PRINT April 2006


Nam June Paik

How soon TV-chair will be available in most museums?
How soon artists will have their own TV channels?
How soon wall to wall TV for video art will be installed in most homes?

—Nam June Paik, A New Design for TV Chair, 1973

THE CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE of Nam June Paik—who died at his home in Miami Beach on January 29—is clear in the expressions commonly used to describe his unique role in transforming the nascent medium of video into a contemporary art form, from the “father of video art” to the “George Washington of video.” It is incredible to think that an entire decade before Paik predicted the ubiquity of video technology in A New Design for TV Chair, he was featuring his “prepared,” or altered, televisions in solo exhibitions. And as we become the media culture he envisioned in his artwork and writings, we can see how the range of Paik’s creative accomplishments and both the prescience and breadth of his thinking—in a practice unlike anything that preceded him—are all the more astonishing. From his early performances to his work in music, television, video, and film, Paik was constantly in action, exploring and expanding the horizons of art.

The story of Paik’s life follows a global trajectory. Born into a prominent family in Seoul, Korea, in 1932, he studied musical composition and art at the University of Tokyo. At age twenty-four, after completing a thesis on Arnold Schönberg and graduating with a degree in aesthetics, Paik traveled to Germany to pursue his interest in twentieth-century music—first attending the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, where he met composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, and then returning two years later to settle in Cologne, where he worked at the Westdeutsche Rundfunk’s Studio for Electronic Music. (Stockhausen was based in the city, and it was there that Paik would meet John Cage.) Paik’s studies led him to focus on musical composition as sequences of events unfolding over time: His notations mapped actions in addition to tones. One consequence of this technique was that Paik’s individual pieces could not be duplicated—leading Stockhausen and György Ligeti to suggest that films be made of Paik’s concerts as a means to establish scores. That never happened, but their suggestion is an indication of Paik’s improvisational approach and commitment to the idea of musical composition as performance.

In his work, Paik removed the classical instrument from its customary sacred position, treating it as a material object to realize both new sounds and shapes. In One for Violin Solo, 1962, for example, the violin is gradually lifted above the head of the performer and then smashed on the podium; in the previous year’s Violin with String (“Violin To Be Dragged in the Street”), the instrument is pulled along pavement. Other performances featured Paik’s handmade instruments, such as one fabricated out of string and a wooden crate for Urmusik, 1961. It was also around this time that the artist began to incorporate technology into live performances, scratching phonograph records to generate unexpected sounds and playing audiotapes of specially edited mixes of musical styles and sound effects. This resulted in irreverent, cascading series of actions in which chance was a key strategic ingredient: On occasion Paik might, for example, play a piano while covered in shaving cream and flour, eventually overturning the piano and jumping on it. Such transgressive violence released enormous energy into the audience—confronting the protocols of the staged musical performance and seeking to shock viewers into relinquishing any complacent acceptance of compositional formula or tradition-bound belief in performance as a risk-free site.

News of these events quickly reached New York, where George Maciunas was prompted to invite Paik to join Fluxus after hearing his Etude for Pianoforte, which premiered in 1960 at Cologne’s Atelier Mary Baumeister. During the performance Paik jumped into the audience, cut Cage’s tie with scissors, and doused him and composer David Tudor with shaving cream. The audience sat in stunned silence as Paik left the room. A short time later the phone rang offstage. It was Paik calling from the street to say the performance was over and everyone could go home. Paik described such performances as attempts to find a way out of the “suffocation of the musical theater as it is,” adding that he sought to “complement Dada with music” and believed that “humor was not an aim but a result.” The neo-Dadaist impulse in these events was so expanded that Cage himself noted, “You get the feeling very clearly that anything can happen, even physically dangerous things.”

Nam June Paik with Demagnetizer (Life Ring), 1965, in his Canal Street studio, New York, 1965. Photo: Peter Moore. © Estate of Peter Moore/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

Eventually, Paik’s desire to make music visual found expression in a fascination with television—a letter to Cage in 1959 clearly expressed his theoretical and artistic interest in the medium—and, more specifically, with continually changing audiovisuals appearing on televisions that he set as objects into art installations. The relationship of this emerging technology to his sound and performance pieces was signaled in the title of his first solo show. “Exposition of Music—Electronic Television,” at the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, Germany, in 1963, was of groundbreaking significance, featuring both “prepared” musical instruments and televisions. For example, Klavier Integral, 1958–63, a piano covered with a bizarre assortment of noisemakers (as well as barbed wire, clocks, eggshells, and a bra), appeared with Random Access, 1963, a reel-to-reel audiotape player disassembled so that audiences could rub the player’s magnetic recording head over strips of audiotape stuck to the gallery wall, causing loudspeakers to emit previously recorded sounds. These pieces were displayed alongside Paik’s transformations of monitors—the first such works of this kind that he exhibited—which were placed on their side or upside down and scattered about the room. In addition, Paik extended the de-collage technique that characterized his early artworks and writings, as he distorted the broadcast electronic image by breaking or tearing it from within, rather than by adding to it. By disturbing the flow of moving images, Paik seized control of the television set, at once refusing the standardized broadcast image and remaking it as his own. Paik understood that television could be an interactive and artist-empowered instrument rather than simply a one-way conduit of received programming—even before the commercial development of the portable videotape player and recorder. Just as Paik the performer had challenged audiences, so the artist would challenge the construction and treatment of television viewers as passive consumers, whether in his manipulations of entertainment (Variations on Johnny Carson vs. Charlotte Moorman, 1966) or news programming (George Ball on Meet the Press, 1967).

