A 56-page publication on Mikhail Karikis’s project SeaWomen which includes colour images, a conversation between the artist, the audio-culture theorist and composer David Toop and the art critic and poet Cherry Smyth, an interview with Dr Anne Hilty about the work of the South Korean seawomen (haenyeo) in the context of contemporary ecological feminism, and an essay by Mikhail Karikis. Designed by Marit Munzberg, London.
future perfect: ISBN 978 0 9557361 2 4
The Breath Sounds of the SeaWomen of Jeju
A quest central to my art work has been to research the reasons for the production of vocal sounds which are beyond language and its rules, and the meanings we attach to the ‘nonsense’ sounds we invent. Squeaks, shouts, whistles, sighs, gibberish, jargon, abbreviations, cries, yells etc. are heard in different work environments but make no sense to those outside the specific contexts where they occur. I would like to think of these sounds as somewhat anarchic, as rebels. They occupy an outsider’s position in relation to the rules of language which linguists call syntax. Syntax is an ancient Greek word that denotes order and is used in the military. Syntax is the army of language that tells us where every word and sound must be positioned in a sentence. But we do not always obey the rules of syntax. I think that the sounds we produce which operate outside and beyond language, which subvert syntax and question the army of language suggest a form of de-militarisation of language.
One community whose sounds often fall outside everyday language is the haenyeo community on Jeju island. I was visiting the island with a South Korean artist-friend because she told me it had an astounding number of 380 volcanoes – all extinct. As we were driving along the jagged coast I heard a high-pitch sound that resembled something between a whale signal and a bird-cry. The sound was wafting toward us from the sea where I saw a small pod of black swimming silhouettes. I had never seen or heard so many seals before. I stopped the car and announced that I was going to observe the seals. My friend rolled her eyes and said: they are humans. As I approached the shore, the black silhouettes and their extraordinary sounds became more mysterious.
Significant as a group but little known outside South Korea, the haenyeo are female sea-workers on the North Pacific island of Jeju – a small patch of volcanic land floating between South Korea, China and Japan. Operating outside the currents of modernization, the haenyeo are an ancient and fast-vanishing community that now consists predominantly of sixty to ninety-year-old women who dive to depths of up to twenty meters with no oxygen supply to catch seafood, collect seaweed and find pearls. This is a gendered profession practiced only by females. There are several reasons for this. A physiological explanation is the distribution of fat in women’s bodies, which insulates them against the cold and allows them to stay in the sea for as long as eight hours even during the coldest winter months. A cultural reason is the attitude toward exposing the flesh and nudity, which was considered to be degrading and was reserved for poor women of low social status; the haenyeo profession was a social stigma. A socio-political factor which contributed to the growth of this women-only profession, paradoxically, is the sexism in Confucian law, which, until the beginning of last century did not recognise female labour, excluding the heanyeo from taxation. Thus, the diving women engaged in a low-status profession and worked against the will of the state, but brought their untaxed income back home.
A haenyeo may dive up to eighty times a day. Each dive lasts up to two minutes and is punctuated by a combination of sounds, including a high-pitched breathy shriek or whistle; an arguably spontaneous ‘vocal firework’ bursting out of the mouth, which one might mistake for a dolphin or a bird call. At once alarming and joyous, this sound is as thin as a blade marking the horizon between life and death. The diving women make a living by constantly negotiating the limits of that which sustains them, their breath. But they come prepared. They are equipped with the sumbisori: an ancient breathing technique, which has been practiced for centuries. It was taught by one generation to the next, when new girls started diving at the young age of eight or nine.
The little research that exists on the physiology of the sumbisori reveals that the technique entails exhaling very rapidly all the carbon dioxide accumulated in the body, and quickly inhaling fresh oxygen. The lungs of the haenyeo shrink from the pressure in the depths, and hungry for air when the diver resurfaces, they expand, causing a violent inhalation and a high-pitched wheezy whistling gasp. These sounds occupy high frequencies above the noise of the sea and are easily identifiable. The haenyeo have limited vision above water resulting from the accumulation of condensation in their underwater masks or because of high waves. Therefore, when the women work in the sea, the sounds of the haenyeo could be said to function as aural signals and acoustic location markers which inform the rest of the diving group of each other’s location. Also, to the trained ear of a haenyeo, each sumbisori has a distinctive sound; it is thus a unique acoustic signature, a sonorous ‘identity card’ for each haenyeo, which is produced in the individual mouth and body of each woman.
