Interview with NAM JUNE PAIK by Eduardo Kac
Kac - The relationship between art and new technology is as old as art itself. How do you see this relationship?
Paik - This is, in fact, a very old relationship. The Egyptian pyramids are the first example of a combination of high art and high tech, because they used many of the cutting edge technologies of the time. Their culture was very well developed. They had chemical industries (which produced colored pigments for painting), advanced building techniques, sophisticated security systems (to prevent invasion of the sacred spaces), and efficient mummification processes for the preservation of the human body, among other things. Today, new technologies can be used in art in two basic ways: in the fine arts and in the applied arts. Fine art is art for art's sake, in which I identify a kind of extension of conceptual art, according to which the concept is the context and the context is the concept. The context is the content; the content is the context. This means that the fine arts have always been interested in the new horizons of possibilities. When Picasso created Cubism, he did so because he was tired of Impressionism. Monet created Impressionism because he was tired of Academicism ÜÜ artists have always been interested in the new sensibility, in exploring new possibilities. Since today we have satellites, we want to use them, discover what we, artists, can do with them. We want to try something new, in the tradition of Monet and Picasso. These same instruments (satellites) are used in the applied arts, which are essential to humankind because they are useful in everyday life. But there is also the military use of satellites. We want to use satellites for pacifist purposes, such as the performance arts, rock'n roll, dance, etc.; and we can make simultaneous transmissions between Rio de Janeiro, New York, Seoul, Bonn, Tokyo, Moscow and many other cities. It is clear that the applied arts are directly related to people's activities, but the fine arts are more meaningful than the applied arts.
Kac - You have a strong musical background. In 1956 you studied music at the University of Munich and at the Music Conservatory of Freiburg, in Germany. In 1958 you worked in Cologne, in the Rundfunk Electronic Music Studios, where Stockhausen also worked. In your telecommunication events you often include performances of rock'n roll or pop music. How do you relate music and video?
Paik - MTV's videoclips have already shown that there is great intimacy between sound and image. People are used to these electronic collages. If you compare them to the underground films of the '60s, you will find lots of common traits, such as abrupt cuts and unusual angles, among other characteristics. MTV is not the only approach to the issue of sound-and-image, but it is an interesting solution, which has contributed a lot to the development of a "visual music", and to video art. I believe that Laurie Anderson's work, for example, is very important, because she bridges the gap between "low culture" and "high culture". The standards of "low art" are being raised dramatically. When Elvis Presley appeared in the '50s, fine artists did not appreciate his work. But when the Beatles appeared, in the '60s, fine artists admired and respected them. I see a major change under way. As opposed to Presley, who was a driver, musicians like David Bowie or David Byrne are educated, well-informed people, with solid backgrounds. They admire Marcel Duchamp and other important artists. A visual artist can talk to them at the same intellectual level because they were visual artists before turning professional musicians. But there is no reason for them to create high art, anyway. There are always artists focused on this kind of work, like Ray Johnson and the members of Fluxus, among so many others.
Kac - One of the trends of high tech art is the integration of multiple media. Do you believe that video and holography will ever cross paths? What is the future of high tech art?
Paik - Holography, which is very different from video, is the next horizon. I've seen excellent holograms in the Museum of Holography, and, in fact, new discoveries are made in this field every day. A single hologram contains a lot of information, which means that magnetic tape will not be used as storage medium. Most likely, optical recording systems, such as compact disks, will one day store holographic images. Artists creating high tech art must be careful not to fall into the decorative trap. They must prevent the high tech from overpowering the art. If we can avoid this danger, then it will be all right.
Kac - Your first large-scale telecommunication art event was "Good Morning Mr. Orwell." Then came "Bye Bye Mr. Kipling." Now it is "Wrap Around the World." How does this third piece complement the others?
Paik - The first work was not about communications between East and West, it was a link between France and the United States. The second focused exactly on that; the link was between Korea, Japan, and the United States. Now I want to create a link that involves the whole world. This is the main difference. The second difference is that we are working now more with popular arts than with high art performances. It is a big risk to create a live television show in such a large scale with high art only, because television is an entertainment medium and we have to be careful. We have to be a little conservative to minimize the risks of a transmission between several continents. I am not saying that we are not creating high art, but that we are creating a new high art with new materials. We are using these new materials to work with the temporal element of the popular arts, the rhythm, which is so important in video art. This is my last satellite show, but it is also the beginning of a larger satellite movement of the future.
In 1982, my longtime fascination with Paik's work resulted in a retrospective exhibition that I organized for the Whitney Museum of American Art in NewYork.1 Over the ensuing years, his success and renown have grown steadily.The wide presence of the media arts in contemporary culture is in no small measure due to the power of Paik's art and ideas.Through television projects, installations, performances, collaborations, development of new artists' tools, writing, and teaching, he has contributed to the creation of a media culture that has expanded the definitions and languages of art making. Paik's life in art grew out of the politics and anti-art movements of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. During this time of societal and cultural change, he pursued a determined quest to combine the expressive capacity and conceptual power of performance with the new technological possibilities associated with the moving image. I will argue that Paik realized the ambition of the cinematic imaginary in avant-garde and independent film by treating film and video as flexible and dynamic multitextual art forms. Using television, as well as the modalities of singlechannel videotape and sculptural/installation formats, he imbued the electronic moving image with new meanings. Paik's investigations into video and television and his key role in transforming the electronic moving image into an artist's medium are part of the history of the media arts. As we look back at the twentieth century, the concept of the moving image, as it has been employed to express representational and abstract imagery through recorded and virtual technologies, constitutes a powerful discourse maintained across different media.The concept of the moving, temporal image is a key modality through which artists have articulated new strategies and forms of image making; to understand them, we need to fashion historiographic models and theoretical interpretations that locate the moving image as central in our visual culture.
Paik's latest creative deployment of new media is through laser technology. He has called his most recent installation a "post-video project," which continues the articulation of the kinetic image through the use of laser energy projected onto scrims, cascading water, and smoke-filled sculptures. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Paik's work shows us that the cinema and video are fusing with electronic and digital media into new image technologies and forms of expression. The end of video and television as we know them signals a transformation of our visual culture.