— Cultural Sources of Newness

Learning about artistic interventions in Seoul

It started with an email in May 2013 that looked like spam, with Asian symbols I did not recognize. Something prompted me to open it and to my surprise, it was from a South Korean researcher who had discovered my studies on artistic interventions and wanted to come to Berlin to interview me.  She explained that she was a researcher from ARCOM (Arts and Company), a non-profit agency at the Korea National University of Arts, that was dedicated to artistic interventions in organizations, with support from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. It was great to learn from this email that the reports I had written on the European Creative Clash project (2013) and the earlier TILLT Europe project (2009) were being read around the world, as well as the article I had published about intermediaries in the online journal Organizational Aesthetics based on the Creative Clash report (2011) .

Six weeks later, Soyoung Shin was in Berlin, after having visited my partners in the Creative Clash project, TILLT in Sweden  and before travelling onwards to conexiones improbables in Spain, and ending her trip in London to meet Giovanni Schiuma. Never have I been interviewed by someone who had read my work so thoroughly! After hours of talking at the WZB, I invited her and her photographer to join me with David and Emma Vidal, an artist visiting from Paris, for a picnic in the park of Schloss Charlottenburg, so that she could continue her questioning. She mentioned that ARCOM was hoping to organize an international conference later this year, would I be able to come?

Soyoung Shin from ARCOM joins us for picnic at Schloss Charlottenburg July 2013

Soyoung Shin from ARCOM joins us for picnic at Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin, July 2013

And now I am writing from Seoul. In the months since the first email arrived,  ARCOM, directed by Professor Jeon Suhwan, created a rich conference program in which we will present our experiences with artistic interventions in Europe and learn about cases in Asia (on Wednesday November 20 2013).

In addition, an email informed me that

“You will have an interview with Kyung Hee Cyber University for an online class on Monday. We also arranged meetings with executives from Nexon (#1 game company in Korea), Nexus Community (a software developer), and Daum Communication (#2 online portal company, more powerful than Google in Korea).”

The email also indicated that there is a meeting with the press.  Dinners and cultural activities are also on the schedule for every evening. No time for jet-lag!

I flew from Berlin on Friday morning, November 15, knowing that I would be met at Incheon airport at 8:20am on Saturday, and my host would immediately start introducing me to Seoul. Before leaving, I had quickly looked up some information about Korean business culture, which I read on the plane. From it I learned “it is considered impolite to address a Korean with his or her given name. Korean names are the opposite of Western names with the family name first, followed by the two-part given name. The first of the two given names is shared by everyone in the same generation of the family, and the second is the individual’s given name.” The culture tips also warned me that “Korean men generally prefer to negotiate with men,” so I wondered how this gender preference would play itself out with Pia and Arantxa and me all being women. Furthermore, I was instructed “Confucian ethics dominate Korean thought patterns and this translates in business terms into great respect for authority, age and seniority.” It seemed like I would be in for a stiff time.

By the end of the first day I learned that traditions are changing faster than cultural tips can keep track of, even those freshly downloaded from the Web. For example, the delightful person who greeted me at the airport told me to call her EJ, and explained that her parents, like many others, were no longer applying the generational rule in naming their children. She has already had a career in two multinational software companies, one of which is headquartered in the US, the other in Korea; while she was based in Paris she learned about floristry and she explored the idea of opening a shop; she is now looking for a new career direction. Over dinner I discovered that, at least in the ARCOM team,  there is a stark contrast to the gender-bias towards men and stiffness that I had been led to expect: there are more women than men, and the conversation was full of jokes and laughter across the lines of gender, authority, age, and seniority. And, as Professor Jeon pointed out, Park Geun-hye became South Korea’s first female president this year. There is probably a long way to go until women can feel that gender is no longer an issue, particularly in a business context in which careers require frequent 12-hour work-days.

