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KBLA Blog

Kreating the Konditions for a Kreative K-Brand

For several years in Alaska in the 1990s, I directed an international new music festival that had me perpetually on the hunt for government grants and corporate sponsors.

by Professor Jocelyn Clark, KBLA

Aug. 2, 2016

Not unlike an American elected official, during these years I spent as much time trying to raise enough money to keep my project running as I did running my project. This was at a time when the state had money left over to support the arts after paying every man, woman, and child a $1,000-$3,000 annual dividend on North Slope petroleum profits. In those days of oil-fired abundance, some new category of publicly funded grant would frequently be announced, sending little organizations like mine skittering from all corners of our sprawling state to fight for a small fresh share of the oil spoils.

At its inception, we had christened our organization “CrossSound,” a musical double entendre that referred to a body of water just north of us—an estuarial melting pot called Cross Sound where fresh water and grit flowing off the shrinking ice in Glacier Bay spill out into and mix with the ocean channel that traverses the bay’s mouth. An “estuarial melting pot” of international influence—this image captured well our aspirations. As in our organizational title, we subsequently aspired to weave local geographical metaphors into everything we did. One year, we titled our program “Refugium,” alluding to a piece of remote habitat occupied by a formerly widespread species (like traditional national musics); another year, “Maroon Settings,” alluding to the isolated Southeast Alaskan communities our festival traveled around to (a la New Music’s isolation amid today’s global pop mainstream). But the level of creativity we reached in coming up with these project concepts would never quite be matched by an equally creative capacity to persuade grant makers to give us enough money. Eventually, after oil prices began to drop and the pipeline flow slowed to a trickle, so did we—but not before producing a series of very successful concerts and gaining some international acclaim in New Music circles.

During the period CrossSound was still alive and well, the National Endowment for the Arts developed the “Creative Communities” grant, intended to support “individuals with grit [working] as change-makers in their communities—using arts and culture as vehicles to drive physical and social transformations.” An organization with grit need not apply. Closer to home around that time, Alaska’s Rasmuson Foundation instituted the “Creative Ventures Fund,” designed to “advance the creative excellence of artists and cultural institutions in Alaska” and “grounded in the Foundation’s belief that, through the arts, we unleash the power of the imagination, stimulate innovation and discover new horizons.” The Creative Ventures Fund’s grant announcement stated the grant maker’s intent “not [to] support the status quo, but encourage organizations to pursue collaborations, tours, commissions of new work, and other creative programming endeavors that have heretofore been difficult to undertake.” Imagine my excitement upon reading those words—I myself couldn’t have crafted a grant better matched to CrossSound’s work. All we were doing at the time was touring, collaborating internationally, and pursuing new ideas through commissioning new works from composers from around the world for new ensembles that combined non-Western soloists and local ensembles of mostly Western instruments. When I applied for the grant, however, I learned that we had been found to be ineligible because our series of concerts, which each year assembled a fresh assortment of international composers and soloists, and local players to create and collaborate together, had been going on for years, ironically rendering us “status quo.” These examples, taken together, demonstrate how support for individual artists working in isolation and encouragement of perpetual newness and experimentation have historically taken precedence over funding entities that have made a long-term commitment to nurturing the conditions for artistic collaboration and creativity.

After 10 years of running CrossSound “on a shoestring,” I had ground myself up into grit so true that Rooster Cockburn would likely have run for his horse in shame and insecurity at the sight of me. After my neighbor fixed the broken wheel on my gayageum case for me, I rolled back over to Korea and got me some health care.

