Solitary: Collective Authorship and its Discontents

Samneung Pine Forest in Gyeongju, on the same latitude as Hongcheon, October 2, 2018. Photo by Christophe95 via Wikimedia.

In Hongcheon, a county two hours east of Seoul, sits a wellness center designed to resemble a prison. Run by an organization named Happitory, the center—called Prison Inside Me—offers “solitary confinement” programs lasting twenty-four hours or longer for the urban middle class. Artist and writer Tyler Coburn enrolled in one of these programs in 2019 and subsequently decided to organize a “covert writing residency” at the center. At Coburn’s behest, nine additional people—artists, curators, and academics—enrolled in Prison Inside Me and, like Coburn, produced writing during their stints in “solitary confinement.” Their diaristic meditations, fragmentary polemics, and handwritten notebook pages were collected into a bilingual book titled Solitary, published by Sternberg Press and Art Sonje Center in 2022. Although the late-capitalist curiosity that is Prison Inside Me sparked interest in readers including myself, what warranted scrutiny in the end were the artistic and social implications of Coburn’s collaborative approach.

As a book, Solitary does not hide its seams, omissions, and contradictions. The tone vacillates from entry to entry, and contributors’ essays do little to flesh out the two most interesting connections Coburn raises in his elegantly wrought introduction: the relationship between prison writing and the prison as writing retreat; and the influence of carceral aesthetics on culture and vice versa. The book’s discordant polyphony, exacerbated by the openness of Coburn’s prompt, speaks to some of the conceptual and practical problems of collaboration. Perhaps unintentionally, Coburn’s coauthors glide indifferently past the artist’s intellectual interest in the site, resulting in a text that revolts against itself and, in doing so, subtly illuminates the terms of its collective authorship.

Coburn, a committed and versatile artist who makes open-ended, research-based work, first developed Solitary in 2019, during a summer residency in Korea at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Changdong. Conceived as a text-based project, Solitary was not a stark departure for Coburn, whose recent work, The Petrified (2022–ongoing)—about people who turn to stone and what museums do with these new statues—takes the form of narrative essays published in e-flux and artworks in watercolor and other media. Collaboration and site-specificity have also been important factors in Coburn’s work. His project I’m that angel (2011–ongoing) is a reading series that takes place inside data centers, and his gaming workshops, Counterfactuals (2020–ongoing), have been conducted in Prague, New York, and Ukraine. If one were to place artistic autonomy and heteronomy on a sliding scale, Coburn’s practice careens toward the latter. Moreover, his work is highly rhetorical. It is as much about convincing others to participate as it is about the nature of their collective action.

Starting in 2019 and through the COVID-19 pandemic, Coburn and his collaborators—Jaeyeon Chung, Sunjin Kim, Hyunjeung Kim, Kyungmook Kim, Min Kyoung Lee, Woochang Lee, Russell Mason, InYoung Yeo, and Jiwon Yu—staged ten separate, ephemeral performances in the cells of Prison Inside Me. The documentation of these performances, published in Solitary, shows how artists, arts workers, and scholars co-opted the comically overdetermined sanctums of the wellness-industrial complex for their own independent purposes. The original premise and promise of Solitary, gleaned from the marketing copy emphasizing the somewhat extraordinary conditions under which it was authored, suggested a work that pushed, if not psychological limits, then the limits of sociability within a particular context. As a reader, I longed for a creative opinion on Prison Inside Me that went beyond the standard coverage: “In a land of workaholics, burned-out South Koreans go to ‘prison’ to relax”; “Prison Inside Me: Providing Koreans peace and solitude in a cell.” To an extent, I got what I went looking for.

Solitary, edited by Tyler Coburn. Courtesy of Sternberg Press.

The firsthand accounts of contributors did satisfy the initial promise of Solitary—the demystification of the conditions inside the wellness center—at least on a material level. Each text filled in different details. “Like most prison facilities, Happitory is located on the outskirts of [Seoul], far from society,” writes Kyungmook Kim. “Upon entering, I changed into a uniform and received a name tag with my room number written on it.” Then, according to Jiwon Yu, the staff distribute instructional booklets, and participants watch an orientation video. Laptops, cell phones, and other personal items are confiscated before participants are directed to their rooms. The rooms are, to use Woochang Lee’s measurements, 3 by 1.8 by 2.5 meters. They have heated floors, a toilet, a washbasin, bedding, a yoga mat, a kettle and tea set, a desk, writing materials, and a panic button, which would, when pressed, allow the “inmate” to exit the cell and terminate the experience. What surprised me were the repeated mentions of windows in the cells—“The scenery outside the window was breathtakingly beautiful,” writes Sunjin Kim—since it is rare for a prison cell to provide an expansive view of the outside world. Solitary confinement is often linked in the popular imagination, and by researchers, to total sensory deprivation or at least to a clear-cut separation from the sights and sounds of nature, whereas Prison Inside Me seems to encourage communion with the forest around the facility. Equipped with amenities and vistas, the cells appear no different from college dorm rooms.

