A CONVERSATION ABOUT
Resilience for Hidden Gems;
Museum, Fashion, Tradition. All or None of the Above?;
The Divide Between Idea-makers and Makers;
Expose = Endanger?;
The Strange Jungle of "Free" Information
Mona and I have been in dialogue since we met in a NYC Soho loft to work on museum projects in the mid '90s. We worked in a kind of timber-beamed creative space that could be the apotheosis of New York design environments pre-9/11 – that is, before Lower Manhattan had become a commodified version of itself. So when the cool olde late 20th century New York became the (for some) cool millennial global node of today, Mona had moved forward. You'd find her at an address in Barcelona or Paris. When we chat now, I can find her there —or even Los Angeles, Chicago, or the place called Skype.
But not holding on to the past isn't the same as forgetting it completely. There's value to what we learn in our journeys (travels, traditions of practice) of composition and craft, of what we make but also what and how we know the world from yesterday, last decade, even more than a century ago. One method of remembering is to collect. Going even further, we might take those collected things, experiences, lessons, and traditions and integrate them into a new environment, new context, and even new applications. These are acts of curation and even more, acts of creation.
Perhaps other dear friends have as I do a box deep in a closet with what I recall as Mona's first business card. One side is in Tibetan orange. The other side has an image of the people and places from her many travels to India, Burma, Mongolia, Marrakech, Mississippi, and Peru to name a few. Taking them out of the box, every now and then, inspires a moment for admiration, recollection, and nostalgia. Perhaps that tendency explains my attraction to the world of museums, with their impulse to save and catalogue. What it seems to me that Mona endeavors to do with Moowon is to unearth various pasts from diverse cultures she encountered in her travels (Mongolia to Mississippi), and to go beyond curating to create something more by bringing them into dialogue with the present online market, the viral campaign, the blog for want of a better word.
As we engaged in talk about the Moowon stories Mona has curated here, and how I, as a curator, might add something to this collection, one particular story kept cropping up in the conversation—one that seemed critical to understanding the entire project. What is Moowon, and who is Mona? Because our acquaintance turned into friendship and creative partnership through a life-long dialogue about values and experiences that are fundamental to Mona and Moowon, she and I came to agree that the best way to bring her story to light was for us to talk.
Todd Palmer (LEFT) with friends at studio. New York 90's.
Travel through Mongolia, 2004.
Recounting human values
is at the heart of the Moowon project
TODD PALMER: The most basic question: what is Moowon?
MONA KIM: Foremost, it's an artistic project in the form of curatorial art. It requires culture scouting and observation to unearth what is beautiful and noble in our world and to present it in visceral form.
Recounting human values is at the heart of the Moowon project. The stories we share are told through filters –"vanishing", "hidden", or "singular"– and take on a transversal approach to ideas such as artisanship, creation, culture, practice, place, and people. In Chinese character, "MOO" signifies "exuberant, luxuriant. thickly wooded". "WON" signifies "garden, courtyard, field, pasteur"
TODD: You mention artisanship. Is this your raison d'être, an excursion into all that is precious and twee?
MONA: Some people signed up thinking that this is all about textiles and crafts (Oops, I think I just heard the "unsubscribe" sound!). What is artisanal or handmade is one part of of Moowon because it embodies a sense of tradition, of revival of vanishing cultures, and beauty of human hands. But it's not the only focus.
Search for key ideas, values, and mood in early stages of the project
Beauty, Simplicity, Primality, Humility, Innocence,
and a bit of Earthy Wildness
TODD: Tell me about some of the "noble values of the past" you sought to unearth? What did you discover that you didn't anticipate when you set out on this journey?
MONA: Beauty, Simplicity, Primality, Humility, Innocence, and a bit of Earthy Wildness (in dear Diane Barker's words). These are values I felt in my encounters with cultures that still live with their ancient traditions. The immediacy of human contact and ways of relating to one another is far from alienating.
TODD: What do you mean by "your encounters with cultures?" What was your personal journey that brought you to these moments of contact and cultural exchange?
MONA: Immigrating to the US from South Korea at an early age during the '70s meant that I experienced my culture just before the dawn of its modernization: when rock and roll hadn't yet arrived; a time when we still held hands with friends, teenagers created soulful songs from the heart to sing together in simple gatherings with friends and a guitar; and we were still living with legends of persimmons (there are many versions, believe me!).
TODD: So one very primary journey for you was from what some would consider the "romantic East," eastward to the "civilized West." But later you made a significant reverse journey to the Asia of your origins, right?
