Saturday, February 02, 2008

Pyongyang as virtual space

Fiction Pyongyang, curated by Joseph Grima together with Stefano Boeri and Armin Linke

Pyongyang's sinister landscapes are not to be quickly dismissed as the tangible proof of the existence of a "kingdom of evil." As we pointed out, one can perceive something familiar in them, an eerie familiarity to an eye accustomed to the imagery of western science fiction. It's as though in the aftermath of the 1952 bombing of Pyongyang (an entire city razed to the ground seven years after Hiroshima and Dresden — have we all forgotten?), someone like George Orwell or Ridley Scott decided to create, without a hint of irony, Western culture's worst dystopia. It is impossible to remain indifferent to the bizarre collection of architectural caricatures built by the North Korean nomenklatura. They created a city populated by automata unable to exercise their free will, the incarnation of an isolated absolute regime that is nevertheless capable of unscrupulous recourse to the symbolic language of Western democracies.
--from an interview with Stefano Boeri in Artkrush

I know next to nothing about the capital of North Korea, but hey--that describes, quite literally, just about everyone else in the world, too. Finally, a subject on which the vast, vast majority of people can be equally knowledgeable.

Seeing as I find metafictions intellectually appealing, it seems only natural that a city like Pyongyang would attract my attention. The thing is, unlike remote natural places like the bottom of the ocean or restricted spaces like Area 51 (whose Wikipedia entry is longer than that for Pyongyang), Pyongyang is ostensibly a public space whose official population is literally a state secret and about whose metro system (see below) the only absolutely certain things known of it are that it exists and people use it. Where Boeri sees a slightly-offputting familiarity in the city's physical space, his video suggests something else: something close to the city-as-blue screen. I don't have it at hand, so I can't quote verbatim, but in the course of an essay on David Lynch, David Foster Wallace says something to the effect that the strange thing about Los Angeles is that it looks exactly the way you expect it to look. Personally speaking, I can attest to thinking the same thing about New York when I first visited there, the only real surprise being that, beneath all that asphalt, Manhattan is gently rolling. Pyongyang, by contrast, looks any way you care to imagine it. It is as close to a virtual space as a city of somewhere around 2 million people is likely to be.

Some cases in point: Via Andrew Sullivan, this article in Esquire about the focal point of much of the video above, the uncompleted Ryugyong Hotel. As you can see, it looks like the Dark Lord Sauron's idea of a destination hotel. The article reveals that this building is regarded by the government as being so hideous (not to mention embarrassingly uncompleted) that it regularly airbrushes it out of its photos of the Pyongyang skyline.

The Esquire article led me to, a site where visitors can (or could because, analogously to the hotel, it's no longer being supported) claim space in a 3-D model of the building and install projects of their own design in that space. The idea is reminiscent of Second Life--but, again, it's curious that this site's space is now abandoned, just like that of the hotel it's modeled on. It's fun to speculate that Pyongyang just has that effect on those who deign to engage with it, even in the blogosphere.

And finally there is the site I visited a couple of years ago which first piqued my curiosity about Pyongyang, this unofficial site describing the Pyongyang Metro. The first two paragraphs from the "Statistics" page are actually pretty typical--read closely and ponder the implications of what it's saying:
The Pyongyang Metro consists of two public lines, north-south Chollima (named for a mythical flying horse, the Korean Pegasus) and east-west Hyoksin (Renovation); there are also believed to be other undisclosed lines for government use. The total length of the public system is probably around 22.5 km, of which the Chollima line is about 12 km and the Hyoksin line about 10.

Like most North Korean statistics, this figure may be inaccurate, as it has been reported since the mid-1980s, and may not include the nearly 2 km between Ponghwa and Puhung, opened in 1987; if this is so the system is approximately 24 km. Some sources claim 34 km, of which the Chollima line is 14 km and the Hyoksin line 20 km, however this figure may be arrived at by adding the original 24 km mentioned above and a planned 10-km extension to Mangyongdae, and thus likely does not refer to the system’s current length.

And, further down the same page:
Maps of the system are not widely distributed, and physical locations of stations are not marked on street maps; the brochure “The Pyongyang Metro” does not include one. . . . As an economy measure [due to chronic electricity shortages], the entire service is said to close on the first Monday of each month, and perhaps more often. Station lights are dim or switched off altogether, and many sources report that trains in tunnels are often caught by power cuts, forcing passengers to wait in the darkness, sometimes for hours.

Indeed, whether the Metro is in regular service at all is not entirely certain. Practically the only non-North Korean eyewitnesses to Metro use are the visitors given the showcase ride on the system.

I have no big wind-up to all this, aside from the obvious: all cities have their own character, but beyond that they are all the same in that they are inarguably public spaces, a heteroglossic space whose meaning is contested (at times happily, at times less so) by various state and community interests. Those notions are so familiar as to go unremarked . . . unless or until one bumps into a place like Pyongyang.

1 comment:

Raminagrobis said...

I couldn't let this thought-provoking post slip away without a comment.

As I think you're suggesting here, the 'virtuality' of Pyongyang seems to have less to do with the weirdly dystopian look that the makers of that video installation want to highlight, than with its status as a forbidden, inaccessible space.

Pyongyang must be disorientating for the visitor who cannot walk freely around the city. But your comment about LA reminds me of something I heard on the radio recently (was it NPR? maybe even linked from here?): it was an interview with Will Self, who was engaged in a project of reading urban landscapes in new ways by walking through them. LA in particular (I'm told, I've never been there) is a city that you can only really navigate by driving. In some sense, you can't walk freely around LA (and the same goes for many of the cities that have sprung up since the invention of the motor car - such as the 'New' towns that were a big thing here in the 60s or 70s). Anyway, Will Self walked from LAX to the centre of the city, and had some pretty interesting things to say about how unfamiliar it all seemed - so maybe LA only looks exactly how you expect it to look if you see it exactly how it expects you to see it.

You mention the uncertainty about space in the Pyongyang metro; and it does seem to be an extreme case of a forbidden, unmapped space that is nevertheless public and 'familiar'. It's slightly different, but it does remind me of the fact that many cities' underground systems are similarly unmapped - do you remember that news story about the living spaces created by 'underground' communities in the Paris metro? And the London underground has many miles of disused tunnels that remain unexplored even by the administrators of the system. Tobias Hill's novel 'Underground' gives a really good sense of the strangeness and unknowability of these spaces (kind of the unconscious mind of the city). Again, these are spaces that we're not free to walk around, even though they're slap bang in the middle of the most familiar, public places. If we could walk them, maybe we'd find them just as uncanny (in that sense of unknown but eerily familiar) as Boeri does Pyongyang.