Self-portrait, made with Paik’s Zen for Film. Made with iPhone 12 Pro Max.

I recently saw the work of Nam June Paik, currently being exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MoMA.) 

If you are unfamiliar with him, Paik has been called the “father of video art.” He was born in 1932 in what is now South Korea, lived in Japan, Germany, and the United States. He died in 2006. I have only read about Paik in the magazines but never really experienced his work in person — a shame, considering how much of his work is at the core of modern visual and interactive post-Internet life. 

Take, for instance, his 1968 creation, The Electric Chair. The art piece comprises a CCTV camera pointing down at a chair with a television under the transparent seat. The TV displays the live video feed from the camera. Paik was pointing to a future where video would become a deeply enmeshed part of our lives in creating this work. Looking around, whether it is TikTok, Snap, or Zoom, the Electric Chair is all around us. 

The Chair is just one of the many pieces of work he created that pushed his core belief in an electronic superhighway. He translated that idea into an art installation “constructed of 336 televisions, 50 DVD players, 3,750 feet of cable, and 575 feet of multicolored neon tubing.” Sadly, this piece of art isn’t available for us to see here in San Francisco. For me, the standouts were The TV Cello and The TV Garden (which, according to MoMA, depicts “a futuristic landscape where technology would become an integral part of the natural world.”); However, my favorite is “Zen For Film.”

In “Zen for Film,” a blank 16mm film leader runs through a projector. He made sure the new blank film accumulated dust and scratches. He said, “When too perfect, Lieber Gott böse,” which translates to, “When too perfect, dear God angry.” Paik wanted the viewer to become part of the art and create an individual interpretation. 

The imperfection, starkness, and room for imagination (and participation) of the viewer are how I like to think of my work, so I am hardly surprised that I spent excessive time with this installation. I created a self-portrait as a remix of Paik’s original. (See above.)  

When walking out of the museum, I couldn’t help but think about the role artists, writers, and science fiction have played help shape technology and its future. The confluence of art and engineering has been part of technology’s evolution. This wild artistic imagination is the necessary spark to be hopeful about technology and its impact. Instead, one finds a narrative of despair and dystopia. I recently read an article that noted five books with technology (and big tech platforms) as villains. What we need is Paik’s of today to imagine a more exciting tomorrow. 

July 28, 2021. San Francisco.