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At the Conference (Besides Me)

This recent post by Ben Goldsmith, one of the people I met at the AKS Conference I mentioned here, reminded me that I didn’t discuss any of the talks I saw by other people — mostly, I like to think, because I was so overwhelmingly relieved by the fact my own talk was not a disaster. (According to Ben’s post, absolutely not, and he was very kindly encouraging in person too, as was everyone else.)

Here’s what I saw others talk about: on the first day, I saw a couple of interesting talks in the morning. One by Paul Bradley was about rethinking the politically charged nuance of the word “appropriate” to reflect what, for example, Korean artists are doing in their adaptation or retooling of foreign culture and art in their own work. I also found the discussion of “The Mysterious Lonely Saint” called “The Dokseong” quite interesting, and the presentation, by — oh! the presenter’s name isn’t in my program, because he’s the coauthor who had to fill in for Beatrix Mecsi when she fell ill. Anyway, that was an excellent discussion about retooling and adaptation of a different kind.

Later that day, I saw two other really interesting panels. The first was concerned with New Media in South Korea. Hanna (Hye Na) Cho (who blogs here) discussed her research into a closer look at the way top-down “media innovation” in places like Korea works — whether those big “digital cities” actually do attract business, or foment real innovation, or not.

On the same panel, Florence Chee (see her blog here, and her pics from the convention are here) discussed the idea of online gaming here (and in general) in terms of some Marshall McLuhan’s ideas of how media can have the effect of anaesthetizing certain senses and sensitizing or heightening others, in an effort to point the way beyond discussing gaming as an “addiction” and looking at the bigger issue of what social or personal functions gaming might serve. I figure that might be a good way of figuring out why gaming catches on so big in some places (like Korea) and not so much in other places where the infrastructure exists, and it could do so (like, er, well, I’m sure there are such places). Her talk reminded me of Leo Sang-Min Whang’s lecture on the relative scarcity of cosplay in Korea which he noted seems to correlate with the higher popularity of MMORPG gaming, which I posted about here. (Not sure what I think of that — I suspect social elements and the shallower penetration of SF here into mainstream culture play a bigger role than I remember him suggesting.) I also burbled about DCInside to her, but I’ll be posting about that myself sometime, so I’ll save my comments on that site for then.

Cho Sung Mi followed with a talk that I’m torn about; had she spoken in Korean, it would have been much harder for me (and most of the audience) to follow it, but at the same time, as it was in English, it was much simplified and ended up being truncated. That said, it was about some really interesting stuff, focusing on Migrant Worker TV in Korea. Yes, TV programming related to the Migrant Worker population here. Which, if you’re like me, you have no idea about. I think this is one of the sites she mentioned, I’ll have to look around for the other. One of the interesting details was that when the Lee government took over, funding was cut until, well, not long ago. How surprising! I agree with Ms. Cho that it’s probably better the MWTV finds another way to fund its operation, though; a government that foots the bills is a government whose boots must be licked from time to time.

The last talk of the day was a panel of three speakers who’d come from Australia, and their work was focused on film — with some overlap on mine, in fact, as The Host was mentioned more than once! Brian Yecies spoke about the history of foreign film in Korea — how the influx and outflux of films was mediated by government (and shaped the audiences in Korea) and how people reacted to changes in this situation — especially influx, as I remember — at different times. (I totally need to know more about the release of snakes in the cinema during screening of Fatal Attraction in Seoul.)

Ben Goldsmith (here, again, is his blog — specifically his post on the conference, which has links about the snakes and Fatal Attraction, in fact!) not only talked about the interface of Korean and Australian film, focusing on the animation Birthday Boy, an award-winning short animation that was made at the Australian Film TV and Radio School, and Australian involvement in the making of The Host, specifically John Cox’s Creature Workshop. He touched on the effect this kind of cooperation might have on the Australian film industry generally. It sounds like Australia and Canada and Korea are in a similar position in terms of SF cinema, that is, very little of it being made, despite a reasonably interesting literary SF scene. Maybe that’s a golden opportunity, if SF writers in each country can get more involved in the making of good genre films, as an alternative to Hollywood SF, which is more often pseudoscience-fiction — as a preferable alternative to the popular way of not-being-Hollywood-like, which at least in Canada and Australia seems to be to make long, slow, art films.

