NJP and Avant-Garde Pedagogy

By employing various avant-garde methods as a pedagogical tool, my dissertation demonstrates new ways of promoting student engagement and interdisciplinary critical thinking in the college classroom. The art works of Nam June Paik serve as an example of a fusion between avant-garde and pedagogy, and his unique artistic process has greatly influenced the development of several teaching tools I have used in my own classroom.

In my years of teaching college, I consistently noticed a trend in student’s lack of engagement and/or critical thinking skills, often due in part to a variety of factors – some cultural, some sociopolitical, and some even personal. However, being an interdisciplinary professor and researcher, I fundamentally believe in the importance of students learning how to engage and think critically about a wide range of topics, despite students’ initial presumptions that such topics are of little importance to their personal or future professional lives.

Mentioning the name Picasso would often cause eye-rolls around the room, even though most students had no real understanding of his art. Spending some time with literary giants like Kafka and Proust proved to be less-than-engaging to the majority of students, even if they worked in small groups. The challenges regarding lack of student engagement and critical thinking to began to lessen, however, when I turned to the course materials themselves and began re-designing my curriculum in its entirety.

I spent a lot of time in the classroom teaching students about the theoretical underpinnings of modern avant-garde movements, but I completely overlooked the fact that I could (and should) have students engage directly with the avant-garde, both in and out of the classroom. That way, students would learn about the avant-garde, by doing the avant-garde. My course lectures on the avant-garde focused on three major movements: Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism. As I began searching deeper into each movement’s research agenda and creative processes, I began experimenting with adapting avant-garde activities into my courses. While some activities were more successful than others, I nonetheless continued my experiments, some of which are illustrated in my dissertation.

Soon, my dissertation began influencing my teaching and my teaching began influencing my dissertation; in turn, creating a useful parallel between my life as a doctoral candidate and my life as a college instructor. Ultimately, my classroom became the experimental testing ground for the theories I was developing through my doctoral work. My research on Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism eventually led me to the postmodern avant-garde movement of Fluxus, which developed in New York in the early 1960’s via collaborative efforts among an international group of artists.

One of Fluxus’ pioneering members: Nam June Paik, of course.

Paik’s prolific and innovative body of art quickly caught my interest and I soon began scouring through books and art museums for any reference to his life and work as an artist. The more I learned about his creative process, the more fascinated I became with his immense level of insight in relation to future technological developments, such as the Internet.

Paik was a modest and passionate man, quick to give credit to the artistic minds around him, and hardly ever taking any for himself. He deemed his professional work apolitical, and his personal life simplistic. In reality, his works were incredibly political, and his life was filled with seemingly unending adventures that took him from South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Germany, and eventually, to the U.S..

He was a digital nomand and a true global citizen – a man simultaneously with no homeland and many. Paik’s life and art was anything but simple.

I have viewed over three-dozen of Paik’s multimedia works in various museums across the world, and I have read a great deal about his early Fluxus performances. Through my research, I began speculating how his work follows a research-through-experimentation process that is personal, political, and interdisciplinary. As I continued fine-tuning my argument about the elements of Paik’s creative process, I came to find out he spent many years teaching college part-time, both in the U.S. and abroad.

While teaching at CalArts, for example, Paik wrote a short memo outlining his teaching philosophy for a video art course. He began the memo with “I am teaching video art,” and ended with, “I will just teach about art politics.” Paik’s preoccupation as an instructor moved beyond the confines of the classroom, as he wanted to ensure his students understood what it really meant to be a working video artist. Even though he was teaching at an institution known for its experimental curriculum, Paik did not shy away from teaching his students about the often brutal realities of a professional artistic career.

It was in reading Paik’s CalArts course memo that the intersection between the avant-garde and pedagogy became clearer to me, not just as a student, but as a professor as well. While a fusion between the two is not a completely novel concept, there is much room for continued exploration and experimentation with avant-garde methods as pedagogical tools, particularly in the undergraduate curriculum. Following the path of Humanities research, my quick connection between avant-garde and pedagogy only marked the beginning of my doctoral work. My research on the modernist avant-garde and Paik’s art soon led me to theories on progressive education, critical pedagogy, and strangely enough, the Jesuits.

The intertwining of elements derived from modernist avant-garde methodologies to the various theories that encompass progressive education, comprise the foundational context of my dissertation, while Paik’s Fluxus performances and early multimedia works serve as examples of the fusion between the avant-garde and pedagogy. The demonstration and discussion portion of my dissertation centers on three experimental activities created for one of my Humanities courses, and how these avant-garde based pedagogical tools can aid other instructors in increasing student-engagement and critical thinking skills in their own classrooms.

