Rigorous Ecstasy—Language & Performance, Part II

Women in Performance

Rigorous Ecstasy—Language & Performance, Part II

By Jarrett Earnest September 17, 2014

Women in Performance, curated by Jarrett Earnest and Patricia Maloney, is dedicated space for conversations with leading artists addressing the aesthetic and conceptual issues, historical precedents, and critical language shaping contemporary feminist performance.


Jarrett Earnest: You wanted to expand on your ideas about “performance art” today.

Carolee Schneemann: There is an aspect of it that I am very critical of because I don't see it as coming from a living resource that resembles the uncertainty or intensity that were the origins of what has become “performance art.” But it is self-fulfilling, inventive, and restorative. It does everything; it goes everywhere, like some kind of mushrooms. I'm in favor of it, really.

JE: Since performance art has become codified as art—to the extent that there are schools of performance art—what is your take on the evolution of it as a formalized, commodified object?

CS: Yes, but! It’s amazing, wonderful to have influence, to be of use opening the persistent uncertainties. I no longer know what to make of the codified realm of “performance art.” I don't want to touch it myself with a ten-foot pole because it is so inhabited. It is so re-realized. It's rare that I see something there that I haven't seen before; it’s a phylogeny that recapitulates its ontology. Watching most performances now, I think, “I chopped that thing up twenty years ago,” or “I like that very much, it reminds me of my early work.” Performance art is inhabited and that's okay. Obviously there was a reason for that phylogeny, but I won't teach it anymore. I just have to break free of it.

Yes, but! I cannot resist teaching, exploring aspects of performance art in all its contemporary extensions and inventions... so many radical and beautiful aspects are developing.

JE: But your move into performance as a painter was prompted by a certain necessity that came from your ideas about space and embodiment. Is your feeling that younger artists now enter into this thing called performance art, with its history, without the same kind of concerns or urgency?

Carolee Schneemann. Interior Scroll, 1975 (still); performance; photograph, 40 x 60 in. Performed at East Hampton, New York and the Telluride Film Festival, Colorado. Courtesy of the Artist and PPOW Gallery, New York. © Carolee Schneemann.

CS: Well, it can't be replicated—it was unoccupied territory. It was a wild land provoked by Artaud, by Dada, deeply in revulsion towards its own immediate inheritance of the cultural conservativeness of the ’50s. These initiating artists were doing something incredible, bringing in affinities to Zen, to Noh, to other kinds of Indian dance, and with thoughtfulness about it. The original Happenings by Oldenburg, Dine, Whitman, and Kaprow—these were painters activating space and taking space as time. It was unprecedented; it had no script or predictable characterization. It was an adventure to be a part of. For Storedays, Oldenburg found a purple spangled dress for me and gave me a knife and told me to stand on a plank over a radiator. I was not comfortable, it was a vertiginous feeling, but my job was to stab the wall for as long as we were in that space while everybody else did something else. It was a wild harmonics, a vision. My difficulty with performance art now is that it’s been codified as a thing, a movement; it’s taught as an academic discipline—I've taught it—but now the langue around it enters a realm of predictable forms, a “practice.” The assumptions of career and strategy—I get questions from students like “What was your strategy? How would you define your career?”

JE: I'm really interested in Artaud and his relevance to performance art, and the distinctions between theater and performance art.

CS: Well, we hated theater—it was "practice": rehearsals, predictable form, perfection, and emotional direction in which you had to fulfill a characterization. We were like elements of shredded paper, flowing and fluid. In the discrepancies, extra energies would come, as with collage, when you tear a piece of paper apart and an unexpected dynamic emerges between the two sections. It’s rather hard to describe because the language that is appropriate to the origins of performance art didn't exist and is still elusive. Go back to Artaud and read his visions and rantings, and yes, that is closer to it. For me, it was all the energies in the body being given a live articulation, but not as a definitive form, not as something perfected.

JE: What is incredible about a lot of your performances are the intersections between the projected image, the body, and the spoken text. In the way you've approached and laid out More Than Meat Joy, you replicate the overlapping edges of those elements.

CS: I designed that book with Bruce McPherson, the independent, brave publisher. The visual design principles relate to the weights and energies of my paintings.

Carolee Schneemann. Untitled (from Dust series), 1986; ink, acrylic paint, string, vegetable dye, glass particle, photograph on fabric, and green circuit board on heavy rag paper; 32 1/2 x 39 in. Courtesy of the Artist and PPOW Gallery, New York. © Carolee Schneemann.

JE: I feel like a lot of the early writing about your performances uses the language of dance, which is problematic because what you were trying to do with performance art was not dance.

CS: Yes, but! Of course even modern dance evolves from a “practice”—you better be physically attuned to what the movement scores are going to demand of you. Dance also comes with the old approval of male culture. Everything about traditional dance refers to beautiful motions, and the culture approves of this predictably. The music drives it and establishes an exciting safety zone; it’s not going to suddenly fly out of those possibilities. Even modern dance had that formulation around it. When I do works such as Eye-Body or Meat Joy, it disrupts that threshold: “Here are some really beautiful erotic bodies, but what are they doing? They are distorting their appeal!” Of course with Judson dancers, the dynamic of their movement was completely contradictory to classical performance, but yet you could see they were really dancers—they were trained. That was another early arena apart from the early Happenings.

