GuroGongdan 19662013 is a site-specific public programme to revalue the cultural legacy of Guro (name of the local) Industrial Complex (Gongdan in Korean) and to question what the meanings of human labour are in our time. It is combined with an ethnographic research over three years of time and cultural programmes derived from research outcomes to be shared with general public.
The beginning of research started with my personal fascination by the local landscape composed of thousands of small sewing workshops, being concentrated on the edge of the Guro Digital Complex, previously industrial complex and currently transformed for IT-related businesses. Despite their concentration, individual workshops are fairly small with 3-4 workers inside and almost hidden without any outstanding signs to promote their businesses. But once you notice their presence, your eyes become wide open, witnessing that the act of manufacturing is actually happening in the middle of the city where you believe they have long gone disappeared to somewhere like China.
Then you realise that most middle-aged women in this local have the memories about and work experiences at the factories, taken over by shopping malls and glass towers in last 30 years. They are immigrants from outside Seoul, the capital of South Korea, who fled from poverty and came for job opportunities in 1960s and 70s when they were teenage girls. In that time, Korea was replacing Japan for cheap labour provision and those girls were useful population for national economic development. They used to be glorified as 'foot soldiers' in a fierce exporting competitions in a global economy. They were biggest contributors for Korean economic take-off.
Now Korea no longer competes with cheap labour by moving onto knowledge economy. And who remembers young girls who used to work more than 14 hours a day 6 days a week for providing her families and earning good dollars for the country? Not so many. They are not only forgotten but also demeaned as their works and skills are considered to be a typical 3D and therefore unattractive. Despite harsh working conditions and low wage, many skilled seamstresses find themselves in front of the machines until these days because it 'is' their life. Manufacturing is not just the categorical term, defining factory works in the industrial economy. Environment of production provides a unique cultural fit for them as they are often saying that serving jobs or sales are not their types of plate.
GuroGongdan 19662013 was composed of the action research and public programmes aiming to discover the cultural value of manufacturing environment, especially around small sewing factories, and to raise public awareness of their presence and historical importance. The research adopted ethnographic methods including fieldworkd, interviews and a series of workshop with two groups of local women of which one is long-term residents and the other is recent migrants with foreign nationalities.
The outcomes of the research was themed into three subjects: immigration, manufacturing, and labour movement. Each theme was communicated through the path of walking tour for the public participants, based on the crucial places and spaces relevant to that theme. Surprisingly, most of tour participants were young makers who have design and arts background. With an upsurge of making culture in Korea, young makers were fascinated with old-style production process and got interested in remaking the manufacturing environment in a more worker-friendly and culturally respectful way. This interest was also linked to the question: how do we challenge and change the valuing system of human labour. The public exhibition and forum were arranged to discuss further on this question, which is still ongoing issue for many of us in a global economic system.
* The project GuroGongdan 19662013 was published in a volume with the same title.
* Funded by Korea Culture, Sports and Tourism Ministry.