the village and give attention to the necessary details. It was challenging to approach the community while doing local research, seeing and understanding the lives of the villagers. There is a common trait in most parts of Korea that varies only slightly from region to region: it is a sense of exclusivity and wariness that can outweigh hospitality to people from outside. This sentiment is especially strong in situations where economic benefits are to be shared. Fortunately, from the villagers’ point of view, I wasn’t seen as someone who would act against their standards. Thus, they weren’t particularly wary of me. Yet, I could see the villagers thinking about how they could benefit from me, and I thought that the saying about how people in the country are more generous than those in the city had become a thing of the past.  

At Yaksan Elementary School, I met and became friends with Grace, who had moved to Yaksan from the Philippines for marriage. I was better able to understand the profile of the village by talking to the villagers as I was walking around with her, and I realized that there are more people who are born, raised, and die in the same place than migrants. So, after much deliberation, I decided it was appropriate for this project to exist as if it were a wandering vagabond passing by like the wind. I think that’s why the villagers weren’t wary of me or bothered by me, making it possible to maintain our relationship in a comfortable manner. I sang the ‘Song of the Wind’ with the villagers that I met in such a way, and subsequently used the song in the promotional video for the project.24 The Song of the Wind project was launched with this song.

In the early stages of my work in Yaksan, I was fortunate to have the help of the former head of the Yaksan Township Office and the head of the general affairs team. With this assistance, it was not difficult to explore the village and meet people. However, in September 2022, the staff of the Wando County Government were replaced due to personnel changes, and the county office's cooperation with the Song of the Wind project and the Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation was suspended. The same was true of the position of the Wando County Office. The Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation, as the organizer of the project, had suggested the possible site as Wando-gun, but since it is the first project in Yaksan-myeon, Wando-gun, the foundation does not have any staff on site. Not long after the project started, I realized the work couldn't be done within the period if I didn't cover much of the groundwork. As a result, I had to take care of establishing the necessary infrastructure for the project in addition to my role as artistic director. As of July 2023, as I'm writing this article, the situation hasn't changed.

With anything new, it’s hard to predict how local people will react. When a project involving a government agency takes place, villagers can tend to weigh up the benefits to themselves. Although there is more accommodation in the Yaksan-myeon area than you might think, the facilities are very poor, with prices high for the standard - and far too high to be met by the budget of this project. At first, I thought it might be possible to negotiate the price since most of the participants in this project were staying for a long time. However, the owners were not willing to negotiate, even if the room was empty. The Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation was concerned that the foundation’s efforts to negotiate the price of the accommodation fee would result in multiple complaints. Thus, I had to step in. In the end, I spent a large part of the project budget on accommodation, transportation, and meals. Even if I could handle my own accommodation, I was concerned about the accommodation of the artists involved in the project. With the assistance of the former chief of the village (now the head of the Wando County Council, Choi Jeong-hwan), I connected with the former head of Dangmok-ri (Kwon Bok-sam) and the former president of the women’s association. As a result, I was able to rent the first floor of the old village hall in Dangmok-ri with the help of several members of the association. This happened in November 2022.25

In order to rent the village hall, the former chief had to attend a village meeting and get permission from the villagers. But the process was very complicated. The final negotiated terms of the agreement with the women’s association were that I would be able to take over the village hall for free for one year under the condition of making long-term improvements (fixing the odor in the restrooms, building a new restroom, installing an exterior entrance door, and overhauling the interior kitchen facilities).26 The village youth association was stubborn from the start, refusing to give up their use of the second floor. This was a ‘meeting place’ for their members to play pool and hang out together. However, there were many days when the space was empty because most of the village youth were busy working at sea. 

