Nam June Paik: Electronic Expression (analytical essay)

4 05 2010

Nam June Paik
Electronic Expression
Garrett Landry

Nam June Paik was considered one of the first pioneers in video art. The Korean-born American artist addressed the increasing amount of new electronic media technologies throughout the late 20th century through the use of sculpture, performance, and music. His philosophies, such as open distribution and free use of technology, inspired future “New Media” and digital artists around the world.  He also explored the roles the human element played in our evolving technologies. Nam June Paik’s incredible body of work spans over forty years and  showcases his experimentation with newly developing innovative technologies such as television, circuitry, sound, and electronics.

Paik was born in Seoul, Korea during the Japanese occupation on July 20, 1932.  He had four older brothers and his father owned a textile manufacturing firm. During the Korean War, Nam June Paik and his family were forced to flee to Hong Kong, and later moved to Japan. He was trained as a classical pianist and eventually moved to Germany where he studied music history at Munich University. It was during this time when Paik met conceptual artists such as Wolf Vostell and Joseph Bueys, as well as composers  Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage.  Shortly thereafter, Paik became inspired to work in the field of electronic art. (“Nam June Paik”). Nam June Paik joined Fluxus, a group based on John Cages theories during the Neo Dada art movement, in 1963.  Fluxus (which is derived from a Latin word meaning “to flow”) is an international network of artists, designers, and composers who developed and compiled different innovative artistic disciplines.  Fluxus focused on experimental compositions and was based on anti-commercialism principles. Fluxus art centered around the idea of self-creativity and new media exploration, which became an imperative influence on Paik’s work (“Fluxus”).

It was through Fluxus that Paik discovered various methodologies involving the interpretation and creation of collage, sound art, sculpture, concrete poetry, and video.  He often created artworks involving a combination of television sculptures and music. In 1963, Paik participated in “Fluxus. Internationale Festspiele neuester Musik” in Galerie Parnass, Wuppertal where he revealed his “Exposition of Musik / Electronic Television” exhibition. This was a groundbreaking first for Paik, as this was considered to be the first work ever to include the use of monitors. He continued to experiment with various physical distortions of the television screen, procured the first available portable video recorder, and explored multi-monitor and channel installations.   Nam June Paik was one of the first artists to successfully express his deep insights through the use of electronic technology.  He revealed that moving images were indeed a key central idea in our new rapidly expanding visual culture and that the way images were created, controlled, manipulated, and presented played an important role in communication. Paik often created robots and moving sculptures out of television sets and radio parts. He was not afraid to explore spirituality and religion within a technological context. In 1974, he created “TV Buddha”, a sculpture piece where a statue of Buddha is seated in front of a television displaying a video of itself.  In 1986, Paik created “Butterfly”, a two minute video using composed music in combination with computer imaging and animation, which demonstrated his curiosity of digital artwork forms (“PAIK, NAM”).
Nam June Paik utilized television as an artistic instrument and revealed to us alternative forms of expression by using surrounding technologies that influence our lives on a daily basis. He has proven to be an inspiration to present and future “New Media” and digital artists. Paik envisioned video and electronic art as what he described, an “electronic superhighway”; accessible and free to everyone.  His anti-commercialism approach to new media technology and art has become a popular theme in regards to digital artists today. This idea of “distributed creativity” involves creative resources which allow people to share and generate artistic works.  Digital artists such as Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Pareno created such works as No Ghost, Anywhere Out of the World, which allowed other artists to take their creations and produce and distribute new works freely. This notion of sharing unrestricted information is prevalent in today’s “hacker” ideals. McKenzie Wark, creator of the Hacker’s Manifesto in 2006, describes hackers as distributers and producers of information, and that owners of this information, the vectoralists, inhibit the advancement of society by restricting its general access to the public (Epidemiology, 23). Paik’s “free sharing” mentality can also be seen in the idea of Creative Commons licensing, which enables legal distributive creativity.  Some of Nam June Paik’s later works broke away from some of the more popular Fluxus ideologies as he began to address issues of self identity, introspective exploration, and human integration into technology. Many examples of his work contain videos with moving images of himself and other people. Other innovative artworks Paik created, such as TV Cello, involve actual people (musicians) interacting with the sculptures themselves. The involvement of the “human” element within the world of digital art and technology is a common theme in New Media art. Artists such as Stelarc and Kenneth Feingold create “self-portrait” works incorporating themselves into video and electronics. Eduardo Kac is a popular artist known for his work in telerobotics and bio art. Like Paik, Kac has created robots such as Ornitorrincwhich, which presents principles of human/technological interaction within the social order. Nam June Paik’s acknowledgment that the influence of technology on identity shares some similarities with the ideology of Donna Harraway’s “cyberfeminism”, which connects the roles that technology relates to women in today’s culture and how it affects notions of data relations and “feminization” of certain aspects within society (SubRosa). Nam June Paik’s videos demonstrate experimentation with form, color, and image. He often used minimalist algorithmic animations and recursive ray tracing formulas to produce interesting and evolving video compositions. In a sense, his techniques for “programming” and producing video relates to the way present digital artists code algorithms in programs in their work, which allow for new interesting combinations and ever changing animations.  Paik was also known for creating international satellite installations such as Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984), which linked a live satellite video feed performance between two stations in Paris and New York.  This idea of associating technology, more importantly computers, with telecommunication is known as telematics.  Many New Media artists like Ken Goldberg and Musaki Fujihata have integrated telematics and telecommunication technology, by means of using the internet as a main theme within their works (“Good Morning Mr. Orwell).

