UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

The Aesthetic of Active Boredom in Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film (1964)

Eugene Kwon

Encountering Zen for Film

An old 16 mm film projector runs in front of a blank wall onto which it projects a screen of light, appearing all the more luminous as it makes a contrast to the whiteness of the adjacent museum walls. Small enough to be covered in shadow and disappear if one were to stand in front of the projector, the blank, luminous screen nonetheless creates an intimate space around it, forming a miniature version of a movie theater. About fourteen minutes in length, the film that produces the screen is completely blank. No visual figurations appear on the screen except for the flickering presence of almost invisible shades, produced by tiny specks of dust and scratches on the film strip. No soundtrack accompanies this blank film strip. Infiltrating the viewing space are only the surrounding humdrum of museum activities, accompanied by the quietly reeling sound of the projector, almost timid in nature when compared to that of a larger commercial projector. When the film is over, it begins all over again (Fig. 6). [1]

Paik’s Zen for Film, a minimalist work first shown in 1964 at Filmmakers’ Cinematheque in New York, seems like the most uncharacteristic among Paik’s oeuvre for its lack of visual experimentation. Zen for Film consists of three formal elements: the projector, the blank screen, the surrounding space. Neither frenetic collage-videos nor aural noise, elements which stand out in many of Paik’s works from the entire span of his artistic career, appear in Zen for Film. In place of image quotations from various sources, a Paikian practice, is a curiously blank screen. Looking at the blank screen, the viewer makes at least two interpretations. First, the blank screen negates visual representation altogether, either coherent or incoherent, positioning itself against the figurative image as a useful form of representation. Second, it represents non-representation itself, constructing a new kind of image that requires a new kind of gaze by the viewer. Regardless of which interpretation the viewer finds more compelling in the end, one can be certain about one effect that Zen for Film creates: it invites the audience to raise various issues with the problem of visual representation in the arts, namely the question of whether experimentations with visual language have been exhausted in the modern arts, and whether it is necessary for artists to invent a new kind of visual representation altogether. Indeed, Paik, throughout his oeuvre, relentlessly pursues this issue by adopting new visual methods that reflect changes in modern technology. For Paik, postmodernism’s lament of the depletion of new forms of expression seemed to have been irrelevant. There were infinitely new possibilities in creating new ways of expressing, not merely by combining past formal strategies and actually inventing one, a hope that he harbored with his invention of a video synthesizer with the Japanese technician Shuya Abe:

This [the Paik/Abe Synthesizer] will enable us to shape the TV screen canvas

as precisely as Leonardo

as freely as Picasso

as colorfully as Renoir

as profoundly as Mondrian

as violently as Pollock and

as lyrically as Jasper Johns.[2]

Even in this brief quote, one has a strong sense that Paik did not harbor an apocalyptic attitude towards visual representation in the contemporary arts. Visuality was something to be embraced, not negated, in Paik’s oeuvre. Even though Paik’s Zen for Film appears to assume a detached position from his other works, it in fact remains closely connected to them through raising the following: the problematic of visual representation.

But at least two characteristics of Zen for Film make it distinct from other works by Paik: the ambiguity of its own very nature, and the uncertainty of the subject in experiencing it. When one first encounters Zen for Film, the first issue that arises is a basic interpretive one: through which artistic category or genre should we experience the work? One is uncertain as to what the primary object of one’s attention should be—is it the screen, the projector, the reeling sound of the film, or the whole installation site? The nature of Paik’s work and, correspondingly, the audience’s experience of it seem to remain insoluble. Does one experience Zen for Film as an installation work, a highly experimental work of cinéma du pauvre,[3] or both at once? In experiencing Zen for Film, is the viewer situated as a detached subject who can step outside the boundaries of the work, or is the viewer situated as an immersed subject subsumed under the film apparatus, akin to a conventional cinematic experience? Or, as incredible as it may sound, is the viewer completely left out of the picture altogether, the work itself forming its own hermetic relationship as suggested by the self-referential title of the work? My claim is that such lack of certainty as to the nature of Zen for Film and to the position of the subject are not so much riddles to be solved as the work’s important aesthetic qualities. Further, I claim that these ambiguities give rise to a particular state of mind, namely “active” boredom, that allows the viewer to attain a new kind of subjectivity in experiencing Paik’s work.

