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Old and the New - Nam June Paik

Old and the New - Nam June Paik

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The Old and the New: Nam June PaikAuthor(s): Patricia MellencampSource:
Art Journal,
Vol. 54, No. 4, Video Art (Winter, 1995), pp. 41-47Published by:
Stable URL:
Accessed: 09/10/2010 18:07
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The
Old
and
the
New
NamJunePaik
PattricicaMelleicaImpn1993 for the VeniceBiennale,NamJunePaikinitially
proposedto title his exhibitionin theGermanPavilionElectronicSuper Highway:"Bill Clintonstolemyidea!"Hisbrash claim comes from a1974 document commissionedbytheRockefellerFoundation,inwhichPaikproposedcon-nectingLosAngelesand New York with"multi-layertobroadbandcommunicationsnetworks,such as domesticsat-ellites,waveguides,bunches of co-axialcables,and fiber-optics.Theexpenseswould be ashighas the moonlanding,but therippleeffect 'harvest'ofbyproductswould be nu-merous."lAs an incredulous curator said:"Frankly,we did notbelieveyou [aboutClinton'splan,notPaik's].However afterreadingTime. . .we havegrownwiser: the ElectronicSuperhighwayis nolongerthecrazyfiction or an intellectualutopiaof alittle KoreanGuy."2Paikconcluded his 1974"mediaplan"with a secondprophesythat hadalreadycometrue: "OnehundredyearsagoThoreau wondered: 'Even if thetelephonecompanysucceeded inconnectingpeopleinMainewithpeopleinTennessee,whatwouldtheyhavetosayto eachother?'The rest ishistory."3Moreof Paik'shighways,later.Videoentered the culturalvocabularyof theUnitedStatesinthemid-1960s as atechnologyand a futuristic set ofelectronicpossibilitiesliftedfreelyfrom the tech talk ofcomputerinventors. And it wasvideo,notcomputers,thatlodgeditselfsimultaneouslywithin activistpoliticsand theartscene,zigzaggingbetween counterculture communesandtheculturedart world.Dropoutsand artists alike extolledsci-fiprinciplesderived from informationtheoryandcybernetics.Information wasenergy, process,andpower-whichhadto bedispersedto thepeople throughvideo. As GuerillaTVputit,"Onlythrougha radicalre-designof itsinformationstructurestoincorporatetwo-way,decentralizedinputscanMedia-Americaoptimizefeedback."4 Videowould foster newcommunitiesandradicalpolitics;it wouldchallengecom-mercialTV("beastTV")and art-twoleftovers from whatwascalled"productculture."Thearthistoricallegend beginsearlier,inKorea.Paik,aMarxist("Koreansarenot as docile as other Asians. Itwaspartiallyjustradicalchic"),left Korea in the1950s tostudymusicinJapan.Anaestheticsdegreeand thesis on
ArnoldSch6nbergnhand,he then went to WestGermany.("Athetime,itwaspopularoreveryyoung,richKoreanogosomewheren the Westernworld.IchoseGermanyirst .. .because it was saidtherewas no modernartnAmerica n the
fifties.")There,andforever,hebonded withJohnCage("Icame to theU.S.onlybecause ofJohnCage")and theothertheorist/practitionersof Fluxus.5 Heliterallyattackedthepiano(andthemusicaltradition itrepresented,scaring Cageintheprocess)and then the TV setinperformanceevents.(NowPaik collects classical TVsets,usingthem to createlovelyhuman monuments and intricatecollages.)Paik movedto NewYork n1964.Thestoryof video artis what I call aprimalstory,and itbeginshere,at theLibertyMusicStore,withPaik'spurchase, usingU.S.grantmoney,of aSony portablevideo camera and recorder fromJapan'sfirstshipmentofequipmenttothe U. S.As the tale is remem-bered,Paik's first videorecordingoccurredthatvery day.Ashewas onhiswayhome,his cab intersected with thePope'svisit to New York.Voila! The results werepreviewedto anartaudience that samenight:video art wasborn.(TheironyofJapaneseconsumertechnologyinthe handsofa KoreaninNew YorkfilmingthePopeandtriggeringan art movementfundedbyNEAand theRockefellerFoundation isdelightfulindeed.Perhapsthis iswhyit has been told for nowthirtyyears.)Video'sease,simultaneity,andimmateriality snuglyfit withperformanceart andhappenings, Conceptual,ki-netic,andPopart.Anyonecould be(and was)a videoartist,which caused BillViolatosaysomewhereofearlyvideotapesthat life(particularlyan artist'slife)withouteditingis not allthatinteresting.Thisperiodalsosawthe U.S. revival of thehistorical(European)avant-garde-particularlythecritiqueof artinstitutions(inretrospect,acritiqueof the business ofart).Todaymuseums areinfashion,alongwith art andcelebrityartists. Arthasalwaysbeen aprimecommodityforfinancial markets.Rightafterhog, grain,andfuturespricescomethe artauctionsintheWall StreetJournal(witha directcorrelationbetweenU.S.trade, tourism,and thepriceofinternationalart).In1995 the neoclassical economics ofartis inhigh style,andbigbucksare seen as averygoodthing.But in the1960s and1970s,moneywas not valuedby manyintellectuals orartists. Materialism wasstrictlydialectical
ART JOURNAL
41
 
