Art and Technology

Living in the World of Nam June Paik: From Fluxus to iPhone

“I would like to declare why I feel that it's now necessary to establish a new kind of art, able to show the problems of the whole society, of every living being — and how this new discipline — which I call social sculpture — can realize the future of humankind. It could be a guarantee for the evolution of the earth as a planet, establish conditions for other planetarians too, and you can control it with your own thinking.” – Joseph Beuys


After a rise of interpersonal computing system (Internet), many parts of the world have seen a true sense of globalization. Tablet PCs and smartphones make anyone able to get instant access to abundant information. Currently, this Internet movement has extended its influence to applying internet-based operation platforms to ordinary things such as furniture and cars. When we are living in the world of Internet of Things, we should appreciate one artist who predicted all these to happen in his future generation. Based on creating media art, Nam June Paik not only foresaw a transition from a traditionally vertical information transmission to a horizontal information transmission, but also predicted that future humanity would become digital nomads. His artworks influenced many IT technologists such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who put IT revolution on a successful and stable stage. Due to Nam June Paik’s contribution to the shape of today’s digital world, it is a great importance to remind the public of his artwork.

The Fluxus Movement contributed immensely to the development of a contemporary art philosophy. Regardless of its extremism, which sometimes fixated its image on viewers as a marginal culture, the Fluxus Movement boldly inscribed its new artistic philosophy on a contemporary art history while carrying a new life, Nam June Paik, inside it.(1) Like the Futurists and Dadaists, Fluxus artists disagreed with the omnipotent authority of museums to decide the value of art, nor did they believed that viewers must be formally educated to appreciate artworks. Fluxus wanted art to be accessible to the public all the time. It is often challenging to define Fluxus, as many Fluxus artists claim that defining the movement is too limiting and reductive.(2) In the middle of this movement, Nam June Paik began his journey to connect art with future technology. His attempt to join two inassimilable fields has become important influence to today’s technological developments, and without the Fluxus Movement, which encouraged artists to take unrestrictive and diversified artistic approaches, it might be hard to introduce post-modernism environment to either technologies or arts.(3) Hence, it is crucial to introduce Nam June Paik through the context of the contemporary art history that his artistic creativity, based on the Fluxus Movement, later influenced a fusion between a field of technology and that of art.

Electronic Superhighway exhibited in American Art Museum, 1995-1996
Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

A potential rise to the initial Fluxus Movement had begun when modernism faced a sharp decline after the death of Jackson Pollock in 1950. Starting from Millet’s famous painting, The Sower, which depicted a lower class citizen, farmer, as a heroic and strong model with rough brush strokes, these modernism paintings contained unusual artistic approaches from the perspective of a traditional art. Since traditional subjects of artworks had been confined to famous events or historically renowned figures, moving subject of art from top class authorities to lower class farmers represents that Western artists were heavily influenced by a series of worldwide social revolutions in the Western hemisphere.(4) The American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution asserted importance of distributing a centralized power to the commoners, and artists reflected the zeitgeist of the century into their modernism artworks.(5) After the end of the modernistic tradition in 1950, a new major art movement led by Jasper Jones and Andy Warhol, Pop Art, breached to the surface as a leading art movement. While Modernism artists were by and large politically radical activists, major artists from Pop Art showed submissive characteristics to a dominant ideology, the Capitalism and the Consumerism.(6) In order to find an alternative to Pop Art, ideologically radical artists such as George Maciunas initiated the Fluxus Movement under influence of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. The concept of readymade from Dada was a perfect tool for the Fluxus to demolish the elitist world of “high art” and to bring art to the masses.

Zen for Head, 1961, Performance at at Stockhausen’s Originale

Unlike past art movements, Fluxus did not try to capture a decisive moment in artworks. Its central tenet was to conceive every moment of artistic action as a flowing art, which tend not to leave any recordable trace.(7) Based on this experimental attempt, many Fluxus artists adopted performance art as their mediums for their artistic expression.(8) As a part of the Fluxus movement, Nam June Paik also participated in many performance arts such as Zen for Head in 1961.

This radical and audacious attempt of a group of young artists seemed to grab attention from the public successfully until it opened the Fluxus store in New York. By selling mass-produced goods of Fluxus artists, Fluxus started to insist that mass-produced objet was only reasonable pattern that art could be introduced to the public. This Fluxus’ argument completely confused the public because embracing consumerism was literally agreeing upon the philosophy of Pop Art that Fluxus had been fiercely resisted against. Even though Fluxus considered selling common goods and ready-mades as a way to make art more approachable to the mass public, it contradicted to its original philosophy and made its basic tenet unconvincing and weak. While Fluxus was making confusion among people that there were no more arts that reflect social issues in art, artists like Duane Hanson championed the belief that artists could still raise social concerns through art.

Although Fluxus had a limit to a certain extent, it undoubtedly made art more accessible and available to the public. Based on this belief, Nam June Paik pioneered the world of video art in which he emphasized the importance of horizontal communication to which future media technology would usher humanity. In his Magnet TV, he showed how future media would connect each individual without any time and spatial boundaries.

The magnet on a television symbolizes a human hand or a human being, sending signals to others through the television. Even though he was living the time period when the media system distributed information vertically from the central authority, Nam June Paik predicted an appearance of a horizontal communication system based on the central philosophy of Fluxus. Fluxus’ intention to bring an elite art to the public overlapped with Paik’s wish to see more democratic future.

Magnet TV, 1965 (1969), CRT Television : 43×28×40cm, magnet : 14×4×4cm
Courtesy of Nam June Paik Art Center, Yongin, Korea

Nam June Paik increased the sizes of his video art installations as time advanced in order to convey his broader philosophy on the future media. His Electronic Superhighway echoed the idea of horizontal connections among individuals in the world.(9) Through TV Garden, he further predicted a horizontal communication revolution, IT revolution, playing a crucial role to overcome a global warming crisis. Based on interconnected grid system based on IT revolution, engineers recently developed a more efficient green energy sharing system. Many scientists believe that this technological breakthrough will promote a transition from fossil fuel energy to green energy within a short span of time. Now, we are living in the world that Paik pictured in his head as a near future.

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(1) Art Press, “Fluxus, more Flux than History,” Art Press (July 1, 2012) pp. 65
(2)“Fluxus,” theartstory.org, Web. 12 May 2015
(3)Jin, Joong Gwon, “Jin, Joong Gwon’s Contemporary Art History: Fluxus,” KyungHyang Shinmun (Nov 2012)
(4)Jin, Joong Gwon, “Aesthetics Odyssey Volume 3", Humanist, (March 22, 2004), pp. 333
(5)J.R McNeill and William H, McNeill, "The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History" (New York: Norton, 2003), pp. 225-227
(6)Jin, Joong Gwon, “Essay of Art: Surrealism and Hyperrealism,” Yesuleuijeondang (June 2004), pp.1
(7)Youjin Chung, “The Unity of Art and Life: The Synthesis Concept of Fluxus and Zen,” International Journal of the Arts in Society (June 1, 2012), pp. 212
(8)Stiles, Kristine, "Theories and Documents of contemporary Art: A sourcebook of artists’ writings", University of California Press, Berkeley & London, 1996
(9)Rajeesh Narayanan, “Visual artist Nam June Paik predicted Internet age,” Online Video Clip, Youtube (Dec. 2012), Web 12 May 2015
(10)“Steve Jobs – Apple in the 80’s,” innovationexcellence.com, Web. 12 May 2015.

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