Against Forgetfulness, Against Monumentalization: Round and Around (2020)
In spring 2020, the South Korean artists Jang Minseung and Jung Jae Il embarked on a new audiovisual experiment project titled Round and Around. Commissioned by the Korean Film Archive, a government-funded film preservation center and cinematheque, the project was intended to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising. Also known as the “Gwangju Democratization Movement” or the “Gwangju massacre,” the civil resistance, which opposed the brutal military dictatorship and lasted from 18 to 27 May 1980, was pivotal in South Korea’s move towards democracy. For months, the two artists wove together a range of materials: dusty footage from state and public archives, fresh images of historic sites, and choral and ambient music. At first glance, the result of their collaboration may appear to be just one of many historical documentaries that include archival evidence to augment an already established historical “truth” about the uprising. Yet a careful look directs us to its distinctive power that allows for affective encounters with history. It is from within this power that the film offers a generative site in which a new experience of pastness can emerge, an experience that helps us imagine an alternative history of 1980s South Korea in general, and Gwangju in particular.
One site of affective encounter arises when Round and Around invites us to evaluate, and potentially interrupt, the workings of the archives, particularly those of the state. Culled from these archives, newsreels and short films from the 1980s are quoted across the film as conduits to various historical events. It should be noted that these materials had been inaccessible until in the mid-2000s a liberal administration lowered the barrier to access the “official” archives: the National Archives of Korea, the Archive of KTV (formerly the National Film Production Center), and the Korean Film Archive. With this increased availability and transparency, this footage is now within reasonable reach of all who have an interest in historical topics. In a sense, Round and Around would not have been made if “archons”—of archives—kept any material trace of the past unreachable. The film, however, does not celebrate what might be seen as a triumph over archons. True, public access to state archives has been deemed a hallmark of “democratic” societies; now those in South Korea can indeed watch government-sponsored film footage on their preferred devices; every May, the mainstream media constantly disperse archival footage and photos of Gwangju through digital films and docuseries in the name of national commemoration. Amid this consumption of audiovisual footage as ubiquitous proof of the past, what captivates the artists is the systemic erasure of state violence across archives. Citizens of Gwangju, for instance, are not invisible in the state media, but their bodies and voices are overlaid with different stories and perspectives in the service of the powerful. Still, these materials, despite this manipulation, have been conserved and authorized as historical “records” in the official archives. What does democracy mean when these archives hold little space for “the demos”—the people? Whose archives are these?
Round and Around confronts these questions while breaking open and reassembling archival footage to reveal what gets left out of the frame. This kind of appropriation of records resonates with what Jaimie Baron calls “embodied interruption,” an interruption that prompts other ways of looking (2021, 123). It bears significant political and ethical power precisely when these different modes of looking undermine hegemonic codes embedded in this footage that appear to be sensible and neutral. One of the earlier moments to evoke this power appears in the Olympic sequence in which the artists make the exclusionary nature of the state’s gaze visible. The sequence begins with a black-and-white image of the stadium in the present; the camera zooms in and out on various parts of the empty stadium in a way that magnifies its desert-like landscape. This image is soon juxtaposed with archival footage of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, filmed by the National Film Production Center, the government’s propaganda apparatus. A well-curated image of these ceremonies yields a particular view that the state attempted to promote to the rest of the world: South Korea, once a poor and war-torn country, has grown strong enough to host the world’s largest international sports festival. What breaks this curation is, first, the contours of the empty stadium in the present, and second, another piece of video footage of workers building tall apartments. This scene is dimly visible, perhaps because the original footage is in low resolution and projected onto a wrinkled canvas, which starts to burn [Fig. 1]. These buildings under construction were not built for those who previously lived there; thousands of Seoul residents were brutally evicted from their homes to make way for the government’s “urban renewal plans.” As part of the plans, the government evacuated the urban poor and cleaned Seoul up in preparation for hosting foreign guests at the 1988 Olympic games. Without giving a teleological explanation, the film reveals this contradiction. Beneath the surface of the Olympics, a gateway for the country to raise its global visibility, there was a violent demolition and uprooting of the people. What was shown to the world is disrupted and displaced by what wasn’t (and shouldn’t be) shown to the eyes of the powerful.
Round and Around enacts a more explicit interruption in its second half, which begins abruptly with archival footage of a 9-o’clock-news show that includes an official announcement of an “end” to the unrest in Gwangju. The voice of the powerful frames the citizens of Gwangju as “rebels” and “mobs” who threaten the community’s well-being and safety. It boasts of the hardworking local police and the martial law security force who worked to “restore public order” and “protect residents.” The authority’s voice is overlaid on the image of the government’s promotional newsreel, which showcases a concerted effort to rebuild the city in the aftermath of the “crisis.” Here the state’s gaze not only conceals the armed forces’ excessive crackdown on the peaceful protesters but also criminalizes those who stood up to protect themselves and others against the randomly exercised violence. What disrupts this gaze and its power in the frame are the segments that follow: first, one in which verses from the Psalms appear in conjunction with a wave of wildflowers, and second, a set of negative photographs that unsettle the voice of the powerful. Accompanied by a polyvocal sacred song, the sequence leads up to the unfiltered fragments of what happened during the filmed time of the newsreel: shoes left behind on the protest site, hands helping the wounded, the faces of those who lost their loved ones to police brutality, bodies rallying against the heavily armed forces, eyes glaring at the journalist’s camera [Fig. 2 and 3]. Originally captured by a local photojournalist on site during the uprising, the strategic use of these images undermines the power of the original news footage that excludes any trace of violence. It works to dislocate the hegemonic voice and gaze embedded in archival footage while reclaiming a space for those subjects and their gazes that were excluded from the frame.
