Good Morning, Mr. Orwell: Nam June Paik’s Avant-Garde New Year’s Celebration with Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Peter Gabriel & More

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.

Find anoth­er ver­sion of Good Morn­ing Mr. Orwell at UBUweb.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Cage Plays Ampli­fied Cac­ti and Plant Mate­ri­als with a Feath­er (1984)

John Cage Per­forms Water Walk on US Game Show I’ve Got a Secret (1960)

George Plimp­ton, Paris Review Founder, Pitch­es 1980s Video Games for the Mat­tel Intel­livi­sion

Chris Bur­den (R.I.P.) Turns Late-Night TV Com­mer­cials Into Con­cep­tu­al Art

When Glenn O’Brien’s TV Par­ty Brought Klaus Nomi, Blondie & Basquiat to Pub­lic Access TV (1978–82)

Rid­ley Scott Talks About Mak­ing Apple’s Land­mark “1984” Com­mer­cial, Aired 30 Years Ago on Super Bowl Sun­day

How to Send an E‑mail: A 1984 British Tele­vi­sion Broad­cast Explains This “Sim­ple” Process

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.

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