I had the pleasure to study briefly with Nam June Paik, back when I was a lowly freshman in art school around 1975, and he came to teach as a visiting artist. I still vividly remember him and his strange lectures to the assembled students, as we sat on the grimy floor in the art school's video studio. Paik had almost singlehandedly invented what was known back then as the "Video Synthesizer." Today we would probably call it computer graphics, but back in the early 1960s, no computer was fast enough to produce elaborate video graphics, it had to be done with analog circuits. Everyone considered his invention as akin to wizardry, and the students all wanted to know how he invented it. Paik described, in almost incomprehensible English, how he just tore TV sets apart and started playing audio tones from tape recorders and music synthesizers into the TV circuits. He said he played around and fiddled and through trial and error, finally figured out how to control the deflection and color of the TV signal directly, turning the TV into an electronic sculpture. Nobody had ever thought to do such a crazy thing before. Eventually he figured out how it all worked and what he wanted to do, so he had analog circuitry manufactured to his specifications, and the Video Synthesizer, the visual equivalent of the music synthesizer, was born. Now we could perform on a TV like musicians playing an instrument.
But Paik had been invited to our art school not just for his innovations in Video Art, but because he was a performance artist in the Fluxus movement. Paik was notorious for his scandalous performances featuring nudity (like "TV Bra") or sheer mayhem with smashing TV sets and burning grand pianos. Nothing I say could possibly do justice to his work, or the mountains of critical analysis of his career. But I will always remember him as the jovial guy who taught a lesson that I will never forget.
While the assembled students were peppering Paik with questions about how his incomprehensible invention worked, he changed the subject radically. With a waggish smile, he said he would tell us a secret. He had discovered the most powerful artist's tool in the history of mankind, the Manhattan Yellow Pages. He said that the Yellow Pages was full of businesses that employed experts in the most obscure subjects, all you had to do was phone them and ask about something, and they would tell you anything you wanted to know. Even today, 30 years later, I still think this captures Paik's genius, he taught me that Art is not an act of creation, anybody can create something, there is nothing particularly original about that. To the contrary, Art is an act of invention and we can innovate only by building on the works of others.
Paik's most famous artwork is certainly "TV Flag," which is as much a sculpture made of TV sets as it is a set of video synthesizer recordings that play on those TVs. Here is a later edition of "TV Flag" produced in the 1990s, currently on display at the Hirshorn Gallery.
The Hirshorn web page describes the work, "...stars and stripes share air time with split-second news stills, rotating statues of Liberty, endless runs of ones and zeros (the binary language of computers), and a face that morphs through every U.S. president from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton. Paik's video is his paean to America and the power of learning from a youth oriented culture." But this is not the original TV Flag that Paik created in 1968 at the peak of the Vietnam War. That version is owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and I used to go to see it over and over. That version is full of images of jets and helicopters, guns and explosions, Vietnam war footage, and it is a bitter indictment of American imperialism filtered through the medium of Television. This was not "Medium Cool" of the "Television War" that Walter Cronkite beamed into our homes every night on our cold cathode ray tubes, this was a hot, angry blast of thousands of flash-cut images that washed over your subconscious faster than they could be recognized. It leaves the viewer with no clear memory of any specific visual images, just a vague, bitter aftertaste. It was the vision of America as it fought a war in Asia, produced by an expatriate Asian.
As I researched this article, I discovered, to my dismay, that Paik's seminal TV Flag artwork has died of old age, the TV sets have burned out and cannot be repaired, and the work has been disconnected and sits idle, the TV sets blank. This is unbearable news, almost as bad as Paik's death.
The loss of TV Flag's video equipment is tragic, the artwork depends on the physicality of the large CRTs, but the artwork could be renewed. I remember what Paik said during his lectures at my art school, he asserted that each replay of a video artwork was a unique original performance, just like every other time it was replayed. Back then, most video art was produced on videotape, Paik was almost unique in that he produced sculptures made from TV sets. But I am sure that Paik did not care what type of TV sets displayed this work, the TV sets could easily be replaced and the work could live again. But it would have to be done immediately. TV Flag may ultimately be doomed, it is the wrong format for the new High Definition TV sets. The video recordings could be transcribed into another format, but soon there will no longer be any cathode ray tube TV sets that can play this work. Surely TV Flag will live on, preserved for the future in a transcribed version. But we are the only generation that will be able to appreciate the full impact of the work both as an original sculpture and a video performance, and even further, as a sociological statement on that moment in our lives. Ironically, by creating a sculpture that incorporates an electronic recording that can be played over and over, Nam June Paik created an ephemeral work that, in its original form, will barely outlive him.