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Nam Jun Paik Essay

The native form of this personal name is Paik Nam June. This article uses Western name order when mentioning individuals.

Nam June Paik (Korean: 백남준, July 20, 1932 – January 29, 2006) was a Korean American artist. He worked with a variety of media and is considered to be the founder of video art.[1][2] He is credited with an early usage (1974) of the term "electronic super highway" in application to telecommunications.[3]

Early life[edit]

Born in Seoul in 1932, the youngest of five siblings, Paik had two older brothers and two older sisters. His father (who in 2002 was revealed to be a Chinilpa) owned a major textile manufacturing firm. As he was growing up, he was trained as a classical pianist. In 1950, Paik and his family had to flee from their home in Korea, during the Korean War. His family first fled to Hong Kong, but later moved to Japan. Six years later, he graduated from the University of Tokyo where he wrote a thesis on the composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Paik then moved to West Germany to study music history with composer Thrasybulos Georgiades at Munich University.[4] While studying in Germany, Paik met the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage and the conceptual artistsGeorge Maciunas, Joseph Beuys and Wolf Vostell and was from 1962 on, a member of Fluxus.[5][6]


Nam June Paik then began participating in the Neo-Dada art movement, known as Fluxus, which was inspired by the composer John Cage and his use of everyday sounds and noises in his music. He made his big debut in 1963 at an exhibition known as Exposition of Music-Electronic Television[7] at the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal in which he scattered televisions everywhere and used magnets to alter or distort their images. In a 1960 piano performance in Cologne, he played Chopin, threw himself on the piano and rushed into the audience, attacking Cage and pianist David Tudor by cutting their clothes with scissors and dumping shampoo on their heads.[8][9]

Cage suggested Paik look into Oriental music and Oriental religion. During 1963 and 1964 the engineers Hideo Uchida and Shuya Abe showed Paik how to interfere with the flow of electrons in color TV sets, work that led to the Abe-Paik video synthesizer, a key element in his future TV work.[10]

In 1964, Paik moved to New York, and began working with classical cellist Charlotte Moorman, to combine his video, music, and performance. In the work TV Cello, the pair stacked televisions on top of one another, so that they formed the shape of an actual cello. When Moorman drew her bow across the "cello," images of her and other cellists playing appeared on the screens.

In 1965, Sony introduced the Portapak. With this, Paik could both move and record things, for it was the first portable video and audio recorder.[11][12] From there, Paik became an international celebrity, known for his creative and entertaining works.[13]

In a notorious 1967 incident, Moorman was arrested for going topless while performing in Paik’s Opera Sextronique. Two years later, in 1969, they performed TV Bra for Living Sculpture, in which Moorman wore a bra with small TV screens over her breasts.[14] Throughout this period it was his goal to bring music up to speed with art and literature, and make sex an acceptable theme. One of his Fluxus concept works ("Playable Pieces") instructs the performer to "climb inside the vagina of a live female whale." Of the "Playable Pieces," the only one actually to have been performed was by Fluxus composer Joseph Byrd ("Cut your left forearm a distance of ten centimeters.") in 1964 at UCLA's New Music Workshop.[15]

In 1971, he made a cello out of three television sets stacked up on top of each other and some cello strings. He got a famous cellist to play the "cello" as well.[16]

In 1974 Nam June Paik used the term "super highway" in application to telecommunications, which gave rise to the opinion that he may have been the author of the phrase "Information Superhighway".[17] In fact, in his 1974 proposal "Media Planning for the Postindustrial Society – The 21st Century is now only 26 years away" to the Rockefeller Foundation he used a slightly different phrase, "electronic super highway":[18]

"The building of new electronic super highways will become an even huger enterprise. Assuming we connect New York with Los Angeles by means of an electronic telecommunication network that operates in strong transmission ranges, as well as with continental satellites, wave guides, bundled coaxial cable, and later also via laser beam fiber optics: the expenditure would be about the same as for a Moon landing, except that the benefits in term of by-products would be greater."

