Preserving Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway

Preserving Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway

(pleasant music) – [Steven] I’m with Dan Finn, conservator for time-based media at the
Smithsonian American Art Museum, standing across from
this enormous collection of televisions and neon by
the artist Nam June Paik. So what we’re seeing is this
grid of American states, but they’re framing all of these monitors, all of these television sets. And those televisions sets are all on, and they’re all playing different things. For me, it’s almost
impossible to focus anywhere. – [Dan] What you see is the
sense of information overload, and the importance of
technology and media to life in this country and life around the world, and the sense of connectedness overarching the geography
of where we live. All of the content has
to do with the state in which the monitors are present. It’s mostly what the artist
associated with the state. So some of them are artists
that he worked with, hail from a certain state,
but then some of them are more associative,
like potatoes in Idaho. – [Steven] When I think of conservation, I tend to think of very old objects. If the object is treated reasonably well, it can survive for centuries,
maybe even for millennia. But here we have an object that
was made during my lifetime, and it wouldn’t have existed
without your intervention and the intervention
of other conservators. – [Dan] There are information carriers which have the content that’s
playing on the monitors. They originally were shown
on LaserDisc, then DVD and currently digital files
on solid state players. And then, a lot of cabling
that’s transmitting that, and then we have the layer of display, which are these cathode ray tube monitors, the traditional old-style of monitor that started becoming obsolete
in the end of the ’90s, and then the neon lights
which are all custom-built and susceptible to cracking. – [Steven] You really ave to think about the artist’s intention and how to maintain this object. The artist is fascinating
because, earlier than anybody else I can think of, he was
placing television sets within works of art as
objects unto themselves, more like sculpture. – [Dan] One thing that
conservators of time-based media are always juggling is to what extent is this object purely a functional piece. Like you say, is it just intended as a display of some information? Or does it have sculptural value? And he certainly imbues his monitors with sculptural value
in many of his works. So, in that case, we’ve already begun to replace some of the
screens with LCD screens, but we did it in a way to
maintain the original chassis. You’ll see that in all
of the smaller monitors, which are all LCDs, and that’s because those
small five inch screens are the first to die. So, the balancing act is then,
yes, it’s a new LCD screen, it’s a new display
technology, but it’s housed in the original chassis
to try and maintain, to the extent possible,
the sculptural effect. – [Steven] It’s almost a
philosophical question. What are we preserving? Are we preserving the original objects? And, in this case, no. But you are trying to
preserve the semblance of the original expression of the work. – [Dan] One of the things that we have to be very conscientious of is the conceptual nature
of these artworks. And this is one way in which
time-based media conservation and, more broadly,
contemporary art conservation tends to differentiate itself
from traditional conservation of objects like sculptures
or oil paintings. You can’t have two Mona Lisas. The one that Leonardo da Vinci
painted is the Mona Lisa. The rest are copies. Those have value, but not the same value as that original object
which then gets conserved. In time-based media, you have DVDs, VHSs, digital files, photographs, films. All of these things are produced in ways that inherently produce lots of copies. He would be amenable, in many
cases, to updating technology. So he had pieces he even updated from CRTs to having an iteration with LCD screens. – [Steven] This is really
a relief for me to hear because, if one were to be really strict, I had this image of the
screens going black one by one until there was only
a single monitor left, and then that eventually dying, and the object becoming
in a sense dormant. – [Dan] There is a way about thinking of time-based media art in
that the artwork doesn’t exist unless it’s being shown,
unless it’s being performed. One can easily see how Nam June Paik intentionally intended
that sort of evolution. A practitioner in that Fluxus Movement, he was very interested in performance. He could very easily think of this piece as a performance piece,
and all of the monitors and video content are players, and they interact very differently. It looks a little bit different
every time you come to it. And there’s some
difference on the monitors, there’s some difference in brightness, and there’s some difference
in how they are reproducing the color on that day or in that hour. These things warm up during the
day, and then get turned off and have to warm up again the next day. And so, some of the performers can change. Some of the instrumentation might change, just as it would in a performance. And yet, somehow, the overarching
identity of the artwork survives across the variations that occur every time you install it or update some technological element. – [Steven] So, in some sense,
the object is a living thing. – [Dan] And I believe that’s
the case for all works of art, except that with newer
media their lifespans are so much shorter that it’s something that we have to deal with in
one lifetime, multiple times. Whereas, with an oil painting,
a conservator’s treatment maybe is good for one
career’s worth of time, and then the next conservator may or may not have to deal with it again. So the cycles of intervention
become much more frequent, and what does that mean about
how these artworks live? And I think that one of
the things that that means is that conservators, curators,
museums are starting to deal with the fact that they
are not only collectors but producers of the artworks
that they collect, in a sense, that they become in
charge of that evolution. (pleasant music)

5 thoughts on “Preserving Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway

  1. I saw this in person. Its awesome. The scale of this thing just isnt captured by the images used but im not sure it could be.
    But… did he say the CRTs are turned on and off? Does that mean someone at the museum has to come in, in the morning and turn on every TV on that display? Oh no..

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