Nam June Paik devoted his life’s work to the creation of a revolutionary new media culture by exploring new tools and technology newly available to the public.  This “avant-garde” artist paved the way for innovative new concepts in video and electronic art, as well as the creation of a foundation for future artists interested in addressing issues concerning New Media art. It is widely believed that Paik may have been the author of the phrase “Information Superhighway“, which he used in a Rockefeller Foundation paper in 1974. Even after his death from complications of a stroke on January 9, 2006, his work still remains tremendously relevant and perhaps unparalleled today. Paik’s incredible body of work into the new frontier of digital arts was presented to the world with a final retrospective of his works, which was held in 2000 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, integrating the unique space of the museum into the exhibition itself. Fittingly, this coincided with a downtown gallery showing of video artworks by his wife Shigeko Kubota, mainly dealing with his recovery from the stroke (“Nam June Paik”). I close with two of my favorite Nam June Paik’s quotes:  “Skin has become inadequate in interfacing with reality. Technology has become the body’s new membrane of existence.”  “The future is NOW.”

Works Cited:

“Nam June Paik.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.

“Fluxus.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 16 Apr. 2010.

“PAIK, NAM JUNE.” The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Web. 20 Apr. 2010.

Nam June Paik Studios. Web. 20 Apr. 2010. <;.

Epidemiology, 23. In. “A Hacker Manifesto by McKenzie Wark.” NeMe.
Web. 23 Apr. 2010. <;.

“Good Morning, Mr. Orwell.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.

Paik, Nam June, Toni Stooss, and Thomas Kellein. Nam June Paik: Video Time, Video Space.
New York: H.N. Abrams, 1993. Print.

Kellein, Thomas, and Jon Hendricks. Fluxus. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

SubRosa. Web. 24 Apr. 2010. <;.

“Satellite Art: An Interview with Nam June Paik.”  KAC. Web. 24 Apr. 2010.

PDF Article of Name June Paik

4 05 2010

2 05 2010

“Good Morning Mr. Orwell”

2 05 2010,_Mr._Orwell

“Good Morning, Mr. Orwell” was the first international satellite “installation” by Nam June Paik, a South Korean-born American artist often credited with inventing video art. It occurred on New Year’s Day, 1984.

The event, which Paik saw as a rebuttal to George Orwell‘s dystopian vision of 1984, linked WNET TV in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris live via satellite, as well as hooking up with broadcasters in Germany and South Korea. It aired nationwide in the US on public television, and reached an audience of over 25 million viewers worldwide.

