Joo Youn Paek: Fusing Humor and Form with Function

Joo Youn Paek, Pillowig, 2005

Anyone who attempts to navigate a crowded street during a downpour knows that umbrellas are as cumbersome as they are convenient. Imagine a stranger walking toward you on a rainy day. As she gets closer, her umbrella contracts like a jellyfi sh, shrinking from a parasol to a mushroom, then expanding to its full size once you have passed. Ingenious! The umbrella knows its manners. This is the Polite Umbrella, the brainchild of JooYoun Paek, an interactive technology artist. Paek explained, “It has simple mechanics. You pull on this handle and you can change the shape. This umbrella bows to other people on the street.”

Paek studied traditional sculpture at Seoul National University and got her Master’s from NYU’s Interactive Technology Program in May 2007. Polite Umbrella is one of many projects. I met with her at Eyebeam Gallery where she is a resident artist to talk about her work. Past artworks include Love Gloves (2004), two boxing gloves joined together to form a heart, “The object is invented from imagining that two boxers, instead of hitting each other, maybe they can dance together in the ring.”; Pillowig (2005), a pillow sewn onto a cap creates a wearable headrest.; and Self-Sustainable Chair (2006) which “is made out of garbage bags. As you walk it will pump the air inside your dress. This dress is forcing another behavior for users—walk and sit down, walk and sit down.”

Her art fuses humor and function. While most pieces are more quirky than practical, a few are useful enough to be marketable. Necessity proved to be the mother of art; Polite Umbrella was inspired by October 2005 when it rained all but two days of the month. Pillowig was featured on countless blogs—travelers want one for the plane, the train, or even a day spent out of the rain. Sadly, there will be a long wait if you want to purchase either one. Polite Umbrella has several prototypes and will undergo testing but Paek is skeptical about financial profit, “To make money? I don’t know. The main reason is that the more people that use it, it’s much more fun. My piece is not just stuck in the gallery. People go out and people use it in their lives.”

All Paek’s creations originate from a fascination with human behavior. She enjoys wandering around Manhattan and observing people. “I keep the same process of observation of normal habit and motion behavior with objects. Every design I do starts from that point. It might be abrupting those behaviors or it may be a solution to make it something better. My passion is in habitual behaviors.” Individual mannerisms are enlarged in Zipper Orchestra, an installation piece where there are nine zippers on a canvas and nine people on a video: “The user comes to (the exhibition) space and controls people’s zipper action but it will play a string instrument sound. I took an electronic sensory workshop class so I made a zipper sensor with conductive thread that can sense the speed and motion of opening and closing. I made this by observing people’s zipper behavior. I started interviewing people’s individual zipper motion. After ten to fifteen people, I realized that everybody had different speeds and ways of moving zippers because it’s a common thing you do every day. You know how dogs can recognize their owner’s footsteps? People have different habitual rhythms.” The incorporation of music seems like a departure from her past works, but Paek respects musicians and finds the transition natural, “I’m interested in time-based movement. It’s not the one static moment that I’m interested in. Any movement has time, like linear time, so that’s why I’ve come to have musical components; it’s a rhythm. For instance, it’s a little zipper up and down, people won’t notice if I just show a zipper up and down but if I map that to music then it amplifies those differences. People will see it more freshly.”

Pillowig, 2005

“Reaching a large audience or specific audience very well would be a happy thing for me,” Paek told me. Certainly, the playfulness and inventiveness of her art has great appeal—everyone from weathermen to curators is calling. She seems to have achieved a publicity trifecta—conquering the tv, the internet, and the galleries. In January she went for a show at the Museum of Science in Boston and the local news weather channel WBZ TV interviewed her about Polite Umbrella. Swissmiss, a design blog, inquired after Pillowig. A current project, Fold Loud, attracted a curator from MoMA. But Paek understands that such attention is fleeting. Regarding the brouhaha on the web, she laughs, “That’s really an hour of fame.” Also MoMA didn’t work out, “the curator of MoMA showed interest in installing (Fold Loud) for an exhibition in February this year, but it was cancelled because they decided not to show any interactive pieces. They were worried about the maintenance. This kind of art can break, it can change, it can fall off.”