Still here, I watched on July 4th of this year as the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism launched a new national brand: “Creative Korea.” We turned out the neon light on 2002’s “Dynamic Korea” and switched on Korea’s fluorescent new sign. As the Korea.net writers were quick to point out, the logo for Creative Korea, which resembles the national flag, with the words “creative” and “Korea” written one atop the other in red and blue, turned out to be uncomfortably similar to the logo of “Creative France,” which launched in October 2015 in Japan. “Imitation may be the highest form of flattery” when the duplication is respectful and authorized, but, in today’s world, as Melania Trump will be the first to tell you, flat out copying for personal or financial gain just won’t do. However, since, according to the “Korea Herald,” 3.5 billion won (2.99 million dollars) have already been invested in the change from “dynamic” to “creative,” the knockoff logo is destined to be with us for at least as long as the F’s I place on my students’ plagiarized papers will be on their academic transcripts.

So what’s really at stake here? What does Korea gain by branding itself creative like the French (and what do the French have to gain)? Is the nation celebrating the creative spirit of its ancestors—e.g., the invention of Hangeul in 1446? Or are we promoting an aspiration—a creative future? On these questions, the French make themselves clear: “[Creative France] highlights our country’s full range of strengths, skills and savoir faire. And for good reason—France is at the forefront of technology, design, industry and education . . . It’s the story of France today: solid fundamentals enhanced by an outstanding ability to innovate and a constant push to break new ground.” Meanwhile in Korea, a month after the rollout of the new slogan, we have only newspaper photos of young women in retrocotton hanbok, posing in front of the new Creative Korea logo as we await an explanation as to what is really meant by the newly crowd-sourced brand and what will be happening to ensure it becomes truth and not just “truthiness.”

“Creativity” is such a nice, trendy term—the rare word that carries no negative connotations. We all want to join the “creative class.” But how do we get it so that we get there? This is the question the powersthat-be in Korea will have to tackle if they are to make a reality worthy of the brand. Will it be by following the path of the U.S. grant makers cited above and favoring support for individuals and experimentation? Or will sufficient resources be put toward nourishing the conditions for creativity across genres nationwide so as to expand the creative class?

Louis Pasteur, the 19th century French microbiologist who brought us everlasting milk, the germ theory of disease, and legal cheese, famously said, “Chance favors the prepared mind” (“Le hasard favorise l’esprit préparé). In other words, creativity is something you work at. It is not something that comes out of nothing. The same goes for “talent.” While some may believe it to be bestowed by God or to otherwise manifest magically out of the ether, most frequently talent too results from hard work. For the mind to “prepare,” as Pasteur puts it, requires time—and practice. And good growing conditions.

Next to time and practice, in my own experience, the most creative moments are sparked by challenges—challenges presented by a new environment for sure, but mostly from the new people in the new environment who think about things in a different way than I do, who problem solve in a different way than I do, whose grammar and syntax do not line up in the same way that mine do, whose aesthetics are different than mine, and who have a different perception of color and sound than I. When people come together from different backgrounds—and that is to say in real collaboration—stew, not just diversity salad, i.e., two people vibrating separately in their own universes in close proximity— creativity follows.

The collaborative aspect of creativity does not necessarily mean constantly surrounding yourself with people. But something has to be “in the air,” and whatever that is has to be accessible—useable. In the early days of the Internet, for instance, hip-hop made made use of samples from other creators. The song “La Di Da Di” (1984) by Slick Rick & Doug E. Fresh, to take one example, has been sampled more than 500 times—first (according to SnoopDogg) by SnoopDogg (who actually covered it), later by Biggy Smalls, and, most recently, by Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé. In my own field of Korean music, it’s worth remembering that, in this country, where the roles of the musician and the composer were traditionally inseparable, the musician-as-composer did not “compose” but “wove” a musical fabric from the surrounding environment—from strands of sonic “nature.” Methods of transmission made it even more communal. If you look at the history of sanjo, multiple schools (as they would later come to be called) emerged around the same time. Music worked this way in the West as well until the Romantic Period (1780–1910), when suddenly the artist became a “genius,” the work of the genius became an “object,” and copyright laws came into effect.

