// Talk With Carolee Schneemann (2013) // “My work evolved with risk and uncertainty.”

October 29th 2013

Zofia Cielątkowska: You are most of the time considered as a performance artist, but at the same time in many interviews you emphasize your connection with painting.  For example: “All my work evolves from my history as a painter: all the objects, installations, film, video, performance – things that are formed[1].”  And “All my work is about trying to find other ways to paint. Film became another way to paint in time—to speed my frames simultaneously. I was also dealing with the paradoxical fixity of photographs that carry image or energy or referent from a past moment[2].” How do you see this?

CAROLEE SCHNEEMANN: It is transposition of materiality as I construct visual thoughts in space. All perception comes from my history as a visual artist. Of course among many other cultural influences, the most persistent inspiration was my life with the composer pianist, James Tenney. As a very young artist. Tenney’s concentration on the music of Webern, the dissonance of Edgar Varese, the disjunctive structures of Charles Ives were constantly in my environment. Our relationship was mutually influential. At the same time, everything starts with a brush or a pencil as a way of thinking on the page before I can develop forms of media and kinetics. Even my childhood drawings were obsessed with motion and a filmic sort of repetition across pages of drawings.

When I think about performance especially in the 60. and 70. in a different areas like music, theatre, visual arts etc. On a formal level they look quite often the same, but in fact they come from completely different inspirations and completely different approaches.

Yes, it is funny

Most of the time in the critical discourse it is not differentiated. Broadly speaking; theatre most of the time wanted to get rid of the text, and visual arts wanted to make an extension of a painting. With dance it was more complex. How do you feel connection with The Judson Church or The Living Theatre?

We were so against the conventions of theater. If an aspect of the visual energies of “Happenings” might now seem theatrical, our work was evolved from painting (Oldenburg, Dine, Whitman, Al Hansen). Our work was not perfectible, we were not performative in any sense of mastering a concept, or a procedure. My work evolved with risk and uncertainty Certain parameters were set, but within that, there was an intensive degree of improvisation. There are instances of a spoken poetics, often functional or abstract. Within Happenings and Events such as Fluxus, linguistics enters as a form of musicality or instruction.


What about history? Would you say that performance is authentic?

Not “authentic”. It has to be a part of a vision which is realized, it is visceral, it has a strong materiality. But authentic, I don’t know what that means?

In a sense of truth or being true in this what you are doing.

True is different from authentic. I think “authentic” is a weird word – it is over-determined, as if you can improve intention and value: this is authentic wood table from 1940 etc. Critically, outside of my particular concerns anybody can create their own interpretation. I suppose one could say “this looks like authentic Schneemann”, but what if it is created by a 14 year old in Kraków (laugh)? I don’t know.

Right. Going back to one of your famous works – Fuses. The time you were working on it, it was also more less the time you were working on the kinetic theatre. Is there any connection? Because most of the time when you read about this work, there is usually mentionedWindow, Water baby Moving by Stan Brakhage and…

Making love with my partner was a profound inspiration. To some extent, it was a response to Window, Water Baby Moving. We focuses on sexual erotic energy into making love. The Brakhage film is focused on his wife, Jane, giving birth. Fuses concentrates on every aspect of heterosexual love making. I wanted to be able to visualize what I felt within fucking

It all comes from practice… I absolutely love the excerpt in is in your letters, where you explain that each reel of Fuses in order to be developed, had to go with a letter from psychiatrist… I can’t imagine the situation that you just go there and give them the reel and the letter…

Yes, it was my friend’s physician husband who helped. When I finally found a lab that could develop the film, I didn’t realize it was run by the owners of the biggest pornography lab in New York. But oddly, they had to ask me if the cunnilingus imagery in Fuses was something that “she liked”. By the way, do you remember what was in the doctor’s letter?

Oh, yes: “Carolee Schneemann’s current film work is an examination o the archetypal evolution of the cross”…

[Laughs] Aesthetic paranoias are ridiculous. That was crazy. Brachage told me just bring any kind of letter from a doctor.

And there was also another story related with Fuses. The layer of the collage was so thick that it couldn’t go through the machine…

Yes. The same lab, the same guys told me: “We had bad news for you. We can’t print your footage it is too fat”. Nobody told me it had to stay thin, so I was beside myself. They had a big bath of chemicals and I said: “I’m going to throw myself in there”. So they said: “ok, ok. We can print it by hand, but don’t tell anybody”. So they pushed it frame by frame, thick frame by thick frame.

