Bora Kim is an interdisciplinary artist and sociologist from Seoul, Korea. Her process is based in cultural research revolving around the spectacle and performance of Asian femininity, particularly in the context of global media. Kim’s work addresses the public gaze and occupies the sphere of popular culture.
I’m Making a Boy Band (#immabb) project consists of the documentation from auditioning to training the band members, which leads to releasing original songs as well as music videos, photos and fan merchandise. This project is an ongoing collective experience, in-depth research, experimentation, film-making, as well as a business endeavor. As a long-term project, I’m Making a Boy Band intends to exist in multiple stages as well as different iterations and forms of dispersion.
How did this project of yours begin?
I was interested in researching the phenomenon of the Korean Wave, and the commercial success of K-pop especially, on a global scale. It was almost an overnight explosion with PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” and the way that the Korean press and public dealt with this phenomenon intrigued me. I thought it was very important and poignant that, as a post-colonial country, Korea had successfully managed to export cultural goods to other Asian countries and soon after, “the West.” The Korean pop industry has always appropriated its concepts from the West, and also the West through Japan, until now, and the reverse of this cultural flow was a shock for the Korean public. “Idol Groups” became national heroes and K-pop became part of a proud national identity. But there is a double standard at play here. The criticisms that K-pop usually receives from the Korean public, that “it’s overrun by highly produced idol groups targeted towards teenagers; it’s too visually driven; it doesn’t have anything originally ‘Korean’ in its contents; or, it’s too commercial,” are precisely the reason why it gained such international popularity. K-pop had been looked down upon until outsiders started to consume it and its related products as well. The Korean government has found that for every $100 made in K-pop exports, there’s an increase of $400 profit in Korean IT product sales, for example, things like mobile phones. And in fact the biggest beneficiaries of the Korean Wave are companies like Samsung and LG. I was interested in K-pop and Idol Groups on this level initially as I was thinking about cultural flow, or the relationship of dominant culture and peripheral culture, and how that is interwoven with one’s identity or one’s national identity. I wanted to see what would happen if I made American boys into K-pop performers, by teaching them how to sing in Korean and act like Korean boys, and complicate this flow/appropriation even more, since I’m in New York, where so many talents are just one online recruitment ad away.
I needed a team that could help me, and I first asked Karin, a friend whom I knew from my studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her focus was primarily photography, sculpture, fashion, and art criticism. I found Samantha through an artist friend. She studied Arts Administration at Maastricht University, Netherlands, and she was intrigued to help me execute this crazy project with her experience in arts administration, and knowledge of curating and cultural theory. Through the nature of the project though, our roles began to interconnect more, as it was just the three of us, and we began syncing more as a collaborative and creative team.
Why boy band? Tell me about your experience in this project.
It was somewhat determined from the beginning without discussion that we should make a boy band and not a girl group. We wanted to objectify the idea of boys or young males and take charge of the gaze towards them, through the perspective of three Asian females, even if that is a very artificial setting and not how the real world operates. Sometimes it feels like we are playing with dolls, and sometimes we just have fun surrounded by six charming guys, but most of the time we are very stressed and annoyed by them and think our job description should be changed into babysitters.
What I enjoy the most is the conversations I have with Sam and Karin after our sessions (which we document incessantly) with or without the boys. We talk about how masculinity is performed in such a different way according to class, race, ethnicity and culture, especially comparing America and Korea, and also Japan, Taiwan, and the Netherlands since Karin and Sam have lived in those countries.
Tell me more about your comment on masculinity being performed in a different way?
We were amazed how the concept of gender operates in K-pop boy bands. These boys are tailored to attract straight young females, originally, but the presentation of their sexuality is very complicated. A lot of people in the U.S., when encountering K-pop idol groups for the first time, express their confusion about the gender role and sexuality that these boys convey. For example, a young group of pretty boys with great skin start rapping in a hip-hop music video while wearing a lot of make-up. What does this mean? Who is the target audience? It is totally gender-bending and experimental, but, at the same time, it is very typical, mainstream K-pop. And the acceptance of this strangeness (in the eyes of Western audiences) started to happen when Korean economic prosperity reached a point where it was enough for the entertainment industry to produce high-quality pop culture products. Cultural barriers or mistranslation are overcome by the shiny framing/packaging of pop. And that’s where I want this project to go in the long run. The biggest obstacle is funding, of course, but I do want to have the language of the commercial in order to convince people and to get people’s attention and start the dialogue on the politics of our cultures.
On a related note, we also wanted our project to examine what the fandom among young girls means, as well as among older women (over 40). Boy band fandom used to be the domain of teenagers, but now the age group has expanded because the societal weight of Idol groups and their surrounding culture in Korean society is very substantial. And their taste influences the production of the boy bands including their beauty. As a result, I think, these endless K-pop boy bands (according to Mnet TV Korea, there were 144 working idol groups in 2014) have created a new ideal type of Asian male in the global media, and of course that translates naturally to our daily lives and has an effect on us in an actual and physical way. They are young and fresh, cute, “pretty” rather than handsome, gender ambiguous, non-threatening, humble, obedient (to their labels, managers or companies, as well as towards the fans), docile, and hard-working. But at the same time they are very powerful, because they not only have the support from the Korean public and Korean Government, they are also the main contributors and valu- able assets to the whole Korean Wave, and consequently, the country’s economic surge. Maybe it’s too early to judge what this entails in terms of feminism or gender studies, since the industry definitely deserves criticism in many ways, but I have to say boy band culture and the fandom surrounding it play a crucial role in creating a space in Korean society where it is safe and acceptable for females (both younger and older) to express sexual desires in public, and in general.
