Interviews with Artists

Yoojin Lee


Interview by Harry Salisbury


Published in November 2023


‘Purity is not an option’: In conversation with Yoojin Lee

Moving slowly across the terrain, a creature carries other creatures hidden in plain sight, on the surface yet equally at the centre of a network of unseen communions. In contrast to the fluttering fans of the attendees trying to escape the hot Italian summer, Yoojin Lee’s movements are slow, careful. As she moves, she collects and redistributes discarded materials, sometimes tying them to her body and travelling with them across the room. There is something ritualistic taking place. Over layers of sound, a voice intones “v-ve hide / but do not escape / v-ve are here / v-ve rise from excretion / tenderly.” Innumerable microbial happenings are taking place as these words are spoken. Unnamed performers photosynthesise, drawing in light and giving off oxygen. In a seemingly dilapidated space, a flourishing habitat is being created.

slowth (habitats) (yet) is a new performance and installation by London based artist Yoojin Lee, whose work moves between performance, sound, text, installation, and video, engaging with notions of (in)activity and (un)productivity. This performance continues Yoojin’s engagement with slowness, in which the symbiosis between sloths, sloth moths and the algae Trichophilus welckeri, serve as inspiration. Sloths spend most of their time on their favourite tree, but will descend weekly to defecate on the ground, which is risky and energetically costly. By doing so, the moths living in its fur lay eggs in its dung, allowing a new generation to inhabit the fur. In turn, this creates a rich environment for the T. welckeri to grow in the sloth’s hair, while algae provide camouflage and a source of nutrients for this animal with a limited diet. It is possible that they have coevolved through this relationship.

Over a series of email exchanges, Yoojin shared thoughts and approaches to slowness, symbiosis, contamination, and everyday transcendence which have informed slowth (habitats) (yet).


slowth (habitats) (yet), 2023, performance view at Centrale Fies, Dro, IT. Photography by Andrea Nicotra

Speed and intensity are such defining aspects of contemporary capitalism, and a 24/7 culture permeates almost every aspect of our lives. What drew you to exploring ‘slowness’ in your work?

Perhaps it started with how I need lots of time and how things have taken/take time for me. Although that needed ‘time’ might not be something so standardised or quantifiable. This often goes against the grain of the demands and the ‘norms’ of the culture you described. I feel that there are kinds of slowness that are inflicted upon us but precisely as side effects or parallels to fast capitalist culture. The kinds of slowness that I want to invite or even reclaim have got to do with duration or a sense of duration that resists the fragmentation of time into razor sharp units that are replaceable, disposable, and profitable. It’s a slowness that doesn’t flatten, one that can hold and make room for multiple different temporalities and the bodies that embody them. It’s a slowness that is dense with my, your, our, their present, past and future. It makes me think that perhaps slowness, for me, for now, is a container for all these things and others that I can’t quite describe yet. And going slowly may be one of the many possible ways to enfold and move nearby these.

The idea of ‘inflicted’ slowness interests me as someone who has had prolonged periods of unemployment. There is a slowness which comes with feelings of shame, laziness, or not being ‘up to speed’ with the pace of capitalism. In your piece ~ TRICHOPHILUS ~ TRICHOPHILUS ~, the words ‘dirty slowness’ seem to put the necessary slowness of a sloth making her way down a tree to defecate at odds with some other ‘pure’ or ‘clean’ time, perhaps the ‘purity’ and ‘rationalism’ of capitalist time.