FIG1
NamJunePaik,GlobalGroove,973,colorvideo,28minutes.DistributedyElectronic rtsIntermix,New York.
exceptforAndyWarhol,whoalwayssawart asbusiness:"Business art isthestepthat comes after Art."642Whatwasinstylewerecritiquesof art's raditionsandforms,forexample, Cageonmusic,MerceCunninghamondance,JacksonMacLownpoetry,JosephBeuysonpolitics/art.(Althoughthesecritiqueswererecentlylabeled decon-struction fromliterarytheory,demolitions moreaccurate.Deconstructorslwaysfindmore,whereasheseguyslookedfor and foundless,a minimalistaesthetic.)CageandCun-ningham, alongwithCharlotteMoorman,ppearedregularlyin thevideotapesofPaik,whoseeclectic,high-voltagestyleincluded rock'n' rollearlyon,inspiringMTV(fig.1).HisvideogangincludedartcriticslikeRussellO'ConnerandGregoryBattcock,AllanKaprow,and the video artistShigekoKubota,hispartnernart.Inlaterpiecestheregularswerejoined byLaurieAnderson,PeterGabriel,PhilipGlass,DavidBowie,LouReed,fashiondesigners,morerockmusicians,andNewYorkcomedyperformers.Eventually,Paik's videoperformance/repertorycompanystarredinlive,globalevents-Paik'ssatellite broadcastsGoodMorningMr. Orwelln1984,ByeByeKiplingin1986,andWrapround the Worldn1988.Paik'sdescriptionof his first NewYork-Paris atellitebroad-cast in1984isvery funny:Therewas aFrenchspecialistin the transmissionbooth.ButhethoughtIwas anexpert.Hedid not knowthatIwasatechno-idiot.Heleftthemixingbooth outofreverenceomejustbeforehe transmissionwent ive to40 million viewersnEurope,heU.S., Canada,and Korea....Iwasonly52yearsold,which alonesparedmeaheart attack.Who wasincharge?Whose howwas it?Idon'tknow.will domylast liveTVshow in1999,December 1.I'dbettertayhealthy.7JohnHanhardt'smanyscholarly writings emphasizePaik'suse of comicirony,popularculture,andtheeveryday.8YetPaik'severydaysfar fromordinary-informedasit isbyserious art andscientificknowledge.In the samewayPaik
sees televisionandotherPopcultureartifactsthroughhisidiosyncraticaesthetics.But thePaikcaseismadethroughFluxus. IncontemporarycatalogueessaysWulfHer-zogengrathandHanhardt(influentialvideoscholarsandPaikians,althoughthissounds too StarTrekkieforart;Iammerelya Paikaficionada)placePaik atthe center ofvideohistoryilluminatedthroughFluxus.This intellectualcoali-tion ofthinkers/performerswasanti-highart. Fluxus"pickedupthe mantle of the historicalavant-garde,ques-tioningthe elitism ofart,""debunkinginstitutionsof theartworld.. .overturningthejargonofarthistorywithplayful-ness and humor."9Playfulnessdidn't comeonlyfromFluxus,nor was itthere fromthebeginning.Inalovelyinterview withanotherPaikian,DavidRoss,Paiksaysthatthe"old left'suffered'forthe massesandhadrevolution,while thenew left'enjoyedlifeand had revolution."' Paik attributeshis shiftto(1)Moor-mon,who "hated rehearsals"andchangedthe"characterofthepiecesfromagonytolibido";and(2)"the newvideogeneration.""Myfirstfriends wereFluxuspeople,whowerealways anti-something... thenew videogenerationwaspro-something,'constructing'a newsocietywith thenewtool ofvideo."10AsKate Millettsays:"In Fluxus wethoughtofour-selves as 'the childrenofDuchamp.'It was evenlogical,wewere stillyoungsters;here was an old man anda monument."But she remembers thepastasarduous:"Fluxpersonsinhostilenewworlds,survivingthe localculturethroughonetheyformed around themselves."She wondersof Paik:"IfTokyowas hard[foraKorean],what wasit likeinGermany?Maybehe had...perfectedthatmanner ofbeingaforeigner,arefugeeartist: thickskinned,a littlestrange,a littlefunny. ..ineffablyanoutsider."llThirty yearshavepassedsince the famouspurchaseattheLibertyMusicStore(agreatdayin thehistoryofshop-ping,whichisalot likebuyingart,andalandmarkfor whatRaymondWilliams,aftereconomists,calledconsumerdura-bles).Paik is oldenoughto be agrandfather.Cunningham'sperformancesarepopularevents,regularlyreviewedas bril-liant.Cage,Moorman,andBeuys(andotherartheroes)aredead. Yetcurators,scholars,keepersof thefaith,and nowthis briefpiece,havebeentellingthe samefounding storyofvideo art ineverycatalogueandessay-asifnoone hadheardit,as if it were the eternalexplanation,as ifnothinghadchanged,includingPaik'swork.Thestoryhas been underfeministsiege-firstbyMartha Geverin1982,thenamplifiedbyMarthaRosieratVideo84 inMontreal and reiteratedinIlluminatingVideo,andelaborated furtherbyMaritaSturken.12Even inthesepolemical critiquesofmythor"sanctification,"the familiarstoryisretold.AndGever,Rosier,andSturkenare notwrong.The cultural taleofvideois,ofcourse,morecomplex.Also
suspectistheinscriptionofafoundingvideofather,no matterhow anarchic or internationalhispaternity.Let'sbe honest.
WINTER1995

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