The sumbisori with its aural production is a work skill – a specific craft which, until at least the 1970s, a young hanyeo began to learn as a young girl and took years to perfect. Like a carpenter who teaches his craft to his son, a haenyeo taught the craft of breathing and diving to her daughter. Therefore, practiced only by females and passed on from an older woman to a younger one, the sumbisori is a gender-specific skill that is trans-generationally transmitted, creating an inter-generational sonic bond that ties the community and functions as a sonic signifier of their professional identity.
The professional identity of the haenyeo is connected with the production of unique sounds and vocal practices which are significant not only for the women divers but the entire island, as the subtlety of the meaning of the word sumbisori reveals. In a conversation with the haenyeo researcher Dr Cha HyeKyoung, she informed me that the word sumbisori, literally translated as breath-sound, is also parallel to the word ‘overcoming.’ What did the haenyeo have to ‘overcome’? The haenyeo were significant motivators of the anti-Japanese resistance movement last century and witnessed the large loss of the male population on the island after the fall of Japanese rule when American and South Korean forces massacred those suspected of supporting the reunification with North Korea. It is therefore impossible to listen to the sounds of the sumbisori, which are so close to the limits between life and death, without thinking of these traumatic events on Jeju island. Beyond its physiological necessity, the sumbisori also becomes charged with communal trauma and the working through of suffering. I think of the bodily sounds of the sumbisori as a complex cultural sound-object. It is the product of a women’s subculture operating within a specific political, geographical and historical specificity. The sumbisori has the potential to operate as a marker of a distressing historical event, and as a non-verbal transmitter of memory, resistance, survival and of rising above difficult circumstances.
Recent statistics reveal that the haenyeo community, which comprised thirty thousand women forty years ago, is now on the brink of disappearance. In the 1970s it was the leading economic force on the island, creating an economic and social system in which women occupied leading roles – a glimpse of matriarchy in an otherwise patriarchal and sexist Korean society. But the scale of fishing has changed radically since then, while the women insist on traditional and sustainable (and for some eco-feminist) practices outside the mainstream of industrialization. In addition, water pollution and the warming of the seas have diminished haenyeo’s profits, and occupational hazards (such as the decompression sickness, or drowning by getting caught in vast stray finishing nets in the Pacific) prevent it from being a popular career choice. In parallel, there are no encouraging economic circumstances organized on a national level that could transform the future of this profession and provide the right incentives for younger women to engage in it. Certainly, the older haenyeos whom I interviewed invested their money in their daughters’ education, so that the younger generation of women would not have to experience the same hardships. Subsequently, the profession is declining as the old haenyeo die out and it is hard to envisage the aural practices of the haenyeo community, which form a unique sonic subculture interconnected with skill, without their regular professional practice at sea. The vanishing sounds of their community – songs, debates, communal bathing, the submisori etc – make little sense divorced from the women’s sustainable work, their reversal of traditional gender-roles, their deep sense of community and egalitarianism, their collective economics, and sense of professional identity and unique purpose in later age.
However, as each inhalation is followed by an exhalation, the work practiced by the haenyeo is in a state of perpetual incompletion – a dual movement of possession and non-possession, of a ‘within’ and a ‘without.’ This is being. Being negotiating a vacuum. Becoming filled and becoming empty. This is what the sound of the haenyeo breathing technique suggests – becoming full of oxygen and life, and letting go of life. Like being pregnant and giving birth; holding the mysteries of labour and life-bearing. This esoteric dimension of their community is best expressed in the shamanic practices of the haenyeo.
In the end, in my search to find the meaning of the sounds of the diving grandmothers of Jeju, I heard a rebellious sound that operates beyond the rules of language, and is created outside popular conventions. I heard an ancient craft and a trans-generational bond, a cultural sound-object and a transmitter of memory and resistance. I heard an acoustic signature of a community and of a professional identity, its fun and its purpose. The activities of the sea-women of Jeju provide an unparalleled representation of the elderly female body as one which has agency, is active, productive and dynamic. And their sounds are a sonic composition of the communal – of a self-organised trans-vocal democracy. The haenyeo are showing us (men and women) a hopeful model of purposeful existence that is beyond the capitalist mainstream.
