Bora Kim is raising questions of race, masculinity, and the importance of teenage girls' taste.
On 26 April, a new, American-based K-pop boy band called EXP made their world debut in Long Island City. Like South Korea's idol groups (the K-pop industry term for a meticulously groomed cadre of attractive, often barely-legal performers), the band was smooth and shiny. The six boys sashayed over the stage in form-fitting clothing, flashing Vaseline smiles and exuding gentle sex as they cooed about relationships in their English-Korean single, "Luv/Wrong."
It was exactly what you might expect out of a fledgling group trying to hack it in the K-pop mold. Except for one little thing: None of the six members of EXP (Tarion Taylor Anderson, Frankie Daponte Jr., Hunter Kohl, Šime Košta, Koki Tomlinson, and David Wallace) are Korean. None of them even speak Korean.
News of this K-pop group without the "K" spread rapidly throughout South Korea and the industry's global fan base. Even a week before their debut, K-pop fans started to excoriate EXP for wanton cultural appropriation, circulating fake track lists for a non-existent album and accusing them of explicitly ripping off the insanely popular non-threatening teenage heartthrobs of EXO. As soon as "Luv/Wrong" went up on YouTube, hardcore critics blasted the band's lack of polish, fostered in most idol groups over years of near-martial training within a hit-churning machine. In short, folks seemed to say, the group wasn't Korean, hadn't worked in the system, and as a result was making a mockery of the industry.
After a few days, most of the internet copped on to the fact that EXP was actually a conscious project developed by a conceptual artist. Dreamed up last fall by Bora Kim, a Columbia University MFA student from Seoul, EXP (short for EXPERIMENT) is the centerpiece of a multimedia endeavor, "I'm Making A Boy Band" (IMMABB), documenting her attempt to transform thoroughly American performers into prototypical K-pop boy-toy stars.
Back in 2012, the global success of PSY's K-pop satire "Gangnam Style" got Kim thinking about how South Korea, a post-colonial nation with a long history of importing foreign culture, had rapidly developed its own style and begun to export it through Asia, then the West. She was also fascinated by the way foreign consumers were buying into K-pop's aesthetics, performances, and sexuality.
Male sports fans, [they say], "Yeah, that's fucking great, you should roar like wild animals and paint your bellies!" But when girls scream for One Direction, that's silly. —Karin Kuroda
Eager to play around with these trends, Kim told two friends from art school, Karin Kuroda and Samantha Shao, about her idea to graft K-pop form onto American bodies and see what'd happen. By October, the trio had put out casting calls in New York, seeking young men, ages 18 to 28, with some performance skills and an interest in joining a boy band. After four months of training in how to act like a K-pop group, including several "Cuteness Workshops," the boys took to the stage, performing music composed and produced by Ben Hostetler and Chatori Shimizu. A month later they started a Kickstarter campaign, raising $30,600 to record a mini-album featuring "Luv/Wrong," two new songs, and remixes.
Now, three months after their first show, EXP has started to develop a social media following. The boys, and the girls behind them, insist that they're treating EXP not just as a social experiment, but as a real band.
Eager to learn how, exactly, one manufactures a boy band, VICE met up with Kim, Kuroda, and Shao in their half-dismantled New York studio, just after they'd had finished filming their first music video. (It's set for an early August release date.)
VICE: Bora, you've talked elsewhere about the theoretical basis of IMMABB. When was the moment that you thought, "I should take all of this, and turn it into a boy band"?
Kim: That was last summer. I was in Korea, and I got a bit tired of just researching. I really just wanted to make something.
Coming [to Columbia], I put so much pressure on myself. You're in grad school. You have to make your masterpiece. But I was just stuck in this weird place where I just researched and [wasn't] able to really make a high-quality product that's allowed in the commercial world.
When it came time to actually get boys, how did you choose people? Were you trying to find the perfect little dolls you could mold into K-pop stars?
Kim: We did want someone who we could mold, yes. There were some people who were very, very knowledgeable about K-pop, but we did not [choose] them because we wanted to teach them K-pop and we wanted to document the process.
Sometimes I feel that all relationships among Koreans are a bit S&M. —Bora Kim
What was the audition process like?
Kim: We told them, "This is going to be something in between fiction and a reality show. You're going to be staring as yourself, but yourself as a very successful boy band member. You'll be filmed all the time." We asked them, "Is it okay if we put a lot of makeup on you?" We got consent to that. And we asked them to sing or dance or rap. Then we had our little acting exercise. We would tell them, "Act like a very cocky boy band—you just booked a show at Madison Square [Garden]." If we saw some potential, we asked more.
Do you consider what you're doing could be considered an act of cultural appropriation, or a racially-charged act?
