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Gagosian Quarterly

Winter 2019 Issue

reading nam june paik

Earlier this year, MIT Press released We Are in Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik. Here Gregory Zinman, coeditor of the book along with John Hanhardt and Edith Decker-Phillips, writes about his first exposure to the artist’s archives, the discoveries made there, and the relationship between Paik’s writings and his larger practice.

Nam June Paik, Florence, 1974. Photo: © 1974 Gianni Melotti

Nam June Paik, Florence, 1974. Photo: © 1974 Gianni Melotti

Gregory Zinman

Gregory Zinman is an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His writing on film and media has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and October, among other publications. He is the editor, with John Hanhardt and Edith Decker-Phillips, of We Are in Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik.

Every scholar granted access to an artist’s archive dreams of that moment of serendipity: stumbling across a passage that confirms a long-held speculation, gives voice to an artist’s intention, or unlocks a connection to an unstated influence. Even more alluring is the idea of discovering an artwork long obscured or lost altogether. This latter occurrence is rare, the academic equivalent of real-life art-historical jackpots like Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Martin Kober’s—a painting behind his couch in Buffalo may be a Michelangelo—or the six possible Willem de Koonings found by the Chelsea art dealer David Killen in a New Jersey storage locker. Yet the archive nevertheless promises the dream of discovery: opening up a new passage of art history, providing a corrective to the record and the accepted wisdom, counteracting master narratives, and expanding the possibility of finding meaning in the creation of art.

The reality of the archive is different, however, as I learned during the nine months I spent immersed in the archive of Nam June Paik, the Korean-born visionary whose innovations in using television and video as artistic mediums transformed the cultural landscape of the twentieth century. Paik’s archive was acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in 2009, three years after the artist’s death, at the age of seventy-three. Its materials, culled from his three Manhattan studios, required two tractor-trailers and five box trucks to move to Washington, DC. Once at SAAM, the materials were divided into two parts: objects and paper. The first of these sections resides in SAAM's off-site facility in Largo, Maryland, and contains paintings, works on paper, photographs, videotapes, and sculptures by Paik, as well as images of David Bowie, Allen Ginsberg, Humphrey Bogart, and others, all festooned with his colorful writing and doodles. The object archive also houses a hearty sampling of his inspirational and working materials, including Canal Street schlock bought in bulk, such as toy airplanes and plastic robots, alongside scores of vintage cameras, radios, and antique television sets and cabinets. While this collection is fascinating on its own, my remit involved the other section: the paper archive, measuring 55 linear feet—a veritable blue whale of paper.

This paper archive consists of box after box, file after file, page after page, of documents such as phone bills, missives haggling over costs of equipment and shipping, and tax information. It contains correspondence in which Paik was chasing down money and proposals for projects that never received funding and so were never realized—his suggestion that he become a “peace correspondent” for public television, for example. But this papery flotsam points to a life, one not of spotless galleries and tony auction houses but rather one of almost comical mess, lived in piles of electrical cords, hollowed-out CRTs, and seemingly endless handwritten lists of people Paik wanted to call or had promised to call back.

Reading Nam June Paik

Selections from the Nam June Paik Archive, Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of the Nam June Paik Estate. Photo: Gene Young

This overwhelming tide of material also contains substantial project plans and long essays, many of them unpublished or in drafts that differ from their published versions. Wide-ranging, discursive, and often astonishing in their originality and prescience, these writings cover a variety of topics, from the oil crisis of the 1970s to the migrations of ancient populations in Europe and Asia. Others forecast facial-recognition software—this as early as 1966—and, more famously, the “electronic superhighways” of the Internet, as early as 1974. Some pieces are concrete in their specificity and limpid in their aims, as when Paik wrote, in “Binghamton Letter” (1972), that the “ultimate goal of video revolution is the establishment of space to space, or plain to plain communication without confusion and interference each other.” But he also had a more exploratory mode of address. A sixteen-page “fantasia” nominally addressed to Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver, for example, includes the passage, “Maybe we can send certain waves directly to brain, which modulates brainwaves, and entertain, enlighten, expand the brain,,[sic] a kind of electronic LSD.” Paik repeatedly stated that the challenge of using new media was to “humanize” the technology. While this goal could have lofty, even utopian ramifications, he also refused to ignore the baser, even carnal intersections of technology and humanity that would become powerful cultural forces, writing in the mid-1960s about sex robots with “expandable-shrinkable cathode ray tube,” concluding, “please, tele-fuck! with your lover in RIO.”

