Books

“Why Is Television Dumb?” and Other Musings by Nam June Paik

In the recently published collection We Are in Open Circuits, Paik’s prescient critiques of image consumption suggest he probably would’ve been great at Twitter.

We Are in Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik, edited by John G. Hanhardt, Gregory Zinman, and Edith Decker-Phillips (image courtesy MIT Press)

It’s one of the first artworks I remember: a wall of stacked TVs, each one a twirling, fragmented, cacophonous montage that, if you stepped back, together looked something like an American flag. This was the ‘90s (the piece, Video Flag Z, was made in ’86) — before screens had become ubiquitous, before we could manipulate images with the devices in our pockets — and so it seemed a kind of wizardry.

I didn’t know who Nam June Paik was, or that he’d pioneered video art. Nor, as a Korean American, did I register that this was the first (and would be for many years, the only) piece I’d seen by a Korean artist. It was a rare thing, to connect first to a work — with its childlike, bombastic energy — and later to the artist, whose cosmopolitanism and outsider identity fascinated me.  

A New Design for TV Chair, 1973. Silkscreen on paper, 12 x 9 in. (30.5 x 22.9 cm). Edition of 25. Courtesy of John G. Hanhardt.

Paik’s writings, which make up the new tome-like, 445-page collection, We Are in Open Circuits (MIT Press), capture that constant awareness of his otherness alongside his visionary creativity. But being a Korean speaker, traveling constantly, inhabiting “illegible” identities had a unique chemistry in Paik: they served to bolster, not limit, his ambition. 

There’s nothing shy about the writing. Paik offers prescient critiques of image consumption: “…the malaise of our time is the balance between input and output ratio. 40,000 commercials are hitting us yearly, according to the statistics, but we can afford to buy only 40 of them.” He predicts technologies decades before they arrived: “A teenage Ophelia in Nevada can be a co-star to Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet via the screen … if 3- D Horography is once realised on the stage.” He pays tribute to famous friends: “Josef [sic] Beuys told me that America corrupted me, which I agree.” And, of course, he takes on the cut-throat art world: “Only in art world and heavy weight boxing only top 5 can pay rent, and 99.999 other artists/boxers go hungry…” I found myself trying to skim to make it through the heavy book, only to be stopped by a funny jab or timely quip on nearly every page.

Letter to Howard Klein, then Director of Arts and Humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation. Rockefeller Archive Center, Paik, Nam June 1977-1981, Record Group 1.7, Series 200R, Box 944, Folder 6350.

There’s so much of this great manifesto-like writing that it would be hard to distinguish — if not for the book’s organization — between installation proposals, letters to friends, exhibition essays, and actual manifestos. One senses a mind constantly whirring with energy: he’ll jump, in the space of a few lines, from Zen and Fluxus to Hegel and Marxism to McLuhan and TV circuitry. When he asks “Why is Television Dumb?” he’s not being snarky; he launches into a sincere exploration of economics, musical theory, and the CIA’s investment in technology that produces the poignant observation, “Once on videotape, you are not allowed to die.” Paik probably would’ve been great at twitter (he died in 2006, the year twitter was founded). The book features over a hundred scanned pages of his work, which are often organized into blocks and breaks like concrete poetry, or are scribbled over with revisions and additions. 

I found myself particularly drawn to the few instances where Paik turns inward. He emerged as an artist in Germany and America in the sixties, when Korea was known, if at all, as a source of migrant labor, or the site of a brief and troublesome war. One story from Paik’s childhood, which appears twice, crystallizes this: “When I was growing up in the Japanese occupied Korea of the 30’s, Shirley Temple was the first name to register on my pre-kindergarten brain … long before the name of any Asian, or even that of my father.” Paik mentions this in a larger essay meditating upon information as soft power. It’s a simple and poignant look into Paik’s early formation, his recognition of TV’s ability to span geography, language, and cultural context. The TV created intimacy, but one that replicated the vastly uneven power in America and Korea.

Excerpt of Good Morning, Mr. Orwell. Typescript, c. 1983. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Nam June Paik Archive, box 8 folder 7. Originally published in Art for More than 25 Million People… (Berlin: DAADgalerie, 1984), n.p.

It’s not hard to tie this in with Paik’s subsequent work. He speaks proudly, in other essays, of his seminal broadcastGood Morning, Mr. Orwell, which debuted on January 1, 1984, the first-ever international satellite art installation. It featured original works by Laurie Anderson, Phillip Glass and others — a utopian vision of global art that deflated Orwell’s dystopian prediction of that year. Paik notes that critics complained of its lack of social meaning, and wryly responds: “I agree with them, too … however, these defects do not explain why at least five million people around the world sat through the 60 minute program.” For Paik, the work’s popularity is not only a rebuttal to his ‘highbrow’ critics — it placed him at the center of that image-making world that so impressed him as a child.

And, of course, Paik went on to implant that wonder in me, as a child wandering through LACMA’s galleries. We Are in Open Circuits brings us a little closer to the excitable person behind those works, the first to unceasingly seek TV’s artistic potential. Paik was literally plugged into his times, to the wonder and terrible power of these new image-producing machines. And the screen age is just starting. As Paik mused, “Even Duchamp needed 100 years to convey his ideas. I may need more.” 

We Are in Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik, edited by John G. Hanhardt, Gregory Zinman and Edith Decker-Phillips (MIT Press) is available now on Amazon or at your local indie bookstore.

 

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