Lynn Hershman Leeson is a renowned and accomplished artist and filmmaker in her own right. Over the last three decades she has pioneered uses of new technologies in critical investigations of issues, recognised as key to the workings of our society today. She tackles the big questions surrounding: identity in a time of consumerism; privacy in a era of surveillance; the interfacing of humans and machines; the relationship between real and virtual worlds; and growing parts of the human body from DNA samples. Last year Modern Art Oxford hosted a major solo exhibition of her work Origins of a Species, Part 2 and she has work in The Electronic Superhighway, at Whitechapel Gallery, in London at the moment. Her work has had a strong influence on many contemporary artists working with technology. Recently, ZKM in cooperation with the Deichtorhallen Hamburg / Sammlung Falckenberg exhibited the first comprehensive retrospective of Leeson’s oeuvre, and also the most recent productions of her work. In May this year a book of the same name Civic Radar, will be published, featuring a comprehensive monograph of this Feminist pioneer in the fields of film and performance art, edited by Peter Weibel.
Nam June Paik was born in 1932 Seoul, Korea and died 2006. Many in the artworld regard him as a visionary artist, thinker, and innovator. Considered the “father of video art,” his groundbreaking use of video technology blurred past distinctions between science, fine art, and popular culture to create a new visual language. Paik’s interest in exploring the human condition through the lens of technology and science has created a far-reaching legacy that may be seen in broad recognition of new media art and the growing numbers of subsequent generations of artists who now use various forms of technology in their work.
Through his progressive ideas and artworks Paik dared to imagine a future where the technological and playful innovations that we now take for granted might exist. This interview with Hershman Leeson is timely, documenting the meeting of two imaginative beings who have changed the history of work at the intersection of art and technology. The issues they discuss are as important now as they were then.
Nam June Paik, "Merce/Digital," 1988 single-channel video sculpture with vintage television cabinets and fifteen monitors; color, silent, collection of Roselyne Chroman Swig, Copyright Nam June Paik Estate. (Image courtesy Nam June Paik Estate)
This interview of Nam June Paik by Lynn Hershman Leeson was first published by Artweek, April 1980 Electronic Art.
LHL: If you were elected president, how would you solve the world’s problems?
NJP: I just wrote an essay about how to make oil obsolete. Number one, information has to be recognized officially as an alternate energy source. Information changes our lifestyle. Dancers and yogis achieve ecstasy with 200 calories. However, racing drivers, if they want to achieve ecstasy, have to burn 200,000 calories. I found this new economical law… any consuming activities – certain activities which have a higher spiritual quality – use less energy. For instance, when rich man can buy a Jasper Johns for $100,000, that takes very little energy. However, if rich man buys Cessna airplane and flies around, it takes a lot of energy. But contributions to national economy would be the same… $100,000 spent. Same thing when you buy a videotape recorder for $500. Or if rent a car for $500 – ten days – national economy benefits from the same. But videotape recorder consumes much less energy. So when we shift our economic priorities of consuming to more spiritual sphere then we can solve all economic problems with much less energy. I found it is much easier to go to Paradise than to make this a paradise. It’s much cheaper to die than to make this world a paradise.
LHL: Do you think we’re getting closer to that now – global spirituality or global promiscuity?
NJP: Same thing. Sex requires only 800 calories. Same ecstasy, but racing cars take many more calories. Everything counts on calories. We need worldwide dieting. Lose weight.
LHL: Do you think pleasure or ecstasy is being popularly redefined because of technology?
NJP: Also because of a lack of energy. Things are getting so expensive that we have to use less. If you telephoned me instead of flying to New York, we not only save $300 air fare, we also save American Airlines gasoline. If they have less business, they will fly less. So we should move ideas and not weight. Less gravity we use the better. Transportation and communication are a trade-off. The more communication and less transportation we use, the better.
LHL: So your ideal is that we shouldn’t move too much…
NJP: Well I coined a term called “Stationary Nomad.” We are nomads but we don’t move.
Electronic Superhighway (1995) by Nam June Paik. Source - http://s.si.edu/1PuXfwI
LHL: Do you think that we, as a species, are becoming biologically changed, that we’re almost becoming married to electronic systems?
NJP: Most important biological change is that when you move to moon you have to change sex patterns. You can make sex because you have certain weight. On the moon our weight is only one sixth so our whole muscular coordination has to be different.
LHL: What about all the perceptual changes?
NJP: When we have videodisc, all the New York Times microfilms will become like ten videodiscs. Then we’ll start browsing all hundred years of New York Times. Then you’ll look at early “help wanted” columns. Very interesting how the “help wanted” pattern changes over one hundred years. A new set of computer games would be born. Have you ever looked at New York Times microfilms? It’s very interesting. Celebration… that, I think, is the contribution of John Cage to world artists, because John Cage is first conceptual artist. Conceptual art is still very interesting movement because it requires least energy. No canvas. No movement. Just head!First time I’m coming from Asia to Europe, I’m flying from Calcutta to Cairo on a night plane. Everybody is sleeping. Only one light is on. A young American girl is reading paperback science fiction and I was so impressed. This girl was made for technology, you see. Celebrating.
