Rigorous Ecstasy—Language & Performance, Part I

Women in Performance

Rigorous Ecstasy—Language & Performance, Part I

By Jarrett Earnest September 15, 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.

Carolee Schneemann in conversation with Jarrett Earnest

To inaugurate Art Practical's new series of Women in Performance interviews, Jarrett Earnest met with one of the visionary originators of performance art: Carolee Schneemann. Impelled by painting, Schneemann has plumbed the history of images, embodiment, and language since the 1950s, creating pioneering performances, films, installations, sculptures, and drawings. This two-part interview focuses on her relationship with writing, drawing, teaching, and the evolving nature of performance today.


Jarrett Earnest: One thing that has been important for the deeper understanding of your work has been the publication of your letters and writing. When did you start writing, and how do you see it in relation to your visual art?

Carolee Schneemann: I wish I could grasp the writing. When I write, I cannot remember what I wrote. Writing is so difficult; it's like a terrible kind of sculpture. But I was writing from the time I was a kid. I had Bruderhof neighbors who had a little printing press, and one year for Christmas, they printed a book of my poems—probably about cats, water, and birds. I was nine or ten. In school I was always writing; when I had a good teacher, they were respectful of it.

JE: The great thing about the publication of your letters is that it shows how important fiery missives are as part of your work: “This is not how you talk about my work. That is not what I was doing.” You are allowing people to have their own ideas; you are just insisting that they properly understand what's actually going on. That means getting the words right.

Carolee Schneemann. Correspondence Course (triptych), 1980/1983, self-shot silver prints mounted on silk-screened text; 30 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and PPOW Gallery, New York. © Carolee Schneemann.

CS: It is especially difficult the more these enclosing terminologies establish themselves as irrefutable. You can't even talk about what you do unless you go through this nightmare of linguistic intervention. I'm doing a lot of writing now about these deformations of language—for instance, references to studio process as “practice.” I wrote an enraged letter once saying: “Dentists have to practice. Ballerinas practice. Visionary artists do not practice! We enable. We enact. We realize.” Also, we do not have 'careers.' What language-devils have evolved to substitute “unpacking” for “research”? I have a whole list of hateful language problems. I received a beautiful but bewildering essay this week from an English graduate student comparing Woolf's The Waves and my Fuses (1965). It kept referring to the “film plate.” What? The sausage and eggs on a plate? It uses this expression over and over. I didn't know what it was, so I wrote to her: “You are in the same coven—the moldering den of academics—destroying our ability to think straight with these deformed expressions!” I was very harsh, and she wrote back and said: “I'm only 22, and I'm at Oxford, and I don't have anyone with imagination here, but I believe I'm a good thinker.” Bless her heart! She's a very good thinker, and I can't wait to meet her.

JE: Your writing in More than Meat Joy (1979) is really powerful and captures what you were thinking about, charting references unrelated to how your work has been discussed art-historically. For instance, there are threads coming out of Wilhelm Reich that have been obliterated from discussion.

CS: Well, he's been historicized out of the discussion by tampering with his theories, by reducing them to some clichéd aspect of his concerns.

JE: What was interesting to you about Reich?

CS: The late 1950s and early 1960s was a time of profound erotic suppression—I've written about that ad nauseam—and here was this brave, challenging, remarkable psychoanalytic delving into the forms of suppression that related to governance, to militarism, to patriarchy. Certainly, political oppression had a crazy sexualized slant to it then; you felt it in the culture wherever you went, and if you weren't part of it, you were threatening to it. Jim Tenney and I would go into a diner and guys would look at him and threaten him with a knife because we looked like beatniks. The country was so polarized that they set our modest little co-op in Illinois on fire. It was just a building where we gathered grains and husks of corn and brought in our vegetables, but because it was "against America," it was destroyed. This was even before it became commercially conventionalized to worship synthetic foods.

Carolee Schneemann. Meat Joy, 1964 (still); 16mm film of a 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 and PPOW Gallery, New York. © Carolee Schneemann.

JE: I've talked with our mutual friend Peter Lamborn Wilson about the shifting legacy of what was once called “sexual liberation.” Sexuality has been totally instrumentalized by advanced capitalism. How do you see the potential of the erotic as having changed?

CS: Sex has become a consumer item, along with everything else. Reich is impenetrable right now; there is no way to use his real knowledge and wisdom because we have no structure for resistance. Personally, internally, some of us still do, but we don't have a community anymore. At least in our recent histories we belonged to a marginal and despised but very active and influential community. It was a community that involved race, gender, gay principles—just about everything that had been denied and ignored that was part of human experience and which the theories of Reich could put forward. Gay liberation was stupendous, but look where it is now. It is a joke on HBO.

