Projects > Writing

The Politics of Having Blind Spots

Sometime before the arrival of the 21st Century, during an evening meal with a friend at a restaurant in lower Manhattan, Oh said “Goodbye”. When pressed for sufficient reason he simply stated, “…longing for home.” Oh’s subsequent departure was quick. It ended an era where he had been arriving and departing for a good long while, from an Asian continent to a European one and from that European one to an American one. It was a process of becoming, being and disappearing where Oh would emerge from and then submerge once more into a compendium of foreign spaces. At that time, he became one of many and was also alone as a man who followed a pedagogic path littered with uncertainties. When are the moments of our separation, from kin, from community, from the familiar, and the foundational, necessary? And by performing these acts of separating what do we hope to become?

Let us consider an explanation given by James Baldwin during a 1984 interview conducted by the Paris Review where he was asked to elaborate upon his ironic 1968 statement, “I love America.” Many years earlier at the age of twenty-four and in desperation, Baldwin had fled racist America to find personal asylum in Paris. He would eventually return to the U.S. in the 1950’s to join the Civil Rights movement.

I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it. There isn’t any other place to go—you don’t pull up your roots and put them down someplace else. At least not in a single lifetime, or, if you do, you’ll be aware of precisely what it means, knowing that your real roots are always elsewhere. If you try to pretend you don’t see the immediate reality that formed you I think you’ll go blind.(1)

To have lived as a black man in racist America was to have lived with the knowledge that you could never be perceived as singular, entitled or even human. In order for Baldwin to become whole, to be human, to be private and invisible, a trait that was a privilege for most ordinary white men, he had to temporarily separate himself from that society.

“If you try to pretend you don’t see the immediate reality that formed you I think you’ll go blind.”(2) Baldwin hinted at having gained some knowledge through his experiences when he spoke these words. This knowledge is what the artist, Oh, grapples with and after having conducted an extensive exploration presents his findings to us in the guise of his latest series entitled, “Looking Out for Blind Spots”. Throughout each of the individual artworks the demarcation of the personal is given prominence. Oh frequently shows us how the individual steps away and enters into a temporal viewpoint that is an obstructed perspective where this individual finds freedom and salvation. If we can imagine ourselves as Baldwin, a human being whose own transformation into a political being was performed by temporarily exiting the constraints of a subjugating culture then we can delineate the conceptual framework of Oh’s present aesthetic meditations. Perhaps Baldwin told himself he was free upon arriving in Paris. But that pretense would have been short-lived because his memories of a culture left behind haunted him and his evolution as a free man would be determined by the manner in which he found a way to live with what he experienced.

Well, in retrospect, what it came down to was that I would not allow myself to be defined by other people, white or black. It was beneath me to blame anybody for what happened to me. What happened to me was my responsibility. I didn’t want any pity. “Leave me alone, I’ll figure it out.” I was very wounded and I was very dangerous because you become what you hate. It’s what happened to my father and I didn’t want it to happen to me. His hatred was suppressed and turned against himself. He couldn’t let it out—he could only let it out in the house with rage, and I found it happening to myself as well. And after my best friend jumped off the bridge, I knew that I was next. So—Paris. With forty dollars and a one-way ticket.(3)

Baldwin created a psychological and physical blind spot. By moving himself abroad to a free society, Baldwin stepped into this blind spot and found the ability to write, to construct a career, and savor being human. If we take into account Oh’s own cultural migration and align it alongside Baldwin’s emigration, we see parallels as well as alliances. Each understood how a temporary realignment of the body and mind was relevant to their political and spiritual maturation. Oh has spent considerable time researching the philosophical and political implications of creating personal space in “Looking Out for Blind Spots”. He sought out the manifestation of such spaces, having perceived them to be tactical actions that allow for the private to coincide with a dominant collective society. He understands we are in full view of society’s gaze when any surveillance is utilized, whether the system is technically mediated or rhetorically enforced. We are social when we are surveyed, deemed public, secure, and kept in compliance. However, we are also dehumanized under the panoptic gaze of society. Consequently, we long for the extreme opposite, to become at times invisible, singularly private, and simply personal.

At this juncture, let us take a moment to examine what Paul Virilio has added to the semiotic discourse on personal consciousness. In his 1980 treatise, “Aesthetics of Disappearance”, Virilio relays a historical interview involving the photographer, Jacques-Henri Lartigue:

Q: You’ve talked to me just now of a trap for vision, something like that, is that your camera?

