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Carolee Schneemann: game changer

The iconic performance artist who refuses to trade on trodden ground is still tackling art world prejudices in her fifth decade in the game

Writhing bodies, paint, fish, chickens, pulling a scroll from her vagina – it is these flags that unfurl with the name ‘Carolee Schneemann’. Without doubt one of the most iconic figures in 60s performance art and the feminist art movement, Schneeman changed the game, specifically what it meant to be and work as a woman in the male-dominated art game. Her work is the cornerstone of a whole generation's thinking about art. Scheeman made it OK to look inward and not apologise for it, to use sex and the body as medium; to think through bodies and yet not have to pander to the pornographic or ‘pop’. Her work encouraged women to make art on their own terms, according to their bodies and their selves, whilst being resolutely allowed to call it art and be confirmed as artists. Carolee Schneemann, Suzanne Lacy, Judy Chicago, Martha Rosler, Karen Finlay and even Tracy Emin. These were names I learnt when I was 16 and at school, leafing through as many library books on feminist art and performance as possible. The idea that the personal could be political changed everything I sought out thereafter.

I can’t help but gush, it is a kind of starstruck I rarely get. Schneemann is calm and collected, succinct and sharp in her answers. I recognise her tone from the voiceover script for Meat Joy. I ask her about her legacy and she responds, "I am very blessed that my work has sustained itself over time and that’s amazing because when you start making something you have no idea where it will go, or how it might live". But as I press deeper, I realise that for her my enthusiasm and gratitude is (whilst flattering) altogether repetitive. She has spoken about Meat Joy a thousand times, and still journalists ask her only about this. "I’ve been working with installations and video technologies for about thirty years and there’s a huge body of work that no one knows about because they keep going back to a piece of nakedness in the '70s".  She is right, of course, I want to know about Meat Joy, about her views on feminism, about her private life and relationships. She wants to talk about her current work, as any artist who has continued to create (but keeps getting Groundhog-dayed into going over a work they left behind over 50 years ago) might well do. She is smart. She doesn't want to trade on trodden ground, but instead works to break new paths for herself. I ask her how she has negotiated the art world and she responds, "I don’t negotiate, I don’t have a 'practice', I don’t have a career, I am – I work". 

It's been 50 years since Schneemann rehearsed, choreographed and performed Meat Joy with a group of young performers. It was staged several times but most documented in its November 1964 incarnation at the Judson Church in New York. What people remember is the bodies rubbing chickens and fish on themselves. What they miss are the details. During the long introduction Schneemann reads aloud, then pop music comes in, and the bodies perform a variety of formations according to instructions, at some points like synchronised swimming out of water, but more organic; more ecstatic and sexual. It is this energy, or ecstasy, (she uses this term a lot), that characterise the performances and films that have cemented her status as a guiding light in performance art by women.

My talk with her has, in the lead up, produced a little too much anxiety for it to go particularly well. I ask her about anxiety – the anxieties of life, love, making art, and of balancing being an artist and making confrontational and brave work. "I didn’t work with a lot of anxiety, I worked with a lot of ecstatic energy – to try this, what would  this be like, how can I make this happen? I wasn’t surrounded by academic discipline, I had been already rejected and denigrated by them [academics]. So I didn’t have anxiety because I wasn’t working within a field of denial – I had always said ‘fuck you’ to them'." What, no anxiety? No crippling shudder beneath the solar plexus before you put something out into the world in case it offends someone or makes you look stupid? But then I remember at the core of the works is this energy she speaks of. It is not what I know it as – the later theory and academic papers, that situate her oeuvre in the context of feminist performance of the '60s and '70s in California and New York. Now that art school tutors have seen it a million times, it is hard to make any kind of performance work involving the naked female body and not address or reference it, whereas for Schneemann there was no history for it, at least not a direct one. When I refer to Meat Joy in the context of her ‘practice’, she explains "I come from a time frame that would not position 'practice' as a concept displacing work as 'process'. Golf was practiced, dentists have a practice, yoga was a practice. My aesthetic tradition embraces a visionary process where creative work was risky, unfolding, unpredictable and not academicised at all. It was a very different world, we didn’t have a predictable conceptual surround. I've been engaged with physiological momentum, structuring images in space and time. The remarkable precedence influencing me had to do with the painters who evolved their forms of 'happenings' – visual events in actual time. Oldenburg and Dine and Whitman...". 

