Combing the Nam June Paik Archive

Documents from the Nam June Paik Archive

October is National Archives Month and as such it gives us a chance to celebrate some of the unique archival holdings that the Smithsonian owns. Blogs across the Smithsonian are giving an inside look at the Institution's archival collections. Kathleen A. Brown, an archivist tasked with sorting through and organizing 40 plus boxes of papers and ephemera from American Art's recently acquired archive of Nam June Paik fills us in on her process. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian's Archives Month website.

With a background in art history and museum work, I was certainly aware of the work of pioneering video artist Nam June Paik... or so I thought. In preparation for the museum's upcoming exhibition Nam June Paik: Art and Process, I was hired to arrange and describe Paik's papers. Having this rare opportunity to work with this important collection, I soon realized how little I knew about this incredibly erudite, yet playful, artist. My challenge was to bring order to the part of the collection that includes correspondence; drafts of both published and unpublished manuscripts; performance scores, project proposals; installation floor plans; exhibition announcements and catalogues as well as an incredible assortment of newspaper and magazine clippings in numerous languages and on a wide range of topics, in the hopes that it will assist future researchers in making their own discoveries concerning Paik and his oeuvre.

Like many others in my profession, when asked to explain what I do, I am frequently tempted to respond that I read other people's mail for a living. While that is a facile reply, I did have the luxury of reading through a great deal of Paik's correspondence—of course only that which I could understand—as a true polyglot he corresponded not only in his native Korean and the English of his adopted country, but also in Japanese, German, and French. However, even with the language barrier, it didn't take long to realize that the correspondence alone, this small portion of the Paik archives, consists of list of correspondents that reads like a who's who of Fluxus artists and their associates, including Dick Higgins, Ray Johnson, Alison Knowles, Jonas Mekas, and Wolf Vostell. It's unlikely that Paik hung on to every letter he ever received. Those that survive, even prosaic requests from unknown researchers requesting information, business correspondence, and preprinted holiday cards, create a context for the artist; an analog social network of friends, associates, and acquaintances.

Hopefully this information, together with the manuscripts, clippings, project files, as well as the treasure trove of 3-D objects also being catalogued will inform current and future scholars interested in Nam June Paik, Fluxus, video art, and/or performance art. The possibilities are as boundless as Paik's own varied interests. So rather than "reading other people's mail", I'd say that my real job is to tame the chaos while still allowing opportunities for synchronicity and chance to lead people in new areas of inquiry. I can only hope that Nam June Paik would approve.

The archive and papers are currently being processed, arranged and cataloged. This project received Federal support from the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund, administered by the National Collections Program and the Smithsonian Collections Advisory Committee.

Selected items from the archive will be included in American Art's upcoming exhibition, Nam June Paik: Art and Process, which is organized by leading Paik expert John G. Hanhardt and opens December 13, 2012.