Kim: Our project is cultural appropriation and racially charged. However, the boys are not [making] squinting eyes, nor are they trying to mimic the physical features of Koreans. Mimicking the physical appearance of Koreans is not cultural appropriation. That act is the performing/reenacting of an ignorant stereotype not to be confused with the appropriation of cultures.
We want to raise the question of what it actually means to appropriate culture, because this implies [that people are tied] to the idea of cultural authenticity. How does one determine authenticity and originality in culture? We are interested in asking and complicating the idea of how cultures influence each other. Does the concept of cultural appropriation shift when applied to pop music, a very specific and accessible cultural channel?
You've been putting the boys through tons of training, like "Cuteness Workshops." But what was hard to teach them? What about K-pop was just not getting through?
Kim: We showed [them] videos of K-pop idols with no subtitles, and we would ask them, "What do you think is happening?" [We'd] ask them to read the body language and how they'd act towards the fans and towards each other. Because the essence is about how they present their charm in a very different way than people do here—being cute.
Here, as a default, you are supposed to present yourself as a strong person. But in Korea and in a lot of Asian countries, it's better to be friendly. And acting cute is a way of putting yourself in a lower position, so you won't appear to be too macho or threatening. Because not being individual, but being a member of a group is more important. So the conversation would evolve into talking about bigger cultural differences.
Shao: It's mostly just how to perform sexuality. When we asked them to be sexy, everyone has their own way to do that. It's hard to change that because it's more of a default situation for them. When they think of sexy, maybe [they] think of Brad Pitt. It's hard for them to think of Asian idols, who will do things that people here might think is "gay-ish."
Kim: It really goes to the audience of K-pop, because it is mainly young, straight females. They're catering their performance to sexuality, and the fact that we're highlighting that is very important. We're thinking of what the teenage girls want.
Kuroda: It's seen as vapid. Male sports fans, [they say], "Yeah, that's fucking great, you should roar like wild animals and paint your bellies!" But when girls scream for One Direction, that's silly. Any time girls feel something that's emotional, that's not valuable to society. So the fact that this entire [K-pop] industry is catering—well, not entirely—to what 12-year-old girls want... it's a massive amount of fiscal turnaround!
K-pop has a massive training industry, and you don't get to replicate that. So do you feel like [as K-pop stars] there's anything they're missing by not having gone through that?
Kim: Of course!
Kuroda: The whole thing that makes K-pop Korean is that it's a mirror of Korean culture. The reason that exists is from the military aspect. We're trying to, not critique that, but we don't want to replicate that. Because it's 17 hours a day of dancing, singing, acting. I don't think we want to do that.
Kim: Korean society has that military culture. It's really hard to explain that, and I'm sure it's hard for people to believe that. But it is. Sometimes I feel that all relationships among Koreans are a bit S&M. Because if they are in any way above you—age, gender, class—you immediately lower yourself. And in the opposite situation, you have to perform that very strong or dominant act towards the other [person]. I think the K-pop world shows that aspect very well. You can see that in the product.
I want to pinpoint that in the project, but at the same time, we don't have that power over them. They don't know that culture, so even though they respect us, it's in a different way. Sometimes they don't respect us! It's hard to push that on them.
Shao: That's the interesting part in a cultural clash kind of way. Whenever we try to push that, they're like: "You guys are being ridiculous right now." They can't even function. In a different cultural sense, it'd be like, "Oh, I understand what you're doing, and I want to work harder. I want that humiliation."
Kim: Humiliation is a very important word, I think.
You were [K-pop] consumers, critics. Now you're producers. How has that changed you?
Kim: I've always had respect for the industry in a way. That's part of why I started this project. Especially in the fine art world, people have this weird condescending look towards pop.
The pop creators are the same creative people who want to make something interesting and new. It's just that they usually have more capital, which is why it's all so shiny. And they lack criticality sometimes. That's where we want to insert ourselves.
Shao: Before, when you look at shiny stuff, you just want to enjoy [it]. But now you're saying, "How did they make this so shiny?"
Kim: The relationship between us and the boys has changed a lot. They are a big part of the creative process. They really care about this project as well. We don't have a background in music. We're making a boy band! We don't know about music! We just tell our producers and composers [what we want.]
How much further do you think this project can go? And how far down the rabbit hole will you follow it?
Kim: I don't even think about it. It's so obvious for me to just keep going.
Shao: It's reality. If there are a bunch of normal guys who want to be a successful boy band, then the end goal is to be a successful boy band with a bunch of fans and bigger stage and a huge record deal.
Kuroda: Eventually in Korea. That's ultimately our end goal. When we get there, we'll decide what the future will be.
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