Also in the 1970s, Paik imagined a global community of viewers for what he called a Video Common Market which would disseminate videos freely.[19] In 1978, Paik collaborated with Dimitri Devyatkin to produce a light hearted comparison of life in two major cities, Media Shuttle: New York-Moscow on WNET.[20] The video is held in museum collections around the world.

Possibly Paik's most famous work, TV Buddha is a video installation depicting a Buddha statue viewing its own live image on a closed circuit TV. Paik created numerous versions of this work using different statues, the first version is from 1974.[21][22][23]

Another piece, Positive Egg, displays a white egg on a black background. In a series of video monitors, increasing in size, the image on the screen becomes larger and larger, until the egg itself becomes an abstract, unrecognizable shape.[24] In Video Fish,[25] from 1975, a series of aquariums arranged in a horizontal line contain live fish swimming in front of an equal number of monitors which show video images of other fish.

Paik completed an installation in 1993 in the NJN Building in Trenton, NJ. This work was commissioned under the public building arts inclusion act of 1978. The installation's media is neon lights incorporated around video screens. This particular piece is currently non-operational, though there are plans to make necessary upgrades/repairs to restore it to working order.

Paik’s 1995 piece Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, on permanent display at the Lincoln Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.[26]

Paik was known for making robots out of television sets. These were constructed using pieces of wire and metal, but later Paik used parts from radio and television sets.

During the New Year's Day celebration on January 1, 1984, he aired Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, a live link between WNET New York, Centre Pompidou Paris, and South Korea. With the participation of John Cage, Salvador Dalí, Laurie Anderson, Joseph Beuys, Merce Cunningham, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, George Plimpton, and other artists, Paik showed that George Orwell's Big Brother had not arrived. In 1986, Paik created the work Bye Bye Kipling, a tape that mixed live events from Seoul, South Korea; Tokyo, Japan; and New York, USA. Two years later, in 1988 he further showed his love for his home with a piece called The more the better, a giant tower made entirely of 1003 monitors for the Olympic Games being held at Seoul. Despite his stroke, in 2000, he created a millennium satellite broadcast entitled Tiger is Alive and in 2004 designed the installation of monitors and video projections Global Groove 2004[27] for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin.[4]

From 1979 to 1996 Paik was professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.


Paik's first exhibition, entitled "Exposition of Music - Electronic Television", was held in 1963 at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, Germany. A retrospective of Paik's work was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the spring of 1982. Major retrospectives of Paik's work have been organized by Kölnischer Kunstverein (1976), Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris (1978), Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (1982), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1989), Kunsthalle Basel (1991) and National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (1992). A final retrospective of his work was held in 2000 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, with the commissioned site-specific installation Modulation in Sync (2000)[28] integrating the unique space of the museum into the exhibition itself.[29] This coincided with a downtown gallery showing of video artworks by his wife Shigeko Kubota, mainly dealing with his recovery from a stroke he had in 1996.

In 2011, an exhibition centered on Paik's video sculpture One Candle, Candle Projection (1988-2000) opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.[30] Another retrospective was mounted at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2012-2013.[31][32] As a leading expert in Paik’s work, art historian John G. Hanhardt was the curator for three landmark exhibitions devoted to the artist, the ones at the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.[33]

Paik's work also appeared in important group exhibitions such as São Paulo Biennale (1975), Whitney Biennial (1977, 1981, 1983, 1987, and 1989), Documenta 6 and 8 (1977 and 1987), and Venice Biennale (1984 and 1993).[4]

From April 24, 2015 to September 7, 2015 Paik's works T.V. Clock, 9/23/69: Experiment with David Atwood, and ETUDE1 were displayed at "Watch This! Revelations in Media Art" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.[34]


