Famous Digital Performer: Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik was a late Korean – American video artist born in Seul in 1932. He frequently worked with media and electronics which resulted in him being known as the founder of video art. Paik grew in his birthplace of Seoul along with his 5 siblings until they had to fee from their home during the Korean War. They first stayed in Hong Kong until they settled in Japan. Paik then moved the western Germany where he studied music history. He bumped into conceptual artist George Maciunas, Joseph Beuys and John Cage there. They may have been spark for his love for video art.

At one-point engineers Hideo Uchida and Shuya Abe showed Paik how to work with the flow of electrons in color TV. This was a key element in his future digital performance work.

In 1964, Paik relocated to New York, and began working with classical musician Charlotte Moorman, to curate unique pieces that he could combine in his videos. They produced TV Cello, unique production that shattered the barriers between technology and art. Moorman had previously curated a digital performance where she strapped two television sets onto her chest and played the cello.  The digital performance was called “TV Bra for Living Sculpture.” Imagine the combination of herself and Paik who was already steering towards digital performance.

For the TV Cello production Moorman performed on the instrument that had tv’s stacked so that it formed the shape of a real life cello. Strings were attached to the fore front and a handle as was though it were a traditional cello. When Moorman drew her bow in the same manner as she would when playing the cello, the TV’s would then play a video collage of other cellists, and pictures of herself playing the cello would also stream across the TV screens.

Another renowned digital performance of Paik was Good Morning, Mr. Orwell. This production questioned the role of television in society. We can see that since TV was the main technological item readily found in the home that it became a focus point for Paik. Imagine what he would have create in this era of manifold electrical gadgets and programs. The film was based on the 1984 novel written by Orwell which was based on a government that controlled the thoughts of its nation using television. The work was broadcasted live New Year’s Day of 1984. The 38-minute video involved a coordinated cast of actors, musicians, and artists and added graphics. The production was viewed by 25 million people.

Paik’s video piece was important because it used one of the largest stages in the world (television) at that time. That is what digital performance is all about. Using the technology, you must convey a poetic piece in an electronic manner. The way Paik utilized technology to incorporate it into audience-visual art truly makes him the father of video art.

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