SeaWomen (haenyeo): community, politics and change
An exchange between the cultural health psychologist Dr Anne Hilty and the artist Mikhail Karikis
MK: Anne, at the start of this project (SeaWomen), before I even knew there was going to be a project, you created contacts between local Jeju experts and myself, and transmitted to me information and specialist knowledge on the culture of the island and the haenyeo subculture. I am interested in the politics and ethics of generosity, and the trust in sharing knowledge, information and contacts. Working in the field of the arts, which is largely defined by a constant demarcation of who is inside and who outside, I was pleasantly surprised by your attitude. Do you think that this is connected with your profession and area of research? Or might it also have to do with the politics of being a foreigner and the desire to create a sense of community?
AH: I think my eagerness to share knowledge of Jeju and local contacts is certainly related to my position as a foreigner/outsider studying the local culture, although I don’t know if it relates to a sense of community – as I am building that with locals themselves. Perhaps more significant is the fact that my background is in psychology, and my cultural heritage American – the former, about freely sharing knowledge and ideas; the latter, an immigration-based culture that tends toward openness to strangers.
MK: I’d like to persist on the subject of community. On Jeju I was introduced to members of a group of women who are educated and have activist and feminist concerns. In fact some of them have good contacts with the haenyeo or research the haenyeo community. How does this community of women relate with that of the haenyeo? How do other contemporary women on the island (please excuse my generalisation) relate to the older generation of sea-women? Do they interact and in what contexts?
AH: I think that the local feminists, scholars and researchers of women’s studies are keenly interested in the haenyeo subculture as a model of ‘eco-feminism’ – although the haenyeo themselves, strong and independent as they are, would disagree with that label. Generally, however, social strata also come into play, as the haenyeo – while immensely knowledgeable about the marine and agricultural environment – are generally not educated or particularly interested in matters outside of Korea or even Jeju. On this basis, while the educated urban women tend to have great respect for the haenyeo, the two groups don’t identify very closely or interact with one another.
MK: When I was on Jeju, I noticed that there are polarised perceptions of the haenyeo profession. There is a sense of pride and a distinct professional identity shared by the haenyeo, but many from outside that community greeted my interest in the diving women with amusement or even surprise. Is there a social stigma attached to the haenyeo profession? Why do you think people were amused by my research interest?
AH: Among Jeju people there is a deep awareness of the present ‘social (touristic) value’ of the haenyeo and the interest of outsiders; the group has been studied, filmed, photographed and written about extensively over the past decade or so. I think that your research was unique, however, in that you were focused on sound; also, as you are a ‘Westerner’ and male, you aren’t the typical researcher. As to social stigma, the haenyeo (as well as fishers and farmers) are doing what’s known in Korea as ‘3D’ work (dirty, dangerous, and demeaning), and thus conceptualised as part of the lower, uneducated class of manual labour.
MK: What are your particular interests in the haenyeo community and what role do you assume in relation to their culture, its local and wider context?
AH: From the viewpoint of strong, independent women who in many social and economic ways have led their communities in Jeju, I am interested in their influence on Jeju culture overall. Also, as they were involved in demonstrations for independence from Japanese colonization in the earlier twentieth century, they have had a political role that also interests me. In particular, however, I am concerned with their immense marine knowledge, their status as a dying profession and what that means culturally. It is a commonality among societies which, as they modernise, they lose traditions that bind them in community; to witness this process of change and the delicate balance involved is for me both a privilege in terms of its significance, and a grieving for lost indigenous cultural features and wisdom across the globe.
MK: Could you give a brief description of your activities as a cultural health psychologist and how you employ your skills with regard to the haenyeo subculture?
AH: I am here as a social science researcher with a local cultural organisation. Last year, I wrote nearly a hundred articles and a small book on Jeju culture; this year, I am engaged in extensive field research to expand my knowledge base from one of breadth to depth. Specifically, I am a student in the ‘haenyeo hakgyo’ – women divers’ school – to learn firsthand about their profession, and prepare myself for further research into the haenyeo profession and community. I am also trekking around the circumference of Jeju observing and chatting with local folk, including haenyeo, as often as possible. I hope to contribute to the diving women’s preservation, and the world’s honouring of their knowledge and skill, in whatever ways possible, particularly in light of their historically low position in society.
