“In many ways this is a kind of moon landing compared to my previous work in North Korea,” says Morten Traavik about the allegorically-named pilot project DMZ Academy, so called after the heavily armed demilitarised border region between South Korea and North Korea, the site of the negotiations which led to the end of the Korean War.
“We want to constitute a demilitarised zone where you have the scope and space to play with your preconceptions about each other to a greater degree than the current political situation allows. Without laying down too many guidelines or constraints, this is a kind of conceptual musing on boundaries and dividing lines. The objective is to create a common platform for artistic reflection and inspiration. We have every bit as much need of having our notions about the world and about North Korea challenged as do the North Koreans,” say Traavik og Placht.
Henrik Placht built the international art academy IAAP in Ramallah on the West Bank from 2003 to 2009 in co-operation with e.g. Oslo National Academy of the Arts. During this process he completely changed his attitude towards the idea of boycotting Israeli art institutions. Around a year ago he and Traavik began working together on their new project, and Placht became the only member of the board of the foundation known as Traavik Info.
“There are forces in North Korea that wish to open up towards the wider world. It is important, then, that we do not turn our backs on them,” says Placht.
Supported by the Dutch Prince Claus Fund, the DMZ Academy’s activities currently consist of a two-week workshop and a group exhibition featuring up to eight North Korean artists and as many international contributors to help mark the 70th anniversary of the capitulation of Japan next year. A North Korean director of large-crowd gymnastics and the French black metal designer Jean Emmanuel “Valnoir” Simoulin are confirmed participants, as are figures from the UK, Sweden, Cambodia, and China as well as North Korean art students and professionals from the art factory Mansudae Art Studio, where the country’s many monuments and portraits of the regime’s leaders are produced. Performative and figurative art serves a central propaganda function in the dictatorship, and the Mansudae Art Studio employs an elite group of approximately a thousand artists working in a range of departments that also include the disciplines of woodcarving, embroidery, and drawing.
The objective of the DMZ Academy is to create new work under the auspices of an artistic community, and that the group exhibition and the artists involved will eventually visit countries outside of North Korea, funded by an international joint funding team made up of the relevant embassies. The project description, which is currently on the table with the Committee for Cultural Relations, says that the two art entrepreneurs are “confident that art and culture can act as a common language, and that mutual understanding and respect is the first requirement for peace and reconciliation, in Korea and everywhere else in the world.” One of the important parts of the workshop will be the artists’ talks about their own work and the opportunity to become familiar with artistic media that are not currently allowed within the strict North Korean system of rules and censorship. For example, the two artists seek to include Henrik Placht’s abstract paintings, a genre that does not exist within the North Korean realism. However, the question of whether the pop-up academy might become a more permanent institution will be up to the Committee for Cultural Relations.
“We have one year to soften the defences and stretch the cultural elastic band further, just like I have been doing for many years. We certainly have an ulterior motive with introducing a wide spectrum of artistic modes of expression, for example video art. As yet the Committee has viewed this favourably. In North Korea craftsmanship is accorded very great value; they have an extremely high level of technical proficiency, and only a small percentage of the things that are being made are outright propaganda. Nevertheless, there are strict rules and restrictions on matters such as the choice of colour and perspective; rules that can be challenged by bringing in artists from outside. There are plenty of things that can inspire, even if you do not agree with the political content. However, it would be pointless to create a scandal that would simply lead to a lot of unpleasantness to North Koreans who wish to open up a window to the world outside,” say Traavik and Placht.
Since 2012 Morten Traavik has staged extensive cultural collaborations with North Korean authorities through a series of controversial art projects sharing the common title Interventions. The theatre director’s artistic combinations of Norwegian and North Korean nationalism offer scope for critical interpretation and have created valuable interpersonal encounters with an otherwise closed-off culture, say some. Conversely, critics claim that the project merely serves to legitimise the regime’s propaganda aesthetics, and that Traavik’s art diplomacy is too closely affiliated with a dictatorship that the UN clearly states is committing great crimes against humanity. The UN report, which describes transgressions against human rights that rival the cruelty of the Nazis, recommends “people-to-people dialogue and contact” within the realms of e.g. art, science, and sports in order to allow North Koreans to “exchange information and be exposed to experiences outside their home country.” Nevertheless, the historian Bård Larsen from the liberal think thank Civita believes that a formalised collaboration with the cultural authorities is of marginal importance only.
“Projects like the DMZ Academy will only be accessible to those that have been approved by the regime, from the top down. In terms of potential reform, the effect of this kind of cultural collaboration is very, very marginal indeed. The North Korean authorities exercise full control in terms of keeping visitors from abroad in check. Changes in that country take place in very different areas and to a great extent occur via black market exchanges with China: through corruption that erodes the system and the smuggling of USB drives full of Chinese and South Korean entertainment; these are all things that take place from the bottom up in the system,” says Larsen.
Traavik himself believes that long-term changes to the regime will be an “almost unavoidable positive side effect” of his artistic interventions that use the world as a stage.
“History has shown that boycotts are futile. The totalitarian regime is still here. But it is not our job as artists to change North Korea. Art should not be an instrument for clear-cut political messages, regardless of whether such messages involve North Korean propaganda or Western human rights campaigns. We do not introduce artworks there as instruments of change to the regime, of democratisation, or as means for forcing our values upon them. Rather, we can contribute some outside inspiration. Large parts of the population do not know that anything else exists; we can show them that.”
A scholar of North Korean history and society at PRIO, Stein Tønnesson, believes that the DMZ Academy may have a positive effect. So too does programme co-ordinator of Norway’s Red Cross organisation in North Korea, Torben Henriksen, who has worked on-site in North Korea throughout the last decade, helping the malnourished populace with e.g. food and medicine.
“Any exposure to the outside world is essentially a good thing for North Koreans, and it would be an important contribution if the Norwegian artists could help North Koreans visit other countries. However, navigating in relation to North Korean authorities generally means entering some highly complicated terrain,” says Henriksen.
“Establishing contact with artists in North Korea can help sow more of those seeds that will gradually blossom into changes to the regime. That process is already underway. However, Traavik and Placht must not let themselves be enticed into meeting Kim Jong-un or those closest to him, into contributing to spectacular propaganda shows, or to defend North Korea in international media. The thing to do is to keep things on a steady, low-key level and to create as many contacts as possible,” Stein Tønnesson believes.
As yet, Traavik has encountered the world’s youngest dictator and his father, Kim Jong Il, at very close quarters – just an arm’s length away from them amidst a sea of frantically jubilant Koreans.
“I did NOT join in with the cheering, and I am still welcome in the country. Whether or not I would say yes to meeting Kim Jong-un obviously depends on the context and premises involved. I half-jokingly call North Korea the world’s greatest stage show. My role in all this is to work on the basis of the opportunities and constraints that can be found right now. I think that I have proven beyond any doubt that my projects in North Korea have many subversive layers, but they operate at a subtle level rather than as outright condemnation,” says Morten Traavik.