Nam June Paik's Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, 1995 © Nam June Paik Estate

The prophet of the screen

In the decades before his death in 2006, the artist Nam June Paik pre-empted and probed our modern relationship with video content
May 10, 2023

By the end of his life, Nam June Paik, who died at the age of 73 in 2006, was already something of a legend. For decades, he had been obsessed with screens. He thought they were powerful; pipelines of state propaganda; little more than the junk they broadcast into people’s living rooms. What would happen, he wondered, if viewers could become producers? If they could scramble or remix the images they had been taught to consume passively? What if screens could be used as musical instruments or toys? Was there a way in which screens, rather than turning us into sheep, could be linked with others across the world? Huge questions.

Paik is now the subject of a new documentary by first-time director Amanda Kim—Nam June Paik: Moon is The Oldest TV—in which he is hailed by distinguished artists and curators as the “father of video art”, “the Nostradamus of the digital age”, and even likened in importance to Benjamin Franklin and the makers of United States constitution.

Paik, Kim’s film observes, grew up under the shadow of war. In 1950, during the Korean War, his parents fled from Seoul to Hong Kong and then to Japan. Later that decade, he travelled alone to Europe, studying music in Munich, encountering outlier composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, and learning how reluctant the German state and media were to talk about the horrors recently perpetrated and experienced by its peoples.

At that time, Paik was a musical artist. To sceptics, he was a demented anarchist. Stockhausen, who admired him, once recalled a performance in which Paik began by throwing beans against a ceiling and into the audience, then hid his face behind toilet paper into which he sobbed before throwing it at the crowd, switched on two tape recorders—a sound montage of him, radio news, children’s screams—before playing an old gramophone record of a Hayden string quartet, smearing shaving cream across his hair and face, and diving into a bathtub full of water. “He then fell forward and hit the piano keyboard several times with his head.”

It was after moving to New York in the early 1960s that Paik began to be fascinated by screens. He felt he was living in what French philosopher Guy Debord called “The Society of the Spectacle”: an era in which technology, capitalism and consumerism were engineering mass alienation. His solution was to collect television sets, open them up and use magnets to distort the images they were designed to send out across America. News presenters, chat-show hosts, sitcom stars: all were made to look and sound ghostly, unmoored, fragile. Television, Paik hoped, would become a canvas, one he hoped to render “as precisely as Leonardo as freely as Picasso/ as colourfully as Renoir/ as profoundly as Mondrian/ as violently as Pollock/ as lyrically as Jasper Johns.”

Paik’s experiments with TV confounded critics. He was described as a “cultural terrorist”. There was surely a racial element to these barbs; like his friend Yoko Ono, he was an accented Asian-American, making film art during the Vietnam War, finessing a practice that to the untutored eye seemed more akin to a virus. A media critic as perceptive as Andy Warhol or Marshall McLuhan, Paik felt satellite technology was being monopolised by the military; by contrast, he envisioned a media ecology in which “If we could assemble a weekly television festival comprised of music and dance from every nation and disseminate it freely… The tired slogan of ‘world peace’ will again become fresh and marketable.”

Amanda Kim has done well to track down Paik’s ephemeral, exuberant performances. She also highlights notorious pieces such as TV Bra For Living Sculpture, a 1969 collaboration with the cellist Charlotte Moorman in which she wore a bra with small TV screens over her breasts, and Global Groove (1973), an extraordinary film—more of a TV happening—that projected a vision of a world both revolutionised and united by rhythm.

Kim’s is a fond treatment of a rich life. It positions Paik as a pioneering Korean filmmaker and as a visionary artist. However, I can’t help but wonder about a term Paik coined in 1974: “the electronic super highway”. He believed planetary communication was innately progressive, that more media was better media. What then would he have thought about smartphones? YouTube? TikTok? Has more information made society happier? Is interaction—promoted and monetised by Big Tech—always desirable? Perhaps it is its own kind of cultural terrorism.