MK: How do you think art could relate with the haenyeo and vice versa?
AH: Art is such a universal means of communication, evoking emotion and impressions by providing visual and/or audial stimuli. Even more than words and information, I think all the arts have a great role to play in the preservation and/or memorialization of this unique indigenous wisdom and practice.
Dr Anne Hilty & Mikhail Karikis, 2013
In Conversation with David Toop & Cherry Smyth
David Toop: How did you come across the haenyeo community? It’s a remote place and quite an obscure phenomenon.
Mikhail Karikis: I have a Korean artist friend (Ahn SungHee) whom I’ve known for almost twenty years, and who, on various occasions, invited me to South Korea. We were driving along the coast of Jeju island when I first heard the extraordinary sound of the diving women… It was the sound that intrigued me. At first one cannot identify what it is, if it is produced by seals, by birds or humans.
My initial encounter with the haenyeo is reflected in the show: the visitor is immersed in sound before s/he moves to the second room of the installation displaying the video.
Cherry Smyth: But do they really see where the sound is coming from? There is an intriguing gap in this unusual animal/mechanical whistling sound. As a viewer I yearn to see them come up and go ‘wooo’; I want to see the shape of their mouths.
This relates to how we may detect pleasure in the female body. It’s much more invisible than in the male body. You have made a deliberate choice to not show the moment they produce that sound. Is it partly to do with gender? Is it a disguising? The work raises these questions because that moment floats and we need to assume when it happens.
MK: I think of sound as a kind of migrant; the moment it’s produced it’s already somewhere else. Its exact location is unclear. As I talk, my voice is in my body but at the same time there is a journey – it’s in my chest, my mouth, my head, your bodies and in the space. Similarly, it is unclear where exactly the women’s sound is physically located. I would be inaccurate and voyeuristic to show where it is coming from. I would also be denying its ontology and journey.
CS: What the diving women of Jeju do is arduous and physical. They are underwater for up to two minutes and dip down to twenty meters. When they emerge from the water they are transformed. Their breath becomes a transcendent form of sound. I am relating the invisibility of that moment with the female orgasm. In pornography there is the ‘cum shot’ for men, but for women there has always been the question of ‘what is it and where is it?’ The discretion in SeaWomen is intriguing. It questions the authority of the director, artist, composer, and you decide to not go with an ethnographic gaze, and not tell us what to do. This is one of the very tensions in it: it isn’t didactic and those gaps recur in different ways in the piece.
The French novelist Margarite Duras talks about wanting to see a film which abandons the film, and to me there is some level of abandonment in this work. What does it take for you to abandon the conventions of voice-overs and subtitles, of tying meaning down? You don’t translate the rowing song for us and if we don’t read the notes, we probably don’t know what that high-pitched noise is. It remains quite alien and the meaning keeps hovering. Were you fighting against a need to explain?
DT: This is also emphasised by the presentation. You are looking through this door, so there is the feeling that you are really seeing through a door to another world. All the cultural and gender differences are emphasised by this configuration; it’s like saying ‘I’m an outsider to this’. What we are left with, is the non-specific information of sound. The discrepancy between the specifics of, say, an anthropological approach is completely countered by the fact that we are also immersed in the rather vague world of sound.
MK: The information sound provides is specific, but its specificity differs from that of visuals – it’s not explicit. If one really listens to what is happening in the sound installation, all the clues are there. For example we hear voices interacting; sometimes we hear a multitude of noisy voices, sometimes one voice speaks out, or two voices engage in conversation. From what we know from our own personal experience, we can assume that we are listening to some sort of debate, its structure and dynamics. This is what I am interested in: the sonic composition of a democratic debate. The particulars of the discussion are not relevant here, but obviously they are significant to them – they are talking about economics, unionisation and territory. We are able to hear the sonic composition of their democratic debate because we do not understand what exactly is being said.
MK: When I was already there. I was working with an interpreter, Dong-Hak. In the process, my passion to discover more about the haenyeo community passed onto him. He began talking to the women and the researchers we met to also discover things for himself. At the beginning he was translating all the time, but after a while the dynamics changed. He was often ‘buying me’ time; while he was engaging with them, I was able to observe their interactions, habits and environment, and through him they all became more accepting of me. This is when the subtitles were dispensed with, when I realised that in order to observe, interact and understand, one does not need absolutely every bit of linguistic information.