If setbacks haven’t deterred Paek, it’s because fame, like money, lacks allure. Whether people approach her on the street when she’s test-driving a piece or in the galleries where she’s showing, the excited reactions are their own reward. “Why (am I) making this?” she ponders, “To communicate. Journalists are communicating with their articles, musicians are communicating with their music compositions. I just have more talent in making things so I communicate by making things.” Even when communication goes awry due to language barriers, Paek finds that confusion can be a source of inspiration. The performance piece she did at the end of a Vermont residency, her first extended stay in America, was a ping pong game with a difference, “(In Ping-But-No-Pong,) I asked my artists fellows to pick many words (to write on the balls)
and I made a hole in the rackets.” When she played an opponent there would be more misses than hits. Paek explained the ideas behind the action, “I grew up in Korea and I wasn’t exposed to other countries that much. Listening to all the people talking in English was hard for me to understand. It’s a residency program where you have your studio but you get meals served in the same place and you eat with the (other artists) every day and I was always lost. People talked to each other so fast it was like a ping pong game but I couldn’t pong back.”

Journalists are communicating with their articles, musicians are communicating with their music compositions. I just have more talent in making things so I communicate by making things.

As an interactive technology artist, Paek is not interested in the passive viewer. Both her past and present work invites people to get involved. Currently she is working on Fold Loud, “a musical interface out of origami folding. There are multiple folds you can do in the shape so one fold makes one sound but if you make two folds at the same time it makes a harmony. One or two people can play together and make a chorus. I really admire musicians. I wanted to be able to perform something beautiful but I realized my strength is craft. Maybe I could map some of my craft into musical composition and I was curious what that would sound like. After making it and showing it and testing it with a lot of audiences I realized it brings a lot of very sensitive hand gestures. I want to develop it further.” Zipper Orchestra possesses sly humor and aural stimulation from the string instruments, added to the comic visuals as people zip and unzip on video in synch to the zippers on the canvas. Fold Loud is ethereal. The gorgeous singing by Paek’s friend, Lesley Flanigan, paired with the delicacy of folding paper makes the work peaceful. Still, Fold Loud and Zipper Orchestra are similar because they respectively allow a person to be choir master and orchestra conductor—creating a swell of music with one motion of the hand.

Paek played a lot of sports and was a ski instructor in college. While it’s far-fetched to say that her childhood favorite, Super Mario Bros., influenced her art, her emphasis on interaction is linked to her long-standing passion for games both real and virtual. “Game design is about designing experience,” Paek said, “thinking from the start to the end of the game how the player will experience each moment. A lot of my pieces are about that too. It’s about creating experience.” Not that it’s all fun and game design. At Eyebeam, she is tackling one of modern society’s biggest problems: trash. Rescue Dumpsters is a sustainable design project that transforms recycled materials into useful objects. “I’m researching ways to make things with thrown-out garbage bags. Think of the whole cycle of materials you are using. Sustainable practice is doing less to do more.” She plans to make her projects accessible to others by creating DIY sessions online. Paek will also host an Open Studio at Eyebeam on June 21st from noon to 6pm where she will teach people inventive uses for mundane objects such as plastic bags.

If the talk of environmentalism and recycling sounds grave, don’t worry. Paek is conscientious but she hasn’t lost her trademark irreverence, nor is she about to stop having fun with art, “Some might say you have to be responsible for something in your work. Some artists are very responsible about social issues. My personality’s not so much about that. If I were to touch on social issues, I would bring it to playfulness. Life is already hard. For me it’s important that I enjoy this.”

Polite Umbrella, 2005

Polite Umbrella, 2005

Zipper Orchestra, 2005

Zipper Orchestra, 2005

– Rihoko Ueno

Joo Youn Paek: