I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Maybe Technology Ain't So Bad: Nam June Paik's Allstar Video

by Jake Goldman
May 15, 2018

I am someone who often shoos away technology. When I break my cell phones (which is frequently) I always ask for the cheapest available phone as a replacement. It has little to do with frugality, though. I have a bit of a fear that should I get one of those wunderphones with the screen you put your filthy fingers all over like a greasy, miniature figure skater and their geo-location recipe apps ("Someone is baking a cake RIGHT NEXT TO YOU!"), that I'll get sucked in too deeply, letting the machine win, letting the internet devour me whole and whisper sweet-nothings laced with videos of cats falling asleep into my ear.

When I think about it, though, a big part of my fear is derived from the sheer power of technology. Technology is a fast-moving creature; a ceaseless beast with no discernible bounds. There are robots that sniff out bombs. You can put a computer chip INSIDE your dog. There is a car that parks itself (stupid) and there are lights you can turn on by slapping your hands together. (not new. still tremendously entertaining, though). It conjures up a couple things: first, sure, there's the big brother element: Google knows where you are at all times, Facebook knows what you like. But, what it really stirs up in me is a fear of becoming complacent. Any bit of information you might need, at any given time is almost certainly unearth-able with relative ease. There's less digging we need to do, less critical thinking and more blind typing, clicking, puttering and falling into the deep, dark rabbit holes of wikipedia and Facebook. I’m afraid that technology will progress, but I won’t. It can sometimes create a real sense of anxiety. Which is really embarrassing to admit. I think it comes from the fact that so much of the technology that exists today does the work for us. We don’t have to tinker to figure things out—everything is laid out and simply so. We lose a sense of wonderment, too, when we don’t quite know how things work but go ahead and use them blindly anyway. I worry, too, that in losing the sense of wonderment that we lose a bit of creativity and let the machines do the work for us, so to speak.

I realize, at best, this is a vague and muddy meditation on technology. A lot of people feel overwhelmed by its growth and power. But, Nam June Paik’s Allstar Video got me thinking about these things. Paik challenges my somewhat curmudgeonly views on technology head-on by creating some of the most beautiful and batshit crazy video art I’ve ever seen by infusing technology into his artistic vision.

Paik’s work does not contain much in the way of narrative structure. Sure, you can derive a story out of just about any piece, but Paik’s work was not concerned with story; it was concerned, wholly, with very deep sense of wonderment and a huge appreciation for technology. Instead of fretting over the potential pitfalls of fast-growing technologies, Paik befriended it and got to know it inside-out. In fact, it is said he was one of the first people to ever use the term “super highway” in reference to something resembling the internet. In a 1974 proposal he made to the Rockefeller Foundation, he envisioned a future in which cities could telecommunicate via what he deemed the “electronic superhighway.”

When Paik saw a television, he didn’t see a box you sit in front of—he saw a wonderfully blank and multi-faceted canvas: he saw a tool he could use. For example, in the piece "TV-Garden", a man sits relaxing among actual, live plants with TV sets scattered about showing a somewhat disturbing video of a man’s head turning side-to-side. The man seated in the garden ignores the noise around him, calmly sipping a drink and smoking a cigarette. There’s a whole host of things one might extrapolate from this, but I think Paik was calling upon us to accept the growth of technology – it is infiltrating our lives and becoming as common as the plants around us. If we embrace it, and tend to it as we would a garden, we could harvest its powers for our own good.

But Paik’s work goes deeper than simply a fascination and appreciation of technology. The famed avant-garde composer, John Cage, who was a good friend and collaborator of Paik makes multiple appearances in Allstar Video. Towards the end of the piece, Cage speaks to Ryuichi Sakamoto regarding a new piece he’d recently composed. Cage says. “This is the kind of music that anyone can make. All you have to do is open your ears and listen.” A pretty powerful quote, and a philosophy that summed up Paik nicely. Paik opened up his ears, eyes and heart in creating his work. In a stranger, and more ridiculous piece known as "TV Bra", Paik placed two small television screens of classical cellist and frequent collaborator Charlotte Moorman’s breasts. The screens show live video of her face, screaming, so you see Moorman, screaming the same scream, three different ways: in-person, on her left breast and on her right. It’s strange but captivating. It’s silly, in a way, but also shows us what Paik is capable of. We’re distracted by two screaming faces covering up a woman’s chest but also, we’re in awe of the technology that makes this possible. I think Paik, too, was in awe of the same things; it’s evident in the fun of his pieces, which are bizarre to be sure, but also inexplicably smile-inducing.

I won’t say that Paik made a convert out of me, but he did remind me that underneath all the flashy technology of today, there’s some pretty amazing, wild stuff going on. It is not something to fear, but something to embrace, to explore and expand upon.   

Jake Goldman is a writer and a teacher. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.  Occasionally he writes songs.  If you are so inclined, check out Internetdogfist.com for words and Otsego.Bandcamp.com for music.