The artist who predicted social media in the '70s

The artist who predicted social media in the '70s

A new documentary from Amanda Kim explores the life and work of Nam June Paik, the 'father of video art’ whose ideas about global connectivity and mass media are relevant now more than ever.

“This is a glimpse of a video landscape of tomorrow,” announces the voiceover introducing Nam June Paik’s video art piece Global Groove, “when you will be able to switch on any TV station on the earth and TV guides will be as fat as the Manhattan telephone book.”

First airing on New York TV station WNET in January 1974, Global Groove is a radical manifesto on global connectivity and mass media delivered in a lurid collage of sound, image and video. Decades ahead of its time, it anticipated much about the way we communicate today. Along with shaping the aesthetics of MTV, Paik – now dubbed the ‘father of video art’ – had effectively predicted YouTube and TikTok.

In new documentary Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV, first-time director Amanda Kim unpacks the artist’s career and personal life, underscoring the significance of his career through talking heads, archive footage and the artist's own words, read by Steven Yeun. Other pieces covered include the widely celebrated video sculpture TV Buddha (1974), which reads as an early indicator of selfie culture, and Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (1995) – a mammoth, 51-channel video installation that maps the cultural geography of the United Statesthe terminology of which, coined by Paik in the 1970s, would later be credited with informing how Al Gore spoke about the advent of the internet.

“The brilliance of Nam June is that he was constantly evolving with the times, able to understand that we should not stay stuck in our ideas,” says Kim. “Even with Electronic Superhighway, which is something Bill Clinton's administration used to describe the new telecommunication age, Nam June was like, ‘wait, it's not necessarily a highway, now we're in a boat in the middle of the ocean and we don't know where the shore is’.”

Nam June Paik. Still taken from 'Moon is the Oldest TV.'

Born in Japan-occupied Korea and initially studying music, Paik travelled to Japan and Germany (where he joined Fluxus, described by the critic Harry Ruhé as “the most radical and experimental art movement of the sixties”), before moving to New York and further developing his ideas alongside other members of the avant-garde scene and his mentor John Cage. Throughout his career however Paik, who died in 2006, was adamant that his work engage with the broader cultural landscape. This was evidenced in his desire “to make TV as cheap as Xerox” and his international ‘installation’ Good Morning, Mr. Orwell – a live broadcast that linked WNET TV in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris via satellite, reaching over 25 million viewers on New Year’s Day 1984.

Elsewhere he married his earlier musical practice with his artistic expression, first experimenting with pianos and later collaborating with cellist and performance artist Charlotte Moorman for TV Cello (1971). The latter is still referenced in pop culture today, most recently by Mary J. Blige, who performed amongst musicians playing cellos made out of stacked TV sets at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

Below, Kim discusses how Nam June Paik shaped social media, the origins of video art and why Steven Yeun is a fan.

Hi Amanda. What was your first introduction to Nam June Paik?

Amanda Kim: He’s one of the most famous artists coming out of Korea, so when I was very young I heard his name in the house. My dad's cousin is actually an artist and knew Nam June, because she lived in SoHo in the 80s and 90s. He gave her this stone box that she then gave to my dad, and apparently I used to play with it – my mom reminded me recently. Then as an adult I came across TV Buddha (1974) and was fascinated by just how layered the piece seemed, how it embodied so many contradictory ideas, both silly and very deep. It felt contemporary, like it was made by a younger artist today, so I became curious and started digging, then I realised that Nam June himself was extremely brilliant and charismatic. I have this crazy, research-obsessive brain so I ended up in a deep internet hole.

So the research started before there were even plans for a film?

Yeah. I didn't know if it would even be an interesting story at that point. Nam June didn’t do drugs or have a mental illness; he didn’t have the typical story of fame and destruction, he's just a normal guy. He experienced the tragedies of war and having to leave his home, but, because of WWII, lots of people had to do the same. So it really was more blanket, general research. Then when I'd spent all my free time looking for anything I could get my hands on, I felt there must be other people who would be interested.

Can you speak on that initial research – this is the first documentary to explore Nam June’s life and work. Was there much video online already?

