“People think of archives as old dusty fusty places: not dead, but not an alive space.” muses Michelle Yun, curator of Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot, which opened at Asia Society on September 5th. Prior to her appointment at Asia Society, Yun had worked as the curator at Hunter College and for a time in Cai Guo-Qiang’s studio assisting with exhibitions and his Olympic Performance in 2008. But, where Yun cut her teeth was working under Robert Storr at the Museum of Modern Art, where she spent considerable time in the archives getting a sense of the history of the institution.
As she reflected on the Paik archive, Yun expressed fascination with his papers. “It was remarkable how prescient and thoughtful he was in the 60s and 70s.” Assorted examples dot the catalogue and exhibition. One note illustrates two people kissing over TV, the way a family might do today over Skype. Another note predicts the death of paper, as we might see performed daily in our e-mail. As Yun continued, “even though some of his ideas manifest later, he was thinking about a variety of projects and innovations in his early musings.”
The Paik Estate Archive was awarded to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2009, beating out museums like the MoMA, Getty, Guggenheim, and Whitney. However, it wouldn’t be for another three and a half years that the archive would first become available to the public. One cause for delay was American Art’s ambition to form its own exhibition around its acquisition Nam June Paik, Global Visionary. The other reason was the sheer volume of stuff in Paiks studios.
“It was like hugging a redwood,” recalled Lynn Putney, associate registrar for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She was responsible for getting Paik’s Estate to DC from his Greene Street studio (NYC) and warehouses in Brooklyn and San Francisco. In the end, it took up to eight contractors and several staff members one month to stabilize, pack, and ship the objects in two tractor-trailers, and five box-trucks, to a Smithsonian warehouse facility in Prince George’s County, Maryland: just outside the Washington Beltway. At the warehouse, 55 linear feet of papers were subtracted from the Object Archive, and transported to the SAAM Research and Scholars department, located in Washington near the American Art Museum.
The Object Archive’s 10,000 items remained in Maryland, housed in the exact spot where American Art restored Paik’s Electronic Super Highway Paik’s tendency to reuse parts from past pieces, made cataloguing the 10,000 objects difficult. “We have televisions that have labels for both TV Garden and TV Fish, indicating that they were probably used for multiple installations of different works,” said Claire Denny, a collections management specialist who works on the Paik Object Archive. She further noted that various installations might use different televisions every time—even if they’re technically the same piece—and that the artist might reuse titles, like Zen for TV.
The seeds of Becoming Robot were sown six months prior to Yun’s appointment, according to Melissa Chiu, former Director of Asia Society. They had reached out to SAAM to investigate the availability of materials. Upon arriving at Asia Society, Yun, who had an interest to organize a Paik exhibition, quickly identified the importance to highlight Paik’s 1987 stationary robot Li Tai Po, a gift to the Asia Society from Harold and Ruth Newman—who were instrumental in starting Asia Society’s contemporary collection. Trips to the Paik Estate Archives were essential to flesh-out the exhibition beyond the display of robot objects. “The object archives are extensive: Like being in a toy store,” Yun observed. “His collecting interests were across the board and fascinating!” Nearly everything in his studio and warehouses made it to Maryland: old scales, lanterns, sewing machines and typewriters; chassis for radios and televisions. Some objects still possessed their price tags. Numerous cages adorn the shelves, symbolic of his friend John Cage. There are numerous kitschy coyotes, which live in the archives as a symbol for Joseph Beuys. And, of course, no Paik estate would be complete without TVs: 687 televisions, consisting of 108 models, the most numerous of which were 129 units of the same 19″ Samsung color television.
Paik also collected toys. An assortment of toy bikes, soldiers, cars, and airplanes, dot his archives. The toys extend to a variety of clocks and banks. One of those clocks continued to beep at irregular intervals as staff catalogued objects in the archive. While the beeps were amusing—so Paik—they were also concerning. Should that battery corrode it would be a risk to the beeping object, as well as objects nearby. It took staff more than three years to find the source. Not surprisingly, a raft of robots was also amongst the toys he collected: another dimension added to to Becoming Robot, to accompany a suite of drawings and sketches of robots Paik made over the years.
DC might be a quick weekend getaway from New York, but the distance is enough to have an impact on the access to the archives. “You could spend copious time wading through things,” Yun reflected. “I had to be draconian on what I focused on.” While the finding aide in the Paik Papers is fairly extensive, the online access to the object archive is still a work in progress. To make the most of her time, “Michelle had a long and specific list,” recalled Lynn Putney.
Unlike Smithsonian American Art’s earlier exhibition, Global Visionary—to which Becoming Robot has been negatively compared by some—the intent at the Asia Society doesn’t seem to be one of creating a comprehensive retrospective. Instead its focus is clearly one of relating technology to humanity in perhaps the most direct way possible: presenting the automaton television robots alongside Paik’s collaborative performances with Charlotte Moorman. Robot K-456, Paik’s first robot, was capable of movement and performance. However, it couldn’t play cello nearly as well as the Julliard-trained Moorman. “There is a point of departure with humanizing technology,” Yun indicated. “With Moorman, she is a parallel to the ideas of robots. He is using her body as a canvas to have a dialog with technology.” Often that canvas took twists of the absurd. Paik used his sister’s bra to create Robot K-456. For Moorman, he created a TV Bra. He was also carted off to jail with Moorman and her cello in 1967 when performing Opera Sextronique, which involved Moorman performing in various states of undress.
But the criticism of Becoming Robot is partly justified. At times the core idea—of ways Paik tried to integrate man and machine—has its tangents. There are visual references to Buddhism and his use of closed-circuit television. His 1984 global satellite performance, Good Morning Mr. Orwell, consumes a gallery, as does the participatory Three-Camera Participation/Participation TV, which invites gallery visitors to tweet a photo of themselves as a part of the projection. Each of these does have its relevance to the core idea, and it’s likely that more artifacts relating to either robots or to Moorman might become redundant. As Yun related, “putting together an exhibition… is a puzzle, and you have to put the pieces together.”
The same kind of puzzle is still at play within the archives. Although each piece has been identified in the Object Archive, there is still work to further clarify the objects. A 19-inch TV may always be a 19-inch TV, but with how often Paik reused that television presents some significance. “Time and money and space being what they are, why wouldn’t you recycle and reuse your media? So, if you had 12 screens that just came out of a show, why not use them again?” suggests Putney. “It enriches the history of the piece the more connections are made.”
What Becoming Robot at Asia Society indicates, is that there is plenty of potential for focused study of Paik, whether it is bridging the gap between man and machines, or exploring ways he used, manipulated, and advanced television. There are plenty of papers and objects that would support a thesis on his musical studies, use, and approaches. And, of course, there is his sense of humor. While it often tended toward the racy—with TV Bra as a clever visual pun on the phrase “boob tube,” or how TV Chair caused the user to virtually sit on his own face—some of his approaches had less to do with technology. Collection specialists found, amongst his objects, an envelope with orange hued flakes inside. The instructions on the envelope entrusted the recipient to return the “enclosed fish” to its home. Some say the way Paik managed his own archives was organic. In a few instances, so were its contents.