Carolee Schneemann, a multidisciplinary artist, transformed the definition of art in the 1960s, especially discourse on the body, sexuality, and gender. The history of her work is characterized by research into archaic visual traditions, pleasure wrested from repressive taboos, and the body of the artist in dynamic relationship with the social body. Her painting, photography, performance art and installation works have been shown at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, Centre Georges Pompidou, and most recently in a retrospective at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York entitled Up To And Including Her Limits.
Rail (Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey): Let’s begin by talking about the essay you sent to us to read.
Carolee Schneemann: The essay “Thanksgiving 2002” relates to “More Wrong Things,” a multi-channel video installation that I presented three years ago at White Box, as well as the most recent video projection system “Devour.” These works share a process of layered intercuts. For “More Wrong Things” I assembled seventeen old monitors suspended within a spider-like network of 500 feet of wires and cables. The overall shape of “More Wrong Things” was oddly inspired by the open rough space of White Box—into which passersbys can look from the street—and photographs of dinosaur bones I was studying: arching, rhythmic skeletons. I wanted to activate that space as a multi-dimensional immersion. Projected on the seventeen monitors were loops of footage from different cultural disasters. These I edited into three seconds—compressed atrocity images that were sent to me from underground sources in Sarajevo, Palestine, Lebanon, Haiti, and older Vietnam material from my archive.
Rail: And that was all news material?
Schneemann: Yes, much of it is shot from independent underground sources. The videos from former Yugoslavia were excruciating, compiled by a video collective of individuals in immediate danger as they captured the ruin of their cities. They managed to send out varied footage with a lead statement in English: “This video compilation is by filmmakers who are running out of equipment, who may not have more film, who may not have water or lights or a home. This is footage of the devastation around us. We send these messages to you.” People were shot on camera, buildings were blown up, people were running…under attack. There is also footage of a war criminal that is very compelling; he is speaking to an investigative body that you only see from behind. A young, chain-smoking, shaved head murderer. He becomes a central figure in this frantic, anguished material, speaking in a slow dulled monologue, translated into English subtitles. He is answering questions about rape, murder, abduction. “Did she scream?…No, No, she didn’t scream, there were four of us…she couldn’t scream…why did I shoot her?…I don’t know why I shot her…we were all doing that…the boys from our village…now I don’t sleep, I just smoke.” All fragments. Part of the volatile material I was editing. I think of “More Wrong Things” as a kind of grotesque mirror to the interiors of Vermeer; where domestic life is luminous, splendid in its daily intimacy. But recently I read that Holland was engaged in violent wars at the time of those most harmonious paintings.
Rail: How did “Devour” begin?
Schneemann: “Devour,” the three-screen projection, evolved from “More Wrong Things” as I juxtaposed three seconds of chaotic war footage with three seconds of normal intimacy: a baby nursing, people walking at a fair towards food and sparkling lights, a bird in flight, a neon bright Ferris wheel full of screaming kids, three seconds of auto demolition derby, cars crashing into each other, three seconds of an erotic genital close up. The rhythms and durations of these images are bound together by hugely enlarged dissolving pixels. All images emerge from these agitated pixels that are slowed down and sped up.
Rail: Collective groups and projects…
Schneemann: The essay I recently sent you was printed by a poet, Ron Horning, who produces a distinguished small magazine called I Saw Johnny Yesterday, which is mailed to only 160 people. This appealed to me in its contrast to glamorized art publishing—not commodified, not self-important. Its form resembles the way artists communicated in the sixties and seventies—spontaneous collective endeavors sending out new work.
Rail: Are you writing more?
Schneemann: I keep a daily journal, but I can’t write by request. I was writing about my most recent kitten, surrounded by magical coincidences: I began to intercut devotions of the kitten with notes on a disturbing sex partner in that same timeframe. And I referred also to a savage ocean accident injuring my knee—October 26, 2002. I would later find out that was the day the kitten was born! I had completed a lecture at the Palm Beach Center for the Arts in Florida and had gone body surfing, during which I was dragged by a rip tide, ending up in an emergency ward and on crutches. Somewhere in Oberlin, Ohio, a very elegant, stray cat with amazing long white fur was birthing a jumble of kittens in the closet of a student house.
Rail: And that was included…
Schneemann: As I intercut notes of the delightful new kitten and the disturbing lover—“Why is X so weird? He thinks his cock is the only thing that sex is about?”—I realized that I needed the world surround. I maintain an obsessive renegade file, reports of all manner of investigations and analysis of political deceptions (Whatreallyhappened.com; truthout.com; znet.com; all of that). Let’s examine what happened between October 26th and November 25th when the kitten is finally brought home to me upstate. I can integrate and explore all these disturbing clippings (which I keep thinking: should I just burn, throw them out). There will be five edits on that “Thanksgiving 2002” essay (as I write so painstakingly, weaving these themes).
