Nam June Paik: Television Has Attacked Us for a Lifetime
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Nam June Paik: Television Has Attacked Us for a Lifetime

Nam June Paik, TV Cello, 1971, video tubes, TV chassis, plexiglass boxes, electronics, wiring, wood base, fan, stool, photograph. © Estate of Nam June Paik. Courtesy Walker Art Cente
Nam June Paik, TV Cello, 1971 (Formerly the collection of Otto Piene and Elizabeth Goldring, Massachusetts, Collection Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992)

While the “Golden Age of Television” is said to have lasted from the late 1940s through to 1960, few visual artists engaged with the TV set until the early 1960s. Nam June Paik’s (1932–2006) Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, held in March 1963 in Wuppertal in Germany, is widely seen to mark the advent of “video art,” and the point at which the television became both the subject and object of an artwork. Originally titled Symphony for 20 Rooms, Paik’s exhibition was considered a total environment, drawing on the spirit of Surrealism (a severed ox head greeted visitors in the first room, while in a bathroom a human mannequin lay submerged in a tub) and Fluxus (via treated instruments, such as “prepared pianos,” adapted by wedging objects between their strings). The exhibition also brought together an installation of 13 television sets, arranged either directly on the floor or stacked on top of one another. Each transmitted distorted live signals—some as stripes or wavy lines, others collaged so as to simultaneously show overlaid moving images.

Nam June Paik, 'Kuba-TV' (1963) seen as part of Exposition of Music – Electronic Television. © Nam June Paik
Nam June Paik, Kuba-TV, 1963, seen as part of Exposition of Music—Electronic Television. © Nam June Paik

A number of TV sets on view required activation by the viewer. One television was connected to a microphone and transmitted a signal affected by the one’s voice. Another TV was attached to a pedal and would similarly show a distorted image if handled by an audience member. “Television has attacked us for a lifetime, now we fight back,” declared Paik, who conceived of the television as an object to be exploited, tinkered with, and ultimately humanized. As in his later works, such as TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) and TV Cello (1971), Paik subverted the notion of the TV as a determined instrument of power. Instead, under his influence, television sets and the televisual became instruments for performance and play, either by invited performers, such as Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991) or the active, participating viewer.

Wolf Vostell, Dé-collage (1962), Offset lithograph on paper, Copyright retained by the artist, Courtesy Walker Art Center
Wolf Vostell, Dé-collage, 1962, offset lithograph on paper, Copyright retained by the artist; courtesy Walker Art Center

A few months after Paik’s exhibition, German artist Wolf Vostell (1932–1998) opened Wolf Vostell & Television Decollage & Decollage Posters & Comestible Decollage1 at Smolin Gallery in New York. Vostell presented a number of TVs placed on office furniture, each set to receive a slightly different, modified signal. Upon entering the exhibition, audience members received bottles of liquid, which they were encouraged to smear on wall-mounted LIFE magazine covers. For Vostell, the exhibition was a place of activity, where one could “participate in the creation of Décollage at the opening […] to eat art and to make art by eating.”2 Vostell had begun to orient his practice around the term “dé-collage” in 1954, upon spotting the word used in a newspaper to refer to an airplane crash. For the artist, “dé-collage” meant the inverse of collage—the erosion and destruction of an existing image, as opposed its formation through cumulative addition of multiple elements. Vostell applied the term to his engagement with televisions, which he incorporated into his work as early as 1958 in Theater in the Streets, a happening staged in Parisian public spaces. Throughout his practice, Vostell posited on the very materiality of the TV set, embedding these in concrete, arranging motorized TVs on broken glass, and “dé-collaging” live television signals.

Photograph of Wolf Vostell's 'TV Burying' (1963), © Peter Moore
Photograph of Wolf Vostell’s TV Burying, 1963, © Peter Moore

While both Paik and Vostell employed the television as an object for performance, Vostell’s happenings emphasized destruction, a theme he believed it was his duty to reflect upon as an artist. Staged contemporaneously to his exhibition at Smolin Gallery, TV Burying was an event Vostell organized as part of the Yam Festival in New Jersey, which included actions by artists Dick Higgins (1938–1998), Allan Kaprow (1927–2006), and La Monte Young (b. 1935). In Vostell’s performance, televisions broadcasting live footage were attacked with custard pies, wrapped in barbed wire, and then carried in procession and buried in the ground. Part flagellation ritual, part crucifixion, TV Burying ceremoniously sacrificed the TV set before an audience.

Cover of Marshall McLuhan's first edition of 'Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man' (1964) published by McGraw-Hill
Cover of Marshall McLuhan’s first edition of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964, published by McGraw-Hill

Paik and Vostell developed their 1963 exhibitions while Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) would have been writing and editing Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published only a year later in 1964. The book includes McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message,” whereby “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”3 Paik and Vostell were among the first artists to critically engage with the television as an everyday object, stripping away its connotations as a prized possession or marker of class distinction. Slathered with concrete, upturned, or placed casually on the floor, their TVs are ordinary, part of everyday life. By turning televisions into playful instruments and modifying their signals, Paik and Vostell subverted the notion of the TV as a conduit for the passive reception of ideology. In their hands, televisions were controlled by human will and manipulated by the body. They rendered the viewer a participant and the television as subject to anyone’s influence, a medium for play and experimentation.

Notes

1 McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, p. 9

2 Also referred to as TV Trouble or 6 TV Dé-coll/age in existing literature.

3 As can be seen on the exhibition preview card.

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