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Nam June Paik: Father of Video Art, and Villager

Nam June Paik (July 20, 1932 – January 29, 2006), Korean artist and avant-garde visionary, is well-known for his pioneering video artistry. Less known, however, is that Paik, dubbed the “Father of Video Art,” played a vital role in our neighborhoods’ rich artistic history. Working out of his studio in Westbeth along with his partner and fellow avant-garde artist Shigeko Kubota, Nam June Paik cultivated a body of work that spawned explorations of new mediums and transformed our understanding of the increasingly technological world we find ourselves in.

Portrait of Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik, born in 1932 in Seoul in what was then Japanese Korea, enjoyed a privileged upbringing thanks to his father, the owner of a major Korean textile manufacturing firm. Paik was trained in classical piano from a young age, receiving an elite musical education that would undergird his artistic career. In 1950, Paik’s family fled to Hong Kong to escape the Korean War ravaging their country. When the family settled in Japan shortly after, Paik graduated from Tokyo University with a degree in aesthetics.

Following the completion of his degree, Paik made his way to West Germany in 1957 to study music history at Munich University. While working in West German Radio’s electronic music studio, Paik crossed paths with American avant-garde composer John Cage, an encounter that would transform the budding artist and set the stage for years of collaboration and friendship. Cage’s inventive, unorthodox approach to musicianship drove Paik to reconsider the bounds of his own artistic work (their lives and careers would intersect again many times, including with Paik taking up residence at Westbeth in the West Village, where Cage’s partner Merce Cunningham’s Dance Studio was located).

During this period Paik also became involved with the Fluxus movement, a Neo-Dadaist art movement founded by George Maciunas, another of Paik’s acquaintances in West Germany. Together Cage and Maciunas inspired Paik to take a more experimental approach to his new works. In his 1959 Hommage à John Cage, Paik used both an audiotape and his own live performance to strike at traditional musical instrumentation and compositional practices. He boldly spliced together piano playing, screaming, bits of classical music, and sound effects to create an auditory experience defined by chaotic cacophony. 

Nam June Paik, John Cage, and David Tudor. circa October 1960.

In 1961, Paik returned to Tokyo to investigate the country’s rapidly advancing technologies. He soon found himself entranced by the possibilities of the flourishing digital landscape, including the unprecedented accessibility of video technology. While living in Japan between 1962 and 1963, Paik first acquired a Sony Port-a-Pak, the first commercially available video recorder. His fascination with visual devices was encouraged by Hideo Uchida and Shuya Abe, engineers who first taught Paik how to interfere with the flow of electrons in color television sets. With this new knowledge, Paik dared to manipulate and corrupt video technology to create art like the world had never seen before.

Paik debuted his new techniques in 1963 at an exhibition known as Exposition of Music-Electronic Television at the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, filling the gallery space with scattered televisions and using magnets to alter or distort their images. This installation marked the first known use of video as an artistic medium, guaranteeing Paik’s legacy as the “Father of Video Art.”

Participation TV by Nam June Paik. circa 1963.

Following the success of this exhibition, Paik immigrated to the United States in 1964 and began living in New York City. He was promptly embraced by New York’s artistic community, especially the artists of our neighborhoods, becoming a leader among a generation of artists seeking increasingly experimental modes of expression and distribution. He began to work with classical cellist Charlotte Moorman, known herself as the “Jeanne d’Arc of new music.” Together, they created works that melded experimental music with experimental technology with impressive effect. Perhaps most notoriously, the two were arrested at a performance of Paik’s 1967 Opera Sextronique, during which a topless Moorman performed a striptease while playing the cello. Needless to say, they left an impact on the New York art world.

Paik continued to pioneer the field of video art while in New York, acquiring a new Sony combination unit that contained the first consumer-market video-tape recorder. He used this technology to record his own television broadcasts, frequently manipulating the qualities of the broadcast, and the magnetic tape in process. In 1967, Sony introduced the first truly portable handheld camera. For the first time, Paik could incorporate fluid movement into his videos, capturing subjects from all angles and exponentially increasing his ability to manipulate the footage. From there, Paik became an international celebrity, known for the creativity and entertainment of his work.

Nam June Paik and his Buddha TV. circa 1974.

After nearly thirty-five years of being exiled from Korea, Paik returned to South Korea on June 22, 1984. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Paik played an integral role in nurturing Korea’s art scene on a larger scale. He frequently coordinated new exhibitions in South Korea, including those by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Joseph Beuys, with the intention of bridging the gap between Korean art and global art. Paik was also involved in bringing the 1993 Whitney Biennial to Seoul, as well as in founding the Gwangju Biennale, and establishing the Korea Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Sadly, Paik suffered a stroke in 1996, which had a debilitating impact on his ability to travel as a global artist. Nevertheless, in 2000, he created a millennium satellite broadcast entitled Tiger is Alive, and in 2004 designed the installation of monitors and video projections Global Groove 2004 for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. Despite his health struggles, Paik continued to be a key figure on the global art scene until his death in 2006.

Nam June Paik’s influence on our neighborhood and on the art world at large is impossible to understate. His role as the creator of a new field of art speaks to the power of artists to transform our understanding of the technology we surround ourselves with everyday and to cause us to question the bounds of what art can be.

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