“Good Morning, Mr Orwell!”: Nam June Paik’s rebuttal to Orwell’s dystopian vision

By on July 20, 2015

Today’s the anniversary of the birth of Korean video artist Nam June Paik, born on July 20, 1932, in Seoul, Korea, who is considered in some circles the founder of video art, and so we’re sharing with you “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell,” Paik’s rebuttal to Orwell’s dystopian vision of 1984, was the first international satellite spectacular installation, broadcast from noon to 1pm on public television’s Channel 13 on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1984.

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Paik’s installation was meant to celebrate the positive possibilities of the medium of television by showcasing both established and new young talents from both sides of the Atlantic, from both New York and Paris, symbolizing how TV can, in Paik’s words, “cross borders and provide a liberating information-communications service.” It linked WNET TV in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris live via satellite, as well as hooking up with broadcasters in Germany and South Korea.

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Paik referred to Orwell as “the first media prophet and philosopher” during the show, and indeed the influence and inspiration of Orwell’s novel 1984 — which saw the television of the future as a control instrument in the hands of Big Brother in a totalitarian state – weighed heavily over the proceedings.

“Good Morning, Mr. Orwell” was hosted by George Plimpton, and combined live and taped segments with TV graphics designed by Paik, and it was directed by Emile Ardolino, who had already distinguished himself with public television’s’ “Dance in America” series.

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Some of the new musicians involved were a veritable who’s who of 80s acts who were by then already appearing on “Night Flight” on a regular basis, including Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel, who performed their new composition, “This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds).” Other 80s acts featured included The Thompson Twins performing their hit song “Hold Me Now,” and Oingo Boingo doing “Wake Up (It’s 1984).”

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Others contributing to the project included poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and there were segments with numerous artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Beuys, performing a piano composition while surrounded by gigantic Alexander Calder sculptures, and John Cage, who produced music for the project by stroking the needles of eight dried cactus plants with a feather, accompanied by video images being broadcast from Paris. The cactus plants were dried and hung on a wire. “I like the cactuses where the spines are separated,” Cage said at the time, quoted in the New York Times on January 2nd. “When they’re close together they don’t vibrate freely.”

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“Good Morning Mr. Orwell” also featured the television premiere of Act III, a video work created by Dean Winkler and John Sanborn to music by Philip Glass. Charlotte Moorman, the performance artist and advocate for avant-garde music, referred to as the “Jeanne d’Arc of new music,” recreated Paik’s notorious TV Cello – in the original piece, the pair stacked televisions on top one another, so that they formed the shape of an actual cello. When Moorman drew her bow across the “cello,” images of both her playing, and images of other cellists playing appeared on the screens.

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In 1965, Sony introduced the Portapak. With this, Paik could both move and record things, for it was the first portable video and audio recorder. From there, Paik became an international celebrity, known for his creative and entertaining works.  Moorman was also known before this 1984 recreation of TV Cello for her notorious 1967 arrest for going topless while performing in Paik’s Opera Sextronique. Two years later, in 1969, they performed TV Bra for Living Sculpture, in which Charlotte wore a bra with small TV screens over her breasts).

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The broadcast also featured Leslie Fuller and Mitchell Kriegman, who both did comedy routines, and Sapho, the pop singer, who performed one of her latest hits. There was a performance by Urban Sax, consisting of 80 “futuristically costumed” musicians, and, via videotape from West Germany, Salvador Dalí and the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen conducting an excerpt from his “Momenta.”

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The event — which aired nationwide in the US on public television, and reached an audience of over 25 million viewers worldwide (after repeating viewings; the initial broadcast is said to have been seen by as many as 10 million alone — was produced by WNET’s Television Laboratory, FR3 French National Television and the Pompidou Center.

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Paik personally invested a large sum in the project in order to realize his vision. He had previously pioneered the concept of broadcasting satellite transmission in real time back in 1973, with his installation “Global Grove,” an early, pioneering concept aimed at international understanding through the vehicle of TV, although it was mired by technical hitches that sometimes rendered the results unpredictable. Paik said it actually had enhanced the “live mood” of the work, however, and went on to continue to work with video, television and performance art pieces that often focused on the delivery medium itself as part of the process.

