Daehangno Poster Session 1

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Every time I go to Daehangno, having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I wander through the small alleyways. I usually to lost somewhere between Arko Arts Center and Marronnier Park. … Continue reading

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Knife-Scam or North Korea’s Best on Tour?

"North Korea Art Ensemble on Performance Tour"

“North Korea Art Ensemble on Performance Tour”

It was some months ago when I saw the small poster for the first time, right at the bus stop in front of our house, a small envelope filled with free invitations attached to it. I was tempted to give it try, I have to say, but didn’t have the time. I saw a similar announcement again last week – all free tickets gone already – and it made me wonder once again. “North Korea’s best actors” (북한 최고 배우들) – mostly actresses, it seems – are on tour, in South Korea?

The “phantastic stage” (환상의 무대) for this event was to unfold at a convention center in Sinchon, right next to Sogang University. I remember that we had our graduation lunch there some years ago. The show seems to consist mostly of song and dance, the latter possibly in traditional dresses, but the whole thing looks very trotty to me. That there are performances Monday morning and afternoon is also quite telling about the target audience.

Is this just some kind of “Kaffeefahrt”-scheme (free excursions to the countryside that culminate in afternoon coffee with pushy sales promotion), trying to attract audiences with an invitation to some nostalgic past, when popular entertainment in North and South Korea wasn’t too different? The free souvenir (a “flower-knife” 장미칼) for everyone attending seems a bit suspicious… Also, children and students – in fact, everyone under the age of 30 – cannot attend. The same goes for anyone who is drunk.

Is this troupe (북한예술단) really from Pyongyang or rather from Japan, China, or elsewhere? It doesn’t seem to be the same ensemble that performed the song “방갑습니다!” (Nice to Meet You!) in a Youtube-video that I found listed under the same name. According to a news report in Munhwa Ilbo (문화일보), this is was the “Pyongyang Folk Art Ensemble” (평양민속예술단), a group of professional musicians, singers and dancers trained in North Korea who have escaped to South. (I couldn’t access what seems to be the ensemble’s homepage – there might be more information there.)

A lot of “seems”, many open questions, and only one way to find out… Seems like it’s time for some field work next time they are in town!

Or rather not? I wasn’t sure…

And then I found a blog post by someone who had a similar experience earlier this June, when the same ensemble performed at Sejong University (세종대학교 대양홀). The blogger Ssamdori (쌈돌이) noticed what I hadn’t seen: The whole event is in fact “a combination of travel presentation and free performance by the company Geumgan Tour” ((주)금간투어에서 여행설명회를 겸한 무료공연). Like Ssamdori, I was struck between curiosity and suspicion. Maybe we should go together and get the free knife next time

– 22 Aug. 2014 (金)

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Pictures in Motion

IMG_4286-0.JPGMotion pictures are pictures in motion. So far, so good. The short films by experimental filmmaker Ito Takashi (伊藤高志 이토 다카시) I just saw made me realize this simple truth once again—but to what effect!

Always good for a surprise, the Cinematheque KOFA (한국영상자료원) hosts the Experimental Film and Video Festival in Seoul (EXiS 2014, 서울국제실험영화제) this week (until Thursday, Sept. 4th). The program also includes an excellent retrospective of Ito’s early works, spanning one decade from his student works of the early 1980s to the early 1990s.

Have a look at Spacy (1980–81, 16mm), his graduation film at the Kyushu Institute of Design. I promise that these are ten minutes not easily forgotten:

Ito Takashi, Spacy (1980–81)

Probably Ito’s most famous work, Spacy includes hundreds of photos shot again and again. The movie was heavily inspired by his professor Matsumoto Toshio (松本 俊夫), in particular the motion-study Ātman (アートマン, 1975, 11 Min., see on Youtube) that shows a masked nō actor from all possible directions.

Ito Takashi, presenting his work at EXiS 2014 (Cinematheque KOFA, cinema 2)

Ito Takashi, presenting his work at EXiS 2014 (Cinematheque KOFA, cinema 2)

However, while Spacy and other early stylistic experiments (Box, Thunder, Screw, all from 1982) were awe-inspiring, I even more liked that as time goes on Ito’s projects turn more personal in subject matter. My personal highlight was Grim (1985), an exploration of time and space within the confines of a small apartment. In Venus (1990), a whole apartment block is mashed up into a cubistic set of frames, houses, perspectives.

