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“New Relationships Between Things Already Existing”: Nam June Paik as a Writer

by Gregory Zinman

In 1988, Nam June Paik drafted a proposal for a satellite television special, Space Rainbow, that would link together nations around the world. In the proposal, Paik described Space Rainbow as opening with a shot of a kinetic sculpture by Greek artist Takis and a computerized image of the Acropolis, which would then morph into the figure of a bird soaring over the island of Crete. The accompanying voiceover would say: “Thousands of years ago Icarus plunged to his death when the sun melted the wax on his wings . . . we wait to see if this time he will make it with computer chips and a bit of luck, in this greatest adventure story in the history of video.” The resulting art event, eventually funded through the collective efforts of television stations from a dozen countries, was retitled Wrap Around the World, and it differed significantly from Paik’s original plan. Combining the pop music of David Bowie with the avant-garde piano work of Ryuichi Sakamoto, traditional Japanese Buhto dancers with Merce Cunningham’s choreography, and Brazilian carnival with a car race from Ireland—all filtered through Paik’s real-time video image processing—Wrap Around the World’s transmission mixed together cultures, artistic practices, and national identities in an effort to find a way to unite the world through media. The unpublished proposal nevertheless gives us additional insight into Paik’s career-long insistence on developing new ways to think across media—in the moment, over centuries, and into the future—as well as into the ways he continually refined and repurposed his ideas as he brought them to fruition.

Paik has been variously characterized as “mischievous,” a “jester,” a “prankster.” Collaborators and critics alike pronounced his methods and aesthetic “chaotic.” Chance and indeterminacy were indeed crucial elements of both his practice and his conception of his art. But reading Paik’s writings alongside his three satellite projects from the 1980s, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984), Bye Bye Kipling (1986), and Wrap Around the World (1988), we begin to see that, actually, Paik was a planner—and a painstaking one at that. The proposals for his single-channel works and satellite broadcasts illustrate the ways in which he thought through media in a nearly compulsive manner, as enumerated lists. What emerges from reading these proposals is not a sense of chaos but rather of programmatic rigor, something rarely associated with this artist.

Both in his art and in his writing, Paik was a messy Hegelian—he adored the dialectic of binaries and oppositions, but he was less interested in cleanly synthesizing those elements into a coherent whole. Rather than articulate tidy resolutions, he favored presenting juxtapositions and letting viewers wrestle with the resulting cognitive variances and convergences. Paik’s writings offer an opportunity to explore the myriad dichotomies and convergences within his oeuvre.

For example, we see in Paik’s writings an intense appreciation for philosophy, as well as a predilection for mixing concepts and aesthetics from Eastern and Western schools of thought. His written texts engaged, in equal measure, the intellectual contributions of Plato, St. Augustine, and Spinoza and the wisdom of ancient Chinese philosophers such as Han Fei. In a long, wide-ranging treatise on cybernetics, politics, and comics, Paik wrote, “As is well-known, Indeterminism is the atomic core of the 20th Century, cutting through Physics (Heisenberg), Philosophy (Sartre), Aesthetics (Cage), Mathematics (Cantor), Warfare (Guerrilla tactics), and politics (Nehru), and needless to say playing a dominant role in the information theory.” Bye Bye Kipling sought to instantiate this bridging of practices and cultures by bidding its titular figure adieu, as well as his famous poetic summary of cultural diametric opposition: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Nothing could be further from the truth for Paik, who expressly contextualized Good Morning, Mr. Orwell in terms of the ideas of French mathematician and theoretical physicist Henri Poincaré regarding the discovery of “new RELATIONSHIPS between things already existing,” as well as with regard to the popular fictional Japanese figure Sarutobi Sasuke, a ninja with the ability to conquer space and time.

His associative thinking and appreciation for deep historical exegeses extended from national narratives to art world ones. In the essay “DNA is not racism,” he muses on the value of speculative fiction as a means of rethinking both the past and the present. His idea of “negative science fiction” is deployed in order to rethink historical relationships between East and West, as when he imagines an encounter between the Scythians, a group of Eurasian nomads, and Koreans that results in the production of mutually informing art—a thought experiment that provides him a jumping-off point to muse on the nature of video within the art market. “I enjoy the speculating business into the deep past, before the invention of private property system . . . yes, our video art is a communal communistic property, easy to share but hard to monopolize . . . therefore hard to live within the art world system, which thrive on the-one-of-the-kind exclusiveness.” The satellite pieces, more than any single-channel work, further challenged the economic vagaries of the art world; their one-off nature, coupled with their free transmission via public television, ensured they would have neither scarcity nor exclusivity. The satellite broadcasts were both the primary site of Paik’s valorization of “onceness,” the unique, one-off quality that gave the broadcasts their performative frisson, and a summation of his goals for recasting television from a unidirectional broadcast into a technology of two-way communication that fostered a back-and-forth dialogue between cultures and nations. Paik utilizes the distinctive material characteristics of his chosen media even as he rethinks their purpose and function, so that the liveness of television differentiates it from film’s playback, but the satellite hookup’s capacity to encourage participants to talk back to one another differentiates the satellite pieces from most television outside of news—satellite’s immediacy functions best as a two-way encounter, where life is shared instead of merely observed.

Nam June Paik in New York City, 1983. Photo by Lim Young-Kyun

When Paik wrote about regarding the “mystery of being once only,” it was not merely an example of attention-seeking hucksterism designed to boost a program’s audience share, nor was it simply a rebuke of the emergent time-shifting viewing habits informing videotape culture. Rather, in his seeking an aesthetic experience that cannot be replicated, we see the outgrowth and extension of Paik’s Fluxus “action music” pieces of the early 1960s transposed to the realm of the satellite broadcast. As he famously stated, “There is no rewind button on the BETAMAX of life. An important event takes place only once.” Paik is here attempting to imbue video art—which, like a sitcom or soap opera, carries the potential to be rerun countless times—with the immediacy and vibrancy (or tedium) of everyday life.

Indeed, the idea of ephemeral video, for Paik, carried well-nigh spiritual connotations. The singular broadcast event, he wrote in 1985, was the “HIGHEST art-form humankind has invented. As the miracle is the cornerstone of every major religion in the world, onceness constitutes the very motor of human history. . . . Through LIVE video art, we are finally able to deal very concretely with the central problems of human existence (chance, hazard, bet, venture). Pascal and Sartre would be very jealous of video artists!!!” Endeavoring to capture—and subsequently release—the caprices of human indeterminacy on video became a loftier goal than any possible outcome as art or entertainment.

Paik installing Fish Flies (1976). Photograph: Peter Moore Estate

Paik’s satellite proposals reinforce this idea of not only exhibiting cultures to one another, but combining them in dramatic fashion in order to produce new modes of electronic empathy, as when he planned a “WHOLE EARTH SYMPhony” in the Space Rainbow proposal, envisioning taped performances from the Japanese countryside blending with live feeds of pop music in Tokyo, while a rock show is transmitted from Freud’s home in Vienna. Or take the example of his imagined “wedding of the Statue of Liberty with the Statue of Columbus in Barcelona, 500th anniversary of discovery,” which Paik immediately pairs with the sentiment: “How can you ‘discover’ a land which is inhabited by 5 million Indians,” a quote from African-American comedian and social critic Dick Gregory, which deflates the colonist grandeur implied by this meeting of memorials.

The singular event, as embodied by the satellite broadcast, also contained an idea central to Paik’s understanding of the technology of video, that of two-way communication. Well before the advent of Skype or Facebook Messenger, Paik saw simultaneity and response as potential hallmarks of repurposed television. In the proposal for Chip Olympics (yet another working title for what became Wrap Around the World), he wrote, “We will transcend the traditional contradiction of LIVE and CANNED, and instead introduce the new concept of IN SYNC,” thereby expanding tropes found in the 1920s “city symphony” films of Walter Ruttmann and Dziga Vertov, which attempted to tie together the rhythm of urban life as a cause and uniting effect in the lives of its citizens. Paik wanted to push this notion of mediated togetherness, in which media technology such as the satellite both facilitates and eradicates the mediated act of communication between two or more people. These linkages provide a means of ensuring that artworks such as the satellite broadcast remain outside the economic orbits of either broadcast television or the art market. As Paik wrote, “two-way communication does not easily interface itself to the capitalistic system, which must always pinpoint a buyer and a seller.” That the guiding principles of media transmission could be empathy and expression rather than control or profit is a guiding principle of Paik’s exploration of technical communication.

NAM JUNE PAIK, TV Fish (detail), 1975–88, three-channel video, 24 monitors and aquariums, live fish, 1158 × 147 × 99 cm. Courtesy Nam June Paik Art Center, Yongin

Paik was also keenly aware of his foibles and misfires, as when he wrote in the proposal for Chip Olympics that he would try for another “Trans-atlantic duet: Amsterdam-New Amsterdam (half-success ‘Bye Bye Kipling . . . this time better prepared’).” Certainly, later in his career, his vision of the satellite experiments was limpidly self-deprecating, even going so far as to say that Kipling was the “first car accident in the E-highway.” Nor did he think it would be the last. In “Rendez-vous Celeste” (1988), he wrote, “Needless to say, High Tech is not a panacea. It is just a local anesthetic. There well be many unforeseen problems ahead.” Paik made use of happy accidents and turned glitches into aesthetic “choices” (e.g., Zen for TV), and his writings help broaden our understanding of how he anticipated and designed for imperfection in the satellite works. A tentative script for Bye Bye Kipling bears a notable postscript—one surely open to interpretation and variable in its implementation: “Add FAKE MISTAKE (control room confusion) somewhere.”

Adapted excerpt from We Are in Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik edited by John G. Hanhardt, Gregory Zinman, and Edith Decker-Phillips, © 2019 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Gregory Zinman is an Assistant Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the author of Making Images Move: Handmade Cinema and the Other Arts (University of California Press, 2020) and editor, with John Hanhardt and Edith Decker-Phillips, of We Are in Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik (The MIT Press, 2019).