Only in part was Paik remaking and humanizing technology in a carnivalesque spirit of play and freewheeling invention. Consider his remote-controlled automaton Robot K-456, 1964, which he used in performances both onstage and in the street. Outfitted with tape recorders and a messy mass of wires snaking around a metal frame in a blocky humanoid shape, this comic mobile sculpture was featured in Paik’s Robot Opera as part of the Second Annual New York Avant-Garde Festival, which also took place in 1964, the year Paik moved to New York. Robot K-456 shuffled down the sidewalk, playing political speeches by John F. Kennedy and, as Paik would say, “shitting” beans out its backside. When I organized Paik’s 1982 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Paik set Robot K-456 in motion again, this time down the sidewalk and across Madison Avenue, where a car ran into it in a staged accident. When a television reporter asked Paik what had happened, he replied, it was the “catastrophe of technology in the twenty-first century. And we are learning how to cope with it.”

Paik had originally planned a six-month visit to New York, joining his Fluxus colleagues and learning about American culture firsthand; but this arrangement became permanent as he enthusiastically responded to opportunities the city offered. In New York, Paik was able to act on his interest in television and video within an expanded community of artists and technicians, finding the means to realize his ambition to remake television, open up the art world to novel technologies, and devise new forms of creative expression. His first solo show there took place in 1965 at the New School for Social Research, and was unlike anything seen before: “Nam June Paik: Cybernetics Art and Music” featured an array of televisions, magnets, and electronic coils used to fashion electronic moving images from the material properties of the cathode ray tube. Two of the works included, Magnet TV and Demagnetizer (Life Ring), both of 1965, remade the instrumentality of the medium by using powerful magnets to radically distort and allow for the modification of the received broadcast image on the television screen, reconfiguring its properties and meanings.

Paik possessed a legendary ability to seize cutting-edge technological developments—from the Porta-Pak to digital editing systems—and master their capacities so that he could incorporate and remake them to achieve creative ends. To explain his approach, he once wrote:

In usual compositions, we have first the approximate vision of the completed work (the pre-imaged ideal or “IDEA” in the sense of Plato). Then, the working process means the torturing endeavor to reach this ideal “IDEA.” But in experimental TV, the thing is completely revised. Usually I don’t, or cannot, have any pre-imaged VISION before working. First I seek . . . the “way,”,,,,,that means, to study the circuit, to try various “FEED BACKS”, to cut some places and feed the different waves there, to change the phrase of waves, etc.

Among the very most important tools Paik created to assist in this creative process—indeed, what provided the technical basis for his single-channel videotapes and works for broadcast—was the Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer, developed in the late ’60s in consultation with Japanese engineer Shuya Abe. Used by Paik to mix film and video, and to colorize, drop out, and add visual information, the synthesizer was his means for combining high and low, popular and mass culture in his performances and in a continual remix of his videotapes. For example, in Global Groove, 1973, a signature work made with the Paik-Abe Synthesizer, one finds a heady mix of music and imagery by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels; Japanese television commercials for Pepsi-Cola; Cage, Korean folk dancers, and Allen Ginsberg. The synthesizer was a technological innovation and, in Paik’s hands, anticipated our rapid-fire, multichannel experience of digitally manipulated media today.

Indeed, Global Groove opens with narrator Russell Connor’s visionary voice-over, in which he reads a text written by Paik: “This is a glimpse of a video landscape of tomorrow, when you will be able to switch to any TV station on earth and TV Guide will be as fat as the Manhattan telephone book.” The futuristic pronouncement was in keeping with Paik’s wide-ranging writings, which consist of a large body of aphoristic and extended reflections on media and culture. But it is important today to recall that while the Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer employed in Global Groove pioneered the techniques of morphing and collaging moving images later developed and used on commercial television, on another level it represented Paik’s vision of an open discourse for television—a world in which everyone would be a producer. He mixed his own work together with films and tapes by other artists, as well as with commercials taken off the air. This pirating of material that is then broadcast across the planet speaks to the open borders that he foresaw for artists on television.

