Paik and the Video Synthesizer

This entry is part 6 of 24 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Fred Barzyk (2007)

WGBH New Television Workshop existed mainly because artists didn’t have access to TV cameras. These were the days before Portapaks.

I was doing a local show, What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?, which had been brought to the attention of a NET show, Public Broadcasting Laboratory.

Dean Opennheimer, executive producer of culture, asked David Atwood, Olivia Tappan and myself to come to NY and show off our little experimental shows. After watching our stuff, the artists and the exec. producer decided that we might be the best TV types to help give artists control of television.

This little story is about the day I worked with Nam June for the First Time and how he came to create his video synthesizer.

Paik and the Video Synthesizer

Fred Barzyk, TV Producer/Director
Boston, Massachusetts 1969

I always remember Nam June Paik standing in a television studio, in big old rubber boots, his hands somewhere inside an old TV set, telling me to stand back since TV sets sometime explode when he does this. I backed off. The TV did not explode but gave forth a dazzling array of colors, buzzed and slowly died, never to live again.

“Don’t worry. I got more TV sets,” said Paik.

And more he did. That day, in the television studios of WGBH-TV, the flagship station of America’s Public Television network, Paik burned out more than 12 TV sets. Fortunately, this time their dazzling images were captured on 2 inch videotape.

These “visual moments” became part of a six minute video piece which was included in a half hour program called Medium is the Medium. This was the first time that artists where allowed to control the professional TV cameras, producing their own unique vision for a network show. And quite a show it was.

Paik was one of five artists who created video pieces for this segment of Public Broadcasting Laboratory, a weekly two hour show supported by the Ford Foundation. The artist’s had been selected from a 1969 gallery show, TV as a Creative Medium, at the Howard Wise Gallery, New York.

For his video piece, I had to deliver Paik a videotape of a Richard Nixon speech and a woman dancer in a bikini bottom and pasties for her nipples. He did all the rest, to the great delight of the TV crew. This was not the normal PTV show!

This program began my long association with Nam June, along with my partner Olivia Tappan and colleague, Dave Atwood. The three of us became the supporters, defenders and co conspirators in the creation of the Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer.

Why did it happen at WGBH? with me? I had been interested in using television in a more “artistic” way for a long time. My background was theater and art and I was longing to find a way of expressing it. I got into an aesthetic argument with our senior producer/director about WGBH’s coverage of the Boston Symphony concerts. Why couldn’t the cameras paint pictures instead of showing old men blowing horns and bowing violin strings? Not possible, not at WGBH.

I finally convinced a group of engineers and camera people to stay late a couple of nights and we created what is suppose to be the first video experiments, Jazz Images (1963). You must remember, we were like a closed society. No one had TV cameras except TV stations. They were just too big and too expensive. We were like a fortress surrounded by a moat, and no artist was allowed to cross over. So we, those on the inside, had to put a break in the structure.

This kind of experimentation gave the three of us (Barzyk, Tappan, Atwood) a reputation for being “far out.” We were bringing this kind of “experimental” look to a local jazz show and a local series called, What’s Happening Mr. Silver? This kind of continued experimentation within the system was what brought Paik and us together. The producers had heard of our work and we lugged heavy 2 inch tape to New York to show to the artists. Fortunately, they liked our work. We agreed to collaborate.

Howard Klein of the Rockerfeller Foundation became the next major player in the creation of the video synthesizer. Klein offered an artist-in-residence grant to WGBH. I was asked to head up the project. Paik was one of my first choices.

He was brought to Boston for an extended stay as a Rockerfeller Artist in Residence. We tried small little video experiments, but Paik was frustrated because using WGBH’s TV studios, crews, etc. were very expensive. He saw his small grant disappearing without any major creations. He looked for ways to make his work “as inexpensive as Xeroxing.”

One day he presented me with a most complicated looking diagram. I am not an engineer and sometimes had trouble understanding what Paik is saying, and was totally unsure that day of what he was describing to me.

What I was able to fathom, was that he wanted to go to Japan and work with a Japanese engineer (Abe) to create a low cost video machine. This machine would cost $10,000 and give Nam June the ability to create constantly without worrying about costs. He further explained that the $10,000 would include his travel, the engineers time, all the electronic equipment, and bring the machine and engineer from Japan to Boston to set up its operation. Was this possible? He insisted he could do it. And he did.

Paik and I had a lunch with the head of WGBH, Michael Rice, to try and sell him on the expenditure of the grant money to create this video machine. Michael sat there and listened as Paik went on and on about the beauty of the synthesizer and the images it would create. We laid out the diagram on the lunch table, and Paik gave his best presentation yet. To his credit, Michael Rice agreed there, on the spot.

Nam June would soon be on his way to Japan.

