퇴폐미 — The Beauty of Decay and the Marketing of Nostalgia

Michael Hurt
Sep 20, 2020 · 6 min read

For people under the age of 30, Instagram is everything. It is the positive definition of the world, and the summary presentation of all possible categories of social existence, against which there is nothing else to see. It is the Alpha and Omega, the end and the beginning, the very definition of what is worthy, trendy, and that which exists at all.

These days, everyone knows what Instagram is. It’s the photo-centric, visual version of Facebook or Twitter, in which one makes a post around a picture; or you could say that the picture is the post, whichever you’d like. But importantly, Instagram posts are hybrid texts in that they include both visual information as the main picture and textual information as a caption or comments.

The goal of this column is to publish pictures made within the hashtag categories that are popular these days Korean Instagram and that define the lanes of thought that make up what’s trending in the Korean popular consciousness.It is worth noting that the majority of this conversation is defined by girls and women, people generally under the age of thirty, and is very Seoul-centric, because that’s who and where the leading ideas emanate from.

As a visual sociologist exploring the Korean Instagram subculture, I seek out the idea leaders within the hashtags that define trends in Korean popular thought. In this column, I seek out marker of popular and trending thought, but also how they find expression, and how idea leaders define the terms of a broader conversation before those ideas are watered down as they become mass market popular.

#퇴폐미 (The”Beauty of Decay”) and the Marketing of Nostalgia

Koreans with aesthetic sensibilities are in the midst of an intense and prolonged moment of nostalgic reverie. From the several iterations of the popular drama “Reply 1988” to 1994 to 1997. Neighborhoods around the capital city are awash in the marketing of nostalgia for analog, used, obsolete, and otherwise old things to the point that it easy to argue that what drives commercial rent up in some areas is the extent to which the surrounding urban aesthetics are way down, down…in the proverbial dumps.

One of the coolest, hippest, gentrifying areas of Seoul is Euljiro 3-ga, or “Hipjiro.” For decades, it was a normal, industry-specific Seoul neighborhood dominated by print houses, ironworks, and grumpy men who might’ve wanted a cheap beer and spicy squid on a hard day’s night. Nowadays, though, the major flavor notes of the area are defined by colorful and moody American Chinese or Vietnamese-themed bar/bistros that look like set pieces straight out of a Won Kar Wai film. But the aesthetic keywords are OLD. GRITTY. ANALOG. USED.

Purple lights, purple hair. One might think the hashtag in which she participates might be “cyberpunk,” which operates in a blue/purple hair and lights kind of mode, but the model (@_42agassi_) actually thinks of categorizes herself within the #vaporwave hashtag. It’s what the kid are into. “Cyberpunk” is soooo last century. Location/stage courtesy of @thestudiohbc

In terms of the look of these kinds of pictures on Instagram, the elements in them are such things as adding “film grain” and other forms of visual distortion such as light leaks, scratches on the negative, or even dust through filters in various apps. Other notes added to the mix are aesthetics picked up from other artistic depictions of urban decay, such as in 80s/90s #cyberpunk or in the 2010s #vaporwave genre of art and music.

Korean popular culture was caught up with the issue of perceived cultural loss in the wake of take-no-prisoners, compressed, and often violent modernization of the 1960s and 70s, which found expression in the 80s and 90s in blockbuster films such as 1992’s Sopyonje, the invention and rapid spread of modern-masquerading-as-traditional musical forms such as samulnori, and the fast-as-wildfire spread of traditional pungmul drumming and traditional dance groups across Korean college campuses and throughout the Korean global diaspora.

In a parallel way, Korean popular consciousness is now also concerned with notions of loss. But it is an interestingly new take on the feeling. It is now not based purely on the whims of people being dragged into the existential crises of middle age who begin pining for markers of their youth and expressing it through the purchasing power of their demographic; nay, it is rather something a bit more elevated, as a lament for a loss of things never had, by young people who never knew life without social media, instant digital gratification, and the pressures of navigating multiple, context-contingent identities. From what I have seen and heard, and from working within the thought-memes that this generation finds cool, it seems to me that the average 20-something is pining for the greener grass of the slower, easier, cooler time immediately prior to this one, which just happens to be the fertile soil for all the aesthetic things currently in vogue. From rap to trap to K-POP music, or the graphic and gritty realism of genre-blending BONG JOON HO films, they all are considered cool because of their 80s/90s antecedents, as the cool kids these days all know RUN-DMC (or at least their t-shirts), and they know the grimy aesthetics of pivotal films in Korean auteur cinema such as Green Fish or From Me to You even if they don’t know their names. So they pine for the times in which these products came into being. They pine for the seemingly simpler times that produced the pure forms of the things they like today.

Model @seol_kee loves her gothic lolita looks from Japan, but in this backdrop in Incheon’s Chinatown, the picture suddenly starts to take on a spooky look right out of Japanese horror, and the more cutesy she tries to be, the scarier she looks. The beauty of horror?

This is a kind of romanticized nostalgia for things that look better in the greener pastures across the fence of time. The way that sort of thing seems out of place as it’s worn on the sleeve is what we mistakenly call out hipsters for as a mawkish display of “irony.” But “irony” is not the problem. The poor curation of artifacts of a perceived lost cultural past is what we find irritatingly puerile, misinformed, and disingenuous.

What this nostalgia fetish forgets about cassette tapes or negative film is that they are now forgotten relics for a reason— those media were imperfect, prone to error, and as unwieldy as they were relatively expensive. That’s what the kids don’t know.

The more I shot model @seol_kee at nighttime, the more our interpretations turned towards the macabre. As I showed her the spooky effect begotten by using an extremely slow shutter speed of 1/4 of a second with flash the more she just went with it tilted her head to look as frightening as possible. Since there’s a place for that in Japanese/Korean horror— and all the artifacts of analog that makes the scary look beautiful in the relevant hashtag today.

But what we have forgetten is that older forms of things like film or phonographs forced a more tactile, personal relationship with the things we did, like listening to music or taking pictures of friends and family. That’s what made the acts of enjoying or recording personal and almost ritualistic — and what defined an additional layer of fun if you weren’t born in the era of doing those things. That’s what WE forget as we have become bedazzled with the delight of the Digital.

The romance, rituals, and the fetish objects created as the byproducts of analog life are the things the “kids” are into and what the “boomers” have forgotten. For older Koreans, new meant good, while traditional or old was bad. For newer Koreans, old or decayed or analog is an interesting, new style point, the truly new New. This is where the “beauty of decay” comes from — it is the charm of the older and analog. They are the analog totem objects that the youngsters marvel at and fantastically fetishize. We old-timers are more than happy to gleefully chuck these totems in the garbage even as the kids scramble to pick them up, reexamine them, and put them up on a wall to guide the way to that next, newer, cooler thing.

Young people like model @_42agassi_ live in the shadow of analog, which is Romantic, tactile, gritty, and seemingly more real. Artifacts of the medium — such as film grain or a shaky-cam effect caused by a slow shutter — add a Romantic sense of analog’s messy danger, and helps define the hashtagged sense of the “beauty of decay” here.

And this is the reason I now shoot in “Hipjiro,” Yeoljeongdo near Namyeong #1 Line station, and actually the Sewoon Market area in Jongno 4-ga. They’re all old and hence hip, just dirty enough to be trendy, and thereby full of low enough rents to drive Korean-style gentrification forward.

The fetishization of retro and kitsch runs strong here at the indubitably stylish Doohwadang Cafe (@duhwadang) in Yeoljeong-do. Model @justkim_ wears a dress from Ukrainian designer LIME, which matches her retro-hip environment.

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