Public collections that hold work by Nam June Paik include: the Detroit Institute of Arts, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in (Seoul, Korea),[35] the Nam June Paik Art Center in (Gyeonggi, Korea),[36] the Ackland Art Museum (University of North Carolina), the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, New York), the Art Museum of the Americas (Washington D.C.), Daimler-Chrysler Collection (Berlin), Fukuoka Art Museum (Fukuoka, Japan), the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington D.C.), the Honolulu Museum of Art, Kunsthalle zu Kiel (Germany), Kunstmuseum St. Gallen (de) (Switzerland), Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (Düsseldorf, Germany), Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst (Aachen, Germany), Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Museum Wiesbaden (Germany), the National Gallery of Australia (Canberra), the Berardo Collection Museum (Lisbon, Portugal), |National Museum of Contemporary Art]] (Athens, Greece), Palazzo Cavour (Turin, Italy), the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Schleswig-Holstein Museums (Germany), the Smart Museum of Art (University of Chicago), Smith College Museum of Art (Massachusetts), Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington D.C.), the Stuart Collection (University of California, San Diego), the Dayton Art Institute[permanent dead link] (Dayton, Ohio) and the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, Minnesota), the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, Cornell University Library, (Ithaca, NY), The Worcester Art Museum (Worcester, Massachusetts), and Reynolda House Museum of American Art (Winston-Salem, NC).

Honours and awards[edit]


Given its largely antiquated technology, Paik's oeuvre poses a unique conservation challenge.[39] In 2006, Nam June Paik's estate asked a group of museums for proposals on how each would use the archive. Out of a group that included the Museum of Modern Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art, it chose the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The archive includes Paik’s early writings on art history, history and technology; correspondence with other artists and collaborators like Charlotte Moorman, John Cage, George Maciunas and Wolf Vostell; and a complete collection of videotapes used in his work, as well as production notes, television work, sketches, notebooks, models and plans for videos. It also covers early-model televisions and video projectors, radios, record players, cameras and musical instruments, toys, games, folk sculptures and the desk where he painted in his SoHo studio.[33]

Curator John Hanhardt, an old friend of Paik, says. "It came in great disorder, which made it all the more complicated. It is not like his space was perfectly organized. I think the archive is like a huge memory machine. A wunderkammer, a wonder cabinet of his life.”[40] Hanhardt describes the archives in the catalog for the 2012 Smithsonian show in Nam June Paik: Global Visionary.[41]

Michael Mansfield, associate curator of film and media arts, supervised the complex installation of several hundred CRT TV sets, the wiring to connect them all, and the software and servers to drive them. He developed an app on his phone to operate every electronic artwork on display.[42]

Many of Paik's early works and writings are collected in a volume edited by Judson Rosebush titled Nam June Paik: Videa 'n' Videology 1959–1973, published by the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, in 1974.


As a pioneer of Video art, the artwork and ideas of Nam June Paik were a major influence on late 20th-century art and continue to inspire a new generation of artists. Contemporary artists considered to be influenced by Paik include Christian Marclay, Jon Kessler, Cory Arcangel, Ryan Trecartin, and Haroon Mirza.[31]

Art market[edit]

Christie's holds the auction record for Paik's work since it achieved $646,896 in Hong Kong in 2007 for his Wright Brothers, a 1995 propeller-plane-like tableau comprising 14 TV monitors.[39]

In 2015, Gagosian Gallery acquired the right to represent Paik's artistic estate.[43]

Personal life and death[edit]

Paik moved to New York in 1964.[44] In 1965, he married the video artist Shigeko Kubota.[45]

Paik was a lifelong Buddhist who never smoked or drank alcoholic beverages, and never drove a car.[46]

In 1996, Paik had a stroke, which paralyzed his left side. He used a wheelchair the last decade of his life, though he was able to walk with assistance. He died January 29, 2006, in Miami, Florida, due to complications from his stroke.[47][48] At the time of his death, he was survived by his wife, as well as by a brother, Ken Paik, and a nephew, Ken Paik Hakuta, an inventor and television personality best known for creating the Wacky WallWalker toy, and who managed Paik's studio in New York.[45][49]

One of his grandsons is Jinu, a South Korean rapper, singer, songwriter, and member of a hip-hop duo Jinusean.

