Nam June Paik

New York

at Asia Society

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Confirmation of Nam June Paik’s prescience arrived in my inbox shortly after I visited his retrospective at the Asia Society. New York’s New Museum announced its triennial survey of contemporary art with an e-mail that included a list of participating artists, many of them under 30, and a statement from one of the curators describing the show’s focus on art that “manifests a world in which effects of technology and late capitalism have been absorbed into our bodies and altered our vision of the world.” Though the phrasing was a bit ponderous, it struck me that the basic thesis could also apply to “Becoming Robot,” which featured Paik’s video installations, humanoid robot sculptures, and tweaked and painted television sets dating from the 1960s to the early 2000s. The impetus for the exhibition was to show that our “late capitalist” world of technologically mediated life, love and spirituality had already been envisioned by Paik, who appears in retrospect as the ultimate early adopter.

Born in Korea in 1932, Paik spent most of his life outside his native country, studying art and music in Japan before moving in 1956 to Germany, where he studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen, participated in early Fluxus events and met John Cage. It would be hard to overstate the influence of Cage’s experimentalist ethos on Paik’s work, and the exhibition might have gone deeper into the relationship between these two seminal Buddhist artists. At the same time, it’s important not to let the Cage myth obscure the significance of Paik’s fundamental innovation: translating neo-avant-garde aesthetics of chance and indeterminacy from the rarified world of modernist music into the realm of mass media, a process that accelerated once Paik moved to New York in 1964. Where Cage “prepared” pianos for open-ended compositions, Paik applied a magnet to a television set to create distortion effects and eventually sought to bring the aleatory methodology to broadcast television.

Paik has been described as the “father of video art,” but the medium-specific moniker obscures his broader fascination with how technologies alter our bodies and our perceptions. Like many of his peers, Paik often claimed to be humanizing technology, but the inverse—a far weirder prospect—might also be true. Paik’s work offers a vision of technologized humanity, a guide to navigating the “cybernated life” he perceived to be imminent.  

Tarnished by decades of dystopian movies and novels, the prefix “cyber-” conjures thoughts of a dark future, or at least a coldly mathematical one. Paik’s cybernated life, by contrast, was erotic and fun. He arranged performances where artists and musicians sported wearable screens, including TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1975) and TV Penis (1972). Strapped to the body in strategic locations, these devices evoke clunkier—though somehow decidedly sexier—prototypes for Google Glass and other contemporary prosthetic computers. The bra was worn best by Charlotte Moorman (1933-1991), the cellist, artist and avant-garde impresario who was Paik’s longtime collaborator. Moorman was such a presence in the show—appearing in documentation of performances like Opera Sextronique (1967) and Crotch Music (1975)—that the exhibition should really have been structured as a co-retrospective.

Paik learned early on to stop worrying and love the mass media, and he was eager to share his infectious enthusiasm. Broadcast live on television in places around the world on New Year’s Day, Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984) was a multimedia, multi-continent, multi-artist networked extravaganza that has to be considered his masterpiece in this regard. The often-glitchy event, which featured contributions by Joseph Beuys, Laurie Anderson and a host of others performing simultaneously in Paris and New York while their images were remixed by Paik, met the dawning of the much-feared society of control with a blast of avant-garde zaniness.

Even while harnessing advanced network technologies for his own ends, Paik had a keen awareness of cycles of obsolescence. This is most evident in his humanoid robots. While living in Japan in 1964, he built his first such work, K-456, a remote-controlled jumble of wires and motors set on a vaguely anthropomorphic frame that seems to embody, in its ramshackle construction, George Lucas’s notion of a “used future.” Paik returned to the robot as a framework in the 1980s, with a series constructed from old-fashioned, wood-clad television sets. Like Good Morning Mr. Orwell, these tame personages—more clown than terminator—can be understood as rejoinders to techno-anxieties.

The exhibition sought to demonstrate the magnitude of Paik’s foresight, to convey an image of him as a kind of Cassandra for the Information Age. An online component of the show hammers this home with a feature listing his key prophetic accomplishments. We learn, for instance, that, in a 1968 essay, Paik sketched the basic structure of Facebook and the rise of online courses. In 1974, he coined the term “electronic superhighway.” Seeds of ideas for social media and mobile devices can be found in the archival documents presented as part of the show and reproduced in the catalogue. Yet to say that the inheritors of Paik’s legacy are the hoodied disruptors of Silicon Valley feels like a betrayal. His ideas were more “out-there” than those pursued by the slick tech companies of today. Even so, there’s much more to unearth concerning how, exactly, the avant-garde ideas he pioneered have trickled down to the daily lives we live in the constant presence of screens.