The notion of avant-garde as pedagogy is still very much in the beginning stages, and even after my dissertation is complete, there will be much more research and writing to do, all of which I look forward to dedicating my time and efforts to pursue.

 

Remembering PAIK and NYC

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Nam June Paik’s death in Miami, FL, and two weeks since my departure from New York. Hardly similar events, but related nonetheless. To celebrate these poetically tragic detours, I write about two very important characters in my life’s journey.

Ah, New York. The bustling chaotic metropolis is simply unmatched by any other city on the planet.

The Big Apple will crush your soul, it will consume you down to your very last desire to find true love, to experience romance, to find happiness. It will push you to the edge of hopelessness, of sexual deviance, of utter mental, emotional and physical chaos. Its massive concrete jungle filled with seemingly endless towering buildings will make you feel infinitely smaller than you ever thought possible. Its purposely segregated architectural landscape will force you to understand how and why anyone bases the value of human contact on how many train transfers it takes to get to the desired destination. Its inexplicably high rental prices will drive you into living situations you never thought you could live through. Its endless status-driven preoccupation will ultimately transform you into an emotionally jaded, physically superficial, and mentally unbalanced human being.

But who doesn’t love New York?

All of the gut-wrenching qualities of life in the big city are equaled, if not topped by, the absolute energy found in its magnetic pulse. New York will lure you with its sexiness, its realness, and its unparalleled cultural scene. It will make you dizzy with the endless options of fantastic food and delicious libations, all of which are sure to warm your soul even in its darkest nights. Its jaw-dropping array of the best-of-the-best in the art world, from the operatic voices flowing from The Met to the graffiti laden streets, will remind you of just how blessed you are to even walk the streets of such an artistic powerhouse. Its seemingly ubiquitous presence in a ridiculously large number of films and television shows spanning decades, make you proud to be part of its wonderful popular culture landscape, even if only for a day.

The city is so special precisely for its inherently unique ability to be both loved and hated within the same breath. Everything about NYC is amazingly wonderful and chaotic. Sure, New York is not for everyone, nor should it be for a lifetime, but truly experiencing this city should be a pre-requisite for living one’s life to the fullest. If you can survive New York, you can survive anything. In fact, gorgeous/terrible arts, culture, theories, experiments, and adventures continue to survive within our collective memories, contributing, little by little, to our misunderstood existential selves.

One such contribution, perhaps the most important, lies within the insanely rich and diverse avant-garde scene of the 1960’s, which will likely survive and remain unparalleled until the end of time. And lucky for the rest of us, Paik just happened to be at the right place, at the right time.

In 1964, a 32-year old Nam June Paik moved to an apartment in the Villages (most likely SoHo), and spent most of his life there creating artworks that would go on to fundamentally change the course of human communication and artistic creation. While he had lived in South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, and Germany before moving to the U.S., his relationship with NYC nonetheless became a complex one. After all, he was a single, 30-something immigrant artist just trying to make it in the world.

In some ways, aren’t we all trying to do just that?

While Paik was already a well-known artist by the time he arrived in the U.S., it was likely the city’s wonderful chaos that pushed him personally and professionally to create art that he may not have created otherwise. His pursuit of knowledge was fundamentally tied into arts-based research and experimentation, and what better place to intertwine life and art than in New York?

There are many reasons the city provided such a fruitful landscape to the endless boundary pushing of avant-garde artists in the ‘60s, one of which was – ironically – super cheap housing. Many NYC neighborhoods were once down-right scary places, filled with illicit drugs and sex, as well as street violence and homelessness.

In fact, SoHo would not be the remarkable neighborhood it is today without George Maciunas, the founder of the Fluxus avant-garde movement (of which Paik was a pioneering member). Maciunas was a notable and central figure not only in gentrifying SoHo, but in kick starting the gentrification movement within New York and beyond.

And how did that all begin? As an avant-garde art experiment, of course.

An experiment of which I wanted to partake in, even this many decades later. My academic mentor once advised me, “do not follow in the footsteps of the master, but seek what they sought” (a wonderful saying from Japanese poet Mashuo Bashō). And so I have. I am. And I continue to do so. But it is no easy feat.

Since embarking on the life long journey of academic and creative pursuits, I have lived in Florida, South Korea, and most recently, New York. In all three places I have shared a spiritual space with Paik. Coincidence? Yes and no.

Yes, I have followed in my master’s footsteps (to an extent), but I also continue to seek what he sought, many times unknowingly. New York was a game changer for me, as I did not live my life inside the walls of the museum archives researching historical data on Paik or the avant-garde. Instead:

I walked the streets and breathed in the surprisingly fresh city air.
I locked myself in the apartment and read and wrote and danced.
I practiced yoga with strangers and exercised alone.
I ate wonderfully cheap food and ordered delivery on the regular.
I crossed paths with many people, most insignificant and some perhaps not.
I took the train often and enjoyed the journey always.
I spent some time being a tourist and much time doing nothing.

