Blogs Centerpoints Caylin Smith

Caylin Smith is an audiovisual and digital archivist. She currently serves at the Archivist for the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection and Project Manager of the Walker's Mediatheque. Her book chapter on providing interactive collection access to digital archival films is forthcoming in the anthology The Film Archive as a Research Laboratory (Amsterdam University Press, 2015). @caylinssmith

Nam June Paik at the Walker: A History of Experimentation

Last summer, I initiated the conservation of Anti-Gravity Study, a two-channel, 25-monitor video artwork by Nam June Paik, whose tapes are part of the Walker Archives’ documentation collection. While working on this project, I also discovered the rich history that Paik has with the Walker, and the following is an account of this research as well […]

Paik installing Fish Flies on Sky (1976), another artwork in which monitors were mounted to a gallery's ceiling. Photograph: Paik Estate 

Paik installing Fish Flies (1976). Photograph: Peter Moore Estate

Last summer, I initiated the conservation of Anti-Gravity Study, a two-channel, 25-monitor video artwork by Nam June Paik, whose tapes are part of the Walker Archives’ documentation collection. While working on this project, I also discovered the rich history that Paik has with the Walker, and the following is an account of this research as well as the ongoing conservation of Anti-Gravity Study. 

An artist who continually reinvented every medium with which he engaged, Nam June Paik is perhaps best known for recognizing video’s creative potential and elevating it to artistic status. Born in Seoul in 1932, Paik began his career as a musician, creating experimental compositions while also realizing new sounds with classical instruments. He pursued these experiments in Germany, where he collaborated with composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage and met George Maciunas, who would later invite Paik to join Fluxus when he moved to New York City in 1964.

In the late 1950s, Paik expressed increased interest in the theoretical and conceptual properties of video and a desire to further expand his technical knowledge and skill of the medium. During this time, he carried out his own experiments with video technology, especially in regards to using magnets to alter the polarity of the cathode ray tube inside televisions. Paik also made connections with members of the scientific community to merge the disciplines of art and technology through the works he produced.

In 1963, Paik met engineers Hideo Uchida and Shuya Abe, and it was this partnership that led to the creation of the Paik/Abe Synthesizer, a revolutionary device that allowed artists to manipulate closed-circuit video broadcasts and pre-recorded footage themselves as opposed to having to rely on technicians. The objectives of the synthesizer are echoed throughout Paik’s entire oeuvre and artistic process as he strived to challenge conceptions of the medium and the role technology increasingly played in everyday life: “the key point of today is how to strike the best balance in the interface of the man/machine, or hardware/software. It has been a basic philosophy behind the design of video synthesizer” [source].

The art world soon took notice of Paik’s experimentation with video. In 1965, the New School for Social research organized Paik’s first solo show, Nam June Paik: Cybernetics followed by the Bonino Gallery’s Paik exhibition—Electronic Art—the same year.

Martin Friedman, the Walker’s director from 1961 to 1990, heard about Paik while collaborating with the Howard Wise Gallery on the exhibition Light/Motion/Space. In a letter from Wise to Friedman, Wise describes Paik as follows, “40-ish, Korean, produces patterns in TV tubes by use of magnets. Hand operated. He is Charlotte Moorman‘s partner, or perhaps assistant.” Friedman was intrigued and eager to include Paik in the exhibition. He even expressed interest in inviting both Paik and Moorman to perform at the Walker.

Cover of Lights in Orbit catalogue.

Cover of Lights in Orbit catalogue

Light/Motion/Space featured artworks by artists who were experimenting with light as an artistic medium, and included 65 artworks. Thirty-five of the works were on loan from Howard Wise and shown in the earlier Lights in Orbit (1967), and artworks by eight additional artists were added to Light/Motion/Space. This exhibition also proved to be an excellent platform to introduce Paik’s video artworks to Midwest audiences, since it featured a group of international artists, all of whom pushed the boundaries of their respective medium.

Light/Motion/Space featured Paik’s Electronic Blues (1966) and Electronic Waltz (1967). These two color, single-channel videos were part of Paik’s “dancing patterns” artworks that he created during the mid-1960s using magnets to manipulate a video’s image. One of the most iconic of these was Magnet TV, which is also an early example of Paik’s “prepared televisions” and his first video sculptures. With these artworks, Paik deconstructed the television while adding a participatory element to the medium, since viewers could influence the television’s image by moving its magnet.

Cover of Light/Motion/Space catalogue.

Cover of Light/Motion/Space catalogue

In Paik Video, art historian Edith Decker-Phillips explains the creative and technical process behind these artworks:

“The power of attraction of the magnet hinders the electronic beam from filling up the rectangle surface of the TV screen. The field of lines is drawn up and builds veil-like patterns within the gravitational field of the magnet. If the magnet stays in this fixed position, the picture remains stable. There are only minor variations created by fluctuations in the electrical power supply. By moving the magnet, forms can be endlessly varied.” 

