Bad at Sports

Interview with Carolee Schneemann

By Bad at Sports, Kara Q. Smith, Liz Glass December 22, 2011

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.


Working across a range of disciplines, including performance, video, installation, photography, text, and painting, artist Carolee Schneemann has transformed contemporary discourse on the body, sexuality, and gender. During her recent visit to San Francisco, Schneemann participated in the November 30, 2011, panel discussion “Looking at Men, Then and Now,” at SOMArts Cultural Center, in San Francisco. The discussion was held in conjunction with the exhibition Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze, in which she was also a featured artist. On December 2, 2011, Eli Ridgway Gallery hosted an evening in celebration of the recently published Millennium Film Journal #54: “Focus on Carolee Schneemann.” In between the two events Art Practical’s Liz Glass and Kara Q. Smith had the opportunity to sit down with Schneemann to speak with her about her work. What follows is an abridged version of their conversation.

This interview is part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad At Sports and Art Practical. You can hear the full conversation starting December 25, 2011 here. 

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Image: Up to and Including Her Limits, Berlin, 1976 (still); performance. Photo: Henrik Gaad.

Kara Q. Smith: Can you describe your work as a painter in the 1950s while you were studying, first at Bard [College] and then at the University of Illinois? In fact, one of your paintings is included in the SOMArts exhibition that just closed. Can you tell us about how painting led you to the performance work for which you would become known and maybe how painting has continued to resonate with the rest of your practice?

Carolee Schneemann: I’m doing a new lecture called “Mysteries of the Iconographies.” In it I have a treasure chest of childhood drawings from when I was four, and they are very interesting because there are elements, which you could call iconographies, that will appear through all the later work. So when did I start to [make] work? I started obsessively making images before I could speak. But when it became serious, I was hugely discouraged.

The painting Personae (1957) is a nude portrait of my partner in the early years, James Tenney, the composer. He was my model, and that was considered really outrageous, because to include and depict the genitals of a male student who everybody knew was to deny him his authority and his proper respect. It was taken out of the junior exhibit at Bard College. They wouldn’t say that they considered it obscene; they just said it couldn’t be included in the exhibit. So things have changed enormously in that regard. But it’s really a painting engaged with color field; I’m still pleased and interested by it.

It was the energy of painting and the sense of the stroke as an event that began to develop as physiologized imagery, in which I would have the actions of participants fulfill these action drawings that I made. The images were often very extreme. People would jump off ladders holding buckets of paint in their hands that would spill as they fell. The paint would activate the space as if it became a painting. In order to get the dancers and participants to be willing to climb these ladders and jump or [perform] prolonged and extended runs ending with crashing into walls or other participants, I had to do it myself. So that’s how I engaged in what became performance.

Liz Glass: I want to ask about your experience being in Stan Brakhage’s films. Not to make you go into the experiences of these films, which you described at SOMArts as nightmarish, but to talk a bit about the role you played in his films, which led you to reclaim your role in your own work that would follow. 

CS: Stan Brakhage went to South High in Denver, where Jim Tenney was a student coming up behind Stan. And they were the two strange kids in that high school. Stan was doing black-and-white drama films, and Jim did early piano music for those films. The friendship was really focused on Stan’s concern, dependency, and affection for Jim and what Jim was making. When he came to film where we lived, it was part of the conversation, although I didn’t have a full way of determining my part in the conversation. I was sort of the object, as I mentioned, emptying the [ashtrays] and trying to find more toast for the guys to have while they talked until six in the morning. But we were all hugely influential for each other; we all brought each other the intensity of our cultural discoveries. I brought in issues of painting to Jim’s and Stan’s visual awareness, not only what I was doing, but what I was learning from the culture of de Kooning, of Pollock, of Klein. Stan brought us the poets and to Joseph Cornell. And then when he made Window Water Baby Moving (1962), it was astonishing because it was rare for a man to not idealize his position and to look at his own lived life. I wanted to go behind it and beyond it and go into the aspects of sexuality and the erotic as I lived it with Tenney and see what that would look like. I had no idea that Fuses (1965) would be something that people would still be watching.

Carolee Schneemann Fuses

Fuses, 1965 (still); self-shot 16mm film; TRT:18 min. Courtesy of the Artist.

KS: So you created some of your most well-known works, such as Fuses and Interior Scroll (1975) during the ’60s and ’70s, although they are still iconic today. Could you talk a little bit about what you are working on now?