Establishing the “Song of the Wind” Project

In October-November 2022, I created the first project website. The call for the residency program was announced through the website and on e-flux agenda, and with the help of the Mekong Cultural Hub (MCH), I was able to conduct a Q&A session to introduce the Song of the Wind residency program in detail.27 Over 200 artists applied. Many more than I expected. Architect and activist Marco Kusumawijaya, independent curator Tessa Peters, and MCH Director Frances Rudgard participated in the selection process. The most important points covered in the interview were: whether the applicant’s work would be suitable for social engagement; if the interviewee understood that the Song of the Wind project was different from a typical public art project or artist-in-residence program; whether they would participate in kelp farming and accept the fact that there would be no private rooms, with only dormitory-style rooms for men and women, along with a shared kitchen and common space. In other words, it focused on clarifying the scope of the project, eliminating any prior assumptions held and on discovering if the applicant could accept the situation.

At the same time as the participants of the residency program were being selected in December 2022, the renovation of facilities inside the former Dangmok-ri village hall was getting underway. I had conveyed to the person in charge of the Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation project several times that an agreement should be drawn up with the village to use the village hall, but unfortunately, it was never implemented. In the end, the refurbishment of the village hall proceeded in December 2022 without the signing of a venue use agreement with the Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation. This caused me significant concern over the possibilities of what could happen next. But I didn’t have the power to move the foundation staff to action.

When the administration of the foundation for 2022 ended in December, I faced the challenge of not being able to continue the work planned for 2023 immediately. In addition, I learned that the foundation had unilaterally decided how to use the budget for the Song of the Wind project without consulting me as the general director of the project, and then tried to hire administrative staff for the project. I was forced to cancel some of the project plans because the Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation had advertised a project-related position.28 Then the plans for 2023 stalled until March because the project manager from the foundation did not work on the project. During this time, I conducted research with some Korean artists so as to save time.29

In January 2023, a new village chief was appointed in Dangmok-ri. An arising problem was caused by the failure to sign an agreement for the use of the former village hall before the end of 2022, as some villagers complained that the hall was allowed to be used without asking for the consent of the entire village. Indeed, there were many stories shared among the villagers that were different from the facts. Eventually, I had to step in and meet with the new village chief to explain the whole project again and ask him to draw up an agreement. After some twists and turns, the agreement was finalized, but due to delays, the second phase of construction was barely wrapped up in April – and the residency program was to begin in the building in May.

Engaging in Kelp Farming as a Migrant Worker: Different Purpose, Different Perspective, Different Attitude

As mentioned earlier, the Song of the Wind residency program is very different from other artist-in-residence programs. Therefore, I was very careful when inviting participants and communicating the project and the purpose of the residency program; for the sake of clarity, I always aimed to describe the situation as accurately as possible. During the application review and interview process, however, I found that many artists were more focused on their own interests than on the purpose of the program. Despite the detailed description of the program in the announcement, there was still a significant number of applicants who assumed it was a typical artist residency program. This made the participant selection process even more important, and I had to be very careful. For this reason, I spent a long time with Marco, Tessa, and Frances, thinking about the right participants for the project. Eight applicants were selected out of a total of more than two hundred people. And out of the eight, the actual number of participants was reduced to six.30

There is a reason why the residency program recruited participants who could participate in kelp farming and work with local people to develop the project together. The idea of the residency was to understand the culture of a specific region in another country, and to think about what artists can do for the development of that region. Neither myself, the villagers, nor the participants had any expectations that anyone could actually manage kelp farming for a month. However, I didn’t want to cause any damage to the village, so I emphasized in the announcement that the project was looking for participants who could fully engage with the kelp harvest.     

The week we arrived was rainy and cold. The first day I arrived at the community center, the internet router arrived, but it was broken and couldn't be used, and I couldn't shower there for a week because there was no hot water. So, I used the public bathhouse with two of the first artists-in-residence, Christine Mackey and Gatari Surya Kusuma. As strangers entered the bathhouse, they couldn't help but attract the attention of the local ladies, who spoke to our group and welcomed us warmly. It was extraordinary but fun, and the good thing about the lack of hot water in the community center was that Christine and Gatari could experience Korean bathhouse culture. Afterwards, we often went on bathhouse tours in Wando-eup, Sinji-myeon, and Gogeum-myeon.