Discussed in recent literature in “strict and insoluble connection with modernity,”[4] boredom and the changing notion of time in modern society that it entails are particularly relevant in thinking about Paik’s Zen for Film. In his own writings, Paik uses the concept of boredom in order to reflect on both the changing notion of time and the role of the artist in modern society. One problem that became particularly noticeable in the realm of art criticism with the rise of minimalist art in the sixties was the polarizing usage of boredom. More than a few critics set “boring” against “interesting,” creating a juxtaposition that entirely separated the two terms. Such juxtaposition entailed a value judgment, suggesting that “boring” art did not have enough “interest,” or artistic value in itself, and therefore does not deserve our attention. Against such usage of boredom, Paik instead regarded boredom as a fundamental characteristic of contemporary arts, in particular “video art.” Reacting against the nihilistic conception of boredom in everyday usage, Paik attempted to neutralize the meaning of boredom, an effort reflected in one of his essays “Input Time and Output Time,”[5] a short reflection on the relationships between time, video-art, and death. Although Paik does not offer concrete definitions of “input time” and “output time,” he characterizes “input time” as one’s literal experience of time and “output time” as the reconfiguration of time in our consciousness that occurs after our experience. In the middle of his essay, Paik makes an enigmatic statement that attributes the categorical confusion within the arts to the confusion of these two types of time:

The confusion which surrounds video art today is largely the result of the absence of categories that allow one to distinguish between:

<<Boring yet quality art>>


<<Boring yet mediocre art>>

Boredom itself is far from being a negative quality. In Asia, it is rather a sign of nobility. To repeat, the confusion [surrounding video art] finds its origin in our confusion of INPUT-time with OUTPUT-time.[6]

What is striking in this essay is Paik’s characterization of boredom as a fundamental trait of not just video art but the arts in general. By stating that boredom is not in itself a “negative quality,” Paik proposes a positive view of boredom, a quality that underlies all arts concerned with the dimension of time.

In Paik’s Zen for Film, one finds a unique way of solving the quandaries of the modern subject through its inducement of boredom as an experience. I make connections between this experience of boredom and the uncategorizability of the nature of Zen for Film and thereby the uncertain position of the viewer in experiencing it. I argue that Zen for Film establishes a space of mediation between the subject and the object, or to borrow Adorno’s words a “force field.” In this space of mediation, boredom acts as a restoration of faith for the disenchanted modern subject by restoring time as unified and coherent. Such a claim may seem naïve in its reading of Paik’s Zen for Film as expressing the kind of poetic boredom formulated by thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer. For Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, the experience of boredom was a privileged experience for the elite few, an escape from the various corruptions of the modern world.[7] Their descriptions of an elite and poetic boredom partly evoke Benjamin’s concept of the aura, a unique experience embedded within the fabric of tradition. If one were to argue that Zen for Film induces in us such “poetic boredom,” then the work becomes an example of several artistic attempts that deny the inherent possibilities of modern experience by grafting onto it “auratic qualities,” or various qualities traditionally attributed to an artwork, including the disembodying experience of poetic boredom. But against such claim, I argue that Zen for Film induces in us a different kind of boredom, an “active boredom.” It is a boredom in which one remains lingering between the self and the object-world without becoming absorbed by either of them. Through such boredom, Zen for Film works as a space of mediation in which both the subject and the object, without one dominating over the other, occupy a shared space. Paik’s work becomes a conciliatory space, responding to what Elizabeth S. Goodstein calls the “epistemic groundlessness of modern existence.”[8]

Before considering Zen for Film’s important connections with boredom, I would like to emphasize the historical context of Paik’s work. Zen for Film acquires quite a unique position within the history of world cinema. First shown at the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque in New York (Fig. 5), Zen for Film served as a bridge that connected Paik’s works to broader cinematic movements in vogue at the time. However, Paik’s work remained somewhat of an outcast within the international cinematic avant-garde network because of its rather unusual format—the blank screen, the projector, and the surrounding space presented as a work of film. Considering the highly experimental artistic milieu of the sixties, one might have expected Zen for Film to degenerate into a nihilistic or perhaps even an affronting move against an international community of filmmakers, or more broadly the larger community of visual artists. On the contrary, Zen for Film received an enthusiastic approval from the American avant-garde artist Jonas Mekas, a representative figure of the American cinematic avant-garde in the sixties. In response to Paik’s work, Mekas stated:

