Still from Nam June Paik’s Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, featuring Charlotte Moorman performing TV Cello.
Within Science Fiction, we often find dates – time locks on an author’s imagination of possible futures. Particularly in the case of books and films dating between the beginning of the 20th century and the late 1960’s, we regularly encounter ones which are familiar to us – that we have known and passed – imaginations of what our own time would look like, by those who proceeded us. In most cases, the resulting images are the product of a simple presumption – that the rapid pace of technological advancement, which marked the first part of the century, would not slow in the second. There are equally fascinating cases in art, design, and architecture – particularity from the 50’s and 60’s, which attempted accelerate their step, presenting an imagining of the future, in the present. They exhibit an engaging paradox – still looking like the future – hypothetical artifacts from times which are yet to be, now firmly locked in the past.
Science Fiction has been long cast as the world of nerds – fantasists, ill equipped to spend all their time in the real world. In truth, sculpting and navigating imagined futures, is far more complex than most are willing to admit. When at its best, Science Fiction is a duality – the child of Modernism, and a product of the optimism therein, while equally presenting an allegorical space – a warning about the harsh temperaments bubbling below the human spirit. One of the most fascinating and widely recognized of these cases, is George Orwell’s masterpiece from 1948, 1984.
By most appraisals, Orwell was a fairly radical Leftist. His politics sparked enough fear in the British government for him to be placed under surveillance for the better part of his life. One his central literary themes was the tendency for members of society to willingly place themselves under authoritarian control, or bow to conformity at the cost of the greater good. Though the novels he produced are undeniably singular, he was very much part of the post-war European zeitgeist. Like the French Existentialists, and a host of others, he was attempting to unravel how widespread social complicity with fascism (and its subsequents) had transpired, and how to warn against it occurring again. His subject was free will.
The post-war period was marked by great social and political paradox. The survival of most nations was being activated by Leftist ideas. Roosevelt‘s New Deal had saved America from the Great Depression, and its practices were being set into play across Europe, instigating one of the century’s greatest Socialist experiments. On the other hand, the era was defined by the dark cloud of conservatism – often only a hair away from the fascism which had torn the world apart. As the Marxist dream, which had given way to the Soviet Union and other Communist states, folded into oppressive conservative authoritarianism, it was met with a similar fear and persecution of the ideological Left by most Western democracies. Ironically, as political architectures across the globe attempted to repair and reconcile the consequences of fascism, they embraced many of its core behaviors.
Orwell saw through names and words, recognizing uncomfortable truths. His warning was simple. Without care and defense, history would repeat – perhaps bringing with it new and more effective, sustainable methods of control – willingly accepted and employed, the consequence of inherent attributes of the human mind, coupled with a fear of our own freedom.
Fascinatingly, while the superficial image of Orwell’s imagined future never came to be, a great many of its attributes did. Because of the inescapable time stamp on his most famous work, as the date approached during the early 1980’s, many began to consider the work’s contemporary relevance. Particularly for the Left, this appraisal took on a prescient necessity. As the 70’s came to a close, and the 80’s dawned, new sinister conservative forces were on the march – gaining an ever more destructive sway. By 1984, the era of Thatcher and Reagan was in full swing. Two of the most fascinating artifacts from that moment, approaching Orwell’s novel, are the film Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), directed by Michael Radford and staring John Hurt, and Nam June Paik’s Good Morning, Mr. Orwell – a remarkable adventure in experimental television from the same year.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) Trailer
The underlying comment of Radford’s realization of Orwell’s dystopian vision is explicit. Rather than sculpt a yet to be realized landscape, he drew on the bleak image of Thatcher’s decaying Britain. Within such an impression, it becomes easy to understand that conservative thirst for power and control, which had pushed Orwell to write decades before, was alive and well. In effect, what he had warned against was beginning to come true. The future was now. Paik’s Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, which is our primary focus, takes a different path. Rather than a warning or explicit comment, it proposes an alternate – a new, strange vision of the future where technology and art are bound.
Charlotte Moorman Performing with Nam Jun Paik’s TV Cello (1976)
Nam June Paik was initially trained as classical pianist. He was born in Korea, but fled the country with his family in 1950, as war tore it apart. He completed his formal studies in Japan, before extending them in Germany. While there, he met Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, George Maciunas, Joseph Beuys and Wolf Vostell – ultimately leading to his joining the Fluxus movement in 1962. Paik’s career was long – stretching to his death in 2006, but it is for his work within Fluxus that he remains best know. Through the 60’s and 70’s he produced objects and staged a steady stream of radical performances (many with the legendary cellist Charlotte Moorman) which spliced avant-garde sound and music with new technologies. He had a particular draw to the object of television. His interventions with their screens has led to his being credited as among the earliest artist working within the field of video.
