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“Thrilling and completely gratifying.” – Robert Ayers in conversation with Carolee Schneemann


Carolee Schneemann (Photo: Susan Alzner)

Carolee Schneemann was one of the first artists I met when I arrived in the United States in 1979. I was 25 years old, and I am ashamed to admit I knew little about feminist art in those days, or about Ms Schneemann herself. As I have told her on many occasions since then however, so profound was the impression that she made upon me back then that it is no exaggeration to say that she changed my life.

Carolee Schneemann has maintained a career of heroic independence since the late 1950s, declaring the vital – though perennially understated – significance of the feminine in all aspects of our lives and the lives of our ancestors through all recorded history. Along the way she has created some of the most important works  works in contemporary art: Eye Body (1963), Meat Joy (1964), Interior Scroll (1975), and Terminal Velocity (2001) are crucial works to any comprehension of art’s relationship with history and culture in the last half-century. She has also been a visionary writer, and an inspirational teacher and lecturer, and her collections More than Meat Joy (1979) and Imaging Her Erotics (2002) are recognized as essential volumes in any serious library of contemporary thought.

Carolee Schneemann, "Meat Joy" (1964)

On Friday evening (November 18) she will be presenting one of her celebrated performative/lectures Mysteries of the Iconographies at the University of Washington in Seattle. This will serve as a prelude to Streaming in from the Moon an all-day academic symposium on Carolee Schneemann and her work that coincides with her major retrospective Within and Beyond the Premises that is at the university’s Henry Art Gallery through December 30.

Ms Schneemann and I spoke on the phone yesterday afternoon (November 14) and, as ever, she proved a dauntingly stimulating conversationalist.

Carolee Schneemann, (from) "Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions" (1963-2005)

Carolee, when I looked at your retrospective I was reminded of the staggering quantity of work you’ve made since you began as an artist in the late fifties. What’s been the motivation that’s kept you so productive?

There are things that I have to see and materials that I have to engage with. That began before I could speak with strange obsessive little drawings. I’ve often felt, like many other artists, that if you’re not engaged in the pursuit of your imagery you’re kind of dead, or you’re not fully in your full life.

I concentrate. I pursue the potentiality of realizing images through a mixture of research, dream, and potential materiality – what form the images can evolve into.

I pursue my work without any expectation of outcome or reward. It’s never been directed toward external recognition. I just have to see the things that I’m making. That’s the motive.

The work is far-ranging between pleasure and outrage. This depends on what aspects of the world are impinging on my consciousness and how my consciousness recognizes which terrain to enter.

Can you give me some examples of particular pieces that explore either pleasure or outrage?

There’s always a mixture. The pleasured works are motivated by ecstatic experiences of the body. I am fortunate to have a sensuous physical history that has rarely been abused or tampered with. This means that I could have an energetic access to sensory images and an ability to take lived experience as a source of realization to confront forms of deformation or over-determination.

I’ve gone through – or escaped – so many forms of constraint: the early macho teachers who said “You can’t do it. You can try but it won’t matter”; and then the constraints of essentialism, of Marxism, of the Abject, and of the Masquerade, of feminism itself with its sometimes very restricting theoretical strict definitions. To have worked through all these various suppressions and to maintain a steady pace, I don’t know how I’ve managed!

Does that take us on to works that derive from outrage?

You have to go to particular works that were developing in a particular time. During the 1960s, there was the Vietnam anti-war kinetic theatre and my atrocity film Viet-Flakes – those are furious works that were pulled out of rage and compassion for the Vietnamese and to clarify the inequities of our militaristic government .

The systematic destruction of Palestinian culture during the eighties took form in the 1980s as research, lectures, installations.

Carolee Schneemann, "Terminal Velocity" (2001)

That in turn connects to Terminal Velocity (2001), the photographic exploration of the bodies that were blown out of the World Trade Center windows or leapt out to escape the fire on 9/11. That’s a very personal homage, trying to see as closely as possible the residual details of this crucial moment. What was captured. How varied the bodies were as they fell. The details of their shoes, their jackets. That became a concentrated work of enlargement and repetition from the Ben-Day dot of the documented photographs.

At its base my work is tremendously influenced by painting and natural forms. It’s unusual to have that constancy. I still live in the old family farmhouse where I’ve been for most of my life. Fuses was shot here, Meat Joy and Water Light/Water Needle (1966) were dreamt here. Up To And Including Her Limits (1973-76) began on a rope in my apple tree here.

