Avant-Broadcasting (circa 1984)
French television host Claude Villers had to explain to viewers why the program they tuned into at dinnertime was called Good Morning Mr. Orwell. It was New Years Day, 1984 and the specter of Orwell’s book loomed ominously over a world still caught in the throes of the Cold War. Villers told the audience that they were watching a live satellite broadcast that was a joint production between television stations in the U.S. and Europe, whose content would bounce between continents. To cover the time difference, the show’s producers had decided that it would begin at noon in New York, which was nine a.m. in San Francisco, and six p.m. in Paris. Even Orwell, Villers says, hadn’t predicted television’s global reach. Nam June Paik had, although Villers never mentions him by name because he was so little known in Europe.
George Plimpton hosted the U.S. side of the broadcast from a studio in New York, where Paik was better known. Plimpton said that in opposition to Orwell’s gloomy prognostication Paik was calling the program a “global disco,” a reference to Paik’s earlier video Global Groove from 1974. Although Global Groove went on to be seen on television and in galleries around the world, it was pre-recorded. Good Morning Mr. Orwell was the first time that Paik had been able to organize a live, international television show in which performers could interact with each other, almost in real-time. With studio trickery, Plimpton is able to overcome the fifty-five-second transmission delay inherent to the satellites of the day and raise a glass of champagne for a New Years toast with Villers. They wish the audience, who are presumably also raising their glasses in participatory solidarity, “À bon santé!”
1984 was a momentous year for television in the U.S. The ad for the new Apple Macintosh computer made its national debut a few weeks after Paik’s broadcast. Also responding to Orwell, it neatly recounts the story of a woman who smashes a broadcast of Big Brother, symbolically freeing the audience from the bondage of passive television watching for the greater promise of personal computing. Later that year, MTV held its first annual music video awards, elevating the most popular art form of the 80s to laurel-worthy, if insouciant, grandeur. When the Cosby Show debuted at the end of the year, it was the first television program in the U.S. to feature an upper-middle class black family and helped changed national perceptions about race.
By 1984, Paik had been living in the U.S. for twenty years. Like his contemporary Andy Warhol, Paik’s success was due to his canny ability to move between avant-garde and popular art. Having wisely chosen to work in a field where there was little competition, the press quickly dubbed him the father of electronic art. Since being appointed “Artist-in-Television” at WGBH, Boston in 1969, he had produced numerous public television programs in the U.S. featuring his own video art and that of his colleagues. Along with his broadcast work, Paik held a series of well-received gallery exhibitions throughout the 1960s and 70s that culminated in 1982 in a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Grace Glueck wrote in her review of the popular exhibition, “Paik’s work is more accessible than that of most video artists because his approach is—to say the least—unpompus, cheerful, even witty.”2
Although a key player in the 20th century musical and visual art avant-garde, Paik harbored affection for popular art. References to popular music, from the Beatles to traditional folk music, appeared in his work as often as Mozart and Beethoven did. He also worked to allow the audience to participate more fully in the electronic mass media. In a letter written shortly after arriving in the U.S., he said that he was working to develop a video synthesizer “which anyone can use in his own home…to transform his TV set from a passive past time to active creation.”3
While at WGBH, Paik and Japanese electronics engineer Shuya Abe built a synthesizer that was able to transform black and white video camera images into vibrating shapes cast in glowing, highly saturated colors. On August 1, 1969, WGBH aired Video Commune (The Beatles from Beginning to End), which ran for four hours and featured every manipulation the synthesizer could perform accompanied by The Beatles’ music, similarly remixed into trippy incoherence. Live abstractions were intercut with snippets of previously taped video experiments and non-synthesized advertisements from Japanese television, which made it seem as if the broadcast was coming from overseas.
In lieu of having their own synthesizers at home, a voice-over encouraged viewers to manipulate their television sets in order to further commune with the broadcast by creating their own remix. Paik had no illusions that members of the public would view the entire program. He had designed it to be electronic wallpaper, to be left running in the background and glanced at or played with intermittently. Despite its avant-garde trappings, Video Commune was so well liked by both critics and the public that WGBH rebroadcast it the following year. Paik had found his métier as an avant-garde populist.