These feelings you mention, of worthlessness and not being ‘up to speed’ (which could also mean not being up to the ‘norm’ or ‘standard’) are also there in the work. Sloth is given a name that refers to one of the seven deadly sins in Christianity, and our sloth in ~ TRICHOPHILUS ~ TRICHOPHILUS ~ questions this. ‘Dirty slowness’ is how the world describes her and she murmurs it back to herself. There’s a sense of shame but she understands that this is her strategy of survival. Simultaneously, it’s one that allows the others - the algae, the moths and many others - to survive and even thrive on her back. Her ‘dirty’ hair as a stable substrate, a habitat. As you said, this slow time/space is far from ‘purity’ or ‘rationalism’ of capitalist time. It’s messy, entangled, wet, sticky, porous, abundant, contaminated, decomposing.

slowth (habitats) (yet), 2023, performance view at Centrale Fies, Dro, IT. Photography by Andrea Nicotra

It's interesting that you highlight this ‘sinful’ notion of sloth and slowness. Against the hyper speed of capitalism, there has been an upsurge in the popularity of ‘mindfulness’ and other forms of meditation, which promote slowness and conscious attention to breathing. What is usually automatic and unnoticed becomes a gateway to states of mind and sensations which, in many belief systems, are paths to divinity or transcendence. And yet, often the first step on this path is turning our attention to the simple, mundane, automatic flow of breath. slowth (habitats) (yet)  ‘breathes’ in some sense. The photosynthetic garment that you wear in your performance has a living layer of microorganisms which absorb atmospheric CO2 and expel oxygen. Do you feel there is a connection between the mundane and the divine in your work?

The connection you made between breathing, meditative states and the transcendent or divine is really interesting. I’m especially attached to this idea of oxygen as a waste product and a by-product of photosynthesis. What the photosynthetic microorganisms expel becomes so vital to us. And what the sloth excrete becomes so vital to the moths and the algae. And when the moths live, die and decay within the sloth’s hair, their decomposition becomes something nourishing. I have this excerpt from Lynn Margulis’s work: ‘The past is all around us. [...] individual organisms are connected through time [...] but also through space. The carbon dioxide we exhale as a waste product becomes the life-giving force for a plant; in turn, the oxygen waste of a plant gives us life. This exchange of gas is what the word spirit means.’ This is connected to how I, and slowth (habitats) (yet), perceive the transcendent or divine, the mundane and simple. Here, if we did touch on something that’s transcendent or divine, it wouldn’t have been through a consumable spectacle or something ethereal. It would have been through something very much corporeal, embodied, mundane and simple. And even something lowly.

I guess this relates to the Korean shamanist/animist thoughts and practices that guide the work. When I say shamanist/animist thoughts and practices, they are essentially these small acts and gestures I grew up with, without knowing or giving a name to these things. They were and are simply there, alongside and within your everyday. It would be something like how my parents poured down a nice alcoholic drink in all the ‘holes’ where water flows through (i.e. sinks and drains) whenever we moved to a new house. Or how my mum would advise placing eggs in front of each wheel of a new car to gently move forward and crack the eggs before driving. For me, this is about how things/beings come to you as much as how you come to them. It’s about acknowledging what/who is (already) there, how you touch them but also how they touch you. That said, I’ve also visited shamans with my mum and experienced the rituals they hold since I was a child. Some of these rituals can be dramatic and flamboyant but always marked with something earthly and visceral. They involve all senses and encompass (orally transmitted) stories, garments, music, movements, objects, food and are often participatory.

This approach is how I work with materials, collaborators and energies that are present as well as how my movements and interactions within the work unfold. Each performance is half-structured but very much dependent on improvisation and encounters. The bigger structure that holds each iteration (or I like to call it each ‘habitat’) extends further. The first sharing of the work in Italy took place over the course of two days. After the ‘first performance’, a ‘habitat’ was created in the space from all the interactions that took place. This ‘habitat’ was open for people to come and visit before the ‘second performance’, which then unfolded within the ‘habitat’ that was there already from the previous one. So there are layers and traces, and each ‘habitat’ is never the same. For me, the performance not only includes these two that has a fixed timing but also the ‘habitats’ that came before, after and in-between, like when the space was left open as an installation with sound.

slowth (habitats) (yet), 2023, installation view of ‘habitat’ created from the performance at Centrale Fies, Dro, IT

Sound is such an integral part of these performances. Please can you comment more on the soundscape of slowth (habitats) (yet)?

