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Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: De-Terriblization with Mark Russell

markrussellIn Seoul’s Hongdae district, Colin Marshall talks with Mark Russell, author of the books Pop Goes KoreaK-Pop Now!, and the coming novel Young-hee and the Pullocho. They discuss what unites Korean pop culture other than having made by Korean people; the tendency toward mixture that characterizes so much of the country culture; his early experience with Korean culture practicing tae kwon do in high school; where the “if this doesn’t work, I can go teach English in Korea” took him, how he envisioned that prospect, and how he found himself on a plane to Korea the same week he brought up the idea; the “completely different” Seoul of today from the “bare” one he found in the nineties, where Pringles could excite him; what in Korea doesn’t change, amid all the change that has gone on; the European look backward, and the Korean look forward; how Korea makes the impossible possible, but sometimes takes the possible and screws it up; the bygone days when every foreigner was assumed to be an American; whether K-pop saturates Korea more than American pop saturates American; what, exactly, makes pop music uncool; the consequences of the fact that “most people don’t live at the PhD level; what makes Korean blockbusters more interesting than American ones, including not having quite cracked the “scientific blockbuster code”; the Korean popular culture his first discovered; what happens when you go drinking with a favorite director; what happens when you look too closely into the “sausage factory” of art production; the pop golden age people remember from three years ago; when he realized his own life in Korea had taken shape; his plunge into the Seoul alternative music scene; when Busan, not Seoul, had the best music in Korea; the role Hongdae has played in Korean music, having become the Korean music scene itself; why groups have trouble touring the country; Korea’s lack of unconventional “slots” in which to live, especially outside Seoul; when he began writing fiction, and how he wrote a novel set in Korea while in Spain; the all-important “de-terriblization” process in art; how much insight traditional Korean folktales give him into the culture today; the foreigner’s freedom to “get things wrong in your own way”; his years in Spain, and the difference drinking wine there versus drinking wine in Korea; what he began to miss about Seoul while away; his impressions of the Spanish economic crisis; his sense of Korea getting better and better, economically as well as culturally, despite the fact that he “wants to be as cynical as everyone else.”

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Mona Simpson

On the latest Los Angeles Review of Books podcast, I talk with Mona Simpson, author of the novels Anywhere But Here, Off Keck Road and My Hollywood. Her latest is Casebook, a story of marriage, divorce, boyhood and surveillance, told as a text within a text and set in this most suitable city for detective stories, Los Angeles. 

You can stream the conversation just above, listen to it on the LARB’s site, or download it on iTunes.

Guardian Cities: A Stay in Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Las Vegas

 “You have to promise not to drink the Kool-Aid there.” That’s what a colleague familiar with Las Vegas’s infamous “Downtown Project” told me just before I went out to experience this outlandish experiment in urban revival for myself.

Certainly, the $350m (£225m) investment in businesses and other spaces in the city’s depressed core by multi-millionaire internet entrepreneur and retailer Tony Hsieh is in a fragile state. Some of the excitement and acclaim that met the effort at its beginning in 2012 has already congealed into a mixture of ridicule, schadenfreude and plain confusion: did Hsieh really think he could run a city like an internet startup? What did he really intend in the first place? And has he already abandoned ship?

Hsieh’s story, one well-told among American urbanists, resonates with the country’s culture on several levels. The Harvard-educated child of Taiwanese immigrants became rich in the late 1990s when Microsoft purchased LinkExchange, the internet advertising firm he had founded after ditching his corporate job.

Hsieh’s subsequent foray into venture capitalism led to his investment in the idea of an online shoe store, which soon morphed into the “service company that just happens to sell shoes” (in Hsieh’s own description) now better known as Zappos. When he brought his company to downtown Las Vegas, Hsieh also brought his entrepreneurial spirit, his reputation as an unpretentious bon vivant, and his media-friendly sense of spectacle. Furthermore, he brought his interest in privately creating a new start for the city’s depressed centre – its original gambling district, before the supercharged Strip took over.

