TV Garden (1974-7) by Nam June Paik (Image by Ellen Wang)
‘Television has attacked us for a lifetime, now, we strike back.’
The iconic slogan by Nam June Paik, widely referred to as the father of video art, indicates one of his key methods: humanizing technology, as an attempt to shake up the dispositions of TV as an aggressive technology and of us as passive recipients.
Born in Seoul in 1932, Nam June Paik lived and worked in distant cities in Japan, Germany, and the US during his life-long exploration of avant-garde art and music. As an international artist whose artwork embodies cosmopolitanism in his global trajectory, Paik is a challenging subject for a comprehensive exhibition. Despite this, Tate Modern managed to condense his oeuvre into twelve rooms dedicated to themes like experiments with technology, telecommunication, and collaborations with the likes of the Fluxus group, musician John Cage and Charlotte Moorman.
Zen for TV (1963) by Nam June Paik (Image by Ellen Wang)
Housed in a room entitled Transmission, Internet Dream (1994), a video wall consisting of fifty-two cathode-ray tube televisions immediately enchants the viewer with its ever-flickering screens. In contrast with Zen for TV (1963), the electronically generated montage imagery flooded with information here represents Paik’s other philosophy, that is, his optimistic view of telecommunication technologies as tools for breaking cultural and geographical boundaries. In 1974, Paik proposed the coming of electronic superhighways in the essay ‘Media Planning for the Postindustrial Society’, opting for a future system free from the euro-centralized geopolitical power. Advocating for a global village, Paik commented: ‘I want to place culture out of nationalism and communication out of vanity and SNOBISM’. This democratizing vision of cultural cosmopolitanism continued to characterize Paik’s practice.
‘The satellite artist… must consider how to achieve a two-way connection between opposites of the earth… Satellite art must make the most of these elements creating a multi-temporal, multi-spatial symphony’, proposed Paik in the year of 1984, the same year when he ambitiously streamed the satellite broadcast Good Morning, Mr. Orwell. The project aired events simultaneously happening in New York and Paris, featuring Paik’s collaborators John Cage and Joseph Beuys, to audiences across the US, Europe, and South Korea. A celebration of the modern connectivity enabled through satellite transmissions, the work refutes George Orwell’s critical prediction of telecommunication devices as instruments of hegemonic oppression. For Paik, technologies are not tools for conformity and control, but rather a means of expression. After all, it is hard not to thank this transcultural freedom provided by satellite when you see David Bowie chatting in Japanese Ryuichi Sakamoto, and an elephant soccer game in Thailand at the same time (Wrap around the World, 1988).
The future of technology, imagined by Paik, is one that is globally-connected, and at the same time ecologically sustainable. According to Zen Buddhist concepts, all things are interconnected, a belief that Paik demonstrated in his early artistic practice with TV Garden. When asked in an interview in 1980 what he would do to solve the world’s problems if he were elected president, Paik answered:
“Dancers and yogis achieve ecstasy with 200 calories. However, racing drivers, if they want to achieve ecstasy, have to burn 200,000 calories… certain activities which have a higher spiritual quality – use less energy… So when we shift our economic priorities of consuming to more spiritual sphere then we can solve all economic problems with much less energy.”
TV Buddah (1974) by Nam June Paik (Image by Ellen Wang)
Could spirituality be the answer to saving us from our economic and environmental crisis today?
Through his life-long exploration of East Asian philosophy and meditation, Paik tried to convince his audience that fulfillment through art and culture would compensate for our need for material commodities, thus reducing the consumption of natural resources. With his utopian vision for communication technologies, Paik was fully aware of the democratizing power of video art to break the walls of galleries and museums, to thaw national borders and cultural hierarchies, and to reach people far from the centers of the art world.
What is there for us to take from Nam June Paik today, then?
One thing that Paik had predicted correctly was the prevalence of camera which has ‘made everybody into an active visual artist’. ‘The size of camera industry and art business illustrated the massive desire to create an artwork, instead of watching a masterpiece on the wall,’ said Paik. Instagram perhaps is the evidence that modern technology has become an increasingly powerful tool for addressing and expressing identity. Nonetheless, Paik’s legacy reminds us to meditate on the complexity of the layered digital atmosphere we are all breathing today. So put down your phone now, and go do some yoga.
Nam June Paik continues at Tate Modern through 2 February, 2020.