JE: Another tributary flowing into performance art, which is never discussed in art history, has to do with poetry and the things that were happening in poetry at the time. I'm thinking of the anthology Jerome Rothenberg put together, Technicians of the Sacred, which had so much to do with chanting, performative, and oral poetics from across time and around the world.

Carolee Schneemann. Eye Body, 1963; gelatin silver print, from a portfolio of 18 prints; edition of 8; 24 x 20 in. Courtesy of the Artist and PPOW Gallery, New York. © Carolee Schneemann.

CS: That is grasping the sacred aspect—the reverence—that is involved in the most interesting performance art; it’s sacral. There is worship in it, not a self-worship but to a larger aspect that we see across cultures that Rothenberg put all together. It is so important. Of course, it’s deeply neglected because materialist culture wants to insist on that material preeminence. If you introduce the sacral or spirit, that feminizes everything, it becomes fluffy and imprecise, it’s probably not worthy because it’s trying to escape all the validating cultural traditions, even the radicalizing ones that have been accepted.

JE: The reason I'm so interested in More Than Meat Joy as a book is because of how performance art is taught in schools or discussed in scholarship. It is usually reduced to a single image, which becomes an iconic representation of the entirety of the performance. What you do in the book is always show multiple images that unfold as a process in time from multiple vantages, and at the same time lay them right next to two types of text: One is a transcript of the spoken text of the performance, and the other is a retrospective description of the parameters of the actions. When you talk about performance as reduced to a single image, without all the texts, it completely bleaches the complexity of the thing as art, which is one reason the vital connection to poetry has been lost in performance-art history.

Carolee Schneemann. Portrait Partials, 1970/2008; black and white photographic grid; edition of 8, 2 AP; 36 1/2 x 37 1/2 in. Courtesy of the Artist and PPOW Gallery, New York. © Carolee Schneemann.

CS: Those poets had such severe magic. My work was first properly accepted by poets. Rothenberg and Antin published the introductory text of Meat Joy in some/thing, their poetry magazine. At that time the poets didn't have a very respected platform themselves but were very energizing together. There is Hanna Wiener using her amazing signage that became performance art because people didn't know what else to call it. Then there is ridiculous theater that always had a lot of language in it, but it was still in the shaping of theater. There was a spillover into Jack Smith and Barbara Rubin and aesthetics that have no definition but “experimental.”

JE: Of course, Vito Acconci was a poet.

CS: And he began performing after a program that we were on together, in which I symbolically hung myself. After that, he began to do physical actions.

JE: Upstairs in your library, you have several shelves dedicated to Virginia Woolf. I'm very interested in your engagement with her as an artist.

CS: It started when I was fourteen years old and at the Putney school in Vermont. We had a wonderful book wagon; you could crawl in and take one or two and sign them out. I, of course, had never heard about Virginia Woolf, but I liked the double letters of the name, and the cover was painterly, so I took that out. I went to the barn and sat on a windowsill and just wept for the next two hours. I thought, "I don't know what this is, but this is what I need to do." I was reading The Waves—it was the fragmentation, the breaking, the cohesion, the intense rhythms. I just loved it so much—the way you can as a kid and you don't know why—it was talismanic for me. At Bard, when I said I wanted to write a paper on Woolf, my professor said, “You can't do that; she is trivial. That is not serious literature. You can write about Mann, Proust, or Kafka.” And then I got the same parallel from a philosophy teacher when I said, “I'd like to write my term paper on Simone de Beauvoir,” and he said, “Honey, why do you want to write about the mistress when you can write about the master?”

JE: When did you first start reading de Beauvoir?

CS: As soon as it came out in the ’50s. It was electrifying. I was working in a pottery shop engraving things on the edges and I saved my money to buy The Second Sex. I sent it to Stan and Jane Brakhage for Christmas. They burnt it. That is how much convention had to be defended there, and how invisible it was between friends because there was such a fluid, excited, smart, aesthetic exchange all the time.

JE: But you've continued reading Woolf. How did her work evolve for you in significance or understanding?

CS: It was like falling in love. That first vision was illuminating, and the rest of my study confirmed it. If you're lucky, that is what happens. Woolf engaged every aspect of what I would look at as a painter—the domestic, the landscape, the light, the formulations of material, transitory configurations—everything that you're looking at is going to change, and yet you struggle to grasp some essence of it, which is what she does. Her gift is in the harmonic integration of things. I don't know that I ever achieved that as much as I perceived it in her work. And the tremendous struggle in her work that has only been looked at recently of the gender paralysis—the exclusion, the sexual abuse—it takes fifty years to clarify these facts of life. That is inspiring to other generations to see the residual repression and marginalization and sexual threat. It’s modified but it hasn't gone away.

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