“I realized…when I watched Nam June Paik’s evening [at the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque]… his art, like the art of LaMonte Young, or that of Stan Brakhage, or Gregory Markopoulos, or Jack Smith, or even (no doubt about it) Andy Warhol, is governed by the same thousand year old aesthetic laws and can be analyzed and experienced like any other classical work of art.”[9]

Mekas’s appraisal had a symbolic significance, embracing Paik’s film works as genuinely avant-garde. But despite Mekas’s embrace of Zen for Film as an avant-garde film, it is an unprecedented work not just in avant-garde cinema, but in the larger history of cinema for at least two reasons. First, it presents a non-figurative image as some kind of visual representation. The blank screen, I argue, is not an instance of iconoclasm that denies the existence of visual image altogether. Susan Sontag’s claim that there is always something to see even in the absence of the visual supports the interpretation of the blank screen as a type of visual representation. Just as John Cage’s three-movement silent composition 4’33’’(1952) does not deny aural representation but instead opens up infinite possibilities of aural combinations, the blank screen in Paik’s Zen for Film emphasizes the potential of the visual through, however paradoxical it may sound, visual absence. There may have been moments in the history of cinema in which films would present the blank screen as a constitutive shot, but Paik’s Zen for Film, if one were to pursue defining it as a cinematographic work, is the first work that incorporates the blank screen as the defining element. Zen for Film does not present the blank screen within a montage; the blank screen is in itself a sine qua non, forming significance in itself. Second, it challenges the cinematic apparatus by drawing our attention to the image-producing mechanism itself and the surrounding space. Considering these two traits of Zen for Film, it is much more compelling to see the work as an anomaly, or even a rupture, within the history of cinema.

Zen for Film’s unusual status within the history of cinema becomes even more apparent when comparing it to other experimental films produced around the same period. In 1958, the American artist Bruce Conner, who worked with various mediums including photography, sculpture, painting, film, and others, presented his first film called A Movie, a highly self-referential work that makes usage of various found footages: a naked woman taking off her stockings, Indians riding horses, the explosion of a nuclear bomb, and others. An image signaling the end of the film appears near the beginning of the film, and images displaying the words “Movie” and “Bruce Conner” appear sporadically throughout the film. Eight years later, the experimental filmmaker Owen Land (also known as George Landow) created a 16-mm film called Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1966), which presents, as one might expect, an underdeveloped film displaying images of a blinking woman and of changing letterings for a duration of six minutes (Fig. 4). The film came to be regarded as representative of the structural film movement, which “aimed to expose and reflect on the basis of cinema.”[10] Land’s work is a “structural film” that serves two functions: it draws our attention to the materiality of the medium, and it imposes a recognizable structure (often through repetition) on the viewer. In Zen for Film, the potential viewing pleasure that can be derived from either a recognizable and repetitive structure (structural) or a plenitude of images (collage) is absent. Paik’s work appears to embody what Sontag calls the “soft style” of an aesthetic of silence, expressing an attitude of “ironic open-mindedness” that rejects meanings generated by bourgeois-rationalist culture.[11] However, “hesitant,” rather than “ironic,” is a much more appropriate word to describe the operating mechanism of Zen for Film, a title that immediately establishes a direct relationship between the projector and the blank screen. Denied the pleasure of seeing either a plethora of images or a recognizable visual structure, the viewer “hesitantly” walks around the installation site, attempting to find an ideal viewing position that does not exist in the first place.[12]

Active1 Figure 4. A shot from Owen Land’s Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1966). The lettering on the white film leader rapidly changes through a repetitive structure. The whole composition remains constant throughout the film.[13]