Read the whole thing at The Guardian.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: Assume the Impossibility with Laurence Pritchard

laurencepritchardIn Seoul’s Gangnam district, Colin Marshall talks with with Laurence Pritchard, writer, teacher, and enthusiast of Korean literature. They discuss the Korean phenomenon of the “English gentleman” and the presence of English culture in the country; the idea that westerners “are all incredibly promiscous”; the expectations of an Englishman; the constant hurry of Seoul; his experience in France versus the Korean France of the imagination; the importance of swirling with the biggest wine glass you can get; the “disaster” of Korean bread the better part of a decade ago, and how it comes up against the English refusal to mix the sweet and the savory; what exposure to Korean culture he had before meeting his Korean wife in Paris; how he tuned into Korean film’s tendency to mix styles; what literature has taught him about the central idea of han; Dalkey Archive’s library of Korean literature; how he has come to get a handle on Korean class distinctions and intergenerational conflict; how his unhesitating decision to move to Korea came about; when he realized the true strictness of the hierarchies here, especially through how they manifest in novels; the greater importance of the president of Samsung than the president of South Korea; what it’s like teaching English to high-powered executives; the drinking habits in Seoul (such as going straight to hard liquor and falling down escalators) versus those seen in English pubs; the failure of the “hipster” or “bohemian” idea, let alone irony, to penetrate Korean dress; the expatriate tendency to demonstrate they know more about the culture than you do; the ways that people in Korea don’t connect; the parallels between attitudes toward Park Chung-hee and Margaret Thatcher; the default business of the fried-chicken shop; the difference between getting into French culture with French literature and getting into Korean culture with Korean literature; what goes into a “Gangnam novella”; the advantage of writing about Seoul rather than writing about Paris; what he gains by having a life and family established in Korea, and the prospect of doing a language exchange with his own daughter; how you don’t go up to someone in England and say, “Hey, I’m from England”; the promising Korean literature translations of Deborah Smith; whether you can work with the “great truths” imparted by literature when plunged into a foreign culture; the necessity of assuming the impossibility of knowing about the foreign culture you plunge into; and his experience in a Seoul “bullet taxi,” just like the ones Kim Young-ha describes in I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: Sonic Bibimbap with Bernie Cho

berniechoIn Seoul’s Garosu-gil, Colin Marshall talks with Korean music industry expert Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a creative agency that provides digital media, marketing, and distribution services to Korean pop music artists. They discuss why the world now knows what K-pop is; how Korean youth culture, pop culture, and digit culture have become one in the same; Psy as outlier and representative of K-pop, “the bad boy who became the golden boy,” who put a dent in the industry’s pursuit of perfection; how “made in Korea” can work, internationally, as a label; whether the concept of “crazy Korea,” like “weird Japan,” has any traction; the big technological differences between the time of the 1990s J-pop boom and the modern K-pop boom; the musician’s perceived need to break out of Korea for success; how, growing up in the United States, he became aware of Korean popular culture; his disenchantment with the “boo-hoo session” of Asian American studies; the accidental meeting that got him into music television; what he discovered in Seoul’s Hongdae neighborhood; the Korean government’s investment in internet technology, and the digital and cultural revolution that followed; why Korean pop artists have, in the recent past, made so little money; the use of music not as a business, but as a business card; Korea’s other DMZ: the closed-garden “digital media zone” of Korea-only technology; how he first saw the seemingly wholly under-construction Seoul almost twenty years ago; how the vibe of the 2002 World Cup has carried over into the present; what Los Angeles and Seoul have to learn from each other; how his advantage in coming from America has gone away; how K-pop has become “sonic bibimbap,” uniquely Korean in its mixture of various ingredients; what Koreanness internationally-marketed Korean music retains; his “What am I even doing?” moment on a flight from Los Angeles to Seoul; why the origin of the word “piracy” reveals it as a good thing, and how it sparked the British Invasion; what he makes of the return of the 1960s and 70s “golden age” of Korean pop and R&B; and why he tells artists they shouldn’t do everything in English (and why he plays them Sigur Rós).

