In 2014, I was invited to serve on the jury for the Animpact festival in South Korea, because “Marcel, King of Tervuren” had won an award the year before. Shortly before the trip I told the students in my Experimental Animation class at MCAD that I was going to Seoul and they insisted, “You have to go to a K-Pop concert while you’re in Korea!”
After eighteen hours of flying (and a couple of “Transformers” movies on the plane) I arrived in an airport outside of Seoul. The directors’ liaison from the festival was waiting at the international arrivals exit with a sign that read “T. Schroeder.” As I walked toward him, he regarded me with humor, introduced himself as ‘Jack’ and asked, “You look so young and handsome in the director’s photo you sent us. What happened?” A shy and tired Australian animator, also looking older than his director’s photo, shook my hand and said that he was Julian Frost. He had made the railroad safety piece “Dumb Ways to Die,” which had recently gone viral on YouTube. We waited together for two other guests to appear and then were driven into the city to our hotel.
The time difference between Minneapolis and Seoul is fifteen hours and it was impossible for me to adjust to local time during the week that I was there. I roamed the city at night, departing unexpectedly from the modern grid into narrow, dirt-floored alleys with heaps of dried fish, nuts and fruit heaped in front of hanging plastic sheets that partially obscured men eating steaming bowls of food. And then, just as abruptly as I’d left, I reemerged into the present-day landscape of glass and steel, covered with puzzling signs in English: Chicken Camp, Skin Food, World Dump. During the afternoons, I took naps before the evening festival events began.
On the second day in Seoul, the jury members were returned to the hotel after lunch with instructions to be in the lobby at six; a bus would be waiting to take us to the opening ceremony of the festival. I sat down on my bed to read emails at three and woke with a start, seemingly just moments later, at six to the ringing of the hotel room phone. An agitated Jack was on the other end of the line. “Tom, we’re waiting for you in the lobby. We have to leave for the opening ceremony now!” I splashed water on my face, hastily pulled on a sweater and ran downstairs.
We arrived at the theater complex that hosted the event and Sungjoo, the enthusiastic festival director, approached me and said, “Tom, I want you to cut cake with important guests of honor.” He led me to a group of frowning men in suits, who bowed deeply. I stood in a line with the dignitaries, facing the crowd, holding a long samurai-like sword and eventually sliced the cake while a dozen pictures were simultaneously taken. After the photo op, still groggy from my unplanned nap, I located Julian and he laughed, “I think you’ve got your jumper on backwards.”
In this atmosphere of flipped, night-is-day disorientation, I asked our driver ‘Michael’ if it were possible to attend a K-Pop concert. He investigated and told me that a holographic K-Pop show played a few times a day, just blocks from our hotel. I asked Julian if he would like to join me. A London-based director, Raj Yagnik, overhead and asked, “Are you guys going to hear music? May I come too?” Toward the end of the festival Raj, Julian and I set out with the driver Michael to the venue, a big auditorium on the top floor of a shopping center.
We bought our tickets and browsed in the gift shop, puzzling over calendars, pillows and figurines associated with the popular K-Pop groups of the moment. A queue of teenage girls began to form at the door of the auditorium. We took a place in line, notably western, unshaven, old and male in this context. Three young men appeared, dressed respectively as a cowboy, an astronaut and a policeman, sliding along the waiting line with machine-like movements: an updated, robotic version of The Village People. The cowboy approached me and made eye contact while he performed his herky-jerky dance. Just as I was beginning to regret having asked to see K-Pop, the doors to the auditorium opened and the dancers disappeared inside. We entered the auditorium and an attendant directed us, without explanation, to place our faces in an oval-shaped opening in the wall. We took our seats and the show began.
The robot Village People dancers climbed on the stage and resumed their mechanical maneuvers while abstract video projections flashed behind them. Speakers blasted a dense wall of electronic music that sounded like Karlheinz Stockhausen’s experiments from the 1950’s chopped into small units of random information, sped up, flipped backwards and then organized into a relentless, forward-rushing groove.
Suddenly the dancers, to whom we’d been introduced as physical human beings outside of the auditorium five minutes earlier, exploded. This surprise created the first dramatic confounding of the physical and projected space and it was effectively jarring. The holographic rendering of the dancers had been indistinguishable from the dancers themselves and the magician’s slight-of-hand replacement had been effected seamlessly. A blur of images appeared in our peripheral vision on walls that we hadn’t realized would also serve as screens. We had the illusion of speeding in our seats with amusement park exhilaration toward a figure in the distance and, when we came to a stop, that person was revealed to be Psy (of YouTube ‘gangnam style’ fame).