Reading Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik, “Sonata quasi una fantasia for Billie Kluver,” c. 1965. Courtesy Nam June Paik Estate

Something that becomes clear in reading through an artist’s archive is that the artist in question was a person. Not only a significant historical figure—though that, too, surely—but someone with friends and collaborators, someone with debts to pay, someone who tried to challenge himself as an artist. Yet the archive doesn’t serve as a biography, or as a rounded accounting of a life. Too many details are missing.

Partly through his background in the Fluxus movement, partly through his ingratiating personality and a sense of humor that ranged from witty to juvenile, and partly through the Western racism that made some unwilling to look past his aphoristic broken English, Paik was often described as “funny,” a “prankster.” “Chaotic” was a familiar descriptor of his working methods among both critics and collaborators. And yes, Paik embraced both chance and indeterminacy as central components of his practice, but reading his writings makes clear how he made plans and worked through ideas: methodically, deliberately, but also with flexibility when something needed to change, or when he came up with a better option. He also absorbed and repurposed lessons from philosophy, political science, music, and painting and applied them to his art. Reading Paik adds unexpected depth to his work, and gives us access to his inspirations, frustrations, methods, and process.

In his art making, Paik habitually oversaw dozens of projects at the same time. He wrote the same way, iteratively, crossing out items and revising, reordering, rethinking, continuously plan-B-ing. His love of idiom and adage comes to light in the archive through notebooks and scrapbooks containing cut-and-pasted passages from Diderot, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Lao Tzu. (Cutting-and-pasting, of course, was the same technique he borrowed from Dadaist photocollage and applied to his video editing.) Paik blended his lifelong interest in philosophy and modernist music with an insatiable curiosity about the new. He was convinced of the salubrious potential of an accessible avant-garde, imagining poetry by Ginsberg and Jackson Mac Low, music by La Monte Young and John Cage, and films by Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas being piped into every home by a “laser TV station.” Equally at home in Darmstadt and Danceteria, he made works that could be seen on public television and collected by museums. In letters and plans, he courted pop stars like Bowie, Laurie Anderson, and the Thompson Twins, then gave them the same platform in his art that he granted to Merce Cunningham, Joseph Beuys, and Charlotte Moorman. In We Are in Open Circuits, many of these letters and other works find new life as concrete steps in the creative process, offering a window into the mind of one of the most important artists of the postwar period.

Reading Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik, “Good Morning Mr. Orwell,” n.d., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Nam June Paik Archive, gift of the Nam June Paik Estate

Arguably the most significant piece of “writing” I came across in the Paik archive, though, didn’t make it into We Are in Open Circuits. Early on in my time at SAAM, I read through folders containing files related to Paik’s time at Bell Labs, in Murray Hill, New Jersey, where he was an artist in residence at the telecommunications research and development center in 1967–68. The folders contained stacks of continuous-feed computer printout paper, which in turn included a series of numbered studies for various works, among them what would become Confused Rain (1967). My eye landed on another page, titled Etude 1, also dated 1967, and credited to “Paik/Noll”—the latter a reference to A. Michael Noll, a Bell Labs engineer who, with his colleague Béla Julesz, exhibited the first show of computer-generated art in the United States, at the Howard Wise Gallery, New York, in 1965. (While Noll helped bring Paik to Bell Labs, he told me that he does not recall working on Etude 1 with the artist). Another sheet in the folder showed an image of four overlapping concentric circles made up not of lines but of letters forming the words DOG, GOD, LOVE, and HATE. Looking at the code—yet another language learned by Paik, who also spoke or wrote Korean, English, German, French, Chinese, and Japanese—for the printout of Etude 1, it quickly became clear that the image had been output by a version of the program. The studies, as well as Etude 1, were composed in FORTRAN 66, a computer language long out of date. The scholar’s archival fantasy had become real: this was a previously unidentified work of Paik’s, and it turned out to be one of the earliest pieces of computer art ever made by an artist. What Paik created at Bell Labs was necessarily minimal, the work of a neophyte programmer using notoriously buggy and complex General Electric mainframes. Even so, the outcome remains appealing in its simplicity and sly conceptual and material reversals—code into words, language into geometry, music into image.