It went by hand?

Yes, it was so sweet.

That is probably why you see all the colors there…

That is also why there is no first print. Every print comes from pushing frame by frame…

You emphasize practice in your work and quite often you use your body. Within the critical discourse, it is usually treated as visually attractive but and at the same time as having a burden of social context. How do you see this?

I don’t know how to theorize without constraining the complexity of my process. I’m aware that there are cultural taboos surrounding my visceral and erotic imagery. The initial deformations and suppressions of my work in the 1960s I identified as the “the wall of men”, but I have to explore my own materiality. Fuses is the best example of my prefeminist feminist work. I have no idea how Fuses will be received, but I am convinced of the physical intensity and the visual richness of the content. The film can’t be considered pornographic or scientific or literalizing – it displaces all these conventions because these are depictions of my normal lived experience. I am both the actual image as well as the camera person, there is no third party directing this intimacy (unless you consider our cat, Kitch, a witness).

Quite often you had problems with the reception, I mean the understanding of your work. The most striking for me was when I red a letter to Agnes Varda…

Oh, my god, that was Interior Scroll. She went nuts! That was very upsetting.

I was surprised reading that, and it was on a The Erotic Woman Film Festival[3]?

That was shocking. Especially that she was a great fan of Fuses. Interior Scroll was alive in contradistinction to the virtuality of film. I was reacting to all of the virtual interpretations of sexuality by presenting a physicalized action. Varda made a fuss everywhere; in the village, in the town, at the bar, at the restaurant. The organizers’ wives would not sleep with them, they lined up with Agnes saying: “this was obscenity”. It was just crazy.

Talking about Interior Scroll. I remember to see it in the museum as a piece of paper in the glass box. It looked very static. There is always some problem to show works which are connected with live action, a sort of “here and now”. How do you feel about your works in the museum context?

That is fantastic. These are the artifacts that survived their own history. Of course it is only a folded up paper, but it has some structural secrets, such as how can the folded paper be extracted from my vagina in one smooth gesture! That took some engineering. When my sister saw one of the scrolls – I kept them at home in a cigar box for many years – she said: “This is disgusting! Who would ever want such a thing”, but this is the only artifact that collectors have wanted to purchase. They want to buy the one that was in me, not any one from the subsequent group performance. The artifacts are innocent. Possessing artifacts which embody an aspect of the artist relates to the impulse to collected sacred relics. Each culture will have a unique inclination as to what forms a sacred totem. Artists have preserved their blood, Manzoni preserved his shit, there is an incremental mysterious energy from artifacts. We preserve a broken glass frame because it carries another energy from the lived event. I begun to put broken objects in my early painting constructions. It was in 1960 and in 1961. They enhanced the implied energies of the other related forms and materials, because domestic objects in my painting/constructions referred back to lived domestic times. They could be really beautiful —fragments of red, blue, green glass…

But some of your works are more… How to say this… more structured?

All my works are rhythmically complex and deeply structured, but they don’t adhere to any specific theoretical concept. I’m not trying to synthesize my sense of sexuality or the representation of layered, complex imagery. I don’t have a “practice”, I live a process. That is completely different. Practice is synthetic. I live a life of visionary energies and I never try to control them. I’m not trying to make formulations. I don’t have a “career”. I think Yoko Ono said this in one of the recent interviews, she said: “I don’t have a career”. She has a life process and that is different. It is something that is not literalizing.

I’m thinking of this part with a text, where you literally put very different sexual parameters like: memory, orgasm sound, impression etc. At first glance it looks like a chart, like a graph, but then again if you start reading this. If you get to the last column “memory” and find description “a whole life” it is touching. How did you get to this work?

It was when I lost my partner with whom I created Fuses. Then I was cast out of the deepest part of my life, I started having very various sexual encounters. I wanted to remark about them; how various they were, how odd. Some of them were dangerous. I never thought I would encounter such a degree of erotic unpredictability. This was like keeping an investigation. I’m investigator and I’m the subject…

Talking about the subject… I think Marla Carlson wrote that feminist artists of the 1960s and 1970s repeatedly articulated the need to be recognized as «speaking subjects». Then you said:  I was allowed to be an image but not an image maker creating her own self-image. How do you see this now?

