Chaos and Cathode Rays | by Brian Dillon

Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik performing John Cage’s 26'1.1499'' for a String Player

Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik performing John Cage’s 26’1.1499” for a String Participant, 1965; {photograph} by Peter Moore

On a freezing evening in February 1967, the cellist Charlotte Moorman and the artist-composer Nam June Paik carried out Paik’s Opera Sextronique for the primary time on the Movie-Maker’s Cinematheque, beneath the Wurlitzer Constructing on West forty first Avenue in New York Metropolis. Undercover cops had lurked at rehearsals, anticipating proof of obscenity. Moorman and Paik delivered: Moorman was usually bare (or practically) throughout their collaborations. (Paik later stated, “It was such a logical and sure-fire thought, that I nonetheless marvel why no one did it earlier than us.”) For the primary motion, Opera Sextronique concerned Moorman carrying a bra with flashing electrical lights, and taking part in her cello with a violin and a bunch of flowers rather than a bow. For the second motion, Moorman took her high off, and Paik connected toy propellers to her nipples. Earlier than the third motion might begin—it was to characteristic Moorman in a soccer helmet and jersey however nothing from the waist down—the police rushed the stage, and bundled her and Paik by way of the snow to jail, the place they spent the evening. At her trial the decide, Milton Shalleck, declared that the efficiency was not artwork, however designed merely to arouse “the vernacular sucker.”

Paik and Moorman had met in 1964, when the Korean-born Paik moved from Germany to New York. Moorman was operating the annual New York Avant Garde Competition, as she did most years till 1980. Within the early Sixties Paik started making works that concerned performers’ our bodies. In Amsterdam in 1962 the artist Alison Knowles was instructed by Paik’s rating for Serenade for Alison to “take off a pair of violet panties, and pull them over the pinnacle of a snob”—Knowles carried out the piece twice, earlier than deciding such objectifying antics weren’t for her. By all accounts, Moorman was a extra enthusiastic confederate. A cello participant and former magnificence queen from Little Rock whose classical profession had not panned out, she grew to become as an alternative an interpreter and champion of the brand new experimental music. Moorman was collaborator, prop, and medium in Paik’s antic artwork: she strapped small screens to her breasts for his TV Bra and performed “cellos” made from full-size TVs or ice. In some works, she “performed” a big reproduction bomb. On the Philadelphia premiere of Paik’s Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saëns, Moorman unintentionally hit her head on a water-filled oil drum, which she climbed out and in of as a part of the efficiency, and carried on taking part in, with blood pouring down her face.

To what diploma did such performances exploit Paik’s feminine collaborators? That is certainly a urgent query for viewers coming to the work at present, although it isn’t one which significantly troubles the interpretative materials within the complete Paik exhibition at the moment on the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam or the accompanying catalog. (I noticed the present late final yr, in its first model at Tate Trendy in London.) Within the latter’s most substantial remedy of Moorman, we’re informed by the curator Rachel Jans, Paik in 1964 “was looking for a feminine musical collaborator.” It appears clear that he thought it vital to work with a lady at a time when neither the classical nor the avant-garde musical worlds had been open or equal. It’s price noting that Paik typically visited bodily indignities on himself and on different males in efficiency.

However in the case of Moorman’s nudity, and all the remainder (the bras, the sexually performative histrionics), his motivations and attitudes appear unreflective: he hoped, he stated, to “stimulate” the viewers, together with sexually. As Jans factors out, when it got here to the varieties such stimulation would possibly take, Moorman “shouldered the burden of their penalties” within the type of scandal and notoriety. Opinions differ as to how knowingly she did so. Knowles was completely satisfied to work with Paik in different performances, but additionally stated of her buddy Moorman:

She was at all times this lady from Arkansas, this excellent baby in a gown, holding flowers—so when somebody tells her to take off her garments, she takes off her garments, and when somebody tells her to go bare into the water, she’ll do it.

Carolee Schneeman, additionally a buddy, noticed the nude performances of the last decade as a precursor of her personal extra clearly feminist artwork of the Seventies: “I fully establish along with her use of the physique as a result of it was completely taking part in in opposition to the anticipated eroticism of the time,” she stated. Schneeman even regarded Moorman as a performer who at occasions eclipsed Paik: “He was virtually like her acolyte.”

