Professional But Precarious: A Talk by CedarBough Saeji on Mask Dance Drama, Preservation Associations, and Their Survival Strategies (at pink factory)

poster of pink factory's workshop "tradition in motion"This year’s international artist residency program at pink factory (분홍공장) went public with the first in a series of talks on “tradition in motion” (움직이는 전통). CedarBough Saeji, scholar of Korean performing arts and the preservation of cultural heritage, as well as active performer in various traditional genres, had come by bike (!) from Seoul to Hongcheon in order to talk about “Ameliorating Precarity for Traditional Artists: The Expansion of the Role of Preservation Associations” (전통 예술가를 위한 고용 불안 완화: 보존회의 역할 확대). In a dynamic bi-lingual lecture, she drew the resident artists of pink factory, as well as the other guests who had come, into the world of rural mask dance drama. For me, it was the first opportunity to host a talk, in a familiar environment for friends and family.

CedarBough kicked off her talk with the confrontation between Bibi (비비, a grotesque ape-like character) and a yangban (양반, member of the uppperclass), a scene from the Goseong Ogwangdae (고성오광대) repertory. (Goseong is a town on the southcoast of Korea, “ogwangdae” literally means “five clowns”, see an introductory video on Goseong Ogwangdae, shot by CedarBough, on Youtube, or another version of the scene at a 2015 performance at the National Gugak Center)

Bibi, eager to devour everything, chases the yangban who has to improvise in-between the audience to outrun the hungry monster. In performance, this fight serves as an opportunity for spontaneous comic interaction with the spectators and is one of the few scenes without a fixed text that nevertheless are covered by the preservation policies.

an introductory video on Goseong Ogwangdae (shot by CedarBough, via her Youtube-channel)

With this unexpected challenge of the yangban’s presumably “safe” position (due to his ancestry), CedarBough used this scene as a metaphor for the current state of traditional arts in general: disguise or vanish. (at 7:30 in CedarBough’s video; Bibi is the green-masked person drop-kicking the fan-wielding yanban easily identifiable by the black hat) In the case of the Goseong Ogwangdae Preservation Association (고성오광대 보존회), an institution dedicated to the transmission of a rural mask dance drama style from Goseong in South Gyeongsang province, the transmission into a cultural enterprise (문화사업) has proven fruitful: A new training center with a diverse program for local citizens and tourists helped the group – whose imminent dissolution seemed unavoidable just a few years ago – to survive and provide relatively stable jobs to its members.

Formerly mostly part-time hobbyists (nevertheless highly skilled), the artists who perform Goseong Ogwangdae have embraced professionalization. Although even full-time employed artists are in a precarious situation, CedarBough argues that since the 1997/98 IMF-crisis a general loss of job security and stable income has resulted in a leveled field where “regular” employees face similar problems like artists. As a result, traditional arts have become a viable career-option. But the path between “traditionality” and “popularity” is a rocky one – CedarBough also pointed out that the activities of Goseong Ogwangdae have increased in every way, “except maybe for just performing their own art.”

CedarBough Saeji presenting on mask dance drama at pink factoryThe lecture, which presented parts of CedarBough’s upcoming book on mask dance drama and cultural heritage, offered us a lot of food for thought. While unrelated to any form of officially supported tradition, pink factory is nevertheless a rural institution for artistic production, funded by the (regional) government. What are viable ways between aesthetic quality, artistic individuality, and accessibility for the citizens of Hongcheon county? This is a question that all artists who participate in pink factory have to ask themselves again and again.

CedarBough Saeji presenting on mask dance drama at pink factoryPersonally, I found the perspective on a group art that, unlike pansori (which CedarBough repeatedly referenced as a contrasting case), requires the efforts of a collective to continue, highly instructive. Aging and rural exodus make it difficult for preservation societies to sustain the number of members necessary for performance. Ironically, performances in Seoul are easier to organise – and probably better attended – than those at the historical home of the art. Pansori, on the other hand, although likewise an art with diverse regional variations, is much more “mobile”, which also makes it an economically more viable “export product”. Two flight tickets are (almost) enough for a five-hour performance abroad…

group photo after CedarBough Saeji's presentation on mask dance drama at pink factoryWhile CedarBough, after a brief dinner, cycled back to Seoul, against the day drawing to a close (setting a new record for the route between Hongcheon and Yangpyeong), our discussion about the relation of contemporary art to local tradition and the ways to grasp the interest of potential audiences in Hongcheon continued over dinner – and will accompany our work throughout the summer. And the Bibi vs. yangban scene, reprised and expanded upon in the following discussion by friend and family member of pink factory Wayne K. Yang, will remain as a striking metaphor for the current situation of the arts, traditional or not.
after-workshop dinner at pink factory

The workshop series “tradition in motion” continues with my own presentation on pansori (“tradition of the backyard, tradition of the street”) on June 11, same time, same place – everyone is welcome!

poster of pink factory's workshop "tradition in motion"

– 28 May 2016 (土)

  • 분홍공장 2016 국제 레지던스 프로젝트 “지역, 다시 쓰는 전통”, 인터내셔널 워크숍 시리즈 “움직이는 전통”, 제1회: 탈놀이 – 공연학, 강의: 서이지 (현 고려대학교 한국민족문화연구원 객원 연구원), 주관: 홍천 지역문화 공간 “분홍공장”, 후원: 강원도, 한국문화예술위원회, 강원문화재단, 2016년 5월 28일 (토), 오후 4–6시, 입장무료.
  • pink factory 2016 international artist residency “rewriting tradition in the province”, international workshop series “tradition in motion”, #1: mask dance drama – performance studies, lecturer: cedarbough t. saeji (visiting research scholar at research institute of korean studies, korea university), host: regional culture space “pink factory”, sponsors: gangwon province, arts council korea, gangwon art & culture foundation, 2016–05–28 (Sat.), 4–6pm, free entrance.

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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