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Other Voices

An interview with Carolee Schneemann

MB: Which works do you think you’re best known for now?

CS: I seem to be known for two iconic images, which have transplanted a huge body of more complex work. One is the naked full-frontal torso with the little snakes on it, and the other is from Interior Scroll (1975). There are certainly archetypal connections between these works: both of them relate to an archaic possibility of a sacral body, as an empowered demonstration, between animal and human attributes of nature and God.

I wasn’t thinking about that when I did Eye Body in 1963 because I didn’t have the material yet, although I had begun researching the serpent as one of those mysterious intuitive and difficult projects that I did as a graduate student in painting. We had a very eccentric professor who once gave us the assignment ‘Do animals have souls?’. He was old and represented another realm of investigation and thoughtfulness. While working on the mutations of the serpentine form I found a book by Don Mackenzie called The Migration of Symbols (1926) when I was wandering in the library stacks. In the old days I used to close my eyes and raise my arms and wait for a bonus [laughs]. That’s how I found Mackenzie, and later my amazing Castle 16mm newsreel tape of disasters from 1945, that was also incorporated into current work. So where were we? Oh yes, these two works occupy an ambiguous position because they really do forefront, not divisive but different gender notions. The overtness of the body and the exposed genital in Eye Body was at first rarely given appreciation by male critics. They found it to be just revelatory; women were upset and uncertain about this. They felt it had an ambiguous drift into self-display and pornography – until the 1970s and feminist analysis.

MB: I’m interested in how male critics found this revelatory and women in some way found it problematic and offensive. Did that set a precedent for the reception of your work?

CS: It didn’t set a precedent because cultural issues kept shifting around the work, and with Interior Scroll there was a very mixed reaction in terms of gender response. There was a banker who went into a completely ecstatic state, saying ‘now I understand tickertape’. I was thrilled to hear that, but Agnes Vajda, the filmmaker, wouldn’t talk to me; she isolated me, alienated the organizer’s wife so that she wouldn’t sleep with him and it got completely out of control. But it was a woman feminist art historian who first published the images of Interior Scroll, Maureen Roth, in her book on 20th-century Performance Art. That’s what brought the work into real discussion two or three years after it was made. Meat Joy (1964) has a central position of course, but it wasn’t given its full importance. Although it was immensely influential, it didn’t enter critical discussion until quite recently.

MB: Tell me about Meat Joy?

CS: It developed from Eye Body, that sequence of merging the body with materials. It started with a series of dreams and drawings and was partly inspired again by Erro who knew that Jean-Jacques Lebel was going to do a festival of performance in Paris, the ‘Festival of Free Expression’, and he said ‘you really have to go there and do a work’.

I wasn’t invited, but I began having dreams of heightened physicality, a merging of bodies and materials, an activation of space and relays of unexpected, responsive, malleable materials that would be extensions of the body: the fish, the chickens, the sausages and bales of plastic and shredded paper that would be thrown over the balcony – I didn’t even know if there was a balcony – but I wanted a waterfall, a cascade of falling paper. The bodies would secretly invent themselves and would be discovered later The first sequence is very concerned with sound, with the duration of unpredictable relationships – the parameters of relationships being broken apart and reconfigured into new ones. There’s what I call the ‘reality’ figure, who kept time, introduced props and initiated the breaking of sequences so that the participants could be completely involved in one another and the unfolding improvisation of interconnected actions, developed from the introduction of materials we had never worked with before.
It was very important that when the materials were introduced they were truly startling and shocking. We had worked together for four or five weeks handling each other, moving each other around, using substitute props, so that we were completely comfortable with any kind of physical interaction – short of hurting each other or having actual sex.

MB: When I look at some of the pictures in your book More Than Meat Joy (1979) I’m reminded a little of the political theatre of Jean Genet in terms of how he’s interested at ideas of anarchy, but also extremely disciplined and controlled rituals. Is that a worthwhile comparison?

CS: Yes. Though when you say anarchy … we have a shared cultural focus – we’re not going to put up with somebody being raped or chopped with a knife. We know there’s a specific space that we’re going to inhabit and we choose to be there together because there are certain energies, indications, that I present. It’s as if the participants are entering my psyche, and they have to be willing to do so. It’s a process unlike any other; I’m not a teacher, I’m not an exemplar, but I’m a form of active imagining.

Each person contributes enormously – who they are and how they are – but finally I am in control. For instance, in Meat Joy one of the men – of course it would be one of the men – felt that he could be rough as we formed each other into an evolving configuration of sculptural shapes. That wasn’t OK, so I had to say ‘that’s not what this is about, go back, let her do to you what you were just doing to her’. All the exercises had to do with very subtle but exacting explorations of power and fear.

One basic exercise was called ‘Grabs and Falls’ in which one person knocks the other over. It can take a long time, and you’re really focused on each other’s body and weight. The condition is that you’re always responsible for each other’s fall, so you have to be completely identified with the impulse by which you are going to destabilize your partner, and your partner has to trust that, to yield enough to fall, so that you don’t hurt each other by stiffening up. It takes a lot of practice. You find immediately that the big guys are really terrified of knocking over little women – they’re so uneasy they just can’t get into it. The little women, the Japanese women and Oriental women, were terrified of feeling like little women. One had a complete phobia – I got calls at two o-clock in the morning with someone going into a psycho-physicalized trauma. The men were very competitive, worrying that they shouldn’t try to overpower – or feeling that they would really like to hurt but they shouldn’t.