Moorman died of breast most cancers in 1991, and Paik devoted an set up, Charlotte Moorman Room, to her reminiscence. There’s a model of it, hung with garments she wore onstage and off, within the exhibition. Close by are different artworks and artifacts from the Paik-Moorman nexus, and that is maybe the purpose within the exhibition the place you get the keenest sense of what an impish (maybe exhausting) presence Paik may very well be. In a video of Moorman taking part in his Variations, she is carrying a bra made from green-screen discs, on that are superimposed photographs of the efficiency itself as it’s taking place. When Moorman emerges from the oil drum, dripping moist, Paik fusses about, adjusting the bra, then vanishes out of the body. Moorman is a laconic delight on this and different movies: exactingly dedicated to the pains of her function (holding the cello dry is a feat) and on the identical time fairly conscious of its absurdities and risks: “We’ll all get put within the goddamn jail, . It’s true, we’ll!”

The intense video games of Moorman and Paik didn’t at all times endear them to their colleagues within the avant-garde, who, if no more austerely minded, at the least appreciated to be accountable for the wilder components of their work. The artist and the cellist had been enthusiastic interpreters of John Cage, who typically objected to the extramusical, near-slapstick actions and supplies they added to his compositions. “I used to be decided to assume twice earlier than attending one other efficiency by Nam June Paik,” Cage recalled of a 1960 efficiency, throughout which Paik jumped into the viewers and lower off Cage’s necktie. Jasper Johns wrote to Cage in 1964, “C. Moorman needs to be stored off the stage.” For Paik, nevertheless, his collaboration with “the topless cellist” (as Moorman predictably and unhappily grew to become recognized) was important, no matter its trials: “We’re like a legendary Greek fowl who walked on the bottom and if she encountered a largehole [sic] she took wing and flew over it.”

I point out Moorman each as a result of till lately she was a uncared for determine—however a biography by Joan Rothfuss that was printed in 2014—and in addition as a result of the Moorman room within the present exhibition brings collectively so many facets of Paik’s artwork. He was a musical acolyte of Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen; a presence within the neo-Dada provocations and happenings (Paik at all times rejected that phrase) of Fluxus; an artist who thought-about tv to be the thing, medium, picture, and pure texture of recent life. If Moorman was not precisely instrumental in all of that, she was there for a lot of it.

Their inventive relationship waned after the Sixties, however among the many surprises within the exhibition is Guadalcanal Requiem, a half-hour video piece they made collectively in 1977. On the island of Guadalcanal within the South Pacific, Paik filmed Moorman, wearing a GI’s uniform, dragging her cello alongside the seaside and taking part in it beside the wreckage of an plane from World Battle II. The piece options interviews with American and Japanese veterans who fought between 1942 and 1945, and with Solomon Islanders. Regardless of its distorted picture, Guadalcanal Requiem is a remarkably direct piece amongst Paik’s in any other case hyperactive, prankish artwork—and a uncommon historic perspective from an artist whose work was extra usually concerning the future, extravagantly imagined.

Nam June Paik was born in Seoul in 1932, whereas Korea was nonetheless occupied by Japan, to a household of rich retailers. They fled to Tokyo in 1950, in the midst of the Korean Battle. At college in Japan, Paik majored in aesthetics; he studied music, literature, and artwork, and wrote a dissertation on Schoenberg. In 1956 he moved to Munich, the place he studied artwork historical past and musicology, and was launched to the work of Cage and Stockhausen by way of the Darmstadt Worldwide Summer time Programs for New Music. Likelihood (or was it chaos?) and electronics grew to become his principal pursuits; he wrote about Cage for a music journal again in Tokyo. His first notable efficiency came about the next yr, in Düsseldorf. A assessment of the work, known as Hommage à John Cage: Music for Audiotapes and Piano, described the scene: “Paik ran about like a madman, sawed by way of the piano strings with a kitchen knife after which overturned the entire thing. Pianoforte est morte. The applause was unending.”