Reading Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik, Etude 1, 1967–68, printed Thermofax paper with additions in ink, 8 × 11 inches (20.3 × 27.9 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Nam June Paik Archive, gift of the Nam June Paik Estate

Of course, nothing can be “discovered” in an archive without the work of countless others. Ken Hakuta, executor of the Paik estate, wanted a home for the artist’s materials. Elizabeth Broun, director of SAAM at the time, agreed to take and archive them. John Hanhardt, then SAAM’s senior curator of media arts, working with the museum’s registrar, Lynn Putney, waded through them, making countless decisions about what should and should not be preserved. Christine Hennessey, the chief of research at SAAM, and Hannah Pacious, the archive’s coordinator, and others all worked tirelessly to inventory, catalogue, and make the materials accessible to researchers. In other words, Etude 1 was already there in the archive. What scholars do is attempt to make meaning from what they “find.” In this case, it became my challenge to think through how Paik understood, made use of, abandoned, then prophesied the use of computational media to make a new kind of art.

As was the case with Etude 1, the most generative thing about reading papers in an archive is how they provoke more questions. Sometimes, to answer those questions, you have to cross-reference other archives. When John suggested that we edit a selection of Paik’s writings into a collection, we naturally availed ourselves of the resources at SAAM, but I also traveled to the Paik estate in California, where I found his Bell Labs notebook in the bottom of a box; to the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York; and to the John Cage and Charlotte Moorman archives at Northwestern University, among other repositories. John’s and my coeditor Edith Decker-Phillips reached out to the Joseph Beuys Archive in Düsseldorf and returned to the Sohm Archive, in the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, to pore over the documents that had formed her previous compendia of Paik’s writings, published in German and French, in order to obtain materials for our volume. Building out context for the writings in the book meant soliciting the memories and recollections of people who knew the artist. And so we conducted interviews with people like Carol Brandenburg, a longtime Paik supporter and producer at WNET, who helped orchestrate and navigate the complex constellation of people, stations, and technologies that constituted Paik’s three satellite works of the 1980s, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984), Bye Bye Kipling (1986), and Wrap Around the World (1988), which combined resources and talent from dozens of countries. We called on the resources of Peter Wenzel, owner of one of the world’s most significant collections of Paik’s published writings and exhibition texts. We talked to contemporaries of Paik’s such as the video artist Steve Beck. We studied previously published interviews for corroborations and elaborations, and relied on a previously unpublished conversation between Paik and fellow Fluxus artist Dick Higgins that had been incorporated into SAAM’s archive.

Reading Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik, “Binghamton Letter,” 1972, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Nam June Paik Archive, gift of the Nam June Paik Estate

I never met Nam June but John had curated his work, written about him extensively, and considered him a good friend. Before a screening of Zen for Film (1962–64), Paik’s zero-degree investigation of cinematic materiality in which a reel of clear leader accrues dust motes and scratches as its imagery, he told John to kick the reel across the floor before the screening, in order to gather further scuzz and make the image more complex. That’s information that’s not in a letter, not in a book, not in an archive. These are what Paik scholar and curator Hanna Hölling calls “microarchives”—repositories of knowledge that escape inscription. Such microarchives include the institutional memories of museum registrars, a conservator’s knowledge of CRT screens, and the anecdotal remembrances of someone like Jon Huffman, Paik’s longtime assistant, project manager, and now curator of the Paik estate. All of these different people, resources, and institutions are crucial components in the construction of an art history.

