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KRISTA KIM, fluorescently taking back our screens

Interview by Jacob Gries

Continuum, Times Square, New York
Continuum, Times Square, New York

It’s a gift and a curse – We cling to this phrase to explain away character traits and quirks of personality that manifest in helpfully unhelpful ways a bit too often – deep sleeping, relentless striving, insatiable curiosity. But its best utilisation is perhaps as a logline, or a credo, for our ever-evolving, technologically-infused world. 

On the one hand, beaming into a place halfway around the world through a pocket-sized piece of glass is an amazing gift – an incomprehensible feat of modern technology that offers the theoretical promise of enhanced human connection. But that’s just it. That utopian vision – more empathy, a greater understanding of different people and cultures, a world where we can forge meaningful and impactful connections across time and space – remains highly theoretical. It feels as if we’re currently lost at sea – wishing, hoping, and praying for technology to fulfil this hypothetical promise. 

In too many ways, screens have become our enemies. They’ve monopolised our attention and, by association, our lives and now possess a somewhat frightening amount of control over what we do and when we do it. We stare directly at them for hours every day, handing our time over to algorithmic images and words that are more likely to fill us with rage than happiness. 

Krista Kim knows all of this; she’s been aware of this harrowing future for some time. The self-proclaimed leader and creator of the tech-ism movement, she’s taken on the monumental task of melding art and technology in a way that will help us better relate to one another – across states, countries and continents. She believes that screens and technology can usher us into a better future if we approach it the right way. 

From that ideology, Continuum was born – a striking, colour-shifting, screen-based installation that asks its viewers to stop, look, and just exist at that moment in time. Kim’s reliance on colour gradients is an allegory for our modern existence – representing human fluidity, blending barriers, evolution, and growth. 

Continuum has travelled the globe in the last year, from China to Times Square, with stops in Toronto, Miami and Los Angeles. For the entire month of February, Kim’s vision commandeered almost every screen in New York City’s capitalistic centre, stopping pedestrians in their tracks during the last three minutes of each day. Walk around just about any city today and you’re exceedingly likely to see heads in phones and headphones in ears – a real-world display of technology’s ever-tightening grip. 

Kim’s singular vision acknowledges this inevitability and leans into it. We may not know what the future holds, but we’re well aware that technology will have a say in what it looks like. By walking confidently into that vast unknown, Kim has become a pioneer – the de-facto leader of a movement that seeks to use art to understand the real, changing world. The Continuum installation is just the beginning. 

How did Continuum come together?

I began this project in 2017 – my first installation was in Jacksonville, Florida, at a techism exhibition. Then the second installation, in 2018, was in Paris for Nuit Blanche, a night art festival. And when I sold the Mars House, I used the proceeds to finance [Continuum in] Toronto and Miami and China and Los Angeles. So it’s been ongoing, but Times Square was a great opportunity. 

I applied to Times Square Arts in 2019, and they contacted me this January saying, “We’d love to show your work. We know it’s been a while since we’ve been in contact, but COVID was crazy, and we just feel that we need your art now.”

And it was the first time that they had 90 screens participating in the same program. Times Square is such an iconic place – the heartbeat of commercialism and capitalism in the world – but I think COVID revealed that we need to shift to a more balanced state of awareness, with a more balanced appetite for information.

I went incognito one night while I was there, and it was terrific when Times Square just fell silent. Everyone just stood there, and many people just looked up and soaked it in, just shocked at what was happening. So Continuum in Times Square. I think it was just great timing.

What does the future hold for Continuum in terms of new locations and its overall scope? 

I want to expand it. I want to expand the allotted time – it’s only three minutes, but I got feedback from people saying they wished it was longer and wished it was permanent. I want it to be in multiple cities around the world simultaneously. My vision is to turn it into a worldwide movement – its universality is key. Continuum has always instilled the message that technology should exist for humanity, creating that paradigm shift in people’s minds. That’s one of the key things I want people to take away.

People in the entertainment world spend much time bemoaning the “death of the monoculture.” Hence, the fact that this could be shared across continents as a monocultural event is intriguing. 

We’ve all been through COVID – we’ve been through collective trauma, right? So we all have that in common. So why not create something beautiful to carry a positive message into the future. We’re so individualised and compartmentalised right now. We need to come together, and I think Times Square was such a perfect example of that because it was freezing in New York in February, but so many people still came out. 