MONA: My first independent travel beyond North America and Europe was to India, then to Burma just a year after. But something had triggered all this. At the beginning of my fashion art direction days, an on-location photo shoot took us to Mexico. Just a glass plane separated a van full of high-maintenance fashion crew from New York from the wild and free passing landscape of Mexico. I remember looking out the window and being struck by a particular scene: a tree in the middle of nowhere, a man leaning against it, and a woman leaning against him. That scene, the visual relation of human beings to the natural backdrop, was something that I had not seen in the US, yet something that felt so primal and familiar. I know that that was the genesis of so many things that transpired in my life afterwards. That scene remains vivid in my mind.
I want to focus on what WORKS,
what is beautiful in the world.
TODD: You mention fashion and New York, the capital of what's contemporary and fast-moving—and to some inauthentic. Talk more about how you connect or move between the primal world and what some might deem a "superficial" realm.
MONA: I would say I'm in rebellion against fast information consumption and sound bite knowledge. The oversaturation of style and design content platforms led to the "gentrification" of what a content platform should look like and how they are experienced.
Many of these platforms often privilege celebrities or the elite, and this eclipses things and people in the world that are just as noteworthy. Yet due to the lack of exposure or our lack of intentional focus, these hidden gems fall to the wayside.
My aim was to fill this gap by featuring them on a grander, more beautiful canvas to basically put everyone on the same level. For example, star designers most likely will not appear on Moowon unless they have something to impart (an attitude, approach, way of being) that could bring meaning and resonance for people of many walks of life.
TODD: So bringing the eternal to the digital realm? Are you finding any tensions between the memorably and deeply "crafted" and the soon-to-be-forgotten and instantaneous world of the "blogged"?
MONA: Can someone please delete that word "blog" from our vocabulary? It sounds like an amoeba. Please, that hurts the feeling of Moowon and its contributors, who take pains to craft these stories ! Also, it is a multiple-voice platform. So in that sense, it is not a blog.
Moowon happens to take the form of digital and editorial medium at the moment (hence an "online magazine" for the lack of better words), with a new book project that is happening now, and hopes for even an experiential exhibition or another future form. Its evolutionary nature resists any form of imposed "prisons": the editorial world with its rules and expectations, audience expectations, visitor traffic, etc.
Stories are visually conceived (i.e, photography) and written by a growing community of contributors including myself. The world is full of hidden gems and beauty in the form of artisans, people, practices, and places that merit recognition. And by putting them at the center stage, there is a better chance for their survival. Yet we lack compelling presentations, normally reserved for the design and style world, that bring their virtuosity, singularity and beauty to the forefront. We also lack a more soulful, bona fide approach to telling stories that creates meaningful and universal resonance for people. We have journalism and news that handle conflicts and hard realities. But I want to focus on what WORKS, what is beautiful in the world. Maybe this is my little way of contributing to the world.
In this sense, it is about resilience.
"SPLASH", a 22,5 meter tall sculptural installations, a primordial icon created from 84 reflective shapes suspended from the building's ceiling. It was created by Mona and her partners of PROGRAM COLLECIVE, Olga Subirós, Todd Palmer and Simon Taylor. A large-scale site-specific installation for one of the principle exhibitions of World Expo Zaragoza 2008, "Water for Life". Water and sustainability was the thematic of the Expo.
...from a deeper place
beyond trends or what is marketable.
TODD: Are there other reference points behind Moowon?
MONA: This project was born naturally as an extension and synergy of so many strands of myself: my wanderlust nature and my professional work in two disparate areas (fashion branding and advertising, museum and experiential exhibition design).
TODD: How do these various strands or influences impact Moowon?
MONA: Fashion work or branding has partially to do with understanding the impact of words, images, and all their subtleties.
In museum and exhibition work, it is about creating meaningfulness, a public space experience and "storytelling" on a pretty serious and complex level. It involves co-curating world issues such as endangered languages, and water and sustainability, with fascinating people such as curators, scientific committees, and field experts. The creative challenge is then "how" to craft an impactful narrative for these vast topics to incite awareness and action and design a public experience within a space that is so compelling that the public "falls in love" with these thematics. In this line of projects I designed physical spaces and experiential installations that merged latest technologies. It was also an opportunity to document and be exposed to some of the most amazing and distinctive examples of world social realities and cultural expressions in the context of cultural institutions or world organizations such as the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, World Expo, Museum of Tomorrow in Rio, and UNESCO-sponsored projects. This is where my passion lies.