Ito Takashi, <em>Grim</em> (1985), via EXiS

Ito Takashi, Grim (1985), via EXiS

I’ve always been interested in movies made of still images (see this experimental clip I made In 2005 in order to introduce the least appealing part of my apartment in Paris to my friends back home). But here, all those things that I find fascinating about cinema converge: the inherent tension between standing still and moving; the exploration of a singular space, point-by-point; the memories that are burned into looping images between repetition and variation; the sense for details and the zoom-out to show the big picture; the organic contrast between compressed time and time seemingly standing still. (More material on Ito can be found in Japanese and English at Imageforum and on his own Facebook-page.)

Ito Takashi, <em>Venus</em> (1990), via EXis

Ito Takashi, Venus (1990), via EXis

The technique of using still images (simply said: photographies) reminded me of a travelling performer and movie maker I had seen in Berlin years ago (at Theater o.N. in Prenzlauer Berg, if I remember correctly, or was it at the Eigenreich?). Maybe because Ito had brought along a flip book-version of Spacy…?

Volker Gerling is, presumably, the only “flip book-wanderer” in the world. While travelling from here to there, he shoots people he meets on his way with a reflex camera in burst mode, filling an analogue 36-picture film in mere seconds. The prints are bound into a small book, called a “Daumenkino” in German—quite literally a “thumb cinema”.

Many of these short clips, which last only a few seconds, depending on the pressure applied, are very moving, offering short glimpses into otherwise opaque lives of others. Back then in Berlin, he presented his latest works and I remember them quite vividly, the old man smiling briefly, the young girl seeing herself for the first time after getting a haircut, three teenagers seemingly doing nothing but… If Warhol’s Screen Tests of celebrities are “3-minute eternities”, these are mini-portraits that last as long as you want them to last.


Volker Gerling’s motto is “Bilder lernen laufen, indem man sie herumträgt.” (Pictures learn to walk as we carry them around.) He mentions his quite thought-provoking thesis in an interview with the Metrolit publishing company (in German): If cinematic vision mirrors a train passenger looking at a “travelling shot” from his cabin, the perspective that flip books correspond to is that of a wanderer. Another interesting interview by the photo journal kwerfeldein (also in German) features numerous pictures and a video that shows some of the flip books in action and also Gerling performing them live.


Here, once again, I was fascinated by the possibilities of doing the seemingly impossible: keeping a moment from the past without turning it into a dead flower. In contrast to Ito’s high speed stills, Gerling’s portraits can be as slow as the thumb that’s turning them.

Movies are more than moving images. They tell stories about people, of those in front of the lens and those behind it, whether in 36 images, 700 images, ten skies, or twenty cigarettes (did I mention that I adore James Benning?).

– 30 Aug. 2014 (土)


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Last Day of Summer

When I was a kid, summer was the longest season. Weeks of doing nothing – at least nothing I can think of now, except some ice creams at the public swimming pool.


Soon after returning from a month-long trip to Germany this year, summer seems already over. The open-air swimming pools at the Hangang are closing this weekend, so it was the last chance for a cool dip. Every hour, all people had to leave the pool for security reasons for some twenty minutes.

This reminds me of the artwork Safety Hour (2004) by Sascha Pohle, a three-channel video installation based on the same practice in Japan that might be considered “an allegory of the individual and collective fear of death”.

For us it was just the right time for some hot ramyeon and tea. After the second round, however, all of a sudden everbody seemed to be packing up already. Maybe the cold breeze, maybe the prospects of another week of work. In any case: The end of this season.

IMG_0632.JPGThe atmosphere in the surrounding Hangang Park was still relaxed when we left the pool. A lone saxophone player melted away on a large stage, couples were lying in small tents watching movies on notebooks, kids were playing as the sun went down, and one waterskier passed by.

Fall can come now.