For slowth (habitats) (yet), I collaborated with Giuseppe Termine for the live soundscape. I have collaborated with Giuseppe on several projects involving sound. He sculpts soundscapes using DIY synths and found sounds with a sensibility that touches upon seemingly random, chance encounters. This is also what makes it fascinating to collaborate with him, especially for slowth (habitats) (yet). My movements feed into the sounds he makes and vice versa. My voice, percussion and sounds from the contact mic are layered with his sounds that respond to what’s unfolding within the space. So the live soundscape has improvisational, relational, and spatial qualities. I feel that our collaboration is a process of organic and mutual exchange where movement, sound and energy keep permeating and being permeated by one another. This requires a certain way of noticing subtle things and being open. Giuseppe is my partner and collaborator in life as well - that’s how we met and that’s perhaps why this way of working together feels quite natural!

I hold the contact mic against the neck to pick up the vibration of my vocal cords as I read-digest-perform the text on the textile pieces. I’m interested in this act of ‘reading’ a text that has its own material body. I also brush the mic across my hair, skin, the photosynthetic garment, and the textile pieces. These sounds from physical contact are then amplified and delayed.

설쇠 (seol-soe), the percussion instrument is something that comes more directly from Korean shamanist/animist rituals. It’s a brass and wooden percussion instrument played in shamanist rituals in Jeju, a volcanic island in the south of Korea. Percussions are considered as instruments for getting closer to spirits, deities, and ancestors. While I was preparing for the work during a residency at Centrale Fies, I played 설쇠 (seol-soe) often. I never learned how to play it ‘properly' but its sound leads you. The location is surrounded by these almost surreal mountains and rocky landscapes shaped by glaciers. One night, I was playing the percussion and along with the resonating vibrance this feeling swelled up in me, which I can’t quite explain. I think it comes close to this dream I had and noted down during those two weeks: ‘My mum visited me in my dreams, to the foot of these mountains, I looked out the window and she was there, the building nestled within these geological formations looked different but I knew it was the one I was staying in with all the things I carried from London and elsewhere’.

slowth (habitats) (yet), 2023, detail of ‘habitat’ created from the performance at Centrale Fies, Dro, IT

For me, one of the most unusual elements of your work is your ‘collaboration’ with the multitudes of microorganisms in your performance garment. This human-nonhuman collaboration is itself a result of your work with Post Carbon Lab – please could you tell me more about how you came to work together and the importance of your human and nonhuman collaborators?

I came across Post Carbon Lab’s work online while I was thinking about possible ways of working with textiles. Post Carbon Lab is founded by Dian-Jen Lin and Hannes Hulstaert. They offer circular and regenerative microbial finishing research and development services to textile-based brands, companies and designers. Our collaboration started in 2020 when I was working on slowth (habitats), which is a work that slowth (habitats) (yet) builds upon. Post Carbon Lab’s photosynthetic coating is a living layer of photosynthetic microorganisms that are grown into and entangled with the textile. The process is a long-term nurturing cultivation, and the finished pieces also require long-term care and engagement, such as providing the right humidity, light and temperature. I have shared feedback with Post Carbon Lab throughout our collaboration on the pieces’ condition, environment as well as my level of emotional attachment to them. So I’m able to contribute to their research through my relationship with these pieces.

My collaborating performers are the photosynthetic microorganisms on the garment and the textile pieces. They include algae local to London and cyanobacteria among others. Some are better ‘known’ to me while others remain ‘unknown’. I feel that this also connects to the shamanist/animist ways of knowing that I relate to. It is said that there are ten thousand spirits but the figures here don’t necessarily reduce or fix them to exactly ‘ten thousand’. Instead they imply multitudes, the presences that surround you and acknowledging them even before they’re ‘known’ to you. For me, the collaborative performance with the microorganisms in slowth (habitats) (yet) had already been unfolding before as well as during and in-between the two 45 minutes of its first sharing this summer. And it continues to unfold now. When I wear the garment, I feel that the microorganisms become part of my skin, which makes me feel closer to a sloth’s way of becoming together with the surroundings and the algal community that lives on her hair. They also lend me a way to relate to other bodies in the space. The pieces may retain organic traces of bodies and spaces that they have encountered. Dust and particles, naturally, but also biomasses through respiration and photosynthesis. It is humbling to be building a long-term relationship like this with the microorganisms, and I hope it will continue while we also embrace processes of decay and fading away.