Your background is interesting, not many artists are poly-sci majors. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

I studied political science at university because it was a happy medium; my parents wanted me to be a doctor. But, I could write, to a certain degree, so I thought, ‘why not journalism? I think I can handle that.’ But my passion has always been art. I’ve always had a very inquisitive mindset about the entire world – always curious, always daydreaming, and living in my world. That’s what my teachers used to say in elementary school. 

Studying political science taught me about the world’s political structures and power dynamics, which revealed a lot about how the world works and how power determines the outcomes of our lives. Democracy and free will came from philosophy – from Voltaire and Diderot – and America became the embodiment of these ideas in many ways. These incredible concepts about how ideas change the world are also art because philosophy is art. 

When did you stumble upon this digital [art] fascination? 

I moved to Seoul, where I wrote for the Korea Herald, the city’s English-language newspaper. I worked in the culture section at a time when South Korea was just starting to investigate its global presence, its global contribution to art and film, and music in particular. But I didn’t find myself as an artist until I moved to Japan in 2005. I moved to Tokyo and visited Kyoto for the first time that year. And Kyoto changed my life – it’s a place where you really feel the confluence of higher states of consciousness, philosophy, and the highest practices of partisanship.

I was amazed that Kyoto made me feel zen, just because the environment was zen. And in front of the Ryōan-ji temple garden, I truly began to understand the concept of zen art and zen-consciousness. The zen garden, and the empty space between the rocks, imbued themselves into my own consciousness. It’s a mirror of the mind – so the garden is me. I become the garden. That was a huge revelation for me, and I’m obsessed with Kyoto because of that incredible life-changing encounter, which now informs who I am as an artist. 

I want to create a zen experience in the digital realm. When I started my Masters of Fine Arts program in Singapore in 2012, I was scoping out the digital landscape of our lives because the smartphone was very new at that time. I had only had one for a couple of years, but I could see how it was taking over the world and informing our culture because of these social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp that began to inform how we interact. 

While I was studying political science, I studied Marshall McLuhan. I began to see how his theories were relevant to our entrance into the digital landscape and the digital world. I observed digital media, especially social media, and I knew we were screwed because it reinforces very shallow narcissistic egocentric behaviour. You’re not facilitating dialogue and consensus.

We’ve become tribal and have let information and algorithms separate us, even though we’re more connected than ever through technology. I want to clear out the noise and use digital medium to communicate the importance of mindfulness, silence, and meditation.

And I think we need a counterbalance to the relentless stimuli that these digital devices are constantly feeding us – it’s not natural, it’s not healthy and mental health is key in a healthy society. Each individual should practise mindfulness to collectively create a society based on dialogue, consensus and compassion. Continuum is a project that brings people together. It’s an expression of compassion, well-being, and ‘let’s take a break, let’s clear the noise.’ 

Some people might wonder how tiny moments of mindfulness can have a substantial, positive impact on everything going on in the world. That moment in the garden seems like a time when you were detached from all technology, but now everyone is “plugged in” all the time, so how do we navigate that? Can we have it both ways? 

The people who entered Times Square entered into a sublime, collective experience, and I think that’s important. Because when people just stop, and the advertisements freeze, you become stuck in time, and you realise that maybe constant exposure to all these ads is unnatural. Then that takes you down a deeper path, to discover your silence, your own space – to ask questions, to realise that maybe a silent moment, or meditation, would be good. 

Even the zen garden – it’s just a garden but makes you contemplate the practice of meditation. And that’s something that I think we need in the digital realm, to say, ‘What if I practice meditation? Would it make me feel good? Is it something that would take me down a path where I start to feel something different?’ Of course, human curiosity takes you to different places, but if my experience in the zen garden brought me to this place, then surely – for at least a handful of people – Continuum could do the same. 

How do you deal with different interpretations of your art – of people taking things from it that you might not have expected or intended? 

When I create, I don’t try to control the art has a life of its own. That’s the nature of art; I can’t prevent people from co-opting it. But what I can do is create moments that communicate my intention. So, for example, when I went incognito in Times Square, I could tell that some people were feeling in a meditative state – some people were taking pictures, of course, and others were really in the zone. Still, everyone was quiet and contemplative during those three minutes together. It’s unique. 

Colour gradients occur in nature, and through tens of thousands of years of evolution, we’ve always looked at the sky. The sun, the sky, and the colours of gradients open our minds and physiologically allow us to breathe. And there’s something about that deep genetic response to colour and light that’s universal. So I’m plugging into very lizard-brain reactions to colour and light, which forces us to relax. That’s what inspires me – the fact that we all have the same response to colour. And I’m always trying to present on the largest screens possible [laughs]: the larger, the better and the better the response. 