– 24 Aug. 2014 (日)

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Ten Years Ttorang Gwangdae

Ten years ago, a group of young pansori singers wrote a short manifesto about the state of the art. They also added a new term to the vocabulary of those interested in pansori as it is today: Enter the Ttorang Gwangdae!

또랑광대 박태오 (Bak Tae-o)

또랑광대 박태오 (Bak Tae-o)

Although the “Declaration of the Ttorang Gwangdae” by the National League of Ttorang Gwangdae (또랑광대 전국협의회) is dated to February 13, 2004, the actual posting of the text was uploaded exactly ten years ago. In preparation for an upcoming presentation on “Traditional Performance for Today’s Audiences”, I revisited this interesting (and very quotable) text once again and was struck by this coincidence.

So let’s celebrate its tenth anniversary, let’s have a fresh look at the declaration!

I checked for publishing rights with the webmaster of the Daum-café that run by the Ttorang Gwangdae, where the declaration was uploaded. He told me that the text can be freely shared by everyone, though it would be nice to provide a brief context. The images feature some members of the Ttorang Gwangdae League in action and first appeared on the Daum-café, too (click on them to see them there).

또랑광대 이규호 (I Gyu-ho)

또랑광대 이규호 (I Gyu-ho)

First of all: What does Ttorang Gwangdae mean? As Kim Kee-hyung (김기형) reminds us, the designation ttorang gwangdae (또랑 광대, roughly meaning “smalltime entertainer”), is not exactly new. In an article on the emerging Ttorang Gwangdae-Movement published right in 2004, Kim first notes its etimology (a ttorang is a “tiny stream of water running down an alleyway in a village”, while a gwangdae is a traditional performer or entertainer) and then explains its use as follows:

“그러니까 ’또랑광대’란 중앙에 진출하지 못하고 지역에 거주하면서 마을에서만 활동하는 소리꾼으로, 체계적 · 전문적 훈련을 받지 않아 소리의 기둥이 서 있지 않은 경우를 말한다.” (김기형 2004: 10)

“Therefore ‘ttorang gwangdae’ refers to a singer who lives in the province and performs only in villages, someone who is unable to advance to the center and cannot make a living doing pansori [“cannot stand on the pillar of pansori”], as he or she did not receive systematic and professional training.” (Kim Kee-hyung 2004: 10)

In other words, ttorang gwangdae is used as a derogatory term for an amateur singer who cannot face the competition in Jeonju, Seoul or other mekkas of pansori, the opposite of a myeongchang (명창, “master singer”).

또랑광대 김명자 (Kim Myeong-ja)

또랑광대 김명자 (Kim Myeong-ja)

But the twelve singers—and their ninety supporters who signed the declaration below—use the term as an expression of pride. Maybe they chose it exactly for its understatement and its affinity with rural life and the associated humble lifestyle. In 2004, are these Ttorang Gwangdae the underdogs of the pansori world?

For now, they are scattered throughout the world of traditional and new music. The National League of Ttorang Gwangdae (전국또랑광대협회), the group under whose name the declaration was originally posted, has been active from 2001 until 2008. After the disbandment of the League (with a festival), its former members keep on walking the path of a Ttorang Gwangdae, each one in his or her own way.

So this is my ad-hoc translation of the declaration. Please note that I aimed for readabilty rather than exact wording or poetic beauty.

Today we have gathered in this place to revive the sinmyeong that is constantly flowing inside us, the living pan, the sori of our time.

  • sinmyeong 신명: an aesthetic concept, joy, enthusiasm, with a divine quality… often associated with traditional arts
  • pan 판: a place of encounter, for play and participation
  • sori 소리: sound, especially the human voice, also used to refer to songs in the style of pansori

During the the last decades we were under the delusion that the dualism of the Western-style stage, [depicting life but] completely removed from the life around it, provides the superior pan. And we struggled to imitate it. In the meantime, the pan of bygone days has vanished somewhere. This pan was always linked to the life of common people and once helped us to confirm [our community through] our sweat and our breath. What used to serve as a place of mutual understanding, in happy times like in sad times, now merely exists in the past.

