Fireworks and Massacre in Grey (Spasmodic) Room On Hangjun Lee’s Phantom Schoolgirl Army

Yung Bin Kwak

Fireworks or Massacre?

On one of the 4th of Julys, i.e., Independence Day, sometime around the mid-2000s, during my stay in the U.S., I went to a local park at night to see fireworks with my families and friends. The park was packed with people, either sitting in their portable chairs or simply lying on the grass, and they were enjoying the show. Often lasting for thirty minutes, the fireworks finally reached its climax and started shooting up everything into the air with blasting sound. Then, all of a sudden, a baby caught people’s attention as he began crying hysterically. As it turned out, he cried as he was terrified by the fireworks’ blinding explosions as well as the huge noise. As we know from the stories by those who suffer from PTSD, say, veterans who came back from war fronts or rape victims haunted by voices reminiscent of rapists, however, the baby cried less because he was a baby than because he had a hard time telling if it was a show or a real event (e.g. a series of explosions or machine gun firing during air raid).

I came to ruminate on this dormant episode and mull over its implications intensely after I watched/listened to Phantom School Army [Phantom hereafter]. South Korea’s trailblazing avant-garde filmmaker and performer Hangjun Lee’s most recent work to date, Phantom is a remarkable work of art as it blinds, if momentarily, viewers with a series of flashes while bombarding audiences with noise-induced sound blast. What’s more striking is that this literally vertiginous audiovisual performance work addresses Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion (1948), one of South Korea’s dark historical traumas whose immediate aftermath (the number of casualties overall is estimated to reach 10,000) and long-term repercussions in effectively establishing the ‘red scare’ or anticommunism proved vital, or rather, lethal to many lives as well as the egalitarian imaginary in post-war South Korea.1)

To those who knew Lee’s work solely from the perspective of putatively ‘pure’ experimental vein, however ‘materialist’ it aspires to be, this engagement with such a historic event could come as a surprise. Conversely, for those whom ‘experimental cinema’ means nothing less than a vacuous audiovisual acrobatics in the name of the so-called ‘aesthetic experiments’, the above mentioned description of Phantom alone serves to discredit its practical value: in what sense does this non-narrative performative film work relate to the actual historical event? Is this not another proof of artwork’s irrelevance to the so-called ‘real’ world?

Hence the following questions: how do these elements relate to one another? How does a performative film work reconcile its performative aesthetic dimension with the heavyweight historical trauma without sacrificing either pole?

Two Kinds of Death, or the Conundrum of Historical Trauma

While the questions posed above are genuinely ours, one could equally argue that they are the artist’s too. In fact, they constitute the very questions Lee could have posed to himself in the first place. Granted, it is possible to channel these grave issues of death into the question of media, i.e., ‘death of cinema’ à la Paolo Cherchi Usai or in the name of ‘reinventing the medium’ à la Rosalind Krauss.2) 

Nonetheless, there is an ample ground for believing that Lee- who did an extensive research on this issue and recognized its historic significance- must have been aware of the danger such an approach could inevitably entail. In a sample file of documents and materials he made for the project- where a variety of sources, ranging from actual copies of newspaper articles printed during 1948 to scholarly quotes from books by luminaries like Louis Marin, Michel de Certeau, and Heonik Kwon to name just a few, are collected- for instance, we read the following phrase: “Those who received punishments [during and after Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion] were punished not because they were reds; rather, they became reds after they were punished.” These sentences are quoted from Birth of Reds (2009, p.41), a terrific authoritative work on Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion by Kim Deuk-Joong, historian and specialist on the subject matter in question. In the book and other related articles, Kim persuasively argues that the event marked a watershed, in turning ‘reds’- an idiom indicating communists, widely circulated during and from the Japanese rule period- into a diabolical, even performative discursive utterance not only capable of taking people’s lives for real but also, more fundamentally, instrumental in ‘making Korean national subjects’, deciding who belongs to South Korea or not.3)

Thus, it is necessary to explore specifically how Phantom grapples with the issue of Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion with the following reminders: 1) Lee’s work is neither a documentary nor a fiction film 2) to make matters worse, while spectators are informed about the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion before screening and performance, the film work itself harbors virtually no narrative whatsoever. 

Between Moving and Still Image  

What merits our attention in Phantom is first and foremost the deceptively simple yet densely layered way in which film and photography, or moving and still image work together- at, not despite, daggers drawn. In this work, moving image progresses by, if you will, scaring still image away while, at the same time, still image operates by interrupting moving image. This chiasmic entanglement invites a thoroughgoing investigation. 

Whenever, for example, a black and white photo portrait or one with a group of people leaps onto the screen in the film, as if asking us to remember the face(s), it immediately disappears only to be replaced by another one that follows. This rapid-fire process of substitution amounts to the film’s, if concatenated, ‘flow’ (to varying degrees akin to, say, Omer Fast’s Concatenated CNN) and as such helps the work function as a film. To be sure, however, one could argue this is not so terribly unlike the way ANY film operates. Of course, the speed at which these photographs are replaced is markedly different from the normal one; still, all films negate, or- for some Hegelians- sublate [aufhebung] photography in order to exist as a film at all, doesn’t it? This putative similarity notwithstanding, Phantom renders this otherwise nondescript or familiar feature of cinema unfamiliar, i.e., in a strictly Freudian sense of the uncanny or Unheimlich without wallowing in the historical vacuum. 