George Plimpton hosted the show, which combined live and taped segments with TV graphics designed by Paik. John Cage, in New York, produced music by stroking the needles of dried cactus plants with a feather,[1] accompanied by video images from Paris. Charlotte Moorman recreated Paik’s TV Cello. Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel performed a new composition, “Excellent Birds,” also known as “This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds).” The broadcast also featured the television premiere of the video Act III, with music by Philip Glass.[2] The Thompson Twins performed their song “Hold Me Now.”[3] Oingo Boingo played its song “Wake Up (It’s 1984)” to an audience that presumably had recently woken up on the first day of 1984. Others contributing to the project included poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and artist Joseph Beuys.

The program was conceived and coordinated by Nam June Paik. Executive Producer: Carol Brandenburg. Assisted by Debbie Liebling, Anne Garefino, Mark Malamud, and others.

Technical problems plagued the show from the beginning. Different versions of the show were seen in the U.S. and France because the satellite connection between the two countries kept cutting out, leaving each side to improvise to fill the gaps. At one point, a performer in New York attempted a “space yodel”; the host explained that his voice would be bounced back and forth over the satellite link to produce an echo, but no echoes were actually heard.[4] Paik said that the technical problems only enhanced the “live” mood.[5]

An edited 30-minute version of “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell” has appeared in a number of exhibitions, including In Memoriam: Nam June Paik at the Museum of Modern Art.[6] A New York Times art critic described this work: “Figures turn into bold outlines or silhouettes, surrounded by shifting geometric shapes. Edges become soft, then hard. Images overlap. Some take on new configurations. Seven screens repeat the same pictures simultaneously. Although the viewer doesn’t know what to expect, the celebrities are real, the film lends credibility and therefore all seems plausible.”[3]

Paik followed up the piece in 1986 with “Bye Bye Kipling”, a satellite installation linking New York, Seoul, and Tokyo. The title alluded to a famous quotation by Rudyard Kipling: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”[7]

2 05 2010

Nam June Paik

U.S. Video Artist

Nam June Paik–composer, performer, and video artist–played a pivotal role in introducing artists and audiences to the possibilities of using video for artistic expression. His works explore the ways in which performance, music, video images, and the sculptural form of objects can be used in various combinations to question our accepted notions of the nature of television.

Growing up in Korea, Nam June Paik studied piano and composition. When his family moved, first to Hong Kong and then to Japan, he continued his studies in music while completing a degree in aesthetics at the University of Tokyo. After graduating, Paik went to Germany to pursue graduate work in philosophy. There he became part of a group of Fluxus artists who were challenging established notions of what constituted art. Their work often found expression in performances and happenings that incorporated random events and found objects.

In 1959 Paik performed his composition Hommage a John Cage. This performance combined a pre-recorded collage of music and sounds with “on stage” sounds created by people, a live hen, a motorcycle, and various objects. Random events marked this and other Paik compositions. Instruments were often altered or even destroyed during the performance. Most performances were as much a visual as a musical experience.

As broadcast television programming invaded the culture, Paik began to experiment with ways to alter the video image. In 1963 he included his first video sculptures in an exhibition, Exposition of Music–Electronic Television. Twelve television sets were scattered throughout the exhibit space. The electronic components of these sets were modified to create unexpected effects in the images being received. Other video sculptures followed. Distorted TV used manipulation of the sync pulse to alter the image. Magnet TV used a large magnet which could be moved on the outside of the television set to change the image and create abstract patterns of light. Paik began to incorporate television sets into a series of robots. The early robots were constructed largely of bits and pieces of wire and metal; later ones were built from vintage radio and television sets refitted with updated electronic components.

Some of Paik’s video installations involve a single monitor, others use a series of monitors. In TV Buddha a statue of Buddha sits facing its own image on a closed-circuit television screen. For TV Clock twenty-four monitors are lined up. The image on each is compressed into a single line with the lines on succeeding monitors rotated to suggest the hands of a clock representing each hour of the day. In Positive Egg the video camera is aimed at a white egg on a black cloth. In a series of larger and larger monitors, the image is magnified until the actual egg becomes an abstract shape on the screen.