Furthermore, our sori used to reflect the roots of life and the spirit of the time. But now it has become fossilized. The gap [between pansori and] real life is gradually widening. The urge to understand life in all its various aspects and to record it has disappeared. The shabby mess that the system aims to protect fittingly portrays the current state of our soripan.

  • soripan 소리판: a pan for sori; the relational space that emerges when people are gathering for a pansori performance around the singer and the drummer

Nowadays, most people [here: pansori singers] have become accustomed to make compromises. They stand on stage for money and one more line in their resume. They have left behind the true meaning of the pan. Instead, we are proudly facing the false honor offered by this capitalized staging [of tradition], neglecting our duty out of greed.

The time has come to make an important decision: Will we accept the current state of the pan, one that has lost all its sinmyeong and its role as a communicative place? Will we turn away from the sori of our times and, for the sake of private benefit, choose the vain honor? Or, as pansori singers standing in life, can we grasp the meaning of the ‘true’ pan and change the current situation?
 Now is the time to turn over a new leaf. We are facing the challenge to depart from the state of fossilization and to revive a “living, breathing pan of today”. Our time demands for a living sori, one that relates to the present, one that fosters hope that once again the song of real life will be sung. To satisfy this demand, we have to tell again [relevant stories] with our sori. We have to reestablish a pan of our time.

The progressive sori collective Ttorang Gwangdae wants to spearhead the sori of today. We will work together to make, sing, and share a sori that fits our time. To this end, we are concerned about our present and turn our eyes to the life of our times. Today’s declaration is only the starting point of a firm solidarity movement for the reestablishment of this new kind of pan. We proclaim our plan: to tell about this life, through our sori and our sweat.

Year 4337 month 1 day 23 after the foundation by Dangun (Western date: 2014-02-13)

The National League of Ttorang Gwangdae: 김명자, 김석균, 김지영, 박지영, 박태오, 박흥주, 이자람, 정대호, 정유숙, 조정래, 채수정, 최용석 (in alphabetical order)

Esteemed other participants: 고은,  강은미, 강은주, 강현철, 고형렬, 곽동근, 곽명옥, 김금식, 김남하, 김도환, 김동광, 김명선, 김명수, 김민규, 김선정, 김소희, 김예진, 김용화, 김주연, 김종백, 김주영, 김정미, 김정숙, 김정은, 김정이, 김진규, 김태윤, 김향진, 김   현, 김희정, 노영수, 노용명, 박강의, 박경도, 박동수, 박승우, 박신영, 박종민, 박해경, 배정일, 백금렬, 서미화, 성영화, 손민영, 심민호, 신동흔, 안은경, 안효천, 양일동, 양향진, 엄병천, 오동익, 오삼록, 오영지, 오종근, 왕서리, 유성준, 유수곤, 윤다림, 이강용, 이강희, 이경엽, 이병관, 이상헌, 이상현, 이우진, 이왕수, 이은우, 이일규, 이종은, 이태화, 장성진, 전경호, 전인호, 정경화, 정계임, 정주환, 정일균, 조미라, 조세형, 조현정, 조해숙, 최기우, 최면정, 최은미, 최유진, 편성철, 함성주, 홍소영, 홍현종 (in alphabetical order)

  • dated from the mythical foundation of Korea by Dangun, the dangun giweon (단군기원) or short dangi (단기), 2333 BC

또랑광대 구지천 (Gu Ji-cheon)

또랑광대 구지천 (Gu Ji-cheon)

For a few more detailed readings on the Ttorang Gwangdae, see the short list below, for a more general bibliography on newly-created pansori (창작 판소리), see an earlier post.

  • 김기형, 「또랑광대의 성격과 현대적 변모」(The Character and the Modern Transformation of the ‘Ddorang Kwangdae’), 판소리 연구 제18집, 판소리학회, 2004, 7–23.
  • 박흥주,「전통 소리판의 현대적 재현 – 또랑광대를 중심으로」(Today’s revival of traditional Soripan : Ttorang-kwangdae), 구비문학연구 22, 2006.
  • 정혜정,「또랑광대 창작판소리 연구」(A Study on the Newly Pansori of “Ttorang-gwangdae”), 전남대학교 대학원 석사학위논문, 2008.

