Korea Burn heats up July 3-7

by Josh Doyle
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

In 2011, Chung Shin-yeob of Seoul made his way to Nevada in search of a city called Black Rock: the epicenter of weird; a countercultural headquarters of sorts. He wanted to become a resident there, but his timing had to be perfect. Black Rock is only a city for one week of the year. Any other time, it’s just an empty space in the desert.

For one week at the end of August, this corner of the desert plays host to Burning Man, a seven-day festival known for its leave-no-trace principle, colorful expressions of individuality and open-minded community. It’s a festival where 40-foot statues are built to stand for only one week, where people dress in clothing fit for a rave on some distant moon (or wear nothing at all) and where the only entertainment, food and shelter is what you bring, build and share with everyone else.

Looking back on his first Burning Man, Chung, or “Shinmasta” as he’s known among Burners, can only describe the event as “awesome.” Maybe he’s too awestruck to say more, but his actions speak loudly. Whereas most people leave Burning Man with a head full of memories and a three-day hangover, Chung left with an idea: He wanted to take the festival home.

“I wanted to share the experience of Burning Man culture in Korea,” Chung says.

It was an ambitious plan. When you look at the cultural differences between California, where Burning Man originated, and Korea, you can predict a few problems. The number of people in Korea willing to be publicly nude, dye their hair pink or walk around on stilts is probably about 1 percent of what it is in the U.S. None of these acts are a requirement at Burning Man, but they’ve all become pretty standard.

Hunter Lind, a California native and several-time Black Rock resident, once lived around the corner from Baker Beach, where Burning Man started in 1986. Now he’s helping shape Korea’s regional Burning Man event, known as Korea Burn, by heading up ticket design and guiding this year’s theme. He says getting Korea Burn off the ground hasn’t been easy.

“Getting a project like this done in Korea … in such a conservative country, is really hard. I’m still in awe at how well they have executed it,” says Lind.

But the world belongs to those who won’t take no for an answer. Chung and a handful of others held the first Korea Burn on a beach near Incheon in 2011. There were no tickets then, just a desire to share that feeling of freedom and community. The Korean incarnation is now entering its fourth year, with attendance in the thousands. Like Burning Man itself, Korea Burn’s growth has been exponential, requiring yearly changes of venue to fit the growing crowd. No one is sure how big it will get, but one thing Korea has proven time and again is its ability to take something small and make it 1980’s Pac-Man-famous overnight. The instant popularity of cafés, Psy and colorful hiking gear are the most obvious testaments to this reality.

So far, it’s still in the catching on phase, at least with Koreans. The festival’s last couple of years have been exceptional events where many claimed to have enjoyed their best times in Korea. The problem, however, is not enough of them were Korean.

Park Mi-joo, an art journalist and Seoulite, was among last year’s Burners. She loves Korea Burn, but says there are multiple reasons for why so few Koreans took part last year. The first point she makes is that it “looks like a foreigner festival.”

It’s an easy perspective to understand. Walking around at last year’s Burn we could have been anywhere in Northern California, Ontario or even Australia; it did not feel like a remote beach in Korea.

Looking back at the footage he captured of Korea Burn last year, Lind says “the ratio of foreigners to Koreans was even higher than I thought. It was about 80 percent foreigners to 20 percent Koreans.”

Park pointed out that the problem is mostly a lack of awareness, and the Korea Burn team is taking steps to improve the ratio of Korean visitors to this year’s Burn.

After finishing the first-ever all-Hangeul version of the flyer, Lind is feeling hopeful: “I really predict this year to be much more of a cultural melting pot.”

Their tactics sound promising, but there are cultural differences that no amount of clever outreach will solve. Park’s second observation for why Koreans aren’t interested is more of a sanitary one: the lack of shower facilities, and the icky idea of sleeping in tents. Well, you can’t convince everyone.

But for those who welcome the idea of sleeping outside, fire shows, hoola-hooping to drum and bass beats and splashing body paint on each other for a few days, then Korea Burn 2014 will not disappoint. According to Lind it’s going to be a lot like last year, but better.

“This year we are attempting to make the entire event more cohesive. There will be a more versatile execution of the art, atmosphere, and even music.” And fire. Lind promises this year’s fire show will top last year’s, which he thinks was the best Korea has seen yet. This year’s event on Cheongpo Island will also see a jump from two days to five, running from July 3 to 7.

Korea Burn is still in the grassroots phase and the kinks are still being worked out, but it’s heading in the right direction. The event is a smaller, more intimate gathering than Burning Man, hosting only a few thousand people to Black Rock’s 65,000. The goal, however, is not to compete with the original festival; it is to embody those same principles of sharing and self-reliance that Chung Shin-yeob wanted to bring home, which Korea Burn does in abundance. But don’t take it from anyone else; go see for yourself. Burning is better felt in person than talked about.

More info

Korea Burn runs from July 3 to 7 on Cheongpo Island. More detailed information can be found at fb.com/KoreaBurn.

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