After only a day or two of participating in kelp farming, ultimately, two of the initial artists-in-residence did not find it possible to sustain work on the kelp farm and found other ways to engage with life in Yaksan-myeon. But as the promise of farm labor had been made to the villagers, if it couldn’t be fulfilled, it would represent a major disruption to their livelihood. Thankfully, three members of the Ambiguous Dance Company, who I had invited to participate in the project, and I were able to step in to complete the day’s work for one of the artists.   

Gatari Surya Kusuma is a curator based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She successfully participated in kelp farming at the former village head's house. All the other workers there were Thai, and Gatari was the only Indonesian. I joined her team on the afternoon of the second day and spread kelp in the field with her Thai friends. When reflecting on her experience on the farm, Gatari said, “Through the process of kelp farming, I learned that because it is a job that requires cooperation, if one person is slow, the other person has to do more work, and it is not necessary here to let them know what do I do.”31 Even though Gatari and the Thai workers couldn't communicate because they spoke different languages, I could see them being considerate of each other. Her Thai colleagues said it was challenging to say Gatari's name, and so they gave her a nickname, Sophia. Our relationship with the Thai workers was so good that we could joke and say, “Our Sajangnim32 is bad!” in Korean. Unfortunately, during the kelp farming season, Sajangnim's mother passed away after a long battle with cancer, and Gatari and I attended the funeral together. On the final day of work, Gatari said goodbye to her Thai colleagues with great regret. Although she was only resident for a short period, Gatari was able to experience the diverse culture of the place. Sajangnim said he was impressed by the way Gatari came to work on time daily and got along well with her co-workers. Her understanding of the local context is based on food culture, and Gatari plans to create a seaweed food recipe book as a continuation of her work on the project. To this end, she intends to revisit Wando for a second residency and is currently researching to develop the Song of the Wind project in Bali, Indonesia.

Choreographer Boram Kim of the Ambiguous Dance Company is from Wando. However, the reason I invited him to participate in the Song of the Wind project was not only because of his roots. To be honest, I needed Ambiguous Dance Company’s energy for the arduous demands of kelp farming. I also wondered if we could come up with a labor dance, like the labor songs sung at kelp farming sites. Fortunately, Kim was receptive to my invitation. However, the Ambiguous Dance Company team was not able to devote much time to creating a dance routine in response to the project, as they were involved in actual kelp farming. However, their energy on the labor site was greater than I could have imagined, and they impressed the villagers. It wasn’t only their impressive labor dance that made that possible. We all felt that it was because they participated in kelp farming to the best of their abilities and shared those hard times with the villagers with all their hearts. In kelp farming, planting spores in ocean farms, growing good quality kelp, harvesting it, and drying it in the fields are all important to the people who do it for a living. Drying kelp, in particular, is a time-sensitive process that can mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful kelp farming season. The reason for the time crunch is that if the kelp is not laid out immediately after it is pulled from the sea, the kelp will dry out in the hot sun, and you will not get good quality dried kelp. There’s no room for conversation or dancing on these busy labor floors. While farming kelp, I had a brief conversation with the choreographers about ‘art making’ and ‘labor.’ I’ll cover this in a separate text at the end of the project, but here’s the video documentation.33 

The Challenges of Living Together in a Residency Space

The former Dangmokri village hall, which houses the project participants, consists of two rooms, each with its own bathroom and toilet, and a common area including a kitchen. Four artists stayed together in this space for over a month. Compared to the accommodation of migrant workers who come to the island, or compared to the houses of neighboring villagers, Dangmok-ri village hall is very comfortable and has a good environment. I organized its refurbishment hoping that the villagers would use the space as a place to stay for migrant workers who come to work in Dangmok-ri village after the Song of the Wind project ends. What may sometimes have seemed a functional space to the artists will most likely be a very comfortable place for migrant workers.

As I write this, it's July 2023. I’ve just completed the first residency program for Song of the Wind. The program allowed us to have a variety of experiences, and we found many points of thought along the way, which are enough to raise a discourse. However, there are still a few research projects to complete and a second residency program is starting in September. Thus, I’ll be writing more about all this in my project wrap-up article. One unexpected aspect of the project so far is that many of the artists who describe their art practices as “socially engaged” did not show an interest in working in this way during their stay in Wando. During the residency, there were many conversations among the participants about this issue, and what they all agreed on was that contemporary artists largely work behind their computers and therefore have shortcomings when it comes to being out in the open and engaging in real-world social engagement. If that’s the case, it’s worth reflecting on what we now call socially engaged art and what we hope to achieve with it.  