Download the interview on Soundcloud above, here as an MP3, or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: Everything I Learned Was Wrong with Hyunwoo Sun

Processed with VSCOcam with c2 presetIn Seoul’s Mapo-gu, Colin Marshall talks with Hyunwoo Sun, founder of the Korean language-learning site Talk to Me in Korean. They discuss whether a space alien with no knowledge of any human language should first study English or Korean; how he got into teaching his native language; how the strangeness of seeing foreigners speaking Korean has disappeared for him; the state of Korean English education, and how he managed not to get permanently put off language study by it despite the fact that “everything I learned about English was wrong”; how he corrected his own English by re-studying sounds first, going to Telnet for help, recording his own voice on audio cassette, and finding pen pals; the satisfaction of perceiving the lack of humor in Korean subtitles to English-language movies; why foreigners in Korea speak less Korean than foreigners in Japan speak Japanese or foreigners in China speak Chinese; how Koreans secretly all pay attention to any interaction between a foreigner and another Korean; what changes in his personality depending on the language he speaks, such as his Korean sentimentality or his English logic; the advantages he has realized his own language and culture has, such as the tight bonds that they form between individuals; why so many young people in Korea have the goal of going to Seoul; the luxurious dorm he got to stay in during high school by being one of the top hundred students; the battle that went on in Gwangju, his hometown, in 1980, the year he was born, and how it strengthened his family; the kind of confidence it took to start a language podcast; what he’s learned about how foreigners learn Korean, and some strategies he recommends to any language-learners; why he has now spent most of his life in Seoul; the other cities in which he’d like to live his same lifestyle, but in other languages; how he plans to raise his baby son multilingual; and the coming generation of international Koreans who, like the buskers who have appeared over the past few years on the streets of Seoul, have the confidence to use their dormant language abilities.

Download the interview on Soundcloud above, here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E67: Extremely Permanent with Doug Pray

dougprayBeneath the rock of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Colin Marshall talks with documentarian Doug Pray, maker of such films as Hype! on the Seattle 1990s grunge scene, Infamy on graffiti artists, Surfwise on Doc Paskowitz’s traveling family, and Art & Copy on the advertising industry. His new Levitated Mass examines the complicated movement of the rock all the way from Riverside to its site at LACMA. They discuss how often he’s stood under the rock since making the movie, and what he hears when he does; how his projects all look at misunderstood subcultures; how he thinks about giving voice to critics of his subjects, be they rocks, art movements, or industries; the importance of “lifting the veil” in a documentary; how it takes “a disaster or something great” to bring Los Angeles together, and the way this great thing found have turned into a disaster; the similarities between the time of the rock’s movement through town and that of the 1984 Olympics; the comparison between the movement of the rock, and the movement of the space shuttle Endeavor several months later; the agonizing formation of the rock’s route; how a large-scale art project like this compares to a large-scale public works project like the subway; the “absurdity of the ask,” and the work’s resultant “extreme permanence”; why its being a rock bothers people; the way that not just the artwork but “the happening became its own thing”; how he became aware of Heizer’s art, and what he thought about his piece in Seattle when he saw it during the Hype! era; how East Lansing got, and lost, their own Heizer; the current debate over permanence and impermanence in Los Angeles; how the best cities anthologize all their eras, and the way this city has found its mixture; why “the ideas about Los Angeles didn’t update,” how the city “can be so hated that I actually enjoy it,” and why he finds arguments about it versus New York “hysterically stupid”; what it meant to him when he saw a duplex driven town the street in X: The Unheard Music; his interest in people who feel the entire world has turned against them; what makes Heizer “the real deal”; how, in this era, Los Angeles “just has more intention”; and its conversion from a city that supposedly “has nothing” to one that “as everything.”

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E66: Who Am I? with Craig Davidson

craigdavidsonIn a pub in Toronto’s Swansea, Colin Marshall talks with novelist Craig Davidson, author of Rust and BoneThe FighterSarah Court, and most recently The Fighter, all under his on name, and author of horror fiction under the pseudonyms Nick Cutter and Patrick Lestewka. They discuss Toronto’s distance, geographical and in sensibility, from Niagara falls; his potential attraction to desperate settings; modern man’s longing for “the test” to be put to; how he came to write books containing no pursuit more genteel than factory labor; Niagara Falls’ national bisection, with the black-and-white divide on one side and red-and-white on the other; the effects of the possibility stream into which we each are born; his use of pseudonyms, and whether readers cross over from one to the other; his writing, no matter under which name, novels of the visceral; what Stephen King knows about putting the grotesque right up next to the mundanities of the working class; the decline of boxing, and its continued importance as a stage for pure conflict; the way a fight lets you answer the question “Who am I?”, and what he learned when he lost two of them in the name of promotion for The Fighter; the 90-percent female fiction-buying audience, and how he writes for the other 10 percent; how we love wrestling as kids for its moral clarity, then come to see “the general patina of gray”; what counts, in his books, as purely Canadian; and the one simple thing you must do if you don’t love your job.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

