Nam June Paik, revered as the father of video art, reshaped the art world by pioneering the integration of television and technology into his creations and also the consciousness of the masses. Even after his passing in 2006, Paik's influence continues to echo through modern visual culture, particularly in the realms of education, globalism, and the evolution of new media and the internet.
Paik emerged as one of the pioneering artists who embraced the concept that television could serve as a valuable tool for education. This perspective was clearly articulated in his 1976 essay titled "Why is Television Dumb?" where he expounded on ideas contrary to the essay's title, asserting that information technology, computers, and particularly television, possessed the capability to enrich and reshape cognitive processes.
Much of his body of work was dedicated to promoting the use of technology early on in the 1960s - 1980s, especially to increase information and promote critical thinking. His work helped people to trust mass technology like the television and later, the internet, as tools of communication and education, aligning with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Quality Education.
His work, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, is one example that showcases his dedication to technology, especially for broader cultural exchange. The piece was broadcast on New Year’s Day in 1984, live on public television from studios in New York and Paris. This was done as a response to George Orwell’s bleak portrayal of television in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which stated that television was a surveillance tool that helped the ruling class control the masses.
Good Morning, Mr. Orwell featured cutscenes of music videos, performances, dance and many more, including contributions from critically acclaimed public figures like poet Allen Ginsberg, composer John Cage, and even choreographer Merce Cunningham who made an entertaining solo dance appearance.
Dotted with engaging special effects, the piece was a celebration of television which reached more than 25 million viewers worldwide. It transformed television into a platform of what Paik later called “satellite art,” art that could finally be seen by a crowd so large that no exhibition would be able to host. This was his way of showing that the world could embrace this new global interconnectivity with open arms.
Before that, in the mid-1970s, Paik's focus was on globalism. Back then he was encouraged to explore the interconnectedness of cultures and how technology could help facilitate this. His 1973 piece Global Groove presented a collage of diverse images which again showcased how technology could help create a new, interconnected world. The video was a series of cuts that went from traditional Korean dancers who merged with American rock and roll, to a Japanese Pepsi commercial that welded with a Diné (Navajo) singer.
A year after he aired Global Groove, in 1974, he submitted a report to the Art Program of the Rockefeller Foundation, which called for the emergence of what he called an “electronic super highway.” For him, this was a system necessary to unite the newly globalized world, by facilitating an exchange of information, that consisted of television, video, and also “audio cassettes, telex, data pooling, continental satellites, micro-fiches, private microwaves and eventually, fibre optics on laser frequencies.”
This vision materialized in the 1990s with the advent of the internet—a cohesive digital realm predominantly driven by video content. Consequently, Paik's conviction that individuals should possess their television channels transformed into his belief that the world could reap advantages from establishing the internet, a belief that has now become a prominent reality.