Nam June Paik and the Conservation of Video Sculpture

A Symposium at DAAP

Conserving the pioneering work of artist Nam June Paik was the subject of this past weekend’s symposium at The University of Cincinnati. Made possible by a grant from the Getty Foundation, artists, curators, and academics from across the nation and as far away as Rome, descended on Cincinnati in an effort to develop practices and consider the wider implications of conserving technological media that’s “guaranteed to change”.

The symposium takes as its starting point Paik’s 1996 work Cinci-Mix; a monolithic 21 X 8 foot wall of television monitors commissioned for the Aronoff Center for Design and Art Building on the UC campus.  Hailed as a work that announced the dawning of a new era and a new electronic arts program, Cinci-Mix was troubled from the start.  According to then DAAP Dean Jay Chatterjee, “everyone was against this; they all wanted a painting or a sculpture”. The Director of the Ohio Arts Council refused to allocate funds for the project saying ominously “I know it won’t last”.

Plowing ahead, Chatterjee met with Paik in New York to discuss the commission.  At his favorite restaurant, Paik agreed to a project that would involve UC students and faculty collecting bits of sound and video that would later be mixed and edited by the artist. As for the actual sculpture, according to Chatterjee, Paik simply said “I’ll give you the specifications, but you’ll have to make it”.  In the end, the video components were sourced and money for the sculpture raised.

Patrick Mills, then a graduate student at DAAP, was part of the team that made Cinci-Mix a reality. “We took all these bits of video, including snippets of friend’s parties, and transferred them to ¾ inch tape that was sent to (Paik collaborator) Paul Garrin.”  “Nam June didn’t have a lot to do with the actual mix” speculates Mills, suggesting that Garrin probably put it all together.  Of one aspect, however, Mills is absolutely certain: when it came to time to program the sequence of video into the sculpture – now in the form of three playing laserdiscs- it was Cincinnati curator Cynthia Goodman directing the shots. “She made the call as to how it would play, and how it would look” Mills remembers.

The problems began shortly after its debut.  Due to constant play, within a year some of the rear projection screens became noticeably dimmer than others. With no budget for maintenance, bulbs that cost $2100.00 each were never replaced and simply left to wear out over time. By 2004, three of the 18 projection screens had failed, and Cinci-Mix now doubled as a kind of JumboTron, regularly featuring basketball games rather than Paik’s video mix.  Finally in 2006, with several of its screens now completely broken and service parts no longer available, Dean Judith Koroscik decided that the piece was to be disassembled. After a period of storage its remaining working parts were ignominiously sold to a sports bar in Tennessee for “pennies on the dollar”.

The strange undercurrent in this tale of life and death is that in the 15 years since its inception, and five years since it ceased operation, no one remembers exactly how Cinci-Mix worked.  Patrick Mills recalls Cinci-Mix being run by single bulb projectors, however Global Groove (2004), Paik’s other large scale work with rear projection screens, relies on a 3 bulb system. The software, running on a Windows 95 platform, was based on proprietary technology made by Electrosonic. The operation and playback of the three channel video display, its order and duration, are also a complete mystery.  Aside from a few photographic stills, no documentary evidence exists showing Cinci-Mix fully operational.  In 2011, the question is no longer one of restoration (which is impossible) but rather recreation.

The case of Cinci-Mix raises provocative questions.  When it comes to video sculpture, should we consider the video alone art, or is it inseparable from its carrier, in this instance, a wall of rear projection t.v.s? If the video and the carrier are separated, is the work no longer authentic?

In his lecture Honoring Integrity in the Face of Obsolescence: Conserving Video Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, Glen Wharton refers to his experience with a work by Bruce Nauman.  Think(1993) is described as a piece composed of two color video monitors, two laser disc players, two laser discs (color, sound), and metal table, dimensions variable. When Think was shown at the 53rd Venice Biennale 2009 the contents of the laser disc were transferred to two flat screen monitors and the work was shown in a wholly new design.  Troubled, Wharton discussed the issue with Nauman, who informed him that it was the video itself that characterized the essence of Think, its configuration at MOMA simply represented what he had on hand during its creation in 1993. Thus for Wharton, conservation should involve the artist and his or her intentions as closely as possible.

In her presentation, Laura Barreca of the Museo Nazionale  Delle Arti Del XXI Secolo, refers to the thinking of the Italian theorist Cesare Brandi  in suggesting that the conservation of time based media should account for the “unita potenziale” or potential unity of the work. This approach considers both a piece’s historical as well as aesthetic dimensions, and posits that authenticity can be maintained so long as these aspects are balanced.  Proceeding along this Brandian line of inquiry, Cinci-Mix might still be considered authentic even if it were rebuilt from scratch, as its appearance is defined by the video -which is still extant- and the screens merely compose its support.

At this point, it may be productive to contemplate whether Cinci-Mix is even worth conserving.  By nearly all accounts, Nam June Paik had little if anything to do with the project.  Dean Chatterjee admits that to the best of his knowledge Paik never saw the completed sculpture, and Patrick Mill’s assertion that Garrin likely handled most of the video editing, with Cynthia Goodman deciding how the video would play, suggests that this is a work by Nam June Paik in the same way that For The Love of God is a work by Damien Hirst, that is, in name only. One might also question whether Cinci-Mix is of anything more than limited historical importance –let alone aesthetic-in terms of Paik’s oeuvre.

The proliferation of “new media” in the vaults of our collecting institutions demands that procedures be developed ensuring their long term survivability. Video sculptures like Paik’s Cinci-Mix are inexorably linked to their time and place by a variety of factors, technology chief among them.  In contrast to ‘traditional forms’ of artwork that give the outward appearance (however illusory) of something fixed and unchanging, video sculptures resist transcending their moment of creation as their very nature insists that they be bogged down by it.

-Alan D. Pocaro

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