離DMZ邊界線只有一公里的Eulji General Outpost，是全張CD最安靜的錄音。藝術家說：「在這個行程中最容易令人緊張的場所，出乎意料地，是最令人平靜的。」只有蟬鳴與鳥聲，偶爾聽到遙遠士兵練習的槍聲。「鳴槍的聲音是如此遙遠，如此不現實，令人不禁懷疑它們的存在。」藝術家這樣紀錄。
In March 2022, it rained continuously for two weeks. Seemed like nothing out of the ordinary. But it was this rainy March when staying indoors and not setting foot outside had become nothing but ordinary.
Sitting indoors, especially by the window, listening to the monotonous sound of rain can always put me into a trance-like state where I doubt my existence. At times like this, I’d make myself organize the bookshelf to keep my hands and mind busy.
Inside the humid room where my bookshelf stands, I found an unfamiliar CD on the shelf. It had a fabric cover in red orange color that reminded me of the scenes of fire in Japan’s Hell Scroll. At the center of it, there was a square copper sheet engraved with “KARMA/DMZ SOUNDSCAPE”.
The DMZ refers to the Demilitarized Zone located at latitude 38° N between South Korea and North Korea. This CD is a collection of the soundscapes recorded near the DMZ by artist Kim Chang-hun. He made these recordings during the several occasions when he drove close to the area.
In the first recording, you can hear the sound of copper bells and birdsong, as if you were sitting in a temple in the countryside during summer. Then comes a sudden rain. The birdsong is gone, yet the crisp sound of copper bells still lingers as the rain pours. It was a recording of Samseong-gak, a temple situated 13km from the DMZ. Kim set up his equipment in an old warehouse next to the temple and recorded this unexpected downpour.
There are ten recordings contained on the CD; each of which comes with the details of the recording location, date, time, and distance from the DMZ. There are also photographs taken by the artist, his descriptions of the scenery, and some personal reflections. Holding the CD in my hands, I took a good look at the monochrome images and slowly closed my eyes. Amidst a mélange of sounds, things trembled and started to move slowly.
In simple words, a soundscape is a landscape constructed from sound, and instead of looking with your eyes, you visit a soundscape by listening. It’s normal for one to dissect an unfamiliar place with what they see, while the sense of hearing is always neglected.
While we can proactively choose what to look at, when it comes to hearing, we can only passively take things as they come. Is that why we tend to think vision is more valuable?
I am always amazed by the various acoustic elements in soundscapes. Compared with images which are always distant, sound can better connect people with the scenery, creating a unique sense of presence and intimacy, and even in a way, craft a memory that does not exist in reality. A visit to the soundscape of the national borders is one such sound-induced memory.
As I laid on the battered couch with the off-white wired headphones plugged into my ears, I wondered, why did the artist name the album KARMA? A number of explanations came up when I searched for the meaning of karma on the internet; but what does it actually mean?
I thought of Burning, a film by Lee Chang-dong that is adapted from Haruki Murakami’s Barn Burning. There is a scene, which is totally out of place, but eerily beautiful, where the three young protagonists watch the sunset at the border between North and South Korea, and then the girl Hae-mi takes off her clothes and does a bird dance under the twilight. After seeing that scene I thought—why at the border?
I suppose if we call that narrow border a “demilitarized zone,” then the rest of the land would be a potential military target. The young people, whether they are from the north or the south, all live in a huge shadow; they don’t have any choice. The only thing they can do is to live in illusions and forget about the reality of their situation. This might well be what karma means: Trapped by a web that is woven together by everyone.
Behavior defines karma in a more fundamental and direct way. In our everyday lives, there is a power in our surroundings that forces us to conform and submissively react to its logic and unconsciously weave a net called, “reality” that binds us all together. In that sense, can we say that the artist’s attempts in approaching the border is a deliberate act in confronting the reality that is being concealed?
In the final scene of Burning, Jong-su seemingly kills Ben the murderer and eventually burns Ben’s body together with his own clothes and the Porsche. Being completely naked, he starts running in the dark, cold night. There is this moment, as if he can see the truth in the fire.
Eulji General Outpost is the quietest recording in the entire album. It was recorded just one kilometer from the DMZ. The artist said, “It is the most intense location among the entire trip, yet, it is also the most peaceful place.” There is the chirping of cicadas and birds and the occasional gunshot by the soldiers who were practicing in the distance. “The sound of gunshots is so distant and unrealistic that one cannot help but doubt if they are real,” the artist noted.
It was much later on that I recalled the CD was gifted to me by a friend who bought it from a warehouse-like bookstore in South Korea a few years ago. The friend also gifted me another CD of Jeju’s soundscape by the same artist. Jeju is the place where the artist was born, but that would be another story.