Nam June Paik? Past tense. OVer IT!

Bill Sontag, poster for a performance at the Spring Arts Festival, University of Cincinnati, 1968 Poster © Bill Sontag; image courtesy Charlotte Moorman Archive, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library
Bill Sontag, poster for a performance at the Spring Arts Festival, University of Cincinnati, 1968
Poster © Bill Sontag; image courtesy Charlotte Moorman Archive, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library

…saw Nam June Paik at Asia Society the last day of the show…
(yawns, stretches)

I have to say, I still don’t get it.

In fact, I get it less than I’ve ever not gotten it before.

I’m writing this the day after the Asia Society’s Nam June Paik retrospective, Becoming Robot, has ended. It seems timely to me because, very simply, Paik is over.

Let’s put it this way, Nam June Paik has been noted for coining the term “electronic super highway” — a phrase that is never used. Hasn’t been used. Not for ages. It was used in the days of black screens with MSDos blinking on them. But now it’s not. What’s more when the term was used, it was used in a different form – people said “information super highway” — also a term that is well past its expiration date. My point? My point is that this nugget of reality check is a metaphor for the whole NJP shebang.

Many will say they love NJP, but they are wrong. They do not. They used to like the idea of Nam June Paik. But, these days, unless reminded by pitiful, sparsely populated, mostly documentary shows like Becoming Robot, they’d forget that he ever existed. Because it’s difficult, without cue cards, to recall any love for Paik’s tiny body of homely, dusty, wonky sculptures, scrambled look alike videos, and childish manifestos written in marker over typewritten sheets of paper. (Oh, and a familly pretty cute robots.)

These are a few of my favorite things

Sure there are things you NEED to say when you yap about NJP, academic phrases scored into stone and packed with the sands of three decades; they used to come off as awe-inspired words of high praise. But now they ring hollow. I’ll bet you can write them down now before you even read this piece.

In fact, I’ll bet, smarty-boots, that if you attended the Asia Society’s show, your brain was rolling its cosmic eyes while you read the wall cards, skimming the ancient sound bites:

“visionary… father of video art…innovator…self-taught… engineer… pioneer of the video movement…democratization of art… humanization of technology…anti-dystopian…”

The technology shtick especially rings hollow, doesn’t it?
I mean technology, to us, means wearables, it means geo-marketing, it means we no longer watch appointment tv. It means we can send each other messages that dissolve as they are being read.

But just say “portapak” and the geeks step out of their shadowy basements to stick a skinny finger in the air and tell you that it is rumored that NJP had developed a similar device before SONY marketed theirs. It is also rumored that people once gave a shit.

Past Tense

The Asia Society, btw, billed Becoming Robot as “the first exhibition dedicated exclusively to the artist to open in New York City in more than a decade.”

This is because hardly anyone in our digitally enhanced time, has the patience to pretend to care about neo-dada, fluxus, or even net-art. We are Post-internet: Zombie Formalism, Micropop, Superflat.

Most of us are too sophisticated to be impressed by scholarly avant garde gimmicks, Like manifestos.

Paik wrote one. Because Manifestos were hot in the old days; they were the best sort of artist statement because they had a built-in code: I’m political; I mean business. But seriously now, most of us were born well after manifestos were a quaint rotting doily on the side table of ancient ivory tower rebellion.

And so time has not been kind to ol’ NJP.

There are those creaky geeky fans of old “technology” who may twinkle their toes with lonely delight when they recall those days in the 80’s when their dads and aunties were amazed by the fact that video was a part of everyday life — you know, the way way long ago when Frankenstein and Orwell rang forebodingly in our imaginations and technology seemed controversial and dangerous. In those ancient times, a figure like NJP would seem a charming Puck teasing out a midsummer’s night dream amongst all the tech-fearing luddites. It would have seemed cool to be on his team, mocking the Neanderthals, joining the sex party that’s surfing the net.

Now that we live in the light of the monitor, it’s hard to identify with, much less revel in, the the “mischief” that was NJP. Our government really DOES spy on us, really does send drones in on the down low to nix enemies of the state. Ad agencies really do know that your daughter hasn’t had her period and our father is sweating out a dry period. No 1984 for us, with its stupid whimpering fako politics: we are in it. We’re not playing.

Beating The Rug

You just get the impression that those who purport to care about Paik’s studious antics are just beating the dust out of an old carpet. Beating it. Beating it. Hoping like hell to make it look new again.

To be fair to Paik and his legacy, The Asia Society’s Becoming Robot was particularly abysmal in its presentation and curatorial approach: skeletal, chock-a-block with scholarly wall text, it was hard to digest on foot in a gallery. Impossible to squeeze appreciation out of the experience. And forget about enjoying the video: lingering in front of small monitors placed in corners in that huge white space felt downright unfulfilling.

But that’s the stuff of contemporary art history; you don’t go to see it so much as to read it. Everything comes with a pamphlet or else you’re just not going to get, are you? And tech art is by far the worse for wear. Looking at a construction of wires and tape, seeing a video of it getting tossed by a car. REading REading REading about what it’s supposed to make us feel, we just don’t get to where it was supposed to take us.

Admittedly, “Good Morning Mr. Orwell”, definitely one of Paik’s more interesting works, would have had a nice impact in 1984 when it was broadcast with a star-studded line up (featuring Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Joseph Beuys, and Allen Ginsberg, amongst others). The fact that it allowed live communication between New York, South Korea and Paris might have felt politically hefty at the time. But the disconnect over the subsequent decades is large. Too large.

Oh well, let’s talk about sex

The best parts of  Becoming Robot definitely were those that referenced musician/performanc artist Charlotte Moorman, who generously donated her tits and her cello to NJP’s brand and even had the good luck to get herself arrested. We thank her for providing some vaguely charming imagery, a little bit of razzle if not dazzle, and a touch of mischief to this dusty chapter. Becoming Robot rightly dedicated a whole room to her, her outfits, and her performances. In those days, I suppose, spanking a string instrument with a two-by-four while your ninnies are squeezed into “monitors” was the height of feminism. Go figure.



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