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 my students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design 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 the entire series of Transformers movies on the plane) I landed 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 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 spot Dumb Ways to Die, which had recently gone viral on YouTube. We waited together for two other guests to arrive and then were driven to our hotel.
The time difference between Minneapolis and Seoul is fifteen hours and I could not adjust to local time during the week of the festival. I roamed the city at night, departing unexpectedly from the modern grid into narrow dirt-floored alleys heaped with dried fish, nuts and fruit, where men ate steaming bowls of food behind sheets of semi-opaque plastic. I felt as if I'd wandered onto a set for Blade Runner. And then, 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 between the official festival events.
On the second day in Seoul, the jury members 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 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 and Sungjoo, the enthusiastic festival director, approached me and said, “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 sliced the cake while a dozen simultaneous pictures were taken. After the photo op, still groggy from my involuntary 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 see a K-Pop concert. He 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 Michael to the venue, a large 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, old and male in this context. Three young men appeared, dressed as a cowboy, an astronaut and a policeman, sliding along the waiting line with machine-like movements: a 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. As we entered 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 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 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. The holographic rendering of the dancers was indistinguishable from the dancers themselves and the magician’s slight-of-hand replacement had been seamless. A blur of images appeared in our peripheral vision on walls that we hadn’t realized were also 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 flowed over us. Julian stiffened suddenly in his seat, prodding 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 sat atop the body of a young female dancer in shorts and high white boots. Until this moment, we hadn’t been aware that the faces of the audience members were digitally inserted into the show because the majority of the scanned faces had matched the bodies. This recognition introduced the second breakdown of boundaries between the real and the represented. Once we began to search more purposefully, we discovered ourselves with increasing frequency on the bodies of animated dogs, hanging from the branches of trees or simply floating in the sky. The observers in the audience were also to be observed in the show, the latest evolution of the cinematic, wish-fulfillment fantasy. The audience didn’t even have to identify with an onscreen surrogate anymore because they were literally part of the spectacle.
When I played 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. By 2008, I was watching Nadal’s matches so frequently that he began appearing regularly in my dreams; in these subconscious fantasies, we were good friends and I was a part of his trusted inner circle.
In my most perversely self-aggrandizing dream, Nadal had a conflict and couldn’t compete against his rival Roger Federer in a tournament final. He asked 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 coaching 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 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, “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 vicariously inhabited Nadal's skills for a moment. The K-Pop Holographic performance provided this audience of Korean teenagers with the same thrill, but generated their dreams outwardly for them in real time so that they could watch themselves dance and interact with their idols, a virtual reality without a traditional narrative arc.
The K-Pop show continued with a male group “Big Bang” and a female group “2NE1” each performing two songs. At the end of the virtual concert, Psy reappeared onstage with the photographed faces of the entire crowd 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 avatars 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 hearing 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 held my head 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 green screen and posed. The woman printed a high-resolution photograph and handed it to me: Raj, Julian and I hanging out in Seoul with “2NE1.” “My students at MCAD are going to die when they see this,” I said proudly.