Rachel Jans explains that Charlotte Moorman’s death from breast cancer in 1991 formally concluded her ‘near thirty-year collaboration’ with Nam June Paik. TV bra is a remnant of their work together. A dense network of cathode-ray tubes, cables and foot switches connects TV Bra to two black electrical monitors [fig. 1]. The material trace of Moorman’s body surfaces in TV Bra’s two television screen bra cups. Whilst the permanent black ink signature, ‘Paik ‘69’, marks TV Bra as his, Moorman’s ties to the object are not as apparent. Jans notes that ‘although [Moorman’s] corporeal being is missing’ from the Tate Modern’s 2020 Paik retrospective, she is immortalised through objects that she wore in her avant-garde cello performances with Paik. The Tate’s staging of TV Bra’s vinyl straps alludes to Moorman’s absence.
With no body to mould, they draw a circular perimeter around the empty white surface of a display plinth, symbolising the absence of Moorman’s body from the exhibition. A safety pin punctures the vinyl and alludes to how this object would have been secured onto Moorman’s body during her TV Bra performances. The object is marked by the wear and tear of these performances: Moorman’s dripping sweat and secretions have stained the transparent vinyl straps [fig. 2]. In another photograph, the bra’s television ‘cups’ light up to show Moorman performing TV Bra [fig. 2]. She is immortalised in the pixels of the video and the stains on the artwork. In fact, Moorman’s presence in TV Bra’s screens realises Paik’s assurances that ‘video guarantees eternal life’. Moorman seeps through TV Bra’s materiality and into the plexiglass boxes that shelter its television screens.
As TV Bra is a record of Moorman’s corporeality, I would like to consider how its reception without Moorman is burdened by the complications of mourning. Joan Rothfuss remarks that Paik felt guilty for Moorman’s death as he feared that TV Bra’s radiation caused Moorman’s breast cancer. Other feminists in Moorman’s friendship circle saw TV Bra as a parable for the patriarchy’s toxic influence on the female body. I will address the implications of mourning Moorman through TV Bra in relation to Melanie Klein’s theory of mourning as a re-activator of the infantile depressive position. Klein argues that this position, first manifested when a child is weening from the mother’s breast, confronts us with our ambivalence towards the lost person, as well as our guilt that our destructive phantasies against the deceased loved one may have contributed to their death. Paik’s dependence on Moorman to perform TV Bra foreshadows the depressive position’s ‘feelings of guilt and loss’ for those upon which it depends. Moreover, Paik and the feminists’ paranoia towards TV Bra mobilises manic defence mechanisms that deflect from a painful confrontation with the depressive position .
Also drawing on Franco Fornari and Hanna Segal’s theories of the nuclear, I will consider how Paik’s violent interpretation of TV Bra reflects the external danger of the nuclear era, and how the feminist movement’s defensive response to the object highlights their own fears of persecution and objectification in the media. However, despite Moorman’s corporeal absence, TV Bra remains marked by, and bound to, the legacy of her performances. To this end, isolating TV Bra from its performances results in its misinterpretation as being violent to, rather than in non-violent relation with, Moorman. Following Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, which posits that, because cycles of violence are reproduced through iterable frames of representation, they are always subject to breaking, I will conclude that to study TV bra in relation to Moorman’s avant-garde cello performances supports her original claim of non-violence.
Moorman’s death spotlights Paik’s dependence on her breasts. This is highlighted by how he saw them, according to Rothfuss, ‘as a weapon’ for their collaborations. As such, Moorman’s breasts are safeguarded by Paik through TV Bra’s armour-like television breast shields. Made two years after Moorman and Paik’s 1967 Opera Sextronique’s topless indecency scandal, TV Bra shelters Moorman’s breasts from legal liability. Yet in ‘Cello Sonata op.69’, also written after Moorman’s arrest, Paik implores that Moorman ‘Play topless!!!!’. This statement conflicts Paik’s desire to protect Moorman from the law with his attachment to the spectacle of her body. The profit and spectacle of Moorman’s breasts are further entangled in the relationship between television and sexuality in the American imagination. In Topless Cellist, Paik affectionately remembers TV Bra as the ‘boob tube’, a term used in the mid 1960s to describe the television set. The spectacle of the TV, the ‘boob’ and Moorman’s breasts materialise in her TV Bra performances. This relationship between the ‘boob’ and the televised spectacle is amplified by the preoccupation that televisions were the gateway to ‘electronic breastfeeding’. The television, an electronic breast for the eyes to suckle, is akin to Paik’s dependence on the spectacle of Moorman’s breasts.