Using light as an artistic medium within Light/Motion/Space. UNTITLED (1966) by Ben Berns.

Using light as an artistic medium within Light/Motion/Space. UNTITLED (1966) by Ben Berns.

Electronic Blues (1966) displayed television news coverage of politicians, including future American president Richard Nixon. The magnet attached to the monitor impacted its electronic signals, causing the broadcast video to become distorted and creating what Friedman aptly referred to as Nixon’s “malleable physiognomy.” In this case, however, the magnet proved detrimental to the artwork—and exhibition—by causing the television to implode and smoke to fill the gallery. The exhibition briefly closed after this incident.

Friedman immediately phoned Paik about this problem, and an apologetic Paik arrived from New York on the afternoon of the same day to replace the monitor’s cathode ray tube and fix a short circuit. Unfortunately, the work continued to malfunction and was not featured in the exhibition when it later toured to the Milwaukee Art Center. Paik also did not see any use in replacing it with one of the other, yet older, color televisions in his equipment library:

“Easiest solution for all and probably the only one possibility is to forget about my color TV work in Milwaukee, but it might hurt me in the long range, if the rumour spreads in this small art world that my work is fragile.”

Richard Nixon's "malleable physiognomy" on view in Electronic Blues.

Richard Nixon’s “malleable physiognomy” on view in Electronic Blues

In more recent years, time-based media conservators have assumed the challenge of restoring and preserving Paik’s works for future generations of viewers. Paik, however, was already acutely aware of the technical challenges his works posed in 1967.

Paik also referred to the mishap at the Walker in a letter and follow up phone call to Friedman while in the midst of applying for a Rockefeller Foundation grant. Friedman recalls the exchange (which he shared in his May 2007 Art in America article, “Nam June on the Mississippi”):

‘“Please don’t expose me!’ [Paik] implored. The call was followed by a two-page letter describing his intention to establish the ‘world’s first studio for electronic video art’ at the State University in Stoney Brook. It concluded with an urgent request. Paik entreated, ‘Don’t forget to add that as far as you know, I am neither a Hippie nor a Beatnik. I am pretty SQUARE [emphasis Paik’s].’”

Whereas magnets attached to the monitor’s picture tube also manipulated the imagery of Electronic Waltz, this artwork didn’t carry the same radical weight as Electronic Blues with its malleable politicians. Exhibited on a television encased in a wooden frame, Electronic Waltz instead captivated viewers with its gyrating Möbius band that changed color as it moved against a black background.

The television used for this artwork was gifted to Paik by Jasper Johns sometime during the early 1960s. In a conversation with Walker Visual Arts Curator Joan Rothfuss in 2002, Johns revealed that the previous owners of the house he purchased on Riverside Drive in New York in 1963 left the set behind. Having recently met Paik, Johns was familiar with his experimental use of video technology and growing interest in color television, which was still a relatively new invention at this time and one that Paik had recently began incorporating into his video artworks. Johns later regretted offering the television to Paik: upon further inspection, he discovered that its dials could calibrate the television solely to one color—red, green, or blue. He found this to be a marvelous feature, but didn’t know Paik well enough to rescind his offer. Johns’ generosity, however, was the Walker’s gain since it allowed the museum to become one of the first American art institutions to usher Paik’s foray into the possibilities color television technology provided the medium of video.

Martin Friedman and Hubert Humphrey, 38th Vice President of the United States, viewing Electronic Waltz.

Martin Friedman and Vice President Hubert Humphrey viewing Electronic Waltz

In 1975, Friedman invited Paik back to the Walker to discuss creating an entirely new video artwork for The River: Images of the Mississippi. According to Friedman, the focus of the exhibition was “on how that ‘father of waters’ had been perceived not only by explorers and the first settlers along its banks but also painters and early photographers who wended their way along its 2,500 mile course.” Friedman saw Paik’s TV Sea at in January 1975 at the Bonino Gallery, and was eager to see how Paik would use video to depict the mighty river.

This issue of Design Quarterly was the catalogue for the exhibition.

An issue of Design Quarterly was dedicated to the exhibition

A merging of the natural with the scientific was a recurring motif throughout Paik’s oeuvre, particularly during the 1970s. TV Garden (1974–78), one of these seminal works, featured color television sets of various sizes installed on a gallery’s floor among live plants. All of the monitors played Paik’s earlier collaboration with John J. Godfrey, Global Groove (1973), which merged art, performance, and technology. In Fish Flies on Sky (1975), monitors of various sizes were mounted to a gallery’s ceiling and played a video of goldfish swimming.

TV Sea installed at the Guggenheim. This artwork is also part of the museum's collection.