Outside the context of film history, Zen for Film engages with two other seminal works in painting and music: Robert Rauschenberg’s monochromatic White Paintings (1951) and Cage’s 4’33’’. Paik himself did not make a statement in any press release attributing the artistic inspiration for his Zen for Film to Cage’s 4’33’’. But Cage’s role as Paik’s spiritual and artistic mentor, a well-documented relationship, has led most critics and scholars to cite Cage’s work, itself influenced by Rauschenberg’s work, as the primary source of inspiration for Paik’s Zen for Film. The three works by Rauschenberg, Cage, and Paik share important similarities. First, the form of their presentations is unfixed. Rauschenberg’s series of White Paintings consists of different size frames. Cage’s 4’33’’ does not indicate the type and the number of instruments required to perform the piece, and thus various instrumentalists, either as an individual or as an ensemble, have performed it in various settings. Paik presented Zen for Film using different types of films. His flexible approach towards the artistic medium has given birth to different presentations of the work, most notably a video-clip on the Internet. Second, they embrace an aesthetic of visual or aural emptiness, redirecting the audience’s attention to other often neglected elements—the frame of the painting, the crowd enjoying the music, and the film apparatus. Zen for Film, then, is, in one sense, a work that takes the existential crises that occurred in the realms of painting and music into cinema, putting into question the definition of cinematic experience and the position of the subject within it. For the triad relationship between Paik’s Zen for Film, Cage’s 4’33’’, and Rauschenberg’s White Paintings to be acknowledged emphatically, one must see in Zen for Film a dynamic relationship between the aural, the visual, and the physical space.

Siegfried Kracauer’s Boredom(s)

Paik’s Zen for Film functions as a site in which the viewer experiences a unique type of boredom. The experience of boredom involves a loss of meaning in modern conditions.  If one understands boredom as an experience deeply rooted in modern conditions, then it becomes clear that one needs to understand the problem of boredom as a problem of the relationship of the modern subject to a changing world. One thinker who reflected on this very issue was Siegfried Kracauer. In his two essays “Those Who Wait” (1922) and “Boredom” (1924), Kracauer contemplates the various ways in which people respond to modern conditions. In the first of these two essays “Those Who Wait,” Kracauer describes the chaotic state of our modern conditions, which induce “an alert sense of time,” “loneliness,” “profound sadness,” “confinement in spiritual/intellectual situation,” and, ultimately, “metaphysical suffering.”[14]  Kracauer attributes these societal characteristics, binding us in a “common fate,”[15] to largely three modern phenomena: the degeneration of the experience of community to a mere concept of community, the general loss of faith in absolutes and consequently the dominance of relativism, and the atomization of self into an “arbitrary chance construct.”[16] First, individuation and isolation have come to replace the organized structure of a community in our modern society. Individuals no longer associate themselves with a larger community; independent of larger associations, they become “tiny splintered-off particles in a temporal stream that is trickling away.”[17] Second, people no longer take faith in one Hegelian absolute, but they rather “traverse,” “drift along,” “wander” across realms of world history, spiritual events, or religious life.[18] Kracauer’s diagnosis of people’s relationship to the absolute is a precursor to the familiar postmodern argument, but he is in a way far more pessimistic about the general loss of faith in absolutes than future thinkers on postmodernism. In Kracauer’s thinking, the realization that one can consider all absolutes for acceptance does not solve the problem of spiritual void experienced by modern subjects. Instead it leaves them hanging in an intermediate space as they wander across spiritual and intellectual realms. Lastly, Kracauer describes the modern self as having a dialectical relationship with the object world. Kracauer does not initiate an in-depth exploration of the history of the self in relation to the transformations of society, or the “object-world.” Consequently, Kracauer’s lack of account of the development of the self naturally leads to a Weberian diagnosis that emphasizes the material conditions’ impact on the self.  But nonetheless, Kracauer states that one must consider “the social developments and a hundred other lines of development that ultimately leads to the present chaos,” which, in Kracauer’s view, result in an atomized, or non-coherent self.[19] Although Kracauer does not mention boredom at any point in the essay, boredom (the equivalent term in Geman being langeweile, literally meaning the “long whiling away of time”) nevertheless remains in the background as it is conjured up by Kracauer’s frequent usage of the words “tarrying” and “lingering.”