(photo: Kevin Kelly)

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E65: Unerotic City with Mark Kingwell

x`At the University of Toronto, Colin Marshall talks with Mark Kingwell, professor of philosophy and author of such books as A Civil Tongue: Justice, Dialogue, and the Politics of PluralismThe World We Want: Restoring Citizenship in a Fractured AgeConcrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City, and most recently the collection Unruly Voices: Essays on Democracy, Civility and the Human Imagination. They discuss how the “ongoing argument” that is Canada manifests in Toronto; the University of Toronto’s thorough integration into the city itself; why outsiders think of Toronto as a kind of idea of the city made concrete; the many parallels between Toronto and Los Angeles, including the derision both cities draw; a “walking city” as a city where you can walk not just in but between places; where the Torontonian’s perception of distance doesn’t quite match the geography, as in the crossing of the Don Valley; what got him thinking about the city as a problem of consciousness; the “great stumbling block” of the “world class” designation, which probably means nothing; how to use philosophy and cities as nexuses of subjects, and the benefits of dispensing “mind candy” like Simpsons references in the process; public spaces from the impossible-in-this-century Central Park to the counterintuitively functional Nathan Phillips Square; the Toronto sub-industry of assigning grand names to alleys; quasi-public private space, and how the nicer you dress, the more of it you find; America’s legal piety versus its misbehavior; Canada’s respect for authority versus its explosions of passive-aggression; what you don’t see when you walk through Toronto, such as any element of the erotic; this city as “a whole bunch of silver medals that add up to a pretty nice tally”; the distinction between politeness (which he doesn’t actually find among Canadians) and civility; why Torontonians think Rob Ford became mayor; whether a city needs a center, and whether that center must be a public space or a monument of some kind; what it means that the CN Tower represents Toronto; and whether Toronto will keep playing its role as the “real archetypal city.”

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E64: The Greatest Point of Relevance with Alex Bozikovic

alexbozikovicIn Toronto’s Christie Pits neighborhood, Colin Marshall talks with Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic, who also writes for such publications as DwellWallpaperToronto Life, and Spacing. They discuss whether Honest Ed’s has any architectural significance to go with its social significance, and what its imminent disappearance says about the urbanism of Toronto’s future; its Los Angeles-like interest in becoming a “more walkable, more urban, more interesting” city; how it nevertheless went high-rise early on, even in its suburbs; the cognitive dissonance of Canada, an urban country that insists upon its rurality; whether the critics of downtown condos have it right when they call them dull; the ways Jane Jacobs’ spirit still animates Toronto; its reputation as a city of “great second-rate buildings”; the deal with the Castle Frank station; whether Frank Gehry counts as more of a Torontonian architect, or more of an Angeleno architect; what it means that Toronto will soon get its own high-profile Gehry project, commissioned, no less, by the family of Honest Ed himself; the struggles of a new-wave coffee shop to get permission to open in a “quiet” neighborhood like Christie Pits; how he got interested in both architecture and the city itself at the University of Toronto; what to keep in mind for an architecturally rich view of the city; whether Canadians believe their culture, cities, and neighborhoods more fragile than they really are; what he learned from his time in New York, the city where “public space is the most robust”; the “anti-urban resentment” that holds back Canada and other countries as well; who fights for the preservation of the Sam the Record Man sign; the nonexistence, in Toronto, of “a magical place you drive to”; Toronto as “a bit of a mess,” aesthetically; the important difference between prettiness and vitality; how Toronto  has only just entered its “greatest point of relevance”; and how complaints indicate a city’s greatness.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.