We Are in Open Circuits includes an essay called “Random Access Information” that Paik wrote for Artforum in 1980. It is at once provocatively speculative, digressive, and whimsical—a perfect encapsulation of Paik’s rhetorical style. “We have a thing called art and we have a thing called communication,” he wrote, “and sometimes their curves overlap. (A lot of art does not have much to do with communication and a lot of communication has no artistic content.)” To read Paik’s writings is to try to identify and illuminate such moments of intersection. The result, of course, is not definitive, it’s a collection. An assemblage. An attempt to mount a few new antennae on the tower of Paik’s oeuvre as signals to others. It provides some insights into Paik as an artist and innovator, and it is designed to spur others to further finds and interpretations and, ultimately, to new art histories.

Artwork © Nam June Paik Estate

Cover of the Winter 2019 Gagosian Quarterly, featuring a selection from a black-and-white Christopher Wool photograph

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Winter 2019

The Winter 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a selection from Christopher Wool’s Westtexaspsychosculpture series on its cover.

Time by Dance by Paik

Time by Dance by Paik

Gillian Jakab considers the role of choreography in Nam June Paik’s 1989 video installation Fin de Siècle II.

Life and Technology: The Binary of Nam June Paik

Life and Technology: The Binary of Nam June Paik

Alexander Wolf explores the intersection of life and technology as it exists in the work of Nam June Paik, revealing the artist’s ability to balance technological concerns with humanity through music, performance, expressive painting, and images from nature.

Henri Matisse, The Music Lesson, 1917, oil on canvas, domestic interior scene of people in the livingroom at the piano, reading chair, and window

Lockdown: Henri Matisse’s Domestic Interiors

John Elderfield reexamines Matisse’s Piano Lesson (1916) and Music Lesson (1917), considering the works’ depictions of domestic space during the tumult of World War I.

Helen Frankenthaler, Cool Summer, 1962, oil on canvas, 69 ¾ × 120 inches (177.2 × 304.8 cm), Collection Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.

Building a Legacy
The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation on COVID-19 Relief Funding

The Quarterly’s Alison McDonald speaks with Clifford Ross, Frederick J. Iseman, and Dr. Lise Motherwell, members of the board of directors of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, and Elizabeth Smith, executive director, about the foundation’s decision to establish a multiyear initiative dedicated to providing $5 million in covid-19 relief for artists and arts professionals.

Andy Warhol cover design for the magazine Aspen 1, no. 3.

Artists’ Magazines

Gwen Allen recounts her discovery of cutting-edge artists’ magazines from the 1960s and 1970s and explores the roots and implications of these singular publications.

Arts Leaders of Color

The Bigger Picture
Arts Leaders of Color

Jess Sims interviews Quanice Floyd and Joshua Henry Jenkins of the Arts Administrators of Color Network to discuss the organization’s COVID-19 emergency fund for BIPOC artists and arts administrators.

Mike Milken and Larry Gagosian

In Conversation
Mike Milken and Larry Gagosian

Mike Milken interviews Larry Gagosian about their shared histories, the important role of art in moments of crisis, and the long-term impact of creative visions.

Julie Lomax.

Emergency Arts Funding: Resources for UK Artists and Arts Workers

Julie Lomax, chief executive officer of a-n The Artists Information Company, the largest artists’ membership organization in the United Kingdom, speaks to Rani Singh about the impact of the COVID-19 health crisis on artists and arts workers, as well as funding resources and other assistance available in the UK.

Installation view, Urs Fischer: The Lyrical and the Prosaic, Aïshti Foundation, Beirut, October 20, 2019–October 31, 2020.

Urs Fischer: Lives of Forms

In his introduction to the catalogue for Urs Fischer’s exhibition The Lyrical and the Prosaic, at the Aïshti Foundation in Beirut, curator Massimiliano Gioni traces the material and conceptual tensions that reverberate throughout the artist’s paintings, sculptures, installations, and interventions.

A portrait of Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Pasolini’s Faces

Carlos Valladares explores the cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini, tracking the developments and lasting influence of the auteur’s singular career.

Cuban dancers at the Palladium Ballroom, New York, 1954.

Overture: Ridding the Passing Moments of Their Fat

Art historian Robert Farris Thompson has maintained a passion for Afro-Cuban dance and music since experiencing, in 1944, a conga line in his hometown of El Paso. Here, he tracks the spiritual, linguistic, and musical roots of mambo.