Moorman’s breast cancer diagnosis and her ensuing mastectomy physically materialises the loss of an object upon which Paik depended for the TV Bra performances. Melanie Klein’s theory that the infantile depressive position surfaces when a child is faced with the loss of the mother’s breast is reflected in Paik’s feelings of ambivalence and guilt with Moorman’s death. Without Moorman, TV Bra’s television cups emulate a breast pump with no breast to latch onto. Klein’s recognition of the child’s ‘uncontrollable greedy and destructive phantasies and impulses against [the child’s] mother’s breasts’ runs parallel to how Paik’s guilt reflects his aggressive yearning for Moorman’s breasts. In this light, the safety pin that connected the vinyl straps and enabled Moorman to wear TV Bra may now represent Paik’s destructive need to clutch onto and secure her breast for himself. To mourn Moorman’s death reactivates the complexities of the depressive position and, in turn, confronts Paik with his ambivalent desire to protect and profit from his muse’s breasts.
The paranoia of radiation underpins TV Bra’s contemporary moment and further hinders Paik’s ability to overcome the depressive position. Hiroshima (1945), Chernobyl (1986), as well as the USA’s use of agent orange in the Vietnam War shaped the apocalyptic legacy of the twentieth century. In 1960, the fear of radiation spread into American living rooms. Nine thousand colour TV sets were recalled because they exposed Americans to carcinogenetic ionising radiation. Radiation even seeped into the courtroom. In Moorman’s 1967 indecency trial, Judge Milton Shalleck conflates his exposure to radiation to that of female nudity by stating: ‘I spent the better part of a year down in the South Pacific […] you don’t have to tell me what exposure is’. This exposure to nuclear radiation, to television or to nudity impacts Paik’s internal feelings of guilt for Moorman’s death. Like radiation’s borderless propagation, this paranoia blurs the boundaries between Moorman’s external and internal exposure to danger and aggression. This phenomenon reflects Segal’s theory on nuclear psychosis, which she argues is induced by the atomic bomb’s ‘obliteration of boundaries between reality and phantasy’. In turn, Paik cannot differentiate between his guilt for profiting from Moorman’s breast, and his guilt for transmitting radiation through TV Bra. His paranoia of nuclear technologies manifests his compulsion ‘not to make another scientific toy, but […] to humanise technology […] which is progressing rapidly, too rapidly’. Paik’s repetition of ‘too rapidly’ echoes a drilling voice inside his head that is anxiously aware of his own capacity to make a choice: halt or participate in the aggressive development of technology.
Paik says to Moorman: ‘It’s very likely you won’t be electrocuted’ by TV Bra.  His ambivalence towards TV Bra’s capacity to electrocute or expose Moorman to radiation is conveyed in the dichotomy between his use of the assertive, ‘very likely’, and negative ‘won’t be’. This parallels his own ambivalence towards the performer. Franco Fornari argues that the paranoid melancholic is met with a compulsion to ‘reappropriate the destructive intent of nuclear weapons as our original wish, concealed in a paranoid position, to destroy our love object’.  Paik’s paranoia towards TV Bra’s radiation conceals his inner conviction that his use of Moorman’s breasts provoked her death. His internal aggression towards Moorman is made tangible in the heat of the television screens on her flesh, and the object’s cumbersome weight. Paik’s paranoia of TV Bra’s radiation thwarts the resolution of his feelings of loss, guilt and ambivalence and reflects the paranoid psychic anxieties of the nuclear mentality.
TV Bra features differently in the mourning process of Moorman’s feminist friends. For them, TV Bra is a metaphor for patriarchal persecution; Moorman is complicit in her own death by exposure to sexism. Moorman’s disinterest in feminism, at the zenith of the movement’s 1968 and 1970 beauty pageant protests, fuels feminist antagonism towards TV bra. Their reception of TV Bra as a violent patriarchal object endorses their claim that the patriarchy is deadly. From a Kleinian viewpoint, the feminists’ desire to triumph over TV Bra reflects their paranoia that the patriarchy wills to triumph over them. Framing TV Bra as a patriarchal symbol activates the feminists’ manic defences against the pain of the depressive position. Melanie Klein’s description of the ego’s ‘paranoid defence mechanisms’ towards the lost love object as a ‘sadistic gratification of overcoming and humiliating it, of getting the better of it’ is analogous to the feminists’ treatment of TV Bra following Moorman’s death.  The movement’s mourning of Moorman is co-opted by their defensive paranoia against the patriarchy. However, Martha Rosler’s statement that ‘The thread of [Paik’s] work includes the fetishization of the female body as an instrument that plays itself’ nuances the feminist reception of TV Bra by conveying the performative ‘instrument’ of Moorman’s gender. Whilst Rosler’s critique of the ‘thread’ in Paik’s work underscores the patriarchy’s seamless repetition of violent norms, her identification of how Moorman ‘play[s]’ her gender is significant.