Carolee Schneemann, "Up To And Including Her Limits" (1973-1976)

Sources of my images come from the despised realm of paganism, and inclinations steeped in a history of originally being a landscape painter, and my early insistence that I had to study form, to concentrate. I had to build a vocabulary of what made form and shape and the energy of the brushstroke as a dynamic proposition in itself. So the painting was an activation that became increasingly physicalized, and then we get into the works with motors and increased kinetic elements, and they lead to performative imagery and that will lead to complex installations of motorized projections with mirror systems.

Carolee Schneemann, "Interior Scroll" (1975)

How do you think the world has changed during the time you’ve been making this work?

It’s changed tremendously, but now we can look at Occupy Wall Street as one of the efflorescences that have re-emerged, like a snake out of its skin, from the activations of the sixties. Between those public forums of cultural consciousness, there’s been feminism changing everything forever.

Feminism for me begins with the eroticized body, taking it away from pornography and medical science so that it enters a discussion of lived experience, and lived aspects of depiction. That introduces the dimension of being both image and image-maker, which was rare for a young woman artist in the sixties influenced by civil rights and anti-war social patterns. You had to belong to the realm of masculist expectations and fantasy: you could not be the nude and the creator of the meaning of the body. That was something that I needed to deal with.

In the development of feminism, first there was separatism where women artists realized that they couldn’t share the dilemmas with their male colleagues because they’d always want to tell us what to do, what’s wrong, and try to fix it. There’s this interesting moment of separatism when women founded their own galleries and began their own critical theories that reanalyzed everything that we’d inherited.

Then language changes: I’ve had a terrific struggle with the pronoun – there was no neutral pronoun until way into the seventies. Every piece of writing was masculinized: “the artist and his imagery”, “man and his gods”, even “the student and his locker”! It applies to both of us, I’m told, but it doesn’t because it always subsumes and marginalizes any authentic feminine voice. But that all began to change in anthropology, and archeology, and religious history. Right down to the missing women who brought DNA transformation, and paleolithic shards which were inscribed and engraved by women themselves. They were not somebody’s little goddess! Once all these conventions are broken apart there’s a tremendous flowing of artists and concepts. It changes the field completely.

Carolee Schneemann, "The Men Cooperate" (1979)

If someone were visiting the exhibit here in Seattle, what would you suggest are the main things they should look out for?

The consistency, which has to do with energetic rhythms and simultaneous juxtapositions. There’s always a great deal of movement and momentum. My work was highly influenced by living with the musician James Tenney for twelve years. He’d be practicing Charles Ives or Edgar Varèse or Webern over and over again, so that musical structure informed the way I would think about film duration, or the simultaneous juxtaposition of images in a near-collage process of fragmentation. There’s an incremental movement and energy within any one piece.

Carolee Schneemann, "Precarious" (2009)

I think that the structure of Precarious (2009) – which is the most recent work, and the one that I favor now – and its themes of dancing in captivity, where the captivity includes actual images of prisoners dancing, as well as the metaphoric captivity of the frame, the duration of the video, and the mirror projection system which splits and confers momentum on those single source images, I think that it’s enriching and it has all the aspects of collage and juxtaposition and simultaneity that I’ve mentioned.

It’s a fabulous piece, and it made me ponder how you must find it very frustrating that for years your ideas ran ahead of the technology that would allow you to materialize them.

It’s very frustrating, and it’s schizophrenic that this work has so rarely had any economic support. It’s never entered commerce. It’s very rarely collected so its life depends on scholars and other artists.

Carolee Schneemann, "Meat Joy Collage" (performance poster), 1964

We have this symposium coming up Saturday, Streaming in from the Moon. Are there particular aspects of your work that you’d like to see explored?

Oh no, I would never want to anticipate. It’s a new generation of research which is wonderful and unpredictable. It’s very exciting. I’m going to be very surprised. I might be disheartened and shocked and annoyed or it might be inspiring and thrilling and deepening insight into why I work and how I work, but the very fact that people are investigating it is thrilling and completely gratifying

For example the latest Millennium Film Journal is devoted to my film work. Every essay in there is remarkable. That’s such a wonderful thing to happen: you finally have a happy artist. How rare is that?

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