JE: Is that the problem with re-performing pieces from the mid-’60s now…the transgressive potential—that vital content—is completely missing? What do you think the drive to “re-perform” is about?

CS: It is like poison gas has settled over risk, uncertainty, and imagination. It's now often about predetermination. It's about glamour. It's about situating yourself safely toward renown and rewards, which we never considered previously. The culture has absorbed everything we can think of without radicalizing it. It is all floating around in this morass of permissions, and part of the permission is to imitate and regurgitate.

JE: When did you first become aware of that process?

CS: I'm still rocking in that boat. Once the ’80s happened, we knew we were in deep shit. All the ’60s people were saying “This is going backwards faster than a snake on its tail,” and it's not releasing. By the ’90s, it was gone: The wars were synthetic; the militarism was self-enclosed; sexuality was a continuous bedroom joke; and our processes of the ’60s had become heroicized and glamorized. Just when we thought we were getting away from the great hero mythology, it was back again in full force, only with lots of feminism growling and chewing beside it. Women weren't invisible anymore—we're still here, yes—every gallery had to have a “bad cunt” in the ’90s, but just one. And the major dominant aesthetic forces were idealized: He's young, he's strong, he's handsome, he's doing something unique—we'll buy that! The homoerotic projection.

JE: In feminism, or with gay rights, it seems a lot of people struggling to envision new ways of being in fact settled for a certain kind of visibility within the preexisting structures. Instead of dismantling the institution of marriage—as should be done—gay activists are just trying to make it accommodate them. However, all your research and lectures seem to envision new institutions. How did you get the idea to do Naked Action Lecture (1968)?

Carolee Schneemann. Fuses, 1966 (still); color 16 mm film, silent; TRT 29:51 min. Courtesy of the Artist and PPOW Gallery, New York. © Carolee Schneemann.

CS: It probably came out of Fuses (1965) and the reactions and resistances to what Fuses was really about. It also came out of how I had been taught: The inanities that were acceptable in teaching for maintaining the position of the “hapless girl student” who could never amount to anything as an artist, but who could be the life model. Which I did to help pay my tuition. Naked Action Lecture also had a lot to do with the overalls I had worn when I was farming in Vermont; they were another misappropriation in what could represent an art ’istorian1. An art ’istorian naked in her overalls, who was actually a visual artist lecturing on Cézanne—that seemed delightful. I was carrying oranges in my pockets to throw to the audience. I was fed up with the whole structure. The angrier I am about a social situation, the more I have to creep up on it, and, if possible, to be as funny as I can be. Then it’s disarming and it opens up another way of thinking.

JE: Thinking of your artist book Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter (1974), how did Cézanne become important to you?

CS: Cézanne began for me as confusion about the name. I thought it could be a girl's name: “Cez-Annie.” I was twelve or thirteen. I couldn't find any other women, and the paintings looked very odd with their elongated bodies. I thought, "Maybe that’s how a woman would paint," because there is always a problem if a woman wants to paint. Much later, when my teachers weren't being utterly discouraging, they were always directing me to expressionists like Oskar Kokoschka. I said: "No, no, no—I need something really structured and formally tough," and that is Cézanne for me. I studied the broken line, the distribution of plane, the fragment and fracture and reintegration into the landscape. I needed his architectural toughness. Later, when I found his early Expressionist work, I loved it so much. I came to the stampedes of paint exploding after I already committed to the rigorous aspects of Cézanne. I would say that is where I first wanted to break through the surface, to increase the dimensionality of paint and surface, and where I began to understand what painting is really going to demand of me. I consider that you’re born an artist—a painter—but you don't know what that is for a very long time. When you are growing up, you aren't ready to know, because the truth is it is very, very difficult. Oil painting is still the most intoxicating feeling to me, more than any drug I've ever had.

Carolee Schneemann. Cézanne, She was A Great Painter, 1974 (cover); artist book. Courtesy of Kate Millett Papers at Duke University Libraries, Durham, NC.

JE: Did you ever have a good teacher?

CS: Finally, after I got kicked out of Bard. They couldn't eliminate my scholarship, so it was extended to the New School, where I studied with Heinrich Blücher and Hannah Arendt.

JE: Blücher was supposed to have been an incredible teacher.

CS: He was my main teacher, and he was amazing. It’s hard to describe because he didn't write; it was all spoken and thought and intoxicating. I would come out of that class with my friend Mona, and we slid down the three flights of stairs because it was so wonderful. Well, actually after Bard, I was also at Columbia, where I could just take life drawing for six hours a day, which is what I wanted. I was always drawing, learning to see, but now I was drawing with someone behind me—a wonderful teacher named Andre Racz—saying: “Do it, do it, keep at it!”