The modern conditions that Kracauer describes in “Those Who Wait” have prompted various responses. Kracauer argues that the act of “waiting” may be the only viable solution to surviving the chaotic conditions of modernity. In Kracauer’s view, the modern subject responds to these dismal modern conditions in three ways: an extreme Weberian skeptical approach, a “short-circuit” approach, and, lastly, the act of “waiting.” The extreme Weberian approach “fights for the disenchantment of the world” by refusing to believe in any absolutes,[20] whereas the “short-circuit” approach strives to have faith in absolutes—but only ends up “staggering into one religious realm or another” due to their unprepared and artificial faith in one realm.[21] As an alternative to these two approaches, Kracauer suggests the simple act of “waiting”:

But how is one to escape the terrible either-or of the two positions: that of the skeptic-as-a-matter-of-principle and that of the short-circuit people? Perhaps the only remaining attitude is one of waiting. By committing oneself to waiting, one neither blocks one’s path toward faith (like those who defiantly affirm the void) nor besieges this faith (like those whose yearning is so strong, it makes them lose all restraint). One waits, and one’s waiting is a hesitant openness, albeit of a sort that is difficult to explain. It can easily happen that someone who waits in this manner may find fulfillment in one way or another. Nevertheless, in this context one ought to think primarily of those people who have tarried and still do tarry in front of closed doors, and who thus, when they take it upon themselves to wait, are people who are waiting here and now.[22]

Kracauer acknowledges that this “waiting” is similar to the Weberian approach in its almost masochistic chastisement of the self by delaying the formation of a true relationship with the absolute.[23]  Another important similarity between all the three approaches is that they all occur in an intermediate state between realms of absolutes. But what makes “waiting” distinct among the three approaches is one’s heightened presentness and preparedness. In Kracauer’s words, “waiting” is an active state consisting of a “tense activity” and of an “engaged self-preparation.”[24] One waits for the “irruption of the absolute”[25] that can occur at any point in time.

But is this “waiting” the same thing as boredom of any kind, or are they conceptually incompatible? I would like to claim that Kracauer’s formulation of “waiting” is a certain state of “boredom,” but not the types of “boredom” which Kracauer had in mind. To be sure, “waiting” is neither the “vulgar boredom” that pervades daily existence nor the “radical boredom” (or “poetic boredom”) that allows one to experience an ecstasy if only temporarily. Kracauer’s “waiting” most closely approximates his concept of “personal boredom” described in his essay “Boredom.”[26]  One experiences “personal boredom” in a quiet café, closed off from the noises of the world and content to be with oneself. However, “personal boredom” does not entail the state of “tense activity” that is an integral part of “waiting.” Providing an example of a person who desires to “roll up into a ball like a porcupine” at a café, Kracauer states that “personal boredom” entails the “wandering of the soul,” becoming aware of one’s insignificance within one’s surroundings.[27] But such boredom does not take into enough account the subject’s awareness of reality, or the “object-world.” Focused on the individual’s re-connection with the self through the discovery of one’s place in the world, “personal boredom” is much more introspective and thus more separated from reality than Kracauer’s concept of “waiting.”

Kracauer’s “waiting” works as an “active boredom,” making one engage not only with the self but also with one’s exterior surroundings, or the “object-world.” One can find a sketch of this “active boredom” towards the end of Kracauer’s essay “Boredom.” Kracauer proposes such boredom as a solution to the vanishing of the self in modern society, a quandary that Kracauer sums up in the beginning of his essay:

People today who still have time for boredom and yet are not bored are certainly just as boring as those who never get around to being bored. For their self has vanished—the self whose presence, particularly in this so bustling a world, would necessarily compel them to tarry for a while without a goal, neither here nor there.[28]