Dinner at Temple Food w Prof Jeon and Arantxa (taken by ARCOM team, others not visible, unfortunately)

Dinner at Temple Food w Prof Jeon and Arantxa (taken by ARCOM team, not visible, unfortunately)

We covered so many topics during the day and evening, I cannot capture them all, particularly since I did not take notes and am jetlagged. But a few elements here:

  •  Unlike the situation of artistic interventions in Europe, where the initiative has come from individuals like Pia Areblad who persuaded the regional development organization of southwestern Sweden to take on this new kind of activity, or Roberto Gómez de la Iglesia who launched them in Spain under the umbrella of two consulting organizations he founded, in Korea the initiative came from the government: Professor Jeon was contacted by the ministry, which sees an urgent need to infuse the Korean economy with new ideas for management, and they believed that the arts have something important to offer. They therefore launched a multi-year project (ARCOM) to conduct experiments and learn from them. There is already interest from some leading companies, in some cases because a senior manager chose to take a course at the Korea National University of the Arts.
  • The government in Korea is starting to worry about growing unemployment, because it is currently up to ca. 3%. This is a figure that people in Europe cannot imagine as a source of concern. But here they want to nip the trend in the bud. And stimulating creativity throughout the economy is seen to be a potential contributor to the solution.
  • The diversity of career paths I learned about yesterday fascinated me. EJ’s example is not the only one. Professor Jeon studied computer engineering and worked in the IT industry for 5 years before becoming a professor of management at the Korea National University of Arts, where he is based in the School of Dance at the university. My interviewer from July, Soyoung Shin, is now in Spain learning how to become a chef. Another member of the ARCOM team studied electrical engineering before turning to create mangas, and is now on another new track. While they are most certainly not typical of Korea, their existence is a signal of possibilities that already exist and may well become more frequently explored in future.
  • The case of an artistic intervention in Viet Nam that is on the conference program came from a student in Professor Jeon’s course on arts management. When he talked about such initiatives in class, the student was delighted to report that she knew of exactly such a project in her country. Just goes to show how much we can learn from our students when we talk about our research with them!
  • When a Korean host tells you that the dinner is a 20-course meal, he means it. Enjoy!
View of just a fraction of our 20 course dinner

View of just a fraction of our 20 course dinner

The days ahead will clearly be full of learning and also fun. More notes will follow, if the full schedule allows any time for writing.

Update from our beautiful Sunday afternoon walk in the Palace Secret Garden.

One of many beautiful moments in the Secret Garden

One of many beautiful moments in the Secret Garden

Walks are great for talking, and this one gave me the opportunity to learn more about ARCOM.  Professor Jeon develops a project plan each year, which he presents to the ministry, which then decides on the next year’s funding. Companies are invited to match the funds, which some of them do, thereby increasing the budget. In 2011 ARCOM ran 8 projects;  2012 and 2013 each had 4 projects. The work of the first two years is well summarized in the ARCOM Brochure that Soyoung Shin prepared before contacting us in Europe in May.

Professor Jeon notes the advantages of the structural constellation he has for the intermediary role: the close relationship between the government and the Korea National University of the Arts in which ARCOM is embedded, along with his management experience in the IT sector. This combination gives him access and credibility into the world of the arts, the world of organizations, and the world of government.

As Pia and Arantxa have pointed out to me, only intermediaries that really have experience are in a position to about learning, because they can talk honestly about failures. So I asked Professor Jeon whether he  had already had enough cases to be able to discuss what has not worked out. He reflected that in the first year about a third of the cases could be said to have “failed.” The disappointing projects in the first year taught him that projects are less likely to succeed if the CEO is not fully on board, so he decided in 2012 to change his strategy. He now  focuses on fewer projects and pursues those for which there is significant top management support.

Having noticed in Europe that some intermediaries and some companies talk about artistic interventions primarily in terms of the problems they can help address, whereas others talk about opportunities, I asked him whether the companies he works with formulate their projects more around problems or around opportunities. He thought about the question for a minute and responded that they tend to be opportunity-seeking projects.  He thought this might be related to the fact that they often work with companies from the IT sector. There the management style and organizational culture is more opportunity-oriented and less hierarchical than in traditional large Korean companies which have a more “Confucianist” tradition and bureaucratic management mode.

The projects are becoming increasingly interesting, he has found, with the CEOs who participate in his arts management course at the university and then decide to engage in the ARCOM program with an artistic intervention project. What excites these CEOs is to see how the arts students engage with the project and often give it a new twist that the CEO had not originally envisioned when defining the project at the outset.

Fall colours in the Secret Garden

Fall colours in the Secret Garden