Also the kind of questions I was asking the women sometimes had no explanations. A reply to my question ‘Why are you making this sound?’ was ‘I’m coming out of the water, I am exhausted and breathe’; it is a fair response but does not explain the particularity of the kind of sound produced. The researcher Dr Cha Haek-Young suggested that it is not necessarily a physiological necessity to produce that specific whistling sound. But I wanted to find out how and why the haenyeo make this sound, the ways in which it is learnt and transmitted, as well as what it means culturally.
DT: There is a whole study of how music is associated with work and embedded in its rhythms – maybe the sound of the haenyeo is an extension of that. If you were doing a different sort of project, that would be an avenue to go down, but maybe not so interesting as this one, which actually admits that it is impossible to get a definite answer.
What is important is the texture of what is going on and the auditory structure which we hear far more clearly when we don’t know the verbal meanings, which after all may be irrelevant to us. This is also a far more visceral way of engaging with the work.
MK: I search for a humanist, visceral and embodied way to engage with my subject matters. That was the reason I had not a single haenyeo portrait photograph even after returning from my second journey. I needed to transform the process of depicting them into something more than taking a snapshot; something more embodied, which would consider the ethics of their representation without turning them into exotic or ethnographic curiosities. So I invented a little ritual in which I held my breath and painted their faces; this gave me the time-frame within which I painted each portrait, and a point where their work and my work converged. Holding my breath while painting linked my practice as a performer with my image-making practice, and created a way to relate to their work as divers holding their breaths.
CS: It also created a link to the language of breathing, which is central in your work.
MK: Yes, as well as to the liquidity of the paint, which relates to the haenyeo’s elemental connection with water, and the liquidity of my saliva when I perform.
CS: The women use the rowing song to help them work the boat, but when the engines came in they did not need to sing. Do they still pass the songs onto the next generation of women? Is that culture important to them although its function has changed?
MK: The song we hear in the installation was performed in their work camp. Given their old age, many haenyeo belong to a generation that rowed in the past. The rowing song is no longer functional in a direct sense of coordinating a rowing action, but I think it has a different kind of function – it’s an affirmation of community.
In terms of younger women engaging in this, well, there are none who would learn this organically as part of work. The new generation do not see being a haenyeo as a career option. In the past songs were a big part of this profession, not least because it is closely connected with shamanic practices, and song, not necessarily just work-song, is part of the haenyeo subculture.
CS: Let’s talk about the architecture of your installation space. The way you ask people to experience the sound is on the floor; this is also the way the haenyeo eat and have their debates. On the opening night of your show, visitors had a very physical response to the sound; they were rocking and swaying. The privileging of the visuals is held back and going through that doorway, as into another realm, people got silhouetted. This installation came out of the collective and relies on the collective.
People disappeared and reappeared as they walked toward and away from the video. The theme of the underworld is strong in your work: Orpheus is a major character in your previous album and your project Sounds from Beneath is about retired miners. In the video chamber, a woman went up to the image trying to touch it. It is evident that not being told everything meant there were questions about how we relate to the work. The element of transcendence came from the way you used the space. How much of that transcendence could you imagine?
MK: The idea that the doorway would be a passage to an underwater world was part of the installation from the beginning. But the fact that people came out as if emerging from the depths, creating profiles similar to the silhouettes of the haenyeo in their black rubber wetsuits was something the work revealed to me.
The twelve-speaker sound installation is mapped in space to function like a ‘sonic ship’: the sounds of the engine come from the back, the women’s diving from the sides and the flapping waves from the front. All the sounds of the interior scenes come from different speakers located in the centre of the gallery. Then, going through the doorway functions as a symbolic journey, which informed my video-editing process. I decided to turn all the underwater footage up-side-down; we leave the ‘sonic ship’ and enter a world where everything is topsy-turvy, with new rules of gravity. This creates a different tension in relation to the notion of struggle. Are we struggling to go down, where gravity pulls us naturally, or are we struggling to go up? Interestingly, the haenyeo struggle to go down. The reason they wear the led belt is to sink faster, which is made difficult by the porousness of their bones due to old age.
