Q&A with Grace Suh

Grace Suh, a 2018 Rocket Grant recipient, is in the midst of creating her multimedia musical Supreme/Being. It tells the chaotic story of an American TV talent search called “The Voice Supreme,” whose finalists include a former star of North Korea’s state-sponsored entertainment. You can find out more about the project here. I checked in with Grace earlier this month to see how she had developed the show and where she was in the process.~Drea: What was the process of developing Supreme/Being from a nugget of an idea to an accepted Rocket Grant application?Grace: The idea for Supreme/Being began several months previously in a play-writing workshop, where the feedback I received — that my script seemed to hinge on very specific visual direction — helped me realize that what I had in mind may be more multimedia project than straightforward play.I’m a visual person so creating the photo collages that became my application images really helped the idea coalesce. I did those first, and they helped guide the written portions. Those written portions of the application forced me to refine my project.

One of Grace’s photo collages for Supreme/Being

Drea: What stage are you in the project?Grace: I finished the script in November and now I’m at a precarious point where I have to stop marinating on it by myself and start getting it into the world.Drea: The visuals of the show are so essential to establishing its tone. I’m struck by the use of “monumental imagery” of both the PDRK–the Socialist Realist kitsch portraits of north Korean leaders surrounded by folksy landscapes–and the West’s larger-than-life depiction of fame and celebrity. Can you discuss the creation of the visual elements for the show as well these uses of “monumental imagery”?Grace: Since college I have had an uneasy, guilty fascination with North Korean propaganda, especially the kitschy, candy colored, relentlessly wholesome, outsized posters and murals that overshadow daily life and streetscapes there. These paintings feature people who look just like me and my North Korean relatives, and are often the only color in their otherwise drab environments. They are also hand-painted, at least originally. As an artist and writer I think a lot about their anonymous creators, about the imagination and skill and handiwork and humanity they show and the complicated messages they communicate.I also think about North Korean culture and the ways in which certain traditional Korean values and folkways — the reverence for music and dance, group dynamics, ancient costumes and symbols and concepts, such as supreme leaders — have been preserved, appropriated and misused. As for the West’s obsession with celebrity, we’re all aware of how that has perverted our norms and influenced all of our behaviors. The parallels and contrasts between the two worlds are stark and rich and bear inquiry. We are all drawn to the monumental, for things and people and experiences that are larger than life. What does this mean, about all of us?

A mural in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea

Drea: I’m really interested in the use of visual and plot absurdity and excess to illustrate this moment in world affairs. Can you discuss that approach?Grace: The news just keeps topping itself, doesn’t it. Geopolitics, with all its hypocrisy and atrocity and contradiction, is the height of absurdity, and North Korea doubly so. There are dozens of earnest books and stories about the tragedy of North Korea, but to move beyond pity or condemnation and back to the humanity of the people who are enslaved there, it feels to me that absurdity is the only way to go.Furthermore, music, art and live performance are the most powerful tools of the North Korean leadership. North Korea produces the largest arts festivals in the world, with tens thousands of performers and hundreds of thousands of attendees. It’s a performer’s dream… a literally captive audience! So…, music and art and live performance are obvious vehicles for the story of North Korea.~Supreme/Being is still in its preliminary stages with plans for a workshop production later in the year. We’re looking forward to Grace’s progress!Drea DiCarlo, January 2019

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