A: No, not at all. It’s before something I did when I was little. When I half-closed my eyes, there remained only a narrow slot through which I regarded intensely what I wanted to see. Then I turned around three times and thought, by so doing, I’d caught – trapped – what I was looking at, so as to be able to keep indefinitely not only what I had seen, but also the colors, the noises. Of course, in the long run, I realized that my invention wasn’t working. It’s then only that I turned to technical tools for facilitating it.(4)

By actually turning himself into a camera, the young Lartigue squinted like a lens and spun, profoundly causing himself to disappear as an exposure was made. In the end, a scene was composed, something became surveyed, but not what Lartigue hoped it would be. It was the personal wishing to hold fast the truths that were merely fleeting. Lartigue as a child played this game knowing full well he was also under the scrutiny of an adult’s authoritarian gaze.(5) Therefore, his intervention became a personal blind spot. Virilio shares Lartigue’s game as an example of a lapse of consciousness. He proposes that modern collective consciousness is undergoing a syndrome. This syndrome is “picnolepsy”, the epileptic state of consciousness, where a moment of time is dropped and the individual who is experiencing this lapse becomes absent.(6) Lartigue conjured his absence and by doing so, altered his consciousness. The artworks in “Looking Out for Blind Spots” materialize the gesture of creating lapses. We must remember Oh lived in a zone of absence while being abroad and such an experience can only have heightened his conscious awareness of lapsed time and its connection with the development of personal space. Upon his re-absorption into a homogenous homeland, one that has been gaining greater ascension as an economic power, he has become even more aware of the paradoxes being played out within the territorial boundaries set between the private and the social.

Mandatory military service In South Korea lasts between 21-24 months. Conscription at such a length of time sentences a young male to group living for a contentious period. This conscription is purposeful and necessary, enforced to uphold the solvency of national security and solidarity. Oh infiltrated this fraternity by interviewing individual soldiers and then presented these interviews as video portraits.(7) He asked them where and when they were able to find a moment to enact a private action like masturbating or meditating. Each answer revealed how a ubiquitous space transformed into a private realm where the individual stepped aside of public scrutiny and became metaphorically absent.

My own personal space in the military was in my guardhouse. The reason I chose the guardhouse as my own personal space was because: first, the space was completely closed and cut off from the outside world. The military police was highly disciplined, so it was impossible to do personal deviant activities. Therefore, the space that assured one’s privacy was really needed. Since the guardhouse was isolated from the outside and the surveillance camera that was recording the space paused at night. I used the space as my personal space during my night duty. But when it is 10pm, things changed since those subjected to disciplinary actions are enforced to sleep. And, the camera didn’t have infrared lights - functions became useless. Therefore, I used the space as my personal space from 10pm – 6am in the morning of the next day. I opened the door and walked 10 meters on the left side and then there was the emergency light and a small room for face-to-face talking. There was no door. Under the light, a greenish emergency light, I read adult magazines, rested or masturbated.(8)

This soldier “walked 10 meters” to the left and became invisible to surveillance. He entered a zone that has been referenced as a lapse or an absence. In this soldier’s case, the zone was camouflaged with a surreal greenish light. In a concurrent artwork, Oh enlightened us as to the existence of free zones by thoroughly filling the spaces where surveillance cameras cannot survey with pinkish Styrofoam and garish yellow paint.(9) The demarcated spaces were surprisingly extensive. Could it be possible personal space is greater than subjugated space? The very idea that this space, the symbolic area of illusive freedom, is in close proximity and considerable in size is philosophically revolutionary and therefore, possibly dangerous. Utilizing documentary means, Oh asked individuals to trace out their personal space on the ground with a stick while he filmed the gesture with a camera positioned far away and from high above.(10) It was as if the camera captured a child at play drawing imaginary rooms. Oh’s camera angle reminds us of what Virilio has written, that the earliest autocratic view experienced is the one a parent has of a child, whose only recourse in finding autonomy is to construct intricate games in order to disappear.(11) Most notable in the documentation was the length and depth of time each individual took to make a diagram. The activity though rudimentary in means involved much complexity of thought. Certain schemas inspired comparisons to prisoners’ escape routes or to bank robbers’ plans for a heist. There was something innocent yet quietly disturbing about the activity.

