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Seoul Mediacity Biennale curator Yung Ma discusses public engagement through art

After being postponed for over a year due to COVID-19, the Seoul Mediacity Biennale’s 11th edition now focuses on escapism as a tool to address and confront the reality.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Nov 15, 2021

This year Seoul emerged as a host once again to its 11th edition of the Mediacity Biennale, which focuses on digital media and new media technologies in the art world. This includes a broad spectrum of material, media, and mode including film, interactive technology, augmented reality and virtual reality. The Seoul Mediacity Biennale is presented in two phases, the online exhibition and the physical one. The biennale was inaugurated on September 8, 2021 and is on view till November 21, 2021. It has been curated by Yung Ma, with Jiwon Yu as the assistant curator. Yung Ma’s six years as the associate curator of the moving image department at the M+ museum in Hong Kong established an enduring relationship between him and the digital media form. Later, he was appointed curator of the Contemporary Art and Prospective Creation Department at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, where he was involved with the collection as well as programming. We spoke to Ma to find out more about this year’s events.

Hsu Che-Yu’s The Unusual Death of a Mallard (2020) at the Biennale | Seoul Media City Biennale | STIRworld
Hsu Che-Yu’s The Unusual Death of a Mallard (2020) at the Biennale Image: Courtesy of the artist

Ma tells STIR, “I have been very interested in the power and reach of popular media, particularly TV, music and cinema, along with how they are produced and distributed today. So, the idea of trying to learn from the current models of popular media, and how to reimagine the different aspects of their modes of engagement to understand and counter our troubling world became the starting point for me. Then I realised that the notion of escapism could be the glue to bring all the different threads together. Interestingly but unexpectedly, after speaking with the biennale participants and collaborators over the course of planning the biennale, and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus of the biennale has shifted more towards ‘escapism’, and how it can be embraced as a tool to address and confront the reality."

New media is a generous space to work within for an artist or curator. Given its short history, the room for innovation and imagination is vast. While this allows some degree of freedom, it also demands careful attention so as to not sway entirely off the path of high caliber work. This biennale places a close eye on new media and its potential for escapism. Ma elaborates upon this concept saying, “I think most of us consider escapism as a kind of a negative coping mechanism. So, the entire premise of the biennale is asking the question of how can we reconsider our relationship with it, and embrace it as a force to deal with a less hopeful reality. In fact, this idea of rethinking the nature of escapism as a way to navigate our neo-liberal and capitalistic structures has slowly but surely emerged in different areas of research/study over the last years. With the pandemic and repeated lockdowns, escapism as a coping mechanism has the saving grace for a lot of us. But it is also time to rethink escapism in terms of its potential, channeling it as an entryway to understand the contemporary human experience.”

The exhibition also includes photo art like Kim Min’s Yes We Cam (2012-16) | Seoul Media City Biennale | STIRworld
The exhibition also includes photo art like Kim Min’s Yes We Cam (2012-16) Image: Courtesy of the artist

As with many international art festivals, the Seoul Mediacity Biennale has also faced the brunt of COVID-19 restrictions tossing around their schedule. After over a year of delays they are finally able to open. “Because of the travel restrictions, I am actually very excited about the opportunity to develop our online outreach and reimagine our public programmes somewhat, to rethink the ideas local versus global and how to better engage with our immediate audience in Seoul/Korea.”

A still from SOAP (2014) by Monira Al Qadiri | Seoul Media City Biennale | STIRworld
A still from SOAP (2014) by Monira Al Qadiri Image: Courtesy of the artist

The pandemic has opened our eyes to different ways of engaging with local and international audiences. Going forward, the art industry will be compelled to consider the requirements of a digital viewer which is likely to lead us to more accessibility and egalitarianism within the art community which can otherwise be unfairly exclusionary.

Curator Ma tells us about how this biennale reflects on these concerns. He says, “Echoes, the public programmes of the biennale, is one of our main efforts to get out of the museum and engage with the city and its people. Part of that is a citywide project titled Network, which was launched on the 1st of August ahead of the opening of the biennale. The project places representations of works from the biennale at some hundred locations across Seoul. The representations are distributed as posters, video excerpts, soundtracks, and objects in everyday spaces such as cafes, shops, restaurants, libraries, and outdoor spaces, including the K-Pop Square Media in Gangnam, one of the most well-known large-scale media facades in the city. Network also includes the partnership with the local TV station TBS, which will bring a special selection of works from the biennale directly to the screens inside numerous Korean homes. We have also published the first issue of Routes, a Korean zine that aims to offer our audiences different and more accessible contents. Three more issues are in the works and they are available for free at all Network locations. All of these are a part of our goal of being more inclusive, bringing different aspects of the biennale to the people while also creating various modes of engagement with the city.”

A still from Unaware 2020 (2020) by Li Liao | Seoul Media City Biennale | STIRworld
A still from Unaware 2020 (2020) by Li Liao Image: Courtesy of the artist

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