Origin of Somu Performance Reflections

On Saturday October 1, I married my artistic practice. By “married,” I rather mean to have embodied a virgin bride from an old Korean folk legend and manifested a dream we shared in virtual space; birthed it together, if you will. Some type of ceremonious format to bring Origin of Somu to life felt only appropriate, given its undertones as a creation story with forewarnings of the state of balance of the world its born into. Somu is an avatar developed from the the Korean mask dance play, bringing a modality of puppetry and live theater into the way presence is navigated in virtual space. As an archetype of a female entertainer, performer, and mudang (shaman) in a medieval, premodern Korea, Somu is uniquely oriented toward the body politics of environments like the metaverse(or cyberspace more broadly) that have its own histories of erasures and occlusion, particularly with gender and identity. For the Origin of Somu experience, appealing to a restless maiden spirit as a mode of entry into this world was a part of what I see as our collective performance to welcome creativity and the new rather than remain in fixed ways of thinking.

The virtual venue was a planetarium-like globe with a large birds-eye view painting of royal palaces in the Joseon Dynasty. I chose this painting mostly because of its size and image resolution (the original Donggwoldo 동궐도 painting is almost 20 feet in length), which paired nicely with the specular surface of my little dome. Participants then entered through the doors of the shrine, which was inspired by a sea shrine in Galnam Village in Korea (read more here). We learn that the spirit in the shrine is spiteful, restless, and judgemental and that she certainly does not approve of Somu nor the empty-handed guests entering her shrine. It is then from here that she takes us to further dimensions of virtuality, that of sound, of writing, of imagination, the place from which the rest of the experience (perhaps that which already occurred) unfolds.

The CultureHub studio was a performance box, a physical manifestation of the interior world within the shrine, enlivened by our live guests taking on various roles of support. Having a split presence both online and in studio helped me parse out the layers to the virtual experience and consider how different values or stakes are distributed between audiences. I remember being at Seoul Arts last year, going from one building to another at 5 A.M. in the morning to pick up VR gear, find space to set it up (it was a VIVE), then log in simply to world hop with someone in EST time zone. It is an eerie phenomena, I thought, how presence within the metaverse is in no way a given, but rather, an active intent that bleeds into the structure of our daily, physical lives. The dichotomy between worlds is sometimes the message itself, where we are now and the place we are going, and finding balance between the two might very well be the art form at play. The level of effort and complexity it takes to get online brings the infrastructural dimension to computational worlds to attention and also reminds me of the material and emotional investments that go into events as important as rite or ritual.

The reading itself lasted the length of an incense, thirty minutes of synchrony within our swampy dome. I set up the space to be like a diorama of sorts with animatronic quality. Our team was Wizard of Oz-ing some special effects behind the scenes. Overall it was a beta-ness of the space that I hope invited the users into the creative process. The online audience members were wonderful, helping one another navigate, asking questions, and overall engaging with the space in profound ways. It was a reminder for what experimental work affords which is precisely the multitude of meaning, things beyond our expectations and knowledge, that might emerge.

Magu-nim descending from battle, into the mudwaters of her swamp, the lighting and VFX highlight of our live show. (Photo by Camille Weins)
AC: I am curious about the phenomenon of wandering among other wanderers during a performance. It seems like there is an interesting randomized Greek Chorus effect, as the audience avatars populate the performance space. A Greek chorus is classically a united body but here we have a bunch of “people” with the same body shape zipping around or standing still. It’s a kind of chance choreography. Also interesting the supernatural ability to walk through walls, so to speak.

WMKA: moving around and navigating a shared space with others is in itself an inter-action

zavi: it felt surprisingly social–just knowing that each of the avatars was a real person felt different in my body than other digital experiences
Quotes pulled from the chat in Arium
Stacy: just an observation: The large mask in the space in relation to the circling avatar of Somu embodies the questions you are discussing and it is interesting to be able to “physically” explore the relatinship via my own moving avatar

Jasmine: i have a very specific question about the eyes on the mask. they remind me of trying to draw anime/manga eyes when i was a kid 🙂 any significance of the eyes here vs the eye-less mask being worn by the avatar walking around?
Quotes pulled from the chat in Arium

This mask is most primarily a reference to (perhaps, extension of) Mari Matsutoya’s performance art work using Vocaloid softwares to expand perceived boundaries of selfhood through her synthesis with idols like Hatsune Miku. “It’s an exercise in ‘becoming,’ moving in the space between the real and the imagined,” she said in an interview. My training was in documentary film. So these latest forays into media art and animation have certainly been channeling a new side of my creative practice. Like Jasmine, the drawn own eyes also took me back to my childhood of sketching manga characters, an era of reading girlish comics and watching anime on Netflix DVDs. (The eye-less mask though was actually an unintended consequence from a faulty texture export). We see that Somu is walking around the forest of lacquer trees, endlessly in process, meeting us exactly where she is at. When I see Somu’s mask I feel warmth and a sense of pride in her courage.

Back at the studio, DeAndra and I concluded the Q&A. I am very grateful to the team at CultureHub, Camille, DeAndra, Tony, Mattie, Billy, Young, Ga-Eun, and Amelia as well as Aidan from Arium in all their incredible support to make this performance come to life. My colleague Zeynep and our professor Dr. Kratky also helped workshop the script in our media arts methods course at USC, which was essential for feeling more in my skin in an experimental arts practice. What I am imagining next is ambitious but if there’s one thing I learned from bringing Somu to life is a greater faith in my process and the commitment I deserve to give to myself. And to that I leave with words from Björk: “I didn’t want to serve the vision of any other composer or any other conductor, or just to be the performer. I wanted to try, as a woman, I felt that the way I could change the world most for other women and girls, was to try to make an album where I would give myself the string quartet context, I would give myself techno beats, I would give myself… I would be the author.”