Her making is bound to the time, to a backdrop of Kaprow, Fluxus, Yoko Ono, painting and structuralist cinema and the surge of second wave feminism. But that does not mean that it is the sum of its parts. To do that would be to deny, somehow, her essence. She explains, "It’s odd because the masculine dynamic of performance – what will become performance art – does not delimit them. They’re never called performance artists, they are media artists and they can return to sculpture and painting and reliable hand-work; whereas for women if you’ve used your body you’re identified with the performative label…the feminisation of performance occurs because as a public event, the body is in explicit action and so it may still connect to traditions of male arousal, male fascination with the female body. Even as we radicalized and disrupted those traditions." Whilst Schneemann should really be canonised in context she finds herself, in my consciousness, filed firmly under feminism.

Our conversation over Skype is broken by interference. I joke that the NSA is listening in and imagine for a moment that it's not altogether inconceivable. Schneemann was radical, confrontational, threatening even, 'in her day'. This is what she talks about when she discusses her greatest achievement as being able "to persist as an artist in the face of constant denigration". The first time she says this, and later in an email, I wonder how denigrated she can possibly have been. As far as I am concerned she is an artist that has changed art history. She has empowered and informed artists who identify as women to make the work that they make, to value performance and confrontation, to use their bodies rather than create an artificial objectivity. Where in the '70s she was addressing a room full of women in Interior Scroll and making a statement about being denigrated as a women, now it is agism that she faces. "First I had to get through pure misogyny as a student when I was told I could paint but it wouldn’t mean anything, and then what? Then I had to get through essentialism: when in 1962 I used my body as part of my material and medium that was essentialist! And then, by the time I’m in the 70s, I’m lacking proper Marxist address, then there’s the dilemma of 'feminism as masquerade' – I never entered that discourse which was followed by feminism as 'abject'. It just goes on and on and you have to squirm your way through. And now of course there’s ageism."

Interior Scroll remains her most direct and my favourite work of hers. It's impossible not to love, humour with a simmering pissed-off-ness. In the piece she announces that she will read from her (eventually published in 1976 book) Cezanne, She Was A Great Painter but then jettisons the sheet, keeping an apron and paints streaks of paint on herself, holding the book in one hand, whilst transitioning between life model/action poses. Finally removing her last garment and becoming completely naked, she slowly removes a scroll from her vagina and reads from it a conversation, seemingly with ‘a structuralist film-maker’. She outlines the dichotomy between the figure of woman as bodily, intuitive, natural, irrational, against the academic position of the male figure – rational, ordered, to be taken seriously in their objective coldness (I paraphrase). The dualogue is taken from Kitch’s Last Meal, a super 8 film she started in 1973. The piece has often been considered as an address to 'a male artist', the structuralists who demeaned her, or to her lover Anthony McCall perhaps. Later she suggests it was aimed at American critic and art historian Annette Michelson. It shouldn’t matter; the point is made to those who hear it.

“I wouldn’t want to be labelled unless it was something much broader and inclusive such as an ecological artist or a visionary artist, but there’s a constraint in the definition of a feminist artist, you’re an artist and you’re a feminist.” – Carolee Schneemann

The audio connection that unites us occasionally drones, sounding like a plane taking off, she says all she can hear at her house are birds. Then a siren sounds on the high street outside my house, she asks where I live and reflects "I lived in London once too". This was with Anthony McCall. She explains that she is speaking to me from the house where she made Fuses with her 1965 boyfriend, composer James Tenney. Her relationships have been mutually respectful and harmonious in terms of her work, though she does note that "after a certain amount of time I would find that the partners that I felt I had a perfect life with would need to separate and usually have a baby and a more conventional relationship". For Fuses she filmed herself and Tenney having sex – intimate, loving, erotic sex, observed by Kitch, the cat. I remember seeing  Fuses for the first time at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. It was screened alongside a programme of Structuralist film (not just feminist cinema) where Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon also appeared. I remember feeling awed.

