Mission 1 Report: Crossing the Line

[Submitted by Where’s Waldo, Seoul, South Korea]

I’m lucky enough to have few tangible figures of authority in my life. I don’t have a boss, professor, or anybody else I’d have to kiss ass to on a daily basis and I live in Seoul, South Korea where, as a foreigner, most authority figures deem it too much of a hastle to badger me about misdemeanors on account of the language barrier. I can hop the subway turnstiles, jaywalk through bustling intersections, pound beers on a public bus, and nobody will say a thing to me so long as I’m not causing any real problems. Besides, the police here are nothing like the police in the United States. They’re mostly just kids who stand around and look bored. They don’t even carry guns.

Of course, a horribly corrupt government runs the show behind closed doors, just as it does in practically every country. Hardline conservatives maintain power through war mongering and exploiting fears of a North Korean invasion, backed generously by donations from the virtually unchecked mega-corporations that fuel the nation’s economy and the support of a United States that wants to maintain stability in perhaps it’s greatest Asian ally. Nevertheless, the influence of “the man” is pretty tough to discern in day to day life. Big brother is invisible.

That’s why I was startled a few weeks ago when I arrived at one of my most regularly used metro stops and found a new fleet of security guards. They were decked out in reflective vests and visors and ridiculous yellow armbands and carried comically threatening batons. The youngest of them looked to be about 60 years old.

As I was waiting for the train to arrive a shrill noise penetrated through the calm jazz on my ipod and I pulled out my earbuds in time to realize that one of those silly guards was blowing his whistle frantically, waving his baton, and making a beeline toward me. At first I was confused—perhaps some emergency had occured—but then I surmised hat he simply wanted me to step back. I was standing more a foot from the edge of the platform but my toes were a few inches over the edge of a yellow safety line. Here’s a close-up the yellow line in question:

I inched back and he changed course, headed for a group of teenage girls a few cars down in a similarly precarious position. The train did not arrive for 5 minutes.

Over the next few days I saw the guards harass a number of commuters. I witnessed them forcibly grab one guy, whose toes were at most six inches over the yellow line, and pull him back from the tracks. The guy was talking on his cellphone, so I suppose he didn’t hear the guard shouting at him and he looked none too pleased when apprehended, but he quickly complied. Here’s a snapshot I took on my phone of one guard looking particularly smug. Note the indecision on his face, as he debates whether to berate me for photographing him or drag the woman with the shopping bags back away from the platform.

He decided to go for me first so, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take any more photos.

It’s a baffling double standard. These guards aren’t present at any other station on the Seoul metro, where commuters are left to avoid the threat of oncoming trains at their own discretion. Their absurd vigilence confirms a theory I’ve long held. Authority is motivated most strongly by a lust for self importance. That’s perhaps especially true of volunteers, for in such situations monetary incentives are conspicuously absent. I suppose that we all need to feel important from time to time, and these old geezers probably don’t have much else going for them. Perhaps it would have been reasonable to let them have their fun, but after watching them with scorn for several days I couldn’t resist the temptation to turn it into an Art Art Revolution

How official are these guards and who authorized them to patrol the station? If I donned a stupid yellow sash and reflective visor, could I simply order my fellow commuters around? My first inclination was to try and see, but I quickly realized that as a highly consipcuous foreigner in an ethnically homogonous country in which I’m barely proficinet in the language, I’d have a hard time pulling that off.

To complete the mission, I ultimately opted to create a work of art that would be visible to the guards, as well as to the commuters harassed by them. Since the drama revolved around an arbitrary yellow line, I decided to buy some paper of a similar shade and create my own yellow line by taping it to the station floor. Some of my lines exceed the real line, so that commuters harassed in these spaces might explain to the aggressors, “but I’m behind the line!” Others delineate impossibly small spaces, demonstrating the absurdity of confining people unnecessarily within an already crowded station. Instillation was difficult given the guards’ vigilance and my first two attempts were stopped before I was able to complete them. My third attempt, a six inch extension of the existing line lasted a little longer, but not long enough for me to properly photograph my efforts. My last attempt was somewhat more successful and, while I got a number of curious stares from passerby, the guards didn’t notice and my art was still intact when I boarded my getaway train. Here are a few shots:

In some respects creating a work of art with such short life expectancy seems like a waste, but I rest assured knowing that, at least, several unsuspecting passerby bore witness to it. Also, I’ve still got dozens of yellow sheets left over, so I plan to try again and if I have any luck, I’ll be sure to share.

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