Permanent public instructional work, for on-going dispersed participatory actions with an off-set-printed multiple booklet. Booklet designed by Ziga Testen with Moonkyung Park.
Co-commissioned by Gwangju Biennale and Kadist for the 12th Gwangju Biennale: Imagined borders, for Returns, the section curated by David Teh, 7 September – 11 November 2018, Gwangju, South Korea.
Tom Nicholson’s work Stranger at fountain is a permanent public participatory work created for the 2018 Gwangju Biennale, for the section Returns, curated by David Teh. It is an infinite multiple – a free off-set printed artist’s book to take away – distributed both at the Biennale, and as a permanent work in the central entrance space of the May 18 Archive in central Gwangju. Nicholson’s work engages the remarkable history of the Gwangju uprising of May 1980, when citizens resisted widespread violence towards student demonstrators by the South Korean army and took control of Gwangju. For five days (before the army returned to the city and violently wrested back control) Gwangju citizens enacted forms of self-organisation across the city, including extraordinary daily assemblies attended by tens of thousands of people, who gathered around the improvised podium atop the circular fountain in front of the Gwangju Provincial Offices.
Nicholson’s artist’s book presents (in Korean and in English) the extraordinary 15 surviving “statements” held in the May 18 Archive, delivered as speeches – in an epistolary form, addressed to fellow citizens – by activists at that fountain on the days the citizens controlled the city in May 1980. Nicholson’s book begins with a letter written by the artist himself, contextualizing the 15 “statements” that follow, and synthesising interviews he conducted with the activist authors of these “statements” in Gwangju in 2018. Importantly, Nicholson’s epistolary text concludes with an invitation to perform another act of dissemination – to hand the booklet, with its 15 “statements” – to a stranger at that same fountain, an act that precipitates its own form of speech, from one citizen to another, and an alternative model of public commemoration at the site so central to the “assemblies” of 1980.
Nicholson’s initial research for Stranger at fountain addressed the period between 22 and 26 May 1980 (when citizens controlled Gwangju), and modes of self-organisation during this period. The artist examined the ways that words functioned to orchestrate and indeed constitute this new political space.
His interest quite quickly focused upon the remarkable "statements" held in the May 18 Archive, hand-written texts – echoing an epistolary form (‘Letter to the democratic people of Gwangju’, ‘To all the democratic students’, ‘Dear the democratic people who are standing up to protect our city’s freedom and justice’) – that were the scripts for speeches given at the fountain between 22 and 25 May.
The research was developed during a visit to Gwangju in 2018, and through in-depth interviews with Kim Tae Jong, Jeon Youngho, Lee Youn Jung, leading activists in the years before May 1980, who worked against the dictatorship through a clandestine network of student unionists, night school activism (dedicated to the political self-education of workers), Songbaekhoi (a women’s movement) and other democratisation movements, mainly under the cover of night schools and the YWCA; as well as Yoon Kihyun, an important older presence in May 1980 (he was 31) and a prominent figure in the Christian Farmers Group, a clandestine peasant movement organising in the countryside around Gwangju. These people were key protagonists in the self-organising that happened between 22-26 May, and in the communication amongst citizens through assemblies, bulletins and broadcasts, as well as other vital practical forms of self-organisation (food, burials, fundraising, etc). The political processes at the heart of this short period of autonomy are a vital subject for Stranger at fountain, but also a way to think the work’s form, the work’s own processes.
Stranger at fountain is a permanent public participatory work. It is an infinite multiple – a free off-set printed artist’s book to take away – to be distributed both at the Biennale, and as a permanent work in the central entrance space of the May 18 Archive in central Gwangju. Nicholson’s artist’s book presents (in Korean and in English) the extraordinary 15 surviving “statements” held in the May 18 Archive, delivered as speeches – in an epistolary form, addressed to their fellow citizens – by activists at that fountain across the days Gwangju’s citizens controlled the city in May 1980. The artist’s book begins with a letter by the artist himself (addressed "Dear citizen"), which unfolds the nature of his encounters with this material and with Kim Tae Jong, Jeon Youngho, Lee Youn Jung, and Yoon Kihyun, relaying something of the context and importance of these "statements", in straightforward language. This "statement"/ letter by the artist concludes with an invitation: to go to the fountain and to give the reproductions of the 15 statements to a stranger. In other words, the work prompts, or instructs, a small-scale public action by the recipient of the booklet, to give the 15 statements to another at the site of their original utterance (but also to precipitate another act of speaking, towards that stranger).
In this sense, just as the original 15 written "statements" are prompts to words spoken aloud, this statement prompts words spoken aloud, but in this case unscripted, where the person who has taken the booklet and wants to enact its invitation needs to formulate their own relationship to the statements as they gift them to a stranger. One could think about this work as an anti-monumental memorial that deploys the language of the events themselves (the relations between citizens, conducted in public; generosity between strangers; acts of speech prompted by written forms) to initiate a potentially endless distributive work. It's both a way to disseminate the archive into a social field, but also to invite processes of small-scale social constitution that replicate potentially endlessly into the future. If it can be regarded as an anti-or counter-monument, the figures that are displaced to be in front of, rather than upon, that base (i.e. the fountain) are figures true to the fleeting but also endless nature of political acts.
The booklet was designed by Ziga Testen Studio in Melbourne, in collaboration with Seoul-based designer Moonkyung Park.
Nicholson also exhibited the project “I was born in Indonesia” in the same Gwangju Biennale, in the section curated by Gridthiya Gaweewong.