CS: I’m fighting like the devil to get out of the ’70s. My mantra has been lately that the use of my body deflected the body of work. My major bodies of works have always been installations and projections, so tonight at [Eli] Ridgway Gallery, I’m going to show a version of a multichannel video projection installation called Devour, which is a very complex, subtle, and demanding edit of sources that contrast almost side by side and frame by frame disasters of the world and domestic intimacies. I wanted to build that set of visual contradictions.

The most recent installation is Precarious, which is now installed at the Henry Art Gallery, in Seattle, where I have a wonderful retrospective exhibit, and it’s a work about dancing in captivity. It came out of research on the torture of animals and finding magazine photographs of cats in cages. Cats that looked like you favorite pet, all crushed together, going to China to be eaten. I started tracing that, and it led me to Soviet traditions of impaling little bears with an iron bar and a chain and making them dance with a hat and sometimes with musical instruments. In contrast, there is this wonderful and well-known YouTube [video] of Snowball the cockatiel, which dances and changes his rhythm and beat to whatever the music is. He is out of the cage and is free to dance on the sofa, so I thought that’s a qualified self-determination. One of my other sources is the video of the prisoners in the Philippines in their orange suits and the choreographic routine that’s their exercise. The bear, the bird, the prisoners, and then myself and two extracts from performances in which I’m dancing are projected through a series of mirrors, so the whole space is activated. It’s not literalized. I have to fracture the image so that it releases another aspect of its implicit energy.

LG: You seem to do a lot of things with sets and series. I noticed in some of the images that you showed at SOMArts that you use the structure of the grid frequently as an underlying organizing principle; I’m thinking of works such as Terminal Velocity (2001)—the works about September 11—and Vulva Morphia (1995). Could you talk about this kind of seriality and your relation to the grid?

CS: The grid has often been a way of organizing disjunctive morphologies, elements that I feel are connected implicitly, although not explicitly. So Vulva Morphia builds on a vocabulary of vulvic shapes that began with my own body and with scientific diagrams that are ridiculous. Often with Paleolithic shards there is a realm of engraved vulvic symbols that are all different, and I thought that great variety was wonderful. I built a photographic color sequence, juxtaposing and combining all these sources including science, nature, my own body, sacred worshipful elements, and some that are vulva-like, but very funny. There’s a scale with bananas…

LG: And the alligator… 

CS: The crocodile with the open mouth and the vagina dentata. That was good.

KS: I really liked the juxtaposition of the actual body and the Paleolithic objects. Can you talk about your interest in the Paleolithic objects and the significance or the compelling nature that they hold for you?

Carolee Schneeman Interior Scroll

Interior Scroll, 1975 (still); performance. Performed at East Hampton, New York and the Telluride Film Festival, Colorado. Courtesy of the Artist.

CS: I want to take the stigma and the sting and the stink out of the taboo, and where these taboos exist to put them in a larger context of history and lived experience. Because the taboo structures are always highly symbolic, demonized, or glamorized; they’re always apart from what you recognize as your own possible actuality. So the Paleolithic goes as far back for signage and marking as I can find in research. My exploration of their consciousness of depicting the body leads me to presume these sculptures and fragments were made by women to investigate their own time cycles. It’s a theory, but why not, they always have a theory going the other way for thousands of years. So take it back. 

KS: Looking at these ancient figures and the way they kept time or kept track of their menstrual cycles, or whatever it was—the time or the day of the week—how in touch they had to be with the earth, or themselves, in a way that I have a hard time doing with myself.

CS: First of all, there was nothing to distract them. We could do it again if we went off into a cave and lived by ourselves for three months. We would definitely, once again, pay attention to the vibratory sequence of crickets and how they predicted weather, to the moon, the stars, the wind, to what is growing around us. We are just inundated and drenched with distraction, so it’s very hard to catch our own intimacy.

KS: Which is why I think your work still resonates and why it’s so relevant. 

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Listen to the full interview on Bad At Sports: Episode 330.

CS: Thank you. I’m getting all this appreciation for me, I am thinking, Finally. What happened?

LG: Speaking of which, you mentioned [at SOMArts] that you applied for the Guggenheim fellowship eleven times before receiving it in 1993. We were wondering, as you’re someone who has worked in the arts through many changes in governmental and private funding, how has making money as an artist changed from the ’60s to the present for you?

