There was no viewing experience of Jeamin Cha’s exhibition at Kadist, San Francisco untouched by COVID-19 for the entirety of its run. It opened late, was extended past the initial June closing date, then prematurely closed on November 30 in response to new California state restrictions. Troubleshooting Mind I, II, III was the culmination of Cha’s residency at the gallery, one spent researching the rise in depression under late capitalism, the diagnostic tools of mental health professionals, and, more recently, the way new technologies affect our conception of treatment, communication, and the limits of our self-understanding. Her work often focuses on the effect the dislocation and isolation felt under neoliberalism has on our health, gauzy sensations now concretized by the pandemic with a kind of cruel, uncanny prescience. All I can think about is the strangeness of feeling uprooted, when everything has come to a standstill.
Cha’s film Sound Garden (2019) follows a few journeys over its thirty-minute run-time. The camera trails a bushy pine tree as it travels from the northern, coastal province of Gangwon-do to Seoul, strapped in the back of a truck, bouncing along through lush mountain landscapes, foggy, barren stretches, tunnels, and light industrial areas. Most of the footage appears shot from the dashboard of a vehicle behind the truck, steady and straight on, the tree’s branches bobbing and swaying to the rhythm of the road.
The video’s audio comes from interviews Cha did with four female mental health counselors, subtitled in English. The women speak about their patients—university students, office workers, union members, other counselors—as well as the challenges of working within a society that uses their work as a management strategy with measurable results over its more complicated, therapeutic intentions. “They quantify the sessions, make statistics, and equate them with performance,” one counselor says of the company that hired her to treat their employees. “They talk as if these numbers give meaning to the counseling center.”
Along the way, the tree is dropped off at a kind of nursery, where its branches are heavily cut back, its look taken from full and shaggy to lean and more symmetrical. The brutality of the pruning—the chainsaws, the unnatural bareness, the roaring fire into which the branches are thrown—is countered by the plump IV bags of nutrient sap strapped around each trunk by an attentive arborist. At night, the grove of transplanted trees glows with the faint light of the devices—science experiment meets enchanted forest. The final destination of each tree, revealed at the close of the video, is an under-construction business park in the capital. Grown in Gangwon-do to be harvested and aestheticized for city life, it was never really wild. It’s an investment, just as mental and behavioral health services are an investment, a means to better workers, more efficient work. We are dominated and then consoled—cultivated. As usual, self-awareness does not always bring relief; realizing your status as cog does not necessarily make the grind more comfortable. “Function in society and reflecting oneself, I’m not sure if people can do both at the same time,” one counselor posits. “The system may maintain itself.”
Sound Garden’s reflective, almost doleful commentary is a collaged portrait of the counselors’ psyches as much as those of their patients—the desire to see and know, to be seen and known, connects them. The essay video Ellie’s Eye (2020) interrogates the therapeutic potential of that which exists beyond natural human senses, weaving together the history of x-ray technology the development of computer and AI-based mental health counselors, and images representing the visual and aural perception of animals.
The titular Ellie is a virtual avatar developed by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, designed to reveal psychological distress by interpreting human speech and gestures, monitoring micro-expressions, and responding to facial cues. Revealing the intimate depths reachable by technology, Cha juxtaposes our precision with AI, imaging, etc. with the fuzziness of emotional well-being and connection. These therapeutic technologies encourage a redefinition of our relationship to non-human subjects—Ellie’s creator notes we talk to our pets all the time—as well as those parts of ourselves that are little known. Does discussing mental health require that my interlocutor has access to the human condition, or do I just need something to listen to me?
While Cha’s videos carefully examine the intersection of personal, societal, and technological responses to contemporary mental health crises, a small suite of drawings really resonates with the psychological burden of 2020. Crushed or Unfolded (2020) is Cha’s appropriation of the Clock Drawing Test, an exam used by therapists and doctors to detect cognitive impairments and Alzheimer’s dementia, for which patients are asked to draw a circular clock from memory. A clock that is distorted or warped, as Cha’s are, means something is off. The test’s efficacy and ethics are debated, however, as research shows that patients who are less educated, or suffering from depression, also tend to produce similar results. The drawings aren’t subtle: they are a refutation of attempts to pathologize mental distress and an indictment of a capitalist obsession with productivity, an obsession that is currently killing people through the vector of the coronavirus, as the unrelenting logic of capitalism eclipses public and private health.
Personally, I crave a time clock. Not just for work, but for chores, for hobbies, for tasks I do and do not want to do. I fear the bleed, which is all days seem to do now. For the all the jokes, time per se so often feels dependent on the mechanism and metrics by which we measure it. This is why the notion of indexical time is usually so enamoring, some measure in which the signifier is actually, downright physically caused by the signified: proof. Trees acquire their rings according to the conditions and cycles of their growth. What an affront, so relative and so specific, to those attempts to quantify and control in the name of productivity, efficiency, management. As San Francisco enters another lockdown, I just want the clock to make sense so badly I’m crying.