In 1964 Paik moved to New York City and began a collaboration with classical cellist Charlotte Moorman to produce works combining video with performance. In TV Bra for Living Sculpture small video monitors became part of the cellist’s costume. With TV Cello television sets were stacked to suggest the shape of the cello. As Moorman drew the bow across the television sets, images of her playing, video collages of other cellists, and live images of the performance area combined.

When the first consumer-grade portable video cameras and recorders went on sale in New York in 1965, Paik purchased one. Held up in a traffic jam created by Pope Paul VI’s motorcade, Paik recorded the parade and later that evening showed it to friends at Cafe a Go-Go. With this development in technology it was possible for the artist to create personal and experimental video programs.

Paik was invited to participate in several experimental workshops including one at WGBH in Boston and another at WNET in New York City. The Medium is the Medium, his first work broadcast by WGBH, was a video collage that raised questions about who is in control of the viewing experience. At one point in a voice-over Paik instructed the viewers to follow his directions, to close or open their eyes, and finally to turn off the set. At WGBH Paik and electronics engineer Shuya Abe built the first model of Paik’s video synthesizer which produced non-representational images. Paik used the synthesizer to accompany a rock-and-roll soundtrack in Video Commune and to illustrate Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. At WNET Paik completed a series of short segments, The Selling of New York, which juxtaposed the marketing of New York and the reality of life in the city. Global Groove, produced with John Godfrey, opened with an explanation that it was a “glimpse of a video landscape of tomorrow when you will be able to switch to any TV station on the earth and TV guides will be as fat as the Manhattan telephone book.” What followed was a rapid shift from rock-and-roll dance sequences to Allen Ginsberg to Charlotte Moorman with the TV cello to an oriental dancer to John Cage to a Navaho drummer to a Living Theatre performance. Throughout, the video image was manipulated by layering images, reducing dancers to a white line outlining their form against a wash of brilliant color, creating evolving abstract forms. Rapid edits of words and movements and seemingly random shifts in the backgrounds against which the dancers perform create a dreamlike sense of time and space.

Nam June Paik pioneered the development of electronic techniques to transform the video image from a literal representation of objects and events into an expression of the artist’s view of those objects and events. In doing so, he challenges our accepted notion of the reality of televised events. His work questions time and memory, the nature of music and art, even the essence of our sensory experiences. Most significantly, perhaps, that work questions our experience, our understanding, and our definitions of “television.”

-Lucy Liggett


21 04 2010

Interview with Nam June Paik

9 04 2010


Eduardo Kac

The stylized computer-generated figure of the legendary Icarus rises to the sky and transforms itself in thin air into the high-flying bird which zooms, at the speed of light, from Greece to New York. From the ancient Olympus to the electronic Babel, there are no insurmountable distances or temporal frontiers capable of limiting the blasting creativity of the inventor of video art — the 56-year old Korean artist Nam June Paik. In his search for an art that expresses contemporary life in the age of media, he blurs the distinctions between telecommunications and the visual arts; ancient and electronic forms; folk art and high art; East and West; design and beaux arts; objective and subjective time. His next project will form an international network on a global scale. It will be aired September 10, 1988, at 10:30 AM (Eastern Time), one week before the Olympic Games take place in Seoul, Korea. Its structure could be summarized as follows: several satellites around the planet will transmit images and sounds from several countries and Paik will be editing them in real time in New York and re-transmitting them back to the participating countries, where spectators will be able to watch on a local TV channel. As a videoconductor, he will direct a multicultural and multimedia electronic symphony before a public of millions.


Initially dubbed “Space Rainbow”, the project’s title was later changed to “Olympic Rainbow”, and again to “Wrap Around the World.” Whether the reference is to science or mythology, or both, the work will encompass cultural elements from Greece, Soviet Union, China, United States, Brazil, Japan, Korea, Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Ireland, England and Israel. With support from the Globo Television Network, Brazil will be the only country from South America to take part in the project. In charge of the Brazilian end is Hans Donner, an Austrian designer and computer artist who lives and works in Rio de Janeiro. Invited by Paik himself, Donner, who works for the Globo Television Network, will create the opening and the vignettes that will be used as transitions between the live feeds. The opening, which will make reference to the ancient Olympic Games through the figure of Icarus, and the vignettes, which will represent cultural integration through images of the Earth, will be created by Donner in New York, since the deadline is too close for the work to be done in Rio de Janeiro.