Regardless of whether fully involved with his or her occupation, the modern subject finds it extremely difficult to “tarry for a while without a goal, neither here nor there”—a crucial phrase that captures the element of salvation in boredom for the modern subject. Before Kracauer offers his sketch of “active boredom,” he describes the material conditions that make it difficult for the modern subject to reclaim the self. According to Kracauer, the self (Kracauer alternates between “spirit,” “being,” and “self” interchangeably) is prone to forgetting itself due to the omnipresence of technological inventions, such as the electric advertisement, the movie theater, and the radio. Kracauer describes the self encountering these inventions as an experience in which the self vanishes—one’s spirit “roaming out of the night and into the night,” dazzled by the illuminating signs on the advertisement; one forgetting oneself “in the process of gawking” in a movie theater; one becoming a “playground for worldwide noises” in listening to the radio. The first two instances of the advertisement and the movie theater are physically disembodying experiences, the self completely forgetting itself and becoming closer in distance with the object-world. On the other hand, the last instance of the radio is a situation in which the “worldwise noises” broadcast from London, the Eiffel Tower, and Berlin both intrude upon and dominate the realm of the self. In all three instances, the self’s importance is mitigated to the extreme by either of the two: distraction or intrusion.

Kracauer, then, proposes “active boredom” as a solution to the problem of the modernized world on the verge of devouring the selves. Kracauer describes its role in restoring presence to the self:

But what if one refuses to allow oneself to be chased away [from the boundless technological imperialism spreading across the world]? Then boredom becomes the only proper occupation, since it provides a kind of guarantee that one is, so to speak, still in control of one’s own existence. If one were never bored, one would presumably not really be present at all and would thus be merely one more object of boredom, as was claimed at the outset. One would light up on the rooftops or spool by as a filmstrip. But if indeed one is present, one would have no choice but to be bored by the ubiquitous abstract racket that does not allow one to exist, and, at the same time, to find oneself boring for existing in it.[29]

What Kracauer has provided in the passage above is a sketch of a new concept of boredom, which I have called an “active boredom.” First, Kracauer defines the state of boredom as a state of being present. Being bored by one’s physical surroundings, or the “ubiquitous abstract racket that does not allow one to exist,” does not imply neglect. Instead, it implies a state of heightened awareness, strategically situating oneself in an intermediate realm between the self and the “object-world.” Second, “active boredom” is a state of both activity and passivity, as in “to find oneself boring” and “to be bored.” In a state of “active boredom,” the subject can persist in the activity of “engaged self-preparation” for establishing a true relationship with physical reality as an absolute.[30] At the same time, “hesitant openness” of the subject towards physical reality implies that, metaphorically speaking, the door of the self is open at least partially. Unlike the “short-circuit” approach which lets the door of the self open to every possible realm of the absolute, “active boredom” allows the self to form a more balanced and mutual relationship with   physical reality. Lastly, “active boredom” acknowledges a dialectical relationship between the self and the “object-world.” The “object world,” with all its dins of modern development, presents itself as a threatening force; at the same time, it is also the reason why one is able to become aware of oneself as the self becomes threatened. In other words, it is the threatening situation that prompts one to place enough distance between the self and the object-world. “Active boredom” neither denies the possibility of absolutes, a negative attitude embraced by the Weberian approach, nor prematurely accepts certain absolutes, a hasty attitude embraced by the “short-circuit” approach. Rather, “active boredom” is an intermediate state that emphasizes the mutual harmony between the self as a modern subject and physical reality, or the “object-world” of modernity.

A “Hesitantly Open” Viewing Position

The concept of “active boredom” helps us better understand the position of the viewing subject within Paik’s Zen for Film. Zen for Film induces an “active boredom” in the viewer because it thickens our experience of time. In other words, it allows the viewer to encounter the passing of modern time as an experience in itself. The long stretch of time leads the viewer to experience an “active boredom” through which the viewer becomes highly aware of the surrounding physical reality. In experiencing Zen for Film, the viewer finds him- or herself preparing for the expected visual or aural stimuli. But soon enough, the viewer realizes that the screen will remain blank. One instead hears the noises of the surrounding environment becoming an aural accompaniment to the blank screen. One realizes that Zen for Film is part and parcel of its physical reality; the work is not physically separated but very much integrated with its environment. Thus the viewer experiences the work from the mid-point between self and the physical reality. Neither is the viewer consumed by physical reality nor is the viewer excluded from it. Zen for Film becomes a mediating mechanism through which the viewer as a modern subject, via “active boredom,” reconnects with both the self and the physical reality.