In his early musical innovations, Paik adopted Cage in his use of the ready piano; there are reconstructions of a few of these maimed and amended devices within the exhibition. Whereas Cage’s additions to, or interventions in, the piano tended to be minimal, ample to remodel it right into a noise-making machine, Paik’s strategy was extra of the kitchen-sink selection, and deal extra spectacular. Because the critic David Toop recounts within the exhibition catalog, Paik’s assistant Tomas Schmit recalled that Paik was apt to connect to his piano “a doll’s head, a hand siren, a cow horn, a bunch of feathers, barbed wire, spoons, a little bit tower of pfennig cash caught collectively, all kinds of toys, pictures, a bra, an accordion, a tin with an aphrodisiac, a file participant arm.” Particular person keys may very well be set to activate a transistor radio, a hot-air fan, a movie projector, one other siren, or a light-weight swap for the room the place the efficiency was happening.

Composition, efficiency, sculpture, atmosphere—it’s arduous to know, in Paik’s early work, the place every of those classes would possibly start or finish. It’s this tendency that drew him to the Fluxus motion: at a Fluxus pageant in Wiesbaden in 1962, Paik carried out Zen for Head, a variation on a composition by La Monte Younger that instructed the performer to attract a straight line and comply with it. {A photograph} of Paik’s interpretation exhibits the artist wearing a swimsuit and mendacity face down on a roll of paper, on which he has simply traced, with the highest of his head, a wavy line of black paint.

Already Paik’s musical experiments had begun to show into visible experiments. As soon as once more Cage is the mannequin, but additionally a foil for Paik. The eight-minute Zen for Movie (1964) is a cinematic equal of Cage’s 4’33”. Whereas the notoriously “silent” composition was the truth is full of environmental sounds and viewers noises, Paik’s “clean” movie, consisting of nothing however white chief, invitations the viewer to sully the empty display along with his or her shadow. (The crowds at Tate Trendy obliged, including additionally the arms-length shadows of their telephones.) Zen for Movie manages to be each extra austere than 4’33”—it lacks the theatricality of a nonperforming performer—and in addition emptier, extra “boring,” than Andy Warhol’s most vacant movies of the mid-Sixties: the dreamy, forensic Sleep, the gradual plunge into evening, and out once more, of Empire. However Paik’s movie can also be sillier than something by Cage or Warhol, much less monumental and extra purely, endearingly mischievous.

One might say the identical about Paik’s works with or for tv, which he believed was the inventive medium of the longer term: “Sometime artists will work with capacitors, resistors, & semi-conductors as they work at present with brushes, violins, & junk.” His first solo exhibition was in Wuppertal in 1963—Joseph Beuys staged an unauthorized collaboration by smashing up certainly one of Paik’s ready pianos—and it included 13 tv units, manipulated to various extents. Amongst these is the one featured in Zen for TV, which is likely to be probably the most elegant work he made in a sure minimal (not but Minimalist) vein. It appears that evidently two of the televisions delivered to Paik in Wuppertal had been faulty. One in all them he positioned face-down on the gallery ground and titled after its model and mannequin: Rembrandt Computerized. The opposite set had an interrupted circuit in its cathode-ray tube, leading to a single horizontal white line on the in any other case darkish display. Paik merely turned the set on its facet, in order that the road, an digital horizon, moved from panorama to portrait, from accident or glitch to on the spot monument. Paik reconstructed this work a number of occasions: within the current exhibition, a model from 1990 replaces the unique mid-century TV with a delicate black nineteen-inch Samsung that hardly distracts from the picture. Zen for TV now seems to be greater than ever like a parody of Barnett Newman’s vertical painted “zips.”

Paik is regularly known as the primary video artist, although the historic particulars are as fuzzy because the black-and-white picture from a Sony Portapak, the (comparatively) light-weight digicam and recorder that allowed him and different artists of the period to bypass the technical and time commitments of movie. Paik is claimed to have acquired a Portapak the day the system first arrived within the US, and on October 4, 1965, to have recorded the go to of Pope Paul VI to New York, displaying his footage to a choose viewers on the Café au Go Go later the identical day. That recording, nevertheless, is misplaced—assuming it ever existed. Warhol is the opposite main candidate for the marginally meaningless title of first video pioneer: in August 1965 Tape Recording journal lent him a Norelco digicam, recorder, and monitor, the final of which options in Warhol’s portrait of Edie Sedgwick, Outer and Inside Area, filmed in 16 mm the identical month. The exact origin or precise definition of video artwork hardly issues. What does matter is that one thing had modified, and that Paik had a somewhat extra impure and unruly thought of what such an artwork would possibly contain than most of his contemporaries, at the least within the early days of the medium.

