The analogue artist who saw the past in the present

A retrospective exhibition of visionary media art pioneer Nam June Paik reflects on our modern relationship with technology


(Image: Roger Sinek/Tate Liverpool)

Early in the 1960s, avant-garde composer Nam June Paik began experimenting with the wiring inside his TV. He learned how to manipulate the picture on his screen, bending and warping network broadcasts like free jazz.

In 1963, after accumulating and tweaking a dozen more televisions, Paik organised a gallery show in which people were invited to interact one-on-one with his contraptions - an unprecedented experience in an era before video cameras and cable stations.

The exhibition earned Paik a place in the history books as the pioneer of media art. Yet despite the genre's popularity, there has been scant attention given to his creations since his death in 2006. Tate Liverpool and the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) are doing their bit to set this right with an impressively thorough joint retrospective.

In the glow of all those old cathode ray tubes, your first impulse may be to bask in nostalgia, or to radiate smug web 2.0 superiority. But Paik's artwork is too good to succumb to history. He may be the first media artist, but he is generations ahead of us.

In his 1963 exhibition, Paik had the foresight to propose that the future of media was interactive, while counter-intuitively suggesting that interactivity could be isolating. Over the following decades, he went on to explore other potentialities, which could be as optimistic as they were visionary.

One such vision was that cultural differences could be bridged through collective global channel surfing, with satellite feeds from studios around the world mixed live for everyone to see. In collaboration with television networks, he produced several such events in the 1980s.

More haunting are his contemporaneous TV Buddha installations, which embody the opposite extreme. In these works, a Buddha statue is positioned in front of a television that is itself connected to a CCTV camera trained on the watching Buddha. A Zen koan rendered in new media, TV Buddha appears to propose that our technologically mediated narcissism may bring about our enlightenment.

Of course Paik was an artist, not a prophet, and combing his work for premonitions of YouTube and Facebook is bound to disappoint. What makes Paik's art relevant is that, technologically speaking, it is ancient. Resting outside the endless cycle of gadgets and upgrades, his work surveys our mediated future in ageless terms. Sometimes he can seem naive - he is out of step with the dystopian despair of contemporary media art, for example - yet his optimism is distinct from trade-show hype. New technologies, he recognised, are opportunities to tinker with society's wiring.