Charlotte Moorman: Shattering barriers between art and technology

By Elizabeth Bacharach

Can a television and a topless cellist wearing a pair of them be art?

To Charlotte Moorman—the Julliard-trained cellist commonly known as the “topless cellist”— a television is art.

This is evident in the first major Moorman exhibition. “A Feast of Astonishments,” open through July 17 at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art. The exhibit explores the cellist’s legacy and vision through a multimedia immersion.

Charlotte Moorman performs Nam June Paik’s TV Cello wearing TV Glasses, New York, 1971. (Courtesy of the Block Museum, © Takahiko iimura)
Charlotte Moorman performs wearing artist Nam June Paik’s “TV Cello” and “TV Glasses,” New York, 1971.. Niam June Paik (American, born in Korea, 1932-2006), “TV Cello,” 1971): video tubes, TV chassis, Plexiglas boxes, electronics, and wiring. From the collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. (Courtesy of the Block Museum, © Takahiko iimura)

Audio and video inundates the visitor with an aggressive hum of  mismatched sounds from a woman’s voice to classical music to a tension-igniting crash. Your eyes bounce from television screen to television screen, displayed throughout the gallery as integral to the works of art.

This work demonstrates Moorman and her achievements – “barrier breaking,” “radical,” and “part of a tradition of questioning our culture and our conventions of what we expect art to be, ” said Corinne Granof, one of the exhibit curators.

Moorman strapped two television sets onto her chest, playing the cello  as she learned at Julliard.  The 1969 performance art was called “TV Bra for Living Sculpture.”

Moorman, with Korean artist Nam June Paik’s design-help, brought technology into the musical sphere with the “TV Cello,” which included three televisions with strings to represent a cello.  While Moorman performed on this instrument as though it were a traditional cello, the devices displayed three sets of images: originally, a direct feed of the immediate performance, a video collage of other cellists, and an intercepted broadcast television feed.

Granof said, "people were kind of receptive" to the TV Cello. (Elizabeth Bacharach/MEDILL)
Granof said people were receptive to “TV Cello” performance,  first created in 1971. (Elizabeth Bacharach/MEDILL)

Moorman, who traded classical music for the avant-garde performance art of the 1960s, famously collaborated with Paik, credited as the founder of video art.

Together, Paik and Moorman applied new technologies of their time, such as the television. They redefined art by asking the question, “why does art have to be a painting on a canvas,” said Granof, curator of academic programs at the Block.

During the 1960s, a television personified the domestic sphere, where it was passively watched by a distanced viewer and considered a “lowbrow medium,” said Evelyn Kreutzer, a second year Ph.D. student in Screen Cultures at Northwestern University and a fan of Moorman’s.

Moorman and Paik, however, took the television from this traditional perspective and made it into an engaging art experience for everyone. “They take television sets and actually transplant them into the public performance art spaces,” Kreutzer said. “On the most basic level, it was about freeing art of any kind of power or hierarchal power based on social class, education, age.”

Moorman, who died in 1991, crushed the definition of “highbrow art” by interrupting seemingly traditional classical pieces with technology and other media.

While performing John Cage’s musical score “26’1.1499’ for a String Player,” which called for each player’s own reinvention, Moorman introduced objects such as a blender and a telephone in conventional venues such as an orchestral hall and even comic ones like the Tonight Show.

Moorman took “technology away from being this thing that’s really separate from the body” and made it an “extension of the body,” said Hannah Higgins, professor and chair of the art history department at University of Illinois at Chicago,

Higgins added that Moorman, by physically and figuratively uniting technology, art and the body, extended the reach of technology. She reinvented the television by taking it beyond its traditional domestic sphere.

Through these innovations, Moorman was able to fulfill Paik’s goal of using “art to humanize technology,” Granof said.

Moorman wore the TV Bra about two years after she was arrested for performing in the nude. “TV Bra for Living Sculpture,” 1969, by Nam June Paik (America, born Korea, 1932–2006):: video tubes, televisions, rheostat, foot switches, Plexiglas boxes, vinyl straps, cables and copper wire. From the collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. (Photo by Elizabeth Bacharach/MEDILL),

“I see…her body and her soul so-to-speak, as intersecting with technological forms to create an emotive happening,” said Scott Krafft, another of the exhibit curators and curator of the Charles Deering McCormick Library at Northwestern University Libraries.  Moorman’s archive is at Northwestern and the exhibit draws upon it.

Moorman’s dedication to “barrier breaking” did not stop at her performances, Granof said. In 1963,  the artist founded the Annual Avant Garde Festival of New York,  providing an opportunity for more artists interested in experimental work to show their pieces. However, like her music, these festivals extended beyond conventional gallery spaces. Instead, it was “part of the fabric of the city,” displayed in Central Park, Shea Stadium, the Staten Island Ferry and other locations,  Granof said.

Technology was at the center of these festivals as well, as Moorman engaged with engineers from Bell Laboratories and representatives of Con Edison.

It is “amazing what she was able to pull off in terms of organizing the festivals,” although she lived “in just the edge of chaos,” said Krafft, who has been working closely with the Moorman archive since their it arrived in 2001.

“I sort of just fell in love with her. I thought she was very charming, uniformly kind, daffy, always late, sort of crazy and chaotic,” he said.

The woman who harnessed television sets to her chest eventually died of breast cancer.  “A Feast of Astonishments” keeps Moorman’s spirit alive through the intersection of art and technology until it moves to New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in fall 2016.

“Don’t Throw Anything Out”

Quoting Moorman’s last words, “Don’t Throw Anything Out” is an auxiliary exhibit exclusively at the Block Museum. It won’t travel with the rest of the show. Curated by Scott Krafft, it provides a deeper look into Moorman’s personal life, specifically her methodical self-documentation throughout her battle with breast cancer. Krafft said he wanted to supplement the main exhibition by showing ideas about the “human” Moorman. According to Krafft, Moorman was “always on the phone, always scribbling something,” and this show demonstrates how she “sacrificed all domestic comfort to house her archival material.”  Open through July 17.

Photo at top: “A Feast of Astonishments” is the first major exhibition of Charlotte Moorman’s work and legacy drawn from Northwestern University archives.(Elizabeth Bacharach/MEDILL)