Boulder artist Laura Hyunjhee Kim studies the realness of digital spaces and caring for our physical bodies in an increasingly virtual world.
The other day I was sitting on my couch, idly thumbing through Instagram, a vague heaviness in the pit of my stomach bearing down on me. I was unhappy. The stress, loneliness, and disappointments of pandemic life compounded with feelings of anger, helplessness, and hopelessness. I scrolled for no other reason than my phone was in my hand. I was looking for nothing.
Then @lauraonsale appeared, from the shoulders up, bouncing absurdly through a still image of a field of flowers with a rainbow filter, singing with synthy vocals: “You R worthy, youuuuu R loving, you R wanted, yooooooooooo ar majique, NOT everybody deserves yooooooo.”
It was precisely the affirmation I needed at that moment. I laughed. My solar plexus felt lighter.
New-media artist Laura Hyunjhee Kim appears often in my feed, usually dancing in front of her couch, maybe holding a vegetable, or a houseplant, or a bottle of sanitizer, or some other prop. In one recent Instagram post with the caption “vibe check,” Kim had a pineapple propped up in bed in front of an open laptop. “Aww, are you feeling prickly today?” she asks it, like one would a roommate suffering from Zoom fatigue.
“This is a very American thing: ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Oh, I’m good.’ This is habitualized in the language,” Kim, who grew up in the Bay Area and spent time in Korea, relates to me on our recent Zoom call. “Because if you’re not ok, you’re making it awkward,” she adds. “You’re not fine. We’re not fine! And it’s ok to not be fine.”
Since 2018, Kim has been making work for an open-ended project entitled Living Lab, which “focuses on the body as a feelosophical medium.” Living Lab videos often emulate the language and aesthetics of the self-care, wellness, fitness, and mindfulness industries, with nods to the technological anxieties of the current moment, while elevating everyday actions and gestures to highly ritualized maneuvers. One recent video invites the viewer to engage in a “phone pre-touch plushy ritual” by squeezing and stroking a plush toy or pillow in order to create a “private secure connection” with your body before allowing “your phone to intimately access you.” In Hi-Feel Lo-Tech Workout (HFLTW): Relaxation and Recovery (2020), Kim enacts “a series of intentional and meaningful synergistic micro-movements” in collaboration with a cylindrical household object or foam roller—in her case, a disconnected Amazon Alexa device—to release muscle tension.
In the pandemic era, these Living Lab performances have taken on a new urgency. As group modes of fitness and wellness—say, going to a gym, yoga studio, or meditation group—became impossible, we increasingly turned to purveyors of wellness and fitness videos through social media and video conferencing platforms. Since 2020, the buzz of “self-care” is now bolstered by a burgeoning $450 billion market. Kim is wary of tech-driven, corporate ideals of wellness. “I’ve been very interested in self-care that cannot be capitalized,” she says, paraphrasing author adrienne maree brown that “the most anti-capitalist endeavor is to go back to your body.”
Even when you don’t have other people, you still have yourself, she remarks.
Early on in the pandemic, Kim uploaded A Virtual Lotioning Session, a video intended for play on a mobile device, which encouraged viewers to take part in what’s described as “an intimate yet public presentation of applying lotion to one’s own hand(s)” and to “treat yourself to an experience only you can feel.” “The vibe or energy of the whole piece was very inviting, but in the context of where we were, it was very lonely and sad,” remembers Kim. The public messaging at that time in the pandemic emphasized rigorous and frequent hand washing and no touching, handshakes, or hugs. The lotioning performance is one Kim finds herself returning to. “Even when you don’t have other people, you still have yourself,” she remarks.
A couple of years ago, Kim went through a near-death experience that profoundly changed her life. Ever since, she has been recovering and is still trying to re-inhabit her body, testing its limitations, and regaining her strengths both inside and out. “When the pandemic first hit, it was like the world was catching up with me,” she says:
For me, I think I’m still clawing out from trauma work and seeing how much I need to link to my body [as] a performance-based [artist]. How my body and psychology [have] changed has been really infecting a lot of my work. I want to be very cheesy, in a way. I want to examine sadness, grief, trauma, but it’s not something to be scared of; it’s something that can be celebrated as well. If we don’t learn from it we will always be trapped; it will be that thing that we’re running away from.
Kim, now a PhD in Intermedia Art, Writing, and Performance at the University of Colorado, Boulder, just finished a dissertation that discusses “feelosophy” and “radical discomfort.” “We have to feel discomfort—and sit with it comfortably—in order to mobilize ourselves,” she says. The experiences of the past year have shown how important and powerful feelings, emotions, and empathy are in the process of social change. Kim questions, “How can you feel comfortable when the world is going through shit?”
And the world has gone through some shit this past year: a global pandemic and mass loss of life, quarantines and closures, extreme weather events and the encroaching effects of climate change, protests against police brutality and systemic racism, an assault on the Capitol, and, just in the time between our conversation and my writing of this article, a mass shooting of young Asian women massage parlor workers in Atlanta. “In this past year, a lot of people’s realities got shattered,” Kim says, “in realizing their mortality, that anything could go away instantly.” In the upheaval, many of society’s systemic problems are now being exposed and examined, she points out, adding, “I think it’s honestly because we were in the pandemic and everybody is just feeling a certain amount of empathy and compassion and also feeling that we could die at any point. There have been a lot of moments of reality perspective-shifting throughout the year.”
In these “unreal” times, going back to the body—even if it’s through your phone—may be the affirmation we need.
Notably, much of the reality we are experiencing is mediated through what Kim calls “the rectangle”: our screens. “We say digital or analog, but I feel like we’re at this point where both of those are merging and infecting and changing and morphing what we see as real or not,” she says. For a long time, digital space appeared to us as an extension, supplement, or simulation of “real life,” but this is no longer the case, she argues. “Real” no longer means just our “physical touch-y space,” she suggests, but digital spaces are becoming “realer than real,” too. “Reality for me right now is very much something that constantly shifts,” she says. “It’s very personalized, whether it’s on a micro-level: you living your day-to-day, touching objects, physically interacting with things around you; or on a more conceptual level: the systems that you interact with, the ideologies you converse with, or what you’ve normalized by growing up a certain way.”
Kim’s work blends these realities by guiding us through a haptic experience—the feeling of lotion in your hands—presented via a handy digital medium—the “rectangle.” “I want art to be close,” she says. “It has to be part of my life; it has to be immediate.” In these “unreal” times, going back to the body—even if it’s through your phone—may be the affirmation we need. To sit with our grief, our discomfort, and then laugh into the glow of our screens.