I experienced life in a new way. I experimented with life in a new way. I lived life in a new way. I sought what my master sought, and I am still finding all that it has to offer me. And for that, I am glad.

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.

Media Buddha

TV Buddha is, hands down, one of the most brilliant of Paik’s video installations. Although the photographs shown here are of a 2002 version of the  original 1974 piece, it nonetheless demonstrates a level of awareness and artistic depth that was way ahead of its time, in relation to both its use of technology, as well as its sociopolitical and cultural implications.

This installation is so powerful it speaks for itself. The notion of not only intertwining Western technology with ancient Eastern spirituality, but also forcing these elements into a mode of constant surveillance (or perhaps contemplation?) offers the viewer a strong dose of what effects mass media can/does/will have over society and the individual.

 

Is More Really Better?

Dadaikseon, also known as The More the Better, is Paik’s largest art installation, which was built exclusively for the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon (a suburb of Seoul). Getting to the museum is no easy feat, but the piece definitely makes the trip worthwhile.

Paik build this massive cake-like tower of 1003 television sets in commemoration of Seoul hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics. The seemingly odd number of TV sets is actually representative of October 3rd, Korea’s National Foundation Day (Gaecheonjeol).

The installation seems to speak volumes about a couple of important elements: First, South Korea is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and while 1988 was not representative of the developed infrastructure or high-income economy of today, it was certainly a vastly different and much-improved world than the one Paik left nearly 40 years earlier. Second, aside from his 1984 satellite broadcast, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, no physical artwork of Paik’s existed in his home country prior to the creation of Dadaikseon, which also went on to be featured in his third global broadcast Wrap Around the World in 1988.

Thus, the piece is not only representative of Korea insanely fast move from an underdeveloped country into a commercial powerhouse, but it is also indicative of Paik’s presence and adoration by those in his home country. Paik had the social, political, and economic means to flee the country at the brink of the Korean War, which allowed him to leave behind an anti-nationalist sentiment; however, he did became one of the most influential voices in the development of media art and culture, and his Korean roots were clearly evident in much of his art.

Ship Turtle Fractal

Instead of writing about my experience with Paik’s 1993 video installation Fractal Turtleship, I decided to get a bit more creative. This installation is housed at the Daejeon Museum of Art in South Korea and I shot several short videos of it when I visited.

I took those videos and threw them into an editing program. Chopped it and played a bit  the with saturation and contrast. Then, I searched online for a CC soundtrack and took the first one I found – Chan Wai Fat’s Dream sequence. I had not previously heard of the artist or his music, but the composition is a fitting accompaniment to the video.

It’s 2014 – Are We Watching Big Brother?

Good Morning, Mr. Orwell is a force to be reckoned with. To think that audiences around the globe could watch a live broadcast of a multi-media avant-garde variety show is amazing. Granted, some of the footage was previously recorded, but the broadcast was still live, global, and beyond its time. This all happened on the first day of 1984, exactly 30 years ago.

I am lucky enough to have been able to visit the 30 year retrospective on this massive and awesome satellite installation. Photos of the exhibit, other NJP works, and well, all of my photography, can be found here.

Paik, being a pioneering in television and video art, would not agree with George Orwell’s rather dystopic Big Brother society he wrote about in his 1949 book Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Paik says Orwell “was only half-right” and I agree with him – to an extent. Even today, while privacy is certainly a thing of the past (at least in many ways), we have still not reached the level of dystopic despair described in Orwell’s novel.

Nonetheless, much of Orwell’s vision has come to fruition, just in a systematically different way. For example, I am currently writing this entry in South Korea, a country that is “free.” But what does freedom really mean? Especially for a country only recently recognized on the global stage. That freedom, like all others, comes with a price tag, and small print. If I were to interject right here (“the South Korean president…blah blah blah…sucks and should be taken out of office…”), well then, my blog just might be taken out of office. You get the gist.

In South Korea, there is a level of policing on the internet, as well TV censorship, that is somewhat absurd, at least by U.S. standards. Adults are prohibited from visiting pornographic website online, and actors kissing on screen is often edited out before a public broadcast. In turn, we have Noam Chomsky side of things, and on the other hand we have Henry Jenkins. Ultimately, an educated balance is best, particularly when dealing with technological evolutions.

