We Are in Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik
(MIT Press, 2019)
We Are in Open Circuits focuses on the writing practice of Korean American artist Nam June Paik (1932–2006), often referred to as the founder of video art. At over 400 pages, this book provides privileged access to Paik’s artwork plans, music scores, Fluxus instruction sheets, and handwritten and typewritten texts. Facsimiles of Paik’s texts are printed, many published for the first time, displaying how he used the typewriter to play with words and their shape on the page. Texts vary from free flowing essays to poetic stanzas, as one of the book’s editors, curator John G. Hanhardt states, they become “both a poetic text and an aesthetic object.” Edited by Hanhardt, and art historians Gregory Zinman and Edith Decker-Philips, the book’s content is divided thematically, exploring topics such as: music, video, television, politics, and culture with the editors’ essays placed throughout the publication, preceding each thematic chapter. As Hanhardt points out, Paik’s “texts have not been appreciated enough for their breadth of knowledge and prescience in terms of our media culture.”
The book focuses on Paik’s cultural identity, a recurring theme he explored throughout his art, displayed in texts such as “DNA is not racism” (1988). In this he wrote, “In my 30 years life in the Western world, and if I may be also snobbish, shuttling between one foreign continent and the other foreign continent, I cannot but change… or deepen the history and geography lesson I had in Korea.” Born in Korea, Paik then moved to Hong Kong, Japan, and Germany to study at the University of Munich. His background in music, philosophy, and aesthetics clearly provided the foundation to his artistic development, and his texts also document his time within the New York art scene, highlighting his friendships and collaborations with others such as John Cage, cellist Charlotte Moorman, and Fluxus founding member George Maciunas. His proposal for the artwork installation in collaboration with Moorman, TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) is included, where he writes, “the sound of the cello she plays will change, modulate, regenerate the picture on her TV-BRA.” Paik argues that by “using TV as bra… the most intimate belonging of human being, we will demonstrate the human use of technology,” exploring “how to humanize the technology and the electronic medium, which is progressing Rapidly—too rapidly.”
Paik’s dynamic tone and innovative views on art and politics are unwavering. Certain artworks are emphasized by the editors, like his original plans for Space Rainbow (1988), which was significantly altered and retitled to Wrap Around the World in the same year. As Zinman points out, the unpublished proposal for the satellite television special had plans for “two-way television displays in Times Square and Red Square to thaw Cold War tensions,” so that people from each country could “mirror and respond to one another through the satellite link.” The final art event differed significantly from his plans, featuring contributions from a dozen countries, including Merce Cunningham’s choreography, a Brazilian carnival and a motor race in Ireland, all dispersed through Paik’s real-time image processing. Zinman believes Paik’s intention with this proposal was to “unite the world through media,” and convincingly argues that Paik felt people and cultures would be brought together through immigration, communication, and technology. The artist’s central argument for technological advancements as a means to share global information and bring people together, has sentiments which ring true in today’s tumultuous internet age with its current political and cultural divisions.
Building on the concept of the European single market, his essay “Global Groove and Video Common Market” (1970) argues, “if we could assemble a weekly television festival, which comprises all kinds of music and dance from every nation, and disseminate it freely via proposed Video Common Market to the world, its effect in education and entertainment will be phenomenal.” For Paik, television provided a two-way global network of communication in which the open sharing of information would cause “the shift of our attitude from ‘you OR me,’ to ‘you AND me.’” He saw this as integral to inciting activism across borders for the prevention of nationalism and fascism.
Packed with visual stimuli alongside insightful and accessible commentary by the editors, this collection successfully adds new weight to the existing Paik scholarship by exploring his global satellite pieces and including many unpublished texts. As Hanhardt states, Paik’s “writing and critical thinking were central to his life as an artist, activist, and intellectual engaged with the world around him.” His writings force us to question the world around us and the global information network we too often take for granted.