Butler writes that gender ‘identifications are always made in response to loss of some kind, […] they involve a mimetic practice that seeks to incorporate the lost love within the very ‘identity’ of the one who remains’. She considers that we are dispossessed by our sexuality that is constantly ‘a way of being for another or by virtue of another’. This parallels how being dispossessed from a community confronts us with ‘the ties or bonds that compose us’. Moorman mourns her southern roots and her hometown when she leaves Little Rock, Arkansas to study at The Julliard School in New York. She becomes a southern debutante foil to the New York avant-garde’s performances. Her departure from Little Rock thus dispossesses her from her community. By mourning this loss, Moorman recognises the relational ties that compose her identity. This aspect of her sexuality as being ‘for another’ is insinuated in a letter that Moorman receives from her mother saying, ‘Loved your hair long […] I was proud of you, you still talk a little like a Southerner honey.’ The mother’s appreciation of her daughter’s long brown hair and her Southern accent highlights how Moorman’s sexuality is in part for her mother. This bond is amplified in Moorman’s refusal to undergo chemotherapy because she fears that she will lose her hair. Moorman’s protection of her hair is a reflection of the ties that compose her identity, and her desire to safeguard them within herself.
Moorman’s incorporation of her Southern roots within her sexuality is intensified by her TV Bra performances. In reference to Butler, Moorman’s performances are a means for her to ‘[craft her] aggression into modes of expression that protect those one loves’. Her performances enable her ‘to honour and protect’ her lost Southern roots. She advances her claim for non-violence by ‘mak[ing] good use of the iterability of the productive norms, and, hence, of their fragility and transformability’. Moorman’s capacity to break from her Southern upbringing is exemplified in a collection of photographs documenting her performances with and without TV Bra. In 1969, Moorman wears a black gown for her first TV Bra performance at the Howard and Wise gallery. The dress is altered to fit right below TV Bra [fig.3].
Moorman wears a long silk fuchsia dress, tucked in at her belly button, in her performance of TV Bra on the roof of her New York loft [fig.4]. TV Bra is secured onto her breasts. Moorman wears her elegant dresses regardless of her performances’ formal or informal occasion. Her relationship with her audience always oozes with southern charm, with one audience member comparing her to ‘a hostess at a Texas barbecue’.
Moorman’s gowns and her charisma recall an earlier photograph of young Moorman as Little Rock’s 1952 beauty queen [fig.5]. She wears a silver crown, a long white coat, dark lipstick and a tulle skirt. Moorman radiates southern suburbia: sitting side saddle on the back of a pick-up truck, with a brick house and freshly mowed grass in the backdrop. This photograph, the gowns from Moorman’s TV bra performances, and her rapport with the audience honour her lost Southern roots. By altering her dresses to accommodate TV Bra, Moorman’s performances simultaneously repeat and break from the conventions of her Southern upbringing.
The photograph of Moorman as Little Rock beauty queen highlights the iterability of her gender performance and illustrates her capacity to reframe her relationship with the beauty pageant through TV Bra. A printed sign hangs from the side of the truck: ‘Miss City Beautiful/ CharlottMooman’. Young Moorman’s misspelled name introduces the violence of her upbringing as the neatly italicised ‘Miss City Beautiful’ eclipses the misspelled ‘CharlottMooman’. Moorman’s ambivalent relationship to the pageant is condensed in Paik’s installation, Room for Charlotte Moorman (1993) [fig.6].
The photograph of Moorman as Little Rock’s pageant queen is pinned onto a wall. Moorman, in her suburban attire, is framed by her TV Bra performance gowns that hang lifelessly around the image. This parallel between ‘CharlottMooman’, ‘Miss City Beautiful’, and Charlotte Moorman, ‘Queen’ of the avant-garde, to cite Yoko Ono, exemplifies how each iteration of Moorman’s gender performances repeats, in order to break from, her upbringing. Comparing Moorman’s past relationship to the beauty pageant with her TV Bra performances supports Rosler’s criticism that Moorman ‘plays’ her gender. However, rather than condemn this performative aspect of her sexuality, mapping its various stages in relation to Butler’s theory of non-violent performance highlights how Moorman’s TV Bra performances ultimately break from the cycle of her upbringing. The repetition of her southern sexuality highlights the malleability intrinsic to the dominant structures of her Southern background. They broadcast her TV Bra performances’ non-violent gestures.
