Pin It
Nam June Paik © Eric Kroll
Nam June PaikCourtesy of Eric Kroll

How Korean artist Nam June Paik predicted meme culture in 1974

We look at the ways that the artist, often referred to as the ‘father of video art’, foresaw our current digital behaviours

In 1995, 63-year-old Korean artist Nam June Paik created a sculpture that would become one of his most celebrated and recognisable pieces. “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii” arranged 336 televisions and 575 feet of neon tubing to resemble the map of the United States. For each state, televisions played relevant clips from popular culture, such as The Wizard of Oz for Kansas or excerpts from presidential races for Iowa – the state where every election campaign begins.

The title for the piece takes its name from Paik’s “electronic superhighway” concept, which he first coined in 1974 in a report titled Media Planning for the Post Industrial Society – The 21st Century is now only 26 years away (you can read an excerpt here). The concept re-imagines the interstate highway system in America as an information network connecting the states. Cut to present day, and “electronic superhighway” has become common parlance for the frictionless methods of communication that define the internet age.

Whether he knew it or not, Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway” was also looking forward to the finer details of digital communication today. Using random fragments of TV and film as defining features of information sharing, “Electronic Superhighway” foresaw meme culture, and the elemental role it plays in our online communities and broadcasting trends. The self-defining clips, unhinged from their original context and played on repeat, hold an uncanny resemblance to modern-day memes, which function as records of millennial nostalgia, templates for news circulation, and sites of wide cultural overlap.

Take summer 2018, when England caught a bad dose of World Cup fever, as an example: few of the templates used in the deluge of #itscominghome memes were relevant to football, or, really, English culture. Instead, the nation’s meme factories got to work editing Three Lions into clips from Friends, Vladimir Putin’s presidential visits, and Planet of the Apes. The globalised culture that Paik foresaw with his sculpture means that today his Wizard of Oz reference could, in fact, be used in a meme about growing up in Iowa. He envisaged a future where fragments from pop culture would become the language itself.

The meme has travelled a long way since the word was first coined by Richard Dawkins, back in 1976, as a term for a social trait inherited across generations, such as watching football. Though this often-contested biological theory seems far from the popular triptych of Homer Simpson backing into a garden bush, Dawkins definition of a ‘cultural transmission, or...imitation’ rings familiar to the internet meme. Now, meme theories are growing, its definition has multiplied, and the growing accessibility of picture and video editing tools means the future has never looked brighter for viral content.

What Paik predicted with “Electronic Superhighway” was not specifically viral cultural content, as this concept was already germinating by 1995. Rather, Paik foresaw meme culture and, specifically, the loose and evolutionary nature of that culture. The excerpts from film and TV in Paik’s sculpture work to define a localised area in the US, and in doing so they exist as individual works – the viewer does not need to have seen all of The Wizard of Oz to “get it”. Today’s meme culture functions at a similar frequency. Whereas a viral artefact usually takes a complete form, such as “Charlie bit my finger”, the meme exists as a fragment reworked into a new format, which then becomes viral through imitations and shares.

I have never once seen the TikTok of the woman tasting kombucha, yet, I know exactly what it means when those three tableaus pop up in my Instagram feed. I don’t ever need to watch it – and this isn’t a unique situation. Last week, the meme template “It’s… (insert name)’s account” was more getting the same visibility as Coleen Rooney’s Instagram post. The meme is expanding beyond its common use as a template for globalised banter. Like Paik’s sculpture of highly referential film and TV clips, the meme is a language, where each template or image is a code denoting meaning.

Paik’s visionary work that provided a window into the future, or a mirror for present-day audiences, is celebrated in a major exhibition opening tomorrow at Tate Modern in London. The show tracks five decades of Paik’s seminal video art, presenting over 200 works from his influential career. Born and raised in South Korea, Paik and his family fled during the Korean War. Throughout his adult life, Paik lived and worked across Germany, Japan, and the United States. He studied composition and later went on to work frequently with Fluxus, an avant-garde movement of artists and composers centred around the work of John Cage, and also working with artists such as Yoko Ono and Joseph Beuys. Yet despite his musical tenacity, Paik is mostly known as the ‘father of video art’ for pioneering the use of televisions in sculpture, developing the visual language of moving-image art and highlighting the vital role pop culture plays within the highly intellectualised space of the art institution. 

From the late 1970s, he was streaming live broadcasts across the world, with the statement: “This is a glimpse of a new world when you will be able to switch on every TV channel in the world and TV guides will be as thick as the Manhattan telephone book.” The final in this series, “Wrap Around the World” (1984), saw Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Bowie in conversation between television sets, and was broadcast in over 10 countries including the Soviet Union, at a time when the Eastern Bloc was practically inaccessible. A pop star, a composer, a dictatorship – this radical coalescing of political warfare, technological advancement, and pop music is a defining feature of both Paik’s pre-internet art and the online content of today. 

Paik truly believed in the internet’s potential for instigating social freedom, as well as artistic freedom. In his 1974 report, Paik envisioned a future “broadband communication network” that would mean less working hours, the downfall of racial segregation, and an alternative to environmental pollution. Paik died in 2006, the same year that Twitter and Wikileaks were founded, each proposing a similar utopia of free information networks that equalled social betterment. In some ways, Paik’s ambition was correct: the freedom to record and disseminate information is a tool for empowerment, such as recording and sharing acts of police brutality in the US, or global grassroots activism initiated by the youth. Yet the internet has a lot to answer for by way of disempowerment too, from the online harassment endured by people of colour, women, and LGBTQ+ persons in the media, to the violation of workers’ rights at major online retailers, and the growing impact e-waste has on climate change.

As the exhibition opens at Tate Modern, it is impossible not to discuss Paik’s work without thinking of our present moment. Paik’s utopian vision raises questions around how artists respond to our expansive digital climate, how curators navigate the contradictions around online freedom and accessibility, and where viewers sit within these tensions between artistic practice and technological development. Paik once said in an interview that “first-class artwork will be produced … when a talented artist becomes a professional programmer”. His faith in internet art speaks to a moment in time when the future held promise, and technological innovation and culture coalesced in a celebration of one another. Perhaps we shouldn’t let go of that just yet.

Nam June Paik runs at Tate Modern from 17 October 2019 – 9 February 2020. Click through the gallery below to learn more about what will be on show