In 2019, Cecilia Araneda spoke with soJin Chun as part of a multi-year curatorial research project on Latin Canadian cinema. This is a brief extract of her research. The three films on this page are viewable by the public to June 30, 2021.
soJin Chun is a Toronto-based artist working in video and installation. Chun’s experience living in the Korean diaspora in Bolivia and Canada influences her work, which looks at the idiosyncratic moments of everyday life in its inconclusive and contradictory nature. Chun is interested in telling narratives that emerge in-between cultures in contemporary times. | sojincita.com
CA: Your family moved from Korea to the rural outskirts of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city, when you were eight years old. You lived there for five years before your family moved to Toronto when you were a teenager. You speak Spanish fluently. And yet you are also quick to clarify that you are not Latin American, which I understand, because you’re not Bolivian and Latinness is not a generic concept. Given this, how do you see your connection to Bolivia and to Latin America overall?
SJC: Just to clarify, when we just immigrated to Canada, we didn’t come to Toronto right away, so my earliest Canadian experiences were in small towns in Ontario. In the Winter of 1991, we arrived in Bolton and what I can remember is a sense of wonder but also fear. It felt like I was transported into the North Pole, a land that was opposite to the tropical wildness. My first immigration experience was also similar. I moved from the chaotic urban jungle of Seoul to a chicken farm in a tropical forest. These shifts, ruptures, and moves happened during my most formative years, which shaped my hybrid cultural identity.
Exploring my personal identity was important to me when I was younger. It remains important today though I have moved away from the need to define my “culture.” I have gotten very good at providing ready-made answers to facilitate conversations that barely touch the surface. My identity has become an object that can be studied by others and categorized. It is the type of material that makes a good narrative for art funding bodies, for better or for worse. I am caught in between the contradictions of these realities. I have come to accept that my relationship with my own culture/s is constantly in flux, responding to my geographic and psychological reality.
I cannot deny my deep connection and love for Latin America. The streets of Santa Cruz de la Sierra was my childhood playground. It was a place where I was free to roam alone or with friends at an early age. I have been extremely fortunate to be adopted by different communities throughout my life, especially by the Latino arts community in Toronto. Culturally, I share a lot with the Latino community through the Spanish language and shared perspectives. Even though I was born in Korea, my fluency of Korean is limited and my relationship with Korea is more distant based on circumstances. I do not consider myself Latina on the practicality that I was not born in Latin America. I also have no blood lineage to Latin America.
I have always felt that I am from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It is this in-betweenness that provides me with new possibilities and comfort. Brazilian cultural critic, Silviano Santiago, first coined the term “space in-between” referring to the intersection of discourses between the colonially enforced narratives and peripheral ones. He looked at these intersections to dismantle a colonial system that perpetuated class divisions and inequities. I am intrigued by his ideas and how this type of intersectional thinking can also be applied to looking at diasporic identities.
CA: Your art practice has evolved quite dramatically over the years. You started in photography, which you still teach. You later moved to performance-based video art and have more recently moved into an interesting extension of this, entering into a documentary mode where you engage with communities through a deep act of presence. Can you talk a bit about your current work with the Horto community of Rio de Janeiro and what motivated it? Can you describe how it fits into your larger Flux Cities project?
SJC: My relationship with the Horto community began in 2016. I lived in Rio de Janeiro for a long-term artist residency for almost a year. I arrived the day after the coup d’etat when the left-leaning government of Dilma Rousseff was replaced by the right-wing government of Michel Temer. It was a very difficult time to be in Rio, to say the least. I had arrived just in time to witness the rise of the far-right in Brazil. I remember thinking that this will be one of the most memorable times in my life at the worst time in history. Though I was far away from home, I felt that I was indirectly an accomplice to the global economic agenda and its hierarchy. I welcomed this complication in my head.
I became friends with the Horto community very organically and coincidentally. At that point, I was not conscientious that I would take on this project. In late 2016, the military government violently evicted one multi-generational family in Horto. There were community meetings, parties, solidarity marches, and protests as community activists were resisting further eviction. I was accompanying my friends in their cause with my humble contribution of documenting the events, recording oral histories and being present in solidarity.
The idea of Flux Cities came together after I returned home from Brazil. Living in Brazil certainly triggered something. Personally, I always felt that conformity and complacency can kill an art practice, at least in the sense of the art will become irrelevant. I had the desire to experience something else, the need to break away from my comfortable and navel-gazing life in Toronto. I also acknowledge my immense privilege to be able to do a residency for a year even though my life in Rio was not glamorous and at times even precarious. In Rio, I experienced a land of contradiction, where both the ugliest and most beautiful realities interplayed side-by-side as the norm.