The relationship between the cello, the bra and Moorman in her TV bra performances emphasises her non-violent claim. She states: ‘TV Bra is one third of [the piece], I’m one third of it, and my cello is one third of it. When we’re all together, the work is complete’. This ‘we’ elucidates how Moorman’s performances are contingent on her interdependence with the Other. Moorman’s father’s death intensified her devotion to playing the cello. Klein’s theory that the infantile depressive position may be resolved through productive activities that distract from the lost love object aligns with Moorman’s attempt to protect her father from her internal aggressive phantasies by playing the cello. In line with Butler’s theory of ‘responsibility’ towards the ‘precarious life of the other’, the cello enables Moorman to responsibly ‘own’ her aggression and overcome her internal ambivalence towards her father.
TV Bra is also framed in relation to the feminist movement and the media’s ambivalent reception of the bra. TV Bra was made one year after the 1968 Miss America protests. The protesters opposed the objectification of women’s bodies by throwing their bras into a ‘Freedom Trash Can’. To the feminist movement, the bra was a symbol of female objectification; to reject it symbolised emancipation. To the media, the feminist emblem of the bra became ‘a sexy trope’ –an opportunity to ‘sexualis[e] and therefore trivialis[e]’ the movement. Moorman’s TV Bra performances, following the pattern of her cello playing, work towards restoring the ambivalence of the bra. This is emphasised in Moorman’s statement to the Australian Press: ‘Well, I ask you, what’s more personal than a girl’s bra?’. Moorman’s incorporation of the object as ‘personal’ and a part of her sexuality restores her ambivalent upbringing through the beauty pageant and protects the bra from the aggression of the media and the feminist movement. Moorman’s relation to the cello and the bra emphasises her TV Bra performances’ claim of non-violence.
Moorman’s TV Bra performances repeat the intelligible tropes of her gender to highlight their plasticity. Her engagement with the bra and the media recalls Butler’s claim that ‘media and survival are linked’, as media and television are ‘modes of representation and appearance that allow the claim of life to be made and heard’. Moorman’s TV Bra performances play with other ‘modes of representation’, as epitomised in her trip to Guadalcanal in 1976. There, Moorman enters into an uncanny dialogue with the 1968 Miss America protesters who claim that Miss America is the ‘[the USA’s] Military Death Mascot’ and the ‘cheerleader […] of American troops [in Vietnam]’.  Yet rather than visiting American troops in Vietnam, Moorman performs for the inhabitants of Guadalcanal, who suffered during the United States’ first major offence against the Japanese in World War II. Read beside a photograph of Jane Ann Jayroe, Miss America of 1967, cheerfully playing her accordion for the American troops in Vietnam [fig.7], Moorman figures as the avant-garde’s ‘cheerleader’, entertaining the disenfranchised lives of the Guadalcanal inhabitants with her TV Bra.
In footage from the performance, the audience inquisitively looks inside TV Bra’s television screens [fig.8]. TV Bra could also film the audience’s faces and present them onscreen – ‘putting the audience’s faces on my brassiere’, as Moorman put it. By circulating the faces of the Guadalcanal residents inside her television screens, Moorman includes them in a ‘mode of representation’, the television and thus the media, that had consistently denied them ‘the claim of life’. By using TV Bra’s television screens to this end, Moorman’s performance breaks the framework of the institution from within. To perform TV Bra at the height of the beauty pageant protests is not a reflection of Moorman’s submission to the patriarchy. It reflects her capacity to performatively unfix the media’s exclusion of lives that have been disenfranchised by the USA’s wars abroad, or the media’s biased representation of the feminist movement.
Following Charlotte Moorman’s death, TV Bra’s reception was burdened by the complexities of mourning. TV Bra was framed as a violent instrument through Paik’s paranoia of radiation and the feminists’ paranoia towards the patriarchy. Returning to the essence of Moorman’s TV Bra performances reinforces her original claim of non-violence. TV Bra is one part of a whole, alongside Moorman’s performance and the cello. Interpreting TV Bra through the lens of Moorman’s personal biography and its socio-political context reminds us of its precarious interdependence with Moorman’s performances, and thus validates the performer’s claim of non-violence.
Eloise Crist is an art historian based between London and Paris. In 2020, she received a History of Art MA from University College London. Her research interests include intersectional feminism, postcolonial theory, and ecological issues. Her work has been published in Radical Art Review and is pending publication in Cambridge University’s Kettle’s Yard’s Archive.
