For the past ten years, Korean born Brooklyn-based artist Taezoo Park has been creating work in his ongoing project, Digital Being. By combining discarded machines and other e-waste with digital code, Taezoo reveals “an invisible and formless creature.” These stunning sculptures allow Digital Being to express itself through “atypical movements or other interactions.”
We spoke with Park about the hypothesis of Digital Being, how technology is controlling us (but not how you’d expect), and how he hopes this work might create a better world.
How did you start working with these materials?
I came to New York City in 2008, which was one year before the digital switchover. That’s when the old broadcasting system went from analog to digital, so lots of CRT televisions - analog televisions - were abandoned on the street. I started to collect them. I wanted to give them a new chance to be something different, to give them a new life so you can see them again not just as a television but as an artwork. I started embedding digital code into these abandoned machines and it was the beginning of my entire practice.
Park, Taezoo. Digital Being: TV Being 006+009. 2017-2020. CRT TV Monitor, TV Mount, Pipe, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and LED, 2017-2020
Were you always interested in the aesthetics of technology, or was there something about seeing those televisions discarded that sparked your interest?
Both. Personally I love the old analog style of machines - like Walkman or Watchman. I love the concepts of the 80s and 90s. We loved to think about what the 21st century (would be like). It didn’t actually happen, but it’s still a really interesting idea. I want to keep chasing these ideas as an artist.
We think about a machine as a functional object. When it isn’t working its value is zero so it becomes e-waste. Why do we keep doing that kind of routine?
Park, Taezoo. Digital Being: TV Being 009. 2017. CRT TV Monitor, Mount, Pipe, Arduino, and LED.
"This guy now draws a platonic solid like ancient Greeks, and considers the basic materials that make up the world."
Do you think e-waste feels sad or confused when it’s abandoned?
I feel sad whenever I find it on the street because it looks very pathetic to me. The angle and the shape of the object sometimes (looks like) the television is watching me. (I feel like it’s) trying to say “Please give me a new home,” like Toy Story or Wall-E. I can’t ignore it.
Half of them are still working well, but there are lots of reasons why we abandon these old machines - they’re functionally obsolete, or it’s out of trend, or the infrastructure is changing. We just dump it because we love to buy new products.
Engineers are kind of like craftsmen, building up these machines for efficiency. But from my artistic perspective, whenever I take apart those old machines, the insides look really beautiful - it’s very attractive to use them as art materials. I believe there are more capabilities (in these machines) that we haven’t found yet. A philosopher said that we only develop 1% of our capabilities; 99% is kind of ignored.
So you’re finding the other 99% in this technology that’s ignored by the general consumer?
Right. The shapes of these machines are very attractive. People have noticed and have started to recollect old analog machines like record players and retro style boomboxes, not just for function but for the shape. There’s lots of history connected (to these machines). Those kinds of memories can be part of the other 99%. I hit that memory whenever I show my work. Some member of the audience (might remember the machine) from when they were a very young child. I give them (that experience) and I love to talk about it. And then (we can talk) about why we keep doing this routine, if it’s the right direction for developing technology, or if we can do something else. I’m doing something else.
Park, Taezoo. Digital Being. 2015, Form & Formlessness: Objects and the Body.
There’s something about the technology we’re making now that lacks character.
Before I came to the United States, around 2005, I was really surprised by Google Maps. It was fascinating because I could see the streets of Manhattan with 3D buildings. I thought “oh wow, we can travel (digitally); digital technology will replace everything.” But when I came to New York City, I loved the old aesthetics of the city. Not the glass buildings, but the brick buildings. I loved the smell of the street. I feel like digital technology cannot represent these kinds of buildings.
You’ve explained Digital Being as the memories of abandoned technology. Did you create Digital Being or did you discover it?
I make my Digital Being series as an artist, but whenever I introduce (the work) I pretend I found these machines on the street and brought it to our world. I’m introducing this Digital Being as a researcher. We can think about it in something like Toy Story easily. There’s (the human world) and then another dimension, (the toy world), coexisting. I kind of characterize these abandoned machines like the toys, and I believe their world is existing in the digital arena.
A parallel dimension?
Yeah something like that, but we can’t notice it yet. Like a smart phone - they’re watching us every day, 24 hours a day. As one of the human beings, I believe we need to be aware we are not the master of this technology. I think this technology was pre-existing before human beings. There’s some kind of gravity between planets and that generates an electromagnetic field. That existed before our history, right? We’re just starting to control a small portion of electricity. Yeah, we (figured out) how to use it, but we didn’t create electrical power.
In a very short time we (won’t be able to) control what we made. I want to show how we can wisely use this technology until we reach that point. Most of us, including me, use our smartphones without any consciousness. As an artist I need to point out that the technology is surrounding us. We are not the master of this technology, but we are kind of the inventor, and we need to find a good way to use it.
You’ve mentioned Toy Story as a reference point for the relationship between humans and technology. Are you interested in movies like The Matrix or The Terminator that show technology evolving past humanity?
I don’t believe the situation in (those movies) would happen. In my statement about Digital Being I (used the word) “invisible” because it’s more like a pile of code (controlling us). Amazon recommends us new products related to what we purchased. Uber replaced and digitized a service. We’re just gradually replacing previous technologies. I wanna (show that) technology invisibly affects our life, not like in The Terminator or The Matrix.
I love this period because we aren’t dominated by the simulation 100% - we have an opportunity to choose. You can (choose to) not use your smartphone or log out of Facebook, Instagram, or Gmail. But to accommodate each other (socially) we need this tool.
Park, Taezoo. Digital Being: TV Being 010-01. 2017, Made in NY Media Center. Steel Shelf, Relay, Arduino, Raspberry Pi.
As electronics have become more integrated into everyday life, art has begun to treat digital media as the subject. In some ways the Digital Being project does the opposite; it uses technology as the material to make abstract art.
I did a collaboration with researchers from the department of Social Science at Cornell University about electronic waste from 2013 to 2015. They stressed another way to make a digital product. (Rather than) sketching, collecting materials, and combining them, (you can) take apart previous materials, spread it around, and collect without any sketch what you like - it can be shape, it can be color, it can be anything.
For mass production, you might need a really effective and efficient plan, but as an artist I don’t need that. I just collect what I like and just combine it. As an artist, just watching the circuit board and connection of the wires is very interesting. Lots of people mention it looks like a city.
When you were a child, what did you imagine the future would be like?
I think if I wasn’t an artist I might be an animator. In my childhood I was surrounded by robot animations; giant robots fighting each other in space, there’s war between this planet and this planet and this galaxy and this galaxy. From that point I started to think about what is the relationship between the sun and the earth, the moon, the other planets in the solar system, and how this solar system might affect another solar system. I believe the human being is the animal of (the environment surrounding it). My world was surrounded by robots and the planets. I kept thinking about (being) part of this solar system and what will happen when I die. If I’m part of this universe, some (of my) components can combine and become part of some kind of animal or plant or some kind of soil. There might be very, very few chances I can be something else eventually. That was my entire world, the question during my childhood.
If physics says that energy can’t be created or destroyed, it’s possible that Digital Being is energy from something else in the distant past.
Right. I am just one human being who doesn’t have power, but as an artist I can keep trying to make this world better, which is a naive idea. But when I reform from that long process into society, if there is society, I want to see something better. That is a good present for my future life.