A key factor that enables the viewer of Zen for Film to experience “active boredom” is the work’s intentionally ambiguous state. Herman Asselbergh descrbies the ambiguity of Paik’s work as an in-between characteristic: “The lack of fixity of this work—wavering between film and anti-film, between screening and sculpture, between situation and ‘thing,’ between lark and koan, between zero degree and apogee—is perfectly in tune with the Fluxus philosophy of intermediality.”[31] Because of such intermedial quality, neither grounded in one specific medium or the other, Zen for Film does not prompt the viewer to make presumptions on what specific relationship one must form in experiencing the work. The relationship between the viewer and Zen for Film is much more open-ended than, for instance, one established in a movie theater. The enclosed space of a movie theater, “the huge dark hole animated with the illusion of a life that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone,”[32] renders the viewer as a helpless subject under the influence of the film apparatus. In contrast, the viewer of Zen for Film has a flexible mobility in experiencing the work. One is quite free to step within and outside the viewing space of Zen for Film. When physically situated between the projector and the screen, the viewer can have a cinematic experience, albeit an unusual one. When physically situated outside both the projector and the screen, the viewer can experience Zen for Film as a minimalist installation, a detached form of cinematic experience, or a hybrid of both. How one experiences Zen for Film also depends on the organization of the viewing space, which can be varied and thus leads to infinite possibilities of viewing. All these possibilities are different ways of forming relationship with physical reality via Zen for Film, and the viewer remains “hesitantly open” to all these possibilities, neither wholly rejecting nor embracing any one of them.


Figure 5. Zen for Fil(1964) performed as part of New Cinema Festival I, Filmmakers; Cinematheque, New York. According to Herman Asselbergh, a 16 mm film was used for this performance.


Figure 6. Installation of Zen for Film at the Paik Art Center in the 2012 exhibition “Nostalgia is an Extended Feedback.” The model of the projector is an Eiki Slim Line, a 16 mm projector. It uses a 16 mm clear leader with scratches and dust.


Asselberghs, Herman. “Beyond the Appearance of Imagelessness: Preliminary Notes on Zen for Film’s Enchanted Materialism.” Trans. Yasmine Van Pee. Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry, Issue 22 (Autumn/Winter 2009). 5-15. Print.

Goodstein, Elizabeth S. Experience without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2005. Print.

Hanhardt, John. The Worlds of Nam June Paik. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2000. Print.

Kracauer, Siegfried. “Boredom.” The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Trans. Ed. Thomas Y. Levin. Harvard UP, 1995. 331-36. Print.

–. “Those Who Wait.” The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Trans. Ed. Thomas Y. Levin. Harvard UP, 1995. 129-40. Print.

Paik, Nam June. Du cheval a’ christo et autres ecrits. Eds. Edith Decker and Iremeline Lebeer. Trans. Wang June Lim, Mi-ae Jung, and Moon Young Kim. Nam June Paik Art Center, 2010. Print.

–. Du cheval a’ christo et autres ecrits. Eds. Edith Decker and Iremeline Lebeer. Trans. Yves Cantraine. Bruxelles-Hamburg-Paris: Editions Lebeer Hossmann, 1993. Print.

Pezze, Barbara Dalle, and Carlo Salzani. “The Delicate Monster: Modernity and Boredom.” Essays on Boredom and Modernity. Amsterdam-New York, NY: Rodopi, 2009. 5-33. Print.

Sontag, Susan. “The Aesthetics of Silence.” Styles of Radical Will. New York: Picador, 2002. 3-34. Print.

Works Cited

Land, Owen. Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. 1966. http://www.martinjanda.at

Paik, Nam June. Zen for Film. 2012. Installation in Nam June Paik Art Center’s exhibition “Nostalgia is an Extended Feedback.”

–. Zen for Film. 1964. http://www.njpartcenter.kr/kr/research/collections/show.asp?id=285&pos=1&page=1&query=zen%20for%20film


[1] If exhibited at a museum such as the Paik Art Center, the film plays only during certain periods during the day.

