The Myth of Ihwa Mural Village: Social Media, Tourism, and Place Identity

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Youjeong Oh, Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian Studies and author of Pop City: Korean Popular Culture and the Selling of Place, led the April 18th session of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. She discussed how “the transmedia circulation of images” can create “new identity myths” for places that shift their socioeconomic realities and grant them “branding power.”

Oh’s primary case study for this discussion and her unpublished essay, “From Concrete Walls to Digital Walls: Transmedia Image Circulation and the Making of Mural Villages in Korea,” concerned the impact that Korean television and social media have had on Ihwa Village, a former “shantytown” built on unoccupied hillsides in Seoul by garment factory owners and their workers. She explained that this village is now a tourism hot spot known as Ihwa Mural Village and valued for its romantic and quaint atmosphere. In 2006 the South Korean government commissioned 68 artists to paint murals in Ihwa Village to “improve” the aging and neglected neighborhood. According to Oh, the village became an international tourist destination and a popular filming location since the well-known Korean television show 2 Days and 1 Night tasked actor and singer Lee Seun-gi with taking pictures in front of some of the murals in 2010. Fans of that show and television dramas that also featured Ihwa village flocked to the neighborhood to recreate televised scenes, initiating the now thriving trend of traveling to Ihwa Village to take selfies and post them on social networks. Oh showed Faculty Fellows how Instagram contains countless pictures of tourists posing in front of the village’s now iconic murals of angel wings, balloons, and flower stairs.

Part of Oh’s attempt to analyze the relationship between the identity myth of the mural village and the village’s portrayal in social media has been to consider what social media’s images of Ihwa Village leave out. Residents’ erasures of several of Ihwa Village’s best known murals and the existence of a “Silent Tourism Campaign” indicate that those living in the village have had some negative reactions to its transformation into a tourist destination. However, Oh’s research suggests that “most residents are satisfied with the very fact that their property values are soaring” due to touristification, which Oh defines as “tourism induced gentrification.”

Oh also observed that the initial mural project represented an attempt to “‘cover up’ the neglected urban fabric” of a historically marginalized and impoverished neighborhood and noted that it ignored the necessity of improvements to housing and infrastructure in Ihwa Village. Features of the village such as undersized houses and “half-torn” walls, “the very symptoms of marginalization,” are now valued by tourists for their aesthetic qualities, according to Oh. Further, Oh suggested that Ihwa Village’s representation in entertainment and social media has given tourists reasons to value the mural village that are largely unrelated to its history (their favorite show may have been filmed there, for example).  Because Ihwa Village’s new identity developed as a result of a mural project and media representations that paid relatively little attention to the village’s past or its residents’ experiences, the tourists’ myth of the mural village obscures the realities of Ihwa Village’s social context.

Faculty Fellows responded to Oh’s discussion of Ihwa Village by noting that similar aesthetic improvement projects have been completed in marginalized sections of cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Medellín, Columbia. Fellows suggested that the extent to which these projects benefit the communities they are intended to serve depends on whether these communities are involved and invested in the project. Fellows also discussed how the appeal of posting selfies at tourist destinations like Ihwa Village on social media platforms lies in the exhibition of sociocultural capital that comes with publicly documenting a supposedly authentic experience of a culturally significant place. Further, Fellows noted that social media platforms function as storytelling devices and agreed that the images, text, and/or hashtags of social media posts Oh analyzed were being used to construct or participate in narratives of place, self, and society.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

Considering Slurs: Context, Usage, and the Meaning of Pejorative Language

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Juan Colomina-Almiñana, Assistant Professor in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, led the March 28th meeting of the Faculty Fellows Seminar. Colomina-Almiñana’s discussion focused on his current research which “describe[s] linguistic meaning as the intersection between individual expressive narratives” and “cultural narrations…of the societies an individual speaker inhabits.” He calls this linguistic position “Perlocutionarism,”and his latest research analyzes how slurs and derogatory words are “particularly illustrative” of this position.

In both his discussion with the seminar and a draft of a chapter from his current book project, The Semantics of Racial Epithets, Colomina-Almiñana was careful to distinguish slurs from insults. According to Colomina- Almiñana, whereas insults express “contempt towards a single individual,” slurs are “employed by speakers to directly disparage or subordinate not only the target, but also all individuals and groups that the word can be applied to because they possess a certain trait.” He then explained how his Perlocutionist position differs from the prominent Prohibitionist position, which holds that the use of slurs is potentially offensive in any context, even when quoted for teaching purposes or when appropriated by the targeted group to be used without derogation or contempt. Colomina- Almiñana counters that while the Prohibitionist position prevents harm that can be done through the intentionally derogatory use of slurs, it also “silence[s]” those targeted by slurs by preventing them from using slurs “in a different way to diminish [their] contemptuousness.”