CS: Well, there is no alternative lifestyle left, and there are thousands and thousands of artists. It is probably the fault of those of us who can only support ourselves by teaching. We’ve created this huge army, this mob of artists everywhere who have to organize their own structures and find their own ways to support themselves. I don’t know how anybody does it anymore; it’s opaque. I don’t get through it. As you know, in the ’60s we could go to New York City and find an abandoned manufacturing loft a city block long for fifty-six dollars a month, but you had to fix everything up. So all the girls taught each other how to wire into the next building for their electricity. We were ingenious, and you had this open territory, this sense of pioneering your own energies, which artists always need and want. You can hardly do that when you are looking at a cramped space that’s three thousand dollars a month. And then you had all kinds of part-time jobs to patch everything together. I was an artist model, a dog dryer in a pet shop; I was in porno films on Saturdays for fifty dollars—but you only had to stand there in a black dress—and then I taught Sunday school on Sunday.

LG: That’s a great contrast—being in porn on Saturday and then teaching Sunday school on Sundays.

CS: Well, it wasn’t even the way we think of porn now. In those days, the young porn stars really wanted to be porn stars, and they didn’t want these literary types pushing in on any real sex activity. So the sexiest thing I was ever told to do was suck a guy’s toe, and he had covered it so heavily in aftershave. It was silly, silly sex.

LG: It seems to us, looking at it now, that Interior Scroll was such a bold kind of action, but I read that you didn’t think of your work as provocative at the time. Do you feel that your work was misunderstood?

CS: No, I was not quite understanding my culture at all, thinking with Interior Scroll, This is what the culture needs now; this will be good. I think they are ready; they will get this. We will bring this issue into vitality, into life and expressiveness of the vagina. It is not a dead clam shell. Maybe we could show it in the lunchrooms of high schools. So whenever I’ve been censored, I’ve been shocked. And then, gradually, when that has reversed itself, it’s amazing and I’m stunned and confused. What? Now it’s okay? Okay, good. So I think there is some naïveté that has to allow some of the startling things artists do.

LG: Off that thread, on your position relating to the culture, but also the shift in culture, can you speak a little bit about your relation to contemporary feminism?

CS: It’s been very startling. I always felt relatively isolated, alone with these images. I had to find a way to realize that suddenly the ’70s feminist principles began to address my underlying motives and issues, and before I knew it, my work became a bridge through which every younger feminist artist was crawling to what she had to make. Like firecrackers blowing up all around, it’s astonishing. I really have to step back and say that it’s all fine.

LG: Writing has always been an important element in your work, and it has taken many forms, from the texts that you wrote for Interior Scroll and Correspondents Course to the collections of your writings, Imaging Her Erotics. Would you talk about what texts you’ve read that have had an impact on your practice and your journey?

CS: I read a lot about male violence; that’s a continuing thread. I’m always trying to stabilize the privilege and the fortune of my own situation to be among women like yourselves who can have self-determination about gender experience, and at the same time [think about] the violence against women and the issue of rape. It’s collateral damage; it’s implicit in the hyper-masculine attitude of dominance. I’m always thinking about how we can penetrate that or destabilize that or just understand what would it be like if the culture did not support this. So the reading I do has a lot to do with the psychodynamics of trauma and warfare, the men that return from [those situations] and what becomes of them when they are confronted with domestic normalcy, with having to take care and be tender and raise families. Then I read art history; I still go back to classical works that are inspiring to me. I have to read some contemporary cultural theories so I can reject them properly.

KS: Artist books are one of my favorite things, and I wanted to ask you about what motivated you to produce them and what the process was like. I know you still have some available and you have yourself as a contact for some of them. Do you get a lot of inquiries from people wanting to get copies of them?

CS: No, I don’t want to be responsible for all the early work. What needs to happen is that some feminist saint comes along and reprints Cézanne, She Was A Great Painter. Those essays are still strong, but I don’t know how to get them out. They were self-published because I really wanted to communicate some of the research and investigation to other women and there was no formal way to do it, so I mimeographed and bound it. I took it to local bookstores in New York City, and they said, “No, it’s not a real book; we can’t sell this.” It’s just been such a struggle all along.

Carolee Schneemann Correspondence Course

Correspondence Course, 1980; self-shot silver prints mounted on silk-screened text; 32 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

LG: Will you talk about Correspondence Course (1980)?