We kept working at it – it was like making butter out of stones. But when it’s right it is so liberating, it feels wonderful to know that I can just jump you and throw you over, and you can throw me over. In that physicalisation of relationship is such an immense ecstatic release – that’s what I’m after, a kind of ecstatic trust. We turned into an organism, that’s how I thought of it. That’s the nature of what’s special and ecstatic in these works: the complete physicalized sensuous interchange that has all this risk in trust. How do you get that to work?

MB: What’s the status of a piece for you when it’s been recorded on film or video?

CS: The film footage of Meat Joy is evidenciary – both ghost and embodiment.

MB: when the piece was premiered how did it seem to fit into what else was happening in that period?

CS: There was nothing else in the world like what we were all doing. I was rather in a daze with my own work, but there was a lot of other misogynist work going on: women were always being tied up and dumped into tubs of blood or dragged across the floor. But it was a young art movement so it had a masculine prerogative.

MB: What was its proximity to Warhol’s Factory?

CS: I completely take Valerie Solanas’ view as to why it was necessary or comprehensible for her to shoot Andy. He was the only real alternative game in town; the only real creative, productive and devious fun place where someone like Valerie could imagine she would be received and fit in. But being completely unattractive, not even as pretty as any transvestite, there was no place for her in the Factory.

I met Andy very early because Stan Brakhage had come to New York from the West and was a friend of a filmmaker, Willard Maas, a flaming queen who did brilliant work and who was married to another brilliant filmmaker, a girl name Marie Menken. We thought Willard was old, he was 40 but he seemed ancient, and he had something called ‘daisy-chains’ up on his penthouse roof. He explained to us that it was one man sucking another man’ s cock, sucking another man’s cock … we pictured it as a kind of Greek frieze taking place on Sunday afternoons, with Marie waiting downstairs with refreshments for the boys. Andy was was very pale and bland, and he was a player. We always knew each other. I thought of him as a strange political conundrum because he had this mixture of society people, weapons dealers, gallery dealers, drug dealers and druggies, and obsessed artists who wanted to be part of whatever he could generate. Yet he was like those transparent screens … a kind of touch-screen: blank but embedded within are all sorts of possibilities.

MB: When we were talking earlier about very young artists coming out of college and getting funding and gallery shows straight away, I rather thought that you were going to say ‘this is bad’.

CS: I don’t know if it’s good but I know it helps you make your work. I don’ t know if the work is good – it’s chaos now, no-one knows. It’s like living in a jungle of work and part of it is our fault: why does the organism need all these artists? Part of it has to do with style or fashion – with the fascination of the self as a famous being occupying the light. I’m not sure how much it has to do with the creative process, although when I teach it seems to have something to do with it. Then I see my students zip into major galleries and have major reviews and I think ‘Ooh, what was that? Three weeks ago they were moaning and groaning and saying "What should I do?" and I said "go for it, spread it out", and now they have and …’ [laughs]

MB: Maybe it’s difficult now to imagine the context in which your earlier work was presented.

CS: It’s very strange because I don’t know what’s really being carried forward. I feel very fortunate that so much of my work is being carried forward into the present; that doesn’t happen for many artists. I’m not sure that it‘s happening for the right reasons, and the right reasons would have to do with issues that have already been substantiated or mutated. There are very few artists who are aware of the absolute denigration, trivialization and marginalization that young artists experienced until about 1979; or that all language was completely masculinized. I can never say this enough: I never read a book that didn’t say ‘the artist and his model’, ‘man and his symbols‘. Even Germaine Greer used the masculine pronoun to be grammatically correct. I fought every day when I was in London; I wrote crank letters to the newspapers and I have some of them in my new book for MIT that were about gender abuse in terms of language, and gender exclusion in terms of female lived sexuality. I can’t believe we have to go back and deal with people who still think like that.

MB: At the moment there’s a real unease about anything to do with subjectivity – terms such as ‘soul’ would be considered eccentric, and that’s weird.

CS: You’re absolutely right. What’s going on?

MB: I wondered what you might feel was going on, because I was incredibly moved by your new piece More Wrong Things (2001)

CS: But it’s supposed to move you Michael, that’s what it’s about! In New York some of my most dependable, critical, intelligent supporters became really supercilious about this work. They couldn’t deal with that subjectiveness in NY.

MB: It seemed a kind of summation of your work so far, bringing together an awful lot of strands…

CS: I don’t know why the work is so elusive; you can feel what it’s about, but it’s hard to talk about it and hard to talk about my process. It takes immense … concentration: how the images can be edited, how they can be formatted, how much time it takes, what it will cost, where the energy’s really going, how many seconds do the images have. It’s absolutely crucial that its not seven seconds, it’s six, and you can’t have the volcano eruption next to the car blowing up … All these patterns of association and energy are intricate. It’s wonderful to make them work but it takes a lot of experience of structuring, as well as blind intuition.