See also[edit]

Video sculpture


  1. ^Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, The New Media Reader, MIT Press, 2003, p227. ISBN 0-262-23227-8
  2. ^Judkis, Maura (December 12, 2012). ""Father of video art" Nam June Paik gets American Art Museum exhibit (Photos)". The Washington Post. 
  3. ^Danzico, Matt; O'Brien, Jane (2012-12-17). "Visual artist Nam June Paik predicted internet age". BBC News online. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  4. ^ abcNam June PaikArchived 2014-03-11 at the Wayback Machine. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
  5. ^Christiane Paul, Digital Art, Thames & Hudson, London, pp. 14–15
  6. ^Petra Stegmann. The lunatics are on the loose - EUROPEAN FLUXUS FESTIVALS 1962-1977, DOWN WITH ART!, Potsdam, 2012, ISBN 978-3-9815579-0-9.
  7. ^Net, Media Art (2017-03-22). "Media Art Net | Paik, Nam June: Exposition of Music – Electronic Television". www.medienkunstnetz.de. Retrieved 2017-03-22. 
  8. ^Suzanne Muchnic (January 31, 2006), Nam June Paik, 74; Free-Spirited Video Artist Broke Radical New GroundLos Angeles Times.
  9. ^Wulf Herzogenrath: Videokunst der 60er Jahre in Deutschland, Kunsthalle Bremen, 2006
  10. ^http://museumzero.blogspot.com/2013/12/its-all-baseball-nam-june-paik-starts.html
  11. ^"The Year Video Art Was Born". Guggenheim. 2010-07-15. Retrieved 2017-03-22. 
  12. ^http://museumzero.blogspot.com/2013/12/nam-june-paik-starts-making-video.html
  13. ^Christiane Paul, Digital Art, Thames & Hudson, London, p. 21
  14. ^Paik, Nam June; Moorman, Charlotte (1970). "TV-Bra for Living Sculpture (1969)". Cologne: Media Art Net (medienkunstnetz.de). 
  15. ^Nyman, Michael (1999). Experimental Music. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-65383-1. 
  16. ^Cox, Michael (1997). Awful Art. Scholastic Children's Books. ISBN 0-590-19262-0. 
  17. ^NetartArchived 2009-03-12 at the Wayback Machine.
  18. ^Paik, Nam June (1974), Media Planning for the Postindustrial Society – The 21st Century is now only 26 years away, Media Art Net (medienkunstnetz.de), retrieved 2012-12-18 
  19. ^Laura Cumming (December 19, 2010), Nam June Paik – reviewThe Guardian.
  20. ^Eai.org
  21. ^http://stedelijkmuseum.nl/en/exhibitions/exchanges/past-presentations/71867
  22. ^https://vmfa.museum/mlit/looking-buddha-watching-tv/
  23. ^https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/nam-june-paik
  24. ^https://www.today.com/popculture/video-innovator-nam-june-paik-dies-74-wbna11098552
  25. ^Paik, Nam June (1974), Video-fish, World Visit Guide (insecula), retrieved 2012-12-18 
  26. ^https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/electronic-superhighway-continental-us-alaska-hawaii-71478
  27. ^A video from this installation can be found in the Experimental Television Center and its Repository in the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, Cornell University Library
  28. ^Mark Stevens (February 21, 2000), Surfing the GuggenheimNew York Magazine.
  29. ^The Worlds of Nam June PaikArchived 2015-02-14 at the Wayback Machine.
  30. ^Press Release: First Nam June Paik Exhibition at National Gallery of Art, Washington, Includes Most Ambitious Installation to Date of "One Candle, Candle Projection"Archived 2013-01-02 at the Wayback Machine. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
  31. ^ abKaren Rosenberg (January 11, 2013), He Tickled His Funny Bone, and OursNew York Times.
  32. ^Nam June Paik: Global Visionary, Smithsonian American Art Museum, December 13, 2012-August 11, 2013.
  33. ^ abCarol Vogel (April 30, 2009), Nam June Paik Archive Goes to the SmithsonianNew York Times.
  34. ^"Online Gallery - Watch This! Revelations in Media Art | Smithsonian American Art Museum". americanart.si.edu. Archived from the original on 2015-07-03. Retrieved 2015-07-25. 
  35. ^http://www.mmca.go.kr/eng/
  36. ^https://njpac-en.ggcf.kr/
  37. ^"Nation honors late video artist Paik Nam-june a year after death,"Archived 2011-06-23 at the Wayback Machine. Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (ROK). February 1, 2007, retrieved 2011-04-22
  38. ^International Sculpture Center. Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award. Retrieved 13 February 2010.
  39. ^ abRachel Wolff (December 14, 2012), Technological MasterpiecesWall Street Journal.
  40. ^Americanart.si.eduArchived 2013-06-06 at the Wayback Machine.
  41. ^Goodreads
  42. ^Anderson, John (February 6, 2013). "Nam June Paik: Preserving the Human Televisions". Art in America. 
  43. ^Burns, Charlotte. "Gagosian nets estate of Nam June Paik, grandfather of video art". The Art Newspaper. Archived from the original on 5 September 2015. Retrieved 30 August 2015. 
  44. ^Palmer, Lauren. "6 Fascinating Facts About Nam June Paik on His Birthday". Art News. Art News. Retrieved 30 August 2015. 
  45. ^ abSmith, Roberta (January 31, 2006). "Nam June Paik, 73, Dies; Pioneer of Video Art Whose Work Broke Cultural Barriers". The New York Times. 
  46. ^Smith, Roberta. "Nam June Paik, 73, Dies; Pioneer of Video Art Whose Work Broke Cultural Barriers". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 30 August 2015. 
  47. ^"Leader of Avant-Garde Electronic Art Movement Dies at 75". VOA News. Voice of America. 2006-02-01. Retrieved 2008-12-25. [dead link]
  48. ^Biography for Nam June Paik, Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2011.1.24
  49. ^Abrams, Amah-Rose (2 December 2016). "Nam June Paik's Nephew Gift to Harvard Museums | artnet News". artnet News. Retrieved 4 September 2017. 

