The Medium is the Medium

That is the question. Although Marshall McLuhan and Nam June Paik never met each other, they worked during the same time and attempted to address similar media-related problems – the only difference was that one was addressing the issues academically and the other, artistically. Considering they lived and worked only a few hundred miles away from each other, it is somewhat surprising that they never crossed paths. Not once, at least not in any documentation that I’ve come across. In fact, circa 1967, both McLuhan and Paik lived and worked in New York, so even the greatest minds of our time can simultaneously develop similar ideas without ever knowing one another.

Now this does not mean that they were not aware of each other’s existence. While I have no idea if McLuhan knew of Paik (I would assume he had to, considering his life was dedicated to study of mass media), Paik certainly knew McLuhan and incorporated him into some of his works, such as the 1969 TV broadcast of The Medium is the Medium.

The Medium is the Medium is a clever play on McLuhan’s famous statement “the medium is the message.” The sayings essentially mean the exact same thing, as both McLuhan and Paik were preoccupied with the inherent qualities of the medium itself, particularly television. For example, for McLuhan it was not the content of a particular message that mattered, rather the medium in which the message was conveyed. That is, an identical piece of news can be broadcast over the radio and again via television, but since these are two distinct mediums, the way in which the message is received by its audience is completely altered by the specific qualities of the medium itself. Get it? It’s a little confusing at first, then, after you think about it for a while, it begins to make sense.

For Paik, however, the medium is the medium, in that he would completely transform elements of television, for example, using nothing but the internal components of the TV set itself. It went beyond just the message. So, instead of being preoccupied with other elements to change the TV set, Paik would turn the TV against itself in an attempt to transform it into a two-way communication device. For example, the video piece The Medium is the Medium, produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, was an experiment in bridging the gap between the public broadcast system and video art.

In this particular piece, Paik did not physically manipulate the TV set, as he did in numerous other video art installations; rather, he chose to transform the television broadcast by creating a unique video piece. Consequently, he demonstrated that an artist can have a seemingly non-sensical art piece broadcast on public TV, not just within the confines of an art space.