Innovator Soh Yeong Roh ’84 explores the convergence of art, technology and society

  • A broader view:

    Soh Yeong Roh ’84 explores the convergence of art, technology and society at Art Center Nabi, the museum and center for creativity she founded 20 years ago in Seoul, South Korea.
    Courtesy picture

by Tina Eshleman, University Marketing


March 17, 2022

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of W&M Alumni magazine. – Ed.

IIf people of the future visited 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 accomplishments of Nabi Art Centerthe museum and creativity center she founded in the South Korean capital 20 years ago, and envisions what’s next.

Areas such as art, technology and business that had more defined boundaries have become more fluid and malleable, Roh says.

“A lot of new things are coming out,” she says. “Our center started from a position at the intersection of art, technology and society. So I think we have a bigger role to play. We could work as a platform for all kinds of energies to merge and create together.

Watching You: Numerous exhibitions at Art Center Nabi, founded by Soh Yeong Roh '84, in Seoul, South Korea, explore the relationship humans have with technology.While companies primarily use technology for purpose-driven business purposes, artists have the freedom to explore and play with other technological possibilities, Roh says. They are also able to explore its implications for society with a critical eye.

Art Center Nabi has been at the forefront of digital art exploration with projects such as “AI Imagine”, a multi-location exhibition that used artificial intelligence technology for sound and dance, and included an interactive robot arm and virtual reality, animation and game facilities. Another, called “Robot Party”, explored the interactions between humans and machines.

“We have to balance this constantly pervasive or competing influence of technology with what I think is the human core that is distinct 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, the AI-based games and artwork that visitors see are selected based on how well they answer a series of questions when they sign up.

The exhibition is the culmination of a program in which the Nabi Art Center invited twenty “PlayMakers” under the age of 40 to propose and create games that integrate “art, engineering and socio-economic values ​​based on technological imagination and cultural and artistic creativity”.

As she prepared to open the exhibit last fall, Roh was also finishing work on a book she was writing about the convergence of art, technology and society at Art Center Nabi over two decades. . The pandemic has disrupted plans for celebrating the 20th birthday, but she is grateful for the opportunity to slow down, stop traveling and spend time with her adult children, who have returned home. Although she sympathizes with those who have struggled due to COVID-19, she has found some silver linings.

“I was finally able to learn to cook,” she says. “I started gardening. Being closer to nature, soil, flowers and trees was very happy for me.

Eyes on the future

In addition to her role as a pioneering artistic leader, Roh is known as the daughter of former military general and South Korean President Roh Tae-woo, who died on October 26, 2021 after a long illness.

A New York Times report after his death described Roh Tae-woo as “a bridge between authoritarianism and democracy”. As this suggests, the legacy of the former president is complicated. He participated in a military coup in 1979, but later became South Korea’s first democratically elected president and launched significant reforms during his five years in office. After his term ended, however, he was imprisoned following an investigation into his role in the coup and a 1980 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

“The transition to democracy is never smooth,” says Soh Yeong Roh. “He introduced democracy because he believed in it. Things changed a lot after my father’s inauguration.

Attention to the user: the interactive display Roh says his father managed to maintain stability in the country while pursuing economic growth and establishing diplomatic relations with the United States, Japan, China and Russia. President Roh also improved relations with North Korea and devised a denuclearization pact. During his tenure, South Korea hosted the 1988 Olympics, which elevated the nation’s standing on the world stage.

“He was a great planner and he was also very forward-looking,” says Soh Yeong Roh. “He considered that the role of the Koreans was not limited to this peninsula.”

This forward-looking vision is something she shares and works to promote through art and education. The Nabi Art Center hosts frequent seminars, including a three-part online series in December 2020 with sessions on “Art, Technology and the Cosmos”, “Poverty of Philosophy After AI” and “Humanize the machine/mechanize the human”.

Roh has taught at Sogang University and Seoul National University, and hosted summer fellows from the William & Mary Global Research Institute at Art Center Nabi. One of them was Amy Zhao ’19, who discovered the impact blockchain technology could have on the art world. In 2021, Zhao won first place in the “Design & Creator” section of WizForm’s Build Your Dream contest for a project idea called “The Art Block”, an app that connects physical art to a digital token on the blockchain to connect artists and artworks and protect art ownership.

In 2017, Roh traveled to Williamsburg to give the prestigious Speech by George Tayloe Ross on international peace, and she has agreed to serve from the spring of 2022 on W&M’s Reves International Advisory Board.

“I like to follow in the cultural field what my father envisioned politically, his overall vision,” she says. “Korea is culturally prosperous, so maybe this is a faster way to achieve what he envisioned.”

Williamsburg and beyond

Roh came to W&M as a student during a turbulent time in South Korea, where she had attended Seoul National University’s school of engineering for two years before arriving in Williamsburg in 1982.

In Seoul, “our university has been closed for a very long time,” she says. “We couldn’t study. There were riots and demonstrations every day. Instead of going to school, the students were in the streets throwing stones and incendiary 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 United States, it was more like exile.”

She didn’t know much about William & Mary, but she had heard of the university’s strong academic reputation.

“Information about American colleges was almost non-existent in Korea, so I guess it was providence,” she says.

Unlike the Korean students she knew who attended major American universities, Roh was able to participate in local cultural experiences, such as riding a wagon and roasting marshmallows around a bonfire in the woods. On the other hand, it lacked being part of a more cosmopolitan atmosphere.

“When you’re young and very curious about the world, for me it was a bit too quiet,” she says.

Roh has befriended other international students, whom she describes as “like-minded misfits.”

She majored in economics, but her favorite course was English composition, which she says helped her organize her thoughts.

Data Driven: Installation “I didn’t speak much English, but the teacher was so caring and dedicated,” she says. “I got an A+ at the end, not because I did better than the American students, but the teacher saw my progress and she noted that, so I’m very grateful.”

After earning 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 top universities – Brown, Stanford and the University of Chicago – but Roh believes she received a better undergraduate education than them, due to the high quality of teaching and the individual attention she received at William & Mary.

Through his participation on the Reves Board of Directors, 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 lives of university and there is an expectation of mutual help. respect and understanding.

“What I want to say to the William & Mary community in one sentence,” she says, “is ‘go beyond the global, be cosmopolitan’.”


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