Dr. Namhee Park On Video Conservation, Mass Media and Finding the Next Nam June Paik

The Nam June Paik Art Center faces conservation challenges that cross technological and philosophical lines.

A woman wearing a blazer smiles for a portrait
Nam June Paik Art Center Director Dr. Namhee Park. Courtesy NJP Art Center

Dr. Namhee Park was recently named the new director of the Nam June Paik Art Center, the Yongin, South Korea institution tasked with protecting the Korean-American artist’s legacy, curating shows highlighting his work in classic and new contexts. Paik seems to be having a moment, with a new documentary and his prominent placement in the Museum of Modern Art’s recent show about video art. But when doesn’t it feel like that? Observer recently caught up with Dr. Park to hear more about the institution’s relationship with the ever-relevant artist.

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Why do you think the work of Nam June Paik remains so beloved today?

Nam June Paik was born in the 20th Century, but his spirit was already living in the 21st Century. If his art was avant-garde in the 20th Century, it can be considered contemporary realist art in the 21st Century. Since it is realist art as a ‘total reality’ that hybridizes almost all areas of intuitive but philosophical, sensuous but technical, it can be felt emotionally and methodologically more familiar than in the past, and from a media archaeological perspective, it can be felt as nostalgia. In that sense, his art is an ‘old future’ and is in touch with the art of the contemporary digital media environment.

His art and life attitude of “no boundaries,” “curiosity” and “infinite connection” to all things in the world, including media, information, technology, nature and planets, are still vivid values to his contemporaries. When I took office last year, I proposed ‘hyperconnectivity,’ ‘heritage community’ and ‘polyphony’ as the core values of the Nam June Paik Art Center to evoke and spread this spirit in his art to the contemporary era. This is because his art has already penetrated the current hyper-connected spirit and phenomena.

PAIK/C/18MAR96/DD/MACOR Video artist Nam June Paik next to a piece of works he calls Cyberforum, 1994. Chronicle Photo: Michael Macor Ran on: 12-29-2006 Don Knotts
Nam June Paik with ‘Cyberforum’ (1994). Photo By MICHAEL MACOR/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

How is his legacy perceived in Korea?

Although he spent more time in Japan, Germany and the United States than in Korea, the affection and pride for Nam June Paik and his art is very significant in Korea. We Koreans are very grateful to Nam June Paik, not only for his status as an internationally renowned artist and his outlook for future society but also for his contribution to driving Korea toward internationalization. In particular, since the NJP Art Center opened in 2008, it has been working hard to preserve Paik’s legacy by collaborating with many artists at home and abroad. The roles of former directors Youngchul Lee, Manu Park, Jin-seok Seo and Kim Seong Eun were crucial; they were at the forefront of promoting Nam June Paik’s legacy more widely through exhibitions and research. However, the awareness and promotion methods of its importance do not lead to active or full support.

His legacy, which includes his role in the art world and his global perspective and desire for world peace, still requires much time to receive more empathy, broader awareness, and practices. As the fifth director of the NJP Art Center, I presented the new vision to create a ‘shared museum connected through art and technology’, which aims to hyperlink Nam June Paik’s legacy with contemporary times. The NJP Art Center, named “the house where Nam June Paik lives for a long time” by Paik himself, serves as a platform for the post-Nam June Paik through his legacy. Continuing research related to Paik every year through the academic journal NJP Reader is also a process of practically understanding his legacy and putting it into practice.

Of course, besides our museum, more and more people, individually or collectively, recognize and study Paik’s legacy as very important. The NJP Art Center is working to preserve his legacy by collaborating with major Korean institutions such as the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea and the Leeum Museum of Art.

I understand that some of his video work is very hard to maintain these days, given that much of the technology it used is no longer manufactured. What is your ethos towards conservation?

Not only Nam June Paik’s art, but also media-based works in which electronic devices play an essential role in the realization of art from the late 20th Century to the present are being reviewed from various angles, as the object of exhibition, collection and research, regarding their operation, sustainability and preservation. In particular, many are interested in Paik’s works using television monitors because they are the most original examples of this media art. The fact that CRT monitors are no longer manufactured due to the technological development of television may cause concern that problems with the operation or preservation of his work may arise. I thought that by constantly asking, ‘How did Paik deal with this problem?’ we should not forget his openness, flexibility and quickness while looking at the various situations, testimonies and records in which he worked.

His work, which pioneered video art by placing television at the center of his art, was a combination of the developer’s attitude and artistic experimentation from the beginning. Paik was always open to many situations and had the agility to apply various elements, even when confronting variables or unexpected situations. For example, Zen for TV (1963), too, was created by chance in such circumstances. Considering the attitude of Paik and the next steps after the monitor production is discontinued, we keep the following two things in mind: The first is the opinions of the assistants and technicians who worked with Paik, and the second is the remediated perspective of media in the context of technological evolutionism.

