Could a long-hidden graphic, Etude, from the early age of computers have the power to help reveal the origins of digital media and the way we interact with technology today?
Not on its own, argued Prof. Gregory Zinman, digital media, Georgia Tech, in a lecture on Tuesday for the Art History Department’s Visual Colloquium. But put in the context of the ideas of its creator, Nam June Paik, Paik’s artwork can tell an important story about the potential relation between art and technology.
Zinman began his lecture with a quote by Paik that highlights our relation to the present and the past.
“You dig up ruins after ruins to understand the past, as if you know something about the present,” Paik said.” But we know about the present as little as we know about the past.”
However, Zinman shared that while Paik believed we knew little about the present or the past, perhaps he did know something about the future.
Envisioning the artistic and scientific potential of the emerging computer age even in 1967, Paik described “character recognition, video telephone, medical electronics” and “the production of synthetic faces and bodies.”
For Zinman, the origins of these ideas can be traced in Paik’s work, Etude, one of the first digital artworks, which Zinman recently rediscovered.
“It wasn’t really known at all until I had the good fortune of discovering it in the Smithsonian’s Archive. Etude is an early digital artwork. It’s actually one of the first ever made,” he said.
He described the piece as existing both as “the programming language that Paik employed in creating the piece” and the resulting image on paper created out of the repetition of the words.
Paik arrived at Bell Labs in 1967 to create Etude and other digital works on large, slow early computers, according to Zinman. He argued that although Paik grew frustrated and ended the project, ideas begun in Etude continued to reappear in his work.
He described this as a process in which “ideas and practices precede technologies, but then they are rethought in the process of their encounter with those technologies.”
Paik grew frustrated with the limits of early computers, understanding their potential. This forced him to go back and forth between using digital and analogue media for his artwork.
“Paik did not seem to respond well to his collaboration with the computer, a working together that lacked the kind of responsiveness and feedback that he found inspiring,” Zinman said.
At the same time though, “Paik’s frustrations arose from the potential he saw in computer art to foster communication and new audiovisual forms, and his inability to realize that potential in his particular technological moment,” he said.
Zinman ultimately presented Etude as a work that shows this awareness of the potential of art that is language, image and technology at the same time.
As a kind of “combinatory artwork,” he added, “[it] probes the conceptual as well as the technological relationships among a wide range of media practices, including but not limited to music, painting, dance, performance and the moving image.”
Then and today, those technological relationships were rapidly changing, and for Zinman, Etude represents a way to understand the connections across time. The process of rediscovering and interpreting Etude is an example of an evolving relationship between past and present.
Our relationship to digital media, Zinman concluded, is still being written and rewritten today, “continually reoriented by whomever or whatever is holding the pen or camera at a specific moment in time.”