What Would Nam June (Paik) Do?

April 18th, 2011  |  Published in Features, On View

What Would Nam June (Paik) Do?

The University of Cincinnati’s College of Design Art Architecture and Planning hosted the Nam June Paik and the Conservation of Video Sculpture, Symposium and Exhibition (April 15-16, 2011), a coup for the College of Art, (long the red-headed stepchild of DAAP’s other more financially-driven Colleges). Thanks to a grant from the Getty Foundation, the school could afford to host such art world superstars as Chrissie Iles of the Whitney, revolutionary cyber artist Julia Scher, and Cincinnati’s own art patriarch, Carl Solway.

As part of the two-day Symposium, the University empowered two local galleries to host related off-campus exhibitions.  Accordingly, CS13 and Museum Gallery/Gallery Museum both investigated Paik’s preoccupation with issues of performance, collaboration, and cultural commentary—to more or less successful ends.  But in both—and apropos of the Symposium’s overriding theme—what resonates is how ever-evolving technology informs the work of artists today.

MG/GM’s exhibition, “What Would Nam June Do?” played upon the gallery’s strength of creating environmental installations that involve performance, in addition to the more traditional gallery fare of two- and three-dimensional works of art.  The first room of the gallery was a collaborative riff upon Paik’s iconic TV Garden (1974), which contained nine untitled “Plot[s] tended by” participating individual artists.  These included Symposium organizer and DAAP Associate Professor of Fine Art Charles Woodman’s video of a babbling brook; Ed Deaton’s video wall/sculpture, which involved documentation of a television being shot next to said broken television screen; and Nicki Davis’ video of a tree within a tree—something that is easier to see than describe.

MG/GM provided (“FREE”) guided tours led by an “actual art historian” who facetiously steered tour members through the “Ye Olde Media” section of the gallery and the “Artistic Department of Prehistorical Research Institute”—another environmental installation by MG/GM’s Matt Wiseman, wherein he eluded to the prehistoric graffiti in Lascaux Caves’, and cheekily represented cave wo?/men hunting televisions while riding a bike and (what appears to be) a Segway.

“The Archive and Documentation Center for the Conservation of Dematerialized Art” employs more derivative examples of Paik’s work, but with MG/GM’s characteristic tongue in cheek manner.  Sculptor Sarah Blyth-Stephens’ contribution was a send up of Paik’s Cage-ian Zen for Film (1962-64): a silent (and blank) black and white 8-minute film recording intended to accumulate dust and scratches over time, but was an otherwise empty roll of film. Blyth-Stephens’ version was a nearly 3-foot tall sculpture of a “flip book” tower of blank 8 ½ X 10” loose-leaf paper, which the tour guide encouraged visitors to flip through.

Noteworthy is Reid Radcliff’s take on Paik’s Buddha statue gazing on a video screen at his own image, projected there by a closed circuit video camera, in TV Buddha (1974-82).  Without using any of the same electronic equipment, Radcliff’s work featured two Buddha statuettes (one resting, one laughing) on a white wooden plank, separated by a pile of dirt, upon which he placed two mirrors, so that each statue would gaze upon its own reflection.  While the aesthetic quality of Radcliff’s mixed-media installation remained true to the original, (gallery goers can even see themselves in the mirror, like Paik’s visitors saw themselves in the closed circuit television channel,) his rejection of any kind of technology (beyond the light shining above it) significantly changes its meaning.

The artist’s use of dirt hints at his rebuff of Paik’s visual language of time-based media (it will eventually be “for the worms” after all) and is consistent with MG/GM’s implicit theme of using “Ye Olde Media” that is not based in ephemeral technology but may be potentially enduring. As with almost everything exhibited at this artist-run space, there is a healthy dose of art world skepticism (see the “actual art historian” guiding groups through “FREE” tours) and an absurdist approach to presenting work that is intentionally and explicitly derivative.

CS13 Gallery’s exhibition, “Land Before Skype” is a more metaphorical take on Paik’s often-participatory, performance-based, technology-driven artwork.  There is a Pop Art-like sensibility in the ten participating artists’ work, because they craft imagery out of the banal.  Google image searches, YouTube videos, and social networking/microblogging systems are what these artists mine for meaning.

For instance, at CS13, Steve Kemple’s Dial the Ocean employed a prepay phone and a set of instructions to listen (and potentially contribute,) to others’ recordings of the sound of an ocean, thus evoking Paik’s participatory works of art like Magnet TV (1965) in which viewers were encouraged to interact with the magnet above a television set, to manipulate the abstract resulting image. Certainly Paik didn’t have a copyright on the concept, but Kemple took his idea of audience participation outside of the gallery by also hanging posters around the neighborhood, urging passersby to do likewise.

Artist Chris Collins’ piece, typepilot.com, documents his preoccupation with a trans-Pacific love affair between two people he discovered [“stumbledupon”?] on the Internet.  Piecing together artifacts of their relationship, Collins becomes a kind of IT archeologist, unearthing pyramid schemes and YouTube videos with intimate details about the couple’s life from mere anonymous online jpeg’s posted in Craigslist “WORK FROM HOME” online ads.

Apropos of CS13’s stated intent, the participating artists in “Land Before Skype” investigate how the Internet effects interpersonal communication. Thus, their work was less specifically Paik-derived, and more generally technology-driven than MG/GM’s Exhibition.  For example, photographer William Boling’s ongoing web project “Marco Polo” invites participants to post image or text, to which the artist replies, creating a “stream-of-consciousness photo album that is constantly mutating according to the whims of both the artist and the audience.” Named for the eponymous children’s call and response game, gallery goers do not actually see more than a computer at a table, (upon which lay about a dozen scattered hard copy images from past participants,) but are provided the opportunity to contribute and/or view online contributions of other participants.

The work of art then, for Boling as well as Paik, is ephemeral: it is not that specific computer on which the visual matter (collaborative or not) exists, but it is a wholly democratic experience—a collapse of creation and reception.

This leads me to contemplate one of the many provocative questions Chrissie Iles presented to the audience in her symposium presentation on “Curatorial Issues” related to the conservation of Paik’s work and other time-based media.  She invited attendees to ponder where the meaning of a work lies: in its concept or its medium. While you could make a case for both, the implication of what’s at stake raises important critical issues.

So how does one ensure that the Paik-like language remains intact?  If we are to believe the examples seen by Paik inheritors at MG/GM and CS13, it is financially accessible, terminal (based in perpetually outmoded technology), and collaborative. And herein lies “the rub”:  just as many of Paik’s early Fluxus “compositions” from the 1960s were never written down and improvised on the spot—there is little to no documentation delineating his specific contribution to much of his video art, or that of one of his many collaborators. How does one preserve this “meaning” then, if it is communal and mutable?

The use of artistic media that is dependent upon any mass-produced corporate-based electronic equipment, inherently has a “life,” and by implication an eventual demise.  According to Solway, Paik made arrangements before his death for the continued long-term maintenance of his work—at least the 438 Paik artworks fabricated with the help of longtime Paik collaborator/enabler, master Printmaker, gallerist Mark Patsfall in Cincinnati. Although each constituency at the Symposium had differing spins on the subject, what was clear is that cooperation and collaboration on a Paik-like scale might be the only thing that might save the slow if inevitable deterioration of time-based media in contemporary art collections.

-Maria Seda-Reeder

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