The Whitney may have crowned him an “American” artist, but Paik was a committed globalist. In a series of essays, he had long been calling for the use of television and its associated technologies as a means of connecting people across national borders. In “Expanded Education for the Paperless Society,” written in 1968, he suggests that public areas in college campuses stream national newscasts from around the world, and imagines music students using video-based instruction to learn how to play styles developed in faraway places.4
In “Media Planning for the Post-Industrial Age,” from 1974, Paik envisioned that by the 21st century various types of information would be streamable via a “broadband communication network.” He described how this network will include two-way interactivity and reach around the world via satellite to form an “electronic superhighway” that will allow the long-standing dream of two-way video chat to finally become reality.5 Paik quotes Henry David Thoreau, who had written skeptically in the 19th century from his isolation in the Massachusetts’ woods, “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”6
As a peripatetic transplant with family and friends around the world, Paik thought Thoreau was wrong. He recalls that as a small child he had learned Shirley Temple’s name even before even his father’s name. Paik thought that such connections were important for fostering cross-cultural empathy. In “Media Planning,” he pointedly suggests that the lack of sympathetic images of Asians on U.S. television may have lead American soldiers to commit atrocities in Vietnam. He notes a similar lack of sympathetic images of black Americans on television and suggests establishing real-time video conferences between children in different communities, which would work in conjunction with bussing programs to help end segregation.
Circa 1984, live television in the U.S. was largely reserved for news or sports. Although communication satellites with global capability had been launched in the early 1960s, live international broadcasts were rare. In 1967, The Beatles had performed their new single All You Need is Love, on a live international broadcast. In 1973, Elvis Presley’s concert Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite was broadcast live to over forty countries, with a purported audience of one billion viewers.
By the mid 1970s, satellite transmission had caught Paik’s interest. He had participated in a live satellite broadcast with Douglas Davis and Joseph Beuys in 1977 as part of Documenta 6. In 1980, he saw Hole in Space, an outdoor installation by Kit Galloway and Sherry Rabinowitz, which had connected New York and Los Angeles via a live satellite transmission that appeared on a large video screen in each location. He was especially moved by an encounter between grandparents on the West Coast who met their newly born grandchild on the East Coast for the first time, and imagined that a similar set-up could permanently link Times Square and Red Square, allowing people to similarly connect across the Iron Curtain.
As part of his Whitney retrospective, Paik had hoped to organize a satellite duet with Beuys. When this proved unworkable, Paik’s ambition grew and he devised a plan for a live satellite broadcast between the U.S. and Europe that would allow Beuys to perform for the first time with John Cage and Allen Ginsberg. In just a few months, Paik and television producer Carol Brandenburg pulled Good Morning Mr. Orwell together, which aired under the auspices of WNET, New York, and FR3, Paris.
Good Morning Mr. Orwell featured much more than Paik’s compatriots from the avant-garde. It kicked off with Peter Gabriel and Laurie Anderson’s duet This is the Picture (Excellent Birds), a new song written for the show that would later appear on Gabriel’s multi-platinum album So. Anderson, whom Paik credited for her recent success uniting pop music and performance art, appeared again later in the broadcast delivering a haunting monolog, with her voice pitch-shifted down several octaves, in which she tells a story about being aboard a crashing airplane.
Pop music was prevalent throughout the broadcast. Live from San Francisco, Oingo Boingo performed Wake Up (It’s 1984). In New York, the Thompson Twin lip-synched their hit single Hold Me Now. In France, chanteuse Sapho performed Bonjour Mr. Orwell, and Yves Montand sang and danced, although he was pre-recorded. Comedy sketches were interspersed through the broadcast, including a series of vignettes in which Big Brother is portrayed as a workaday schlub who is being surveilled by the audience. A suite of Paik’s old friends represented the avant-garde. Charlotte Moorman played the video cello. Merce Cunningham danced with himself via video special effects. Cage improvised in New York with Takehisa Kosugi and Yasunao Tone, which was live-mixed with Joseph Beuys performing in Paris.
