Blue Hope in Blue Ray23 April 2021
The transitional and temporary nature of the art world
Neoliberal capitalistic institutions of contemporary art and higher education express conflict between the “national” and “transnational” as well as what is “temporary” and “permanent”. From special exhibitions to performances, any form of ephemeral art makes its “temporary” nature more precious and distinguished. Along with globalisation, an artwork validates its value and travels around the transnational art world via international exhibitions. However, considering the current condition of international students, it often seems like there is no such thing as a transnational place in the real world and becoming temporary means being vulnerable. Foreign students in Australia were told to “return to their home” yet are now not allowed to enter Australia.
Ultimate stranger belonging nowhere
For most international students floundering between two time zones, the discordant geography, policies, and social systems make us the ultimate foreigners who do not belong anywhere. I must sync my clock to Australian time, and most of my belongings are still stuck in storage in a Victorian suburb, while my body is in Korea. It feels like I am constantly floating in a boundless ocean.
Worse, this comes at a stupendous cost. Because I am not an official taxpayer, I have to pay enormous tuition fees in Australia. However, I still pay Australian taxes whenever I have earned a certain amount of money through my part time job or buy products like books and food in Melbourne.
On the other hand, for a “prodigal daughter” (the homecoming), the situation is not all too far from it. Because I am not affiliated with any university in my home country, I have to pay to use their facilities, such as the library. In Korea, students can only work if they take cyber or night courses. However, I am not eligible to work as a student doing an online course (which I am literally doing now) because my university is not a university in Korea. Student loans in Korea are also only available for students who chose to study at domestic institutions. I paid for student health insurance in Australia, but now have other bills from Korea because I am there.
I chose to leave the home country to study. However, I suddenly lost my right to Australian residency despite living in the country for almost two and a half years. On top of this, I could not be a Korean resident for a while, because a certain period of time spent in Korea is required to be considered a “resident”, even for a Korean.
Last year, during lockdown, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) live-streamed Ryoji Ikeda’s intense light and sound installation Spectra. The stream took place every Saturday from sunset to sunrise. I felt a strong bond with one or two people on the live chat during the stream. It felt like a new community to me. I liked the sound in between silence (reminiscent of the lockdown) and loudness (representative of turmoil). It was like a rope from the sky I could grasp to escape. I was relying on that monument as a beacon from the river to the sky. After I rushed back to Korea, only bringing my clothes and a few books, I watched this stream for quite a long time.
A lack of lucidity
The lives of international students are very precarious from the start. Student numbers seem to represent bank account numbers that send enormous tuition fees to the institution, which really requires the “going for broke” mindset. To be able to study “temporarily” with Australian students for a single semester, I pay the equivalent of two years of tuition fees in Korea. Of course, this is not new information. However, should it be the “new normal” to pay $17,888 per semester without the opportunity to wander around in a library?
The detrimental policies of universities and governments make this journey more uncertain. I have to prove the impact of COVID 19, whether I have been “forced” to reduce my study load. However, the university never shares any details on when they are planning to allow international students to safely return. Universities require students to be very clear, but the information they give us is always so ambiguous… or they remain silent. Meanwhile, the Australian Open is, surprisingly, held this year. As the Australian education and training industry is a huge part of the Australian economy, why are international students considered “a serious risk” to the country? What makes international students too “dangerous?” Is it due to power relations between different sectors (i.e., the Australian education and training industry having less power than sports and entertainment)? Or does this decision align with the government’s attitude towards immigrants and refugees? Or are these just delusions from ambiguity?
Was it really a fever dream to become broke studying abroad? One fact that many people do not want to accept is that not everyone can make their own world. Everyone’s career story cannot end up like La La Land. Even before entering the art world, all I have now is debt and uncertainty. I might have made a “terrible life choice” like that well-known meme in The Simpsons.
Nevertheless, I still believe. In Eric Rohmer’s 1986 film Green Ray, Delphine looks for a green ray, in search of love, hope or a miracle. Like Delphine, I believed that Ikeda’s blue lights could be my Green Ray. I still believe in Blue Hope.
*An international graduate student pursuing a career in the contemporary art world.