Joo Youn Paek,
and the Rhizomatic
Teaching in New Media
August 12, 2010
This paper will show how ancient Tao teachings and the Rhizomatic: as defined by Deleuze and Guattari, are speaking the same language, and showing themselves in New Media art and technology. The contemporary work of artist Joo Youn Paek conveys this; her work will be used throughout this paper as a visual and referential tying of the two.
History of Taoism:
While defining any religion is hard, Taoism in particular is extremely difficult to pin down as there is no one particular “Holy” text as in other religions, and Taoism doesn’t really fit into the category of religion at all. The word Tao itself means “way of life”. There are many complexities including a debate among Taoists about what Taoism is, and who is, and isn’t a true Taoist. There are three different categories of Taoism; the Taoist school which focuses on Taoism as a philosophy, the Taoist religion and Taoism as folk. For my purposes I will briefly touch the main principles in Taoism that don’t vary greatly among the categories. The main beliefs in Taoism are De, Wu wei, Pu, and Spiturality. De is the action of Tao meaning to actively live and cultivate their path or way of their life. Wu wei is a central concept which is often expressed as action through non- action. In Taoist teachings the example of being as water is would be to achieve wu-wei. Water is both soft and strong, it can be hard and cold in the form of ice, or it can be nearly invisible and hot in the form of steam. It has the ability to break rocks, burn flesh, grow grass, and cleanse in the form of rain. Pu translated means “uncarved block” the idea of Pu is simply seeing unburdened by knowledge or definitions but rather a pure awareness and receptiveness to experience as is. Spirituality in Taoism emphasizes the importance in understanding oneself, as Taoists believe man to be the microcosm to the macrocosm of the universe. By the understanding of oneself man can understand the world in which he lives in.
“Fifty years ago Taoism was still considered in part too irrational a mysticism and for the rest too degraded a superstition even to be mentioned in such discussions. Now it has been transfigured, made a milieu for objective and experimental science and technology. As Joseph Needham puts it, “Taoism was religious and poetical, yes; but it was also at least as strongly magical, scientific, democratic, and politically revolutionary.” We are told that “to a large extent the Taoists practiced experimental science. They were reluctant to alter their premises in the light of logic and experimentation, but they did at least experiment. They were ultimately responsible for the development of dyes, alloys, porcelains, medicines, the compass, and gunpowder. They would have developed much more if the best minds in China had not been pre-empted by Confucian Orthodoxy,”
Deleuze and Guattari define the rhizome as a horizontal and non- hierarchal concept where anything may be linked to anything else. They also state that no real dichotomy or dualism can ever actually exist even at the most basic level of distinguishing good and bad, because while there may be ruptures or breaks a rhizome will continuously restore itself. In other words good and bad are inextricable. They use the example of ants as an animal rhizome. This example is more visual. Imagine, ants in the house, you spray something on them, a household cleaner; and they are all gone, but as soon as you leave and return, they have too. The seemingly appear out of nowhere. This is the idea of the rhizome horizontal and continuous, Ants will return time and again because they have the ability to rebound even after nearly all have been destroyed. –del.gu
Joo Youn Paek:
Joo Youn Paek is a Korean born artist and interaction designer. She earned a master’s degree at NYU from the Interactive Telecommunications Program and is currently an artist in residence at Eyebeam Art &Technology center. Paek describes her work as a result of her observation on human behavior – dressing and undressing, drinking and eating, calling and texting, and writing emails and snail mails – to design interactive objects for public spaces.
She addresses the influence of Taoist principles in her work “Fold Loud”. But, Joo Youn Paek doesn’t specifically address all of her work as influenced by Taoism. I am interested in the correlation between her work and her Taoist beliefs as well as connecting her work to the Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic.
My initial attraction to Joo Youn’s work was when viewing her piece “Fold Loud”. I was intrigued by her description of the piece as embodying traditional ritualistic Taoist principles to give users a sense of slow relaxation. This concept was appealing to me as it opposed the general use of mainstream technology that is generally intended for a fast paced life. She says, “Fold Loud is healing recovering and balancing.”
“Fold Loud” is a piece of origami paper with electronic circuits that make a human vocal sound when folded; this sound combines with another different human vocal sound with each successive fold. As the piece continues to be folded into its final shape the end result is a chorus of harmonious hums. Paek uses modern circuits to create a meditative hum reflective of Taoist Ritual. Paek says the folding of the origami paper embodies a ritualistic Taoist principle that gives users a sense of slow soothing experience of reflection. “Fold Loud” is a result of Paek mixing and matching technology and design theory to develop an interface project that enhances people’s physical senses as well as their ability to create and share their stories with wider audiences.