John Cage Plays Amplified Cacti and Plant Materials with a Feather, part of Nam June Paik’s Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984)
Like most members of Fluxus, Paik’s energies were dedicated to a radical break with the primary orthodoxies of categorization and materiality within the arts. He was constantly searching for new ways to understand what art could be, new platforms for it, and new ways to collaborate through it. This is comfortably distilled within his effort Good Morning, Mr. Orwell – an hour long international satellite installation, linking WNET TV in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It aired on January 1st, 1984, and was broadcast by PBS in the United States, reaching over 25 million viewers worldwide.
Paik partially conceived Good Morning, Mr. Orwell as a rebuttal to the author of 1984 – effectively attempting to point out the character of freedom, within creativity and speech, which marked contemporary societies, and how different it was from what Orwell had prophesized. Paik had a point, but he spoke too soon. The Republican lead culture wars had only just begun. There are a few undeniable components which help justify the artist’s (slightly naive) position. Good Morning, Mr. Orwell is one of a number of similar public television artifacts from this era, all setting out to challenge their audience – the general public at large, through advanced art-forms. Because it was not alone, and thus could be understood within a larger cultural initiative, you can sympathize with the artist’s optimism. About half of the performances are explicitly avant-garde, while the others remain more closely aligned to popular culture. All are radicalized by their context, associations within, and through their interface with new technologies (graphics, video mixing, etc), which Paik set into play. Crucially, at the work’s outset, we see an impressive list of funding bodies – both public and private, offering insight into the range of support for such a gesture during that period. What is most astounding, is the fact that a program like this would be viewed by 25 million people. Within today’s cultural landscape, or any of recent memory, this is unimaginable. Ironically, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell sits on the precipice of the very thing it attempts to deny.
Like most of Paik’s post-Fluxus efforts, and not unlike many cultural artifacts from the 80’s, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell feels dated, and (as a totality) is far from great art. It suffers from technology fetish and smacks of an aging artist trying to stay relevant. Within it, Paik succumbs to a common condition among fading Modernists during this era – thinking that doing something “new” was enough. Like many, I first encountered fragments of the work – the striking and endurant, separated from the whole. The most recognizable of these is probably the section where John Cage plays an amplified cacti and plant materials with a feather, augmented by commentary by George Plimpton and live performance by Joseph Beuys, but others are worth visiting. Charlotte Moorman’s restaging of her iconic performance with Nam Jun Paik’s TV Cello, is fantastic. There is an early computer animation, which stands as the premier of Philip Glass’ Act III, and a not unworthy dance by Merce Cunningham. There is also an ear testing song by Allen Ginsberg, which features the support of Arthur Russell on cello. If you are a fan of Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, or Oingo Boingo (as a mater of taste, it just happens that I am not) there are also worthwhile performances by all three.
What can’t be denied, is respect for Paik. Whether you like his work or not, whether it stands the test of time or is great art, you have to give him credit for his bravery in these waters – his willingness to engage with an ever changing world. Good Morning, Mr. Orwell is an important artifact from a lost moment in history – one which is not easy to capture a glimpse of. Before getting caught in aesthetics, or in this case, repelled by them, it’s worth recognizing that the film operates in ways it could never have anticipated. It is a reminder of a former faith placed on art, on a broad cultural scale, to better our lives.
During the second half of the 1980’s, and well into the 90’s, the Republican Party, with the Religious Right, pushed their culture war into full swing. They used the fact that artists they disliked – Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Sprinkle, Andre Serrano, and many others, had benefited from public funds (in the form of grants or exhibitions in publicly funded institutions), as a way to undermine funding and support for the arts. Despite what they purported, this did not draw from an offense to their so called values, or a different position with regard to the appropriate use of public funds. It was a gesture in authoritarianism – an attempt to silence the voice of the people, its vehicles, and any threat to their desire for absolute control. They were shockingly successful. Less than ten years after it had premiered, a work like Good Morning, Mr. Orwell could never seen the light of day, let alone be engaged with by such a vast audience. Ironically, the work is akin to those paradoxical space-age artifacts from the 50’s and 60’s – attempting to look like a hypothetical future, yet now firmly locked in the past. In a time which gives way to a new culture war – to new Right Wing attacks on the arts (and interestingly has placed 1984 on the book charts once again), with every aspect of human freedom, Paik’s strange work stands endurant as an indicator of what has come to pass – of the thing it attempted to prophesize could never be, while speaking of the virtues of its own time. In surprising ways, like Orwell’s masterwork, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell seems to offer lessons, as relevant in the era of May and Trump, as they were in that of Thatcher and Reagan. You can check it out below.
Nam June Paik – Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984)