The conditions under which Solitary’s essays were written turn out to be rather ordinary after all. Although the ten participant-performers were siloed in separate rooms at separate times, they were surrounded by what scholar Shannon Jackson calls “the material relations that support the de-materialized act”: the infrastructure of Prison Inside Me, the staff who delivered light meals in Tupperware containers through a slot in the door at designated intervals, the meditation leader whose voice came over the facility’s intercom system, in addition to the support of publishers for their writing, a book designer, and a translator. (Coburn did much of the editing himself.) A network of human relationships was required to render solitude both possible and productive. This produced, in the performers, a sense of obligation. “There is bare existence and pacific relief,” contributor Russell Mason writes in his cell, “until I grasp at a persistent thought that draws me out of this ocean of bliss. Something is troubling me: the writing I have been asked to do in return for my stay.” Mason’s thoughts vacillate in register: vast and abstract meditations are punctuated by needling reminders of the transactional nature of his experience. This unevenness of tone is evident in both Mason’s piece and the entire book.

In Coburn’s ambitious and articulate essay, the first in Solitary, the artist attempts to connect Prison Inside Me to histories of prison writing and East Asian aesthetics by drawing thought-provoking parallels between the cell’s minimalistic amenities—in particular, the writing materials provided—and the likes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani’s 2018 memoir No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, and Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s 1933 essay “In Praise of Shadows” on architectural and interior design. Solitary’s second essay, written by artist Kyungmook Kim, who served fifteen months in solitary confinement from 2015 to 2016 as a conscientious objector to South Korean military service, indexes the minute similarities and differences between the two experiences. He observes that the admission procedure for happiness-seekers resembles that which strips inmates of their possessions at the start of incarceration. Moreover, the color of the uniform Kim wears at the wellness center reminds him of the clothes he wore in prison four years prior. Unlike in prison, however, there are few rules that govern the happiness-seeker’s time in “solitary confinement,” and Happitory’s staff do not mete out punishments for infractions. In prison, Kim notes, “You cannot lie down . . . apart from bedtime, and you cannot take off your prison uniform . . . It is prohibited to exercise in the room, use a towel as a cushion, or stand without reason. These rules must be followed from the moment you enter prison. Otherwise, punishment ensues.” Coburn and Kim’s entries complement one another: Coburn’s is a poetic constellation unraveling out of the make-believe “cell” and Kim’s a spiral into the minute and disenchanting details of prison life.

View of the buildings of the Historic Sinop Prison, which had a solitary confinement wing, in Sinop, Turkey, 2005. Photo by Dosseman via Wikimedia.

Coburn’s erudition and Kim’s firsthand recollections of the South Korean carceral system are subsequently diluted by other contributors’ philosophical, spiritual, and literary meditations. These include vaguely minimalist sentiments imbued with the health-and-wellness ethos of Happitory: “Why do I need so much space and so many things to live?” writes Hyunjeung Kim. “Is it because I cannot tolerate any discomfort? I wonder if I could live a satisfied life with only a minimum amount of space, a minimum amount of food, something to read, a view through the window, and a healthy body and soul.” Others, like Russell Mason, produce navel-gazing treatises on the body, the universe, and the limits of knowledge: “I have almost settled the issues plaguing the western mind for centuries, and I have not been [in the cell] two hours,” Mason writes, before lying down to spend some time “submerged in the lake of pure awareness.” Some contributors inundate readers with dislocated personal memories. “When I was in middle school, my whole class had to participate in a choir contest . . . We sang a song called Nostalgia based on Jeong Ji-yong’s poem of the same name,” Jaeyeon Chung recalls upon entering her cell, though the rest of her text does not make apparent what the lyrics of “Nostalgia” or the poet Jeong Ji-yong have to do with solitary confinement. Others veer into self-promotion for their own artistic and curatorial endeavors; Hyunjeung Kim, for example, spends much of her essay describing her plans for a show at Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art commemorating the 2014 sinking of MV Sewol.