A highpoint of the broadcast was the performance by Ginsberg, who spent his life moving between the avant-garde and popular culture. He had recently reinvigorated his career by touring as a singer backed by younger musicians including Steven Taylor of the hardcore band False Prophets and cellist and electronic musician Arthur Russell. Ginsberg appeared in Good Morning Mr. Orwell with Taylor, Russell and Peter Orlovsky, singing Do the Meditation Rock!, a song whose lyrics exuberantly imagine a mindful conclusion to the Cold War. In its final refrain, Ginsberg’s voice rose to the heights of rock-n-roll excitement while his words called for an attitude highly unusual for the genre: “Generosity! Generosity! Get yourself together lots of energy, and learn a little patience and generosity!”
Another high point of the broadcast was Act III, a pre-recorded music video for a Philip Glass composition accompanied by digital video effects made by Dean Winkler and John Sanborn. The video showed Glass’ daughter Juliet introspectively absorbed in an interior that looked like a contemporary version of a Vermeer painting. Pulling viewers into her mental state, a fast-paced whirl of geometric shapes cast in glowing pastel hues began buzzing across the screen. The shapes underwent a rapid transformation in time with Glass’ effervescent soundtrack, culminating in their appearance over the New York City skyline, like Lissitzky’s constructivist squares returning to take over the earth.
The French broadcast skipped the Glass video altogether to show more of Beuys, whose daughter Jessyka modeled his Orwell Legs. Also known as Trousers for the 21st Century, her pants had a circular hole in front of one knee and behind the other. In a sketch for the project, Beuys suggests that the holes could reveal skin, or be covered with reflective patches, or, as in the performance, have a light bulb sticking out. He described to the audience that such pants were an absurd gesture against “worldwide materialism.” Although an art gallery would later produce the Orwell Legs as limited edition blue jeans, his sketch ends with a similar enjoinder to “DO IT YOURSELF!”
Good Morning Mr. Orwell was well received, even in South Korea, where an estimated one million people stayed up until two in the morning to watch it. Paik was happy with the reception of the broadcast but was also self-critical, noting that the cross-cultural exchanged functioned less well than he had hoped. Not only did each national broadcast cater their content to their local audiences instead of challenging them with lesser-known figures (no Glass in Europe, little Beuys in the U.S.), the French audience had little idea who Orwell was. 1984 had long been out of print, and Villers had to continually remind viewers why that year was particularly significant. Paik thought that such editorializing was boring, although it might well have sparked interest in George Orwell in France.
In 1985, Live Aid’s intercontinental satellite pop concert outdid even Elvis when it was reportedly viewed by almost two billion people, and raised $125 million dollars for famine relief in Africa. Paik recognized the enormity of Live Aid, but criticized the lack of two-way communication between performers. Paik went on to produce Bye Bye Kipling in 1986, and Wrap around the World in 1988, which both used footage from international sports competitions in an attempt to respond to Live Aid by updating Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympic films. The former was a joint venture between Japanese, Korean, and U.S. televisions stations designed to strengthen cultural communication between the “West” (primarily the U.S. and Europe) and the “East” (primarily Korea and Japan), and featured the Asian Games. The latter expanded its purview to include Brazil, China, and the Soviet Union and featured the summer Olympics, which where being held in Seoul. When critics dismissed Paik’s use of interactive vignettes in Bye Bye Kipling, he downplayed interactivity in Wrap around the World, although long-distance collaborations still took place.
Paik’s satellite broadcasts remain unsurpassed in the diversity of places and performers they assembled. In Plimpton’s introduction to Good Morning Mr. Orwell, he remarks that the year 1984 was nothing like 1984. Television, as Paik’s broadcasts demonstrated, had become “positive and interactive,” not the oppressive force that Orwell imagined. At the height of the Cold War, Paik’s broadcasts were an ambitious attempt to allow disparate artists—avant, pop, and all points in between—to collaboratively present their work to foreign audiences in a live setting, despite their physical distance. While only the performers had access to video synthesis and two-way telecommunication, they helped build bridges between the communities and ushered in the end of the Cold War through Paik’s vision of an international, experimental dance party.
Although we take video manipulation and telecommunication for granted today, the spread of DIY video has had as much negative as positive impact, and using telecommunication channels to forge international connections remains underdeveloped. We can only imagine the programs that Paik might have produced on YouTube or TikTok in the wake of Gangnam Style and COVID-19. He would have undoubtedly cast such programs against our contemporary Big Brothers and used them, as Ginsberg beseeched, to spread international generosity.