The neverending now feat. Nam June Paik
“I use technology in order to hate it properly.”
– Nam June Paik
They call him the father of video art.
Because he always fucked with the tech.
Even in the novel years of television, in the late 1950s when no one else was, Nam June Paik was trying to get these machines to act against their will, to find new expressions through his tampering.
Eventually it went further and more profound than magnets. Video cellos. Video synthesisers.
Because new technology can feel godly. It needs heretics to pull the cloak off, to laugh at the zealots who proclaim it will change the world completely. We’ve been tricked before— and because we crave certainty, and salvation, it’s often easy to see new inventions as the answer to everything.
But to say the new arrival is good or bad misses the point. It is, and we need to respond in a way that helps us mould to the new now without becoming crushed by it.
Humour helps. And June was a joker; his exploits with John Cage were wicked and dumb. He’s proud of his nonsense.
His inescapable piece for me, though, is TV Budda (1974).
A cheap statue of Buddha watches a live feed of itself on a CCTV monitor. An indefinite closed loop.
Like a lot of his work, he creates this sense of adding the dimension of time to a static sculpture. Because video is linear, continuous, you expect a next. And a piece like this kind of leaves you hanging.
Conventional readings go both ways. Because you could be an optimist and call it a loop of self-knowledge. That technology focuses our presence. Or a pessimist, and see it bringing even an enlightened one down to vanity.
Is it meditation or narcissism?
Has technology enlightened us, or turned us into victims?
In 1974, in Cologne, before the Buddha, it was Paik himself in front of the camera.
The move to a Buddha seems to matter. Paik once remarked of the fact even ancient tribes would stare into the night sky and stare at the moon… ‘the oldest television set’.
We have always looked outside ourselves for elevation, for answers.
So the most important piece of the equation to experiencing TV Buddha, for me, is you.
The viewer as the third participant, staring at the scene.
It’s one of Paik’s jokes, a sly one.
Because it asks – what are we gazing upon?
Maybe, now, enlightenment isn’t something we’ll experience.
Just something we’ll watch.
Caught in a neverending now.
Infinite Library Podcast video essay on the piece is detailed and essential.