In his introduction, Coburn calls Solitary a collective experiment in “embedded, embodied writing,” citing as inspiration Jane Rendell’s notion of critical spatial practice and Miwon Kwon’s conception of site-specificity. There is, however, another discourse at play: that of delegated performance outlined by art historian Claire Bishop. Although Coburn participates in his own project, he has nonetheless produced a social condition in which the performance of a certain function of interpretation—and identity—is delegated to nine South Korea–based individuals. The promise of local expertise makes the book appealing at first glance, and it is also encouraging that, while Coburn arranges for laborers to place their bodies at a specific site for a specific duration, he does not instruct them to perform rote, scripted functions, as, for example, Tino Sehgal did in This objective of that object (2004). Nor does Coburn place his collaborators in physically taxing situations, as Santiago Sierra did in Nine Forms of 100 x 100 x 600 cm Each, Constructed to be Supported Perpendicular to a Wall (2002)—during which, much to Sierra’s dismay, his hired workers walked off the job. Instead, Coburn commissioned creative labor in a style akin to Cai Guo-Qiang’s Venices Rent Collection Courtyard (1999), for which Cai brought ten Chinese sculptors to the forty-eighth Venice Biennale to reproduce a well-known socialist-realist sculpture group in the Arsenale. There, the sculptors worked in front of an audience of biennial-goers, who were treated to the sight of wire armature, crumbling clay, and the artisans’ diligent exertion. Like Cai, Coburn trusted that his contracted collaborators possessed not only the knowledge and expertise required for the task but also the focus and determination to see the project through.

In theory, this delegation of labor removes the onus from Coburn to produce a comprehensive analysis of a socioeconomic phenomenon in South Korea. In practice, however, this approach backfires, as his local collaborators’ essays lack the passion and rigor present in his own. The discrepancy between Coburn’s vision and the resulting compendium can be observed in the fact that his coauthors—except, to some extent, Kyungmook Kim—do not criticize or even question Prison Inside Me’s existence. They do instead just as the facility’s meditation guides prescribe: turn inward.

Kyungmook Kim in Solitary, edited by Tyler Coburn. Courtesy of Sternberg Press.

Jaeyeon Chung in Solitary, edited by Tyler Coburn. Courtesy of Sternberg Press.

In this way, Coburn’s coauthors demonstrate a paradoxical awareness. They seem to understand and abide by the project’s expectations—of the need, for example, to turn in a written reflection for publication, as well as a preference for the confessional mode—while they appear aloof toward Coburn’s intellectual interest in the site itself. One can imagine a version of Solitary authored by Coburn alone, in which he could have convinced readers to share his interest through rhetoric and self-reflection. Although Coburn’s coauthors do not walk off like Santiago Sierra’s workers, they, like Cai Guo-Qiang’s sculptors, subtly leverage the visibility of their labor to illuminate the terms of their collaboration: an invitation from a colleague in their field, a commissioned piece of writing, a sponsored stay at what is, for all intents and purposes, a wellness retreat. Consider the timorous way in which Hyunjeung Kim begins her entry: “I rush out of my house early in the morning, anxious about the unfamiliar experience that lies ahead . . . I remember the news coverage of Happitory that I recently watched. It shocked me to learn that I would be staying in a place built like a prison. All I had expected was to write an essay about my feelings after spending a day isolated from the world around me.” Kim’s bafflement makes one question whether the participants had been adequately briefed, charging her ruminations with a sharp twinge of resentment.

What is thus produced is a collective text whose unruliness raises broader questions about participation and consensus, relevant not only to projects that commission multiple collaborators but also to any artistic work that invites audiences, members of the public, and other thinkers and makers into the fray, to explore or enact a set of ideas. The ambitious project that Coburn set into motion, which straddles the two seemingly incompatible ideals of hermeticism and collectivity, is not so much a warning against collaborative work as it is an object lesson—a reminder—that, like a magnifying glass, collaboration amplifies the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the artwork’s original concept. No matter how complex or enticing the artist’s idea is, if the terms of engagement the artist puts forth are overly transactional, nebulous, or contrary to participants’ expectations, then the participants will change them. Once the participants have had their say, the results aren’t easy to tidy up.

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