Nam June Paik – eng

pieter van bogaert

Pope June Paik – the antifixer

on Nam June Paik

for Wonderland – Fluxus and the Game, 2006

(lees verder in het Nederlands)

Nam June Paik – aka the pope of video art. I don’t know to what he owes this strange title, but legend has it that the arrival of the Sony Portapak, the very first portable video camera, coincided in 1965 with the visit of the pope (the Roman one) to New York. And legend goes on to say that Paik hurried to the docks to be the first to have the new electronic wonder. On his way home he is said to have filmed, from the taxi he had taken, the holy man’s entry into the city. Very few people ever saw ‘The Pope Tape’ , for after its showing, that same night at a Fluxus event in Greenwich Village , the video vanished forever from the rich history of video art.

So goes the legend . Paik , of course, had already given ample proof that he didn’t need a camera to make video art. Nor did he need tapes. He made art using televisions . For Paik, a saw, a magnet or a hammer was an interface as good as a camera, a video recorder or a tape. He was a master fixer, an expert putter. But above all he was an anti-fixer: an artist who needed to pull things down in order to build them up again. A creator to whom everything was in continuous motion. Nothing was fixed, nothing was finished, nothing stood still. That’s how Paik became one of the founders of what was later to be called ‘the unstable arts’ – very tangible and yet so very tenuous, like an electronic image on a tape. Like music in the air.

It all begins in music . Paik’s formative years in Korea , Hong Kong and Japan were filled with the study of post-Webern twelve-note system. Serial music took him to Germany , where at the end of the 1950s Karlheinz Stockhausen headed a studio for electronic music set up by the German radio. There was never to grow a close friendship between Paik and the master, for unlike Stockhausen (and his great example Schoenberg) Paik refused any control over music, aiming rather at reaction. His meeting with John Cage at the Darmstadt Summer School of Music in 1958 brings him in touch with the Fluxus movement and leads Paik to performance and ultimately to the media arts. Farewell musical schooling.

Mind you however , music itself continues to be the leitmotiv throughout his work. In a performance in 1962, ‘One for Violin Solo’ , Paik used a violin – smashing it to pieces. It’s a gesture that makes noise, therefore music, and at the same time delivers him from the tedious instrument. Paik demolishes Western culture but proves himself to be a master of recycling. The violin is succeeded by the piano and next comes the television set. All these instruments are skillfully taken apart, only to be reassembled and used as something new. Paik sets up his first exhibition in Wuppertal in 1963. The “very nice distortions” produced by his prepared television sets are brought together for the first time in an ‘Exposition of Music-Electronic Television’ . A title like this is no coincidence. For Paik television is music and from now on music is always also to some degree television: we feel from a distance and watch with our ears.

It all happens in the mix. Paik was far ahead of his time. He made music of, for and with television, long before the advent of MTV. He recycled images and sounds long before the advent of the sampler. He made organic environmental art, long before the advent of the greens.

Nobody has ever focused on the media’s environment with so much commitment as Paik – apart from viewers in the early years of television. They used to pack their sets in fine cabinets, they put a vase on top of it or they adorned it with a small rug. Such finery is less important today, but when Paik set out making art with television sets we couldn’t watch television programs around the clock and most of the time the set was not in operation and just sat there doing nothing. As a result the set itself drew more attention than the few programs that could be viewed. But the growing number of programs has shifted the emphasis from the piece of furniture, from the outward shape of the set, to what’s happening on the screen – we have gone from the packing to the content. That’s the instant when Paik begins to make video art. He begins to stick pieces of video tape together, just like he used to do in the studios of WDR radio when he was experimenting with bits of sound tape. Rarely does he still turn to the camera, the interface which puts him in contact with the inside of the television set. He much prefers working with images that are not his, the way he likes to turn to languages that are not his own. His language is a plastic mix of Korean, Japanese, German, English and French. The outcome is nostalgic as well as futuristic – as in the title of his first computer-controlled work from 1968 (!): ‘Il pluit dans mon computeur’.

It all comes from the body . Paik is a materialist. To him television is above all a tangible piece of furniture and the image it generates is equally tactile – a view he shares with Marshall McLuhan. By means of magnets he shows how electrons respond to their immediate environment and are in fact not concerned about the image they are supposed to create. Taking television sets of various dimensions and weights, he connects them to, or builds them into instruments. Or bodies, like that of Charlotte Moorman, the cellist with whom he frequently works together and whom Varèse once called the “Joan of Arc of new music”. Paik models her body as if it was a sculpture, transforming her into a robot.