LHL: How long will it be before ordinary people supersede movie stars, and intercommunicative TV and computers supplant fictional film?
NJP: I got an idea which I hope some capitalist will do. Interaction. Gene Youngblood had a conference at USC about the future of television, and he thought that interactive TV must be the alternative television. He knew but couldn’t quite formulate a complete idea about it. So it became chaos. Well, I thought chaos would be a great interactive TV. So the problem is how to create electronic chaos so we can enjoy each other. When you watch television or a very good film – which they make – really not very good… another one, you make it yourself, then there is also a limit of making it good because we don’t really know yet how to make our television. At the intermediate stage you will have ten different discs, and the first disc has only kissing scenes, the next only killing scenes, the third only music, the fourth only driving around scenes, the sixth just talking scenes, etc. Each disc is very complete. Kissing disc has all the kissing from movie history, every kissing of Marilyn Monroe, every kissing of Greta Garbo, and the second every killing scene from John Wayne. So we could just mix it according to our rhythms. Television proceeds in three-minute cycles. Every three minutes you want one nice thing, one bad thing, one mediocre thing… and music. So you have console and you just push buttons. So you interact with all of film history. I think that will be the intermediate stage before everyone has interactive television. It’s nice to meet and touch people, but it’s more exciting to talk very far. I just talked on telephone with Shigeko. It’s very exciting. She says: “Oh you’re never there!” She’s in a bad mood yesterday. She called… then I called back and she didn’t answer. This morning she didn’t answer again. I got an answering service. Distance makes things very exciting!
Nam June Paik, "Zen for TV," 1963/1982, manipulated television set; black and white, silent, Collection of Marcel Odenbach, Copyright Nam June Paik Estate. (Lothar Schnepf)
LHL: What are you working on now? You were just in Israel.
NJP: Yes. For Allen Ginsberg and Allan Kaprow. For some reason I got to know people very early in their development. I’m just lucky. I got to know Kaprow very early. These two famous men kept my friendship. They let me be their friend. So I want to make a variety show with two Allens because they are so different. Kaprow is a very cerebral man. Ginsberg is a very emotional man. Ginsberg is very semantically avant-garde and Kaprow is very formalistically avant-garde. We were going to do a show with them on a raft on the Mississippi River… let them talk to each other. This was to be me Bicentennial product. Then everything got delayed. Delay and delay and delay in our lives. That has to be solved. The plot got thicker and thicker. Two years ago I had some travel money available so I thought maybe I’d bring Ginsberg and Kaprow to Israel. Then my travel fund dried up so I had to pay for all these tickets to go to Israel. It wiped out my whole savings.
LHL: Can’t business and pleasure be the same?
NJP: Yes. But playing is more interesting. Yet playing is harder. The futurist thing is how to play without being bored. That is the most important thing… how to forget the Protestant ethic… Confucianist has same thing… how to be able to play. Americans know how to play a little bit better than Europeans or Asians. Africans know a little more about playing than Americans. America and Africa got together and made American entertainment. America invaded the world through their jazz and not by their airplanes. Because of black people’s music, America is such a big image around the world. American defenses are made form two things… hardware and software. Russians can match American hardware because they can produce. But Russians cannot match American software because Russians don’t have black people. Russian culture is all nineteenth century… Bolshio Ballet. Now you can’t make video out of Bolshoi Ballet. You can only do it live. So Bolshoi, it’s only where rich people can go who are anti-Communist anyway. So they are wasting all Bolshoi Ballet because it never reaches poor people who are target for their propaganda. That’s because their culture is made before information technology. Scott Joplin, a black man, made his art especially for mass production – the “player piano.” The black people’s music from the beginning was developed for mass production. The rich Americans packaged it to sell. Of course the black people are exploited.
LHL: Do you have trouble playing?
NJP: I think I have this guilt complex… must work all the time. My doctor told me I should get enlightened. But I always think I must get enlightened after next job. Then, with the next job, I get more and more in debt. Then I need another two jobs to pay the bills. So my enlightenment gets postponed.
LHL: Do you think being enlightened and being in debt are related?
NJP: You can act enlightened even if you are hopelessly in debt. There’s a guy I know… he’s a Catholic. He drinks. He’s very fat… but he drinks one quart of Coca Cola everyday. He thinks he’ll just work until he dies. But I don’t want that kind of enlightenment. I don’t work too hard anyway. I just work minimum.
Artweek, April 1980 Electronic Art NAM JUNE PAIK – VIDEO PHILOSOPHER
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