SATELLITE ART: AN INTERVEW WITH NAM JUNE PAIK
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.
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The exhibition opens with two large installations, arranged on opposite sides of a long hallway, that attest to the conflicting impulses in Paik’s art. To the left is the Minimalist Zen “TV Clock” (1963/1989), a row of 24 color televisions that collectively evoke a clock face or sundial; their cathode-ray tubes have been compressed so that their screens display thin lines that tilt in various directions.
To the right is the disorienting “Megatron/Matrix” (1995), made up of 215 monitors playing eight different video channels; here, athletes from the Seoul Olympics meet Korean folk dancers and semi-clothed women.
The psychic split is also evident inside the main gallery, where restrained early-1960s works like “Zen for TV” (more televisions as linear abstractions) surround the theatrical centerpiece: 1974’s “TV Garden,” a thicket of live plants that seem to have sprouted monitors screening “Global Groove.”
Works like “Magnet TV” (1965), in which a large magnet placed atop a black-and-white television set generates abstract patterns, marry art and technology with striking simplicity. But slightly later creations, like 1969’s “TV Cello” and “TV Bra for Living Sculpture,” played and worn by Paik’s charismatic collaborator Charlotte Moorman, better capture his mischievous, performative streak.
So do works that make humorous use of closed-circuit video, like the Nauman-esque “TV Chair,” which makes the sitter simultaneously an object of surveillance and a hindrance to it. He was not above creating one-liners, or repeating them; in “TV Buddha” a statue meditates on its own televised image. (A later version of the piece, made for the Whitney show, incorporated a small model of Rodin’s “Thinker” and a Sony Watchman portable television.)
It’s difficult to remember, in our age of digital video editing , that the special effects in Paik’s more elaborate videos — the collagelike layering, the hallucinogenic color changes and distortions — weren’t so easy to achieve in his day. With the Japanese engineer Shuya Abe, he invented one of the first video synthesizers (now known as the Paik/Abe video synthesizer). The machine, he once wrote:
will enable us to shape the TV screen canvas
as precisely as Leonardo
as freely as Picasso
as colorfully as Renoir
as profoundly as Mondrian
as violently as Pollock
and as lyrically as Jasper Johns.
And in his masterpiece “Global Groove,” which can be seen in a screening room as well as in the installation “TV Garden,” he did all of these things.
The show could have done with fewer of Paik’s off-screen paintings and drawings, particularly the scribblings on newspaper made after he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1996. And it might have worked in even more selections from the archive: the objects here, arranged on shelves and cataloged on a touch-screen, are engrossing. Among them are antique bird cages (collected for tributes to his friend and mentor John Cage); old-fashioned console televisions; homemade robots; and a marvelous painted-plaster elephant, culture of origin unknown, that appeared in his installation at the 1993 Venice Biennale.
Much like the videos, the archive is a grand bazaar of folk art and audiovisual gadgetry. And it will help ensure that artists keep picking up Paik’s signals, no matter what the television of the future looks like.Continue reading the main story