On a global level, Asian masculinity as a concept has been equated to being feminine, weak, nerdy, and asexual. K-pop boy bands still have those qualities, but because of the capital and the glamorization that is inherent to the commercial pop industry, all these characteristics become attractive and desirable. We wanted to experiment and play with this idea by teaching our boys how to act and embody what it means to act like K-pop boy bands. For example, we held something we called “Cuteness Workshop” and saw how they interpreted foreign cultural cues that interfered with their own ideas of masculinity.
Who are the team members behind IMMABB? Tell me about your experience in this projects as well.
Karin Kuroda: When Bora and I met at SAIC, we began a dialogue around femininity and Asian pop culture. Our perspectives seemed to align, clash, and intersect in a way that continued to present itself in my studies of postcolonial theory and pop culture (mainly tourism and fashion/photography). With this in mind, I originally came on board as a research consultant to the project to continue this realm of questioning. Between the three team members, this project manifests in many ways but ideally aims to utilize the form and material of “Boy Band” in a complex and subversive way. By analyzing the idea of intentionality in pop culture as well as in art, I think that we have managed to create and explore, while still remaining critical and rooted in our motives as artists.
The “I’m Making a Boy Band” project aims to examine critical aspects of pop/business culture through the lens of an artist. By asking oneself what it means to assimilate or twist the rudimentary formula in K-pop “idol” culture, this project highlights societal issues on a global and personal level.
As a team we are consistently forcing ourselves to analyze what K-pop looks like and how it materializes, while also comparing to see if we are living up to this standard. However, as the project goes on I’m finding it harder for myself to analyze whether or not we fit that mold because we’re getting to know the boys a bit more. In knowing their idiosyncrasies, it becomes more difficult to have an objective/ industry view. This is what really forces us to wrestle with the act of flirting with these ethical boundaries that exist within the K-pop industry. By doing so we continue to question what it means to then recreate them, produce them, and disseminate them into the world again. While our main aim is to consistently present the boys as intentional subjects, we often find ourselves reflecting and questioning our roles as team members, bosses, collaborators, Asian women, and ultimately global citizens and makers.
Samantha Shao: When Bora first mentioned the project to me, the first thought that came into my mind is, “she is crazy,” and then I thought, “what if we could really pull it off ?” And that thought excited me. We talked a lot about the differences between Asian (Taiwanese and Korean particularly) and American pop culture, and how we should translate messages back and forth in both popular culture and fine art settings. I believe it is the ambiguity of this project that interested me the most.
IMMABB is a massive project, from both the production and conceptual perspectives. The process of making pop music is business-oriented, but the team tries not to allow the project to become a machine, as it is not entirely a part of the pop music industry. Yet, the structure of our working process is somewhat institutional. For example, my role among the IMMABB team is mostly related to administration and development, despite my title. We need that structure to make this project run smoothly, at the same time, we try even harder to protect its autonomy as an artwork.
By changing the working process (of making “art”), we intend to re-think and re-define what it means to communicate with the art world and its audience. Since the main characters of this work are people—not only band members, but also collaborators—we try to challenge ourselves by giving up authorship from time to time.
Just like Bora authorizes Karin and me to be deeply involved in her thesis project.
I consider contemporary art as more of a way of communication rather than an expression. I imagine IMMABB to be something that welcomes interactions, encourages questions, and provokes confrontations. If an artwork is the outcome of making, our product is definitely not the outcome, but rather, everything that sits in-between our actions.
Karin Kuroda (School of the Art Institute of Chicago, BFA and BA in Visual and Critical Studies, 2013) serves as editorial content manager on the IMMABB team and oversees the coordination of production, social media, theoretical research, and critical analysis.
Samantha Y. Shao (Maastricht University, Netherlands, MA in Arts Management, 2013) serves as the marketing and communications director on the IMMABB team. She oversees all budgeting, production, and administrative and communications directives.
Interview with "EXP" members
As a member of such a unique boy band setting, what do you guys think of this project and how do you envision pop music could exist in the art world? (an excerpted conversation between the IMMABB team and EXP band members)
Frankie: I certainly believe that pop music can exist in the fine art world when it’s presented in that form. Today most music is released on the radio and on TV and very rarely, if ever, is it introduced in an art exhibition or museum. When you give the fine arts world a chance to look at pop music as a fine art, they can see it in a more literal art form.
David: I would place this project on movie screens around a museum. No sound needed.
Bora: Why no sound?
David: I want people to guess what we are doing and why we are doing it, and silence allows the people who are viewing us to use their own imagination and form their own opinion.
Koki: I like this project because we are not Korean boys, it presents the contrast of cultural differences in a pleasing package.
Sime: It would be an interesting concept to non-Koreans because we are talking about Korean culture here, but not a lot of people understand it. For instance, when we talked to Yoahn (Han), he was saying there are so many small things that surprise people. It also must be interesting for you guys to see how we are taking up that culture.
Samantha: That is how different cultures communicate with each other.
Karin: Or don’t communicate with each other.
Hunter: Boy bands are so manufactured and machine-made. It would be very interesting to do what ‘N Sync had (that whole no strings attached thing). We have strings attached to us at certain points, and they show that a lot of these are forced or made, an idea of what should be.
Tarion: What if we are these figurines in the center that have strings attached to us, and when people come in there are these different buttons they could press, and we will learn 3 or 4 songs to do when they press the buttons. You know like Power Rangers when they all morph together, they become this huge machine, but they are different parts of that machine. So we are separate, but we come together.
Koki: Not only manufactured, boy bands are also imagining “a perfect version of male,” somehow we are like figurines. We should make a line of action figures.