Cognitive psychologists and e-commerce consultants are quick to
point out that creativity is the ability to "think outside
the box," yet few of them are prepared to tell you what someone
thinking outside the box actually looks like. I happen to know a
pretty good picture of someone thinking outside the box: the artwork
Magnet TV (1965), in which
Korean-born artist Nam June Paik planted a hefty magnet on top of
an ordinary television set. Paik's magnet distorted whatever soap
opera or car commercial happened to be airing at the moment into
an exquisite variety of geometric patterns. In this case, the box
question is a television set--the technological device that has
confined human potential more efficiently than any other in recorded
history. Before Paik, this box was an inviolable mainstay of every
living room; the image flickering on its screen was broadcast from
distance, out of the control of the end user. That is, after all,
how it was designed.
What makes Paik's intervention creative is not so much his use
of technology as his deliberate misuse of it. As the artist himself
put it, "Television has attacked us for a lifetime--now we
strike back." In lugging a magnet onto a TV, Paik violated
not just the printed instructions that came with the set but also
the political assumptions underlying its widespread use. Artistic
misuse exploits a technology's hidden potential in an intelligent
and revelatory way.
Looking at the way artists like Paik began to investigate the deliberate
misuse of technology in the 1960s helps debunk some contemporary
myths about creativity--in particular, the creative use of technology.
One of those myths is that creativity lies in applying the right
tool for the right task--i.e., managing technology. Magazine editors,
advertising execs, and Web site producers regularly employ "creatives"
to spice up their products. The assumption behind this ludicrous
adjective-turned-noun is that a creative person is simply a painter
of pictures or a teller of stories--especially one adept at
Photoshop or AfterEffects.
While managing technology is certainly a valuable skill--for artists
and others--it's not the same as creativity. When you manage technology
well, you are simply carrying out the agenda of the designers of
that technology. A composer who uses a car to drive to the concert
hall is managing technology. But when Laurie Anderson composed a
drive-in concert of motorists beeping car horns, she was being creative.
To misuse technology is not just to manage technology, but neither
is it to mismanage technology. There's nothing creative about broken
links or glacial downloads. Misuse is deliberate. When Paik made
a work for violin, he did not merely play it badly. In One for
Violin Solo (1961), he raised the instrument slowly over his
head and then brought it crashing down on a table, smashing it to
smithereens. Mismanagement can sometimes be overlooked; misuse is
One last strategy that's often mistaken for creative misuse is
mystification. Artists who mystify technology tend to get an inordinate
amount of attention from critics and curators. I'm not sure why--maybe
the work replicates the intimidation they feel in the face of technology.
But mystification is not misuse either.
For example, most video and computer-based artworks conceal their
source decks and cabling behind a gallery wall. Without access to
the secrets inside this "black box," viewers are left
with the presumption that the artist has conjured the images by
some arcane feat of technological magic rather than by some mechanism
they might understand. In his 1963 installation Random Access,
Paik did the reverse: he tacked fifty-odd strips of
prerecorded audio tape to the wall, then ripped the playback head
out of a reel-to-reel deck and wired it to a pair of speakers. He
then encouraged his viewers to pick up the playback head and run
it across the audio segments whatever order they wished. In so doing
Paik exposed the inner workings of a tape player to his viewers,
giving them a hands-on feel--quite literally--for how the mechanism
worked. In the process, of course, he
demonstrated that audio technology was capable of much more than
the linear experience its manufacturer had intended it to provide.
Sometimes creativity lies not in thinking outside the box but in
cracking it open and spilling its guts.
| COURTESY BILLY KLÜVER
PHOTO: DAVID GAHR
Of course, technologists sometimes misuse their tools for a practical
purpose. NASA engineers jury-rigged a filter out of spare parts
and duct tape to save the astronauts of Apollo 13 from poisonous
gases venting inside the crippled capsule. We demand more
from artists, however, than a creative process--we demand that
the result of that process expand the mind of its beholder. The
greatest artistic contributions to new media consist not merely
of new ways to arrange diodes and DVDs, but of new ways to envision
the world using these tools.
Creative misuse can be destructive, as in Jean Tinguely's self-destructing
sculpture Homage to New York (1960).
Misuse can be wrong-headed: for his 1963 performance Pelican,
Robert Rauschenberg adorned dancers with one technology designed
to enhance speed--roller skates--and another--parachutes--designed
to impede it.
Misuse can mean crossing wires, either literally or figuratively.
Rauschenberg's synaesthetic performance Open Score (1966)
crossed perceptual wires between the senses of hearing and vision.
Here players of a live tennis game triggered an amplified "bong"
and extinguished one of the auditorium's lights every time they
hit the ball--thanks to a miniature radio transmitter inside each
racket--until the auditorium was immersed in darkness.
I've chosen examples from the 1960s, but the artistic misuse of
technology goes back to filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, who created
cinematic effects by cranking film the wrong way through the camera.
And some of the most creative artists working today are using Internet
technologies in all the wrong ways. An outstanding example from
the mid-1990s is Jeffrey Kurland's The Dotted Line, a Web
page consisting only of an immensely long column of colored dots.
By clicking up or down on the browser's scroll bar, viewers could
animate the dots in the manner of Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope--revealing
a hidden connection between the technology of a Web browser and
the technology of the early cinema. Online collectives such as Group
Z and jodi.org exploited a bug in Netscape 1.1 to achieve certain
effects; when Netscape 2 corrected the bug these works were no longer
viewable in their original form. The technology Mark Napier's Shredder
exploits, Cascading Style Sheets, was originally intended to pin
down the elements of a Web page so that designers could specify
the same fixed page layout on different computer screens. The Shredder,
however, turns this page metaphor inside out by swapping the placement
of scripts and images to reveal what the designers have deliberately
What is the ultimate effect of creative misuse? Sometimes misuse
becomes the norm. In a 1976 report to the Rockefeller Foundation,
Paik coined the provocative term "electronic superhighway"--a
phase that Bill Clinton paraphrased in his campaign rhetoric as
"information superhighway" and has since permeated public
consciousness. More often, however, misuse is of no direct practical
value, but does what art is supposed to do: stretch our minds to
accommodate not only the box, but what's outside it as well.
Jon Ippolito is an artist and Assistant Curator of Media Arts at the Guggenheim, where he recently co-curated The Worlds of Nam June Paik with John G. Hanhardt.