K-Pop (Korean Pop Music) is coming to Miami — sort of. The American K-Pop band, EXP (short for "experiment") is making its Art Basel debut this Friday at the Sagamore Hotel. And the boys couldn't have chosen a better location.
“I’m Making a Boy Band” (IMMABB), which began as Bora Kim’s MFA thesis project at Columbia University, is a perfect fit for Miami’s iteration of Basel: an intoxicating mix of pop entertainment and high-brow art, surrounded by a culturally hybrid city.
“Art Basel Miami is kind of different than any other version. It’s about pop and celebrity and parties,” says Samantha Shao, one of the three managers behind EXP. “It’s an interesting angle for us to insert ourselves in this art and pop world because there’s a weird gap in between.”
Kim, who was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, originally wanted to explore ideas of gender, sexuality, and cultural appropriation by documenting the process of creating a K-Pop-inspired boy band without any Korean members.
In our rapidly homogenizing cultural landscape, EXP challenges the typical idea of what it means to be “K-Pop.” Similar to Miami’s Latin-American culture, EXP’s new genre of American K-Pop is simply bringing the style across the border.
“We’re trying to blur the idea of labeling what is art and what is just pop. We are shooting everything; we are trying to make those processes visible, trying to make people see what goes into the product that you see,” says Kim.
Part of this sociological/art experiment includes unconventional performances. In a recent solo show, crew members held lights and followed the EXP boys onstage as they performed.
“It was so much light, the audience could really feel their breath, and it became so alien. Too much light, too much body, too much sweat,” says Kim.
Despite its dense artistic and sociological background, the group’s ultimate goal is to be recognized in Korea and perform there just like their own idols, Big Bang (#NoSleepTillKorea).
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But loyal K-Pop fandom has not been receptive to the idea of an American-based K-Pop group. With just a few posts on its Instagram page, EXP immediately received visceral feedback from English-speaking K-Pop fans.
“A lot of the K-Pop fans are trying to determine that we’re not K-Pop and they themselves are not Korean. So they’re sort of like, 'This is not K-Pop!' And it raises a lot of questions about authenticity that we’re trying to push. I’m not really interested in west versus east dichotomy. But does cultural authenticity really exist?” Karin Kuroda, EXP manager, asks.
Kim insists that part of the project’s goal is to foster a conversation about cultural hybridity, homogenization, and appropriation. K-Pop’s origins can be traced back to Western music in the late 1800s, when American missionaries taught popular melodies to Korean students. But since then, K-Pop has developed into its own complex and distinct system of cultural export.
“The music is really interesting in terms of cultural ownership, because it’s so highly influenced by Western music, so now we’re producing something that turned once more, because the boys write the music and our producer is American and there’s all these mixtures of genres. And then we give them guidelines because we need to prove to fans that we are K-Pop,” Kim said. “So I think we’re raising questions of cultural appropriation. I don’t think this is the stage that we figure out what it is or come to a conclusion.”
While American pop culture is oversexualized, lacking censorship, and revolving around a free market, K-Pop was originally largely funded by the Korean government, prone to self-censorship, and is highly feminine. In an attempt to bridge these political and cultural differences, Kim and the IMMABB team hold culture and “cuteness” workshops for the bandmates. This process basically involves training the members in appearing humble, young, and innocent for their fans.
“At the beginning of the project, we replicated a lot of games and activities that they do in those shows. We really think Korean idols are excelling at performing gender in a really cute way, which is unseen [in American pop culture] but way more common in K-Pop. It’s very homoerotic but pleasing to female fans,” explained Kuroda.
This affinity for the young and cute can easily be seen in Psy’s latest viral hit, “Daddy,” a song that blurs the lines of appropriation itself, borrowing the titular hook from Will.I.Am’s “I Got It From My Mama.”
“I didn’t expect the controversy we got, because, I mean, there are K-Pop groups who do their music videos with American football players walking down the streets of NYC, so you can definitely see and feel the American presence in the genre. So I guess it can go one way, but if it goes the other way, then it's controversial, which is baffling,” said EXP member Šime.
YouTube user “Moofins” recently commented on a rehearsal video for EXP's song “Luv/Wrong” saying, “If a K-pop boy group did this no offense but it'd seem much cooler idk why but this is pretty good nonetheless.”
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Perhaps the K-Pop fandom hate will dissipate as EXP’s exposure to Korean culture increases and its performances become more "authentic." Or maybe it’ll remain a croqueta sitting in the display window of a Connecticut bakery: stale and out of place.
Either way, the EXP members will be ready to perform tomorrow night, which will include a preview of the band's latest song, “Feel Like This.” And according to Kim, ”Hugging is allowed.”