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[Media Art Now] Lee Eun-hee renders palpable the mechanics of stress

By Korea Herald

Published : March 24, 2024 - 17:52

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That digital is immaterial is simply a delusion, but this idea is not easy to dispel. We hold a screen, whether it be a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop, but looking at only the images on it, we are not really conscious of the physical machines. We tend to forget about them or take them for granted.

However, the digital world we live in today is reliant on mechanical infrastructure and on natural resources, perhaps more critically so than ever. Think about the digital blackout caused by physical problems, or the international battle over metals and minerals. There are indeed a lot of discussions on the extractivism of environmental resources bringing technological systems into existence, as in Ed Conway’s "Material World: A Substantial Story of Our Past and Future" (2023) and Guillaume Pitron’s "The Dark Cloud: How the Digital World is Costing the Earth" (2023).

"Stance phase, Swing phase," a 3-channel video installation, 32 minutes, 14 seconds, 2021 ⓒ Lee Eun-hee (Courtesy of the artist)

The materiality of technology is what Lee Eun-hee (b. 1990) manifests in her films. In the tradition of documentary filmmaking, her work is based on rigorous fieldwork conducted in specific sites in cooperation with such institutions as the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Institute of Korea Workers’ Compensation & Welfare Service, KAIST Soft Material Assembly Group and the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources. Her primary focus is on operational labor involved in machinery, often hidden away in the workings of technical mechanisms.

"Stance phase, Swing phase" (2021) is a 3-channel video installation that tells a story about rehabilitation technology intended to help people with disabilities, with prostheses and augmentation. Here disability is understood as not only a physical impairment but an economically abnormal state, and all the bodies of operators, therapists, engineers as well as those with disabilities are configured around the machine’s motions, at the heart of which different layers of labor are at work.

"HOT/STUCK/DEAD," single-channel video, 20 min. 34 sec., 2021 ⓒ Lee Eun-hee (Courtesy of the artist)

"HOT/STUCK/DEAD" (2021) began with Lee’s encounter with a flawed LED panel up on a skyscraper. She saw a human hand popping out of the screen, which turned out to be a repairman’s. The three adjectives in the title indicate the defects of pixels on the screen, caused by the electrical breakdown of its transistors. Only when an error occurs can we realize the inner workings of technology and the entailed human labor. Broken pixels are a crack for Lee to tear apart dematerialized technology. In this film, she traces chemical and mechanical principles of the screen to create images before our eyes.

"Machines Don’t Die," single-channel video, 20 min. 4 sec., 2022 ⓒ Lee Eun-hee (Courtesy of the artist)

In addition to the malfunction, Lee examines the obsolescence of machines in "Machines Don’t Die" (2022). This documentary shows the recycling process of “urban mining” that extracts rare metals and minerals from discarded electronic products like computers, monitors, televisions and smartphones. Accelerationism in technological change prevails these days, with machines becoming increasingly super-intelligent and hyper-connected, and the lifespan of digital devices getting shorter and shorter. Lee weaves a filmic narrative in and out of the sheer volume of electronic waste to how pressure is imposed on resources, how the social life of machines moves on, and how their economic values are created and dropped.

"Mechanics of Stress," a multi-channel video installation, loop, 2023 ⓒ Lee Eun-hee (Courtesy of the artist)

Lee’s field studies are accompanied by interviews of engineering experts, and their steady narrations in the resulting films, neither overstated nor aestheticized, feed a powerful undertone into her moving images. Filmed at Korea Institute of Machinery and Materials, Korea Reliability Technology Center and the construction site of Shinwon 3 Tunnel, Ulsan, "Mechanics of Stress" (2023), a multi-channel video installation, deals with the engineering techniques of reliability testing and blasting. One is used to assess the material endurance and resistance against external forces over a period of time, and thereby calculate a product’s durability. The other employed is to destroy part of the ground or mountains to construct roads, bridges and tunnels with an explosive, the power of which meets the level of force measured to blow up the solid matter.

Drawing an implicit analogy between the body and machinery, Lee throws into relief different critical points of disintegration under stress, a juncture that turns your attention from images on the surface, to deeper structures -- material, technological and socioeconomic. By means of the properties of weakness, imperfection, fatigue and failure, what coalesces into the mechanics of stress becomes discernible.

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Kim Seong-eun, a former director of the Nam June Paik Art Center, is a curator and anthropologist in art and technology. -- Ed.