“That’s the easiest $10,000 grant I ever got!” said Paik.

For the next three months, I heard from Nam June every once in awhile. Back here in Boston, I had convinced the station to give over a very small studio to house the synthesizer. Finally, passing through customs, Paik and Abe arrived with boxes and boxes of equipment. Paik had also purchased an old record turntable on which he would construct objects and spin them at either 33rpm or 78rpm. This was the focus of the synthesizers black and white cameras as the two men set up their video machine.

I knew the day it was working, when Nam June showed me a mound of shaving cream whirling around on the turntable, which was being transformed into a mélange of color and images on his color TV sets. The Video Synthesizer lived.

The first broadcast of the synthesizer was a video marathon, broadcast live from 10:00 pm to 1:00 AM. Paik called it “Beatles, from beginning to end.”

That night he played every Beatle tune that had been recorded (some several times) and created abstract image after another. People, friends showed up to help.

The costs of this three hour television broadcast, including shaving cream, tin foil, and assorted objects plus supper for Paik and Abe was $100. He had done it. He broke the back of expensive broadcast TV.

The only problem with that evening’s broadcast was that he blew out the TV transmitter. The chroma level coming out of the synthesizer was much too high and destroyed a component. It had to be replaced and it was very expensive.

“What’s television coming to?” said WGBH’s head engineer.

“I can’t believe what’s happening on my TV,” said a TV viewer

“Beautiful. Like video wall paper,” said Nam June Paik.


  1. Susan Presson on December 21, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Fred – Cheers to you too!! So good to read you here. Here’s something else you should publish – or ‘republish’ – do you still have a copy of your Stop Watch memo/rant/diatribe/philosophical musing? I forget exactly which bureaucratic petty tyranny triggered your fulmination, but it was a not so rare and yet wonderful thing!

    Happy & Healthy Holidays to you and all and sundry….

    • Fred Barzyk on December 22, 2010 at 10:31 am

      No, I don’t even remember it. Are you talking about the time they decided to shift us all to electric typewriters, to be charged against our budgets?

      I wrote a seething tribute to my old Royal. David Ives soon collected all the manual typewriters. He was my hero. Do you have a copy? If so publish with Jay. Merry, Merry.

  2. Paul G Gay on December 9, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    Hello Fred: “very expensive” indeed!

    I remember quizzing Tom Keller (the head engineer) about the cost of the part
    (a big tube, I think) and the associated cost of installing it.

    The costs seemed more reasonable after Tom offered that I could accompany
    the Shaunessy $ Ahearn guys to the top of the Channel 4 tower where the tube
    would be installed. The last hundred or so feet were by steps — I declined; but
    had their bill paid promptly — a rare event then.

    A wonderful story, well remembered, many Christmases later. Paul Gay

    • Fred Barzyk on December 18, 2010 at 3:14 pm

      Great to hear from you. Yes, those were the days. Happy Holidays. Fred

  3. Susan Presson on December 9, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    “Why couldn’t the cameras paint pictures instead of showing old men blowing horns and bowing violin strings? Not possible, not at WGBH”

    Fred – very funny … somewhere J. W. is sticking pins in his Fred doll. ;-)

    You keep pushing a lot of my memory buttons. Again, I was late to all this. ‘Hired’ – can a ‘volunteer’ be hired? – by Dorothy Chiesa. I think chiefly because I had a car and was therefore mobile enough to go from Watertown (where the Workshop ended up in that old theater) to 125 to pick up the mail.

    I remember working on grants for the Workshop – most aimed at the Rockefeller Foundation. Dorothy would talk, I would type and edit as we went along.

    Never met Nam June Paik, but was there for William Wegman and Weimeraners one night into morning. Also worked with David Atwood and some guy from MIT who had built a video and/or music synthesizer. Of some sort.

    Also, at least one, and maybe more than one, parties involving a great deal of very bad wine.

    And didn’t you run some of the Dan Ackroyd movie that was never (?) quite finished through the Workshop? We dropped a camera from an airplane over a startled … and armed … Rod and Gun club somewhere.

    • Nat Johnson on December 10, 2010 at 6:50 pm

      Sue Presson is a really good writer with a humorous style that might lend itself nicely to our history, and these pages!

      • Susan Presson on December 10, 2010 at 11:47 pm

        Sir, you are too kind!

    • Fred Barzyk on December 18, 2010 at 3:16 pm

      My dear Susan. How are you? Those were the days. The show you are talking about is Collison. It started Lily Tomlin, along with Ackroyd and Gilda Radner. Yup, went through the Workshop with artists contributions from Ron Hays, William Wegman, Louis Falco dance company. Lily and I never released it. It didn’t work. Oh, well, that was we were about. Failure in a grand manner. Happy Holidays. Fred

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