With the advent of the notion of the single individual genius artist/ inventor came commoditization. Art works once created collectively out of the cultural and intellectual environment, while still manifesting the surrounding world (there is no getting away from this fact, after all), suddenly became the property of the individual, with all credit for the invention of the work given to the individual. This created a problem: unlike communal or natural creations, an individual’s closely circumscribed owned object could be stolen. In response arose the patent. Now, Monsanto is allowed to patent its hybrid seeds, Nestlé is allowed to own the world’s drinking water source, and sanjo has to be labeled with a school name that is a teacher’s name (even though most of the sanjo’s content was memorized from the work of that teacher’s teacher). Elsewhere in the world of indigenous art forms, some Indonesians are legally changing their names to well-known Alaska Native artist names in order to sell their cheap knock-offs on the “Authentic Native Art” market.

A big part of the problem with sustaining creativity in traditional cultures often comes from breaks in transmission imposed by colonialism or any other moments of historical upheaval, such as war. These breaks, during which all resources must be applied to sheer survival, not only disturb the artists but destroy the expertise held by individual audience members. Oncean informed audience disappears, anyone can cash in on the traditional form without consequence. While ticket prices go up, the quality of the product goes down.

“Truthiness” arises out of the same process. As we lose regard for facts, any well-articulated version of reality may be believed. Tourists don’t know the difference between a master Alaskan carver’s work and an Indonesian knock-off. Koreans don’t know the difference between the playing of Sung Geumyeon and anyone else by now. The natural environment from which much of the world’s creative traditions historically took their material is being systematically stripped away. Once the forest is cut down, music (especially traditional music), like a shade plant, loses the canopy that enables it to thrive. The forest’s processes cannot be separated from the processes of the shade plant. Creativity does not grow out of nothing; like all living things, it thrives only under certain essential conditions—e.g., knowledge, a gained familiarity, education (by which I don’t mean schooling, necessarily), hard work, time for hard work, knowledgeable reception of hard work. All of these elements form the creative collective—the incubator that gives birth to those serendipitous moments—solitary and shared—of Eureka! Conversely, lacking the proper conditions, the effort it takes to create in a vacuum can become so overwhelming that the spark fizzles like a sulfur match tip without a strike plate, without oxygen, with only wet logs and rotting kindling. Nothing catches.

Back in the 1990s, CrossSound endeavored to provide an environment wherein creativity could manifest—placing composers, musicians, dancers, puppeteers, and poets of multiple generations, races, genders, and countries in the midst of Alaska’s dramatic natural environment, making them comfortable in the homes of local participants, feeding them, and, perhaps most importantly, providing them time to both commune outdoors and work inside in rehearsals together. In those rehearsals, we inspired each other to awe-inspiring creative heights, which happened when the diverse array of the people we invited came out of the isolation of (and hard work that they had done in) their studios to interact with each other. CrossSound challenged its artists to reach beyond their existing capacities in a new but also safe environment off the radar of the New York Times art critics (they still had those back then) to create something new together. We provided a container for their creativity, and then very often what went on in the created space we provided burned away the container, uniting the organization, the visiting artists, and the community into one creative whole. This model may be worthy of Korea’s consideration, with the Ministry of Culture playing the role of CrossSound, the container comprising the nation’s educational and cultural institutions, and the community becoming the entire country.

If consciously led and properly funded, Korea’s new “creative” mantle will be able to go beyond the brand, reclaiming and expanding on the country’s longstanding, deeply rooted creative heritage. This will best be accomplished by not just paying individuals, top-down, to “represent” the K-brand, but by nurturing the conditions creativity requires, including ensuring the arts are a part of every student’s education—not because they will become artists, but because to learn about the arts is to learn about collaboration, grit, excellence, and novelty, which can be applied in every other field. “Creative Korea” begins with not just providing a matchstick, but drawing the sap and arranging the hotwood, the kindling, and the logs to eventually create a nation of individuals ready to start a fire of ideas under every endeavor they attempt.

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