These collaborations made me think about how María Puig de la Bellacasa writes that looking at imperceptible doings of care thickens the dominant timescape with a range of relational rearrangements. In these relations of care, the present is dense, thickened with a multiplicity of entangled and involved timelines rather than compressed and subordinated to the linear achievement of future output. Collaborations are not easy or ‘pure’. They take time and let fewer things go unnoticed. For me, collaboration thickens the web of attention. I like to think of it in relation to contamination as well. To borrow Anna Tsing’s words: “How does a gathering become a 'happening', that is, greater than a sum of its parts? One answer is contamination. We are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others ... Everyone carries a history of contamination; purity is not an option.”

slowth (habitats) (yet), 2023, detail of ‘habitat’ created from the performance at Centrale Fies, Dro, IT

I find this idea of contamination being integral to our collective being fascinating, especially since the term ‘contamination’ is almost exclusively negative. I’m drawn again to the words on ~ TRICHOPHILUS ~ TRICHOPHILUS ~. In contrast to ‘dirty slowness’, your banner invites us to “now take pleasure in the decomposition of yourself”. I’m tempted to take the final word (yourself) as two separate words (your self). Perhaps when read like this, your piece invites us to consider the pleasure of blurred boundaries, joyful yet strange transgressions and trespasses into the Outside - Nature, the Nonhuman and other realms which humanity has been taught to view as separate – but are and have always been interwoven with everything ‘we’ are. You have mentioned Lynn Margulis and Anna Tsing, two theorists who have highlighted symbiosis and mutual co-existence across species boundaries, often deconstructing a very Euro and male-centred notion of ‘Humanity’. Do you feel your work similarly participates in a critique of human autonomy or a fixed notion of ‘Humanity’?

In slowth (habitats) (yet), the texts materialise as textile banners. On these, ‘we’ appears like ‘v-ve’, an elongated or split version. This is my attempt to think through a deconstructed, decomposed, metabolised ‘we’. It is also elongated sonically as I perform the text with my voice and the vibration of my vocal cords. I feel like this gives more time and space for ‘we’ to be felt anew, questioned anew. This ‘v-ve’ can be multiple ‘others’ within an individual as well as ‘others’ who have not been and are not accepted as part of this fixed notion of ‘Humanity’. Our slowth may be an ‘exotic’ creature, ‘dirty’ and ‘slow’, who stutters and mumbles, who can’t and/or won’t produce, reproduce or consume as expected, who is looked at and consumed but not heard, who show signs of vulnerability, who crawls beneath thresholds and many more. I feel that slowth (habitats) (yet) gravitates towards a sort of continuous becoming-other. And I think that’s also why it became a performance/installation. Perhaps it’s interesting to consider a fixed notion of ‘Humanity’ alongside that of performance. When the 45-minute performance ended, someone came to me and said they were actually waiting for my photosynthetic suit to finally make a dramatic appearance in the work, like all moving, animated or elaborate in some way. But then after quite some time, they realised that what I was wearing all this time was indeed the very suit and started enjoying it more. I thought this was great.

slowth (habitats) (yet), 2023, detail of ‘habitat’ created from the performance at Centrale Fies, Dro, IT


Yoojin Lee is an artist who works across and in-between performance, installation, text, sound and video to embody ways of becoming and knowing. Her work engages with seemingly quiet, overlooked but persistent forms of resistance that unfold through multiple temporalities, such as sleep, sloth and slowness. She sleeps in London. Previous work and documentation of slowth (habitats) (yet) can be found on their website:

︎ @nijooyl

Harry Salisbury is an art historian and writer with an interest in the confluence of art, ecology, philosophy and technology. He is currently based in Brighton, UK.

︎ @ harrysalisbury3578


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