To that end, Lee draws on the rich history of experimental cinema, with a peculiar focus on the tradition of ‘flicker effect’- ranging from Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960) to Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1966) or, to Peter Tscherkassky’s famous “attempt to transform a Roman Western into a Greek tragedy,” Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005)- as well as the legacy of the late 19th century flash light (Blitzlicht) photography, a technique invented by Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke in 1887, only to be popularized much more spectacularly by Jacob Riis in the 1890s. While remaining faithful to Kubelka’s claim that it is “between the frames where cinema speaks,”4) Phantom weds this interstitial gap decisively to its referential link to the historical trauma of Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion. In doing so, Lee’s work keeps its distance not only from The Flicker’s almost ascetic insistence on the structural and material dimension of flickering but also from the Tscherkassky’s somewhat mythical realm. 

Still, Phantom Schoolgirl Army’s position regarding referentiality is far from clear. Let’s take How the Other Half Lives (1890), Riis’s early photojournalism book to which Lee makes a reference in his sample file of notes. As its subtitle- Studies among the Tenements of New York-  suggests, this runaway bestseller of the 1890s became hugely influential thanks to its revelatory photographs documenting the appalling living conditions in Manhattan slums. Indispensable to its social impact was the role of the flash photography, which literally shed huge light on the lower strata of society. In contrast, Lee’s use of flash photography is not so much geared towards a civil project of activist documentary or a call to remembrance in the spirit of Enlightenment. 

From Flickering Film to Spasmodic Room 

Rather, Phantom’s deployment of flashes results in a convulsive, even stuttering way of showing images- or, what one might call a ‘cinemat(ograph)ic’ appearance more or less in the so-called “expanded” sense of the term. What I mean by ‘cinemat(ograph)ic appearance’ here concerns not so much the conventional relationship between lighting and object operative in a particular movie as the way the entire room- in which both the film screening of Phantom and/as performance take place- is lit or darkened, i.e., flickers like a movie, albeit in irregular rhythm, while intersecting with the film screened on screens and as such appears

Among various versions of Phantom, I am particularly thinking of the one that took place at Bozar, Brussels in 2014 in which Cellist Okkyung Lee and Giovanni Di Domenico on Fender Rhodes piano produced an electronic, noise-oriented soundscape, studded with a series of assaultive, staccato strokes. Against this aural backdrop, which powerfully evokes, among others, gunshot sounds, Lee projected the film onto two different small screens using five projectors. Worth noting here is that both the film- in which photographic faces of people from Yeosu and Suncheon area appeared in black and white- and a group of strong strobe lights hysterically flickered on different rhythms and frequencies, creating intermittent moments of complete darkness and blinding brightness. What transpires as a result bears striking resemblance to the potential way in which massacres took place at night: spectral apparition (and disappearance) of photographic faces as well as faces of us (i.e. the audiences) in the midst of erratic avalanche of flickering percussive notes forcefully evoke scenes of slaughter without actually catapulting us to a particular place in the past. 

Can we then say that the audience could feel as if transported without moving? Not quite since, despite strong affective suggestions of spatial transport, the audience stay in the same room. Still, it is no less difficult to say they stay in the same space. Then how can we describe what’s at stake here- if not in the name of, say, spasm? It was Deleuze, to be sure, who came up with this ingenious expression, this “movement in place” to describe Francis Bacon’s paintings. Yet, compared to the latter, which are immobile by definition, and as such prompted Bacon to re-adopt the age-old tradition of triptych, Phantom, as a moving image, suffers less from that problem.       

Seen against the broad historical backdrop of experimental cinema, Phantom can also be said to roam somewhere between Peter Kubelka’s ‘Invisible Cinema’ (or Robert Smithson’s radical, or, literal idea of ‘underground cinema’) and James Coleman’s slide piece series, i.e., between the theater as a virtually literal black box and something that appears to operate like a movie with markedly longer distance between frames. In this precise sense, we can assert that Phantom finally materializes Lee’s expanded definition of “film” being “every matter or substance in the world” as well as a no less crucial imperative to change the space of film into “a grey zone”: “What we need is to turn the place where we experience film into a grey zone as much as possible. That space is an invisible room full of thick mist.”

Grey Faces that Flicker

However satisfactory, this reading still leaves the question of referentiality unresolved. For spectators- who know that this film is about historical trauma in the contemporary history of Korea and as such are willing to read these faces- can hardly tell one face from another, let alone recall them all. We saw some faces for sure- but can we say we saw them when we are unable to recognize one? The fact that the portrait photographs in the film are not those of actual victims but of people taken later in the same area- which Lee got hold of from a local photo studio- further complicates the question of ‘recognition’. 

