confrontational new possibilities for classical music. In Germany, Paik was further radicalized after attending an early performance of John Cage and David Tudor. Cage wanted to introduce “chance” to performance and composition, to remove any vestiges of personal taste or preference. He believed that every sound was equally beautiful. At first, Paik was baffled by Cage and Tudor’s performance, which was noisy and anarchic. It seemed deeply unserious. By the end of the concert, Paik remembers, “I was a completely different man.” He introduced himself to Cage afterward, and the two maintained a decades-long friendship. “He gave me the courage to be free,” Paik later explained, “license to kill.”

The first half of “Moon Is the Oldest TV” offers a leisurely exploration of Paik’s family history and formation as a young artist. Kim’s focus on Paik’s youth presents a bracing context for the work that would come. Stock footage from the Japanese occupation or Nazi Germany features people listening to radios, which comes to feel resonant as Paik grows up and reflects on his early life. For Paik, authoritarian rule involved the one-way transmission of ideas, which explains his fascination with broadcast media. “Television is a dictatorial medium,” Paik argued. “When the superiors say something to the inferior, they can just listen and answer ‘Yes.’ . . . I think talking back is what democracy means.” Some thirty minutes into the documentary, we have only a vague sense of how Paik’s ideas about media, politics, and control might bear fruit. But we have come to grasp his inspirations and the bemused kind of wonder he radiates. We see the artist toggle from serious contemplation to pure, childlike glee with a manic, Adam Sandler-esque intensity.

When he was invited to stage his first solo show, at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, Germany, in 1963, Paik had just begun experimenting with televisions. As a part of Fluxus, the global art movement that sought to destabilize relationships between performer and audience, Paik wanted to give attendees the opportunity to experiment with televisions rather than just sit passively in front of them. He set up magnets and pedals to disturb the signal of his TV boxes, creating manipulated, ghostly images. (Critics found the work shallow and confusing.) The following year, he moved to New York, where he quickly fell in with the downtown arts scene. He found others who shared his fascination with the Sony Portapak, released in 1965, one of the first handheld video-recording cameras available to consumers. He came to think of his practice as an attempt “to talk back to television.” He also became a frequent collaborator with the cellist Charlotte Moorman, often pushing the boundaries of what seemed decent. Sometimes she would perform topless, other times with small TVs covering her breasts. Their rapport is one of the documentary’s highlights.

Although he began to find admirers in the late sixties, his work was incredibly expensive and labor intensive. There was no obvious way to commodify Paik’s art. And, in some cases, his hope was to create open-source tools for others to mess around with. He and the Japanese engineer and artist Shuya Abe developed the Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer, which allowed users to manipulate, distort, or layer images by pressing keys and twiddling knobs. In 1973, WNET broadcast “Global Groove,” a collage-like program that showed off what the synthesizer could do. Even though the tool anticipated the jumpy rhythm or psychedelic aesthetic of music videos, Paik’s intention for the project was to estrange viewers from television itself. By warping broadcast images, he wanted to remind us that these images were representations of reality, which had been vetted by the powers that be, and not reality itself.


A Couple’s Last Words to Each Other

In 1974, he came up with one of his most iconic works—and, according to the film, the one that finally guaranteed him a degree of financial security: “TV Buddha,” an installation featuring a statue of a Buddha watching itself on television. Throughout the seventies and eighties, Kim depicts Paik as a cross between the media theorist Marshall McLuhan and a mischievous, Warhol-like art-world celebrity, constantly in motion, conceptualizing ever-grander installations. There’s a box-checking feel to this stretch of Kim’s documentary, as she moves quickly through his rise. (Paik’s wife, Shigeko Kubota, a pathbreaking artist in her own right, feels more a bystander than a collaborator.) Paik’s growing influence culminates in “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell,” an international satellite-video installation that connected viewers and performers in Europe, Asia, and the United States to chaotic effect.

Paik came up with the term “electronic superhighway” to describe how new technology would soon allow for major advances in transcontinental communication. In 1995, he débuted “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii,” an extensive video installation that featured a map of the fifty states rendered in neon. Inside each state were monitors that played video clips speaking to each place’s unique mythology.

Much like McLuhan’s “global village,” “the electronic superhighway” is a term that became more evocative as the pace of technological change caught up to the capaciousness of the language. Once, in the middle of the night, a friend of Paik recalls, the artist phoned him up, as he was often wont to do. “I’m wrong,” Paik explained. “It’s not information highway. It’s wrong. We’re in a boat in the ocean, and we don’t know where the shore is.”

Though Paik’s work felt eerily attuned to the rhythms of a changing world, Kim’s intention as a storyteller feels a bit more intimate: to contextualize Paik’s work within his own struggles to navigate that world. His sense of alienation came from a very specific history. “I’ve been away from my county for most of my life now,” Paik explains early in “Moon,” “so every day for me is a communication problem. My problem is how to communicate better.”

There’s been an explosion of documentary filmmaking over the past few years, a combination of companies needing fresh content and a moment where skepticism toward grand histories is augmented by Wikipedia wormholes and online research. The tendency is to offer the past as usable for the present: the forgotten figure or moment explains something about who we are now. And, in the case of Paik, it’s clearly part of his appeal. His art was always about a present that had yet to come into focus for everyone else. Using television as a medium was a truly strange choice in the early sixties. A constant refrain throughout the film is that reviewers thought his work was gimmicky, bereft of ideas. They didn’t realize that they were witnessing the birth of electronic art, or new participatory forms of performance, or a serious meditation on technology’s reach; they thought that they were just looking at screens. This feels like a particularly rich moment to reëncounter Paik’s work and to revisit moments when telecommunications had yet to be all-absorbing. He wanted to talk back at the TV—he wanted to remind us that this was possible. Now we are all constantly talking back at the Internet.

What makes Kim’s film so powerful is an attempt to cast Paik both as a Futurist and as someone reflective about his past. “It’s very funny that you understand my English,” a bemused Paik tells an interviewer at one point. “It’s unexpected, really.” Perhaps he was vexed not just by communications technology but by the challenge of expressing (and proving) himself as more than a kooky outsider. Throughout the documentary, the actor Steven Yeun provides voice-over, reading some of Paik’s more personal writings. Where the artist could be prankish and evasive on camera, his reflections on his youth are occasionally sombre or melancholy, qualities that Yeun brings out. Paik spent more than thirty years away from South Korea after his family left during the war; he appeared to fit in just fine in Munich and Manhattan. But in the footage from his return to Seoul, in 1984, he appears uncharacteristically anxious. He is uncertain how he will be received. Within Kim’s narrative, this moment feels like a homecoming, as he is greeted like a national hero. He sits at the piano with his sister, visits the graves of his parents. In the years to come, he would work tirelessly to put Korea on the global art map. But, for a moment, he is not an artist. He’s simply back at home, somewhere he does not need to explain himself. ♦