“I’m scared to go back.”
We were all squeezed into wooden folding chairs with a crowd standing around the perimeter of the room at Last Projects, on the second floor, where an old air conditioner, inadequately exhaling intermittent wafts of cool air, and a set of heavy Venetian blinds blocked out the sights and sounds of Hollywood Boulevard below. It was nearing 10pm.
Their screening was over, and Pink, as she would like to be called, was at the front of the room, standing with her compatriot members of the Tomorrow Girls Troop, describing her feelings about going home to South Korea. Pink has spent the last five years in the U.S., living in Los Angeles and attending art school. She is a video artist, a founding member of the cross-cultural social art group Tomorrow Girls Troop, and in two weeks she is headed back to Seoul.
“One of the biggest fears that I have is that when I go back I will lose myself in that environment,” Pink told me from New York a week later via Skype. A strong patriarchal culture pervades life in Korea, producing a largely stifling and repressive environment, one that Pink describes as an oppressively narrow framework that limits one’s ideas, desires, and choices in life. The video works she has produced so far under the auspices of the Tomorrow Girls Troop critique this situation through the appropriation of Korean and Japanese commercial media. They were shown that evening alongside other works by young Korean and Japanese video artists, co-curated by Minkyung Choi and Takako Oishi-Marks. These works all questioned and challenged the cultural status quo of the two countries in various ways: deconstructing mass media representations of “normal” families in advertising or the representation of women in Korean soap operas; inserting queer bodies in contentious or gendered spaces; and openly demonstrating or discussing sexual taboos.
I was there to moderate a talk following the screening with a few members of the Tomorrow Girls Troop, an emergent feminist art group with members of varied genders and nationalities. Their activities are primarily focused on gender inequality issues in Japan and Korea, pointing to both their own personal experiences and the two countries’ dismal international rankings as evidence that a conversation about feminism needs to take place there. Their members are widespread—spanning New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Kyoto, Seoul and elsewhere. And although the group was started as a social art project, many of its members are non-artists that identify as supporters of feminist, egalitarian, progressive values. They need this non-artist contingent, because Tomorrow Girls Troop is art as social movement. At the moment there are about twenty active members (plus many other supporters), but they don’t keep a strict count.
Tomorrow Girls Troop, Tomorrow we will have clear skies, 2015
“It’s super open. Everybody can be in Tomorrow Girls Troop,” one of the founding Japanese members told me, adding emphatically, “I wanna make this group huge.” A young Japanese multimedia artist, Midori is one of the founding members of the Troop, and keeps up their Japanese blog, where she posts projects, calls to action, and Japanese-language articles concerning women’s issues. The group wishes to remain anonymous in print, following the example, and the advice, of their predecessors the Guerrilla Girls. For one reason, cultural critique is often more easily digested when delivered by indistinct individuals, and feminist critique in particular seems to invite the kind of personal attacks that merely serve to distract from the issues at stake. Tomorrow Girls Troop has already experienced this kind of backlash, prompted by its petition to remove the new official mascot for Shima city. The mascot has been pegged as misogynist and disrespectful of women, but some otaku and artists have responded to the call for its dismissal as a threat to “freedom of expression.” “As if women in Japan enjoy ‘freedom of expression’ anyway,” Midori vented over the phone to me one day, after a newspaper article came out in Japan about the petition. Tomorrow Girls Troop regards the mascot as a formalized symptom of a widespread culture of sexual objectification, harassment, and abuse—now endorsed by a public entity and made “official.” “The enemy is misogyny,” she says, not freedom of expression.
The situation for women in Japan has gotten worse since 2000, Midori says, with Japan’s long-term recession and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s right-wing administration contributing to the country’s backslide into conservative values. And while feminist groups like Megalian are making strides in South Korea, Midori stresses that there is no equivalent feminist group in Japan. One of the reasons the feminist message has largely failed to resonate in Japan is because of the grimly militant connotation it holds for many people. The word itself is reviled. “A lot of Japanese scholars, surprisingly, say feminism is fascism,” she says, and this notion has taken root throughout society. Even men and women who are sympathetic to feminist issues are hesitant to associate themselves with the word. Tomorrow Girls Troop aims to transform this attitude through the spread of viral memes like their project to “out” people as Hidden Feminists, as well as through other activist projects, such as a campaign they’re launching next month to change the Japanese dictionary definition of feminism to include the word “equality.”
“If I have an aim, through Tomorrow Girls Troop and through my own practice,” Pink told me, as she prepared for her move back to Seoul, “it’s to make art that broadens people’s horizons about different desires. One of the biggest issues in Korea and Japan, because of the society, is people don’t know what they want. It’s very restrictive, especially for women, they are trained to want [only] certain things. And I want to change that.” Once on the ground again in South Korea, she plans to organize art events, make contact with existing Korean feminist groups, and find more people to collaborate with on the social activism side of Tomorrow Girls Troop. As a video artist, “I’m more interested in the art side,” she says, but even those projects that might be viewed as belonging to more traditional forms of activism—petitions, letter writing campaigns, etc—she argues are still related to art and visual culture. “It’s about representation. It’s about images.” For Tomorrow Girls Troop, the contexts of art and activism are not necessarily mutually exclusive. “I would like to see them collide,” Pink says. “I think that’s the purpose of our group.”
Despite her fears, Pink is ready for the challenges ahead. “As a young woman I was really insecure in Korea,” she told me, “But I hope that now I have more security so that I can pursue the things that I believe in.” An idealistic outlook propels her to look to the future, and also the sincere belief that their actions can make a huge impact. It’s all about what can happen tomorrow.
 According to the Global Gender Gap Index 2014 by the World Economic Forum, among 142 countries, Japan ranked #104 and Korea ranked #117 in terms of women’s access to the economy, education, politics and health.
(Image at the top: Tomorrow Girls Troop, Girls in the Far East | 극동의 여인들 | 東の果ての少女, 2015, video still,1:54)
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