Of lonely humans and loving rice cookers
Performance review of CUCKOO by Jaha Koo,
presented at the MMCA Performing Arts: Asia Focus 2017, Seoul
presented at the MMCA Performing Arts: Asia Focus 2017, Seoul
Of lonely humans and loving rice cookersWritten by Maria Rößler, December 2017
Displaced artistic practice involves the necessity to consider the particularities of one’s own cultural formation and the possibility to look anew and with some distance at the most familiar circumstances. After having relocated from Seoul to Amsterdam, theatre maker and music composer Jaha Koo must have found himself in such a shift of perspective. And, consequently, he ended up making work about the country that he strongly identifies with and yet does not feel quite at ease with. Born in the 1980s, Jaha Koo grew up in South Korea and studied theatre at the Korea National University of Arts as well as the Amsterdam University of the Arts. After Rolling and Lolling (2014), CUCKOO is the second part of a trilogy exploring cases of ‘hamartia' in human history, and how historic incidents tragically affect lives today. Jaha Koo’s work draws on social and political themes from his home country, tracing reverberations of Confucianism, Japanese colonial rule, and US-American influence in South Korean society and cultural identity. In CUCKOO, the artist problematizes issues such as social pressure and isolation, obedience, powerlessness, and self-sacrifice.
Jaha Koo decided to leave South Korea at the age of 28. Among the few things that travelled with him to Europe was a Cuckoo rice cooker. This rice cooker would became the artistic medium and a perfect allegory for the issues he seeks to address in his latest piece. On stage, the performance of three electronic rice cookers manifests the hopeless struggles of absent humans and evokes a sense of unavailability of human connection. It is in meditation over his rice cooker, for instance, that Jaha Koo recalls the caring words of his father asking after him or memories of his school friend Jerry and how he used to dance before he was worn down by exhaustion and anger. “High pressure - steam explosion - it’s time to explode...” To lift up our spirits, Jaha Koo’s Cuckoos sing comforting songs with dancing LED lights, even about the most depressing realities.
Three Cuckoo high-pressure rice cookers are orderly displayed on a table: one of an older generation and two newer, ‘smarter’ versions. Apart from this installation, the stage is empty. As the audience walks in, the older rice cooker on the left makes a quiet rushing sound while steadily releasing steam from its top. Once the audience is seated, the steam has stopped and no noise can be heard. For a couple of minutes, there is no movement on stage – only the silent presence of the objects. Then, the rice cooker on the left beeps and announces that it has finished cooking rice, followed by a cheerful chant: “Cuckoo!” In this theatrical setting, the rice cooker’s most trivial operation, it’s every-day performance of steaming rice, becomes a singular happening, during which the sensory effects of the machine’s very practical use – the emergence of the smell of freshly steamed rice, the swirling formations of the steam in the space, the cooking noise, and the merry signals of the machine – all become part of the aesthetic experience.
Jaha Koo’s peculiar choice of co-performers is well-wrought: these kitchen appliances carry their own histories and symbolic potential - or, as Yuriko Saito notes in her study of Everyday Aesthetics: “non-art objects can be expressive of various ideas, values and qualities.”[ 1] The performing rice cookers are not least cultural objects that refer to technological innovation, high-performance culture and the domestic sphere at the same time.
Cuckoo rice cookers are amiable home appliances that provide various ways of cooking rice and customarily speak in a friendly female voice.[ 2] Their place is the kitchen and, with it, the home imagined as a realm of nurture and care. Directed at human needs of emotional security, warmth and caring, Cuckoos have somewhat ambiguously been advertised as “Love Cookers.” Connecting commercial cooking technology to the emotional landscape of the home, Cuckoos are meant to attend to their users’ desires for comfort and affection, cooking love or with love. Except, more accurately, of course, they cook food with pressure.
In Jaha Koo’s staging, the rice cookers refer to the private sphere of the home as well: however, it does not appear as a place of warmth and comfort but rather like an island in the dark, where loneliness and depression become visible. It may not be a coincidence that the expatriate artist became aware of the aesthetic and symbolic potential of his South Korean high-pressure rice cooker in a place far away from his native country and - if we trust his story - in a moment of existential concern, over a meal in the private isolation of his apartment in Europe:
“One day, it occurred to me that I would be quite satisfied if I could lead my life making money fair and square, feed myself with that money, and sleep comfortably. But the reality I witnessed in my life has been isolation without help. Then suddenly, my rice cooker spoke to me: ‘Cuckoo has finished cooking rice Please, stir the rice!’”