Nam June Paik will give emphasis to images from the everyday life of the Soviet Union and China, symbolizing the approximation between people from different countries. He will also emphasize images from Brazil, revealing the coexistence of traditional cultures (as expressed by the famous Rio de Janeiro Carnival, for example) and a sophisticated contemporary technoculture. Paik will incorporate into his audiovisual extravaganza some computer animations by Donner and also Samba performances specially staged for the project.


Paik’s search for a visual language that suppresses physical space as a function of real time may be compared to his own dynamic as a globe traveller. He was born in Seoul, Korea, in 1932. In 1949, he and his family were forced to move to Hong Kong because of the Korean war. A year later, they moved to Tokyo. In 1956, Paik went to Germany, via Calcutta and Cairo, to study music. He stayed in Germany until 1963, when he spent a year in Tokyo. In 1964, he settled in New York. In 1966, he spent part of the year travelling in Europe with Charlotte Moorman. He still lives in New York, together with the videoartist Shigeko Kubota, his wife.


In a letter written in 1959 and addressed to John Cage, Paik had already expressed his theoretical and artistic interest for television. In 1963, still in Germany, he bought 13 second-hand television sets and in March of that year he had his first solo show (which also was the very first video art exhibition): “Exposition of Music Ü Electronic Television.” Still in 1963, but now in Japan, he worked with engineer Shuya Abe to create the first video synthesizer. His ongoing research led to ever more new discoveries and, in 1965, Paik had his first one-man show in the United States: “Electronic TV, Color TV Experiments, 3 Robots, 2 Zen Boxes & 1 Zen Can.” Expanding these new concepts, in the next two decades he created videosculptures, videoinstallations, videoperformances, videotapes and live links via satellite. During the New Year’s Day celebration in January 1, 1984, he aired “Good Morning Mr. Orwell”, a live link between New York and Paris. With the participation of John Cage, Salvador Dali, Laurie Anderson, Joseph Beuys and other art superstars, Paik showed that Orwell’s Big Brother hadn’t arrived. In 1986 it was “Bye Bye Mr. Kipling”, another live link between Seoul, Tokyo, and New York intended as a refutation of Kipling’s “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Now it will be “Wrap Around the World”, which will involve the whole planet. In this exclusive interview by telephone, realized between New York and Rio de Janeiro, Nam June Paik reveals how to fly around the world in a few minutes without ever leaving his seat.


Kac – The relationship between art and new technology is as old as art itself. How do you see this relationship?


Paik – This is, in fact, a very old relationship. The Egyptian pyramids are the first example of a combination of high art and high tech, because they used many of the cutting edge technologies of the time. Their culture was very well developed. They had chemical industries (which produced colored pigments for painting), advanced building techniques, sophisticated security systems (to prevent invasion of the sacred spaces), and efficient mummification processes for the preservation of the human body, among other things. Today, new technologies can be used in art in two basic ways: in the fine arts and in the applied arts. Fine art is art for art’s sake, in which I identify a kind of extension of conceptual art, according to which the concept is the context and the context is the concept. The context is the content; the content is the context. This means that the fine arts have always been interested in the new horizons of possibilities. When Picasso created Cubism, he did so because he was tired of Impressionism. Monet created Impressionism because he was tired of Academicism ÜÜ artists have always been interested in the new sensibility, in exploring new possibilities. Since today we have satellites, we want to use them, discover what we, artists, can do with them. We want to try something new, in the tradition of Monet and Picasso. These same instruments (satellites) are used in the applied arts, which are essential to humankind because they are useful in everyday life. But there is also the military use of satellites. We want to use satellites for pacifist purposes, such as the performance arts, rock’n roll, dance, etc.; and we can make simultaneous transmissions between Rio de Janeiro, New York, Seoul, Bonn, Tokyo, Moscow and many other cities. It is clear that the applied arts are directly related to people’s activities, but the fine arts are more meaningful than the applied arts.


