Lena Sawyer

Nam June Paik, TV Cello, 1971. Film, audio, video and digital art sculpture and installations. Holly Solomon Gallery.

Figure 1. Nam June Paik, TV Cello, 1971. Film, audio, video and digital art sculpture and installations. Holly Solomon Gallery.

Intermedia is a concept used to describe artworks whose production are uncategorizable as specific media, but instead exist between media. Fluxus artist Dick Higgins first coined the term in 1965, in a compilation of his essays called foew&ombwhnw.1 In it, Higgins posited the idea of intermediality as a solution to the growing need to move beyond a compartmentalized approach to art of the 20th century.2 This need grew out of found object and performance art, which frequently used a variety of media while also subverting distinctions between artist and artwork, subject and object, audience and actor. Is Duchamp’s Fountain (1917, replica 1964) sculpture or installation?3 Were the participants in Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1952) performers or audience members?4. As just these two examples reveal, earlier artistic categories become problematic, exposing a need for new terminology.5

We see intermediality manifested in Nam June Paik’s TV Cello (1971) [Figure 1]. Paik is often viewed as a pioneer in video art, but TV Cello combines performance, music, video, sculpture, and graphic arts, while simultaneously resisting those classifications entirely. The work is made up of three televisions, rigged with strings, to resemble and function as a cello. The cellist Charlotte Moorman then played it as each television lit up with a closed-circuit display of her own performance, “a video collage of other cellists, and an intercepted broadcast television feed.”6

The sense of intermedia is useful here in that Paik’s work cannot be defined according to the terminology that existed beforehand. The cello may be considered a musical instrument and therefore functional, not a work of art, but it is also a sculpture that has been produced using plexiglass and TV’s. This sculpture, though, includes another medium: video. One of the videos has been manipulated so that colors dance in it, distortions appear, and layers of video interrupt one another. These make reference to the traditions of two-dimensional art , such as collage, drawing, and painting. As Jacquelyn D. Serwer notes “Paik began to use his TV’s not just as a vehicle to transmit sound and images, but as actual compositional elements.”7 This is not simply a performance piece, nor is it specifically music or video, but it transcends those genres and its forms fuse to become combined to create an effect in which each element can be read as a number of media.

Paik has further confused the notions of creator and created in TV Cello, as Moorman takes part in the production of the work by activating the cello, but one might also consider the people on the TV screens as performers as well. This use of television activates the audience, bringing them into the function of TV Cello by commenting on the act of watching television as a means of activating the television itself.

Today, art historians and artists alike use intermedia — as both a term and a process of making — to formulate and make sense of their work. Intermediality has been brought into the academic sphere for artists to specialize in as a discipline in a university setting, and for art historians and critics to talk about art more effectively and embrace the ever-increasing complexity of contemporary productions.  A number of schools around the world have implemented Intermedia as a concentration in their Studio Art departments. Hans Breder first introduced the idea into an academic space during his time as an art professor at the University of Iowa in the late 1960’s.8 As a result, artists and art historians are able to push boundaries of materiality and what is considered art, to move between and beyond specific media classifications.


  1. Dick Higgins, “Strategy of Each of My Books,” in Horizons: The Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 120.
  2. Dick Higgins and Hannah Higgins, “Intermedia,” Leonardo 34: 1 (February 2001): 49–54.
  3. Dick Higgins, “Intermedia,” in Horizons  (1984), 20.
  4. “Performance Art 101: The Happening, Allan Kaprow,” last modified 30 May 2012.
  5. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 22–34.
  6. Nam June Paik, “TV Cello,”  last modified March 1, 2009.
  7. Jacquelyn D. Serwer, “Nam June Paik: ‘Technology’,” American Art 8: 2 (April 1, 1994): 88.
  8. Hans Breder, “Intermedia: Enacting the Liminal,” Performing Arts Journal 17: 2/3 (May 1, 1995): 112–20.