DT: That was one of the most powerful moments. There is a woman who is going up very quickly, almost as if you are chasing her. But in fact she is going down and you struggle to follow. She looks as if she is heading for the surface, which almost promises the moment that is never delivered: that she breaks the surface and the voicing of this extraordinary sound is revealed. But it isn’t.
In this installation, you shift the relationship between sound and image to move away from the privileging of the video. When we move into the video chamber, this rich and loud immersive sound environment fades out. When we remain in the sound area, we are distant from the image. The cliché of the screen with two speakers and the bench is broken. The strength here is that we are not allowed to play that game.
MK: I have been reflecting on the relationship between sound and image for some time. Very often I think of them as lovers; sometimes they are inseparable, occasionally they have an argument, or they operate independently. My perception of mainstream audio-visual culture is that it conditions us to think that sound and image go together, preferably prioritising the visual. Actually there is no basis for this assumption. When I was listening to my recorded material and was also watching the footage, I realised that what is sonically important does not always coincide with a visually significant, interesting or meaningful moment. So, why would I decide to keep a visually insignificant section just because of the sound that is mechanically attached to it? I worked on them separately.
A previous project – Sounds from Beneath – involved a group of former coal miners, whom I asked to recall the sounds they used to hear when they worked in the coal mines, such as subterranean explosions, wailing alarms and mechanical clangs. They vocalise these sounds on top of a disused coal mine. The way sound is used in that work challenges the video. In some cases, the explosive sounds bursting out of the mouths of the miners extinguish the image – the video goes blank. In SeaWomen, I am trying to negotiate a different relationship, where sound and image are more independent rather than locked in a fight.
CS: Let’s talk about your interest in industry, its loss and relation to identity. The coal miners’ work features older men, whereas here we have mostly older women, and I wonder if this is an anxiety about the future or the past, or if it’s connected with what is happening in your native Greece? You generate empathy with the people who are overlooked or marginal, people whose identity is under crisis. The miners come together to form a choir and these women are hanging onto this tradition which will probably not go onto another generation. Do you know what draws you to that focus?
MK: In recent European history we have been witnessing the dismantling of industry and manufacturing, the replacement of human labour by robots, and the growth of the service industries. Communities which formed in the context of work and engaged in the politics of work have changed radically. What happened to those communities, and how are new bonds and a sense of professional identity created through part-time and home-based occupation? Before SeaWomen and Sounds from Beneath, I developed an interdisciplinary opera called Xenon. That work is concerned with notions of professional identity and sound within the context of an office in which bureaucrats fight with standardisation, self-censorship and conformity. They try to understand under what circumstances of pressure they have forgotten or overlooked their basic human rights. When did they decide to let go of their dignity? They try to articulate something inexpressible. Someone stands up and recites the entire declaration of Human Rights by heart, while everything around her prevents her from doing so. The reality presented in that piece is bleak.
I felt that what I was looking for was a glimpse of hope. The haenyeo show us hope. Here they are, some in their eighties, challenging gender roles, managing their economics, and most activities, from going out to sea, fishing, packing up and weighing the sacks of food, and in some cases even selling them and running restaurants. There is something about this decentralised model of operation, which can serve as an example that is empowering and hopeful.
DT: And they also have a sense of…
DT: Yes, but I was thinking of tempo that is ideal to sustain the model of this way of life and work.
MK: Some call their work eco-feminist. Their rhythm respects the cycles of the tides, the winds and currents, and of reproduction of seafood. They don’t overfish, which goes against our current problem of industrialised fishing and the diminishing of resources. They have found a balance.
CS: I think you have found a kind of balance blurring the line between your art and work, art and custom, art and your everyday presentation. I see that in many pieces, including the way you perform in a very joyful engagement with content, material, colour and texture. Your performance of the self comes through. There is joy in the work and a level of dedication to something we are in danger of being inhibited by or cut off from. This underworld is a source of dream, a source of experiment and creativity. What you are trying to invent and sustain is exciting. We all do little bits, but you are a proliferator of living experimentation, which I admire tremendously.
MK: Is that a question? (laughs)
CM + DT: (laugh)
Cherry Smyth, David Toop & Mikhail Karikis. Wapping Project, London, May 2012.