‘Inclusive’ Socially Engaged Art

Socially engaged art is an artistic medium that focuses on ‘participation’ through human interaction and social discourse and it is referred to by many names, including relational aesthetics, new genre public art, and dialogic art. Socially engaged art is collaborative, sometimes participatory, and involves people as the medium or material of the work, usually public art that is not owned by a private entity. Yet one aspect of this that needs further consideration is the extent to which artists who are involved in socially engaged art projects should claim ownership of their work, when many contributing decisions have been made by other participants. In cases when individual artists do claim ownership, it is hard to clearly differentiate socially engaged art from examples of studio works conceived and produced by individual artists. The issue of who comprises the public that examples of socially engaged ‘public art’ are made for also ties into this question. The Song of the Wind also provides a critique of such issues of socially engaged art and public art, emphasizing the desirability of achieving truly ‘inclusive’ art and ‘collaboration.’ It is not about mobilizing people for an art project, but about finding ways to approach social issues through art and to attempt to solve them collectively. The project not only invites artists who describe themselves as socially engaged to participate, but rather seeks to be inclusive of different kinds of artists of all genres, encouraging them to consider the ways in which they can make work with other members of society, and for wider social and ecological benefit.

Nonetheless, during the course of the project so far, it has been possible to discover a range of perspectives from the participating artists on socially engaged art: (1) There is the perspective of an artist who first aims to understand the local culture and then seeks to find ways to contribute to the area through a project; (2) There is the artist who sees their contribution to the project and region as inherently beneficial to the project and villagers; (3) There is also the perspective that a community or distinguishing feature of a place are entities that can be appropriated as part of the artist's work. While the first perspective conforms to the definition of socially engaged art given above, the others appear to be based on different kinds of motivation.

The Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation, the project’s organizer, the villagers of Yaksan-myeon, where the project is taking place, and the artists, activists, and architects involved in the project are all different interest groups that came together around the Song of the Wind project—a project designed to demonstrate and explore the impact of inclusive socially engaged art. Since everyone is new to each other through this project, the process of understanding each other is somewhat bumpy and slow. But all of this discomfort is ultimately a necessary part of the journey of figuring out how to live together. Of course, I could just gloss over the problems encountered on the way and tell an incomplete and partial story. But the reason I’m being honest and open about the problem is that I want to create an opportunity for us to think and improve together. It’s not my intention to criticize anyone or point fingers. Sharing what happened over the course of a series of projects is very uncomfortable for me, but I think it’s worth thinking about together.34 And if we don’t address this, we can’t move forward with the project. This is the kind of ‘collaboration’ I emphasize with this project, and why it’s necessary. As an inclusive, socially collaborative art project, Song of the Wind will only exist for a short time. I hope, however, that it will inspire people here to find ways to respect each other and live together, as well as gain a better understanding of the environmental and social problems that we need to urgently solve, and to suggest ways in which we might solve them together. 

The long journey of this project has just begun. Therefore, the content of the Song of the Wind website released in September 2023 is not the end result of the project. It is simply the story of the beginning of the project. But even with that in mind, already there have been many challenges to overcome and initial points of failure to learn from.35 All these have helped to successfully re-center the project. I was able to reset the right coordinates by reflecting on points of failure, and in reflecting on these, it was possible to find points of agreement. I still don’t know what I can ultimately hope for from this project. What I can do, however, is look at the problems that the ecological interrelationship between art and society reveals,36 fix what needs to be fixed, and continue the project. Of course, I’ll need to work with those involved in the project to make sure that they’re sympathetic to the project’s cause. In that sense, I would say that my role is more of an activist than the commonly understood role of a curator.37 The important thing is that I do not own anything through this project, and my role is connected to the meaning of socially engaged art and flows like wind.     


