The artist Nam June Paik passed away on Sunday. Paik’s justifiably known as the first video artist, but thinking of him as “the guy who did things with TVs” does him the disservice of neglecting how visionary his thought was – and that goes beyond his coining of the term “electronic superhighway” (in a 1978 report for the Ford Foundation) to describe the increasingly ubiquitous network that surrounds us. Consider as well his vision of Utopian Laser Television, a manifesto from 1962 that argued for
a new communications medium based on hundreds of television channels. Each channel would narrowcast its own program to an audience of those who wanted the program without regard to the size of the audience. It wouldn’t make a difference whether the audience was made of two viewers or two billion. It wouldn’t even matter whether the programs were intelligent or ridiculous, commonly comprehensible or perfectly eccentric. The medium would make it possible for all information to be transmitted and each member of each audience would be free to select or choose his own programming based on a menu of infinitely large possibilities.
(Described by Ken Friedman in “Twelve Fluxus Ideas“.) Paik had some of the particulars wrong – always the bugbear of those who would describe the future – but in essence this is a spot-on description of the Web we know and use every day. The network was the subject of his art, both directly – in his closed-circuit television sculptures, for example – and indirectly, in the thought that informed them. In 1978, he considered the problem of networks of distribution:
Marx gave much thought about the dialectics of the production and the production medium. He had thought rather simply that if workers (producers) OWNED the production’s medium, everything would be fine. He did not give creative room to the DISTRIBUTION system. The problem of the art world in the ’60s and ’70s is that although the artist owns the production’s medium, such as paint or brush, even sometimes a printing press, they are excluded from the highly centralized DISTRIBUTION system of the art world.
George Maciunas‘ Genius is the early detection of this post-Marxistic situation and he tried to seize not only the production’s medium but also the DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM of the art world.
(from “George Maciunas and Fluxus”, Flash Art, quoted in Owen F. Smith’s “Fluxus Praxis: an exploration of connections, creativity and community”.) As it was for the artists, so it is now for the rest of us: the problems of art are now the problems of the Internet. This could very easily be part of the ongoing argument about “who owns the pipes”.
Paik’s questions haven’t gone away, and they won’t be going away any time soon. I suspect that he knew this would be the case: “People talk about ‘the future’ being tomorrow,” he said in an interview with Artnews in 1995, “ ‘the future’ is now.”