TODD: Perhaps these strands have led to the juxtaposition we find in Moowon. So many of these cultures certainly are at risk of disappearing, as your subtitle "Vanishing arts" notes. Yet all of the stories are rooted in the present day, with present day practitioners and relevant values. Would you say contemporary artists also represent this notion of vanishing traditions?
MONA: I believe tradition in itself is an expression, practice, and a set of skills that were born from the needs of a society or a group of people. Tradition also implies a sense of history. Hence, by default, it is associated with the notion of resilience or endangerment.
Authenticity in today's context of creative acts or practices has more to do with the singularity or sincerity of the way people approach their work. Their work comes from a deeper place beyond trends or what is marketable. At least that's what Moowon seeks as its key criterion when selecting story subjects.
Let's take the story on Tomato Why is this group in the midst of master artisans of India? Because they exemplify a creative practice in a modern and commercial context whose approach to work is grounded in a philosophy that is both resilient and humanistic.
"Voices" exhibition on world's languages and human communication. One of the principle exhibition of an international cultural event Forum Barcelona 2004.
Mona served as its Creative Director.
Exhibition book curated and designed for "Voices" exhibition.
A comparative approach and creating juxtaposition as means to present cultural diversity.
"Water for shelter?" Contrasting context for water's role in human habitations. An exhibition book curated and designed in collaboration with Todd Palmer.
For "Water for Life" exhibition, World Expo Zargoza 2008.
LEFT: Pepe, the engineer and artisan of PQC testing out the structure of Rain installation designed by Mona. RIGHT: Rain installation in its finished state. Impeccable, thanks to the ingenuity, and talents of our collaborators such as Pepe.
The notion of "conceptualizer"
has taken on a disproportionate value
relative to the "skill holder."
TODD: Then there's the story on Charles Griffin. Here you have an invisible artisan co-creating works of other luminaries. Yet, he is an artist in his own right. I wonder how the Moowon project invites us to think about the relationship between contemporary artisans whose craft goes unremarked in an economy of celebrities and traditional artisans whose ways are not valued?
MONA: Yes, I am so over that star system in the art and design world. It's a self-parody. Thank you Andy Warhol.
But in an optimistic light, I have noticed that now there is a younger generation of creators who share the credit with artisans whose hands brought the mastery to their work. And they are sensitive and respectful to the generational history of such communities and artisans. But this "invisibility" has also to do with our time in history where the notion of "conceptualizer" has taken on a disproportionate value relative to the "skill holder." The one who has the idea or the design stamps their name on a finished piece of work. But does it really have to be that way?
TODD: While reducing the divide between making and thinking is very much a thought-provoking question related to the future of work (the power of the intellectual elite over those laboring with their hands as robots replace people), it reaches back to the radicals of the 19th century when Arts and Crafts was making the same critique, with a Marxist slant. So in elevating what is beautiful and thinking about how things are made, you get us thinking about a broader economy. And Moowon is work; it exists within an economy…
MONA: In order to craft each story, it is artisanal work in a way, for sure. There's photo editing, re-editing, sequencing, copyediting, re-copyediting, video editing, re-editing, coordinating stories and crafting how to say things. It is not a machine. Each story is almost custom-crafted and re-crafted, which takes time, and an uncontaminated mindset in order to "extract" that essential beauty behind each story's subject matter. This may not be evident for everyone.
Yet, what's amazing about doing this project is being in contact with these extraordinary and inspirational people, from creators to journalists.
Photo by Dr. James Suzman. He has worked with every major Bushman group in southern Africa, from the war ravaged Vasakele !Kung
of southern Angola during the final phases of that civil war, to the highly marginalized Hai//om of Namibia's Etosha National Park.
giving a voice and a face to the often forgotten people, arts, and places
TODD: And as part of an economy, you expose hidden and endangered economies. You give these workers and the ideas they represent a platform. But I wonder, does this exposure create the threat of theft, appropriation, or destruction of the very values and traditions that are brought to light? Will we see the Bushmen appearing in a Levi's ad (with benefits to the Bushmen left by the wayside)?
MONA: I'll become depressed when that day comes! Also my answer will be a mysterious one: there are those who create, and there are those who take. Designs and techniques can be copied or misappropriated. But can values be stolen?
Sure, someone can easily copy master ply-split braider Erroll Pires' designs. But they cannot take away his experience, life or professional, that formed and created who he is. Rather than the word "exposure," which makes Moowon sound like press machine, I'd much rather describe the Moowon project as an effort to celebrate the extraordinariness of the way things are done, to give a voice and a face to the often forgotten people, arts, and places that merit recognition, in hopes that it fosters a certain sense of respect.