Working in the art industry, I realize every time I curate an exhibition or work on an art project that I am truly interested in the intangible things that can’t be translated into financial value. Therefore, I have been trying to see what we are missing in Korea, a country that does not have a long history of collecting contemporary art, by challenging recent and contemporary developments in which artworks have become highly sought-after as investment value products. I have been using art projects as an opportunity to think about this issue in collective terms. And I’ve been reflecting on the role of the curator and artist with the change of the times. In particular, Song of the Wind emphasizes socially collaborative structures and addresses global issues such as ocean ecology and global warming. The project revolves around the process of exploring what we can do ‘together’ through an art project; I started this project with an interest in friendship and hope based on highly subjective values, neither the distorted give-and-take of sharing under the framework of the exchange economy in a capitalist society, nor the objectified hope that is imposed and instigated from the outside. I spent much time in the selection process finding artists and village residents who fully understood the intentions of the project and who could work together in a sustainable way to continue the project.  

  Will I ever hear the song of the wind in my life?
  Will I know in time
  Why the flowers fade?
  There are people who have left me and others I will meet
  Where do those passing bonds and longings go?
  In my little wisdom I cannot know it
  All I know is how to live my life
  We learned we cannot afford
  More failure and agony
  If love is the answer
  I will love everything in this world

As mentioned in the call for applications for the Song of the Wind international residency program, it was conceived as a socially collaborative art project in which participants—artists, architects, and the villagers of Yasksan-myeon—would explore methodologies to improve a fishing village in relation to its marine ecology through a “collaborative” process of “dialogue.” It was instigated as a collaborative educational project with civil society with aims to build an economy of social benefit [...] utilizing artists’ labor as a problem-solving strategy to address the livelihoods of artists and communities, to share wisdom and devise sustainable ways to overcome the ecological crisis and present new paradigms of artistic practice. In 2023, I took the time to document the process as a preliminary step before the cooperation and collaboration of the villagers and artists began in earnest. 

I started researching the region and the daily lives of the villagers in May 2022, which was a little earlier than the participating artists were recruited. I had to spend a long time building the basic context and infrastructure for the project. However, while my time with the villagers in Yaksan-myeon was only slightly longer than that of the participating artists, I was also viewed as a stranger in the place and just another migrant worker. As an organizer and participant in the project, and as a facilitator between people, I felt that the project needed to be moved forward by bridging the gap between different perspectives and understandings. When I encountered situations where conflicting interests and perspectives hindered the flow of the conversation, I felt stuck yet again. However, the “relationships” and “differences in perspective” that surfaced during this process also allowed me to analyze the problem more precisely, which led me to develop a more robust curatorial methodology. In addition, as can be seen in the progress of the Song of the Windproject and research documents, including the participants’ research and progress reports, the diverse perspectives of each participant fostered the dialog among different participants. It has been through this dialog that we have been able to sustainably continue and expand the Song of the Wind project. 

The messages that artists bring to the world through their work have a special potency, and it is true that they can play an important role in social change. Their influence has followed a different lineage in different eras. Today, art comes in many forms, and we live in a time where everyone believes they can be an artist if they want to. In these shifting times, I question and examine the role of artists in our society and how they are perceived, aside from redefining what an artist is. As a result, I think we need to think about the role of art in the broader context of ecology and environmental issues, relationship building and community, and how artistic practice can be used to fulfil that role, not just from a perspective centered on humanities. I’m sure that the situation is similar in other fields. But in the arts, in particular, it’s hard to make progress without enduring instances of failure and agony. In this regard, I hope that the Song of the Wind will not remain a project focusing on artists, as has been the case in the past, but will instead serve as a more developed understanding of socially engaged art where all members of society can participate and make progress together. What we must not forget is that the participation of members of society should not be exploited to simply complete the work of an artist, nor used as adjuncts to events by performance-driven organizations or corporations. Therefore, it will be necessary to establish a new paradigm of artistic practice by constantly rethinking and renewing methodologies for building relationships to address global ecological and environmental problems and finding relevant ways and means to sustain community life.

