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First-time filmmaker Amanda Kim explores the life of the ‘father of video art’ Nam June Paik

Amanda Kim's first film, "Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV," airs May 16 on PBS.Corey Nickols/Getty Images for IMDb

Nam June Paik was an artist who couldn’t be categorized, according to Amanda Kim, the director of a new documentary about the Korean “father of video art.” Paik made art out of technology, most notably through television, sometimes integrating TVs into traditional gallery spaces, other times publicly broadcasting his eccentric, distorted video collages. In 1974, he coined the term “electronic superhighway” — a vision of the future of digital communication.

Paik was a member of the 1960s avant-garde movement Fluxus. He was also a peripatetic, living in Japan, Germany, and New York, as well as the Boston area, creating experimental broadcasts as a WGBH artist-in-residence. He died in Miami in 2006.


Kim, 33, said she found herself relating to Paik’s background. The Korean American first-time filmmaker grew up in Tokyo and attended Brown University in Providence, later becoming a creative director at Vice Media. With “Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV,” Kim’s portrait of Paik incorporates interviews with his friends and colleagues, archival footage, and Paik’s writings (narrated by actor Steven Yeun). The late Ryuichi Sakamoto, who knew Paik, composed the film’s theme.

The documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and will air through the PBS “American Masters” series May 16 at 9 p.m. on GBH 2 (it will also be available to stream through June 13 on PBS.org and the PBS app). Kim spoke with the Globe about Paik’s legacy and the experience of making her debut feature.

"Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV" follows the life of the Korean video artist.Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

Q. Did you find that there was a difference between Paik’s writing voice and how he expressed himself in interviews?

A. Yes, definitely. In-person, he was a bit more reserved [in interviews]. He was very open and generous with people, but in a way that everyone got a piece of Nam June, but not the full picture. He was great at synthesizing information, and so he would say one very deep poetic sentence that sounded like a koan or haiku, and it would be loaded with so much meaning, but you could unpack that.


One of his best friends, Mary Bauermeister, told me that you can make a film about each sentence that he says. [However], in the writings, he goes a little more in-depth into the stream of consciousness. His writings are also like the Internet where one Reddit leads to another Subreddit, which leads to another Subreddit.

Q. What was your approach to translating some of Paik’s more experimental work to a broader audience?

A. That was definitely something that the editor and I were constantly negotiating. “How can we make something that’s either avant-garde or esoteric digestible, but not oversimplify it?” The way we tried to approach it was [by] grounding [the work] in someone else’s perspective or view. So you have other people like his contemporaries commenting on some of the works, [representing] like, “What is it like as a person viewing this thing? How do they see it?” Also, we try to weave his personal story with the work, allowing you to see the human backstory, which makes it more approachable.

Nam June Paik and Fred Barzyk, a WGBH producer and director, at WGBH in 1970. Connie White/GBH Archives

Q. What have you observed about the impact Nam June has had on other artists?

A. I spoke to dozens and dozens and dozens of people, from his contemporaries to younger artists. The people who knew him personally and were around remember him very fondly. How generous he was — that really struck me — this constant desire to give and pass onto the next generation. And I think that also makes him the father of video art.


There are people who, when technology comes out, they pick up the camera and make something. But what makes [Nam June] the father of video art is that he created the tools, language, and space to create a community of video artists.

Q. Nam June wanted to humanize technology. What does it look like for us to adopt that perspective today?

A. He said it’s like a scientific approach, the way he looks at art. He was always challenging and questioning the new technologies that were coming out and deconstructing [them]. I think that is part of humanizing technology: You don’t take the newest technology and just take it for granted or use it mindlessly.

Director Amanda Kim incorporated interviews with Nam June Paik's friends and colleagues, archival footage, and Paik's writings in "Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV."Peter Moore/Paula Cooper Gallery, © Northwestern University

Q. You show that part of Nam June’s goal to challenge TV was also to challenge the racial depictions of Asian people, and it seems like he had started these conversations around identity a long time ago.

A. He was aware of the way he was perceived. He would, in an almost Fluxus way, turn the joke back on you. If you made assumptions about him because he was Asian, he would use those assumptions to challenge you. He was extremely aware of every environment he walked into.


Q. You’re just starting your career as a filmmaker. How do you feel that your first project was about Nam June Paik?

A. I feel so honored to have made this film. That is scary, too — when you’re making your first film about someone who’s this beloved, especially in Korea, and this brilliant and that I have this much respect for. I can’t think of a better subject that I’d want my first film to be about.

Interview was edited for length and clarity.

Abigail Lee can be reached at abigail.lee@globe.com.