Colomina-Almiñana’s solution to this problem is to argue that slurs’ meanings  are indistinguishable from those implied by their use. In other words, the ways in which people use slurs to communicate determine their meaning. Thus, Colomina-Almiñana concludes that slurs’ meanings are “ruled by the normativity of the speech community the speaker [of a given slur] belongs to.” According to Colomina-Almiñana, understanding the meaning of a particular usage of a slur “requires accounting for the way that the speaker expresses negative, demeaning attitudes to the target” based on a particular “bigoted worldview.” Colomina- Almiñana outlines the Perlocutionist approach to reducing the harm done by slurs by claiming that we should “establish new conventions that explicitly exclude certain derogatory uses [of slurs] from our ordinary vocabulary by the non-recognition of, or disagreement with” bigoted worldviews and thereby reduce or eliminate derogatory uses of slurs while allowing those targeted by slurs to reclaim them for non-derogatory purposes. To illustrate the use of a slur for reclamation he gave the example of “The Slants,” an all Asian, post-punk band that recently won a US Supreme Court case protecting the use of trademarks that could be considered disparaging.

Faculty Fellows responded to Colomina-Almiñana by suggesting possible similarities between his philosophical approach to language and that of folkorists and cultural anthropologists who analyze the relationships between language’s cultural context, usage, and meaning. Colomina- Almiñana and other Fellows discussed the importance of acknowledging that words’ meanings evolve over time, suggesting that we should attend to the historical resonances in contemporary usages of words while also attempting to change the social norms of slurs’ usage and thereby change their meanings. Faculty Fellows also had a lively discussion of whether Colomina-Almiñana’s quotation of slurs in his writing was offensive and suggested that examples of slur usages should be presented alongside their cultural and historical contexts so that the meaning of a given slur could be understood in relation to its use and function in a specific community.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

Radical Storytelling in the Museum: Curation, Folk Art, and Social Justice

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Suzanne Seriff, Senior Lecturer in the UT Department of Anthropology, and independent museum curator, led the February 28th meeting of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. Seriff discussed her career guest curating exhibitions for art and history museums that focus on timely social justice issues such as immigration, natural disaster, women’s empowerment, etc, as expressed through the words and works of global folk artists working toward social change. Examples from her exhibitions featuring folk arts made from recycled industrial materials, or made in response to natural disasters included such “unlikely” innovations as a toy helicopter from Liberia made out of “flip-flops” and traditional applique quilts made by women in flood relief camps in Pakistan from donated but impractical clothing from relief agencies around the world. Seriff described her desire to explore how museums design exhibits to “visually” narrate stories of folk art that are inherently difficult to tell because they attempt to convey the significance of creative acts that are often rooted in local cultural practices but are performed within the complex contexts of globalism, capitalism, social injustice, loss, and tragedy.

Much of Seriff’s presentation addressed the challenges of curating exhibits of cultural objects with rich significance while navigating the various interests of the entities involved in the creation, attainment, and display of those objects. Seriff explained that every exhibit necessarily includes frequently competing narratives of “transformation and desire” between the  folk artists whose work is on display, the frequently Western collectors who purchase and preserve the work, and the museum curators who display and interpret the pieces for a public audience. When discussing her first exhibition for the Museum of International Folk Art (MoIFA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, titled “Recycled, Re-seen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap,” and her co-edited book by the same name Seriff provided an example of this narrative competition by explaining that both collectors (in this case the museum’s leadership) and museum patrons tended to prefer “feel-good” narratives of early American crafts such as rag rugs and flour sack quilts made in the name of thrift  over those more “political” or unfamiliar pieces from around the world which were designed to speak out against a social injustice or might represent a ritual practice which was unfamiliar to the largely elite patrons.

Seriff also discussed her more recent work between 2010 and 2017 as guest curator and director of MoIFA’s innovative “Gallery of Conscience” which she describes as “an experimental space designed to catalyze important conversations about human rights and social justice issues through the works and words of contemporary folk artists” (in her essay “Designing for Outrage: Inviting Disruption and Contested Truth in Museum Exhibitions,” co-written with Barbara Lau and Jennifer Scott). During her tenure as Director of the Gallery of Conscience, Seriff worked with a team of museum prototypers, community engagement coordinators, curators, educators, designers and community partners to explore ways in which the Gallery might more directly engage and respond to visitor and community input, collaboration and interest. A large part of this work involved a prototype-based design method which invited maximum engagement by remaining intentionally unfinished and unpolished so that community partners, artists and visitors would be  encouraged to contribute to the exhibit’s ongoing narrative their own stories, art and ideas. Seriff explained that her team’s “radical” approach to storytelling in the Gallery of Conscience was meant to explore how pushing the boundaries of the communication of meaning by museums changed visitors’ experiences. Seriff found that some visitors and community members valued the opportunity to express themselves in the exhibit, but others, most prominently museum staff, administrators, docents, and long-time patrons, expressed doubts about whether such experimentation belonged in an “art museum.” Though Seriff’s radically prototype-based technique was eventually replaced with one that embraced a more traditional museum approach to curation and design, Seriff indicated that her belief in museums’ capacity for radical storytelling and communal dialogue persists.

