PRINT April 2006


Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik, TV Garden, 1974, single-channel video, live plants, and monitors. Installation view, Documenta 6, Kassel, 1977.

I FIRST SAW Nam June Paik’s work in 1977 at Documenta 6 in Kassel. Twenty years old, with two years of art school under my belt, I was hitchhiking through Europe when I came upon the art world’s temporary Emerald City. The exhibition was dominated by Joseph Beuys, whose Honeypump in the Workplace, 1974–77, snaked through the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, and who had programmed one hundred days of Free International University events. Paik’s contribution was TV Garden, 1974. It was a sprawling installation that looked like an electric, three-dimensional Henri Rousseau—the glow of thirty televisions lying face up silhouetted a thick grove of potted palms, creating a dark jungle in which the viewer could get lost. Global Groove, 1973, which would become Paik’s signature video feed, played on the monitors.

It may not be an overstatement to call Paik a visionary—he coined the term electronic superhighway, and Global Groove’s rapid edits anticipated the look of mediated imagery in today’s age of the attenuated attention span, as well as the bodily experience of electronica and rave culture. For years, whenever I saw a new Paik video, I could swear I’d seen it before. And indeed I had: Images of works by ’60s avant-garde heroes such as Beuys, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Allen Ginsberg, Charlotte Moorman, and Karlheinz Stockhausen would float in and out. These figures were integral to Paik’s artistic DNA, and Global Groove not only samples their work (turning Paik’s own darling friends’ projects inside out) but creates feedback loops with hysterical and intriguing effects. Many of these effects are now available as off-the-shelf software packages, but it is important to remember that, with the help of engineers, Paik invented his own video synthesizer in order to produce them.

TV Buddha, 1974—Paik’s telegenic bronze figurine “watching” its own image on a monitor—is considered his interpretation of a Zen parable, but it also reveals his familiarity with Western media theory. So, while representing an unanswerable koan, it simultaneously comments on Marshall McLuhan’s notion of a “global village,” as well as the Debordian undoing of the self through accumulated representation. I think of TV Buddha as the first reality television show, portraying a self-affirming condition—“I exist because I’m on television”—happening in real time.

The poetics and philosophical import of turning a medium on itself seem obvious to us now, but at the time video technology was still in a state of emergence, and even the most straightforward act of transgression felt groundbreaking. Throughout his career, Paik played these simple games to great effect. Placing a magnet on a TV and disrupting the flow of electrons is a basic but devastating gesture, an interference that embraced the Fluxus movement’s subversion of meaning, since it altered the very thing that defined television—images. This early piece (TV Magnet, 1965) laid the groundwork for a lifetime of creating machines célibataires, whose autoeroticism lay in their desire to be coupled with the images they were producing. It may seem odd to personify these works, but it’s perfectly in line with Paik’s intentions: His training as a composer segued into performance, and his objects acted as performing bodies even when he was not around.

Paik is credited with pioneering video art and expanded cinema. Just that word, pioneer, conjures up a late ’60s SoHo version of the Oregon Trail: funky wooden floors, freight elevators, and tin ceilings. The installation strategies of Paik and other artists such as Stan van der Beek, Joan Jonas, Carolee Schneemann, and Steina and Woody Vasulka gave the viewer the rich experience of a double entrée, both into the space and materiality of the objects and structures and into the interior space of the image. These notions of expanded cinema and early video installation are currently being reconsidered by younger practitioners, myself included. Paik’s performing bodies, with their jerry-rigged technologies, insides and outsides, and delirious and desirous complexities seem increasingly relevant as the future catches up to us.

Jon Kessler is a New York–based artist.