Written by Anastasia Traynin
Song Seong-hee interview interpretation by Gwangju Design Biennale
Photographs by Lorryn Smit
The present seems to be a scary place, with wars and natural disasters devastating places and people far from and close to the Korean Peninsula. Environmental destruction and ongoing climate change don’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. In this vein, the 2017 Gwangju Design Biennale, “Futures,” tackles the concepts “new normal” and the newly coined “4th Industrial Revolution,” looking at a wide array of designs that adapt to the changing reality of human life. This year, it has unveiled a new Design Fair on the first floor in Gallery Five, “Ten Years After, New Normal,” in which visitors can choose to purchase design products at the sales counter from works on display. We sat down to speak with the exhibit’s curator, Song Seong-hee, director of the Seoul-based Ten Years After Lifestyle Research and Design Lab.The present seems to be a scary place, with wars and natural disasters devastating places and people far from and close to the Korean Peninsula. Environmental destruction and ongoing climate change don’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. In this vein, the 2017 Gwangju Design Biennale, “Futures,” tackles the concepts “new normal” and the newly coined “4th Industrial Revolution,” looking at a wide array of designs that adapt to the changing reality of human life. This year, it has unveiled a new Design Fair on the first floor in Gallery Five, “Ten Years After, New Normal,” in which visitors can choose to purchase design products at the sales counter from works on display. We sat down to speak with the exhibit’s curator, Song Seong-hee, director of the Seoul-based Ten Years After Lifestyle Research and Design Lab.
Gallery Five’s most prominent feature is the big, bold, red Korean words across the back wall, signaling inevitable change, which read “We are sorry, but whether we change or not, the climate will change all of us.”
From this backdrop, visitors take in a dizzying collection of creative products based on four subthemes: “Air and Breathing,” “Plant Sensation Technology,” “New Attitude to Connect with Garbage,” and “A New Life: To Live Again.” From purses and bags recycled from thrown away materials to non-refrigerated food storage, printed pluviography, and many others, all product purchases go directly to the artists, who hail from the Gwangju Design Center, Seoul, and various countries around the world.
Started in 2012 by Song Seong-hee and her husband, musician Jo Yun-seok, Ten Years After Lifestyle Research and Design Lab focuses on sustainability in an ever-changing city landscape. The name, evoking past and future, takes its inspiration from two distinct sources. The first is the English blues-rock band Ten Years After, popular from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The second is the well-known Korean proverb “십년이면 강산도 변한다: Over ten years, even the rivers and mountains change,” meaning that a place can easily become unrecognizable over a short period of time. “Why do we have Ten Years After?” Song asks. “There are necessary and very useful things that other people aren’t doing. So we can’t help but do them.”
Their first project brought the cool roof design to Korea, painting roofs a bright white color to save energy in the summer. Another ongoing campaign is Wearable Hangeul, promoting the use of Hangeul expressions on Korean T-shirts, to counterbalance the prominence of misunderstood English words often seen on clothing in Korea. The expressions are translated into eight different languages, for Koreans to use while traveling and interacting with people of different nationalities. A recent partnership with the global CycleHack movement for bike-friendly cities has made CycleHack Seoul, a workshop for solving issues for cyclists in the big city.
Since Ten Years After’s mission matches well with this year’s Design Biennale theme, the director invited Song as curator in late March. Other artists created their various exhibits from March through May before bringing them to Gallery Five. As the first Biennale gallery with an extensive sales catalogue, the Design Fair is an exhibit that Song believes can hold an especially strong connection for visitors. “This is the strongest communication between the artists and the visitors. The artists make the products with their own messages that they want to share with people, so if visitors can buy the products, they bring these messages home with them.” While many of the clothes, stationaries, books, and wooden designs are attractive to the eye, Song explains that it is their practical use, rather than their look, that she hopes to impart to the younger generation. Furthermore, she has worked hard with her team to shape the new, multi-faceted exhibit into a fresh concept. “This space was a storage room, so I feel proud that our team worked hard to clean and set it up well. Also, we wanted to make a trashless exhibit so, for example, for the text, we used removable paint instead of paper. Finally, seats and other used products are all reusable. I am proud of that.”
The era of the “new normal” is a time and place where the affects of rapid industrialization can be viewed as unsustainable. From the perspective of designers, this signals an opportunity to make real, concrete, and long-term changes. “Even though people like new things, the new and unknown is inevitably a scary thing,” Song says. “When we have common sense, we can easily live with it, but if common sense changes, that can become chaotic. Climate change that was once strange is becoming a normal thing so we don’t use the words ‘strange climate’ anymore. The situation has quickly changed, so humans have to adapt. I think it can be a very good opportunity to make a change because it’s no longer a problem of choice but a question of survival.” Ten Years After’s projects are expanding beyond small-scale innovations to longer-term changes, especially in the field of energy use, that have the potential to engage people from around Korea. “Our research lab’s purpose is to work together with people. We have projects like making air cleaners and solar-powered generators that ordinary people cannot directly buy or make, but they can invest a small amount of money and receive benefits through participation.” Song explains that the solar energy project takes its name in Korean from “dol-dokki” (돌도끼), or “thunder ax,” a Joseon Dynasty nickname for the ancient stone ax that people of the time related to thunder and thought it came from the heavens. While technology and industry itself can cause problems related to environmental degradation, Ten Years After operates on the idea that design is essential to people’s lives and has the capacity to involve both experts and ordinary people in the population. “It’s not technology itself but how we use it. With a knife we can cut something or kill a person. I am against an anti-technology society. Social design is something that many people can participate in, even while we rely on engineers to make it.” Song sees Koreans, international residents, and visitors coming through Gallery Five and hopes that the same message can come across to everyone who stops to take a look.“I want people to accept change in an enjoyable way and not run away from it, because we are the ones who made the change. In recent times, we have all thrown away a lot of plastic that goes out of sight, but it is somewhere on Earth. I think this problem of change is not a Korean problem or some specific country’s problem. This is an ‘earthling’ problem, and we have to resolve it together.” The Design Biennale “Futures” continues through October 23, 2017. All of the products at the Design Fair in Gallery Five can be purchased directly on site through the printed catalogue.
For more information on Ten Years After Lifestyle Research and Design Lab, visit 십년후연구소 on Facebook.
Anastasia (Ana) Traynin is the co-managing editor of Gwangju News. She has been a contributor to the magazine since fall 2013 and has been living in Gwangju since spring of that year. After teaching for three years at Hanbitt High School, she became a GIC coordinator in May 2016. She has passions for Korean social movements, alternative education, live music, languages, and writing.