A Dialogue with Paik

By: Yingxin Huang and Ojas Patel

It seems as if I’ve walked through centuries of the art world in the National American Art Museum at a time. The styles of the halls and the art works are perfectly in accordance with each other. Passing through the Great Hall on the third floor, an expanded dome space filled with light warm color and lattice floor appeared – the Lincoln Gallery.

The Korean American artist Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii is one of the art works exhibited in this gallery. It is in a semi-closed dimension with three-sided walls. The continental U.S. is installed in the middle, with the states of Alaska and Hawaii on the left side and a description label on the right. One could easily get immersed in such an interface and plenty of details could be noticed in this large-scale remixed art work. When I walked into this space and stood in front of the art work, I was immediately astonished by this huge art work composed of hundreds of televisions broadcasting multifarious videos, and then I recognized the outline of the boundaries – it is the US! I was even more impressed and curious about it, then walked towards the description label on the right side. “He celebrated some states for their connections to his artistic friends and collaborator – composer John Cage in Massachusetts, performance artist Charlotte Moorman in Arkansas, and choreography Merce Cunningham in Washington.” (SAAM) This work remixed different forms of art and media, creating a more perceptible and harmonious effect to the audience, letting them echo in looking for their own states, or find some interesting videos in particular states, or just shocked by such a complete and vivid American cultural representation. “Rather, we create artifactual meanings in patterns generated from organized symbolic relations and shared knowledge at another level – networks of meaning that function like a cultural encyclopedia distributed through, and implementable across, all symbolic forms, genres, and media.” (Remix, Irvine 17) Meanwhile, when appreciating this visual art, I almost reflected Hopkins’s words, that the Electronic Superhighway also derived from the form of experimental “Happenings” and Fluxus manifestations, which “blurred the boundaries of art and life”, “favoring ‘live’ artist-audience interaction as opposed to the aesthetic closure of Greenberg’s aesthetics.” (After Modern Art, Hopkins 111) I agree. The artist-audience interaction was the most wonderful and interesting experience I’ve gained from this visual art work, so that I could stand in front of it for a long while, constantly stared at those videos and quickly memorized certain videos representing particular states without any boredom.

Reading about the biography of the Korean American artist, we will be more likely to understand why he created this visual art work, and how he remixed different art forms and made a success. Born and raised in Korea, Nam June Paik ever went to Japan and Germany to learn music and art studies. “Through his performances there, he first established himself in the European avant-garde.” (Hanhardt, 2) In 1964, he moved to New York and permanently lived there. “This constant movement linked his friendships and creative partnerships across time zones and diverse places and cultures.” (Hanhardt, 2) Among those people who had influences on him, John Cage, his great teacher, had strongly inspired him in his art making; and Paik pioneered in the Neo-Dadaism known as Fluxus during those periods. He enabled a dynamic remix of music, video art, technology and so forth, to “draw you in and give you new ways to see and experience the world.” (Hanhardt, 7) His life experience and acquaintances, had largely contributed and helped form his video art style. Moreover, with the boom of post-war cultural consuming, Paik’s predictions of the future of media markets, broadcast and television development in the world also created opportunities to the video art and related technology advancement. In this sense, we can see the dialogism of art forms within the social context, which was described in Bakhtin’s insights quoted in Irvine’s book, “every expression in a culture emerges in a living, intersubjective dialogue of speakers with identities in social and historical context.” (Grammar of Meaning Systems, Irvine 35) “Expression forms a node in a collective process with a past, present, and future…The ‘dialogic condition’, not an individual statement, is thus the foundation of living discourse and culture.” (Grammar of Meaning Systems, Irvine 35)

Dialogically, Paik’s working in a network of the avant-garde and new media. As mentioned above, he was an original member of the Neo-Dada movement known as Fluxus, and is therefore directly in dialogue with the representation of “nonsense” that the Dadaists sought to achieve in post WWI Europe. In the U.S., a country that is increasingly transferring cultural power and authority to images and new information communication technologies which harness the speed and power of electricity, the effect within Electronic Superhighway is that of overstimulation. We are overstimulated by representation, color, speed of communication, so much so that our geographic boundaries and borders, as well as our understandings of different geographic spaces, are in essence completely mediated by these technologies. This is done imagistically through advertisement, cultural iconography, food images, etc. In its overstimulation, it is directly in dialogue with Dada, an art movement that produced poetry with no comprehensible syntax (or even diction at times), non-representational sculpture, and manifestos and monologues full of contradiction. However, the creation of nonsense is not through creating a product that in itself does not contain representational meaning. The map of the U.S. in neon is a representational meaning. Within each state are representational meanings via images. However, the cluttered organization, scale, and neon bright colors of the piece create a sense of nonsense in the sheer amount of “sense” we’re supposed to be processing at the same time. And in this way, the title of the piece is dialogically related to the time period it is produced in. Artifacts always exist in a particular moment in time, and are therefore in dialogue with the culture of the time. And the electronic superhighway outside of the context of the piece itself refers to the vast network of electronically interconnected technologies that give us telephones, cable/satellite T.V., internet, etc. The piece reflects the overwhelming status of technological interconnectedness, a critical component of our contemporary world. Paik is furthermore considered to be the single most influential figure in the emergence of video art in the 60s (Hartney). In this sense, video art after Paik is always in dialogue with Paik’s work, as in a dialogic model, these works and people’s consumption of works in dialogue with Paik’s work changes Paik’s work.

For this reason, we can also take Electronic Superhighway to be a prototype of Paik’s work, and furthermore, a prototype of video art. Distinct from T.V. or film, video art can be described as, “recordings that are broadcast, viewed in galleries or other venues, or distributed as tapes or discs; sculptural installations, which may incorporate one or more television receivers or monitors, displaying ‘live’ or recorded images and sound; and performances in which video representations are included” (Hartney). Video art is necessarily a medium that happens within art spaces, such as art galleries, black box theaters, or even if it is in the form of a tape or disc that can be viewed at home it is still distinct from a T.V. show or movie. Electronic Superhighway acts as a prototype (a token that stands in as representative of a Peircean type) in that it uses the visual medium of video, and is a combination of materials and media: it is sculpture, it is video, it is new media, it utilizes the television set, etc. Furthermore, in that it contains fifty different combinations of video images, we can think of each set of videos as its own video piece with the greater video piece. As a prototype, we see fifty different ways video itself can be used.

References

  1. Hanhardt, J. G. (2006). Nam June Paik (1932–2006). American Art, 20(2), 148–153. doi:10.1086/507506
  2. Hartney, Mick. “Video art.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.
  3. Hopkins, D. S. (2000). After modern art, 1945-2000. Toronto: Oxford University Press.
  4. Navas, E., Gallagher, O., & Burrough, X. (Eds.). (2015). The Routledge companion to Remix studies. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
  5. Smith, T. (2011). Contemporary art: World currents. Boston, MA, United States: Pearson Education (US).
  6. Irvine, Martin, The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics, Communication, Culture & Technology Program. Georgetown University, 2017.
  7. Irvine, Martin, Dialogue, Dialogic, Dialogism | Intertextuality, Intermediality | Remix, A Stuent’s Guide, Communication, Culture & Technology Program. Georgetown University, 2017.
  8. Description of Electronic Superhighway in SAAM Website: http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artwork/?id=71478
  9. Biography of Nam June Paik in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nam_June_Paik