The materiality of Fuses struck me in that context; painterly gestures and marks etched into the silver gelatine of the 16mm. Each frame marked with the tactility of her touch, fingertips to film, places the work between structuralism, painting, materialist filmmaking and as far as possible from pornography. She recollects, ''Of course it builds on all my disciplines as a painter which had to do with rhythm, duration, colour saturation, within the energy of the frame and then breaking the frame. The relationship to inheriting art history with hundreds of precedents within time's passage, and holding energy and individuality, that’s how I think about what I do with my work". To watch the film is to experience a beautifully sensual atmosphere of flecks, marks, glimpses and headiness. What might have appeared as like an amateur sex tape, it is an exploration of female sexual pleasure, the denial of objectification and scopophilia in favour of erotic address. In the '60s this was radical: Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique had come out only two years before, and second wave feminism was bubbling under the surface. Schneemann’s rationale for making the work resonates as clearly now as it did then, "film gave me permission to examine lived experience. For me that was nothing do with narcissism. It had to do with a counter-force to the denial of female sexuality, of female pleasure and I didn’t know what I could capture but I needed to look at what I lived, and not what male culture had described as my experience'. We might think our contemporary reality is past that;  female sexual pleasure abounds. We are all having Sex in the City, or we are all 'girls', but still Schneemann’s work looks beyond this, with the intention to challenge feeling based on representation.

Schneemann maintains a distance from this. She suggests she was just 'making work', asserting, "I wouldn’t want to be labelled a Catholic artist or a Marxist artist unless it was something much broader and inclusive such as an ecological artist or a visionary artist, but there’s a constraint in the definition of a feminist artist, you’re an artist and you’re a feminist". When discussing whether feminism is still relevant she brings up some other women who have acted as signposts for me and countless others, "you have to look at de Beauvoir, you have to look at Virginia Woolf, you have to look at the pioneering creative and theoretical players that make our consciousness viable and in motion today, and we’re still rather crippled if we have to ask these questions." And this is something that, in feminist groups or meetings of artists who define as women, comes up often. To ally with the feminist term and cause, openly? To make 'feminist work' or to make work as a feminist, but be clear and firm in the desire to be labelled only an artist and therefore asked to be appreciated on those terms. Can artists who are women make confrontational work that includes addresses to, and furthers the language of, the body or does not shy away from the subjectivity behind it without being reductive or allowing the work to be sidelined away from the official 'art world'? "Obviously since so many women find it fruitful and demanding and provocative, it is still responding to cultural conventions that have been constrained and marginalised by hierarchies of the heroic male work". There is no shortage of artists who are women that want to be assessed purely on merit, but this is not a meritocracy.  

With feminism having a visible resurgence in journalism and mainstream media over the past year, the figure of the feminist is much debated and I ask Schneemann what she thinks of it in the current climate. "There’s a video that went viral of a young woman...she addresses the camera and says 'I don’t know why I’m doing this but I need to do this – I’m going to eat my tampon', and she does chew on it. So I had journalists from London who called me thinking I would find this the outer edge, or horrible, but I was very touched by it. I thought it was another degree of intimacy with your own life processes, and the one that’s been most deeply feared and downgraded. But her presentation was so simple and uninflected, it was a very humble exploration of a deeply forbidden intimacy...it must have gone through many different phases of receptivity – mostly outrage." For Schneemann, as with most artists, it is the work, her work, that commands attention. Whereas in the '60s, Meat Joy and Interior Scroll grabbed the art world by the balls and made them take notice. She was making work with respect to her condition as an artist. She did not set out to make 'feminist work', she simply made, and continues to make today, kinetic and media works. When teaching Schneeman doesn't have her students predetermine their material and subject, "They don’t explain what they have to do for me, they have to discover it. I offer them time, materials and something vigorous where they have to really address culture that gives them substance". For me, and the thousands of other art students looking for inspiration, her groundbreaking performances will always act as flares in the dark.