With the film’s critical take on archival footage as a container of the truth of an event, Round and Around encourages us to resist the urge to commemorate the past as it was, or more precisely, as it was recorded. Its reverse chronological organization of materials can be seen as an explicit rejection of the popular notion of history as a linear progression; by refusing to trace the established timeline of the pro-democratic movement or Gwangju, it certainly undermines the conventional historical narrative. Yet a more powerfully resistant ground emerges where images and sounds from heterogeneous times are juxtaposed so that viewers cannot comfortably dwell in a singular time. As analyzed earlier in the Olympic sequence, the film moves back and forth between clearly disparate times and spaces: the stadium in 2020 and in 1988, the apartment complex in 2020 and construction site in 1988, the muted sounds of the Olympic ceremony and construction noise. What pierces through this assemblage is a persistent concern about our relationship to the act of commemorating a past event. The film is, in the end, less about Gwangju or its origins than about a diagnosis of the current situation, that is, the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising and the 1980s as one of the most trying times in the country’s modern history. How is it possible to memorialize what happened when the fragments of the past are still unfolding in front of us? When these fragments are brought to life, are we still able to position ourselves as mere consumers of the memorialized past?
Without forcing these questions onto us, Round and Around constantly brings multiple traces of the past to the center of the frame: the things, voices, and bodies that cannot be retrieved even now that Gwangju has been monumentalized as a social movement. And it invites us to respond to images in an intimate, embodied way, and thus facilitates the experience of other sensory impressions as well. What do these bodies in negative photos, abandoned historic sites, unspoken words in tunes, and even state records still hold for us? Negative photographs pull us into the site of oppression and resistance in the past. The wailing voice of the pansori singer pierces our bodies and adds palpable weight to a scene. The former prison and hospital take hold of our arms so that we cannot run away. These were places where thousands of citizens, detained and abused by the military corps, were forcefully brought. They became another interrogation site where the military force tortured the captives to get information about those “behind” the uprising and covered up many innocent deaths. Rather than explaining much about any implications these places might have today, the film nudges us to sense what still resides in these sites: aging pillars, dusty windows, rusted doors, ivy-covered walls, jungle-like gardens. These non-human objects gaze back at us as though they were living creatures that embody the wounds, tears, and blood of the people whose lives were shattered by state violence; the contact with these objects effects a transformation in us, as though we were touching the film with our eyes. In this sequence, some recently found footage of Gwangju during the uprising is briefly quoted, but not to narrate or reconstruct the past as it was. The faces of people, their moving bodies captured in the past, are mixed with the gaze of non-human objects today. Here the gaps between the past and the present touch us, generating affect through the awareness of what cannot be retrieved [Fig. 4].
Far from being driven simply by the insurgent impulse to deconstruct the historical narrative, the artists want to create a space that is charged with an unending tension around our efforts to commemorate the past. There is an unabashedly firm refusal not to resolve this tension by correcting and replacing old stories. To a certain extent, these replacements are vital given that the history of Gwangju has long been a contentious site for those who want to deny and even distort the established facts, for those who want to reveal the truth against the powerful, and for those who want to authorize the marginalized—women, the poor, the elderly, children—as active agents of the movement. But they are insufficient. It seems that some of these stories are ingrained deeply enough that their replacement might not challenge our fundamental self-conception and sense of history. It is this critique that leaves the film open-ended. The last contact that the film allows us to make with the past emerges from the fall of 1979. This time, the voice of Park Chung Hee, who ruled the country from 1961 to 1979, declares martial law in Busan, the country’s second-largest metropolis, to shut down the anti-government rallies that have quickly spread across the region. The accompanying video footage shows student protesters with arms around each other’s shoulders, making their way towards an unspecified destination. Because the film does not stack the deck in favor of a finite endpoint and decisive origin, by the time the film ends, we are left with more questions than answers. Why have these fragments been put together? What are they supposed to tell us? Round and Around stops there, with no satisfying exit to give us a sense of closure in history. Yet it is a tough reminder that, even after the film time ends, the remnants of the past are still there, calling us to respond to the affective experience they have generated in us. We have the choice to take this reminder—to change our understanding of history and our experience of the world in ways that may transform us.
Baron, Jaimie. 2021. Reuse, Misuse, Abuse: The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
 Composed by Jung, the lyrics of the choral music are chosen from the psalms of the Old Testament. The original soundtrack was globally released by Decca in 2022.