Have you received any pushback from older people in the art industry – from those who might not believe that tech and art belong together? 

I remember I was at a dinner with an art dealer in Hong Kong in 2011 – I talked about my digital art and showed it to him. He upset me and said, “This is not art. If you ask me my humble opinion, what you’re creating is not art.” He didn’t like digital, didn’t find it attractive, or had a lot of contempt for it. 

Do you think it’s just an issue of unfamiliarity?

The establishment will always ignore or dismiss you when you’re doing something new. But change is inevitable, especially when you’re talking about digital. The art world is very traditional, but they realise that they have to shift, pivot, adapt, or become irrelevant. Post-COVID, no gallerist can deny that digital art is a new medium – no one can deny that now. Ever since Beeple sold his $69 million NFT, it’s been undeniable that major change is happening. 

Both the crypto and NFT movements have been sold, seemingly, as these egalitarian things that are going to open up new worlds to the “regular” person. But then there’s been pushback saying that crypto’s rise and popularity is just concentrating more money in the pockets of those who already have a disproportionate share. So is this digital revolution going to be something that actually opens new doors? 

100%. The pushback is interesting because the current system does not serve the people – the average person on the street’s opinion means nothing in the current political system. But the Metaverse will become a new frontier – for the economy, politics, social systems, and education. Everything we do in our real lives will have Metaverse integration when you think about this new reality. Eventually, we’re going to have such powerful hardware that it will be able to integrate into our lives as a digital layer. That’s the Metaverse, right? And the Metaverse is powered by NFTs because they hold value. So we can own digital assets, and equity, within the Web3 system – the new internet. 

What would you say to the people out there who aren’t necessarily tech-adopters or tech-sceptics? The ones who might be nervous about specific companies holding their data and intellectual property, how would you assuage some of those concerns? 

The beauty of Web 3 is that the creator owns their IP and can monetise their own IP. But, unfortunately, the tech companies do not own your data – it’s all about sovereignty, democracy and free will. That’s why the Metaverse needs to be open and interoperable. 

Now the problem with Facebook is it’s a closed-garden concept. Why would I participate when they own all my personal pictures, family photos, and data? The culture of Web 3 is, ‘I’m going to own my own data.’ And Facebook can pay me when they want to monetise it and sell it to other third parties. 

It’d be great to get to that point where it’s more of a meritocracy. 

We will. The architecture and the technology already exist; it’s happening right now. If people are given access to the system, it will work – everyone will go there. The Metaverse is a place where humanity can be elevated. It’s all about the power of intention, and I want to use the Metaverse for education, wellness and health, art and elevating human consciousness. 

It’s all about what you create, and people will create an experience economy in the Metaverse. It’s about the community – brands, artists, and organisations. This human-centred approach to the Metaverse and how it will be built out will make all the difference. For example, instead of creating a stupid shopping mall, why not create a safari in Africa that people can purchase as an NFT to save the white rhino? Let’s think outside the box. There are so many ways to harness this immersive experience – to educate, build compassion, and build economies. 

That human-centred approach could help many people realise the potential of this thing and might make them less scared of it. 

There’s no reason to be scared. People will no longer be passive consumers – they can be conscious co-creators. DAOs will become so powerful, and you’ll be able to create your own. DAOs are decentralised autonomous organisations. It’s like a GoFundMe group on the blockchain. Everything’s transparent. You can govern projects. Say I want to create a civil rights DAO – an education platform where people can go back in time in the Metaverse and attend Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I can create that as an NFT education platform. That’s how kids are going to learn. 

I’m going to make Continuum a global DAO, and we’re going to make sure it’s nonprofit – it’s going to have a life of its own to expand. I want it to be like a zen garden. When you visit Tokyo, there are zen gardens all over the place, in the middle of the hustle and bustle, and it’s so good for you. So that’s something I want to do, is to have these installations in places where people go – permanent installations in public spaces. 

People created a DAO to purchase the constitution – the original constitution auctioned off by Sotheby’s. They put together the DAO, and together they raised around $40 million. They lost the auction, but still, it was so impressive because they created that DAO in under a week. We can get groups together to target real issues, like environmental sustainability. So activism, real-world action, governance – creating economies from experiences, knowledge, and education-the Metaverse. 

What is the chief enemy of creativity?

Stress. That’s why I practice transcendental meditation twice daily. Without it, it’s difficult to both maintain a flow of ideas and get into a focused mindset to create. 

You couldn’t live without…


(Media courtesy of the artist)
On Key

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