External links[edit]

  • Official Website of Nam June Paik
  • Nam June Paik Archive at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • Nam June Paik Art Center at Google Cultural Institute
  • New Ontology of Music essay by Nam June Paik; from Monthly Review of the University for Avant-garde Hinduism
  • 9/23 Paik-Abe videosynthesizer performance from WGBH New Television Workshop archives, features short clip
  • Electronic Arts Intermix includes a biography and description of major works
  • Nam June Paik biography @ MedienKunstNetz
  • "If You Miss Paik Nam-June", The Korea Times, February 5, 2006.
  • "Paik Nam-june to Be Buried in Homeland", The Korea Times, January 31, 2006.
  • Nam June Paik at the Museo Vostell Malpartida
  • Nam June Paik at the museum FLUXUS+
  • "Father of Video Art Paik Nam-june Dies", The Chosun Ilbo, January 30, 2006.
  • "Video artist Nam June Paik dead at 74"[permanent dead link], CNN, January 30, 2006.
  • Nam June Paik in the Video Data Bank
  • Nam June Paik on Ubu Film
  • Nam June Paik in the Mediateca Media Art Space
  • Nam June Paik on IMDb
  • Tate: TateShots: Nam June Paik. 2011.
  • Nam June Paik | TateShots—Inventor Ken Hakuta remembers his uncle and his unconventional approach to life
  • Nam June Paik: "Study I: Mayor Lindsay" (1965)
  • Nam June Paik inUbuWeb Sound
Pre-Bell-Man, statue in front of the 'Museum für Kommunikation', Frankfurt am Main, Germany
1993 Video Sculpture. It is installed at the NJN Building in Trenton, NJ.
Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii 1995-96. It is exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Standing behind the 1986 video sculpture Family of Robot: Hi-Tech Baby, Associate curator Michael Mansfield turns it on from his smartphone. It’s one of the robots in the exhibition “Nam June Paik: Global Visionary,” open through Aug. 11 at Washington’s  Smithsonian American Art Museum. The museum manages electronic artworks with software on its central server. After logging into the server with a virtual network computing (VNC) app on his phone, Mansfield can operate and monitor every work on display in the exhibit: whenever, from wherever. “We don’t want a hiccup while they’re on view,” he says.

