Trees in Pretty Shapes: Jeamin Cha at KADIST

New Takes

Trees in Pretty Shapes: Jeamin Cha at KADIST

By Maddie Klett April 15, 2020

New Takes is a column written by emerging writers on emerging artists as part of the Art Practical Residency. One resident is nominated from a pool of recent graduates from California College of the Arts, who holds the position for one year. Our current New Takes contributor and Art Practical resident is Maddie Klett.


Jeamin Cha’s single-channel video Sound Garden (2019) is one of two on view in her upcoming solo exhibition at KADIST, San Francisco.1 The video opens with the familiar humming of a car as she films through a windshield while rolling down a South Korean highway. Cha follows a pickup truck as it carries a single pine tree making a four-hour journey from Gangwon-do—a popular seaside getaway—to Seoul. Farmed for the purpose of decorating the surrounding landscape of a gray, glass-clad, multi-story building in the country’s capital city, the tree’s stick-straight trunk and symmetrical branches appear to be as highly produced as the office park that appears at the end of the thirty-minute work. 

Jeamin Cha. Sound Garden (still), 2019; 3-channel FHD video installation, color, sound; 30 minutes. Courtesy of the Artist.

Along the way, the sounds of the car ride are overlaid with the voices of four women: mental health counselors speaking in Korean about their profession. English subtitles populate the bottom of the screen as each counselor provides a short backstory. As all have the voluble eloquence of any good therapist, there’s enough imagery and critical substance in their words to offer meaningful accounts, although we never see the speakers’ faces. 

The first speaker works at a university. She describes the machinery of her job, how the school considers the success of the counseling center by its number of sessions and other statistics. Working in an education system where performance is measured by grades or other quantifiable standards of success, it’s not surprising that the resources for mental health work would stand a similar evaluation. Still, the interviewee suspects that the greater need for counseling at the school reflects what she sees as increasingly stressed-out students going through “psychological crises” related to the numbered percentiles that seem to determine their fates.

Jeamin Cha. Sound Garden (still), 2019; 3-channel FHD video installation, color, sound; 30 minutes. Courtesy of the Artist.

“Nobody can completely break away from the system that they’re in,” the first counselor recalls, remembering a news report of a lion escaping from the zoo. “I thought, ‘Where can the lion possibly go from there?’ It can wander around the city for a while, but only for a while.” The third counselor, who works at a company, describes her orders to “restore” employees’ functions “as if they’re broken parts.” By offering these metaphors, the speakers suggest that their late-capitalist system needs counseling to sustain the survival of its cogs—even as the knowledge they develop within a session may make them more aware of their oppression.

Like the trapped lion and the broken parts, Cha offers the tree as a metaphor for this system. Halfway through the work, the voices cut and the focus turns to the tree’s cultivation: its pruning, feeding, and the IV bags filled with nutrient sap tied to its trunk. Like the university students provided with resources for growth and survival, the tree is nursed before moving to its full-time job watching over corporate workers. In a conversation with the artist, Cha mentioned that this parallel also pertains to an interest in visualizing a certain “psychological landscape” of the counselors and their patients—as trees, on a highway, not knowing where they’re heading. 

Jeamin Cha. Sound Garden (still), 2019; 3-channel FHD video installation, color, sound; 30 minutes. Courtesy of the Artist.

That familiar hum of a car whipping down asphalt is something I’ve always found comforting. It relays forward motion, visualized by the yellow signs with arrows that appear around the highway’s sharp curves, as if to say, “This way, this way, this way, don’t let this difficult bend turn you around.” Counseling, in subsidized programs for students or workers whose companies provide it, is meant to be a fix, to ensure the forward momentum of production. The landscaped tree, then, also operates as a tool for mental health and clarity, and therefore better work, by providing the illusion of proximity to nature. The artist mentioned that Gangwon-do is famous for winds that make its trees grow into “pretty shapes.” In the office park, they offer limited, almost calculated moments of escapism for its workers.3

Writing this from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m increasingly curious about the impact this global slow-down will have on social wiring that prioritizes forward momentum. The pandemic is a crisis: people have suffered and will suffer, busy lives must be put on hold, and resources need to be shared so we can help each other. For many, life has slowed down, but for those catering to basic needs (food, hygiene, health) the pandemic requires great expenditures of emotional and rational human qualities. 

Jeamin Cha. Ellie's Eye (still), 2020; 2-channel FHD video installation, color, sound; 11 minutes. Courtesy of the Artist.

It’s the ostensibly human nature of counseling work that interests Cha in her new video Ellie’s Eye (2020), which focuses on the decidedly non-human: dogs and artificial intelligence. The two-channel work has footage from a San Francisco veterinarian’s office and its canine patients on the left screen, and on the right, written facts about the physiology of canine eyesight. Also on the right appears a short history of ELIZA, the first therapy computer program created in 1966.

ELIZA emulates the Rogerian method, psychotherapist Carl Roger’s act of parroting a patient’s words back to them. Cha’s video flashes a written 1966 conversation between the ELIZA computer and a woman: 

Young woman: “Well, my boyfriend made me come here.”
ELIZA: “Your boyfriend made you come here?
Young woman: “He says I’m depressed much of the time.”

Jeamin Cha. Ellie's Eye (still), 2020; 2-channel FHD video installation, color, sound; 11 minutes. Courtesy of the Artist.

After this conversation wraps, a 3D animated woman sitting in an armchair appears. This is Ellie, a present-day version of ELIZA and the avatar for the SimSensei therapy bot project at the University of Southern California. A quote from the project’s co-leader pops-up: “I think we’ve always had [non-human interactions that can be comfortable]. I mean, do you talk to your cat?” This is Cha’s most obvious link to the video’s dog-focus and the notion that there are benefits that come from talking to a pet or AI proxy to develop inner dialogue and well-being. 

The video returns to the pooch-strewn vet office, with text stating the impossibility of measuring a dog’s vision, as human eye exams don’t pertain to them. With this, Cha seems to suggest that there is a lot we don’t knowabout animals and AI—the recipients of our personal problems and thoughts. 

Trees, pets, technology, all have been made to serve the advancement and preservation of humankind. What happens when that advancement stalls, or doesn’t move forward as expected? In a public discussion last month between Fred Moten and Manolo Callahan, they commented that COVID-19 might be the closest we’ve seen to a general strike, where individualistic labor ends and convivial work begins. After all, life as we know it will, and has already, changed, and it’s not clear how things will look on the other side. 

What’s on the other sideof advanced AI technology, global climate change, pandemic, etc.? These are questions artists and thinkers have been attempting to conceptualize for some time. In her recent video work, Cha connects seemingly divergent elements of present-day life. In doing this, she reveals common signs of physical and mental burdens on the humans and non-humans around us, which in turn point to crises-to-come. 

We’re all living the crisis of this pandemic. For me, in this moment, Cha’s work asks the big questions: How do we achieve greater conviviality with the earth and each other? What do we want life to look like now and later? How will we get there?

Notes

  1. The original March 18, 2020 opening has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  2. Conversation with the artist, February 27, 2020.
  3. Ibid.

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