This piece embodies the rhizome as it is unifying two materials in a non-hierarchal fashion by putting circuit technology which appears to be new with an old material and an old concept of meditation and ritual. Together they are one with no delineation.
In her wearable technologies entitled “Spoetry” there is again a strong sense of two as one both in respect to the principles of Taoism and the Philosophy of the rhizome. Her pieces to me embody the Taoist yin-yang. She has created a pair of shoes that is one shoe, two pair of glasses combined to be only one pair of glasses, as well as two pairs of goggles becoming one, and a helmet with room for two but only worn by one.
In addition to the wearable technologies of “Spoetry”, Joo Youn has recreated the game of ping pong. The new form of the game is an interactive piece called “ping but no pong”; the game is set up, and played in almost the same fashion as regular ping pong. The difference between “ping but no pong” and ping pong is that in “ping but no pong” one of the centers of the paddles is cut out. Paek writes words on the ping-pong balls and tries to catch them through the hole as players hit them to her. This is related to the concept of wu-wei in Taoism which is called action through non action. In nearly all of the pieces she has created she has re assigned meanings of sport as we typically conceive them. She has made the action difficult or impossible. Through her recreations she shows the Taoist spirit of man as microcosm and macrocosm. The wearer, and the observer of the wearer both suddenly become more aware of themselves through their feet by way of shoes, of their sight and relationship in proximity to others by way of glasses and goggles, and finally through social interactions with one another through organized sport and the ways in which words can often be received but not returned in the struggle for understanding through words. The teachings of the Tao emphasize understanding one another not through words but through unlearned awareness and experience.
Walk and Sit:
The piece ‘walk and sit” is a wearable technology that works by stepping on pumps that inflate a seat attached to the behind as the wearer walks. I feel this articulates the Taoist philosophy of Pu. Pu emphasizes the importance of taking care of both the body and the mind as they are one. This piece not only serves as a form of physical exercise, but also engages the wearer to be mindful of the amount of time walking and sitting one does. It also makes others around the wearer more aware of their own actions, and provokes a thoughtfulness and attention to actions which are typically done with little or no thought at all. This wearable suit also symbolizes perfect harmony, as in the yin yang. Yin Yang is an important concept in Taoism. This piece is shows the harmony between walking and sitting. In order to walk, one must sit and in order to sit one must walk. When the wearer has walked enough the seat is fully inflated and the walker can rest by sitting on it, but not too long, as it deflates according the weight of the wearer.
Both Taoism and the Rhizome are concepts that are difficult to articulate in words, this is because both have intentions of debunking traditional linear knowledge. The introduction to Deleuze and Guattari’s book goes on about how and why they are putting their idea of the rhizome into a book format as it is inappropriate for them to put such a non linear concept into a linear book structure with the reading being left to right and front to back. The rhizome in its definition is non linear, non- hierarchal, and unable to be mapped. Yet, they feel trapped and succumb to the book form to convey their ideas which they claim are not solely theirs, as they are each made up of many and are only using their given names out of habit. The same ideas about linear structure and words are echoed in the teachings of Toaism. Toaism itself is still being debated as religion or philosophy because it’s not rooted in the traditional sense of religion that tends to have a primary book or source that is followed. The teachings of Toaism have primarily been passed down through generations by the telling of tales with little reliance on text. In the few texts of Taoism there’s strong warning against believing truth that is spoken as truth or written as truth and a deliberate vagueness as the way of life must be found for oneself. Taoist beliefs emphasize a knowledge which is tacit. Both Toaism and the Rhizome encompass the idea of within and without and microcosm and macrocosm. Deleuze and Guattari call these points by concepts non-hierarchal. Taoists define the same concept of non- hierarchal through Pu. Pu, a loss of ego of sorts is practiced as the person begins to eliminate distinctions between things which are generally viewed as opposing. There will be no difference between beauty and ugliness, life or death, freezing cold or sweltering heat to one who has achieved Pu. The concept of non-hierarchal in terms of new media is shown through Joo Youn Paek’s work as she does not draw lines between old media paper and new media circuits. Joo Youn Paek’s works make Ancient Taoist philosophy and new conceptual art one.
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JY Paek- Acm Siggraph 2008 art gallery, 2008