Nam June Paik performing at Anthology Film Archives, New York, 1974. Photo: Peter Moore. © Estate of Peter Moore/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

Paik’s most elaborate engagement with television in this regard consisted of his live satellite transmissions of performances, which linked different countries and broadcast networks and celebrated both avant-garde and popular culture. His ability to produce work on such a scale—convincing funders, television networks and performers to participate—was truly astonishing. Building on the open-borders concept of Global Groove and expanding on the notion of live performance and its international dissemination through new technologies, Good Morning Mr. Orwell stands out among these transmissions: Broadcast live on January 1, 1984, the program was transmitted via satellite simultaneously to Korea, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and the United States. The work featured Laurie Anderson, Joseph Beuys, Philip Glass, Yves Montand, Ben Vautier, and the band Urban Sax, among others. (George Plimpton hosted the event in New York and Jacques Villars hosted in Paris.)

Paik’s approach was interdisciplinary, moving from history and economics to politics and culture: As an artist who traveled frequently and who could call many countries home—and as someone not stuck in a single art form ideologically or commercially—Paik constructed a worldview from multiple streams and shifts of information. In particular, Paik had uncanny insight into the workings of postindustrial capitalism and popular culture, and their combined political potential—especially in regard to the attraction of Eastern Europeans behind the iron curtain to freedom and to the role that television and video could and would play in the break from repressive regimes. In my conversations with Paik, who was an avid consumer of information—always reading newspapers and magazines and watching television, both at home and while traveling—we often discussed current events and history. He felt that the biggest threat to state Communism was the power of television and rock ’n’ roll to transmit and express the flow of ideas and freedom into those countries. I remember his observation, “Radio Free Europe is interesting and informative, but the noise that jams that station is also interesting and informative. . . . Enjoy both. Jam your TV station and make it ‘Radio Free America.’” His was a mobile practice through which to destabilize arguments and points of power, always steeped in his subversive Fluxist attacks on convention meant to provide audiences with new ways to see and experience the world.

Global Groove would later appear as part of the installation TV Garden, 1974, playing on monitors and televisions of various sizes, all set among plants filling an entire gallery. First installed in 1974 but re-created on numerous occasions (including his two retrospectives, the first at the Whitney in 1982, and the second at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2000), the piece is an effusive expression of television’s spread as medium and art form. Among Paik’s strategies in his video sculptures and installations was the use of nature as a means to create a metaphor for the growth of television; but other pieces, such as Real Plant Live Plant, 1978, and Real Fish Live Fish, 1982, also employ the closed-circuit camera to explore point of view and the representation of the real and the illusory. For his Guggenheim retrospective, Paik’s connection of technology to nature responded to Frank Lloyd Wright’s conception of nature’s relationship to design: Paik’s Modulation in Sync, 2000, activated the entire rotunda, featuring a seven-story waterfall through which lasers were projected. Lasers were also projected overhead onto the oculus; video projections appeared on the rotunda walls, and a bed of monitors on the floor played an edit from his videotapes and international television projects. Paik called the installation a “postvideo” piece that utilized the energy of laser technology to suggest the future of communications and our global media culture.

By the ’90s, Paik realized that video was being absorbed into a media culture of multiple modes of delivery, and he became fascinated with integrated platforms of moving-image displays, and by the ability to move programs through various technologies. This interest was perhaps expressed most clearly in Megatron / Matrix, 1995, a video wall with a sound track and one hundred monitors controlled by a highly sophisticated computer program allowing monitors to become a continuous surface, with background and foreground images moving across the screens. It was, in a sense, a piece that recalled his statements decades earlier about a wall-to-wall TV-Chair.

In Paik’s art and ideas, technology is an enabling rather than determining factor in a dynamic remix—offering the opportunity to expand beyond the artificial boundaries established by the art world, and to function outside the categories used by critics and art historians to package the interpretation of art. Paik was a master of working within institutions, surprising everyone by getting them to cooperate and support his projects. But he was also an activist who sought to change the ways museums and foundations worked, producing a momentum of support for younger artists—even while, true to his Fluxus roots, he was not interested in establishing a “school of video art.” He truly enjoyed challenging himself and finding energy in all forms of music and creative expression. Wanting to never be bored, he felt that change and surprise facilitated the making of art, whose greatest power is to give us new ways to observe and understand the world around us. Paik did just that.

Even after Paik (survived by his wife, the video artist Shigeko Kubota) suffered a stroke in 1996, he continued to work in his studio in SoHo and was planning a project for the John Cage centennial at the time of his death. I was fortunate to have known Nam June and to have worked with him on a number of exhibitions and commissions. He was my greatest teacher and inspiration as I embraced video art and sought to make a place for it in the museum. For his generosity and genius, and his uncanny mix of visionary and pragmatic thinking, Paik will be missed.

John G. Hanhardt is Senior Curator of Film and Media Arts at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.