by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim
When fans of K-pop boy group EXO recently heard about a non-Korean boy band debuting in Korea as “EXP,” they weren’t having it. Especially when they found out that this EXP group would be using the tagline “EXP Planet,” just one letter off from EXO’s “EXO Planet.”
The group was no joke. EXP’s Instagram claimed a week ago that the “first and only NYC-born K-pop band” would be dropping their new single, “LUV/WRONG,” on iTunes very soon. The boy band also announced that it would make its debut at the Columbia University MFA Thesis Show in NYC on April 26. Wait, what?
As it turns out, EXP is the product of a thesis project by a Columbia graduate student, Bora Kim, an interdisciplinary artist and sociologist from Seoul. Kim began the project, titled “I’m Making a Boy Band” (IMMABB), in October 2014 as an “ongoing collective experience, in-depth research, experimentation, filmmaking as well as business endeavor.”
The ideas had already been running through her mind since the success of PSY’s “Gangnam Style” back in 2012. Kim said she was interested in researching how K-pop had finally “made it” in the Western world.
“The Korean pop industry has always appropriated its concepts from the West, and also the West through Japan, until not, and the reverse was a shock for the Korean public,” Kim explains in an interview with Columbia University. “‘Idol Groups’ became national heroes and K-pop became part of a proud national identity. But there is a double standard at play here. … K-pop had been looked down upon until outsiders started to consume it and its related products as well.”
Kim found that K-pop exports were directly tied to an increase in profit for Korean IT products, such as mobile phones–in fact, she says the biggest beneficiaries of the Korean Wave are companies like Samsung and LG.
But why make a boy band?
“I was interested in K-pop and idol groups on this level initially as I was thinking about cultural flow, or the relationship of dominant culture and peripheral culture, and how that is interwoven with one’s identity or one’s national identity,” Kim says. “I wanted to see what would happen if I made American boys into K-pop performers, by teaching them how to sing in Korean and act like Korean boys, and complicate this flow/appropriation even more.”
“Complicating the flow” also meant exploring how masculinity is portrayed in boy groups.
“These boys are tailored to attract straight young females, originally,” Kim says. “but the presentation of their sexuality is very complicated. … For example, a young group of pretty boys with great skin start rapping in a hip-hop music video while wearing a lot of make-up. What does this mean? Who is the target audience? It is totally gender-bending and experimental, but, at the same time, it is very typical, mainstream K-pop.
“And the acceptance of this strangeness (in the eyes of Western audiences) started to happen when Korean economic prosperity reached a point where it was enough for the entertainment industry to produce high-quality pop culture products,” she adds. “Cultural barriers or mistranslation are overcome by the shiny framing/packaging of K-pop.”
Kim’s partners, Karin Kuroda and Samantha Shao, each brought their own expertise and perspectives to the project. Kuroda’s studies focused primarily on art criticism, photography, sculpture and fashion, while Shao studied arts administration and cultural theory at Maastricht University, Netherlands.
“The ‘I’m Making a Boy Band’ project aims to examine critical aspects of pop/business culture through the lens of an artist,” explains Kuroda, who first befriended Kim at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “By asking oneself what it means to assimilate or twist the rudimentary formula in K-pop ‘idol’ culture, this project highlights social issues on a global and personal level.”
Shao and Kim discussed the differences between Asian pop culture–particularly Taiwanese and Korean–with American pop culture, as well as the connection between popular culture and fine arts.
“By changing the working process (of making ‘art’), we intend to re-think and re-define what it means to communicate with the art world and its audience,” Shao says. “Since the main characters of this work are people–not only band members, but also collaborators–we try to challenge ourselves by giving up authorship from time to time.”
Shao adds that she believes IMMABB focuses more on communicating with the audience throughout the process rather than the outcome of the band. The project “welcomes interactions, encourages questions and provokes confrontations.”
All images via Columbia University School of the Arts