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Now Playing! Nam June Paik’s Playful Pairing with Merce Cunningham

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Still from Nam June Paik, 'Merce by Merce by Paik,' 1978. (© Estate of Nam June Paik)

Television, especially public television, was once a bastion of experimentation. While creative people, inevitably, will push the bounds of any medium, the primary impetus was audience-oriented: How can TV programs stimulate (rather than pacify) captive viewers after a long day of work, commuting and child-raising?

With wit and panache, the pioneering 20th-century video artist Nam June Paik challenged the confines and defied the expectations of the square TV frame (while also engaging with the physical presence of the monitor), as the extensive retrospective on exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Oct. 3 amply demonstrates. Paik was all about connecting with the audience, with the aim of provoking viewers to consider their relationship with The Tube (a term that encompassed intimacy, affection, passivity and revulsion).

Taking a cue from Paik, SFMOMA is streaming online three made-for-TV videos in succession during the run of the show. A special delight is Blue Studio: Five Segments, the video on offer through this Saturday, July 31. A collaboration between Paik, Charles Atlas, Merce Cunningham and Shigeko Kubota, this mid-1970s work was created for WNET-New York and provides 15 irreverent yet carefully constructed minutes of dance, visual effects and audio detritus.

The point of the piece, in addition to showcasing a series of casual dances created and performed by Cunningham specifically for the camera, is to demolish the pedestal routinely constructed for artists and to return Merce—and Jasper Johns, with whom he has a warm but facile phone conversation on the soundtrack—to the ranks of regular folk. It’s just like Paik to dissolve the supposed divide between art and banality, artifice and substance, and pantheon artists and everyday people.

Paik’s pal John Cage also turns up on the soundtrack, recounting a couple amusing anecdotes and contributing to the sense of friends hanging out and accidentally (but not really) making art. The primitive video effects, which employ the magic of superimposition to enable three, four or even five Merces to strike a pose together, don’t feel dated so much as charming. (I dare you not to laugh at the poodle’s cameo.)


The third piece in the video-meets-dance series, John Sanborn’s 1986 collaboration with Charles Moulton, Fractured Variations / Visual Shuffle, made by Minneapolis-St. Paul public TV’s Alive From Off Center, streams Aug. 1-31. Does experimentation live anywhere on television today, and why not?

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