There are scholars and academics who are extremely dedicated to Nam June, so I found a lot of papers on him. Especially in the 80s and 90s, he was really having a boom, so there were museum catalogues and books published about him. Around this time [in my research] a book of Nam June’s writings came out called We Are in Open Circuits. Nam June always wanted his writings published, they were a continuation of his work – he's ultimately a thinker, so he was constantly writing – and these were a really interesting, intimate way to understand him. His use of language is so brilliant. People said they didn't understand half the time [because] he spoke in these haiku-like poems, but reading him, you realise he's extremely fluent in all languages and has his own way of synthesising information.

Steven Yeun, who’s also an executive producer on the film, reads Nam June’s words on screen. Were these mainly from the book?

It's not only from the book, but that gave me an understanding of how deep Nam June was, and how much there was in the archives. There were so many other notebooks. Steven was actually a chance happening, which felt very Nam June. He’s a fan of Nam June’s work, but was also interested in the person, because of the way in which Nam June was always in this liminal state – he's not really from here, nor there; he doesn't speak this nor that, he's really hard to pin down. There's a dissonance to both his art and the way in which he moves around the world and how he identifies himself, and I think Steven related to that.

Director Amanda Kim.

Nam June is often described as the father of video art, but his influence extends beyond the art world, as the film highlights. Can you speak to his wider influence on the way we live and engage with multimedia today?

What's been really interesting, showing the film to a younger audience, is how little they know about the origin of video art – and they're all content creators. They're so shocked by the style of Nam June and the way he approached video, even the synthesiser he created and what that could do, because it looks like things that they're doing today – they're like, ‘Oh, I thought I was original but this dude is doing it in the 70s’. That’s really important, and what I wanted to convey in the film, like where did this begin? Also, the curiosity with which Nam June approached video is something I think young content creators can relate to, and hopefully are inspired by. It's easy to just be shown these new tools or technologies and take them for granted; use them the way that we're taught. But why don't we break them apart and think of new ways to approach it?

During his lifetime, a lot of art critics said they didn’t understand Nam June’s work. Even Global Groove (1973), essentially the precursor to YouTube, was described by The New York Times as leaving “little residue in the memory.” What do you think people still get wrong about his work today?

It’s not necessarily wrong – and I did the same – but it’s easy, if you don't know much about him, that when you first see his work that it comes off very utopian, very pop and sometimes kitsch, especially his later, more colourful works. Once you understand the ideas behind his work and depth of his knowledge, what he was getting at, he's actually a realist. He was very hopeful and always looking for possibilities, but he was a realist.

Nam June died 14 months before the release of the first iPhone. What do you think he would have made of the iPhone, and how would he have engaged with TikTok, Instagram and other platforms?

I really wish he were around because I would love to see what he would do. Maybe he would smash it to bits and then reassemble it, or try to hack some of these programs, like he did with all of those other tools. Or maybe he would have created another tool that would have intercepted one of these apps, given it a new range of possibilities.

Going back to your research and early work on the film, what was the most surprising thing you learned about Nam June?

That Nam June wasn't necessarily reading about art. He was obsessed with the newspaper, everything that wasn't art, and how that was really infused into his practice. How interested he was in impacting or speaking to the wider world. That's something I hope the film does too, not just reaching people in the art world but a wider audience. Because ultimately he's a thinker, he’s speaking to the environment, global culture, communication – what does it mean to be a human? I think those wider topics, and also technology, can really speak to our generation. It’s been interesting too, how he speaks to young people; he was always interested in handing the baton to the next generation. So he was a teacher, he was available to young people who needed his help.

Alongside the archive footage, there’s a really nice, kind of full circle moment with the addition of the TikToker @umeboi. Was this a connection you were actively looking for when editing the clips?

There was this amazing show at the Tate [in 2019], which travelled to Amsterdam, Singapore and then SFMOMA. That show attracted a lot of young people and a lot of content came out of it, I realised. I would look at TikTok or Instagram and there's so many posts, because his work is so Instagram-able. @umeboi was someone I just found, and then reached out to.

In terms of Nam June’s influence, which specific work or idea do you think has had the greatest influence on 21st century living?

Nothing is just a straight line, so I don't like to make straight lines with his influence because there's so many different people. There’s always something in the air right? One person may have sparked it, and then all these other people are around with similar ideas brewing. But in the film, someone talks about Global Groove being related to YouTube, like Nam June understanding that we're going to be living in this extreme, content-filled world where every artist will have their own channel, and that is social media – we have that.

Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV is out now via Dogwoof.

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