MB: So its rather like work on meter and scansion – when you happen to be utterly precise and mathematical but also expecting …

CS: … the leap: the leap into the uncertainty. Behind all these pieces not only are there spontaneous, dreamlike drawings but there are exacting scores, grids, counts and numerical relationships. It requires a knowledge of movement and how long it takes for something to be absorbed, or to startle, or to connect to the next image. It only works for me because I’ve been cutting film for 20 years, or editing text forever – I love editing text.

MB: I was reading some of the scores for the performance pieces and the precision is astounding.

CS: It’s a kind of sculpture. It’s torturous too because unlike sculpture or painting writing is always linear: its out here, a little word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph.

MB: I was interested when you said in your talk at the Cornerhouse that your work is related very much to Cezanne, and whatever media you may choose to work in you always think primarily as a painter.

CS: My discipline, my history, my training, everything I know best comes out of my training as a painter, which means that it’s optical and I’m trained to see dimensionally. I’m trained to convey what I see to the hand, to the page; I’m trained to convey what I see that can be imagined through the hand, through the physicalizing of connectivity. I practiced fot thousands of hours to be able to draw, to paint. I think it’s amazing, to have that, it’s like speaking a special language: I speak painting. That enabled me to enlarge the principles I had absorbed, but very reluctantly, as I always say. It’s been an anguish to leave the surface of painting and to have to go into space and physicalize those properties. I would be in some sense aesthetic (?) to be all alone in a studio painting, looking at a bunch of apples… [laugh] Why did that have to start? (laugh), Let me back in!

MB: You left America in the 1960s because of Vietnam and ended up in London …

CS: … at the Roundhouse, the Congress of the Dialectics of Liberation (1967). It was such a big event – so intense, so volatile in terms of the concentration of different representatives in one place.

MB: How did that come about?

CS: One of the organizers, Dr Joseph Berke, brought me over. He was a psychiatrist, organizer of the first Free University (NYC), and Director of Kingsley Hall in London – the anti-psychiatry clinic.

MB: The historian Jonathan Green suggests that a lot of the political scene in the late 1960s in London was simply fashion..

CS:No, no, no, no, no, no! It was really desperate: a lot of people were cracked up and freaked out; you had all these ex-pats full of energy to radicalize, and it was sleepy here in the UK. We arrived here and people were kind of gracious; even your MI5. We didn’t know that our phones were being tapped, and the man from MI5 would come and politely say ‘have you done anything about your Green Card?’ They watched us, and they also sent in counter-people, and the centres began to be run by mysterious people, managing alternative film spaces, who were next seen five years later, seen in Cambodia, as part of the press division, it was very intense. There were ex-pats from Mexico. The government had set fire to a centre there; people from Chile, where Allende had been overthrown, and the North Americans that you and I both know. [JAMES – THIS ALL GETS A BIT CONVOLUTED, BUT THE SENSE IS CLEAR, I THINK] There was Victor Herbert, a strange sort of investment banker – someone sympathetic to the underground. There was an amazing group called John Hopkins, the son of a famous actress, he was my lover, he and Hoppy got into computer files in 69-70, he had got into files so they could see which companies were involved. (in de-stabilising the counter culture) I think the most devastating and telling event for me was the fact that acid was paid for by the Stones guy Sam Cutler

MB/LS: Wow.

CS: Sam Cutler was the rep at the Roundhouse, but he was the one who came in as the rep for the bands. We had these clothes and alternative magazines and restaurants, and the lighting design and the timing, and I was the director of all that. So we were in the back of the Roundhouse, and Sam Cutler made sangria. The first people to get this sangria were the directors, but by the time I tried to get to my techies, the floor was moving. It was like a plague, a tiny cancer was spreading. And I thought ‘oh shit’, and there’s no end to it: there were a thousand people on acid. The Black Panthers had flown in and they tried to do a satellite link; people were beating their heads on the floor; there was mayhem. I said to band, I think it was Blood, Sweat and Tears, ‘are you guys OK? You’ve been playing for three hours’. I was naked except for an angel costume and a dunce’s hat; and the Black Panthers were saying ‘what the fuck is going on here?’ I said the other people have won. At the very end, when the police came, they had to talk to someone wearing a dunce’s cap. They left and I went over to the ice-cream parlour opposite – Victor Herbert was there – and I said ‘Victor, is there anything we can do?’ But at the very end of the night, the guy who had brought in the sangria, who paid for this gift was Sam..

MB: The Roundhouse is like a psychic tape-recorder, its history is encoded into the floor; it’s almost got the smell of a church.

CS: Incredible place, it’s probably on a ley-line: the River Fleet runs under it. I was very conscious of the psychic charge when I lived there, it was an amazing time.

MB: Every so often London has a ghostly look…

CS: All of Britain has a ghostly presence; they’re almost palpable..

MB: Maybe now we’re as confused by politics as we are by subjectivity?

CS: Ghosts, confused by ghosts.

Issue 62

First published in Issue 62

October 2001
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