Dr. Sunyoung Oh is an independent curator, researcher, and socially engaged artist. She curates socially engaged art projects with transnational research collaborators from various fields at the intersection of art and ecology involving local communities and cultural institutions: She defines it as a term “socially collaborative art project.” She received her Ph.D. from the University of Westminster with her thesis, ‘Curating Arts on the Edge of an Unstable Society (2021).’ She is the founder and director of Project 7½. Since 2014, her curatorial practice has explored the role of creativity in expressing the identity of a culture and region with a focus on the “relationship” and “differences of perspective” that emerge in the process; past projects have involved regional communities in S. Korea and Indonesia, with historical context playing an essential role in determining the project’s location. As an extension of her past projects, she is curating a socially collaborative art project titled ‘Song of the Wind’ in Yaksan-myeon, Wando-gun, Jeollanam-do, South Korea.

Her selected exhibitions include: A Tale of Two Cities: Narrative Archive of Memories (Arco Art Museum, Yunseul Museum of Gimhae Cultural Foundation, National Gallery of Indonesia, 2017-2018); Elephant in the Room (Jakarta History Museum, 2018-2019) and Her Name Is (Asia Culture Center, 2019). A recent online project, Look Who’s Talking (2022 and ongoing), connects participatory projects in Indonesia, Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Denmark, Germany, and the UK (lookwhoistalking.info).

1 I’ll be explaining why this process is important later in the text and in the final project report.

2 In my doctoral dissertation, “Curating Arts on the Edge of an Unstable Society” (2021, University of Westminster), I draw on the curatorial practice and research of Project 7½, which took place between 2014 and 2019 in South Korea and Indonesia, to highlight the need for expanded roles and collaboration between artists and curators through socially collaborative art projects. The Song of the Wind project is an extension of that thesis. 

3 Postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha interrogated the presence of colonialism and the legacy of its effect on modern society. His work has also allowed subsequent scholars to consider the ways in which art has been used to underpin colonial ideologies and values in its historical exclusion of non-Western art and civilizations from the mainstream Western purview. His notion of the “Third Space” can be understood as a point of intersection and interaction between cultures where new concepts and meanings can seed and develop.  

4 The process of encountering unexpected events or situations in the course of a collaboration, ones that cause me to see things I wasn’t aware of, to censor my thoughts, to correct my mistakes, and to set a new direction is essential to keeping the discourse of the project on track. This is also the main reason why I choose to organize socially collaborative art projects outside of museums.

5 Social practice goes by many names, including ‘relational aesthetics’, ‘new genre public art’, ‘socially engaged art’, ‘dialogic art’, and ‘participatory art’, but above all, the work of the social practice is described as focusing on the interaction between audiences, social systems, and artists or artworks through ethics, collaboration, methodology, antagonism, media strategies, and social activism.

6 In modern society, the concept of community/group has a strong sense of exclusivity, with the assumed division of those who are inside and outside. Since the concept of community is the liberal equivalent of the conservative concept of ‘family values’ and both have strong political attitudes, my position is that we should avoid attitudes that distinguish between those who belong to a community/group and those who do not. Therefore, in order to emphasize the importance of community in modern society, I think it is necessary to reflect on its meaning and propose alternatives that are suitable for the future direction, and I hope that we can develop this discussion in the future.

7 The project focuses on the ecological and social issues of Yaksan-do in Wando-gun. Therefore, in this project, it is important to understand the local area and explore how we can work together with the villagers to discuss the topic before giving the artists creative freedom. And the artist's creative domain is subdivided and connected by methodological issues within it. Over the course of the project, I noticed a common thread among some of the artists. Some artists felt that the process of looking at the issues raised by the project and finding ways to collaborate together was a matter of being told what to do, a situation deemed to be overly intrusive into the artist’s creative space. In such cases, there was an attitude that artists should only be concerned with their creative space. Some of the artists ended up proposing the work in a way that was contrary to the intention of the project, that is, maintaining an artist-centered attitude at odds with socially engaged art and failing to think about the importance of collaborating with the villagers. It is unfortunate that the complaints and grievances that arise from this artist-centered thinking relating to the issues raised by the project have been unproductive and emotionally draining for both the organizers and the artists (participants). As it stands, there is no real incentive for Korean artists to develop a socially engaged art practice, as it has no kudos in assisting them to develop their careers. As a result, there is a lack of understanding of socially engaged art among artists themselves. This is an issue that must be addressed at a time when the art world (perhaps particularly the Korean art world) is regressing to the past. I tried to overcome this limitation by establishing a ‘dialog,’ but it proved impossible. In conclusion, attempts to collaborate with some of the participants have not been as productive as I would have hoped in terms of the objectives of the project.