In the interview on the Bushmen's notion of time, technology, and affluence, James Suzman articulates the highly sophisticated value system of one the oldest surviving civilizations. I am confident this hit a chord with many people—it was certainly eye-opening for me. And rather than it instigating further exploitation, such information can only serve to create awareness for their plight.
That interview also gives context to a related story, The Jewels of Kalahari. It is a great example of how such communities CAN be protected and recognized for their artistry, thanks to collaborative creation with sensitive creative producers and designers, fair pay, and fair profit-sharing.
The need for public support
TODD: There's the "market" aspect of bringing these creations forward. And then there's the platform itself: a digital magazine (I will not call it a blog!). Today, there's a kind of latent expectation that the digital makes information "free" without respect to the labor, care and craft required to generate it. We're removed from the craft of making, the craft of telling, and even the "art" of the face-to-face sale. You're bringing much of that back…
MONA: Well, print magazines have been on the come back for some years, thanks to hipsters. But yes, I'm glad we're living in a free information age where everyone has access. That's important. But an online medium does lend itself to short reads, partially due to the nature of that medium and partially due the change in our info-consumption behavior. Though this is not a friendly reality for Moowon stories, which tend to be…longer, I am ready to assume that reality because there's a Mowoon revenge in the works!
Our new book will encourage a longer and thorough reading of some key past and upcoming stories that were lost or unread in the realities of digital medium. The book's production is currently being campaigned through Kickstarter. Yes, people power!
TODD: And a book becomes a much more artful way to—ahem...I think we both hate this word—"monetize" this work. But Moowon is work, even if a labor of love. And so it's valuable, right?
MONA: It's fully out of my pocket at the moment. I hope for the public's support. Just as Wikipedia responds to a concrete need for shared information, I hope Moowon fulfills another layer of need, which, despite it being difficult to articulate in a clean three words, is just as essential and necessary.
That said, I dearly wanted to avoid the paid-subscription model. I also didn't want to enter into that strange and "chunga" (Spanish expression) game of traffic-building, audience-chasing, audience-buying to attract whatever advertisers are out there in order to finance its activity. I don't wish to participate in that jungle. It would sap the life out of Moowon. It would become a Megawon instead ! The book could also be the main dignified means to finance the operational costs of Moowon. Poetically speaking, a book is a form of craft in itself, of course. It's an intellectual, intuitive, and artisanal process.
TODD: As Moowon becomes a book, re-entering ephemeral stories into the material world, I think of Charlie's photos of dust that transfigures into another kind of dust as, sometimes, vanishing seems to be the fate of things dear to us. Can you help us to remain optimistic about the future of this project of values? Are there new forms of survival and resilience embedded in the stories told and exemplars brought forward?
MONA: Hold on, hold on, it is not ready to go its grave yet. The book isn't the end of Moowon. In fact, I am ready to put on my "experiential space" hat to transform it into a public space experience one day.
Hello, hello, is there a patron of the arts out there who wants to help turn Moowon into an experiential exhibition? And better yet, a travelling exhibition so that our audience all the way in India and our heros in Kalahari can also enjoy it?
Todd Palmer is committed to cultivating greater civic conscience through creative works and resilient organizations planned and built to serve society's highest values. His contributions over the last 20 years consistently work to bring marginalized, overlooked or difficult narratives to the center (indigenous peoples, civil rights, the heritage of poverty, sustainability). Spanning curation of culture and humanities, exhibition and museum design, and public art, Palmer has worked for and with a wide range of partners, including universities, arts and cultural organs, cultural affairs commissions, grassroots organizations and issue advocates. As Curator and Associate Director, he had been central since 2013 to steering the National Public Housing Museum, a Chicago historic site foregrounding issues through stories of housing, poverty, equity and inclusion. He is currently the Executive Director of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Palmer graduated summa cum laude with a History and Theory of Architecture B.A. from Princeton University and holds a Masters of Architecture from Columbia University in New York's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation. He's frequently engaged in interdisciplinary global discourse on contemporary issues as a speaker, educator and writer.
Mona Kim is the founder of online magazine MOOWON, and multidisciplinary design consultancy MONA KIM PROJECTS. She is an award-winning Artistic Director with over 25 years of experience creating large-scale projects for museums, international cultural exhibitions and fashion. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, WWD and The Creative Review, and publications by Gestalten and The Art Institute of Chicago.