Oh reveals complex paradoxes afflicting the relationship between the individual and society. Returning to the soldiers’ interviews, a conflict was divulged involving the tenuous balance between freedom and regulation. Oh did not mention that individuals masturbating in military owned places had broken any law, but in hindsight the contentious nature of the actions makes us wonder. Did their behavior constitute a premeditated anarchic act that encouraged defiance of nationalism? Some viewers of this artwork must have considered the argument and followed up the thought with remembering the religious zealots’ admonishment that one will go blind if one masturbates. Others, who may have remembered the strictness of regimental life, may have felt empathy for the young men. These empathizers would not condemn, judge or criticize soldiers for seeking some personal sovereignty. They would have reminded themselves that a democratic nation upholds personal freedoms and that these freedoms were once wrenched from them in the past. Therefore, they must have cogitated upon what is at stake when a nation regulates its citizens. We are reminded every day that there are individuals being tormented because they are performing ordinary actions. They are reading, writing, traveling, praying, speaking out, holding hands, wearing certain garments, gazing at particular icons and following what has been traditionally handed down to them from their forefathers. The questions we must ask ourselves now are the same ones queried earlier in this essay: When are the moments of our separation, from kin, from community, from the familiar, and the foundational, necessary? And by performing these acts of separating what do we hope to become?

The moment we find ourselves intolerable, furious, inculcated, condemned, persecuted, and disenchanted, this is when we must depart, step aside, become absent, and become invisible. Whenever there is a need for preserving rationality and sanity then that is the appropriate time to escape. Let us resurrect Baldwin once more and allow his words to reverberate in contemporary time because subjugation continues to prevail.

You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.(12)

The legacy that Baldwin left is a powerful one that fuels each new generation joining the debate involving identity politics. His tactic, to remove himself out of the context of what society considered him to be, was a courageous one that inspires others to emulate his endeavors. His endeavors to grasp hold of personal freedom also included the task of setting others free. Oh actively upholds this legacy. His own maturation into a political being began when he first left his homeland and has continued to deepen into the present day. His lengthy exile kept him alert to the injustices and practices of a global society. The farther he journeyed the closer he came to understanding what it meant to be as a multi-dimensional being, one who is cultural, political and human. Though our contemporary society is connected as a global syndicate and fewer oligarchs exist, dominant theories, extremist governments and social prejudices remain fixed and firm. Even within staunchly model democracies, contention will rear up and social strife will bear down upon its citizens to comply. To counteract these forces, Oh deliberately offers the individual the means to escape. It is important to note that he does not present himself as the originator of counteractive behavior or as a conspirator in their enactment rather he uncovers existent evidence and takes the position of a mediator.

Following an inquisitive sense, Oh found access to blind spots by being aware, being curious and by asking. His choice of being a mediator, similar to that of being a journalist or a documentarian, was a conscientious one. The exhibition spaces that housed his findings were public forums. Oh realized this fact and placed all the information in full view without embellishments, without disclaimers and without legal releases. His labor as a researcher was intentionally performed without coercion or judgment. This can be said about his entire art practice. His stance in doing so reaffirms his inalienable rights as a citizen living in a democratic country. This was a position taken by Baldwin time and time again and one that we are heartened to see expressed in Oh’s project. In “Looking Out for Blind Spots”, the artist even included an addendum artwork.(13) Projected large onto the gallery’s wall, Oh presented an extensive guideline for others to discover personal spaces. These guidelines were compiled from the soldiers’ interviews. One singular phrase has acquired resonance, as it sums up the efforts of Baldwin and Oh, and is the most important counsel any human being seeking freedom will ever need.

Be brave.(14)

“Looking Out for Blind Spots” penetrates social consciousness like an illuminating beam. It sheds light upon the delicate balance the personal and the social struggle to maintain. It’s brilliance lies at the hands of its maker, Oh, who was able to submerge himself into the quagmire of social consciousness and discover an undercurrent of personal consciousness. For Oh, the task of creating art involves communication with others who may at first be reluctant to reveal their private actions or notions. With persistence and patience, Oh acquires these revelations, shares them publicly and achieves the formulation of solidarity between diverse social identities. Oh knows this is the truest intention for any egalitarian society to want to achieve, but he also understands the politics of having blind spots, which entails a re-evaluation of the relationship between the personal and the societal.

1. Elgrably, Jordan. James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78, The Paris Review, Spring 1984.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Virilio, Paul. 1991. The Aesthetics of Disappearance. Trans. Philip Beitchman. Brooklyn: Semiotext(e).
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Oh, Inhwan. My Blind Spot – The Interview. Video Installation. 2014.
8. Ibid.
9. Oh, Inhwan. Reciprocal Viewing System. Installation. 2014.
10. Oh, Inhwan. My Blind Spot – Mapping. Video. 2014.
11. Virilio, Paul. 1991. The Aesthetics of Disappearance. Trans. Philip Beitchman. Brooklyn: Semiotext(e).
12. Elgrably, Jordan. James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78, The Paris Review, Spring 1984.
13. Oh, Inhwan. Guidelines for Finding One’s Own Personal Space. Video. 2014.
14. Ibid.

Looking Out for Blind Spots: Inhwan Oh

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