Rail: Writing that kind of piece, that kind of political work, is really needed now, but you just don’t see as much of it. You are steeped in that kind of activism.
Schneemann: But in a very privileged, isolated sort of way. I’m in my old house with these files, suspended between the activism in the sixties—where artists together and individually accomplished overt, enlightening actions and this moment of fascist erosion of our legal rights. A culture dazed and confused by lies, by invisible masquerades: the good ‘ole boys doing everything for “social betterment,” while eroding out liberties and humane social structures, one by one by one. Our society has to see a black mustache and a Swastika to possibly recognize danger; we are unable to read cowboy boots as marching with that same dynamic militarism. Those of us who are analyzing these lies and fabrications are a very fragile bunch—alert minnows. For the older generation it’s “oh no, here we go again!” It’s reminiscent of McCarthyism. Parents of friends of mine said, “When she was a baby we would put her to bed every night and wonder if we would be arrested by morning.” They belonged to the Socialist Writers Guild. Now The Friends Service Committee and Green Peace are on a terrorist list! (No blind Patriotism!). Perhaps even The Brooklyn Rail!
I was just in Austria asking all my friends there to tell me about the atmosphere that their parents were raised in. It seems to be erased! I couldn’t find anyone to talk to about this fascist history until I got back here. What about you? Do you think it is a conversation that is openly moving or closing today?
Rail: About fascism in America today? Well, everybody is pretty outraged. We were talking about that earlier concerning Andrea Fraser. Do you know her work?
Rail: What do you think of her work?
Schneemann: I think “Fuses,” my self-shot heterosexual erotic film 1965, I think “Naked Action Lecture” at the ICA, London 1968, I think “phylogeny recapitulates ontology” or she read my books. It’s so close. But that is true for many artists coming up now. The materials, the approach to the body, everything that was so radical and despised as being offensive, subversive is now part of an exciting set of valorized commodifications. And they are lively and vital; I am constantly astonished how quickly an original radical act becomes entertainment. And for many younger artists their versions of my work are very successful economically.
Rail: But her work is institutional critique…
Schneemann: For “Naked Action Lecture,” in 1968 I lectured from the stage of the ICA in London—on perception, the fractured planes of Cézanne landscape—while asking the audience, “Can a woman artist be a nude and an art historian? Can a woman painter be an art historian and a nude?” as I constantly dressed and undressed. I was naked under overalls filled with oranges, these I threw to the audience while dressing and undressing, projecting slides of my body art juxtaposed with Cézanne’s nudes. “Fuses” is self-shot with a 16mm wind-up Bolex, my lover and I make love in front of the camera over the course of not a day, but over the course of seasons. It is crucial to this film that there is no cameraperson, except the artist who is also a participant in the imagery (and the editor).
Rail: What do you think people are doing, what are they talking about? There is a difference between what that art world is talking about in politics.
Schneemann: Great distraction. Anxiety. Denial. Also what’s disturbing is that in the sixties political activators moved across layers of society: it was volatile, thoughtful, optimistic, communal, desperate, dangerous. And it was wild—there was a cohesive sense of purpose on the left and we had tremendous examples inspiring us. We had the Black Panthers, we had the Civil Rights activists, we had Martin Luther King, we had Malcolm X, The Weather People, and we had the Doors and Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix and John Lennon—all the extraordinary leaders and artists who coincidentally all were assassinated or died sudden deaths.
Rail: That was such kind of a Renaissance. Looking back on the time it seems hard to even compare contemporary times and make a bridge between what the two. I mean, what are artists doing now, where is feminism, how are they living and perceiving their world?
Schneemann: An aesthetics of political awareness seems gnawed by theory. Post/post-modern theory can be as rigorous as it is constricting. There was no overly determined theory in the sixties being taught in every art school and featured in theoretical journals. We did have inherited visual traditions to absorb and deflect. My sense is that our cultural unconscious has been deeply traumatized by the suppressed history of living in an assassination culture. During late 1969 and ’70, every inspiring, vital, transgressive politician or artist was knocked off or died mysteriously, including Adlai Stevenson running for Vice President. And now after thirty years of induced hypnosis, does anyone put it together? Wellstone’s plane going down, and Carnahan’s and Ron Brown’s plane. This could be obvious. And I feel compelled to research the artifacts, art history of countries we destabilize or devastate.
Rail: Maybe we should talk a little bit about what you were saying about the unconscious being damaged by collective experiences and that being an assassination culture. Coming from the sixties where so many transgressive artists were killed, where does that leave artists today?