I don’t know whether it is more a concept or lived necessity. We are “speaking subjects” and we disrupt the preexisting discussion. There has always been a conceptual resistance to my creative realm. My early work as a painter faces plain old misogyny – even with my art teachers, who are without exception male. In the 60s feminist consciousness emerges with the writing of Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and other feminist writers, leading into the 1970s. Then I face the accusation of Essentialism, which many feminist critics consider very bad as it too much represents the biological referent of sexuality, of erotic pleasures interfering with the male gaze. Then the Marxist demand of woman leads to feminism as politically defined and not personalized. By the time we arrive to 80s and 90s, there is an academic movement that expects woman to address their situation in terms of the Abject. Then feminist theory is suppose to have artists address the falsification of what is defined as feminism… At this moment now I face the constraints of Ageism. To all of which I can say: “Go fuck yourself”. Then of course my work becomes engaged with political dissent and resistance to the righteousness of my militaristic culture. My representation of USA militarism affected more resistance and censorship than any work that I had create with the explicit body. That is of course with Viet Flakes and my work on destruction of Palestinian culture. Images of the 9/11 atrocity, Terminal Velocity….. These disjunctions relate to feminist social analysis of the separation of political determinations abstracted from organic, domestic, rural, ecological issues.

But also… You took part in some of the works which are considered rather not feminist. In Robert Morris Site you are a muse, an object.

With Robert Morris work I was immobilized and historicized. Everything I was against but I wanted to experience this concept, this image. It is a brilliant work. Brilliant.

Did you ever talk with Robert Morris about this work?

No. I mean just quite recently, because people start reading my critical position. It is not the criticism of the work. I’m not willing to be a retro-active critic, my participation in Site was a great aesthetic venture. Site was especially difficult, because it was just right before Meat Joy and everyone continued talking about the nude I represented in Site.

What about Fluxus? You were excommunicated by George Maciunas…

I’m a marginal part of Fluxus, we were all friends and I often participated in Fluxus events. Maciunas was very dogmatic, he considered my work to be too erotic, too sensual, too personal, and that the Fluxus group should exclude me from their pieces.

How did you feel after that?

Ridiculous (laugh).

You mentioned an aspect of Meat Joy. In relation with this work – I think in one of your letters – you say more about translation, language and speech. How do you see this in your work?

It depends. Every work has its own demands. Some of them demand kinetic motors, some of them a computer projection system and some of them need to include bits of language. Interior Scroll is language based, also ABC – We Print Anything – In the Cards… Visual images sometimes reveal themselves through language. I have just realized, that a text I created as a sound layer for the performance and film Meat Joy is intentionally full of mistakes in French, it reflects the mistakes I made learning to speak French. Now editors have corrected all my text! It is supposed to say “pig” not “bed”. How can I get my mistakes back?

Mistakes are good… In the 60s you were a pioneer artist if it comes to using body in work. Then, some time later in one of the interviews – it was Fuse from 1980 – you said: „I don’t want to repeat my old messages; the messages have to change for me to rediscover where the taboos have shifted because they are shifty, in the way that censorship is shifty.”[4]

There is not the same necessity. Everybody is using their naked body, every third person. Every fifth young woman has to work with her naked body. I’m doing the kinetic machines and projections and doing some other developments that still have physicality. I don’t want to be stuck with my body from 25 years ago. They don’t want me to grow up and that is very sexist, because that is unconscious refusal to let the artist develop beyond the physical premises that introduced the work. It is completely incorrect and you can tell I’m very angry about that. It is has gone on long enough. I’m thrilled to have recognition but it is no longer appropriate, unless you are working with the material from the 80s or 90s.

Wrocław, October 29th 2013
The Carolee Schneemann Life Book exhibition in WRO Art Center in Wrocław is an expansion on Mariella Nitosławska’s film Breaking the Frame, documenting Schneeman’s life and work. The exhibition is a new approach to material that Schneeman and Nitosławska created during the six years they spent making the film.

[1] Interview with Kate Haug, Wide Angle 20, no.1, 1977, s. 20-49, Przedruk [w:] Carolee Schneemann, Imaganining her erotics…, op.cit., s. 21-45.

[2] Alexandra Juhasz, Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film…, op.cit., s. 69.

[3] Scroll 1; Woman Here and Now, East Hampton, N.Y. (August 29, 1975), Scroll 2; Telluride Film Festival, Telluride, Col. (September 4, 1977).

[4] Cf. Interview with Carl Heyward, Art Papers 17, no.1, January-February 1993, s 9-16, [w:] Carolee Schneemann, Imagining her erotics…, op.cit.,  s. 222

*Go Fuck Yourself. Interview with Carolee Schneemann” published in Biweekly, nr 42/2013

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s