Hae-kyung Um also offers a translation of the most important parts and a contextualization of the Ttorang Gwangdae, both in her 2008 paper “New P’ansori in Twenty-first-century Korea: Creative Dialectics of Tradition and Modernity” (Asian Theatre Journal 25.1: 24–57; here: 42ff) and her recent book Korean Musical Drama: P’ansori and the Making of Tradition in Modernity (Ashgate 2013, 199).

– 24 June 2014 (火)

If you’d like to quote from this translation, please include the following information: National League of Ttorang Gwangdae (또랑광대 전국협의회), “Declaration of the Ttorang Gwangdae” (“또랑광대 선언문”), dated Feb. 13, 2004, posted June 24, 2004 at http://cafe.daum.net/NewAgePansori/7V7J/382, English translation by Jan Creutzenberg (2014), available at http://seoulstages.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/ten-years-ttorang-gwangdae.

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God Bless the Queen: My Paper on Changgeuk in the RASKB Transactions

Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, Vol. 88Some month ago I had presented a paper on “Recent Experiments in Changgeuk” at the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch Colloquium. I expanded a bit on the topic and wrote an article for the Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch. Since 1900, when the RASKB was founded, the Transactions have been published as an (almost) annual journal that covers many different aspects of Korean culture and history. It is probably the oldest English-language periodical still in print. Among others, the McCune-Reischauer-system for the romanization of the Korean language was published here in 1939 (Vol. XXIX, pp. 1–55).

So I felt quite proud when I found the package with five complimentary copies on my doorsteps.

This is the table of contents of the current volume 88:

  • Alex Švamberk, Czechoslovakia in the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission
  • In Memoriam: Alan Heyman (1931 – 2014)
  • Wayne Patterson, Christianity, American Missionaries, and Korean Immigration to the United States, 1903-1915
  • Bill Streifer, 1945: Korea Faces a Post-Colonial Industrial Future
  • Jan Creutzenberg, From Traditional Opera to Modern Music Theatre? Recent Experiments in Ch’anggŭk
  • Jill Matthews, Symbolism and Literary Reference in Traditional Korean Gardens
  • Hank Morris, Korea in the Asian Crisis of 1997 – 1998: the IMF Crisis in Korea
  • Gigi Santow, Jean Perry: Twenty Years a Korea Missionary
  • Brother Anthony, An English Chemist Visits Korea in 1899
  • Robert Neff (ed.), Robert Thomas’s First Trip To Korea
  • Recently Published Books about Korean Studies
  • Annual Reports

Issues of the Transactions are available from the RASKB. The individual articles might also be available online in the near future. Additional material on my paper, which might be interesting for readers who’d like to dig a bit deeper into changgeuk, can be found in this blogpost.

– 30 June 2014 (月)

  • Jan Creutzenberg, “From Traditional Opera to Modern Music Theatre? Recent Experiments in Ch’anggŭk”, Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch 88 (2013), pp. 87–102.
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Tales of Three Sisters (Taroo’s Pansori Hamlet Project, part2)

The Pansori Hamlet Project (판소리 햄릿 프로젝트) by Taroo had begun with an unusual encounter: Pansori singers meet actors, Hamlet meets us, today. An inquiry into Shakespeare’s piece and its protagonist, this first stage was about how we can understand Hamlet and his dubious intentions in a modern context. (For a more detailed review see my earlier post)

The next stage was about why we should be interested in Hamlet in the first place, featuring three women discussing their reasons to adapt this classic live on stage.

Pansori Hamlet Project: Story of Three Women (판소리 햄릿 프로젝트: 세여자 이야기) © Taroo

Pansori Hamlet Project: Story of Three Women 판소리 햄릿 프로젝트: 세여자 이야기 © Taroo

In the summer of 2013, half a year after the first presentation, Taroo held a workshop to further develop their project. The results were presented as a free one-hour “showcase” at the Seoul Theater Center (서울연극센터) in Daehangno. We arrived in the lobby just in time as the performance was about to begin. There were maybe about thirty or fourty people, young and old. I can’t say how many had come on purpose, as some might have just stopped by the Theater Center to buy tickets for another show. I had found out about this event through Facebook, only one or two days earlier.

