Nam Jun Paik and cybernetics

The friendly folk at sent me an intriguing email today by Carolyn Kane entitled The Cybernetic Pioneer of Video Art: Nam June Paik. The late Nam Jun Paik is, of course, one of the most important video artists ever. I’ll never forget the story retold to me by a friend working in the Brisbane Festival, who, when asked by the Director of that Festival who some of her favourite artists were, replied “Nam Jun Paik.” “Who?” was the stunning answer from this supposedly Great and Good member of Australia’s cultural elite … But that’s slightly off-topic.  

Here is an excerpt from Kane’s enlightening essay – the full piece is here

If we look back forty years, video’s ability to continuously process new data in real time and render it for visual display make it an important correlate technology for contemporary computing systems. In 1965, SONY placed the first black and white portapak video camera on the commercial market. The new technology granted easy portability, immediacy, low monetary investment, and for the first time, made video available to artists.1 Video historian John Hanhardt has noted that, at the time, the excitement surrounding the new medium was most keenly reflected in the early experimental works of Nam June Paik (1932-2006). This era in Paik’s career is also marked by his emerging interest in cybernetics.

Cybernetics emerged in the 1940s from MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener. Instead of viewing communication as a one-way ticket between cause and effect, Wiener looked at communication as a circular system of information exchange. His most well known example is a ship’s steering system, an example that echoes the Greek origin of the term, kybernetikos, meaning to steer or guide.2 While cybernetics eventually opened the doors to artificial intelligence projects such as smart bombs, smart planes, robots, and various other military “defense” technologies, Wiener has nonetheless maintained a sharp critical and ethical eye on the applications of the automated systems he doctored.

Wiener was not alone. In the 1960s and 1970s, Nam June Paik, and many of his pioneering video artist colleagues and Fluxus collaborators took the visionary work of Wiener, the electric prophesies of McLuhan and Gregory Bateson and the utopic designs of Buckminster Fuller and concurred that the new video medium would usher in a social utopia that would extend far beyond the spheres of the 1970s experimental art world.


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