In his New York Times “TV Weekend” column of December 30, 1983, John O’Connor wrote up the scheduled “television festivities for the eve of 1984,” including the Guy Lombardo Orchestra at the Waldorf-Astoria; a special from CBS who, “looking for an updated image,” got Andy Williams to broadcast from the Plaza Hotel; Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve on NBC featuring Rick James, Culture Club, and Barry Manilow; and on a certain new “Music-TV channel,” live performances at the Savoy Club by Billy Idol, the Stray Cats, Cyndi Lauper, and the Thompson Twins, who couldn’t have made too late a night of it — they had to play again on New Year’s day, on a public television station planning to try “something considerably more ambitious.”
As 1984 began, a one-time-only broadcast (available on YouTube) brought together the avant-garde talents of Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Yves Montand, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Beuys, Philip Glass, and Oingo Boingo. What’s more, it all happened at the busily image-manipulating hands of video artist Nam June Paik, as writer, Paris Review editor, and sportsman George Plimpton played host. Its content came live via satellite from studios in New York, Paris, and San Francisco. Paik titled this technologically and aesthetically daring production Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, as a kind of scoff at the drab, dystopian 1984 from the more exciting real one. 25 million people tuned in.
Quoting Paik’s description of his broadcast as “symbolic of how television can cross borders and provide a liberating information-communications service,” O’Connor highlights such coming attractions as Anderson and Gabriel’s opening performance, cellist and longtime Paik collaborator Charlotte Moorman “recreating Mr. Paik’s famous, or notorious, ‘TV Cello,’” “Robert Rauschenberg, the artist, contributing commentary, “a performance by Urban Sax, consisting of 80 ‘futuristically costumed’ musicians, and, via videotape from West Germany, Salvador Dali and the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.”
Paik and his collaborators really do pack Good Morning, Mr. Orwell‘s hour of television with an incredible amount of content. That content differed depending on whether you watched the version broadcast out of WNET in New York or the one out of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, sometimes according to plan, sometimes as a result of inevitable technical difficulties. The intersection of experimental art with still nearly experimental technology produces all the hitches, glitches, delays, and improvisations you’d expect.
The good-natured Paik considered it all part of the live-ness of the art, all just events in the “global disco” he’d built out of the latest electronic media technology. The son of a formerly well-to-do family who fled Korea for Japan at the outbreak of the Korean War, he went to Germany to study avant-garde composition after graduating from the University of Tokyo with a degree in aesthetics. He started working with televisions in the early 1960s, when he could buy old secondhand models cheaply. Using paint, neon, cameras, and much else besides, he turned these discarded sets into all manner of whimsical electronic sculptures.
“He’s made a TV buddha, he’s made a TV garden, he’s made a TV chair, a TV pyramid, a TV bra!” Moorman explains to Plimpton toward the end of this artistic extravaganza as she readies herself to play Paik’s TV cello. As it happens, I just last week laid eyes on the TV cello myself, still upright, glowing, and presumably ready to play a decade after Paik’s death (and a quarter-century after Moorman’s) at Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza. They’ve got a whole show dedicated to Paik’s work up and running through October, all of it as entertaining and prescient as ever. ”I never read Orwell’s book — it’s boring,” he once admitted, though that didn’t stop him from predicting things about the future the author of 1984 didn’t.
“Orwell portrayed television as a negative medium, useful to dictators for one-way communication. Of course, he was half-right,” said Paik, who wanted to “show its potential for interaction, its possibilities as a medium for peace and global understanding. It can spread out, cross international borders, provide liberating information, maybe eventually punch a hole in the Iron Curtain.'” (He even envisioned a now familiar-sounding “global university” where “vast quantities of up-to-date information on every conceivable subject can be stored, with computers to provide instant retrieval.”) The Iron Curtain would fall just five years later, but we’ve only just begun, after more than three decades, to explore the border-crossing, information-liberating potential of electronic media.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.