BY Thea Ballard in Music , Opinion | 22 OCT 21
Featured in
Issue 222

C-U-T Asks What It Means To Be a Swedish K-pop Band

The group of art students – assembled by Ming Wong – negotiates the boundary between engagement and appropriation

BY Thea Ballard in Music , Opinion | 22 OCT 21

For this year’s Seoul Mediacity Biennale, Singaporean artist Ming Wong has assembled a group of Swedish art students from the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, serving as the manager for their K-pop-inspired boy band, C-U-T. In a pointed departure from art bands of yore, C-U-T seeks to perform the kind of aesthetic worldbuilding that cultivates, if not exactly the international appeal of K-pop, then something joyous that opens out to a plurality of audiences.

K-pop describes a hyper-produced and hyper-polished sound from Korea informed by a global range of genres (bubblegum pop, rap, EDM), as well as a style of synchronized group performance designed to be imitable by its fans. It also refers to a powerful and rigid star-making system, in which management companies invest in future idols by assembling groups and overseeing their training. Massively popular acts like BTS and Blackpink have, in part by releasing English-language singles, ushered in K-pop’s global reign, with hit videos streamed billions of times.


C-U-T, 2021. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Therese Öhrvall

Wong joined the faculty of the Royal Institute of Art as a professor of performance in 2019 and, around the same time, took an interest in BTS, noting their transition to English-language releases and their fanbase’s social-media influence. Wong’s department was considering collaborative practice and he noticed that many of his students seemed musically inclined. Playing Svengali, Wong brought together Niels Engström, Aron Fogelström, Victor Fogelström, Valentin Malmgren, Caio Marques de Oliveira and Karon Nilzén, and C-U-T was born. At first, the members didn’t know the genre (or one another) well, so their project also served as an inquiry into K-pop’s history. Along this musical journey, however, they developed a close-knit and honest group dynamic that informs their aesthetic.

Wong and the band have constructed their own response to the genre, considering what it means to be a Swedish K-pop group. Sweden has had an outsize impact on the pop landscape – from ABBA to the producer Max Martin – and undoubtedly some of its products already exist in the sonic DNA of K-pop. It seems telling that C-U-T’s notions of Swedishness are diffuse and experiential in a way that makes them feel somewhat borderless. The video for their glistening single ‘Kaleidoscope’ (2021), for instance, was filmed at dusk at the height of Scandinavian summer, a time when nights are ‘precious and dreamlike’ for people of all ages, says Niels. On the song, members of the group trade stanzas that freely move between Swedish and English, the specificity of words secondary to the airy way they are sung and the soaring feeling of the tune’s catchy, familiar synths.


C-U-T, 2021. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Therese Öhrvall

One person’s transcultural exchange is, of course, another’s cultural appropriation and, while C-U-T aspires to be universally accessible, they are keen not to hurt anyone with their explorations. For them, this means choosing genuine engagement over parody. Negotiating the boundary between engagement and appropriation is an ongoing deliberation that seems to have brought a sense of urgency to the group dynamic. In place of costuming or assuming unfamiliar roles (as Wong has often done in his own works, such as Hong Kong Diary, 2011), they have concluded that being as genuinely themselves as they can – in terms of how they dress, write and move – is the solution. In the ‘Kaleidoscope’ video, rather than performing choreographed routines, they dance out-of-sync like kids partying in the forest, pausing often to tenderly embrace one another.

For all its youthful idealism, C-U-T could not create these musical and social openings (or ‘cuts’, as the name implies) without trust, or without conflict. Says Karon: ‘The things that made the project insecure – trying to create one of the most produced genres of music and asking whether it’s OK in terms of cultural appropriation – are also what make it interesting. Trying to create a postpunk art band would not be such a great challenge.’ The conclusion of ‘Kaleidoscope’, after all, finds resolution not by offering a fixed point for its narrative to land, but by rendering its tension as a prism that pries open the world: ‘We’re a kaleidoscope / Can you feel it / breaking through? / Do you feel horizons, starry skies open up? / Colliding in kaleidoscope.’

This article first appeared in frieze issue 222 with the headline ‘Colliding in Kaleidoscope’.

Main Image: C-U-T, 2021. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Therese Öhrvall

Thea Ballard is a writer and PhD candidate in art history at Duke University, Durham, USA.