CS: Correspondence Course is originally a self-shot photo sequence. It’s quite funny. I received a pile of very cranky, weird letters; all of them were a riot. One of them says, “I’m walking around nude in my house and my roommates won’t understand and I just saw Kitch’s Last Meal. If I could find someone to love me as much as you love that cat. I want to be your slave. My name is Susan.” They are all just absolutely wacky. And I thought, “If I have to answer them, I’ll never make work again, so I think I’ll make an image.” And I really had fun. It is a photo grid of images of the crazy letters and the images responding to them. And then that became the name for the compendium of letters that Kristine Stiles heroically determined to edit and worked on for ten years. I felt that it was too soon. I don’t feel close to that work. I recognize an aspect of myself that was writing all of this, but it’s like an undertow. I feel like I’m drowning when I hold that book.

LG: I noticed that it stops at 1990. Do you think there will be a second volume at some point? 

CS: I don’t know if there will be another volume, but I’m writing all the time, and some of the letters I feel good about. They’re strong letters responding to serious inquiries or friends, but of course, they are very inefficient because everything goes into computer, then I have to print them out and file them as hard copies.

KS: Could you speak about what you think now, in the contemporary art landscape, about the body as an arbiter of meeting and a representation?

CS: I think I’m happy to let everybody else work with that now. I really want to regain my sense of isolation and privacy, in the way you can concentrate as a painter, alone, in a space. I feel that when I’m editing video, I can concentrate. I’m not thinking about, well, it’s hard to say; what I am thinking about? I’m thinking about aspects of cultural issues, but I’m kind of discovering them in my own psyche, in some kind of regard, or some kind of battle, or embellishment with what’s happening in the culture. I’m not addressing the thematics that have come out of my work. I don’t know where the body is, but I hope that everyone can do what they need with it, even if it’s a head floating on a plate.

KS: Certainly a lot of people are working on that subject matter.

CS: It’s a very enriched, transgendered, echoed body; it’s good.

KS: In a lot of your performance work from the ’60s, even the performances that you did in response to the Vietnam War, such as Snows (1967), you were the main subject. But in Meat Joy (1964), you incorporated other performers, and bystanders almost took part. Who were all those performers in the video?

Carolee Schneeman Meat Joy

Meat Joy, 1964 (still); group performance, Judson Church, New York; raw fish, chickens, sausages, wet paint, plastic, rope; shredded scrap paper. First performed as part of the First Festival of Free Expression at the American Center in Paris, and later at Judson Memorial Church. Courtesy of the Artist.

CS: In Paris, bystanders crawled in. It’s a very concentrated, intense group set of rehearsed and improvised parameters. So when somebody crawled in, that was a nightmare; we had to drag that person out because the rhythms between us in Meat Joy are highly sensitized…

KS: Choreographed, I imagine. 

CS: Choreographed and then broken apart. The fish, the chicken, and the sausage had never been used as real elements until the actual performance event. And the same with Snows; we calibrated the electronics systems for projection and sound. There are cues being changed by the microphones under the audience’s seats. I’m always looking for something to divert any sense of what’s repeated, of what’s perfected, of what’s predictable.

KS: What is the most important truth you have discovered as a multidisciplinary artist and educator?

CS: I think it’s to have a psychic-sensitive cat that sleeps with you every night.

KS: How many cats do you have now?

CS: Just one. My other wild-good cat died of cancer because I didn’t raise him. He was a feral stray, so he didn’t have the best nutrition.

LG: Is there anything we haven’t asked that you want to tell us or you want to cover or you want to broadcast?

CS: I love the interview with the Danish woman. It’s over the phone, and she keeps saying, “How much did that hurt?” And I tell her it didn’t hurt, and she keeps going, “Yes, but the pain, the pain.” I don’t do ordeal work. I might do endurance work, but I don’t hurt myself. She said, “No, but it must hurt.” And I said “No, you put oil and cream on the paper and it doesn’t hurt.” And she said, “But the squirrel, the interior squirrel.” She was anticipating claws, so I love that event. 

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Carolee Schneemann’s work has been exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; the Museum of Modern Art; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and the New Museum of Contemporary Art; among many other institutions. Her writing is published widely, including in Correspondence Course: An Epistolary History of Carolee Schneemann and Her Circle (ed. Kristine Stiles, Duke University Press, 2010) and Imaging Her Erotics: Essays, Interviews, Projects (MIT Press, 2002). She has taught at New York University, California Institute of the Arts, Bard College, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Schneemann is the recipient of a 1999 Art Pace International Artist Residency, San Antonio, Texas; two Pollock-Krasner Foundation grants (1997, 1998); a 1993 Guggenheim Fellowship; and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

The retrospective of her work, Carolee Schneemann: Within and Beyond the Premises, is on view at the Henry Art Gallery, in Seattle, through December 30, 2011

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