Kac – You have a strong musical background. In 1956 you studied music at the University of Munich and at the Music Conservatory of Freiburg, in Germany. In 1958 you worked in Cologne, in the Rundfunk Electronic Music Studios, where Stockhausen also worked. In your telecommunication events you often include performances of rock’n roll or pop music. How do you relate music and video?


Paik – MTV’s videoclips have already shown that there is great intimacy between sound and image. People are used to these electronic collages. If you compare them to the underground films of the ’60s, you will find lots of common traits, such as abrupt cuts and unusual angles, among other characteristics. MTV is not the only approach to the issue of sound-and-image, but it is an interesting solution, which has contributed a lot to the development of a “visual music”, and to video art. I believe that Laurie Anderson’s work, for example, is very important, because she bridges the gap between “low culture” and “high culture”. The standards of “low art” are being raised dramatically. When Elvis Presley appeared in the ’50s, fine artists did not appreciate his work. But when the Beatles appeared, in the ’60s, fine artists admired and respected them. I see a major change under way. As opposed to Presley, who was a driver, musicians like David Bowie or David Byrne are educated, well-informed people, with solid backgrounds. They admire Marcel Duchamp and other important artists. A visual artist can talk to them at the same intellectual level because they were visual artists before turning professional musicians. But there is no reason for them to create high art, anyway. There are always artists focused on this kind of work, like Ray Johnson and the members of Fluxus, among so many others.


Kac – One of the trends of high tech art is the integration of multiple media. Do you believe that video and holography will ever cross paths? What is the future of high tech art?


Paik – Holography, which is very different from video, is the next horizon. I’ve seen excellent holograms in the Museum of Holography, and, in fact, new discoveries are made in this field every day. A single hologram contains a lot of information, which means that magnetic tape will not be used as storage medium. Most likely, optical recording systems, such as compact disks, will one day store holographic images. Artists creating high tech art must be careful not to fall into the decorative trap. They must prevent the high tech from overpowering the art. If we can avoid this danger, then it will be all right.


Kac – Your first large-scale telecommunication art event was “Good Morning Mr. Orwell.” Then came “Bye Bye Mr. Kipling.” Now it is “Wrap Around the World.” How does this third piece complement the others?


Paik – The first work was not about communications between East and West, it was a link between France and the United States. The second focused exactly on that; the link was between Korea, Japan, and the United States. Now I want to create a link that involves the whole world. This is the main difference. The second difference is that we are working now more with popular arts than with high art performances. It is a big risk to create a live television show in such a large scale with high art only, because television is an entertainment medium and we have to be careful. We have to be a little conservative to minimize the risks of a transmission between several continents. I am not saying that we are not creating high art, but that we are creating a new high art with new materials. We are using these new materials to work with the temporal element of the popular arts, the rhythm, which is so important in video art. This is my last satellite show, but it is also the beginning of a larger satellite movement of the future.


21 03 2010

Nam June Paik was born in Seoul, Korea into an upper-middle-class family. As a child, he was fascinated by the radio, which he listened to for hours, often asking, “Why do people hide in the box?”1 During the Korean War his family moved frequently, finally settling in Tokyo. Interested in both music and the visual arts, Paik’s parents’ opposed music school, so they initiated studies with a private instructor. With the arrival of television in Japan in the early 1950s, by which time Paik was expert on the piano, he transferred his interests in electronics from radio to television. Also opposing his desire to study art in Paris, his parents finally settled on Munich, Germany. And so, after his graduation from the University of Tokyo in 1956, he continued his studies in music history at the University of Munich and the Conservatory in Freiburg.