The approach to operating and monitoring the premiere exhibit from the Nam June Paik Archive would likely tickle Paik, a musician sometimes affiliated with Fluxus who became the so-called father of video art. Though he is likely best known for massive video walls like Electronic Superhighway, 1995, and Megatron/Matrix, 1995, Paik worked with satellites and film, and co-invented a video synthesizer. Turning on the artwork with a telephone is apropos for an artist who worked more fluidly across disciplines than any other artist in the 20th century. On the surface, the exhibition reveals his technological prowess and breadth, but also the enduring problems of exhibiting now-obsolete technologies.

“The video walls are needy children that require a lot of care,” Smithsonian American Art Museum’s director, Elizabeth Broun observed. In 2002, the museum acquired Paik’s Electronic Superhighway, a 47-channel video wall featuring endless clichés of Americana, with each state outlined in neon. Its components arrived to the museum in a box: most of its neon was broken, and its 313 televisions were missing. Restoring Electronic Superhighway a decade ago let museum staff cut their teeth, but the retrospective was a much bigger challenge.

Installing “Global Visionary” gave the staff an opportunity to immerse itself in the inner-workings of its cornerstone Paik piece, Megatron/Matrix, an eight-channel, 215-screen video wall acquired by the museum in 1998. In preparation for the archive exhibit, American Art unplugged Megatron for some refurbishing. They installed a wire chase to organize and support the weight of the hundreds of wires cascading from the Korean televisions and voltage converters. “TVs have two stresses. Heating and cooling is a physical stress, causing solder joints to weaken and break,” Mansfield explained as he pointed to fans installed to relieve the heat stress. “And there is a chemical stress if the TV is on for a long time.” Cathode ray tubes (CRT)—the medium of many of Paik’s works—have a finite life. With the advent of LCD technology, CRTs are growing scarce.

That issue of restoration and preservation is a concern for preserving Paik’s Estate Archive. “We have a lot of TVs to maintain a lot of that work,” said senior curator of film and media John G. Hanhardt. “Ultimately someone may come up with a way to fabricate them so they remain viable as a material.”

Hanhardt first met Paik in the 1970s, and was responsible for organizing retrospectives of Paik’s work at the Whitney in 1982 and at the Guggenheim in 2000. A self-described purist, Hanhardt cherishes the fine difference between film and video, but if a new means of producing cathode ray tubes is not developed, he knows that the museum will have to consider other options for displaying video art.

According to Hanhardt, Paik didn’t want to limit his work to cathode ray tubes, but envisioned his work on flat screens and in various kinds of projected formats. “That’s a quality as a Fluxus artist: believing in change, morphing and moving and not being the same,” Hanhardt said. “He was very pragmatic,” he added. Paik would ask, “What’s the best way to keep things alive and relevant, and to keep things working?”

Rehabilitation of Megatron/Matrix taught valuable lessons applicable to other works, like Family of Robot: Hi-Tech Baby, a sculpture of 13 televisions organized to look like a small child. Last exhibited in 2001, several of Baby’s TVs had stopped working. With the work on loan from The Art Institute of Chicago, Mansfield advised AIC conservation staff over the course of several months on changes to make to the sculpture. Reworked electronics and power boards wouldn’t fit into the sets. As a result they were moved into the base.

After Mansfield swiped his finger across his iPhone screen, Family of Robot: High Tech Baby‘s fans began whirring. Screens flickered: first four commercial sets, which display a hi-quality image, then the remaining consumer-grade televisions power up. Eventually the video, processed through a video distribution amplifier, plays on all 13 televisions. Even the video has undergone format changes, migrating from VHS to DVD, and eventually to a ProRes QuickTime file. These are amongst the problems Mansfield has been troubleshooting.

The Smithsonian was awarded the Paik Estate Archive early in 2009, and it arrived shortly thereafter, delivered by seven tractor-trailers. Mansfield, Hanhardt, and the estate’s curator Jon Huffman have been digging through boxes ever since.

“It came in great disorder,” Hanhardt remembered. “Which makes it all the more complicated. It is not like his space was perfectly organized.” (Paik had several studio spaces in New York city.) Hanhardt characterized Paik as a bricoleur, traveling the world collecting things. “I think the archive is like a huge memory machine.  A wunderkammer-a wonder cabinet of his life.”