His most celebrated video work might be TV Buddha, of which there are quite a few variations. In a closed loop, a statue of Buddha faces each a video digicam and its monitor, in order that the determine contemplates its personal picture, although the pristine reflexivity of the piece is well interrupted by playful viewers positioning themselves behind the Buddha. With Paik, regardless of how neatly recursive the technical array or futuristic the picture, there was at all times in (and round) his video works a component of interference, filth, and dysfunction, and a sort of embarrassing eagerness, which slipped simply into comedy. The present exhibition exhibits a model of TV Buddha from 1974, by which a squat, wood eighteenth-century sculpture faces a JVC Videosphere TV set, formed like an area helmet. As with Zen for Movie, it’s a work that even now, in an age of ubiquitous video, invitations plenty of interplay.

Paik appears to have been excited first by the capability of video to make one thing attention-getting or wry out of boredom and banality. Amongst his earlier, Cagean video works is Button Occurring (1965), by which for a minute and forty seconds the artist buttons and unbuttons his jacket. However in a short time it was the power to provide and manipulate visible distortion that proved most thrilling for him. It’s already evident in Magnet TV, additionally from 1965: a big horseshoe-shaped magnet on high of a tv produces quite a lot of tortured on-screen abstractions. In the identical yr, Paik conceived the primary model of Nixon, a two-screen work by which magnetic coils connected to TVs or screens make the face of a speechifying Richard Nixon stretch and roil and grimace. The exhibition features a 2002 model of this work: from inauguration to resignation, the president is a cartoon monster with intermittent phases of normality.

The magnetic coils and switching mechanisms for Nixon had been made by the Japanese engineer Shuya Abe, with whom in 1969 Paik devised the Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer. The machine allowed an artist or filmmaker to govern seven picture sources, overlaying stay footage with colours and results, all of which had been ephemeral, tough if not unimaginable to repeat exactly. A model of the synthesizer is within the exhibition—a hulking, scuffed steel cupboard with switches, dials, and knotted patch cables—in addition to examples of its warping, solarizing results. “Is sloppy machine, like me,” Paik stated in a 1975 profile in The New Yorker by Calvin Tomkins. In contrast, Paik’s experiments with pc animation, undertaken at Bell Labs in 1966–1967, produced photographs and textures that had been simply too clear. Analogue video, with all its irregularities, remained his favored medium.

In time, the video sign or recorded footage was included into extra elaborate environments and spectacles. TV Backyard (1974) is one of the best recognized: a variably scaled set up of lush vegetation and coloration screens displaying a disparate program of images, together with a Stockhausen efficiency, Nixon once more, the Andrews sisters, and a Nigerian dance troupe. The curator Andrea Nische-Krupp writes within the catalog, “We should have interaction with the house, transfer across the backyard”—which was unimaginable at Tate Trendy, the place the room dedicated to TV Backyard was roped off and solely a handful of tourists might view it at a time. Nonetheless, it was ample to get the impression that for Paik, TV was an ambient presence, practically ornamental in its coloration and glow. TV Backyard is an try, Paik stated, “to destroy nationwide tv”: by lowering its hyperactive messaging to a light-weight supply for immersive artworks.

Nam June Paik in his TV Garden installation
Nam June Paik in his TV Backyard set up at Kunsthaus Zürich, 1991

However the extra dominant pattern in Paik’s work is towards a bristling world imaginative and prescient of images and knowledge, a pre-Web fantasy of pleasurably disrupted connection, a “world groove,” as certainly one of his titles of the early Seventies had it. In a 1974 report for the Rockefeller Basis titled “Media Planning for the Put up Industrial Age,” he lamented that cinema, for all its visible richness, had didn’t file nice thinkers and artists of its time: Husserl, Freud, Proust, Debussy, Ravel, Joyce, Kandinsky. “Future generations would possibly assume that the 30’s was the age of solely W.C. Fields and the Marx brothers.” Within the face of the business vacuity of (American) tv, there nonetheless remained the potential for TV and video to seize the true cultural energies of what remained of the 20th century.