JE: I spend a lot of time trying to think about a school that would actually be good, because most art schools are not. What do you think is the best way to teach artists?

CS: Beginning drawing, beginning drawing, beginning drawing. After that, beginning drawing again—drawing from life.

JE: I think of drawing as a process of connecting your eye to your hand to the world.

CS: Drawing is how to see, how to enter the world of form and space. It's not an obvious process. It is not about simply translating something you see through your hand to paper. It is about being permeated with the consequence of dimensionality that surrounds you. When I teach drawing, my students fall off their chairs at some point, they fall into space. But that doesn't happen right away, that's more advanced drawing! The perceiving is going into and through you, it’s not as if you're doing it; that's the difference. It's a subtle process, subtle the way some kinds of psychoanalytic processes are. You can turn something completely inside out for a person and allow them to go there with their own rhythm and steps, with a dynamic they've never trusted themselves to use before. I love that, it’s very quickening for me.

JE: What kind of assignments do you give?

CS: Mostly they start off conventionally and then it’s important to constantly change. So if I bring in a vase with flowers one week, then the next week they might be blindfolded and given very big sticks with fuzzy bottoms and start moving around the room making gestural energy fictions. It depends on the class. I had a Marine at UT Austin—so uptight, everything he drew looked like it was in a cage. He was so tense. Because of him, I asked everyone in the class to make a very frightening, horrible kind of container that they could imagine something despicable inside of. “What would it look like?” That gave them a whole new range of materials to think of as a way of drawing and of dimensionality. He made a box out of barbed wire and tar; it was so scary. He couldn't say what was in it, but the essence of it was demonic and militaristic and full of everything that had tried to kill his spirit. He ended up being blindfolded on the floor with lots of watercolors and Mozart pumped into his earphones. I had to get him to an ecstatic place, but if you bring that in too soon it creates a panic. You can't just go there, you have to creep up on these things. If you can creep up on these things both together within the group and individually, it can become so enlivening it's inspiring.

I've had serious psychological upsets in the drawing class, but usually they can be worked through, especially if gender issues come into the depiction of the body. That is where I lost one of my really good students because he was gay and in denial, from a Baptist family. He experienced so much trauma trying to draw the figure, when he tried to depict certain physical forms, he just lost it. I couldn't help at that time because he put himself into a clinic.

JE: Is your sense one in which no matter what medium an artist works, drawing is the common language? Would you recommend someone who wanted to make films or performance also draw?

CS: It’s not a prescription necessarily, but according to how I work, I'd say absolutely. If drawing is performative, then you have an enlarged dimension for space and action and aspects of musicality and duration. But that is because I need everything to come from painting. And I don't want my students to be so crunched by theory that before they even show what they've made, they have these contentious descriptions of “the hierarchal imperatives” from which they finally set a snow castle on fire.

JE: One thing that Peter Lamborn Wilson said to me is that the aim of the artist should be the liberation of the person they are communicating with. What do you think the role of the artist is?

CS: That is paralysis for me. I'm not thinking about the audience or the people I aim to communicate with, they're almost invisible. My motive is always to see something more clearly for myself, not for who is going to get it, because I've been shit on for everything from the beginning. I Initialswas told, “You can't do this or that; you're wasting our time.” I am still amazed when there are thoughtful appreciations, as there have always been and are increasingly.

JE: Peter was relating it to Giordano Bruno's image magic, and the way it can be used to bind people, like in advertising and propaganda. Fine art also works that way, but the goal should be liberation, not enslavement. I think your word for liberation is ecstasy.

CS: Ecstasy or fury— but it has to be rigorous. It has to be tough. It has to be hard to do. It has to be a problem, a set of formal challenges: “How should it look?” or “How should it move?” or “How should it read in someone else's perception?”, although I'm not trying to predict or control that. It’s very hard work to get to my ecstatic vision of something; Fuses was arduously editing frame by frame by frame. The ecstatic aspect has to be explored through the rhythms, intercuts, and saturation of color, so that I'm immersed.

Carolee Schneemann. Flange 6rpm, 2011-13; installation view; foundry poured aluminum sculptures, motors 6 rpm each unit; 7 units, 9 x 20 x 3 ft. Courtesy of the Art Matters Foundation. Photo: Susan Alzne.

JE: Your recent installation Flange 6rpm (2011–2013) seems to be a tongue-like form, but also a flame-like limb. How did you develop that shape?