8 The terms of participation in Song of the Wind were to engage in a mutual agreement to look at the local area with a sense of the problems that the project’s shared themes represent, to find ways to solve them together, and to find ways to cooperate. Therefore, there are ‘rules’ that both the organizer and the participants must follow, at least for the duration of their participation in the project. These are not unilateral, but are more like ‘promises’ that must be kept for a mutually beneficial collaboration. This project begins by looking at the potential for artists and art projects to play a social role in a different way to that which has been traditionally done, by examining the interests of participants connected to art projects with the aim of expanding the role of art, and by understanding the different perspectives found there. I would add that an understanding of socially engaged art is unlikely to be the same for all participants and an examination of the differences is also dealt with in the project process.

9 Grant Kester. (2005). ‘Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially-Engaged Art’. In Zoya Kucor and Simon Leung (eds) Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985. Blackwell.

While Kester raises language as part of the necessary common discursive matrix, I would argue that even when people speak the same language, it is not always possible to communicate ideas clearly, and there can still be difficulties in understanding each other. At the same time, a willingness to communicate can help in overcoming language barriers. I have learned this from my previous projects, and have seen it happen in the course of this project. Besides, I contend that sometimes looking at environmental situations and/or ecological problems where there is no common language can help in gaining a fuller understanding of what needs to be addressed.

10 The Song of the Wind project was launched with a grant from the Korea Arts Council’s “2022 ARKO Public Art Project.”

11 There should be more reflection on the reality of an art world in which primary attention is focused on the art market and where the art system gives little thought to pressing issues. If this situation is not corrected, artists will eventually be forced to admit that the value of their art is no different to the value of a commodity. Although I don’t advocate for the abolition of the current art system, I believe it’s certainly worth thinking about how to account for the many contradictory points that emerge in the attitude and language of the artist under such a situation. By engaging in the process of understanding differences before dismissing new perspectives, I hope that we broaden the horizons of thought and move away from the preconceived notions that many artists hold.

12 The word ‘wind’ in the project’s title, Song of the Wind, refers not only to the movement of air, but also to hope, and is a metaphor for ecological concepts. In the Song of the Wind project, the ecological concept connects to the issue of ‘relationship’ that emerges in the course of the project: that all living things have an organic relationship with each other and are inextricably linked to the environment, affecting even the invisible realm.

13 In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant explains that the concerns of human reason are unified by three questions: “What can I know?”, “What must I do?”, and “What may I hope for?”.

14 That’s why I think we need to give more consideration to the social role of socially engaged artists.

15 However, I do believe that artists who address socio-political issues in their work should have a clear sense of ethical responsibility.

16 I had no ties to Wando. This project brought me to visit the area for the first time, and I felt I was on my own in the middle of nowhere. Hence, I was nervous and uncomfortable because I couldn’t predict what was to come. However, as time passed, I realized that I have gained much from the situation.

17 During the project, there was some confusion about this for several of the participating artists, and it was definitely worth thinking about. See footnote (7) for understanding the full context.

18 There are no model answers for how artists should engage, and I don’t want to prescribe what’s right or wrong. However, I would like to emphasize - once again - that it is very important to see how the participants think about the problem we are trying to solve together, what they come up with through the process, and how they bring different perspectives together and find points of agreement.

19 See footnote (6) for full text. The ‘temporary solidarity for the sake of cooperation’ in Song of the Wind is the opposite of the nature of a community or group that is divided by boundaries between inside and outside.