Living in Brazil was the process that I needed to understand some of my earlier preoccupations and explorations looking at displacement, abandonment, and how economic agendas affect the physical landscape of cities. Upon returning home, I knew that I wanted to be more active in my own neighbourhood. I took a role as the programmer of the Regent Park Film Festival and worked with a group of youth from Daniel Spectrum Regent Park facilitating black and white photography workshops. Regent Park is also one of the cities in the Flux Cities project.
Through the multi-channel video installation, Flux Cities, I collaborated with locals to narrate how gentrification and displacement manifest in each city. For instance, in Toronto, gentrification is a form of bureaucratic and capitalistic venture that systemically displaces residents through red tape and complicated paperwork. In Rio de Janeiro, gentrification and displacement were forced by the government using extreme and violent measures. I wanted to incorporate one more city into this mix and decided to travel to my birth land of Seoul, Korea, where the rate of development is very fast. So much so that it feels like changes occur overnight. This project in some ways is similar to my other work as I am looking at specific places where I have personal connections. At this moment in my artistic practice, I want to explore ways to decolonize image-making through community collaboration.
CA: There are a lot on incredibly dangerous places in Latin America, and Rio is high up on that list. In order to complete your work on the Horto community, you’ve exposed yourself to situations of very real danger and on a regular basis. And yet, you’ve been extremely disciplined in not inserting the hardships you’ve encountered into your work. Do you consider your working approach to be a response to the social justice documentary form, which frequently makes the director’s experience central to it, or is this something more organic to the process you’ve chosen?
SJC: I appreciate this question because you phrase it in a way that makes me think about my experience differently. I cannot disagree that Rio is a dangerous place and that was a major topic of conversation while I was at the residency amongst other International artists, some of whom would not leave their apartments too often. I took some risks but they were always measured and carefully planned based on my knowledge of the area. There was always a possibility that something could happen once I left home. I am also wrestling with this question as I didn’t necessarily feel that I was in “real danger on a regular basis.” I think the bottom line is that living in a dangerous place does not mean that you are in a constant state of alarm or fear. In fact, most of the times, I was very relaxed. The warm climate also allowed for that.
In some ways, growing up in Bolivia prepared me to live in Rio. My parents owned a very humble wholesale candy store in the bus terminal in the 80s in Santa Cruz. I grew up hanging out in one of the busiest and grittiest areas of Santa Cruz amongst children who sold candies, cigarettes, and gum to support their families. The lively street life in Rio reminded me a lot of my childhood.
In the last few years, my working approach to the Flux Cities has been somewhat organic and fluid. I don’t incorporate my personal experience as a central narrative because I feel that it would not do justice to the narratives of these communities. In my process, I am more invested in the dialogue I can have with collaborators to tell their stories. Being open to shift and transform the project based on the community’s input has helped me understand better. A huge role that I play in this collaboration is to listen. I am also committed to decolonizing the image-making process to break down traditional hierarchies. Though I have developed deep connections to the communities in Flux Cities, my privilege is real and I need to take that into consideration. I constantly asked myself what the purpose of the work is in order not to extract “content” from communities. I also ask myself: how can I be instrumental to their already existing process? How can I collaborate and contribute?
CA: Your work on the more recent multi-year Flux Cities project, which includes your Horto work, is quite a bit different from some of your earlier video work, such as Officer Tuba Meets Happy Ghost (2011) and Re Oriented in São Paulo (2010), even though you retain certain aesthetics, such as your use of animation techniques. Do you consider Flux Cities and other more recent work to be an expansion of the ideas you were examining in those earlier works, or do you view yourself to be in a new evolution within your art practice?
SJC: I consider Flux Cities to be an expansion of the ideas that I have been considering through my earlier works. What’s similar between my older works and Flux Cities is that community is at the heart of each work. In Officer Tuba and Re Oriented, I was exploring my relationship with the Korean diaspora in Brazil and Canada. My earlier works were directly personal and I enjoyed the ability to be light-hearted about complex issues, such as immigration and diasporic identity. I also included myself in these work more explicitly by being inside the frame or having a presence through my voice.
I definitely see a common thread within all my works. I am interested in specific locales, neighbourhoods, geographic areas and some of the narratives that emerge in those spaces. I have always been interested in storytelling and bringing to the surface what is often unseen, misunderstood, neglected or unheard.
Through Flux Cities, I wanted the community voices and the collaboration to be at the forefront, rather than my personal perspectives of these places as an outsider. I also see how this statement could be contradictory since I am the person behind the camera and the one who orchestrates these encounters with the community. It is something that I think about a lot while I make art, facilitate workshops or curate works. It requires a lot of time and reflection to work with communities and to tell their stories truthfully. It also requires a lot of self-reflection to understand my relationship to these stories and not glorify or undermine them. What I have learned is that collaboration is the key to storytelling and to create awareness. This project has helped me grow as an artist and as a community facilitator to understand that every person in the community plays an important role towards the common goal. I believe that making art should be a positive learning experience for all involved.