CS: I was walking on Seventh Ave last spring when I saw something like a limb, but not a limb—it could have been a frond or a vulvic sensation, which is where so much of my work originates. I spent several weeks asking my friends if they've seen anybody's sculpture made up of this kind of unit, multiplied and varied? They said “No, it's probably your idea.” I often check; for Video Rocks (1987–88), for example, I was unsure I hadn't seen an infinity of handmade cow-poop-like rocks somewhere before. I was teaching then in Los Angeles, and I went around to all the galleries to make sure they didn't have any work like that; they didn't. With Flange 6rpm, I wanted to work with the lost wax process because I could individuate every unit and then burn it up. Through the process I saw the dimension I needed: It had to be substantial in its permutation and illustrative of its own principles; it had to be complex. Certainly, there is a vast oral vocabulary of visual effects of the mouth-to-mouth as interior body surface. Vulvic sensation is constant in my imagery.

JE: You talk about having envisioned it, then checking to see if it had come from somewhere out in the world. What does that say about how ideas come to you? How does a piece come into your consciousness?

CS: Take Vulva's Morphia (1995), where I'm researching and collecting the disturbances and disruptions regarding female sexuality. That is ongoing research that starts, I don't know, maybe with my childhood drawings of cats. Vulva's Morphia is photos and text in a continuous morphology, a very enriching morphology because it’s angry and fierce and funny—it can do all these things at once. But the “Angry Man” instigated the development of Vulva's Morphia by appearing in a dream. He always sounds very aggrieved, he's never pleasant; I can never invite him, he just shows up. He said: “You have that pile of research up there and all those photographs with it—you'll never be a proper artist again! Why don't you let Vulva do the talking?” When I woke, I ran upstairs with a pen and paper and showed “Vulva” the pile on Lacan, the pile on the Pope, on the Abstract Expressionists, all these different conflations and resistances, and I received one sentence for each pile! Then I could compose the visual grid with the “sentences.”

I had a dream for Mortal Coils (1994–1995) where the Angry Man appears and says: "You're not realizing this work, you're stuck, nothing is happening here." Then he showed me these three-quarter-inch ropes, said "Motorize the ropes at 6rpm,” and disappeared. I was having so much trouble with the individuations in Mortal Coils; Hannah Wilke appeared in a dream and said: “Don't you dare put my image next to Paul Sharits!” I was getting all these bossy people from beyond—the dead bosses.

JE: When was your first encounter with a dead boss?

CS: That would go so far back. Probably some child event. But I only have the one dead boss—the Angry Man—aside from friends protesting about my organizing images with them in it. He appeared for this home in 1965, he gave instructions to properly understand that this was a stone house and that there were chestnut floors. He was working with Jim Tenney and me when we were first here in the house. He told Jim to go outside and smash the cement that covered the walls, that the cement would fall down and that we would see a piece of golden stone.

JE: The Angry Man is not necessarily a negative force?

CS: Oh, no, he's terrific! He's positive, but he's not friendly. I don't know where he comes from. Psychoanalysis reminds us that everything you dream is connected to some lived experience in your unconscious, but I don't know who this man is, and he knows things that I couldn't possibly know, like the specific wood that was beneath the linoleum in the house.

JE: What was your process of trusting those kinds of visions?

CS: I welcome them. I always want to be as permeable as possible and for them to be able to approach me.

Carolee Schneemann. Infinity Kisses II, 1990–1998. Ilfachrome prints, each: 40 x 60 in. Gift of Marc Routh by arrangement with the Remy-Toledo Gallery; courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.  © Carolee Schneemann

JE: For Vulva's Morphia and the other iconological research that you've done, I wonder about the representation of other erogenous zones, like the oral—all your work that relates to mouths and kisses. How do you see those relating to each other as types of images?

CS: The main transposition has been to visualize what I can feel intensely, that doesn't have literal description or ideation. “How do you describe what a kiss feels like?” It’s impossible. So I had to collect hundreds of them to begin to satisfy my own sense of an appropriate sensory representation. For Infinity Kisses (1981–1988), in which people see strange things—that the cat is aggressive, that the kiss will be hurtful—I cannot shift all these weird projections that are already embedded and cannot be transduced. That takes us into the realms of the determinations of censorship: They cannot be dislodged directly, maybe accumulatively over time. As the regard for my work deepens and allows itself to become more sensualized, my meanings are released.


  1. "Art 'istorian" was Carolee Schneemann's preferred feminist term for what is commonly called an "art historian" and it appears frequently in her writings of the '70s. See Correspondence Course and More than Meat Joy.

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