20 For the Jeonnam Cultural Foundation, the Song of the Wind project was the first case of an external organizer and a foundation organizing a project together on an equal footing. Therefore, I understand that it takes time to understand exactly what the Foundation’s role is in such a project. But I appreciate the efforts of the Jeonnam Cultural Foundation.

21 Shinan-gun in Jeollanam-do has been actively engaged in several cultural and artistic projects through various state-supported projects, but in comparison, Wando-gun has received relatively few benefits. In addition, in Wando-gun, Yaksan-does not possess an infrastructure for residents to enjoy culture and art. Considering this situation, Yaksan-myeon, Wando-gun, was selected as the project site. 

22 Haeum’s voluntary after-school cultural and artistic education program, which started with a group of elementary school students in Gogeum-myeon village, Wando-gun, is exemplary. I hope that this activity can continue for the development of the village in the future. I could see that Haeum’s mural works were appreciated by the villagers and I started thinking about the role I could play with them. As part of Song of the Wind, Haeum were to collaborate with artist Soo Kyung Lee and also conducted workshops with residency participants Vincent Rumahloine and Gatari Surya Kusuma, exposing them to a far wider range of artistic ideas and sources of inspiration.

23 I have never felt uncomfortable with this situation. When I was planning this project, I thought I would find a place to stay for the duration of the project and work from there. Given the physical distance of Yaksan Island from Seoul and the tight budget, there were many things to consider, and I wondered if I could spend enough time there to convince people that I understood the region. But as I’ve learned from several past projects, just because a person lived in an area for a long time doesn’t mean he or she knows it well. Rather, by taking a third-party position, one can make a disinterested judgment about what exactly is needed in the area.

24 Song of the Wind sung by villagers in Yaksan-Myron and Song of the Wind Teaser

25 Since the project started in May 2022, it took seven months to find a residency space for the Song of the Wind project participants. 

26 I readily agreed with their suggestion, as I felt that this was a much more meaningful use of the project budget than spending it on accommodation. I hope that this place can be used as a playground for villagers as well as accommodation for migrant workers.    

27 See the website: https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/501120/open-call-for-song-of-the-wind-in-wando/

28 No one at the foundation has commented on this issue. When I raised the issue, the foundation said they planned to have administrative staff do fieldwork as well. This was possibly meant to appease me as the project’s director, who was working without a coordinator to assist me on-site. 

29 For example, Kira Kim had expressed interest in the project since 2022 and even visited Wando with a group of young artists. Although this group of artists, including Xooang Cho and Jimin Kim, had not previously worked on a socially engaged project, I hoped that I could help to develop their interest on the right lines.

30 While the interviews led me to believe that the selected participants fully understood the purpose of the project, many conversations before the actual residency program began revealed that this was not the case. Two participants voluntarily withdrew from the residency program before the start.

31 She describes her experiences during kelp farming through a report she wrote during her residency program.

32 Sajangnim means boss as an honorific Korean term.

33 Ambiguous Dance Company Documentary

34 If arts administrators, curators, and artists can all be honest about what is right and wrong in the way that projects work, I think that’s how we can create a healthy arts ecosystem.

35 I had to put a lot of thought into releasing the story of what has failed in public. This is because I was concerned about misrepresenting the cause of failure as a problem with a particular organization or individual participant. While I hope it can offer all involved a chance to think about what they could have done better or differently, I bear in mind that as the organizer of this project, I’m, therefore, the one who failed the most.

36 A crucial part of my methodology for positively impacting the local community through this project has been to prioritize caring for the villagers. Therefore, the artist has to directly engage with the villagers. At the same time, it is necessary to consider how the villagers’ needs affect the ecology and environmental problems of the area. It is also essential to consider how the villagers can continue to use or engage with the resulting artworks. Dialog is a critical element in the process, however, the process of the dialog has not always been successful. Nonetheless, it can be said that the premise of the project has been successful in that it has allowed the possibility of resetting the correct coordinates following the identification of points of failure. It has also allowed a consideration of what went well or less well, thereby assisting a perspective on what might happen in future.

37 When it comes to doing what I should be doing, the title I hold is not important.