One is thus tempted to suggest that Phantom paradoxically serves to forget these faces, along with the historical trauma of the massacre, in seeking to remember them. Still, to describe this murky relationship of spectator vis-a-vis the photographic faces negatively, say, in terms of ‘a failure’, would be misleading. Rather, one could state that the film embodies this antinomy in dual way, that is, the antinomy ‘between cinema and photography’ in the materialist vein and another ‘between memory and oblivion’ in the historical vein. 

Reminiscent of Roland Barthes’s discussion of cinema moving too fast to linger on each photographic image or what he calls “photogramme”, Lee’s work appears to stride, or, rather, sprint precisely by canceling out each photograph just as History progresses, allegedly overcoming the troubled Past. And yet, as we discussed above, this filmic impulse is constantly interrupted by the spectral appearance, or rather, convulsive repetition of photographic faces. Again, not despite but precisely through this repetition, we get to confront these faces, as what haunts us while hovering in distance as unfathomable sur-faces

Nonetheless, we can turn this logic on its head one more time if we invert the presumed hierarchy of film and photography here. For, if our reading of Phantom as what virtualizes and reanimates the site of massacre in the present holds true, one could also say that the very apparition of peoples’ faces marks the moment of their identification as targets and as such their vulnerability and exposure to bullets. In this particular sense, faces in photographic plates should not be made to last long enough to be recognizable. Their physiognomy better remains illegible or, in accordance with Lee’s insistence on the “grey room,” turn grey. In a word, it must flicker.

Fireworks and Massacre in (In)Visible Room

As we have seen, it is this peculiar space of limbo or what Lee calls “invisible room” where the victims or “the vanquished” of Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion can neither comfortably stay nor leave for good. It is none other than this place which Phantom as a singularly powerful performative film work creates and into which it magnificently keeps throwing us. 

As long as we are in this room, we will be able to find ourselves, on a par with the crying baby for whom fireworks could be no less terrifying than the scenes of massacre. And that is what Phantom has achieved. 

1) As Namhee Lee, UCLA professor and specialist on contemporary Korean history, summarizes as follows, the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion is significant not only in and of itself but also as a crucial knot, traversing the Jeju 4.3 Rebellion and, by extension, Gwangju Uprising in 1980: “When the 6th and 14th regiments stationed in Yeosu and Suncheon refused to participate in the suppression of the Jeju people and rebelled, citizens of these cities were subjected to summary executions and indiscriminate detention in concentration camps. Thousands were executed and imprisoned those who left in prison were executed during the Korean war. So many people were killed during this period, and so many of their family members were subsequently barred from employment and other social activities, that one observer was led to comment, "It is no wonder that Jeolla Province is void of the talented." Namhee Lee, The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007, p. 79.

2)  In ‘Materialism and Beyond: Lee Hangjun’s Expanded Cinema’, arguably the first comprehensive discussion of Lee’s oeuvre in any language, and an otherwise excellent article, Jihoon Kim discusses Phantom Schoolgirl Army primarily in terms of its medium-oriented dimension. After briefly touching on Lee’s use of identification photographs, highlighting their “archival status” and its link to institutional practices and governmentality, he grafts the issue of “death” onto the analog photo plate as “a medium haunted by its own inevitable death, similar to celluloid.” In so doing, the article achieves thematic coherence centered around Lee’s consistent materialist exploration of film in the name of what Kim calls “ex-materialist cinema.” Still, this gain is made at the cost of distilling the ponderous weight of irreparable deaths in Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion and I argue that another reading is possible. For more discussions of Lee’s other works, see Jihoon Kim, ‘Materialism and Beyond: Lee Hangjun’s Expanded Cinema’, Millennium Film Journal no. 63 (Spring 2016): 24-35. On the ‘article’ section of Lee’s website, we can also find some more essays in English and Korean, for example, one by Korean film critic, Un-Seong Yoo, ‘Neither visible, Nor Transparent: Hangjun Lee’s Film Performance’

3)  Kim Deuk-Joong, Birth of Reds: YeoSun Incident and Formation of Anticommunist State, Seoul: Seonin, 2009; Kim Deuk-Joong, ‘Yousun Revolt and the Anticommunism Offensives by the Rhee Administration[sic],’ Yeoksa Yeongu [The Journal of History] no. 14 (Winter 2004): 11-54; Kim Deuk-Joong, ‘Reality of YeoSun Incident and Damage done to People,’ Naeireul yeoneun yeoksa [History that Opens Tomorrow] no.2 (Summer 2000): 97-100; ‘Reds were born from the dichotomy dividing people into national and non-national subjects’, June 17, 2009 Hankyoreh.  

4)  Peter Kubelka, “The Metrical Theory of Film,” in The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: New York University Press, 1978), p. 141. Quoted in James Leo Cahill, “Anacinema: Peter Tscherkassky’s Cineamtic Breakdowns: Towards the Unspeakable Film,” Spectator 28.2 (Fall 2008), p. 93.