(top) construction site. jongak. seoul. 2013.  (bottom) gangjeong village. jeju island. 2012. (both pictures via iphone)

Construction Sites as “Sites of Struggle”

There exist three[1] common image motifs that adorn the tall walls and fences which surround construction sites in Seoul.  These are 1) scenes of nature such as bamboo forests, mountain vistas, flowing streams, expansive agricultural fields, etc.; 2) scenes of “traditional” Korean history and culture such as making dduk (떡), scrolls of classic Hangeul (한글), and architecture and craftwork of the Joseon dynasty (조선 시대), etc.; and 3) the Disney-esque, computer-generated images of shining, ultra-modern towers replete with happy families enjoying the newly configured urban landscape (these images in particular most often adorn the walls surrounding high-rise apartment construction sites).  Sometimes only one of these motifs is present.  Sometimes all three are plastered in juxtaposition to one another.  These images do not register as mere accouterment to beautify construction sites.  Rather, they serve three critical functions, all of which are analytically distinct yet interlock to produce an overall effect: 1) the connotative meanings that suffuse the images generate narratives of progress – for example, a history marked by moving smoothly from the technological achievements of the Joseon Dynasty to the globalized economic power of modern Seoul; 2) a visual apparatus that prefigures the new landscape for city dwellers who can quickly adapt and easily readjust to a rapidly changing urban topography; and 3) visual narratives which not only obfuscate the violence of redevelopment, but also normalize this reconfiguration as a natural (i.e., not contingent) process of urbanization devoid of contestation.  In other words, these images produce an urban teleology that purports the particular type of urbanization that takes place as natural, inevitable, unproblematic, and ultimately progressive.  Stuart Hall would have us look at those sites of rupture in which these functions short circuit as a way of penetrating through these “preferred readings” vis-à-vis an oppositional code. 

If you travel to Gangjeong Village, Jeju Island (강정 마을, 제주도) you will find a tall construction wall which runs the perimeter of the volcanic rock coastline, which locals affectionately call “Gureombi Rock” (구럼비 바위).  This wall not only restricts access to the coast but also functions as a barricade that obstructs the once grand oceans vistas.   Along the walls you will see scenes of Jeju Island’s undeniably gorgeous natural environment.  This is ironic – perhaps eye-gougingly so – considering that behind this wall takes place the destruction of this ecologically unique coast for the purposes of building a naval base to be used by both the ROK and US military.  However, here, unlike the many relatively ‘pristine’ construction barriers one sees in Seoul, these walls are scrawled with graffiti and pot-marked with holes large and small, created by activists (local, peninsular, and international) who have called attention to the contradictions inherent in this militarized construction project.  Their oppositional code literally inscribes this contested arena with alternative readings that visibly and tangibly destabilize the hegemonic narrative of this construction site.  These oppositional codes make intelligible social forces forming new points of (dialectical) contact with hegemonic ideological apparatuses.  In short, construction sites can be read as literal “sites of struggle” – within which “subjects-in-struggle” have the capacity to plug-in, short-circuit, re-wire, and generate new points of articulation.         

[1] There is in fact a fourth visual motif but I suspect it is somehow qualitatively different.  This fourth modality consists of the cartoon character-mascot that smiles and assures the passer-by that all is well and that Seoul is on the up and up.  These character-mascots abound in Seoul and serve various purposes: as the avatars for urban districts, as eponymous (and eerily masochistic) restaurant mascots who invite diners to feast on their flesh and blood cousins, and as the Disneyfied incarnation of various bureaucratic apparatuses of the state such as the police, military, fire department, construction workers, etc. (interestingly, I have yet to see a mascot adorned in riot gear).  Paradoxically, these characters simultaneously operate at the most basic level of advertising technologies and at the most intricately complex.  This is because these cartoon avatars function as totems – visual containers for cathected emotions (and relations) in the Freudian sense.  This warrants further analysis but lies beyond the scope of these humble jottings.