Once in Germany, his obsession with music, art, and electronics came together. Paik once stated,

I feel inferior to painters and inferior to composers. A German who studied radar during the war told me radar waves make interesting painting, then I had idea. Why don’t I move from electronic music into electronic painting with the TV. I will not compete with the big guys–Jasper Johns and John Cage. I will find something new–the moving painting with sound.”2

Paik moved to New York in 1964, one year after exhibiting his first “electronic paintings”–thirteen TV sets with scrambled images–in Wuppertal, Germany. It was the first video art show anywhere. While in New York, Paik purchased one of the first Sony video cameras marketed in 1965. In the taxi on his way home, he got into a traffic jam caused by Pope Paul IV’s visit to New York. Paik captured the spectacle around him with his video camera and showed the tape that same evening at the Cafe a Go Go. He handed out a leaflet at the cafe declaring: “As collage technique replaced oil paint, the cathode-ray tube will replace the canvas.”3

Paik continues to work in his “new” medium. Once, at a gallery in New York that was exhibiting several of his rewired TV sets and a six-foot-tall robot, he opened the doors and aimed the metal robot for the street. The robot did not resemble a refugee from a Hollywood movie so much as it looked like a merrily twisted aluminum clothes rack, on rollers, that had recently belonged to a mental hospital. Its face was a radio speaker, its nose was a light bulb, and the eyes were toy airplane propellers. The mischievous Paik also nearly created an international incident when he tried to send this same robot through the Brandenburg Gate into East Berlin.4 Paik also collaborated with cellist Charlotte Moorman until her death in 1991, in creating performance pieces. Moorman played the cello topless, except for two-three-inch TV sets on her breasts in a performance called TV Bra unveiled in 1969 at the Corcoran Gallery. The duo were later arrested and charged with indecent exposure.

Paik does not even own a functioning TV and has exclaimed, “I don’t watch TV. The information is too slow. I want to be able to fast-forward the news or program.”5 Paik continues to live and work in a studio in New York jammed with TV chassis, boxes of knobs, dials, lights, and rows of television sets. A visitor may easily become frightened of electrocution trying to traverse his floor crisscrossed with coiled wires and clunky transformers. When asked what lies ahead for the artist he stated, “People talk about ‘the future’ being tomorrow, ‘the future’ is now.”6


1. Paul Gardner, “Tuning in to Nam June Paik,” Artnews (May 1992): 67.
2. Ibid.
3. Kellein, Nam June Paik: Video Time-Video Space (New York, NY: Abrams, 1998), 36.
4. Gardner, “Tuning in,” 69.
5. Paul Gardner, “Paik Un plugged,” Artnews (January 1995): 136.
6. Ibid.

Nam June Paik Article

9 03 2010

“The Worlds Of Nam June Paik” – Brief Article


To how many of us is it given to attend the birth of a medium and to witness its institutionalization as–what else?–an “art form”? In the early ’60s, anyone who held in his or her hands a brown, flexible, two-inch-wide piece of videotape on which information was electronically coded had to have a sense of the miraculous. Play it back: There was the moving image shot a moment before–flat, factual, fibrillating, lightstruck. By the late ’60s, the portapak camera had put the means of production (then a vaguely Marxist phase) in the hands of media artists working across the broad band from the documentary to the experimental. “Public Access” was not so much a slogan as the war cry of a marginal (and at the time despised) community insisting on being seen and heard. From its incubation in the counterculture, video had a radical, idealistic program. The common enemy? The thee network monoliths, which had stolen the public airways, limited access, and betrayed the public (all true).

hen the documentary wing, John Reilly and Rudy Stearn’s Global Village (founded in 1969), for example, declared the world its subject, and Nam June Paik (in 1965) pronounced that the video camera would replace the paintbrush–that it was in fact the paintbrush of the future–many art-world fauna dismissed them as intoxicated utopians. For video art, which was considered marginal, a short life was predicted–a little like that of rap, which was also supposed to be short but instead became nasty, brutish, and long. The truth of these pioneers has now marched on–although painting, the Lazarus medium, will survive an atomic holocaust. The electronic medium, neutral as water, became, like sculpture and installation, a noun: Video. Over thirty years, it has unfurled its phases as if scheduled by Wolfflin.

