We Are in Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik

We Are in Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik
by John G. Harnhardt, Gregory Zinman and Edith Decker-Phillips, Editors

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019
464 pp. illus. 37 color, 116 b&w. Trade, $50
ISBN: 978-0262039802.

December 2021

Reviewed by Will Luers

We Are in Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik is a large, illustrated monograph with no image of the iconic art works for which Paik is most known. There are no walls of stacked televisions, no Buddha watching himself on TV. This collection of writings from the Nam June Paik Archive (Smithsonian American Art Museum) and from a range of international publications, are the reproduced formatting and facsimiles of the artist’s type-written scores, essays, letters and hand-written journal entries, postcards, and notes. The book is wonderful to browse as an aesthetic artifact, but it is also a resource and record of a dynamic mind responding to a changing world from the late 1950s into the mid-1990s. The editor introductions to each of the thematic sections (Music and the Avant-garde; Transforming Video and Television; Culture and Politics; and Commentaries and Letters) provide an historical and cultural context for Paik’s writing. Paik’s writing, however, is deeply interdisciplinary, nonlinear, and networked. No single text stays within the bounds of the topic heading. This makes for an exhilarating reading experience within a single text, but somewhat overwhelming to navigate as a collection in book form, despite a fairly comprehensive index. The reader, curious about Paik’s networked thought processes, would benefit from digital versions of the texts in a searchable and richly annotated database. But such a digital resource would miss the material expressions of the writing itself as presented in this large format book. The artifacts of Paik’s time-worn philosophical fragments, about the artist’s role in a world being reshaped by technology, have the feel of prophecy; messages of hope and warning addressed to our current moment.

Paik was an interdisciplinary and cosmopolitan artist at a time when electronic media was bringing the world virtually closer together after a devastating war. With a background in music, philosophy, and aesthetics, he made his name in Germany and New York in the 1960s with his Cage-inspired scores in neo-dada Fluxus movement. In the 1970s, inspired by McLuhan’s media theory and the democratic promise of television, Paik pioneered “video art” with works encompassing broadcast TV, single-channel video, video installations, and (mostly unrealized) plans for experiments with satellite television. The notes, plans, and writings in We Are in Open Circuits cover this extraordinary artistic growth. Paik was clearly ambitious, seeking out connections and opportunities to make his visionary ideas a reality.  His writing shows an instinct for grand entertainment, often accompanied by humor, within a serious art world. For example, he writes:

“Nietzsche said a hundred years ago, God is dead. I say, now paper is dead, except for toilet paper. If Joyce lived today, surely he would have written his Finnegan's wake on video tape because of the vast possibility for manipulation in magnetic information storage.”

Paik’s writing also shows a practical artist attending to technical details in his notes and plans for exhibition, as well as to details of the theoretical frameworks in his grant reports.

We Are in Open Circuits contains Paik’s most prescient speculative essays about technology: “Global Groove and Video Common Market” (1970), “Media Planning for the Post-Industrial Age” (1974), “Random Access Information” (1980), and “Art & Satellite” (1984). “Expanded Education for a Paper-less Society,” typewritten in 1968, begins:

“Suppose a girl in Kentucky wants to study the Japanese Koto instrument and a graduate at UCLA wants to experiment with certain Persian or Afghanistan musical instruments. How would they do this?… The mailable television (i.e., video tape) would enable the individual lessons for many subjects to be given from anywhere to anywhere.”

The artist who coined the term “electronic super highway” also aimed to “make technology ridiculous.” Technology was for him not just a new medium for artistic self-expression, but a generator of a new conviviality and participatory human culture, involving chance, indeterminacy, simultaneity and fun, along with technical rigor. We Are in Open Circuits shows how much of Paik’s art was woven with his philosophical thinking about what happens when we are all connected.