"Television made me what I am…" - David Byrne, "Television Man"
Emailed a friend in New York, asked him what he was up to. Quite a lot, it
turns out. He's doing a lot of the hacking for Nam June Paik's next
performance in Japan. Following ELECTRONIC SUPER HIGHWAY: NAM JUNE PAIK IN
THE'90S, the road show currently traveling the States (it's in San Jose at
the moment), this one will be furthering Paik's move to the Net as the
primary milieu for his work.
Why, I wondered. And quite fairly, I think. Nam June Paik, after all, is
the art world's Television Man, one of the first video artists ever, who's
been using and abusing the medium for decades in the name of art. What's he
doing dabbling with the Net? You don't have to ponder the question too
terribly long before a few superficial answers start raising their little
heads. Let's tick them off right away, hoping a few more enlightening ones
arise along the way:
But that doesn't get us too far. Moving on: Doesn't the Net's many-to-many
model of communication fly in the face of television, the ultimate
one-to-many medium? In other words, isn't the Net anti-TV? And if so, how
can an artist whose career has been one long calling-into-question of the
medium (only to reconfirm universally held suspicions of it) even know
where to begin with what might very well appear to be the solution to his
TV is nearly half a century old now. Many of us have grown up with it; some
of us devote hours a day every day to staring at it. All our lives. We've
grown accustomed to its many faces. We've given our souls to Television.
So it's hard to allow it into someone else's hands to play with – harder than
the mere packaging we toss away. TV is precious to us. That's what's been so
disturbing all these years about Paik's work.
Something related is going on in the hearts of Net folk as Paik moves
online. We're so sorry, NJP, but you know the rules of the post-war(hol)
era: 15 minutes. Tops. You've had your medium, you've had your message.
But how did we take that message? If Paik's work with the Net is a
continuation of, as opposed to an aberration from, all he's done before, I might
very well have mistaken it. Perhaps I've been jumping to conclusions. I've
taken a TV screen embedded in the belly of a Buddha as a juxtaposition of
the sacred and the profane (even considering that the Buddha chosen looks
pretty profane himself). Or an ocean of flimmers as a comment on the future
(and therefore, like all good science fiction, on the present) of our
relationship with TV; you know the cliches, we are being inundated with
imagery, each succeeding image devaluing the one before it, so that
all of them become meaningless in the end.
But perhaps I've been misreading Paik all along. His move to the Net is
making me look at his work again and look at it differently. The flimmers,
come to think of it, were not recorded off any channel that existed back in
the seventies when I first saw them, though of course now you can get all
the flimmers you want off MTV. Paik made them up. In fact, his very first
works with television involved taking a magnet and waving it over the
screen in order to distort the image being sent. Paik was making
interactive TV long before most TV producers themselves had even considered
It wouldn't be fair to Paik or any of his crew now working on this thing to
delve into the details, but it should be kosher to point out its main
features: Parts of individual human bodies at various points on the globe
will be viewed by cameras. These live images will be fed via the Net to a
central source then "played" as if on a virtual piano. Don't jump to
conclusions, I'm leaving out lots, but there's enough here to go on.
There's hardly an element in the whole of Paik's long career that's left
out in this set up. It's a brilliant culmination of a lifetime of work
that's had an impact on our culture for decades.