Looking at a wall of objects in the exhibit is enough to give that impression: a bust of Elvis, an old radio, a cardboard cutout of the state of Louisiana. His interests were vast, and each item had the potential of finding its way into a future piece. Even on a small scale, the variety of bric-a-brac included in the exhibit suggests that unpacking seven truckloads of archive material must have felt like an episode of “Hoarders.”

The vast interests are likely an extension of Paik’s life experience. The Korean born artist fled his home country in 1950, during the Korean War. He studied Western Modernism and composition at the University of Tokyo, writing his thesis on Arnold Schoenberg before moving to Germany in 1956. In Germany he was exposed to Karlheinz Stockhausen, who worked with tape recorders, computers and synthesizers. He also met and worked with John Cage, George Maciunas, Joseph Beuys, and Merce Cunningham.

These varied influences affected Paik’s early performances. In some he dragged and smashed violins. In others he destroyed pianos with an axe. “He loved the piano and the keyboard,” Hanhardt said. “But he felt we need to break the proscenium stage.” And break it he did, finding the notes an instrument makes between splinters.

Breaking was eventually applied to contemporary audio equipment. In 1963 Paik created Random Access by dismantling a reel-to-reel tape recorder, placing the audio-head on a wand, and gluing the audio-tape to the wall. Anyone could scrub the audio-head against the tape and hear the scratching tones of white and pink noise amplified through its speakers. An alternative version of Random Access, a record player nicknamed Schallplatten-Schaschlik, or Shish Kebab (1963/1979), spaced a dozen records vertically on an extended spindle, and audiences could move the play-arm at random between records of Bach, Beatles, and Caterina Valentine.

Tinkering naturally extended to televisions. The exhibition displays three works entitled TV Crown (1965/1999). Beneath each TV are two audio generators that the TV electronics reinterpret as light. The light bends with the audio wave, sometimes fluttering like a butterfly or spinning like a disc. Mansfield demonstrated how the piece works, turning the audio generator’s dials. As he did, the crown oscillated faster and slower. The Crowns were once participatory, but not any more. The components are now secured behind glass during the run of the exhibit; they’re no longer commercially manufactured.

Tinkering led to invention. In 1969, Paik collaborated with artist and engineer Shoya Abe and created the Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer. The pioneering tool added channels of red, green, blue, cyan, magenta and yellow to broadcast images. By today’s standards, the results look like crude Photoshop, which is impressive since the synthesizer was invented 20 years before such software existed.

The synthesizer also aided Paik’s ongoing collaboration with classical cellist Charlotte Moorman. Paik and Moorman met and began collaborating shortly after he immigrated to the U.S. in 1964. During performances, the synthesizer let Moorman manipulate video on two of the works currently on display in the exhibit: TV Cello (1971), a stack of stringed televisions resembling a cello, and TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969), two small televisions that were strapped to Moorman’s breasts. She could even drag a bow across TV Cello, creating sounds similar to a boat’s hull scraping an ice floe.

“The connections between music, composition and performance are integral. They are all time-based media,” explained Hanhardt.  “[Paik had] to break the notion of a score of notes. It could be a performance of a score of instructions. It takes Duchamp’s notion of the found object, moves through Cage into sound, into a whole panoply of notions of art.”

Technology as art was one notion, and it might explain Paik’s push to humanize it. His robots anthropomorphized the TV. TV Bra gave television some sexuality. His participatory works forced engagement rather than passivity—dialog rather than lecture. On an untitled serigraph depicting his TV Chair, printed in 1973, from the portfolio The New York Collection, Paik questioned how soon in the future video would be in homes and museums, artists would have their own TV channels, and people would watch TV on flat screens. Forty years later his visions are reality.

He also envisioned ways technology would connect people. Hanhardt points to Paik’s 1968 essay, “Expanded Education for the Paper-Less Society,” where the artist hypothesized a day when students would want to study instruments from Japan, Afghanistan and Persia via The Mailable Television, which basically amounted to video-taped instructions mailed anywhere around the globe. “He’s talking about what we talk about now!” Hanhardt exclaims. “Live learning through the Internet.”

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