Stéphane Segreto-Aguilar is Coordinator of Circostrada Network and Head of Development at ARTCENA. Together with a delegation of several Circostrada Network’s members, he attended both SSAF and PAMS last October 2018, as part of a research trip he conducted to connect with the Korean circus arts and street arts scenes.
For the last five years or so, bilateral relationships between South Korea and European countries have flourished. Examples include the Institut Français’ France-Korea Year in 2015-2016, the British Council’s UK/KOREA Creative Futures initiative in 2017 and the various strategic partnerships implemented with Catalonia, Germany and Finland. In 2018, Europe was given pride of place and asked to present a focus session at the Performing Arts Market in Seoul (PAMS) and at the Seoul Performing Arts Festival (SPAF). Buoyed by this dynamic, the Circostrada network took advantage of this major calendar event to organise a research trip to South Korea in an attempt to gain deeper insight into local issues and meet key figures from the country’s street arts and contemporary circus scene. This is our report on a week in Seoul.
A World in a City
The city of Seoul is located on the Han River and has a population of around 10 million people, with a further 25 million living in the surrounding metropolitan area. As well as being home to nearly half the South Korean population, Seoul is also the world’s fifth most populous city after Tokyo, Jakarta, Dehli and Manila, with a slightly higher population than Shanghai, Mumbai and New York. Over the past 20 years, the ancient capital of the former Kingdom of Joseon has been transformed into a key Asian megalopolis and is a contender for the title of North-East Asia’s largest commercial hub in the face of strong competition from several cities in China and Japan. Buoyed by the economic success generated by the country’s methodical industrial policy pursued since the early 1960s, the city also has designs on strengthening its cultural influence not only in Asia, but around the world.
Ever since poet Do Jong-whan was named Minister of Culture, Sport and Tourism in June 2017, South Korean cultural policy seems to have flourished. A new strategic cultural plan was launched on 16 May 2018 at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) following a year-long process involving the participation of 8,000 experts. Under the banner of an ambitious title (‘Culture Vision 2030’), the government has committed to supporting cultural diversity, promoting artistic creativity and guaranteeing total freedom of expression for artists and cultural organisations
The Korean Wave
Commonly known as ‘Hallyu’, the export of South Korean culture overseas is a phenomenon that dates back to the 1990s. It began in China and now reaches right across the globe. Films, television series, reality TV shows, video games and, of course, K-pop are the spearheads of this strategy, but performing arts are also benefiting from this global prominence. The Performing Arts Market in Seoul
“Unity in Differences”
The Seoul Street Arts Festival (SSAF) is another major annual event that provides the perfect opportunity to see the latest street arts performances and meet professionals from all over the world. The festival began life in 2003 as the Hi Seoul Festival, before refocusing its core mission on promoting street arts in 2013 and changing its name in 2016. It has been supported by the city of Seoul since its beginnings. It is also supported by the Seoul Foundation for Arts & Culture (SFAC), which was created in 2014 with a view to establishing Seoul as the creative capital of the world and encouraging the city’s residents to get involved in the arts. SSAF 2018, designed by Kim Jong-seok, was a four-day event entitled ‘Unity in Differences’. The programme featured 46 performances from 10 different countries, 33 of which were presented as part of the main festival and the other 13 presented in the fringe. The SSAF is an eclectic and bountiful event that covers the entire spectrum of styles and formats in existence, making clever use of a variety of spaces in the historic city centre near Gyeongbokgung Palace. The fantastic range of performances highlights the richness of this festival: the comedy of the CroquikyBrothers and the Long & Short Company, the delicate artistry of Yoo Ji-young with Canon of Proportions, the musicality of De BONGnJOULE with The Road to Heaven, the impudence of the Baram Company with Meat, Pig, the intensity of Theatre Momggol with Impulse, the dramatic force of Elephants Laugh with MULJIL 2, and the blazing prowess of Hwarang Art Pyrotechnics. Audiences are always involved and particularly enjoy performances tinged with wonder, absurdity or irony; they move from place to place, enjoying food purchased between performances from the dozens of street food stands erected for the occasion.
Street arts in South Korea are extremely well funded, structured and dynamic. The contemporary history of this sector begins with the democratisation movements of the 1970s and 1980s, particularly ‘Madanggeuk’, a form of street theatre midway between social satire and observation. The major sporting events at the end of the 1980s
In addition to the Korean Street Arts Association, which is chaired by Yoon Jong-yeon and managed by Yim Jin, there are a number of other key players in the industry. The main one is the Seoul Street Arts Creation Center (SSACC), which is a hub of creativity, production, practice, education and promotion fully devoted to street arts and contemporary circus. Situated on the right bank of the Han River, a good hour from the city centre, it occupies a former pumping station transformed into an immense arts warehouse in 2015, covering around 18,000 m2 . Led by longterm director Dong Hee Cho, the SSACC is mainly active on the following fronts: artistic research and education, the provision of support for artists and new shows, skills development, the promotion of art forms and international exchange. It is also a leading light in the Circus Asia Network (CAN), which has recently united Asian organisations dedicated to the promotion and development of contemporary circus. Like the SSAF Festival, it is supported by the SFAC foundation and will soon open an artistic residency venue on the hillside above the pumping station. Another significant newcomer to the scene is Circus Cabaret, the first contemporary circus festival, held in May 2018, showcasing some European performances as well as several shows by South Korean companies. Major festivals promoting street arts outside of Seoul include the Ansan Street Arts Festival, the Goyang Lake Park Arts Festival and the Gwacheon Festival. Another key player is the Mapo Oil Tank Culture Park, one of the capital’s first multidisciplinary venues devoted to street arts and contemporary circus.
In close collaboration with On the Move