About a year ago, I met Vincenzo de Bellis, a visual art curator at the Walker Art Center, for coffee in a hotel lobby on Miami Beach. He was visiting for Art Basel, and I was, and still am, living in Miami. He asked me if I would produce a commission for Mario García Torres’s survey show, Illusion Brought Me Here. The commission, he explained, was for a 16mm film titled One Minute To Act A Title: Kim Jong-un’s Favorite Movies, which would reprise the artist’s 2005 film One Minute To Act A Title: Kim Jong-il’s Favorite Movies. In this earlier work, the artist filmed a game of charades as a group of actors guessed and performed Kim Jong-il’s favorite Hollywood films.
After our meeting, I did some research. As it turns out, like most powerful dictators, Kim Jong-il loved cinema and Hollywood. He famously wrote a book titled On the Art of the Cinema, which, for the most part, is apparently pretty dull and poorly written. It lays out a manual for creating films following the ideology of the Worker’s Party of Korea. Prior to making the 2005 film, Mario met with Shin Sang-ok, a famous South Korean film director who was kidnapped by Kim Jong-il in order to build the North Korean film industry. Through his relationship with Shin Sang-ok and his research with top scholars of North Korean politics and culture, the artist was able to determine Kim Jong-il’s list of favorite films. While publicly banning western cinema in North Korea, Kim Jong-il apparently had a love for the pathos and melodrama of Hollywood: his favorite films include Doctor Zhivago, First Blood, From Russia with Love, You Only Live Twice, The Godfather, Friday the 13th, and Gone With The Wind.
While it was easy to find information on Kim Jong-il’s manifesto and critical understandings of the dictator’s taste and global fascism’s long love affair with American movies, there was little, if anything, about Kim Jong-un’s relationship to Hollywood cinema. Considering Mario’s knack for in-depth research and his interest in the historical investigation, I assumed he had managed to uncover documents or sources exposing Kim Jong-un’s own top-10 list. Mario clearly had access to information that was not publicly available, which made the project even more compelling—I took the job.
It was not until the day of the shoot that I realized I never asked Mario where he had gotten Kim Jong-un’s list of films. I decided not to ask, to keep myself—like the rest of the crew and performers—in the dark. As I prepared the set before the artist arrived, I imagined, somewhat romantically, the various ways Mario had gotten access to Kim Jong-un’s favorite films: visions of encrypted files, small notebooks with well-worn leather covers, like something out of the Bourne Identity franchise.
Devon Dikeou, the artist, magazine editor, and collector, graciously allowed us to shoot in her SoHo apartment. The artist showed up on time, friendly, relaxed, and flexible. The camera team announced it was ready, and Mario called “action.” The performers lined up, off-screen, with Mario at the helm to whisper to each of them the secret film title they were to perform. The first performer stepped up to receive her title. Mario looked at her, looked down at the ground, then back up to the ceiling, paused for a moment, then, as if solving a math problem, nodded, cupped his hands, and whispered something into the performer’s ear. Where was the notebook? Had he committed the titles to memory? Smart, I thought: no material evidence.
As the shoot went on, as each performer approached for their film title, it took longer for Mario to communicate the film title while, simultaneously, the titles themselves became more and more strange. By the end of the shoot, the performers and crew were laughing at the absurdity of the titles. One leaned over to me and whispered, “Do you think he is making these titles up?” I gave a curt nod.
I felt tricked and confused. I had this fantasy of the piece’s own narrative: its intention, conceptual integrity, and espionage backstory. I wanted the list to be real. I could not figure out why Mario had made them up or why he made the piece at all.
After the shoot, I sent the film off to be processed and digitized for Mario to edit. By the time summer came around, I was off working on other films. Mario’s project and my confusion naturally faded from my mind. A few months later, I flew to Minneapolis to attend the opening of Mario García Torres: Illusion Brought Me Here. I found myself standing in front of two rooms sharing a two-foot wall. On my left, One Minute To Act A Title: Kim Jong-il’s Favorite Movies, on the right One Minute To Act A Title: Kim Jong-un’s Favorite Movies. I decided to watch the original work first, Kim Jong-il’s list. Inside, projected large on the wall, performers acted out the late dictator’s taste. The gestures, in my mind, communicated values and ideologies one would expect from fascist dictator: they mimed running, fighting, explosions—it all felt very physical, aggressive, and melodramatic. Kim Jong-un’s list, on the other hand, felt playful; the gestures were far less violent and aggressive, and it was clear the performers were enjoying themselves. When the film ended, a block of text explained the context for the work, its is the previous version, and that Mario had made up the list of films.