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For example, Jung Sung Lee, who worked as a technician for many works of Paik, presents a clear opinion on the monitor issue in The More, the Better (1988), owned by The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA Korea), which is persuasive: “Recently, MMCA Korea announced that as a final restoration method, they would apply the latest technology only in part of the monitor while maintaining the form of the existing cathode-ray tube monitor. However, since the essence of a media artwork is the content of the media inside the monitor, I believe the restoration should be done by replacing it with a new LCD monitor, in line with technological development. Suppose the restoration continues to maintain the original cathode-ray tube. In that case, breakdowns will increase, and the subsequent restoration will become more difficult, ultimately increasing the possibility of raising public skepticism about the work.”

Lee’s comment suggests that replacing it with new media is possible, considering the technicians’ opinions and the essential content of the media that I mentioned earlier. To summarize, my opinion so far is that, just as Nam June Paik’s creative journey was, media such as television are open to the possibility of replacement due to the evolution of technology, which, I believe, will more firmly defend Paik’s legacy.

An exterior of an angular glass building
Nam June Paik Art Center. Courtesy NJP Art Center

What are some of the key challenges facing your institution and how do you plan to tackle them?

The NJP Art Center opened in October 2008 and is now in its seventeenth year. We have worked hard to integrate Nam June Paik’s art into the museum system that collects, exhibits, researches and educates, and now we have reached the point of taking another leap forward. Above all, it is a time when institutional and content conditions must be improved to rebuild as a contemporary media art platform where Nam June Paik and post-Nam June Paik come together. As is the case with many art museums in the era of local autonomy, as time goes by, physical spaces such as exhibition halls and storage facilities initially set up need to be reorganized. In addition, realistic development plans are continuously being considered, such as securing budgets for continuous program development, improving old facilities and public recognition and increasing accessibility.

Many issues are directly related to budget, and various strategies are needed to solve them. We are currently seeking support and cooperation from companies from which we can secure financial resources. Meanwhile, regarding content, the NJP Art Center has reached a point where it is necessary to expand the public forum further so that many researchers can participate. We have been sharing our research through the symposium ‘Gift of Nam June Paik’ and NJP Reader, but we are working on creating ways to share the perspectives and opinions of more researchers.

Part of your mission is to “discover the future Nam June Paik” through your art prize. What are the qualities of that future Nam June Paik?

Nam June Paik was an avant-garde artist full of humor and diligently explored new things. The Paik of the future will artistically embody thoughts that can have as fresh a shock as Paik’s impact on humanity. In other words, the ability to drive the positive function of art artistically and technically is required, under Paik’s spirit, such as child-like curiosity, scientist-like inquisitiveness, avant-gardeness of overthrowing fixed ideas and forms, union/fusion rather than separation/division, and the desire for peace rather than war.

Paik’s work was heavily influenced by the then-new concept of mass media. What do you think he’d make of this era where mass media seems to be dying?

Nam June Paik’s art started with the most popular medium, television, but utilized various technologies and media, including robots, satellites, and lasers. As for mass media, Paik paid attention to it as a system to share information with many people with the advantages of serving as a field to connect and share people and thoughts and also recognized the disadvantages of its one-way communication. When he attempted ‘satellite project’ such as Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984), he maximized and demonstrated the advantage that it was possible to have a meeting without the immediacy of information and physical communication through live broadcasting by trying to communicate two-way rather than one-way between cities with a broadcasting system.

Now, this is being done not only by mass media such as television but also by social media connected through the Internet. Paik would have been very interested in this situation for its freedom from the monopoly or fixity of the media and its autonomous activity of new media. He might even be happy to think we are getting closer to spirituality, which he said was the most crucial medium after the laser. He may have been pleased to see that mass media is transitioning to its new role rather than dying and that we are moving toward a world where the openness and diversity of media have expanded. In that sense, he is truly in the time of our old future.

What is your favorite work by Paik in the museum’s collection?

Among Nam June Paik’s many works, my favorite is Moon is the Oldest TV (1965). The work reveals his original understanding of the medium and intuitively reflects the Eastern and Western understandings of time. In this work, created in 1965, the moon’s shape appears different depending on the time of day. The lunar cycle from the new moon to the full moon is divided into twelve television monitors. By inserting a magnet into a cathode-ray tube to interfere with the electromagnetic signals of the internal circuit, Paik made various moon-like shapes appear on the television screen using only those signals. Viewers have an opportunity to think about the length and depth of time, the moment and eternity.

The moon, the oldest light of humanity and the only satellite of the earth, was the object of projection of countless imaginations and aspirations even before scientific exploration. At the NJP Art Center, after the video E-MOON (1999) was added to the original twelve monitors, this work consists of thirteen monitors. The moon, which shows time by recombining it spatially, is formatively meditative and overflows with poetic imagination.

Dr. Namhee Park On Video Conservation, Mass Media and Finding the Next Nam June Paik