Video’s spunky progression is unthinkable without its most durable pioneer, Nam June Paik, whose global migrations from Korea and Europe to the continent of John Gage have an almost religious inevitability. Thirty-five years ago, you could see him at the Galeria Bonino in Manhattan translating the sedate electrons of a broadcast sitcom into swerving linear conundrums by manipulating a magnet on top of a TV set. Above the magnet was the irresistible Paik smile, which still seems to hover over all his work (he gracefully bears the burden of being universally liked). Under the clean museum and gallery culture of Pop and Minimal, the inspired and somewhat scruffy pan-cultural world of Fluxus was bubbling away, and where Fluxus was, there was Paik, with programs and performances–musical, verbal, pantomimic–a charming futurist with an eye for memorable events (Charlotte Moorman performing on Paik’s electronic cello; Moorman wearing his state-of-the-art TV bra, a pole away from the article Howard Hughes designed for Jane Russell’s cantilevered assets). All was driven by an extravagant Whitmania: Gulp down the world, reshuffle it electronically, and disgorge it in a pride of monitors. Since new art ideas usually arrive accompanied by heavy breathing, it was wonderful that Paik’s program was without exception performed with a joy so rare as to be almost a new medium in itself.

Some of Paik’s early work, which showed the TV set no mercy, displayed an epigrammatic wit. He designed a chair with a TV seat (TV Chair, 1968) that conjugates verbally (ass-seat, ass-set, ass-sit). He replaced the cathode tube with an empty fishbowl, then a solitary lighted candle. In a gesture that became famous, a sculptured Buddha contemplates his image on the screen in real time. Another signature act (reversing the aquarium scene in Orson Welles’s Lady from Shanghai) put TV sets behind aquariums in which the peregrinations of miniature fish inscribed the activity on the screen. Fish float though Paik’s oeuvre (an image of his lack of gravitas?) and preface various screens, one of which shows, in a brilliant conceit, Merce Cunningham dancing (floating?) with his computerized echo. And since Paik’s genius is additive, this unit is replicated around the Guggenheim’s ramp in a bracelet of monitors: redundancy as pleasurable excess.

John Hanhardt’s dazzling installation is, with Bill Judson’s “American Landscape Video: The Electronic Grove” at the Carnegie in 1988, video’s summa of display. Jacob’s Ladder 2000, a zigzag of laser light, shivers though a six-story waterfall (call John Portman); giant double-faced screens mount the outside of the ramps, furiously synthesizing scattershot content in which culture heroes (Allen Ginsberg, Merce again) make soundless cameo appearances. From the top ramp, Wright’s spinning well has offered some unforgettable floorworks, such as Carl Andre’s installation in 1970–and does so again. One hundred face-up monitors huddled randomly on the floor overflow with images returning your gaze. The result is breathtaking spectacle–and fun.

Paik’s genial futurism always amounted to public relations for the coming media immersion, which is now everyone’s lot. His amiable polemics were and are disarming. His optimism is a version of innocence, his certainty maybe that of a sophisticated primitive, very different from the testing propositions of such artists as Dan Graham and the early Peter Campus, who culled process and found it darker. Hanhardt’s catalogue, which makes a case for an intellectual underpinning for Paik’s work, is an indispensable document. It includes a history of experimental film, obscured until recently by video’s ubiquity. Experimental filmmakers deeply resented video. (When Stan Brakhage finally capitulated by making his first video, a shock wave went our through the film community.) Experimental film was and is often backbreaking work. Video was too easy; but in time it got much harder–and more expensive, though the Rockefeller Foundation, though Howard Fine, generously relieved the fiscal distress.

The most interesting room is the gallery off the top ramp, where Paik’s early work and thinking are documented. There, lying in state among other exhibits, is a famous fossil, the 1969 Paik-Abe synthesizer, experimental video’s Univac, attended in a photograph by Paik and Fred Barzyk, the visionary enabler of early video, at his Boston TV lab. To look down the ramp to the lily pond of monitors below is to travel in a glance the distance video has come.

Artist and writer BRIAN O’DOHERTY was Media Arts Program Director at the National Endowment for the Arts for nineteen years. His book Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Lapis Press, 1986), which originally appeared in 1976 as a series of essays in these pages, has just been republished by the University of California Press. “Patrick Ireland: On Site,” O’Doherty’s most recent exhibition (under his nom d’artiste), was at Eaton Fine Art, Inc. in West Palm Beach, Florida. For this issue, he reviews the retrospective of video-art pioneer Nam June Paik, currently on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.


1 03 2010

Wiki article containg information about the Fluxus art group which Paik was associated with.