Since the temporary halting of the Korean War in 1953, each year between the months of April and July, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) talks to the world through a calendar of meticulously planned events and well-choreographed mass gatherings staged as a reaction to external forces.
In addition, key national days such as commemorating the beginning or the end of the conflict, the birth or death of its leaders, or Labour Day, are turned into newsworthy international events. The DPRK government operates in a way that demonstrates how the leadership strives to defend its international reputation. This process is rarely acknowledged beyond the usual association of the country with saber-rattling, political hearsay and human rights abuses.
For the past 62 years, the DPRK propaganda apparatus has honed a fluid narrative of threat and bluster whilst maintaining a delicate balance between nationalism, outright provocation followed by reconciliation attempts. In all aspects of its cultural production, North Korea paints itself either as the victim of external threats or the nation-saving hero, tertium non datur. The DPRK is engaged in a perpetual exercise of building and maintaining domestic legitimacy against a fast-changing outside world.
This communication process and its techniques are rarely given due consideration in Western media. Photographic artist Chris Barrett and researcher and writer Gianluca Spezza take a hard copy look at the increasingly digital collision of visual narrative: the North Korean idea of itself being the most independent country in the world, opposed to a western perspective of the DPRK being the most isolated country on Earth.
Icons of Rhetoric seeks to explain and connect what North Korea shows to the world with what we, the western world, see of it. The project translates the official images that North Korea presents, reflecting our own stereotyped view of the country. It also develops a narrative that gives credit to the idea of reading North Korea through its own discourse, while holding a mirror up to our own preconceptions and methods of mass communication.
Barrett’s images combined with Spezza’s writing give space to consider otherwise throwaway images through the concept of digitally appropriated images processed onto instant film. The collaboration produces silent sound bites manifested in a different approach to documenting the country ‘we’ call North Korea and ‘they’ call the DPRK.
Icons of Rhetoric is made possible by the-impossible-project.com