This will be the first visit to the United States for South Korean performer and multimedia creator Jaha Koo, but the show Cuckoo that he is bringing to On the Boards is strongly influenced by U.S. history and governmental actions.
In Cuckoo, Koo expresses the isolation experienced by young South Koreans by engaging in a conversation with three Cuckoo-brand electric rice cookers, which are essential to every South Korean home. This isolation is a sense of disconnection that Koo himself experienced while engaged in graduate studies in Amsterdam. “One day, I felt a sense of special intimacy with the machine talking to me when I was alone at my home,” Koo said. “The moment I got comforted by the machine was a starting point to think about the object itself.”
He immediately found analogies to the social experience in Korea. “The Cuckoo cooks rice basically by pressure, and I thought the notion of pressure is deeply connected to Korean society, so I decided to use the rice cooker as a symbolic metaphor of the piece,” he said. “I collaborated with a hardware hacker, and we hacked several Cuckoos to develop speaking skills and LED function on a different level, as co-performers on stage.”
Koo believes this facility with technology is becoming the norm. “My generation was raised in digital technology like the internet boom and computer revolution,” he said. “When I was a teenager, I played with making music and editing video by computer.”
It was only happenstance that led Koo to expand these experiments into live theatre. “When I was a high school student, I joined a theatre club as a school activity by accident,” he said. “One day, I thought that I can make theatre alone as an individual work, not a group work like a theatre company.”
Koo saw that he already had resources to draw upon. “Naturally, I started to use my music and video for theatre work,” he said. “Then I realized that multimedia can be a proper resource for live art-theatre, not only dealing with human body, because the character and identity of digital materials are soft and fluid in real time.”
Koo finds these to be ideal materials for a mostly solo artist. “Usually my work consists of music and video as important elements in the piece,” he said. “And I think they are my main performance languages, therefore I create all the music and video works all by myself.”
This gives Koo a great deal of independence, but also releases him from a demanding schedule. “I spend most of the time alone during my creation period,” he said. “Sometimes it takes two years or three years including research.”
But Cuckoo is not just about technology and alienation. “The performance Cuckoo is about the last 20 years of history, talking about the financial crisis of South Korea,” he said. “It was not only about South Koreans’ problems, but also about other East Asian countries.”
Koo finds the root of these problems in the Western world. “Unfortunately, these tragic situations were related to US governments and IMF, like the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007 and European economic crisis in 2008,” he said. “It’s about the world economic order which was made by U.S., and how neo-liberalism made side effects. Therefore, I’ve been looking forward to sharing the work with U.S. audience and hearing their voices.”
Cuckoo originally premiered in 2017 and is the second part of a trilogy entitled the Hamartia Trilogy, based on the Greek term hamartia, meaning tragic flaw. “My Hamartia Trilogy thematically focuses on how the inescapable past tragically affects our lives today,” Koo said. “I try to see and think about political-social issues around me in our contemporary society, and I try to think about the historical original tragic roots of the issues.”
The first piece in the trilogy, Lolling and Rolling, premiered in 2015 and examines the English education system in South Korea. “It focuses on secret agreement between USA and Japan, the Taft–Katsura agreement of 1905,” Koo said, “and how cultural legacies were developed in imperialism and colonialism since then, and how much it affects our lives today.”
Following the performance of Cuckoo in Seattle, Koo returns to Ghent in Belgium to finish creating the final piece in his trilogy, The History of Korean Western Theatre, which premieres at Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels in May, 2020. All music from the Hamartia Trilogy will then be released in 2021.
Cuckoo runs January 23 to 26 at On the Boards, 100 West Roy Street, Seattle.