The Korea Herald


[Media Art Now] HWI’s vocals possess ambient but absorptive power

By Korea Herald

Published : May 14, 2024 - 10:11

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HWI (Hwang Hwi) is an electronic musician and a member of the three-artist collective and audiovisual production, "eobchae." Her part in eobchae consists of making video and sound, as a co-producer of their speculative worldview. But before anything else, she is a vocalist, well-versed in combining the human sounds from her own singing with computer-generated digital effects.

Her first single album, "ExtraPlex (2019)," includes works derived from hanging around shopping malls and multiplexes. These are the “nonplace” in anthropologist Marc Auge’s terminology, referring to transitory places that people anonymously pass through but do not identify with in any intimate sense, such as airports, stations and motorways. With the ambiance of warped beats, HWI’s numbers "Into the Basement," "Migong" and "Malling With You" convey the fullness and emptiness of a city’s nonplaces, the audiovisual stimuli of which constantly captivate you, leading to timeless wanderings.

"Migong" © HWI (Courtesy of the artist)

"The Decider’s Chamber" (2021), an original soundtrack album from eobchae whose cover parodies the classical label Deutsche Grammophon, is connected with their "Daddy Residency" project. This is a futuristic fiction where a child is born through artificial fertilization and daddies to co-raise the child are recruited for a residency program, like an artist residency. Such tracks as "Hello," "Jamming with," "The Song of Despair" and "The Song of Hope" are interlaced with narratives about the AI counselor,, and its simulated futures, optimistic or pessimistic.

"The Decider’s Chamber" album cover by eobchae (Courtesy of the artist)
"The Song of Hope" © HWI (Courtesy of the artist)

As a member of eobchae, HWI’s major role is the audiovisual implementation of scripts, websites and applications written by other members, Oh Cheon-seok and Kim Na-hee. This is not necessarily a division of labor, though, and HWI’s works as well as those by Oh and Kim are like the nodes of an engine that conjointly embody a virtual, fictional world that can compete with a real world here and now.

Originally having studied sculpture and then multimedia, HWI did not receive professional training in music, but her self-taught composition, editing and arrangement using MIDI and other digital apparatuses are so powerful as to create a whirlwind of sonic experiments and adventures. She thickly mixes and layers her voices and other sound sources, which build up saturated chords in a way that overwhelms the listener.

"Women × Electricity × Music" © Geulhangari (Courtesy of the publisher)

In “Automata and Doing Music,” an essay contributed to the book, "Women × Electricity × Music" (2023), HWI explores the genealogy of automatic music players and women musicians, from Laurie Anderson’s drum suit, or Bjork’s gameleste and pendulum harp, to Grimes’ set of sampler, synthesizer, etc. HWI spells out how machines of digital audio workstations from Talking Machine to MacBook and Ableton Push have helped propel her artistic journey of doing music.

Comparing audio files like .wav or .mp3 to a science laboratory or a white cube where all variables can be perfectly controlled, HWI points out the musical perception of this age: The machine-produced sound is no longer a simulacrum of the human-performed sound, but the other way round. She critically reflects on the spatial, and temporal qualities of electronic music inside and outside of machines.

"Your My Past Lives," a single-channel video © HWI × MELTMIRROR (Courtesy of the artist)
"Your My Past Lives," a single-channel video © HWI × MELTMIRROR (Courtesy of the artist)

HWI’s "Your My Past Lives" (2024), made public with its performance video, takes the catastrophic climate crisis as its motivation to imagine a nondescript world of hydroelectricity. The imaginary future or past relies on the power of water. Alluding to the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth, the eight survivors of a great flood where fossil fuel ran out, attempt to rebuild the world by creating a hydroelectric generator. Their hard work with an apparent water turbine to keep electrical energy up seems to be driven by a surge of HWI’s electronic music. The sonic waves break on the bodily movements of the “people of water” and through the fall and rise of floating sounds, the manual labor grows more desperate.

Electronic music for HWI is all about how humans relate to machines. She does not alienate herself from technologies, whether dealing with feminist conception or earth sustainability. She seeks to play with the anomaly and indeterminacy of machines and to inscribe a powerless but irresistible mood in materializing her sounds.

“My past life is a stray dog with sad eyes. Your past life is distrustful seabird. Your past life results from my original sin. My rebirth is the future as your present.” You could be absorbed in the dreamlike lyrics, by the intensity of the otherworldly vocal married to her masterly digital manipulation.


Kim Seong-eun, managing director of the Buk-Seoul Museum of Art, is an anthropologist in art and technology. She was previously the director of the Nam June Paik Art Center. -- Ed.