Image: Nam June Paik, Zürich, 1991. © Foto: Timm Rautert. Courtesy Galerie Parrotta Contemporary Art Stuttgart / Berlin.

Following a trip to the Cloisters last week, our class switched gears in our visit to “Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot” at Asia Society. Paik is considered a pioneer for his creative use of technology in artworks. Coming from a music background, he did not accept the notion of a singular art object, rather he considered both the possibility of having multiple versions of the same artwork and the social process of collaboration in the production of a work. It was especially compelling to bear in mind Paik’s emphasis on the humanization of technology as we interacted with the material in a contemporary museum setting. This exhibit, which is the first exhibit in New York City devoted to Paik in fourteen years, raised a number of questions about the presentation, documentation, and conservation of new-media art.

Image: Robot K-456, 1964. Twenty-channel radio-controlled robot, aluminum profiles, wire, wood, electrical divide, foam material, and control-turn out. 72 x 40 x 28 in. (183 x 103 x 72 cm). Friedrich Christian Flick Collection im Hamburger Bahnof, PAIKN1792.01. Photo: Roman März, Berlin.

It was fascinating to see Robot K-456 (1964), Paik’s first automated robot, but although the robot was once able to walk, talk, and essentially interact with humans, it was exhibited in its deactivated state. While this presentation could be stimulating by allowing viewers to look at the robot from a more sculptural perspective, it was especially helpful that the curators gathered a variety of ephemera relating to the robot so that we could better get a sense of what the active robot would have been like. From programs and photographs of the robot’s “performances” to a video of the robot moving in Paik’s First Accident of the Twenty-First Century, the materials relating to the robot helped both situate it within its artistic/cultural context and allow contemporary viewers to imagine what the activated robot would have been like. This work raises the question, at what point does documentation become a work of art? The “documentary” photographs of the robot’s performances have been raised to the status of “art object” as they are exhibited at Asia Society. As is the case with any kind of ephemeral performance art, these leftovers eventually gain artistic merit, but we must keep in mind that they were not necessarily intended as such.

Another issue that reappeared throughout the exhibition was related to viewer participation. As previously mentioned, the majority of Paik’s works involved some kind of interaction with an audience; however, the exhibit sometimes hindered direct interaction. For instance, TV Chair(1968) consists of a chair with an overhead closed-circuit video camera. Initially, viewers would be able to sit in the chair and experience the “surveillance” concept first-hand. While some of the members of our class had the urge to sit in the TV Chair to fully experience the work, a large “Do Not Touch” sign forbade this type of experiential interaction, which I felt ultimately took away from our understanding of the work.

Perhaps to make up for TV Chair’s lack of viewer participation, Participation TV (1969/2001) offered a very different experience; viewers literally insert themselves into the work. Three closed-circuit video cameras record the participants, which is projected both on a TV and on the gallery walls. The viewer is at once an object and a subject. This work in particular raised questions about “updating” technological works of art. Paik created the piece in 1969, but in 2001, the types of video recorders were updated to then-contemporary apparatuses. Does this technological change matter? While the sculptural value of the work certainly shifts when the apparatuses are updated, I ultimately feel that it is important to retain the conceptual value of the work as much as possible. If the otherwise obsolete video cameras weren’t updated and were unable to function, the work would be deactivated and become a purely sculptural rather than an interactive work, which I feel would make the work static. Perhaps, in these cases, the material authenticity of the work is less important than the concept. While much is gained in the updating/digitization of these works, one must also consider what is lost. For example, something our class noted was the lack of cluttering and mechanical sounds one would have originally heard from the 16 mm film. It can all be equated to a balancing act; while digitization undoubtedly has its benefits, we must resist a sterilization of the artworks.

“Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot” was fascinating not only for the artworks on display, but also for allowing our class to discuss numerous issues relating to contemporary conservation. These questions are at the forefront of current conservation and curatorial practices; as older technologies continue to become obsolete, museum professionals must consider how to care for these new-media works and protect their afterlives.