Nam June Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway” — American Art Moments
He was born in Korea, in Seoul, Korea in 1932, and with his family, he moved to Hong Kong and then Japan during the Korean War. And then he goes to study music; first in Japan, and then in Germany. He gets a name for himself, and he builds a community that's really strongly based in New York, and so, he moves to New York in 1964. His whole life experience and all of these connections and communities, they span the globe, as does his work. He also is one of the first artists to really take technology seriously and to start using electronics, and television sets, and video in his art.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum has a long relationship with Nam June Paik. In the 1990s, we collected a piece called "Technology," and we also collected one of his most important works, a multi-screen wall piece called "Megatron/Matrix." Shortly after that, he had made "Electronic Superhighway," which is actually particularly "Electronic Superhighway: US, Alaska, and Hawaii," because there are other "Electronic Superhighways" that he made. But this one, which has the map of the United States, he rightly thought could have a very important place at the American Art Museum. So, it was actually a gift by the artist to the museum.
It's monumental, it's massive. It includes 336 television sets. And when it was first installed, 50 DVD players, but we now use media players, 3,750 feet of cable, and about 575 feet of multicolored neon tubing. So there's a lot going on, but what it comes together to be is just this really exuberant, brightly-lit picture of America as seen through television. What you see on the monitors that are inside the borders of any given state are basically what Nam June Paik associated with that state. And, remember, he's a new arrival to the United States in the 1960s. He is based in New York for most of his life, so his associations range from really personal stories—friends he knew, acquaintances, people he worked with—to really pop culture references or very surface level, or very classic Americana ideas. For example, in Arkansas, he spliced together footage of his longtime friend and close collaborator, Charlotte Moorman with then-presidential couple Bill and Hillary Clinton. California is full of fitness classes, ones and zeros. So you get the fitness culture and the beach of California along with the rising computer revolution that was happening in Silicon Valley. And there were some more classic ones like Iowa, which is where the presidential primary starts, so you have a montage of presidential figures. And then other states he's taken whole segments of movie musicals. "Wizard of Oz" for Kansas, "Meet Me in St. Louis" for Missouri, and "Oklahoma" for Oklahoma. And then the final twist that he does is in the state where the piece is on view, which currently is the non-state of Washington, DC. He places a camera that is a closed-circuit TV camera that loops back to play on a monitor there. So wherever you are standing, you are inside the map in the proper geographic location. And this creates a form of interactivity that can be really playful.
When you first step into the gallery space with this work, it can be really overwhelming. All these screens, they all are moving, they're changing, the edits are really fast. One of the analogies is that they're so fast, like speeding along a highway. But there's also a lot happening in the audio space. So where you have the movie musicals, in particular, you might hear a bit of a show tune come up when it gets loud. So those are background noises. And then there's also the segment that's the Montgomery Bus Boycott documentary. And that has sections with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X speaking. And that, interestingly, the artist noted should be the most audible soundtrack. I think that really interestingly intersects with the idea of the open road and this idea of the highway as a space that, very often in this piece, is seen as a glittering invitation to the fifties idealized and the fact that the artist wanted that audio to be legible, no matter where you were standing, really means that the visuals are always inflected by this questioning of who can get on the road safely? Who will get equal treatment on that road? And those are questions that stay really resonant and important to this day, unfortunately.
One of the things I'm always struck by in looking at Nam June Paik's work is there's this first engagement that can be really self-evident you think, "Oh, big map of America made of TVs. I get it." But if you spend time with it and you let all of these layers unpack, you really come to recognize both his brilliance— how far ahead he's looking—but also the complexity that he's willing to sit with. He doesn't need to give you answers. Doesn't need to say that this is good or bad. But that you should be thinking about these things and you should be attentive to them and aware that they're going to be part of how we shape our world, how we understand ourselves and that doesn't go away. It just gets richer over time.
Take a trip across the U.S.A. with Nam June Paik's Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii. Learn more about this iconic artwork that was a gift from the artist to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). Saisha Grayson, SAAM’s curator of time-based media, shares insights about Paik's life and the personal associations that, along with popular culture references, inform the media clips the artist included within this monumental map of the United States. Grayson also discusses the installation’s complexity and continued relevance today.
This video is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's ongoing series American Art Moments. Join a SAAM expert and go beyond the artwork label to discover the untold stories and rich connections represented in some of the museum's most iconic artworks.