This story originally appeared in the winter 2022 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. – Ed.
If people from the future were to visit our time, they would see a period of great convergence resulting from digital technology. Soh Yeong Roh ’84 shares this observation as she reflects on the achievements of Art Center Nabi, the museum and creativity hub she founded in South Korea’s capital 20 years ago, and considers what comes next.
Fields such as art, technology and business that used to have more defined boundaries have become more fluid and malleable, Roh says.
“A lot of new things are popping up,” she says. “Our center started from a position at the intersection of art and technology and society. So I think we have a bigger role to play. We could work as a platform for all kinds of energy to merge and create together.”
While businesses primarily use technology for goal-oriented, commercial purposes, artists have the freedom to explore and play with other possibilities for technology, Roh says. They also are able to delve into its implications for society with a critical eye.
Art Center Nabi has been at the forefront of digital art exploration with projects such as “A.I. Imagine,” a multi-venue exhibition that used artificial intelligence technology for sound and dance performances, and included an interactive robot arm and virtual reality, animation and game installations. Another, called “Robot Party,” explored interactions between humans and machines.
“We have to balance this constantly invading or competing influence from technology with what I think is the core of humans that is distinguishable from technology and algorithms, which is human creativity,” Roh says.
In November, Art Center Nabi opened “Party in a Box,” an online and in-person exhibition. As Roh explains it, the games and artificial intelligence-based artworks that visitors see are selected according to how they answer a series of questions when they register.
The exhibition is the culmination of a program in which Art Center Nabi invited about two dozen “PlayMakers” under the age of 40 to propose and create games that integrate “art, engineering and socioeconomic values based on technological imaginations and cultural and artistic creativity.”
As she prepared to open the exhibition this past fall, Roh was also wrapping up work on a book she was writing about the convergence of art, technology and society at Art Center Nabi over two decades. The pandemic disrupted plans for a 20th anniversary celebration, but she is grateful for the opportunity to slow down, stop traveling and spend time with her grown children, who returned home. Although she empathizes with those who have experienced hardship because of COVID-19, she found a few silver linings.
“I was able to learn to cook, finally,” she says. “I began gardening. Being closer to nature, the soil, the flowers and trees was very blissful for me.”
Eyes on the future
In addition to her role as a pioneering arts leader, Roh is known as the daughter of former military general and South Korean President Roh Tae-woo, who died Oct. 26, 2021, after a lengthy illness.
A New York Times report after his death described Roh Tae-woo as “a bridge between authoritarianism and democracy.” As that suggests, the former president’s legacy is complicated. He took part in a military coup in 1979, but later became South Korea’s first democratically elected president and initiated significant reforms during his five years in office. After his term ended, however, he was imprisoned as the result of an investigation of his role in the coup and a 1980 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
“The transition toward democracy is never smooth,” Soh Yeong Roh says. “He introduced democracy because he believed in it. Things changed quite a lot after my father was inaugurated.”
Roh says her father was able to maintain stability in the country while pursuing economic growth and building diplomatic relationships with the United States, Japan, China and Russia. President Roh also improved relations with North Korea and engineered a denuclearization pact. During his term, South Korea hosted the 1988 Olympics, which elevated the nation’s standing on the world stage.
“He was a big planner and he was also very future-oriented,” Soh Yeong Roh says. “He saw the role of Koreans as not confined to this peninsula.”
That forward-looking vision is something she shares and works to promote through art and education. Art Center Nabi frequently hosts seminars, including a three-part online series in December 2020 with sessions on “Art, Technology and the Cosmos,” “The Poverty of Philosophy After A.I.” and “Humanizing the Machine/Mechanizing the Human.”
Roh has taught classes at Sogang University and Seoul National University, and she has hosted William & Mary Global Research Institute Summer Fellows at Art Center Nabi. One fellow was Amy Zhao ’19, who learned about the impact that blockchain technology could have in the art world. In 2021, Zhao won first place in the “Design & Creator” stream of WizForm’s Build Your Dream competition for a project idea called “The Art Block,” an application that links physical art to a digital token on the blockchain to connect artists and artwork and protect art ownership.
In 2017, Roh visited Williamsburg to give the prestigious George Tayloe Ross Address on International Peace, and she has agreed to serve starting in spring 2022 on W&M’s Reves International Advisory Board.
“I like to follow in the cultural area what my father envisioned politically, his big picture,” she says. “Korea is prospering culturally, so it may be a faster way to achieve what he had envisioned.”
Williamsburg and beyond
Roh came to W&M as a student during a turbulent time in South Korea, where she had attended engineering school at Seoul National University for two years before arriving in Williamsburg in 1982.
In Seoul, “our university closed down for a very extended time,” she says. “We couldn’t study. There were riots and demonstrations every day. Instead of going to school, students were in the streets throwing stones and fire bottles at the police.”
Roh, whose father was a military leader at the time, did not join the pro-democracy protesters, but she sympathized with them.
“I was ostracized by other students because of my father,” she says. “When I moved to the States, it was more like an exile.”
She did not know much about William & Mary, but she had heard of the university’s strong academic reputation.
“Information about American colleges was almost nonexistent in Korea, so I guess it was providence,” she says.
Unlike students she knew from Korea who attended large universities in America, Roh was able to participate in local cultural experiences, such as going on a hayride and roasting marshmallows over a bonfire in the woods. On the other hand, she missed being part of a more cosmopolitan atmosphere.
“When you are young and very curious about the world, for me it was a little too quiet,” she says.
Roh made friends with other international students, whom she describes as “similar-minded misfits.”
She majored in economics, but her favorite class was English composition, which she says helped her organize her thoughts.
“I didn’t speak much English, but the teacher was so attentive and dedicated,” she says. “I got an A-plus at the end, not because I did better than the American students, but the professor saw how much progress I made, and she graded on that, so I am very grateful.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Roh pursued graduate studies in economics at the University of Chicago and earned a master’s degree in education from Stanford University. Her three children attended large universities — Brown, Stanford and the University of Chicago — but Roh believes she received a better undergraduate education than they did, because of the high quality of teaching and individual attention she received at William & Mary.
Through involvement on the Reves board, Roh hopes to help foster a more cosmopolitan environment in which people and perspectives from a wide variety of cultural, geographic, ethnic and religious backgrounds are fully integrated into the life of the university and there is an expectation of mutual respect and understanding.
“What I want to tell the William & Mary community in one sentence,” she says, “is ‘go beyond global, be cosmopolitan.’”