Schneemann: It leaves us diluted by our privilege. We are not explicitly suppressed, but implicitly connections we should make are occluded. It is as if we have a big nightmare behind us, which is actually in front of us. We don’t want to really address that: to make a radicalizing effort is to put everything of our contemporary experience in question. It’s not even an overt history, the way it would be if you had come from a country where they had war: if you grew up under communism or in Romania, Bulgaria, or Yugoslavia…We are peddling in an aesthetic sea of innovated Beaux-Arts, self-censorship, and a market-driven “morality.”
Rail: Have you seen Fahrenheit 9/11?
Schneemann: Twice. What did you think of it?
Rail: I thought it was really impressive. I feel it could have been, like we were talking about the files you have and the information that he had access to, I thought it could have been even more extreme. But I think it was probably be a good place to draw the line.
Schneemann: The first time I saw Fahrenheit 9/11, I was very pleased—it corresponded to everything I had been researching. At the second viewing, I just cried through the whole thing. I drive down old country roads where some of my neighbors are putting up patriotic symbols: huge flags in front of their barns, slogans on their trucks. “America: Right or Wrong!”—polarization gets really sharp.
Rail: “Support Our Troops.” You know, It’s interesting, being involved with this particular magazine, all of them being writers, and talking with all of our friends being artists, it seems to be the writers who are more engaged and interested in politics. Artists tend to talk about the work they are doing, the writers that we know talk about subjects.
Schneemann: But political awareness affects our material substances. Artists do not share a methodology for literalizing information. The visual artists struggle to find forms that bring difficult information through without resembling old propaganda—posters, graphic patterns, or expressionist collage. Our problems conceptually, aesthetically explore materiality. Inundated as we are with Abu Ghraib and those torture images, am I ever going to create a pile of pleasured naked bodies again? I don’t think so! That aspect of physical, visual pleasure is displaced from my culture forever, it’s gone, it’s not coming back. (With the possible exception of Tunick’s massed nudes, vulnerable but secure, aesthetic and raw…) I also have unsettling questions about my new work as a form of displacement—as if we can really sustain these contradictions. The tangle of these themes melts into the issues that contemplate—simple facts—our militaristic dominations and the suppressed image reports of tortured, raped, sodomized, brutalized bodies.
Rail: We need more critical work.
Schneemann: Yes, but all these insightful critical works are dangerous for the artist as well.
Rail: How so?
Schneemann: Because the powers-that-be have tremendous support structures that investigate anything that might subvert their purposefulness. And for instance they are very determined to penetrate only certain kinds of teaching programs, even in radical liberal schools. There will be community trustees who fund certain courses in “feminism” and it will be their kind of subverted, tamed feminism. The economic forces are reactionary, invasive, and intensive: watch the evisceration of controversial subjects—sexuality, ecology, Palestinian history and rights, educational funding, art funding, Social Security, the hospital system, the merging of Social Security and the Department of Motor Vehicles and the increased surveillance and intrusion into private citizens affairs.
Rail: So that puts a kind of chill on the arts? There is a certain self-censorship that artists are placing upon themselves because they do not want to get into a dangerous situation?
Schneemann: Even in this narrow little room, it can be threatening.
Rail: It’s true. It is hard to imagine that it is dangerous. It is hard to imagine that the government is watching artists at all. The Internet has more information. And think of all those abuse photographs, if we did not have the Internet to distribute them. There was that speech by Rumsfeld, where he was mostly getting pissed off by technology, saying “if it wasn’t for those fucking cameras and soldiers emailing each other, this never would have happened.”
Schneemann: We still have self-determined lives.
Rail: That is where the hope is, right? It’s in the gathering that we haven’t gotten so isolated and so estranged by information and everything else that we don’t talk.
Schneemann: Most of what we make is still engaged and in motion. It is moving with us and about us.
Rail: Well that is really the issue now that is so important, as opposed to what you were saying before: students who are craving the realities that are not so much based on emotion.
Schneemann: There are wonderful artists all the time…I’m distressed by young artists who have this synthetic conviction that if they have a “strategy” then they get the art world reward of a gallery, a review…Run me in my art cage. Just tell me how to be a famous artists and I’ll do it. They ask me, “What are your strategies?” I say, “I don’t have any yet, I guess I better think about that.” Or, “Do you have a Public Relations person?” That would be good, but you have to pay them a salary. It is all so delusional. They don’t know that you don’t get paid for your artist books when you get published. You hardly get paid if you do a lecture. You barely get a fee when your photographs are reproduced. You have to submit invoices and fight for 75 bucks for permission and use. Even museums, you won’t get a fee unless they really want you because they have very limited operating budgets for live artists. Museums rarely purchase works…the artist or their gallery has to find a donor. The donor gets a tax deduction…