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TV Bra for Living Sculpture

TV Bra For Living Sculpture (1969) is a crucial work within Nam June Paik’s career. Consisting of two miniature televisions attached to a set of vinyl straps so that the screens functioned as the cups of a woman’s bra, this sculpture was designed to be worn by Paik’s collaborator Charlotte Moorman as she performed on the cello. An object which conflates the use value of technology with the exchange value of fashion, Paik saw his TV Bra as a way of humanizing the technological by forcing it into a hybrid relationship with the body as well as other artistic media such as performance. Originally, when this work was used in performances, the sound played by Moorman on her cello was filtered through a processor which would change, modulate, disrupt, and regenerate the live television images playing on the video screens of her TV Bra. By conflating sexuality (Moorman performed clothed only by the TV Bra), performance art, corporate entertainment media (the live signal on the two televisions), classical music, and sculpture, Paik used this technology to subvert the numbing effects of the electronic age that McLuhan alluded to. As Paik suggested in a 1965 essay, “if Pasteur and Robespierre are right that we can resist poison only through certain built-in poison, then some specific frustrations caused by cybernated life, require accordingly cybernated shock and catharsis. My everyday work with video tape and the cathode-ray tube convinces me of this.” In Understanding Media McLuhan suggested the possibility of a similar moment of resistance within the technological realm which he located at the moment when two different media come together to form a hybrid. As he put it:

“The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. For the parallel between two media holds us on the frontiers between forms that snap us out of the Narcissus-narcosis. The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses.”

TV Bra For Living Sculpture raises a number of relevant questions about the notion of hybridity as we move down the path towards the possibilities of a Y2K apocalypse or a coming virtual nirvana. The object itself, a piece of technology meant to be worn during a musical performance, was itself a radical hybrid in the sense that McLuhan was suggesting. As a work of art it was rigorously intermedial, combining performance, sculpture, and video within the context of an art gallery structure traditionally focused on painting and sculpture. As a pioneering work of video sculpture that transgressed the various traditional boundaries of art, but also the boundaries of conventional science and engineering, Paik and Moorman’s TV Bra For Living Sculpture provides an important historical antecedent and antidote to the numbing, ahistorical hysteria that often swirls around the explosion of the digital revolution.