Psy rapped a tune that drew a scream of recognition from the girls. During the performance, he subdivided into two Psys, then four and ultimately into an army of goose-stepping Psys, while photorealistic cars dropped from above and shattered. Dragons flew into the scene and gobbled up terrified, fleeing Psys, buildings collapsed and wave after wave of apocalyptic sensation was unleashed upon us. Julian stiffened suddenly in his seat, simultaneously poking Raj and me in the ribs with his elbows and yelling, “Look at that!” We now understood why our faces had been captured. Raj’s unshaven, forty-year-old head was attached to the body of a young, female dancer in shorts and high white boots. We hadn’t been aware to this point that the faces of the audience members were digitally inserted into the show because the vast majority of the scanned faces had matched the bodies. This recognition elicited the second major breakdown of the boundaries between the real and the represented. Once we began to search more intently, we discovered ourselves with increasing frequency on the bodies of animated dogs, hanging from the branches of trees or simply floating in the sky. We were experiencing the latest technological evolution of the cinematic, wish-fulfillment fantasy; the observers in the audience were also to be observed in the show. The audience didn’t even have to identify with an onscreen surrogate anymore because they were literally part of the show.
When I was playing tennis in high school, my role model was Bjorn Borg. I cheered him on to victories at Wimbledon in 1979 and 1980, watching on television with my father. Currently I’m a fan of Rafael Nadal. Internet streaming services enable one to watch many more tennis matches than broadcast television carried in the early 1980’s. By 2008, I was watching Nadal’s matches so frequently that he began appearing regularly in my dreams; we were good friends and I was a part of his trusted inner circle.
In the dream of the most perverse self-aggrandizement, Nadal had a conflict and couldn’t compete against his rival Roger Federer in the final of a tournament. He asked me if I would play in his place and explained the strategy that he used to beat Federer. I played the match according to Rafa’s instructions and beat Federer in three sets. Rafa called to say that he’d seen the end of the match on television, congratulated me, but also told me that I’d forgotten to shake hands at the net after the match. I ran after Federer and caught up to him just outside of the arena on a flight of concrete steps.
“Roger, sorry I forgot to shake your hand at the net. I lost my head because I was so thrilled to win.”
He shook my hand genially and said, “That’s okay, you played really well. Rafa gave you some tips, didn’t he? Congratulations on winning the match.”
I replied, “Congratulations on being Roger Federer.” We laughed together.
In these dreams, I am participating in greatness and, at age fifty, in the easy vigor of youth. In playing Federer, I effectively became Nadal for that moment. The K-Pop Holographic performance provided this audience of Korean teenagers with the same vicarious thrill, but generated their dreams outwardly for them in real time so that they could watch themselves dance and interact with their idols. The ‘cinematic’ experience is evolving to express the audience’s desires with greater immersive reality, to project them directly into their fantasies. Culturally, we’re at the advent of virtual reality, an extension of the sensation of cinema without, in this case, the narrative element.
The K-Pop show continued with two additional groups performing three songs each: a male group “Big Bang” and a female group “2NE1.” At the end of the concert, Psy reappeared onstage with all of the photographed faces in the auditorium hovering in the space above him. He formed his hands into the gesture of ‘gun’ and began to shoot the faces out of the air. The girls in the audience screamed in agony as their faces exploded like popped balloons. Finally, Psy had reduced the number of faces to three: two Korean girls and me. Raj and Julian by this point were chanting, “Tom, Tom, Tom!’ and, as if prodded by this encouragement, Psy smiled at the crowd and then shot the last two girls out of the air. An emphatic ‘boo’ arose from the audience as Psy grabbed my head and held it up as the chosen winner. We left the auditorium and an attendant motioned for us to follow her. She led us into a small room with a camera. I asked if Raj and Julian could join in the picture. We stood in front of a solid colored wall and posed, looking at a monitor that showed us composited into a photo with the group “2NE1.” The image was captured, the attendant printed a high-resolution photograph and handed it to me: Raj, Julian and I were hanging out in Seoul with “2NE1.” “My students at MCAD are going to die when they see this,” I said proudly.