To Paik television is a body: always the same and yet always unique, and this makes every work of his an original remix. Out of television sets he makes living gardens, or robots, or a chair, a wall, a floor or a ceiling, spectacles or a bra. Every now and then he creates art without television sets, as in Human Cello’, in which Charlotte Moorman plays Paik’s body as if it was a string instrument. Bodies as new media. Technology without technology. Paik perceived, better than anyone else and long before the hype of the new media, that “sometimes, the best use of a computer is no use of a computer”. It’s an attitude that smacks of exorcism, as if Paik wants to shut out the media. In fact this can be inferred from the poster for his first exhibition – a hidden manifesto:

EXPosition of music
ELectronic television.

It isn’t the exposition which is important, neither is it the music, nor the electronics or the television sets. What is important is the message hidden in the capital letters: EXPEL – an exorcist act, no less.

It all goes to the body. Actually, this video-pope is a TV Buddhist. There is nothing at all that needs to be exorcized – on the contrary: what matters is to cultivate the inner self. Finding oneself in one’s surroundings, in space, in the void. Just like a viewer in front of the screen, like a Zen Buddhist in front of a wall. A series of minimalist pieces made in the first half of the sixties are in fact exercises in being, exercises in Zen. In Zen for Film , Zen for TV , Zen for Head , Zen for Face , Zen for Walking , Zen for Street , Zen for Touching and Zen for Wind Paik brings the spectator face to face, in the best Cagean tradition, with the space surrounding the media – the space in which we find ourselves.

All these pieces are like a circle closing in on itself – from the body we go to space and back to the body. The spectator is fully integrated into the work of art. The outcome is inevitable: in 1974 Paik introduces the Zen master himself into his work, putting an actual Buddha statue in front of a television set. Fully concentrated, his TV Buddha is viewing his own TV image, filmed in a closed TV circuit. The screen is, at the same time, a projection surface (as in Zen for film ) as well as a mirror surface (as in Zen for TV ). At an exhibition in Cologne , Germany , Paik himself takes the place of the TV Buddha, with his eyes closed: an image turned upon itself, a closed circuit.

It is all part of the happening . The essence is existence. Paik is a Zen master and ecstasy is his natural way of being. A static flux, the embodiment of Sartre’s “I am always what I am not – I am always not what I am”. For Paik, therefore, no concerts, but rather happenings. No conductor, but rather chance. No score, but rather interaction. And no boundaries either between the performer and the audience: the one can take the place of the other at any time. Everything happens at that moment in time and everything is unpredictable. The surprise of the happening is the essence of Paik’s work.

The happening is inevitable for everything can always be improved upon. Paik makes a ‘Better than Godard’ and a ‘Better than Einstein’ . In ‘Better than Cage’ he cuts in two the musician’s tie in a fairly tactile fashion. And naturally there had to be a ‘Better than McLuhan’ too, in which our roguish Korean massages the head of the philosopher – who founded media theory, while Paik laid the basis of the media arts – by sliding a magnet along the television screen. The medium is the massage and Paik and McLuhan the perfect couple. The former began his artistic career with sounds made audible in the mouth by sucking on a kind of hearing aid, the latter called television ‘audio-tactile’ – radio with images or tactile sound. From Cage, who in the anechoic chamber escapes every sound except that produced by his own blood circulation and ganglia, Paik has learned that in the media there is no escaping the experience of one’s body. Nobody can escape the context of the body – the acoustic space in the words of McLuhan – which we carry around everywhere.

It all moves towards the future. “There is no rewind button on the betamax of life”, Paik said, and so he had things moving swiftly. He was the first to welcome Big Brother in 1984. ‘Good Morning, Mr. Orwell’ , in Paik’s own view his “most successful work of art”, was recorded on 1 January, 1984, simultaneously in New York and Paris and broadcast via satellite on French, German and American television. In Paik’s own estimation it was viewed by more than 30 million people – an immodest record.

‘Good Morning, Mr. Orwell’ is not a homage to the visionary (in Paik’s view boring) book whose title is the number of the year 1984, but a way to counter the gloomy view of the future that the British author took. Paik was an incorrigible optimist, particularly when the media were at issue. In the fifties he used scissors and glue to create his own digital future. In the sixties television, the universally comprehensible medium, was his number one partner in the paperless society that was about to materialize. As early as 1974, in a study commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation, he launched the notion of an ‘ Electronic Super Highway ‘. The concept was taken up in the nineties by the Clinton Administration and Al Gore, who regarded it as his personal mission to link the whole world up to the Internet. In the eighties Paik turned against the prophets of doom and in the nineties he trained the first generation of Internet artists. On the threshold of the 21 st century he compared the Internet with a string quartet, in which several people together make a piece of music. Paik is no longer with us as I am writing this, but the antifixer’s spirit is still in the air. So are the media. So is the music.