Butler, Judith, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2010).
Butler, Judith ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’, in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993) pp 307-320.
Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, (London: Verso, 2004).
Fornari, Franco, The Psychoanalysis of War, ed. and trans. by Alenka Pfeifer (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974).
Howard and Wise Gallery, TV as a Creative Medium exhibition program, 1969.
Jans, Rachel, ‘Splash Music: Paik and Charlotte Moorman’ in Nam June Paik , ed. Sook-Kyung Lee and Rudolf Frieling (London: Tate Publishing, 2019), pp. 89-93.
J. Dow, Bonnie, Watching Women’s Liberation 1970: Feminism’s Pivotal Year on Network News, (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2014).
Klein, Melanie, ‘Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States’ in Essential Papers on Object Loss, ed. Rita V. Frankiel (New York: New York University Press, 1994) pp.95-122.
Landres, Sophie, ‘Indecent and Uncanny: The Case against Charlotte Moorman’, Art Journal, 76 (2017), 48-69.
Rothfuss, Joan, Topless Cellist: The Improbably Life of Charlotte Moorman, (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2014).
Rosler, Martha, ‘Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment’ in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, ed. Sally J. Fifer and Doug Hall (New York: Aperture, 1990), pp. 31-50.
Segal, Hanna, ‘From Hiroshima to the Gulf War and After: Socio-Political Expressions of Ambivalence’ in Psychoanalysis, Literature and War: Papers 1972-1995, ed. Elizabeth Bott Spillius (London: Routledge, 1997) pp.157-168.
Topless Cellist, dir. by Nam June Paik and Howard Weinberg, 1995 [Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aeH9FdtAqY]
 Rachel Jans, ‘Splash Music: Paik and Charlotte Moorman’ in Nam June Paik, ed. Sook-Kyung Lee and Rudolf Frieling (London: Tate Publishing, 2019), pp. 89-93 (p.93).
 Joan Rothfuss, Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman, (Massachusetts: MIT Press,2014), p.343.
 Rothfuss, p.358.
 Melanie Klein, ‘Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States’ in Essential Papers on Object Loss, ed. Rita V. Frankiel (New York: New York University Press, 1994) pp.95-122 (p.103).
 Klein, p.96.
 Klein, p.101.
 Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2010), pp.170-171 and p.184.
 Rothfuss, p.155.
 Topless Cellist, dir. by Nam June Paik and Howard Weinberg, 1995 [Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aeH9FdtAqY]
 Rothfuss, p.242.
 Klein, p.96.
 Rothfuss, p.358.
 Rothfuss, p.200.
 Hanna Segal, ‘From Hiroshima to the Gulf War and After: Socio-Political Expressions of Ambivalence’ in Psychoanalysis, Literature and War: Papers 1972-1995, ed. Elizabeth Bott Spillius (London: Routledge, 1997) pp.157-168 (p.163).
 Nam June Paik for Howard and Wise Gallery, ‘TV Bra for Living Sculpture’ in TV as a Creative Medium exhibition program, 1969.
 Paik cited by Rothfuss, p.240.
 Franco Fornari, The Psychoanalysis of War, ed. and trans. by Alenka Pfeifer (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974), p.186.
 Rothfuss, p.240.
 Rothfuss, p.358.
 Klein, p.102.
 Klein, p.101.
 Martha Rosler, ‘Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment’ in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, ed. Sally J. Fifer and Doug Hall (New York: Aperture, 1990), pp. 31-50 (p.45).
 Butler, ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’, in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993) pp. 307-320 (p.316).
 Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, (London: Verso, 2004), p.24.
 Butler, Precarious, p.22.
 Rothfuss, p.80.
 Rothfuss, p.343
 Butler, Frames, p.177.
 Butler, Frames, pp.170-171.
 Rothfuss, p.243.
 Yoko Ono ‘Foreword’ in Topless Cellist, pp.ix-x (p.x).
 Moorman in Rothfuss, p.245.
 Rothfuss, p.14.
 Klein, p.103.
 Butler, Frames, p.177.
 Sophie Landres, ‘Indecent and Uncanny: The Case against Charlotte Moorman’, Art Journal, 76 (2017), 48-69, (p.66).
 Ruth Rosen cited by Bonnie J. Dow, Watching Women’s Liberation 1970: Feminism’s Pivotal Year on Network News, (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2014) p.30.
 Moorman in Rothfuss, p.314.
 Butler, Frames, p.181.
 Robin Morgan’s ‘Miss America as Military Death Mascot’ cited by Landres, p.64.
 Moorman by Rothfuss, p.240.