LONDON – One of Europe’s biggest museums dedicated its biggest show of the season to someone who saw the future more clearly than any artist of their century. He was a restless traveler and avid student of anatomy who danced across the frontiers of art and science. He mixed ancient religion with new forms of representation and sketched out strange new machines that would be realized long after his death.
You thought i meant this left-hander at the Louvre? Forget Leonardo: I’m talking about the Korean-American conjurer Nam June Paik (1932-2006), still a pioneer in a large retrospective at Tate Modern in London, and more urgent than ever as a defender of human life in a world dominated by technology.
The biographies of the capsules call Paik the “father of video art” – and he almost certainly invented the medium in 1965, when he shot footage of a papal procession with the first Sony Portapak to reach the United States. .
He also transformed television screens into clothing, furniture, garden decorations and musical instruments; closed-circuit surveillance cameras converted into live participatory installations; and, more specifically, invented new video editing technologies that foreshadowed today’s push-button camera filters.
You will find all of this at the Tate exhibition, which includes more than 200 works and culminates with the imposing installation of 34 projectors by Paik “The Sistine Chapel”, presented for the first time since its debut in Paris. 1993 Venice Biennale. (The show runs next year in Amsterdam and Chicago, and in 2021 in San Francisco and Singapore.)
More important than what Paik did was the way he thought, spoke and wrote about art and technology.
Decades before Snapchat and Instagram, Paik became the first major artist to predict how mass media would give way to multi-directional communication. Long before Skype and Google Hangouts, he designed global satellite broadcasts that allowed artists to collaborate across oceans – gathered in a cheerful gallery at Tate Modern, showcasing Paik’s live TV shows with David Bowie, Oingo Boingo and rockers from what was then Leningrad and Beijing.
And when other artists still used video purely for documentation and treated mass media as a target of criticism at best, Paik had foreseen that the mechanisms of exclusion from high culture were on their last legs. The art gallery would be replaced by a global network of images and voices that he called, two decades ago Al Gore took over the sentence, an “electronic highway”.
Paik was born in 1932 in Seoul occupied by the Japanese; He studied musical composition in Japan and then in West Germany, where he met the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage and rubbed shoulders with the wacky experimental artists of the Fluxus movement.
The European avant-gardes of the mid-1950s were loving zen buddhismand Paik, who filled notebooks with gleanings of Asian philosophy, began to write compositions and stage performances that could be meditative, paradoxical, or just plain bizarre.
In his 1962 performance “Zen for the head”, Seen at the Tate in a video of a chaotic Fluxus night at the theater, Paik coated his hair with ink and painted a long black track on a roller on the floor. The following year, he filled a villa in the German town of Wuppertal with detuned and junk-stuffed pianos, a record player with a dildo instead of a tonearm, and the head of a freshly slaughtered ox.
While preparing his Fluxus funhouse, Paik discovered that a television he had shipped to Wuppertal had broken during transport. The cathode ray tube was broken and the screen only showed a single white line on a black background.
As Marcel Duchamp had done with a urinal 45 years before, Paik turned the television on his side and named it “Zen for TV– the first of many works of art in which broadcasts, recordings or transmission problems have transformed the possibilities of sculpture. Magnets affixed to televisions turned President Richard Nixon into a spiral-shaped ghoul. A CCTV camera aimed at an 18th-century Buddha statuette found a place for the spiritual amid the vapors of the broadcast.
And with his “video synthesizer“, a machine he and engineer Shuya Abe invented in 1969 (an imposing prototype can be found in a gallery at the Tate), Paik could interrupt the logic of television itself – by mixing up several video sources he could edit, distort, color and intertwine in real time.
The largest of his distorted videos was “Global Groove(1973), a half-hour video collage that intertwines Nixon and Cage, Korean musicians and rhythm-and-blues dancers, in a cascade of psychedelic images that overturned television’s business objectives.
In the mid-1960s, he collaborated with scientists at Bell Labs, where he created some purely digital works with the first computers. Yet Paik quickly realized that art could not be contained within the rigidities of code. The artist’s role was not to embrace technology in bulk, he said, but to maintain a place for humans in the midst of media transmissions and digital flows.
In this, he and Charlotte Moorman, the fearless cellist who became Paik’s greatest artistic partner, have offered perhaps the most important examples of the last century of how to incorporate new technologies into art.
When Moorman cradled Paik’s “TV Cello” against her bare skin, or when she put on a 60-pound bra made of two small televisions, the musician and artist certainly weren’t buying the technology wholesale. . They envisioned new genres of art, new genres of music and new genres of sex that could counter the homogenized and focused visions of audiovisual media.
Novelty is not everything in art. Time comes and goes; styles repeat, echo, remix; some innovations turn out to be dead ends. And for such an innovative man, Paik also made an above average amount of waste.
At Tate, “Global Groove” and “TV Cello” share a space with cheesy jokes and dismal shamanic installations. Certainly, Paik’s collaborations with the German artist Joseph Beuys, like a Mongolian yurt filled with straw intended for the casual rituals of the East to meet the West, have aged very badly.
But if you judge this show on the top-to-bottom quality of each gallery, you will miss the full force of its accomplishment. What mattered to Paik was not the creation of stand-alone masterpieces, but the establishment of better, fresher and more democratic modes of communication.
This is especially present in the glorious gallery titled “Transmission”, which showcases his ambitious live performances from the 1980s, originally broadcast by satellite to stations around the world.
For “Hello, Mr. Orwell, Which took place on New Years Day in 1984, Moorman, artist Laurie Anderson and choreographer Merce Cunningham in New York performed in real time with colleagues in Paris, where actor Yves Montand performed. small soft-shoe. “Go around the world”, Which coincided with the Seoul Olympics in 1988, was even more ambitious: Bowie kibit in Japanese with Ryuichi Sakamoto, while rock stars on either side of the Iron Curtain played riffs together.
There is such hope and optimism in these transnational performances, such certainty that communication would lead to a better future, that I could hardly bear it. Because while Paik was so prescient about future technologies, he was hopelessly wrong about their applications.
“Information must be seen as an energy alternative,” Paik wrote in 1979 – decades before this era of big data and digital surveillance, and the creation of billion-dollar companies whose primary resource is security. knowledge of our lives.
And if Paik in “Global Groove” proposed that we all soon have our own television channels, he did not foresee how these would be narcissistic and out of the world, much less that they could fuel a reactionary politics never before seen in the West. since 1930s.
I turn to Nam June Paik to remind myself that this was not to be, and that smartphones and social media weren’t predestined to become extractive technologies, turning human experience into data and then into profit.
In the flows and crosscurrents of digital communication, a spark of opportunity persists, and we can still chart a path to human freedom if we reorient it as completely as it did on television. Livestreamers of the world, unite! A global groove is possible!