TV Sea installed at the Guggenheim. This artwork is also part of the museum’s collection. Photo: Guggenheim Museum

In the resulting Anti-Gravity Study, Paik articulated the ethos of The River exhibition while simultaneously building on this visual language of nature and technology.

Bob Harris, a filmmaker who Paik worked with this project, helped create the footage for Anti-Gravity Study. In summer 1976, Harris traveled from the Minneapolis to New Orleans along the Mississippi River capturing his journey on 8mm, color film, and focusing his lens on wildlife, riverboats and barges, the St. Louis Arch, and fish swimming in ponds at the St. Louis Zoo. Paik later transferred this footage to video and skillfully edited two channels for Anti-Gravity Study using the Paik/Abe Synthesizer.

anti_gravity_1 anti_gravity_2 anti_gravity_3

Within The River, Anti-Gravity Study was displayed on 20 color and five black-and-white CRT monitors that were on loan from General Electric solely for the exhibition. A custom bracket was constructed to mount them 10 feet high to Gallery Four’s ceiling.

In the exhibition’s brochure, Anti-Gravity Study is described not as a video artwork but as a video environment. This description is particularly apt since Anti-Gravity was exhibited within its own black box, where visitors could lie down and become ensconced in an accelerated version of Harris’ voyage down the Mississippi. Anti-Gravity was also the last of the exhibition’s 274 artworks and installed in a section called 20th Century Images along with the only other moving image artwork, Louis Hock’s 16mm, color multi-projection film, Mississippi Rolls. 

Paik worked with Charles Helm, then the Walker’s audio-visual producer and technical director for performing arts, to install the monitors, which were each calibrated to a different color and mounted at various angles. Using the Walker Archives’ resources, including photographs, exhibition records, and a building diagram of Gallery Four, Helm, Walker Archivist Jill Vuchetich, and I were able to better ascertain how and where the monitors were mounted.

A video environment within the Walker's Gallery 4.

Anti-Gravity Study, a video environment within the Walker’s Gallery Four

The floor of the gallery was carpeted and viewers could stand, sit on the stairs, or lie down. And since the monitors were each mounted at different angles, a visitor’s experience of this artwork was influenced by their location within the space. If sitting at the top of the galley’s stairs, for example, visitors would likely have only seen the different colors of the monitors beaming down onto the floor, instead to the footage itself that would be seen by lying directly underneath the monitors. The absorbing atmosphere of this artwork encouraged visitors to pause and perhaps even stay awhile after they came to the end of The River.

Anti-Gravity currently exists only as the 3/4-inch tapes that were used to exhibit the work in 1976. This placed great emphasis on stabilizing these tapes, as well as on the importance of exhibition documentation.

Due to the deterioration that had taken place over time, I didn’t want to risk playing the 3/4-inch tapes myself. I instead worked with DuArt Restoration in New York City, which cleaned the tapes, baked, and transferred them onto an archival videotape master and digital file. And despite not having the same video environment as 1976 viewers, being one of the first people to view this footage in forty years was truly an incredible experience:

Anti-Gravity Study was accompanied by a version of Paul Robeson singing ‘Ol Man River, whose lyrics describe the flowing Mississippi contrasted against the hardships of African Americans laborers. Within the context of this artwork and exhibition, the song was slowed down to half its speed, creating a droning effect that could be interpreted as expressing these workers’ exhaustion as they worked along the river. An additional soundtrack of crickets and other insect sounds was added to this song, but played back in real time.

Besides undertaking efforts to stabilize and transfer the videotapes, recreating the soundtrack was an additional factor. This part of the project is ongoing, but a short clip of its progress can be heard below:

Whereas Anti-Gravity Study demonstrated the Walker’s commitment to exhibiting media artworks and collaborating with Paik, none of Paik’s artworks had yet been acquired by the museum. Friedman thought it was time to rectify this absence, and in 1987, he approached Paik about acquiring one of his artworks for the permanent collection. Paik instead suggested combining the earlier Electronic Waltz and footage from Anti-Gravity Study alongside new material. The result was 66-76-89 (1989), a four-channel video sculpture displayed on 32 monitors of various sizes that combined two earlier artworks shown within Walker exhibitions and showcased Paik’s mastery of video imaging effects and Chroma key technology. These effects are both commonly found throughout his entire oeuvre, and especially in artworks from the mid-1970s onward.

66-78-89

66-78-89

After 1990, the Walker acquired other seminal Paik artworks, including TV Bra for Living Sculpture and TV Cello. Paik’s single channel works, including Global Groove and Merce by Merce by Paik (1975), are also represented in the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. 66-76-89 is currently on view as part of Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections. TV Cello was recently on view as part of Art Expanded: 1958–1978.

The conservation of Anti-Gravity Study is ongoing. For questions regarding this artwork or to provide information on its history, please contact Caylin Smith.

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