Faculty Fellows engaged Seriff in a discussion that focused in part on whether telling radically inclusive and collaborative narratives in museums is a necessary contradiction, given the Western museum’s long history as an institution of nation-building and cultural control which tend to reinforce dominant narratives of progress and hegemony. Seriff indicated that despite their historical role as elite spaces she sees museums as powerful tools for social change with the ability to encourage issue-based dialogue and promote social justice. Faculty Fellows also reflected on how best to teach a subject or work in a space associated with oppressive social relations, and suggested that instructors in this position might emphasize how these institutions’ hierarchical roles are socially constructed and openly discuss their complicated histories.

Learn more about Dr. Seriff’s award winning work in the MoIFA’s “Gallery of Conscience” here.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

“Listening as a Way of Writing:” Cronistas and Narratives of Social Suffering

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Gabriela Polit, Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, led the April 11th session of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. She discussed her latest book, Unwanted Witnesses. Journalists and Conflict in Contemporary Latin America, which “look[s] at the work done by journalists covering conflict” in Latin America and aims to “bring to the public eye what it takes to write a story of social suffering (i.e. migration, displacement, armed conflict, narcotrafficking, impunity, force disappearance, domestic violence, etc.) under extreme circumstances.”

Polit’s seminar discussion focused on the writing of cronistas, Latin American journalists who act as witnesses to the “quotidian” aspects of social events and conflicts. Polit suggests in Unwanted Witnesses that cronistas’ stories, also known as crónicas, are more concerned with personal narratives, small details, and aesthetics than other forms of journalism. She explained to Faculty Fellows that spending time with cronistas like Patricia Nieto and Marcela Turati caused her to see the cronista’s investment in reporting the personal and the quotidian as driven by a commitment to listen well to others, to understand “listening as a way of writing.”According to Polit, in the context of social suffering the cronista’s “listening to the words uttered by someone who has a need to be listened to and understood” has an “ethical quality.” Listening well produces an understanding between speaker and listener that allows the cronista to “transfor[m] stories of pain, trauma, and social suffering into stories of empathy, care, and affection that could eventually lead to political action.”

Polit told Faculty Fellows that Unwanted Witnesses makes journalists both its subject and one of its target audiences. By voicing the experiences of cronistas and examining the challenges they face when writing about their own and others’ suffering, Polit suggested that she hoped to give representation to those who risk their personal safety and mental health to represent victims of social conflict. Spending time with several cronistas, including one who was killed during the writing of Unwanted Witnesses, has made the prevalence and seriousness of violent threats to journalists all too clear to Polit. Thus, Polit has crafted Unwanted Witnesses to enable readers to better understand and appreciate cronistas’ journalistic techniques as well as the sacrifices they make to produce their work.

Polit pointed to Patricia Nieto’s Los escogidos, a book-length crónica about the practice of retrieving the bodies of people killed and dumped in the Río Magdalena as a result of armed conflict in Colombia, to provide Faculty Fellows with an example of cronistas’ experience of writing about trauma. In Unwanted Witnesses Polit describes Nieto’s struggle to write about traumatic events earlier in her career and indicates that for Nieto “writing becomes a process for healing a person after trauma.” Polit claims that Nieto “emphasizes the importance of the pursuit of beauty as an introspective journey, rather than the pragmatics of storytelling” in her journalism. Nieto merges journalistic and aesthetic writing in Los escogidos to craft a reflective and transformative account of social suffering, according to Polit. Nieto’s pursuit of beauty through aestheticized writing shapes personal and communal trauma into an “inner voice” through which victims may assert themselves to “claim reparation from the state.”

Faculty Fellows were moved by Polit’s description of cronistas’ experiences of trauma and violent retribution and responded by making connections between Polit’s research and the experiences of journalist and academic friends and colleagues. They pointed to resonances between her work on writing and trauma and the work of colleagues Gloria González-Lopez and Jamie Pennybaker. Fellows also reflected on Polit’s discussions of the functions of listening and representation in cronistas’ work. They considered why crónicas’ representations of injustice and traumatic experiences do not always lead to political action, and questioned whether the empathy evoked and conveyed by cronistas’ listening-based writing style makes readers more likely to work towards social change.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.