Paul Tschinkel

A model wearing bright yellow bandeau bra, skirt, headwrap, and sheer scarf walking down runway

Like Nam June Paik, I began doing video by doing something else first. I studied painting in the heady sixties in New York and then in New Haven at Yale. Nam June began by studying composition and music in Germany in the sixties.

We both were unhappy with our initial choice and were looking for something else. I, for one, did not want to become a third-generation abstractionist painter. Nam June, I suspect, did not want to become another Karlheinz Stockhausen, an experimental composer. He gravitated instead toward experimental performance and Fluxus. I, after inheriting a Bolex 16mm film camera, experimented with making short films à la Robert Breer and others. In 1965 Nam June discovered and bought the new portable video recorder. Known as the Sony Portapak, it revolutionized filmmaking. Artists were free to record images on magnetic tape and immediately see what they recorded. I bought my first portable video recorder at the urging of Nam June and my artist friend Ernest Gusella in 1969. It was liberating, new, and exciting to simply press a button to record an image and replay it without the laborious processing that film required.

Unlike painting, which is for the most part a solitary, private, and lonely activity, this revolutionary recording device beckoned to include others in the artistic process. It became a social and public event to make art. Artists like Nam June and others showed their work in galleries and museums. I showed my work on the then-fledgling Manhattan/Time Warner cable TV system. That was my weekly exhibition space. Noting this, Nam June referred to me as the television video artist. In 1982, I saw Nam June’s retrospective, the first ever on a video artist, at the Whitney Museum. I decided to tape it and show it on cable TV in New York and include it in the ART/new york series on contemporary art. Nam June loved it. Thereafter, I began to follow his work with the idea of making a documentary on him at a later date.

In 1983, Nam June informed me that he would collaborate with Willi Smith by providing video for a fashion show at the Puck Building on Houston and Lafayette streets in SoHo. It intrigued me, and I decided to tape it for my archive. Nam June was totally open to this idea. He continually encouraged collaboration and made it his mission to work with other video artists, technicians, and engineers, including Shuya Abe, the inventor of the Paik/Abe synthesizer, to further his work in video.

So it was no surprise that he would work with Willi Smith and WilliWear. The collaboration was a feat that required a great deal of technical and financial support. WilliWear producers seemed excited by the idea of incorporating video into showcasing fashion, a practice that foreshadowed much of what was to follow in the industry. In addition to being willing to experiment with Nam June, WilliWear paid him the tidy sum of $30,000 for his work. With this kind of support, Nam June went on for many years to make great work that made him truly the father of video art. Fortunately, this video still exists.

A model wearing bright yellow bandeau bra, skirt, headwrap, and sheer scarf walking down runway

Willi Smith for WilliWear, City Island Spring 1984 Presentation, 1983