According to the performance narrative, Cuckoo entered the artistic project in response to the question of how to survive in social isolation and helplessness. In such a context, it appears almost reasonable to turn to the friendly rice cooker for companionship. At least, unlike human friends, they are made to work with pressure and not to burn out from it.
Jaha Koo’s performance can be associated with the increasingly prevalent sociological phenomenon of the withdrawal of individuals from human contact, voluntary isolation and self-confinement in their homes. Psychological research has found a link between loneliness and the tendency to pursue connection with nonhuman agents.[ 3] Seeing human traits when interacting with objects is like dreaming of a social affiliation with a “real” intelligent being in the absence of human social interaction. Anthropomorphism, that is, the attribution of human mental states and motivations to non-humans, allows lonely humans to experience social interaction and empathic relationships with non-humans.
Jaha Koo stages a food-based human-machine relationship, in which emotions are produced… Cuckoo rice cookers appeal to the human cognitive tendency to anthropomorphise by design and so it is only consequent of the artist to pursue an extended dialogue with these friendly machines. In collaboration with a hardware hacker, he developed ways of animating the machines beyond their regular modes of expression, invisibly modifying their inner technological setup. The rice cookers’ voice navigation systems were hijacked and re-engineered so that two of the three devices can perform as intelligent machines with distinct personalities, who seek to socialize with each other and the artist.
During the first half of the performance, the two younger rice cookers start a competitive fight about communicative and physical ability, qualification and usefulness. One of them proudly shows off its advanced modes of emotive expression: colourful lights and an LCD panel, which allows it to show images of hearts and other emotive symbols; thereby outperforming his fellow rice cooker, whose visual features are less developed. In turn, the more modifications are made to the bodies of the rice cookers in order to enhance their expressiveness, the more underproductive they become in their function as rice cookers. In the process of becoming a piece of art, one of them has been incapacitated for cooking rice. Spitefully picking at this inability, one rice cooker finally even denies the other recognition as a worthy being: “Look at yourself, you can do nothing. You are just a worthless, empty tin.” The harsh fight between the rice cookers demonstrates the kind of cruelty and lack of empathy that is generated in competitive performance-oriented environments. “There is no use whining when you can’t live up to the standard, you loser.”
In all this, there can be no doubt that the rice cookers’ performances of intelligence and empathy are far more limited, their expressions clumsy and under-complex in comparison to those of human actors. Their entirely symbolic indications of emotions, however, invite the audience to produce their own associations of mental states and to experience themselves as empathic beings – and possibly even more effectively than a human performance could. In a figurative sense, acting as catalysts for human empathy in the performance piece of Jaha Koo, these rice cookers may deserve to be described as “love cookers” after all.
Perhaps, the things we feel, when friendly machines reach out to us, are indicative of the nature of our contemporary human condition. “What has happened to South Korea in the past twenty years?” asks Jaha Koo towards the end of his performance as if to reaffirm the urgency of dealing with a (collective) trauma in relation to this youngest part of history:
1997. To avoid national bankruptcy after South Korea’s economic crash, the country agrees on the International Monetary Fund’s terms for a bailout package, which include accepting enormous interest rates and foreign-lead restructuring measures, surrendering legal economic sovereignty to the IMF, and thus enslaving the country to foreign economies for the long term. South Korean markets were opened and swiftly eaten up by US corporations. South Koreans voluntarily donated their gold to pay the nation’s debts. To what effect?
Twenty years have past since the IMF incident. Accentuated by Jaha Koo’s terrific electronic music, a three-minute video montage shows documentary footage of street demonstrations, civil protest actions and police violence from 1997 until today: a stirring portrait of a society under pressure. But the tragedy of this society goes deeper…
Jaha Koo addresses a part of South Korean history that he has lived through himself. In 1997, he was 14 years old. He belongs to a generation that grew up with the social repercussions of the IMF bailout: unemployment, debts and emigration drastically changed the lives of family members and friends. Six friends have died since.