A lot of Paik’s gallery-based work after TV Backyard continues his efforts to immerse viewers in {a partially} simulated house, however in a cruder register. His later installations are more and more frenzied (and loud) environments that embody the energetic picture overload he felt, or knew, was coming. In time, Paik left the TV display behind and substituted for it successive generations of video projectors, organized in advanced batteries like wartime searchlights. In 1993, for the German pavilion on the Venice Biennale, he made Sistine Chapel, by which, on the partitions and ceiling, an assemblage of forty projected photographs encloses the viewer, together with footage of Moorman, Cage, and Beuys—additionally Janis Joplin, David Bowie, and the synth-pop pioneer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Sistine Chapel shared the pavilion with Hans Haacke’s set up Germania, for which he had turned the marble ground into rubble that invoked the wreckage of German historical past. The present reconstruction of Paik’s work, with fashionable projectors, is much less brutal in its bodily presence and exhibition setting. Its frenzy of photographs appears additionally extra apparent in kind and impact, and fewer attuned to the path that the shifting picture was headed within the final years of the century, on, as an illustration, our cell telephones.

Among the many ambiguous pleasures of Paik’s work of the Nineteen Eighties and Nineteen Nineties is a reminder that video and tv had been nonetheless the media to which predictions and fantasies concerning the teeming way forward for photographs had been connected—till, abruptly, they weren’t. Probably the most sheerly participating of his late works had been all made for broadcast TV: a succession of stay worldwide collaborations, by satellite tv for pc, that tried to embody Paik’s religion in a coming “digital tremendous freeway.” He had first used the phrase in 1974, in “Media Planning for the Put up Industrial Society.” “Suppose we join New York and Los Angeles with a multi-layer of broadband communication networks,” he wrote, “similar to home satellites, bundles of co-ax cables, and later, the fiber-optics laser beam. The bills could be as excessive as a moon touchdown, however the spinoffs could be extra quite a few.” Phone communication would change into virtually free, entry to data would all of a sudden develop for minorities, commuting would swiftly decline, and the capability of TV to coach and inform could be launched with extraordinary penalties for the humanities, leisure, and the character of labor.

World Groove (1973) was Paik’s precursor to all this, a video compendium proven on New York’s WNETTV that started with an excited prediction: “This can be a glimpse of a brand new world when it is possible for you to to change on each TV channel on the earth and TV guides can be as thick because the Manhattan phone e book.”

A limitlessly different channel-surfing that will in some way additionally stay endlessly attention-grabbing: that is the fantasy Paik tried to enact a decade later with Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, broadcast on New 12 months’s Day, 1984. Switching between WNETTV’s New York studio and the Pompidou Middle in Paris, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell included performances by Cage, Beuys, Moorman, and Merce Cunningham. It was adopted two years later by Bye Bye Kipling, a satellite tv for pc linkup between New York, Seoul, and Tokyo, that includes Lou Reed, Philip Glass, Keith Haring, and Issey Miyake. There have been clumsy worldwide handovers, ill-timed jokes between presenters, and occasional technical glitches, but additionally some actually affecting performances. In 1988, Paik’s closing satellite tv for pc undertaking, Wrap Across the World, related twelve nations and included Brazilian carnival dancers, Paik himself in Korean costume, and Bowie performing an excellent, raging model of his track “Look Again in Anger” with the Canadian dance group La La La Human Steps.

The abiding impression, watching these satellite tv for pc TV works within the present exhibition, is of an endearing innocence, a sure avant-garde jollity that eclipses the techno-utopian tenor of Paik’s personal writings and the account of his “visionary” concepts given within the exhibition catalog. As an expression of the feel of media saturation and ubiquity, Paik’s world groove was already somewhat dated. The Nineteen Eighties fantasy of watching all TV, all around the world, on a regular basis was a visible conceit of TV channels like CNN and exhibits like Max Headroom that, making an attempt to look futuristic and frantic, had been truly nonetheless caught within the sluggish and territorial pre-Web current.

Some nostalgia apart—as when Bowie is seen chatting to Sakamoto—the facet of Paik’s satellite tv for pc spectacles that appears of a bit along with his earlier work is as an alternative their convening of a well-known experimental group, and their subjecting these figures and their photographs, as he had at all times achieved, to numerous playful antics and distortions. The temper on-screen in 1988 was certainly much like the one in Düsseldorf in 1957, or at a efficiency of Opera Sextronique a decade later: Paik and his associates pursuing a giddy sense of what is likely to be gotten away with.

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