In some ways, however, Paik had an enchanted view of technology. Sure, he was “critical” of the system, but he was part of the system – be it the art galleries, museums or local TV stations that displayed his works. I think that Mr. Orwell is a brilliant piece, not because it criticizes the concept of big brother, as it does not take a political stance one way or the other; rather, because of the show’s innovative use of technology. Paik’s choice for title was sexy, simply because it was broadcast in 1984 and showing that the world had not become an utter mess like Orwell envisioned. Apple capitalized on the same “sexiness” of Orwell’s book, and had a wildly successfully launch campaign for the Macintosh.

The real importance of Mr. Orwell lies in that it was a rather successful broadcast, despite its unique style and technological complexity. This was the first time a global satellite television show was broadcast simultaneously throughout the world, including cities like New York, Paris, and Seoul. The show also included well-known avant-garde artists like Joseph Beuys and John Cage, who were introduced to thousands of viewers, who have never otherwise been exposed to avant-garde art. Moreover, the show’s viewers were experiencing all of this from the comfort of their own homes.

How is that for a new spin on big brother? He was certainly watching us, but not in the way originally envisioned. And he certainly did not think we’d eventually be watching him. Well, I’ve got news for you big brother…

Watering a Garden with Electronics

I spent quite a bit of time enjoying TV Garden, although it was not the original version. I believe this one was created in 2000, and honestly, I am unsure if Paik was directly involved with the installation process itself. This particular version is at the Nam June Paik Art Center, located about an hour south of Seoul in a small city called Yongin. It is a nice facility, and this installation alone makes a visit worthwhile.

Paik has nearly 40 TV monitors (it was difficult to count, but I think I got to 38) of various sizes scattered, or rather, planted, throughout a real live green garden. At first, I thought that the plants were fake, but they aren’t. They are 100% real. It’s a unique sight to see televisions peeking out through the bushes, knowingly sharing the same soil as plants – almost as if both (plant and TV) need the soil to survive. It’s a rather poetic installation, and probably one of my personal favorites.

Each TV screen is playing a 30min or so loop of Paik’s video piece Global Groove (1973). However, not all of the screens match, meaning that the loop is playing the video at different parts on different monitors. It creates a bit of dissonance within the piece. The installation highlights the notion of the peaceful coexistence of technology with nature, but also technology with technology. Again, I do find this piece to be incredibly poetic in nature (pun intended)– both visually and philosophically.

I think that Paik’s recycling the components of a previous work is telling. Once more, bringing forth a question of technology and the different elements used to make up the whole. Global Groove is a video art piece, but it needs monitors for an audience to enjoy it. It also needs speakers, since so much information is also conveyed via a musical soundtrack. If the TV monitors were  flickering non-sense, or not turned on at all, TV Garden would be rather dull art installation.

In fact, some monitors were not on (most likely because they the tubes had burned out), and others were turned sideways or placed completely upside down. I wondered about the varied monitor placement. Did Paik envision the monitors in various positions, so much so that you’d have to kink your neck to view the video? Most likely he did. He was a jokester in many ways, as he never thought that life should be taken so seriously, yet he still managed to make some serious strides in advancing communication in the realm of art and new media.

Ultimately, TV Garden allows the viewer a unique opportunity to interact with a large number of TV set, almost like a sports bar, but instead of mindless images being thrown your way, you find yourself pondering, once more, about the relationship between man, machine and nature.

When I come to think of it, how do they water the plants to keep them alive without killing the TV’s? Organic life needs water and some TLC, but man made life certainly does not…

Empty Your Mind and Awake

Bruce Lee offered a challenge: “empty your mind.” Along with Buddhist teachings, I interpret Lee’s quote to mean that we must all achieve, however momentary, inner peace in order to empty our mind, so that we are then ready to be shocked and awakened. In some ways, we must continuously empty and reawaken the mind throughout our lives, or else we are left stagnant, bored, and unenlightened.

Emptying our minds to achieve inner peace is a challenge, hence why some devote their entire lives to such a journey. I cherish the moments, however small, in which I have been able to regroup and focus the mind on my studies and my art. Despite all its challenges, living in South Korea is allowing me (day-by-day) to not only reawaken my mind to new cultural views, but to also inspire my scholarly research and artistic creations. The 7500 mile move from Orlando, Florida to Daejeon, South Korea has served as shock to my system and my mind, in a mostly positive way.

Just the other day I was taking a solo walk around the beautiful, urban beach city of Busan, where I came upon a nondescript art gallery tucked between a nail salon and a beauty shop. Outside the gallery was a large vertical banner, mostly written in Hangul, but feature romanized versions of the artists’ names. The first name listed: Andy Warhol, the second name: Paik Nam June. This small, nondescript gallery had not only one, but two pieces of Paik’s work for sale, for only $2500 each.

So, the main impetus behind the move to South Korea are the simple, yet thrilling moments of stumbling upon great art as if it was just another New York hot dog stand. Just one moment, among many, that continuously awakes me to another perception of existence.