Stress and precarity have become the norm for young generations that only know lack of social security and irregular job conditions with high performance pressure, long working hours and minimum wages. Only few enjoy wealth and stability later, while for many others it has never been possible to develop perspectives towards the future or personal fulfillment. Working hard, in fact, does not seem to pay off and so it cannot be surprising that many young people can no longer be convinced of the meritocratic ideologies of an older generation nor find meaning in spending their lives under constant pressure with no benefits. Not only do such conditions erode the status of social values such as solidarity, openness and kindness, they also push individuals into anxiety, depression, alcoholism and social isolation. The rise of stress-induced illnesses is reflected by South Korea’s exceptionally high suicide rates, in the light of which the widely established assumption that happiness is tied to the productivity and economic success becomes questionable.
“But what is happiness anyway?” Jaha Koo contrasts the social-economical struggles of South Koreans with the commercially compromised, airy-fairy contemplations on happiness of self-help guidebook author Gretchen Rubin, a typical representative of the privileged 1% and, ironically enough, a relative of Robert Rubin, former Goldman Sachs board member and US Secretary of the Treasury, who pulled strings during the IMF’s negotiations with South Korea. Jaha Koo’s witty Cuckoos know to sing a song about Rubin and “capitalist imperialist neo-colonialist disaster.”
Two chapters of Jaha Koo’s piece are dedicated to recent victims of this situation: 1) the artist’s friend Jerry, a young father, who was crushed by the burdens of work and economic pressure, and 2) the publicly received case of a 19-year old mechanic, who was hit by a train in May 2016 while trying to fix a screen door in the subway of Seoul under unsupportable time pressure. What connects these two deaths?
In a reflection on the urban society of Seoul, philosopher Byung-Chul Han, describes a society, which has eagerly adopted the capitalist performance principle. He draws connections between the pervasiveness of motivational slogans promoting initiative and ability on the one hand and ever-present exhaustion, social isolation, and the country’s worryingly high suicide rate on the other:
“Self-exploitation is much more efficient than exploitation by others, because it goes with a feeling of freedom. But this freedom brings with it immense pressure, under which the achieving subject breaks. Who fails at ability, becomes depressive. He is ashamed and isolates himself. He alone bears the blame for his failing. He problematizes himself and not society. (…) The neoliberal system stabilises itself by separating and isolating people as achieving subjects.”[ 4]
This account – which Han applies to any Western achievement-oriented society in a similar way in his book Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (translatable as “Fatigue Society”)[ 5] – resonates with the stories of Jerry and the subway mechanic Kim, who sacrificed their lives under extreme pressure. Could they be paradigmatic for a self-exploiting society that misses the mark, isolating its people in spaces of total neglect and helplessness, where people have to fall into nothingness just so that the world keeps running on time?
In a strong final scene, accompanied with a beautiful piece of music, voices and impressions of the performance echo in a portrait of cheerless meals and dismal solitude. In an absurd, childlike play, Jaha Koo illustrates the arduous yet meaningless labour of continually building upward at the foreseeable risk of collapse. At the end, a small human figure must fall down from a tower of steamed rice.
Yuriko Saito, “Neglect of Everyday Aesthetics,” Everyday Aesthetics (New York: Oxford UniversityPress, 2007), 35-36.
For an interesting and comprehensive account of “protocols of femininity being programmed intomachines” and how female voices in electronic devices “emphasise the association with the so-called‘feminized labour’ of clerical and service work”, see: Helen Hester, “Technically Female: Women,Machines, and Hyperemployment,” Salvage, August 8, 2016.
Adam G. Waytz, “Social Connection and Seeing human,” The Oxford Handbook of Social Exclusion,ed. C. Nathan DeWall (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 254.
My translation. Byung-Chul Han: “Südkorea - Eine Müdigkeitsgesellschaft im Endstadium” (trans.: South Korea - late stages of a fatigue society), April 9, 2012.
Byung-Chul Han: The Burnout Society, trans. Erik Butler (Stanford University Press, 2015).