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Paik was also known for making robots out of television sets. These were constructed using pieces of wire and metal, but later Paik used parts from radio and television sets. A retrospective of Paik’s work was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the spring of 1982.

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One of Nam June Paik’s largest-scale video installations, V-pyramid (1982) was recreated for the artist’s retrospective exhibition at the new Whitney. It contains no fewer than 40 television screens, arranged in quartets stacked like an ancient ziggurat. Paik’s appropriation of the ancient religious architectural form seems to implicate our modern-day worship of media technology, and the indecipherable sequence of flashing images points to a vacuousness in the easily digestible offerings of pop culture that presages the increasingly plugged-in nature of life today.

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Paik — who married the video artist Shigeko Kubota in 1965 — intially made his big debut at an exhibition known as Exposition of Music-Electronic Television at the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal in which he scattered televisions everywhere and used magnets to alter or distort their images.

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He is credited with an early usage of the term “electronic super highway” in application to telecommunications, according to his own account, first using it in a Rockefeller Foundation paper in 1974. Paik’s 1995 piece Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, is on permanent display at the Lincoln Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is a stunning example of his cultural criticism. With this piece, Paik offers up his commentary about an American culture obsessed with television, the moving image, and bright shiny things.

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Electric Superhighway, 1995

He was also an early participant in the Neo-Dada art movement known as Fluxus, which was inspired by the composer John Cage and his use of everyday sounds and noises in his music. In a 1960 piano performance in Cologne, Paik played Chopin, threw himself on the piano and rushed into the audience, attacking Cage and pianist David Tudor by cutting their clothes with scissors and dumping shampoo on their heads.

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Paik sitting in TV Chair (1968/1976) in “Nam June Paik Werke, 1946–1976: Music,Fluxus, Video,” 1976. © Friedrich Rosens

In 1986, on a Saturday evening in October, from 9pm until nearly 10:30pm, Paik used the very same public television Channel 13 for a kind of space-opera variety show that referenced his Orwell performance, only this one was called “Bye Bye Kipling,” and this time, with financing from American, Japanese and Korean sources, he demonstrated some of his favorite two-way, interactive television communications, only this time with Rudyard Kipling’s influence.

The piece was broadcast from a new club in New York named 4D, appropriately enough, the program was able to jump by satellite to Tokyo and to Seoul, South Korea, where the 1986 Asian Games are taking place and where cameras were able to pick up a marathon race in progress.

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The resulting “mix” included live performances and interviews, assorted taped materials and periodic dollops of computerized videos.

Some of the material, such as Lou Reed’s “This Is the Age of Video Violence,” were critically lauded at the time, but much of the musical contributions to this particular piece went under appreciated. “Bye Bye Kipling” ended with clips of the “be-in” days of the old Living Theater, and featured music by Philip Glass, artwork by the artist Keith Haring, and designs by the fashion designer Issey Miyake.

Two years later, in 1988 he further showed his love for his home with a piece called The more the better, a giant tower made entirely of 1003 monitors for the Olympic Games being held at Seoul.

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Since 1984, an edited 30-minute version of “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell” has appeared in a number of exhibitions, including In Memoriam: Nam June Paik at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.

Paik is today considered one of the pioneers of what it commonly called “video scratching,” which is when short clips from television programs or other found footage are edited rhythmically to give the effect of spoken lyrics to accompanying music. The technique was first popularly used in music videos in the 1980s.

Paik continued to work on video installations and test the boundaries of his TV-enhanced art until 1996, when he had a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. A final retrospective of his work was held in 2000 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, integrating the unique space of the museum into the exhibition itself. This coincided with a downtown gallery showing of video artworks by his wife Shigeko Kubota, mainly dealing with his recovery from the stroke. Nam June Paik died January 29, 2006.

02/11/2000 - 04/26/2000

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.