Visions of Connectivity: Nam June Paik in Manila

Arts & Culture

November 26, 2018 | BY Marina Isgro

Last month, Leon Gallery International in collaboration with New York’s prestigious Gagosian Gallery presented Nam June Paik in Manila, the first Philippine exhibition of works by the Korean-American “father of video art” who blurred the line between art and technology

In a proposal for a musical performance published in 1963, Nam June Paik instructs two pianists—one in San Francisco and one in Shanghai—to play the left-hand and right-hand parts of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier at exactly noon (GMT) on 3 March. While each player performs only half of the piece, a live television broadcast unites both sides of the Pacific Ocean into a synchronised moment of performance. This early, unrealised composition—conceived nearly a quarter-century before Paik created his first international satellite broadcast—reflects the artist’s lifelong dream of using technology to connect people across geographic borders.

Of course, Paik foresaw many of the ways in which electronic innovations would reshape social relations. He predicted in 1965, for example, that the number of television channels would expand dramatically, eroding the dominance of the large networks and allowing specialised programmes to emerge. (With his characteristic humour, Paik imagined chess lessons taught by Marcel Duchamp, gymnastics classes with Merce Cunningham, and the noon news read by Charlotte Moorman.) To keep access to this expanded content as open as possible, he advocated for the creation of a “Video Common Market” that would allow users to skirt network bureaucracies and share video directly. Most famously, in a 1974 essay, Paik coined the term “electronic superhighway” and offered a stunningly accurate description of the Internet: he anticipated how the rise of “interactive two-way television (for shopping, bibliographies, opinion polls, health care, bio-communication, data transfer from office to office) would transform the television set into an ‘expanded-media’ telephone system with thousands of novel uses.”

Paik predicted not only the ways we now share and distribute content, but also how creative production would become increasingly democratic. Together with the engineer Shuya Abe, he created the Paik-Abe Video Synthesiser, a tool for editing and colorising video meant to bypass the high costs and complex production requirements of television studios. Paik debuted the synthesiser in 1970 in a live television broadcast, Video Commune (Beatles Beginning to End), a four-hour collage of saturated colours and ghostly imagery set to the music of the Beatles. Ultimately, Paik hoped to create a mini-synthesiser that anyone could use at home to modify broadcasts in real time, effectively transforming the television “from a passive pastime to active creation.” In this age of YouTube and other social media platforms, when users regularly record, edit, and share videos with just a few clicks, Paik’s writings and creations appear extraordinarily prescient.

For Paik, the most promising applications of electronic innovation lay in the realm of education. Video, he thought, could give rise to a “global university” that would expose students to previously inaccessible information; it would allow, for example, an American music student to study musical instruments available only in the Japanese emperor’s court. Great thinkers such as Martin Heidegger or Jean-Paul Sartre could produce videotaped lectures to be viewed by philosophy students—much like the massive open online courses available today. Video projection could create three-dimensional environments, allowing students to travel virtually to the Chartres Cathedral or the rock garden of Ryoan-ji in Kyoto. In short, technology could open the world of human learning to new audiences and create new avenues of exchange.

Of course, Paik did not make these predictions in a vacuum. As an Asian man working in the United States during the Vietnam War, he was acutely sensitive to the importance of open, cross-cultural communication in combating racial stereotypes. He found the information asymmetry that separated the United States and Asia particularly concerning. “Most Asian faces we encounter on the American TV screen are either miserable refugees, wretched prisoners, or hated dictators,” Paik wrote. Asian, audiences, however, tuned in regularly to the middleclass, white families omnipresent in lighthearted US sitcoms. “Did this vast information gap contribute to the recent tragedies in Vietnam?” he asked. Anticipating contemporary concerns about diverse representation in the media, Paik believed that more equitable exposure could prevent future conflicts.

As optimistic as he was about the future of technology, Paik also foresaw its pitfalls. Most importantly, Paik grappled with the “information overload” that technological development brings— the vast amounts of data that quickly overwhelm the human attention span. Just as Malthus showed how population growth was outpacing food supply in 18th-century England, Paik wrote that in the contemporary United States “our life-span and sum-total of wake-up-time does not grow as fast as our exponential leap in the input signals to digest or process.” The essential problem, he thought, was not information recording but information retrieval—the systems we create to sort through the mountains of data that we generate.

Indeed, Paik’s insights about information retrieval feel more pressing than ever today. Current efforts to manage data overload have led to the development of algorithms that shape our Google searches and Facebook newsfeeds according to our demographic information and browser histories. These personalised filters, efficient as they may be, effectively isolate each of us into what the internet activist Eli Pariser has called a “filtre bubble”—a kind of echo chamber in which our own opinions are constantly reflected back to us. Rather than creating a kind of inclusive global village, these individualised streams more often pull us apart. As Pariser writes, “In the filtre bubble, there’s less room for the chance encounters that bring  insight and learning. Creativity is often sparked by the collision of ideas from different disciplines and cultures.”

While Paik pursued the democratisation of media consumption and production, he realised that openness alone was insufficient. If technology was to fulfill its promise, it had to generate contact between diverse groups—the kinds of encounters that Pariser posits are so central to creativity. How might this happen? That, Paik argued, was the role of the artist: to serve as a kind of mediator or facilitator within the world of information. In one essay, he described his central task as the “interfacing” between different fields—between artistic disciplines, for example, or between the worlds of art and science. Elsewhere, Paik made clear that he also aimed to “interface” between different cultures. He once proposed a television festival “comprised of music and dance from every nation” to be disseminated freely via the Video Common Market, an idea that he rehearsed in the classic video Global Groove (1973).

Two videos that Paik made for the New York public television station WNET in the late 1970s demonstrate his continued commitment to the role of cultural emissary. Earlier in the decade, Paik had approached the station with a proposal for what came to be called the Visa Series: video artists would work in foreign countries during peacetime, counteracting the American tendency to encounter these places only in periods of violence. In You Can’t Lick Stamps in China (1978), co-directed with art critic Gregory Battcock, Paik follows Battcock and his friends as they watch footage of their recent trip to China. As the travelers attempt to understand their experiences, their discussion is sporadically intercut with scenes of everyday life in the country: workers on a commune, dance performances, a chef making noodles. In Media Shuttle: Moscow/New York (1978), Paik and his co-director Dimitri Devyatkin imagine a “citizen’s band television” that would allow the people of New York and Moscow to speak via satellite during the Cold War. We see a mélange of footage from both locations: a discussion of the New York real estate market, a Moscow band playing American jazz, crowds in the New York subway, a Russian village healer, and a Siberian man humming the tunes of Henry Mancini’s orchestra. Paik edits both videos with his trademark collage-like technique, characterised by sudden, disorienting cuts between scenes that sometimes seem unrelated. This editing style mirrors the cross-cultural encounters at stake: it is through unexpected collisions of people, images, and materials, the artist contends, that the most generative outcomes can arise. As much as Paik foresaw the growth of communications technology, he also realised that such connections can only be meaningful when they lead us outside of ourselves.

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