The industrial lines within the National Portrait Gallery, paired to perfection with the outlines of the United States on
Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, 1995-96
forty-nine-channel closed-circuit video installation, neon, steel, and electronic components
by Nam June Paik
Electronic Superhighway is Nam June Paik’s tribute to the United States, his adopted homeland. Paik, born in Korea in 1932, moved to New York in 1964 and lived in America until his death in 2006.
Though the outlines of the fifty states are familiar, Electronic Superhighway challenges the viewer to look with new eyes at the cultural map of the United States. Each state is represented by video footage reflecting the artist’s personal, and often unexpected connections to his artistic friends – composer John Cage in Massachusetts, performance artist Charlotte Moorman in Arkansas, and choreographer Merce Cunningham in Washington. Some states he knew best through classic movies – The Wizard of Oz appears for Kansas, Showboat for Mississippi, and South Pacific for Hawaii. Sometimes he chose video clips or assembled flickering slideshows that evoke familiar associations, such as the Kentucky Derby, Arizona highways, and presidential candidates campaigning in Iowa. Topical events such as the fires of the 1993 Waco siege or Atlanta’s 1996 summer Olympics create portraits of moments in time. Old black-and-white television footage and audio of Martin Luther King’s speeches recall Civil Rights struggles in Alabama. California has the fastest-paced imagery: racing through the Golden Gate Bridge, the zeros and ones of the digital revolution, and a fitness class led by O.J. Simpson. A mini-cam captures images of Superhighway’s viewers and transmits those images to a tiny screen representing Washington, D.C. making visitors a part of the story.
Nam June Paik is hailed as the ”father of video art” and credited with the first use of the term ”information superhighway” in the 1970s. He recognized the potential for media collaboration among people in all parts of the world, and he knew that media would completely transform our lives. Electronic Superhighway – constructed of 336 televisions, 50 DVD players, 3.750 feet of cable, and 575 feet of multicoloured neon tubing – is a testament to the ways media defined one man’s understanding of a diverse nation.
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
March 22nd, 2019