Boston-area residents who turned on their television sets on March 23, 1969, were met with an unusual sight: neon loops expanding and contracting like a Slinky, ghostly images of long-haired teenagers and a scantily clad dancer drifting across the screen, and the face of Richard Nixon slowly morphing into a spinning whirlpool—all against a soundtrack of classical music.
A male voice relayed instructions: “Close your eyes,” “Open your eyes,” “Three-quarter close your eyes,” and finally, “Turn off your television set.”
Those viewers were watching the debut of Electronic Opera #1, the first work made for broadcast television by artist Nam June Paik. Part of a program of artist’s shorts called The Medium Is the Medium, the piece aired on the local public television station WGBH. Today, Paik is best remembered as a pioneer of video art, whose frenetic, collage-like language left a lasting mark on our visual culture. Less well known is the work he created in the Boston area. This fascinating stage of Paik’s career is explored in our exhibition Nam June Paik: Screen Play, on view from June 30 through August 5, 2018.
Paik Comes to WGBH
Paik’s path to Boston was circuitous. The artist was born in Korea, lived in Japan and Germany, and settled in New York City in 1964. There, he exhibited with Howard Wise, a gallerist specializing in technology-based art. In the late 1960s, Wise met producers from the Ford Foundation’s Public Broadcasting Laboratory, who were eager to enlist artists to collaborate with public television. The group selected six artists, among them Paik, to participate in a pilot program and found an ideal partner in WGBH, a station with a growing reputation as a hub for experimental television. In Boston, Paik created Electronic Opera #1, which involved recording from television screens that he had rewired or modified with magnets to distort the images.
Paik’s relationship with WGBH continued well beyond that initial program. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, he became an artist-in-residence at the station and worked closely with directors and producers Fred Barzyk, David Atwood, and Olivia Tappan. Paik pushed the station’s boundaries aesthetically and technologically. WGBH’s archives include lists of supplies that the artist instructed his collaborators to acquire, including shaving cream, flour, a fish tank and goldfish, a sine wave generator, and one hundred black candles. While working with unorthodox materials, Paik also began to think about new ways to produce electronic imagery. He invented techniques to distort and colorize footage in the studio, including for a session recorded in the video 9/23/69: Experiment with David Atwood. Although that piece never aired in its entirety, it helped shape the artistic vision that would be realized in his next project.
The Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer
These early collaborations with WGBH taught Paik just how expensive and technologically complex television production could be, so he devised ways to make it more accessible. Douglas Davis, in his book Art and the Future, quotes Paik as saying: “I decided to compress the whole studio into a piano keyboard.” Paik approached Michael Rice, then president of WGBH, to help him fund the construction of a device for manipulating video. Together with the engineer Shuya Abe, Paik developed a machine consisting of seven cameras, each recording separate colors, as well as controls for manipulating the video footage.
The Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer made its debut in a four-hour live broadcast, Video Commune (Beatles Beginning to End), which ran on August 1, 1970, on WGBX (WGBH’s second channel). Set to a soundtrack of Beatles music, the program combined a live feed from the synthesizer with prerecorded footage, including Japanese television commercials. It’s unknown exactly how many viewers watched the broadcast, but the station did receive some alarmed responses. One man complained, for example, that “he was getting signals from Tokyo instead of Boston,” a Newsweek article reported.
Paik returned to the synthesizer in another, similarly controversial WGBH program in 1972. Director Fred Barzyk—despite resistance from the station’s more conservative elements—organized a program in which artists produced visual accompaniments to the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Paik did little to assuage their fears: in his contribution, Electronic Opera #2, a toy piano goes up in flames and an anonymous hand repeatedly punches a bust of Beethoven, while dancing electronic shapes generated by the synthesizer float across the screen. The synthesizer remained for many years in WGBH’s studio and was later housed at MIT; Paik encouraged other artists to work with it, and ultimately hoped to develop a portable version that viewers could use at home.
John Cage in Harvard Square
Shots of Cambridge feature prominently in another work Paik produced with WGBH, A Tribute to John Cage (1973, re-edited in 1976). Paik considered the visionary musical composer a major influence on his own work, and created this video on the occasion of Cage’s 60th birthday. One highlight is an interview in which the musician describes his experience inside an anechoic (non-echoing) chamber at Harvard University. Another is a segment of Cage performing his seminal piece 4'33" in Harvard Square. In that work, a performer remains silent while audience members listen to the ambient sounds of their environment.
Paik weaves these and other sources together with electronic imagery, creating a multifaceted homage to his friend.
In later years, Paik commented that he owed the city of Boston “a great deal” for its role in the evolution of his work. David Ross, in a conversation with the artist included in the 1993 book Nam June Paik: Video Time—Video Space, quotes Paik as saying: “Boston is small enough to be free to do experimental work, but large enough so that success there can be heard around the world.” Given the importance of the city to Paik’s career, it seems fitting that we have the opportunity to exhibit Electronic Opera #1 and A Tribute to John Cage, along with 11 other Paik works recently acquired by the Harvard Art Museums, in Nam June Paik: Screen Play.
Marina Isgro is the Nam June Paik Research Fellow at the Harvard Art Museums.
The author would like to thank David Atwood, Fred Barzyk, and George Fifield for generously speaking to her about Paik’s time at WGBH.