Song Bora, Lee Weon-gyeong, Jo Ella (left to right) © Taroo

송보라, 이원경, 조엘라 (left to right) © Taroo

The main title of the showcase was straightforward: Story of Three Women (세여자 이야기). The setting was likewise simple. Three women in their late 20s to early 30s, wearing skirts and high-heels, were casually sitting on bar chairs in the lobby sipping ice coffee, kind of like in a talk show. The three faces were familiar: The singers Song Bora (송보라), Jo Ella (조엘라), and Lee Weon-gyeong (이원경) of Taroo. Music director Jeong Jong-im (정종임), sitting a bit apart, occasionally played the drum and controlled the videos shown on three flatscreens. There were scenes from classical Hamlet- movies and later short interviews with random people about their opinion on a pansori-version of Hamlet.

© TarooThe piece is composed of three only losely related parts. First, a discussion starts about the question “Why Hamlet?” Spoiler alert: At first all three singers are against it. They rather would like to sing about their own lives than about a fictional prince, quite understandably, although one singer mentions that playing Shakespeare might get them an invitation to England. The drummer, however, insists. In the whole piece, he has almost no dialogue, but here he shouts “Hamlet! Hamlet!”, again and again, from the sidelines, finally “convincing” the others.

Then the focus turns on the three singers themselves, who introduce themselves as three young singles “living alone”. Each one of them presents a short solo number that deals with her respective situation.

이원경 © Taroo

이원경 © Taroo

Jo Ella talks and sings about how she fears to become like her mom, who sacrificed everything for her family. Lee Weon-gyeong presents her life as an aspiring pansori singer, stuck between Jejudo (her home), Jeonju (where she can learn from a great teacher), and Seoul (where she can perform). Song Bora talks about her dating life in Hongdae, where she met a guy who doesn’t answer her messages but writes about her on his blog. In short: Everyday situations in the life of twenty-somethings are elevated to narrative material for pansori storytelling. Several repeated phrases work as choruses, such as the three choices Lee Weon-gyeong faces (Seoul-Jeonju-Jejudo) or a short catchword from some gag program (“살아있다, 살아있네”, lit. “It lives!”) that received much laughter.

Finally, the singers unite for the “To Be or Not To Be”-song. While the singers have shown their pansori-skills in their respective solos, this earwormy piece could have come straight from a Hamlet-musical. But the chorus, sung with slightly shifted melodies, is a nice closing for this showcase.

A post-performance collage, via Facebook © Taroo

A post-performance collage, via Facebook © Taroo

The first part of the Pansori Hamlet Project was a cross-over of theatre and pansori, but this second part rather took a side-step and reflected on the existential conditions for the whole project in a light-hearted manner. Switching between open rehearsal and confessional potpourri, it focused on the people behind the show. Although the choice of Hamlet still remains a little bit opaque, I’ve learned a lot about the three singers and their different relations to their profession.

After the well-earned applause, the singers ask the audience to like their Facebook-page (you should do, too!) and come see the final piece in February next year (that is, 2014… review coming up!). I’ll certainly be there, but I’d also like to hear more of their very own stories, preferably in pansori-style!

– 15 Aug. 2013 (木)

  • 국악뮤지컬집단 타루, <세 여자 이야기>, 작: 공동창작, 연출: 박선희, 소리꾼: 송보라, 조엘라, 이원경, 음악감독: 정종임, 조연출: 전승훈, 기획: 문효원, 정경화, 장소: 서울연극센터 (로비), 2013년 8월 15일 (목), 오후 3시 ~ 4시, 무료입장.
  • Gugak Musical Collective Taroo, Story of Three Women, collectively authored piece, directed by Bak Seon-hui, pansori singers: Song Bora, Jo Ella, Lee Weon-gyeong, music director: Jeong Jong-im, assistant director: Jeon Seung-hun, production: Mun Hyo-weon, Jeong Gyeong-hwa, venue: Seoul Theater Center (lobby), 2013–08–15 (Thu.), 3–4 pm, free entrance.
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