As I was standing there reading the text, this question of arbitrariness swarmed around the work: why had Mario arbitrarily chosen Kim Jong-un’s list? Beyond the fact that the junior Kim’s list does not exist, why had he done the work in the first place?
On the flight back Minneapolis, I finished Heroes by Franco “Bifo” Berardi. In the book, Berardi positions arbitrariness or randomness as a key characteristic of fascism. Mussolini, for example, was obsessed with spectacle, opulence, and arbitrary gestures. It is thought that Italian fascism was, in some ways, the return of the baroque to Europe, a reinvestment in ostentatious and violent articulations of wealth and power; as Berardi writes,
“the political spectacle of Mussolini is the resurgence of the baroque cult of inessentiality, decoration, excess: arbitrary power.” Not merely a way to articulate power, arbitrariness is also a way to maintain power. Without transparency or the ability to make sense of its logic, arbitrary actions by a fascist regime, or impulsive decisions made by the dictators themselves, keep a society constantly guessing; unable to make sense of its governing logic, we are left confused, paranoid, powerless, and alienated.
Through the lens of arbitrary action, impulsiveness, we can start to see the differences in Kim Jong-il’s and Kim Jong-un’s types of fascism. Kim Jong-il was known as a calculated, strategic, manipulative dictator. He was known for his Songun “military-first” politics, being a skilled and duplicitous diplomat, from secret nuclear weapons testing to keeping massive numbers of political prisoners. While he was known for his coordinated marches and mass, organized spectacles, Kim Jong-ill mobilized covert modes of violence and control.
Kim Jong-un, on the other hand, loves spectacle and arbitrariness. From killing off most of his extended family to flaunting nuclear annihilation to inviting Dennis Rodman to hang out, the younger Kim’s style of fascist rule is much messier, less calculated, more akin to Mussolini’s baroque approach.
When it comes to film, Kim Jong-il, who kept his love of Hollywood secret, positioned film production publicly as a tool for political/social conditioning—a way to maintain fascist order. Kim Jung-un did not write a manifesto on film because what’s the point? Kim Jong-un watches what he wants, buys what he wants, threatens whom he wants, and kills whom he wants.
In Heroes, Berardi is interested in randomness both as an essential characteristic of fascism and of our current state of financial capitalism, or as he specifies, Jean Baudrillard’s theory of semiocapitalism. Semiocapitalism is when capitalism has moved away from financial value determined through labor production and time relationships; instead, financial value is determined through invisible, digital, randomized, algorithmic systems of cybernetic currency and fractured cognitive, digital labor. We no longer push gold bricks around; a global exchange of ones and zeros determines financial value. Without precise, transparent systems of value, where money flows appear arbitrary, unpredictable, and invisible, financial capitalism is allowed to go unchecked, leading us to our current state of mass alienation characterized by obsessive individualism, social Darwinism, and a president obsessed with spectacle, opulence, and arbitrary Twitter capitalization, who is himself a glowing example of unchecked financial capitalism. It’s no surprise that Donald Trump and Kim Jung-un are friendly and share characteristics like impulsiveness and arbitrariness. As Trump said recently, “We fell in love.
After making my way through Illusion Brought Me Here, Mario’s decision to make up Kim Jong-un’s favorite films began to crystallize. Mario’s research-based practice, as evidenced throughout the exhibition, focuses on oft-forgotten narratives, slippery memories, and perceptual myth-making to explore the inherently subjective nature of historical records and seemingly universal truths. Illusion Brought Me Here is specifically interested in mapping out Mario’s artistic impulses—impulses that act as a type of phantom guiding his modes of inquiry and artistic curiosity. It should come as no surprise that he would pair an older work, based on primary documents and academic research, with a piece of fiction. It is in this pairing that the works become something new entirely.
For me, Illusion Brought Me Here, as a whole, plays with the modernist myths of artistic impulse and the resulting works as pure, transcendent expression, instead of framing impulses as both something magical, ineffable, and something socially or culturally grounded. It makes sense, then, why Mario would explore the perils of impulse and subsequent arbitrariness as they relate to modes of fascism. He is grappling with his own impulses, as a type of both magic and logic. The exhibition flows between impulse and interrogation, a dialectical, endless feedback loop, one that tries to visualize the phantoms, psychological and social, that guide us and define history and meaning.
The One Minute to Act a Title project explores the perils, in my mind, of impulse: how impulse, if uninterrogated, can slip into arbitrariness and, just like the performers in the work, we find ourselves in endless loops of empty gestures of spectacle. To interrogate impulse is to try and understand and visualize causality which, in our current state of semiocapitalism and incipient fascism, is a form of survival.