Also, the AFTRS was kind enough to send copies of the Birthday Boy DVD along, so I got a free copy of that, too. (Lime and I watched it last night, and I have to say we both enjoyed it, though I, at least, was hungry for more. Here’s hoping Sejong Park and everyone else involved gets a chance to do an animated feature sometime.)

Finally, Ae Gyung Shim (I can’t find anywhere to link to for her) talked about Hallyuwood Down Under — the reception of Korean films in Australia, and the making of Korean films in Australia, too. She discussed a long-forgotten movie that was made in Australia (and which looked like an amusing, wild ride from the clips we saw. It seems Korean film hasn’t done immensely well in Australia, but that at the same time, neither had Australian film. What dominates is Hollywood, so Hallyuwood is stuck competing with a domestic film industry. Cooperation of the kind that Ben Goldsmith talked about (John Cox’s Creature Workshop working on The Host) could be one way to bolster the industry, and make an Australian pop cinema industry more likely to explode out of nowhere at some point. But it’s going to be a hard sell to get Korean film screened more widely in Australia. Well, that makes me think again of Canada — I suspect there are a lot of similarities between the two countries, as John Ralston Saul has suggested several times over the years.

The next day, I delivered my talk in a panel on literature. Unfortunately, none of the Korean-language papers were available in translation (though I’ve heard the English-language ones were translated into Korean) so I kind of had to guess my way through the talks. I wished I could have understood more of what was being said, as discussions of the depiction of women in North Korean literature (before a clampdown codifying their depiction came into place) and a discussion of the literature of Korean exiles to Uzbekistan both sounded extremely interesting.

I saw very little outside of my main area for two reasons: for one, everything in the conference was crammed into a couple of days, which meant choosing along lines of what looked understandable, and what was most closely related to my specific interests. I like sitting in on a panel about stuff I know little about, though, like economics or politics, but it was not to be, even if I met some interesting people speaking in those areas. Then again, a friend who went to the conference just as I did seemed to enjoy the history talks much less than I enjoyed those I attended, so there’s no knowing how much I actually missed out on.

Still, I had a good time, even if I didn’t get a chance to see Charles, let alone his Senior who was talking about Korean music there. I have to say it was a real breath of fresh air for me to talk with a bunch of interesting people who are also fluent in English. I have a few friends like that around, but not many, and I think this is one of the things I miss most whenever I first get back to Korea. Talking over beer the first evening, and wandering around a nearby mall and then the CoEx mall the next day, with most of the people I’ve mentioned above… that was really a breath of fresh air, and enough to make me start thinking maybe, frustrations aside, grad school is a world to which I could happily return. Being surrounded by people who are really, truly interested in stuff, and really, truly smart, could be a very energizing thing. It certainly was for me during those two days.

As for the conference itself, well…

The site relocation was somewhat senseless if you ask me — actually, worse than senseless given that the academic organization didn’t have anything to do with Dokdo, and given that the dispute was relatively resolved by the time the conference happened, considering the mess and fuss caused unnecessarily, and considering, most importantly, that the conference was titled “Korea Interfacing with the World.” Interfacing involves disagreement, dispute, conflict. It does not involve pulling into your turtle shell every time your government and someone else’s government gets into a slapfight.

But what disturbed me a little more was the response someone I knew got when he inquired as to whether the relocation was really necessary. He was, essentially, told this: “You’ll never understand, it’s not your fault, but you’re not Korean, so how could you understand our historical pain and our concern with Dokdo? Of course you can’t…”

Which is a hell of a thing to be telling someone when you’ve just invited him to fly across the ocean to participate in a scholarly discussion of Korea. I mean, if my not being Korean retards my understanding that radically, then why am I being taken seriously on any other subject I might want to bring up regarding Korea? It’s… well, it doesn’t make sense.

That said, I’ve heard others argue that moving the conference may well have been a more pragmatic, preemptive response to criticism or attack by non-scholars. I’m not sure; I’ve heard that the AKS is a more conservative organization, politically. Ah well, I’m not going to go into a long criticism, but I do think that the ironic contradiction between the theme of the conference and many aspects of its reality speaks volumes about what “interfacing with the world” means to at least a segment of academia here.

And that’s something worth reflecting on for all involved, most of all me. (Because for a while I was considering Korean studies, but why make life harder than it has to be?)

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