[2] The quote comes from the Nam June Paik Art Center’s website: http://www.njpartcenter.kr/en/njpaik/sayings.asp

[3] Herman Asselberghs uses the term “cinéma du pauvre” to describe Paik’s Zen for Film “Zen for Film is not about the metaphysical void or the Euro-American sublime, nor about the Big Nothing. Instead, it’s about the next-to-nothing. It’s Jeanne Dielman leading her compulsive life, in which nothing ever happens, in real time […] Zen for Film is about the refusal to please an audience the easy way. It’s about deploying an anti-spectacle of poor aesthetics, stressing the enchA nothing film made of nothing about ‘nothing’—exquisite cinéma du pauvre” (15).

[4] Barbara Dalles Pezze and Carlo Salzani, “The Delicate Monster: Modernity and Boredom,” p. 12.

[5] The French title of the essay reads “Temps induit et temps produit.”

[6] Nam June Paik, Du cheval a’ christo et autres ecrits, p. 198. The original French text reads as the following : “La confusion qui entoure l’art vidéo d’aujourd’hui résulte en grande partie de l’absence de catégories qui permettraient de distinguer

<<l’art ennuyeux et de qualité>>


<<l’art ennuyeux et médiocre.>>

L’ennui en soi est loin d’être une qualité négative. En Asie, c’est plutôt un signe de noblesse. Répétons-le, cette confusion trouve son origine dans le fait que nous confondons INPUT-time et OUTPUT-time” (Editions Lebeer Hossmann, 124). All translations from both Korean and French are my own unless indicated otherwise.

[7] Elizabeth Goodstein, Experience Without Qualities, p. 29.

[8] Ibid., p. 335.

[9] John Hanhardt, The Worlds of Nam June Paik, p. 82. It is apparent that a number of Paik’s filmic works, including Zen for Film, were shown at the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque in New York, but Hanhardt does not specify which other filmic works by Paik were also presented. In her writing on Zen for Film, Herman Asselbergh also stresses the irony of filmmakers embracing Zen for Film: “Talk about strange… It is hard to decide what exactly should raise eyebrows the most: let’s say, Robert Morris, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg and other heroes of the Judson Church, Minimalism, and Fluxus taking in white movies slack-jawed, or the Pope of experimental film adding these same radical anti-films to the pantheon of art history without so much as batting an eyelash” (11).

[10] Ibid., p. 88.

[11] Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” pp. 32-33.

[12] See Hanhardt’s chapter “The Cinematic Avant-Garde” in The Worlds of Nam June Paik for a more detailed contextualization of Paik’s works in the history of world cinema.

[13] The still is taken from the website of Galerie Martin Janda: http://www.martinjanda.at/.

[14] Siegfried Kracauer, “Those Who Wait,” p. 129.

[15] Ibid., p. 129.

[16] Ibid., p. 130.

[17] Ibid., p. 131.

[18] Ibid., p. 131.

[19] Ibid., pp. 129-30.

[20] Ibid., pp. 135-36.

[21] Ibid., pp. 136-37.

[22] Ibid., p. 138. The emphasis comes from Karsten Witte, the editor of the second edition of Das Ornament der Masse: Essays (1977). It is retained in Thomas Levin’s translation.

[23] Ibid., pp. 138-39.

[24] Ibid., p. 139.

[25] Ibid., p. 139.

[26] Siegfried Kracauer, “Boredom,” p. 333.

[27] Ibid., p. 333.

[28] Ibid., p. 331.

[29] Ibid., p. 334. The italics are my added emphasis.

[30] Kracauer makes his view of reality, or more precisely physical reality, as an absolute towards the end of his essay “Those Who Wait.” He contrasts reality, one that is “filled with incarnate things and people and that therefore demands to be seen concretely,” with the “atomized unreal world of shapeless powers and figures devoid of meaning” (139-40). Kracauer’s formulation of reality is evidently a physical reality rendered as an absolute. The “atomized unreal world” is the realm of the self which Kracauer describes as an “empty space,” a “void” throughout his essay.

[31] Herman Asselbergh, “Beyond the Appearance of Imagelessness: Preliminary Notes on Zen for Film’s Enchanted Materialism,” p. 13.

[32] Siegfried Kracauer, “Boredom,” p. 332.

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