(CURA.#23) Vincent Honoré in conversation with Carolee Schneemann

Vincent Honoré At the beginning of your career, you mainly worked with collages and paintings. You then shifted to time-based media such as live events, films, sequences of photographs. When did you stage your first live event?

Carolee Schneemann It was probably an installation while I was in college. In June 1960, in Sydney, Illinois, this little town where James Tenney, my partner and I lived while we were in college. A tornado came through and knocked over some trees. I made a set of cards with physical actions for friends and students to come into the altered landscape and to physically re-experience it: by climbing, crawling, getting wet, and exploring the disruptions. That was called Labyrinths.

VH: What was the context that prompted you to move from paintings, collages and sculptures to live events?

CS: Well, essentially I was a landscape painter, so I was responding to my intentions being altered by the weather, rain, wind, and by seasonal changes. I’m very interested in having these unexpected improvisatory shifts come into my work. Then when I first came to NYC there was the possibility to work with a group of artists that went on to become the Judson Dance Theatre. I wanted to translate a series of action drawings into live actions. So I had cards and proposed the live actions to the group of dancers. I discovered that I had to translate them, I had to enact them. If I told somebody to jump off a ladder with buckets of paint and to scatter that paint across the space they were worried about their ankles… they had many anxieties, so in terms of a muscular generation, I felt that I could do that and demonstrate it and that’s how I became involved physically in my work.

VH: You collaborated with artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg.

CS: No, I didn’t collaborate, I was just a kid who came in and they told me to do stuff. But working in Store Days with Oldenburg was definitely transformative. That was fabulous because I could live in somebody else’s vision and see how intense immateriality was, and that was where my energies were going to be focused.

VH: Why was live-art and performance so important at that time?

CS: Well, it was a very un-self-conscious time, we weren’t given a cultural definition. We were more like little animals, running around seeing what each other would put into live invention. I called it “painters’ arena,” and the origins of what became performance art were these intense visual enactments starting with painters. It was all coming from Oldenburg, from Kaprow, from Dine, from Whitman, and Red Grooms. And certainly whatever Yoko [Ono] had already done was in that margin, apart from the men. So all the work by women for many years was like a subset, it didn’t have the authority, it didn’t have the potentiality of what the men could imagine or assume.

VH: Back to your work, you said that “environments, happenings, concretions are an extension of my painting constrictions, which often have motorization.” Can you elaborate about the live event being the extension of the paintings?

CS: Some of my early paintings had motors or were on wheels: the work was always involved with an aspect of motility, of momentum. In some sense it had an inheritance from the Futurists. For me to put actual moving parts or actual machinery into the painting construction seemed like a logical next step. Also it was something that the New York male artists were not doing, I felt I had an open territory there.

VH: I’d like to talk about improvisation versus scenography and how you conceive the role of the score and the role of chance in the elaboration of a work.

CS: There’s always a score within the score. Chromelodeon, Meat Joy, Water Light/Water Needle have a score which is a template within which certain parameters can be discovered through an improvisation. But I have to have a very clear structure, so these improvisations are not chaotic. They are highly sensitized and highly focused in terms of a time shape, a time configuration, a movement configuration. And it all comes out of painting in the sense that the paint stroke is in itself an event. So when you make that mark, when you transform space, from my experience it’s about the energy of perception passing through the body into the mark-making. And then to have the body reincorporate the mark-making and become the gesture itself, so in a way the live body is taking the paintbrush into itself.

VH: You said as well “I want the dancers to reach for the extreme. The material I present requires break-through in intensity, in emotive location.” Can you tell us about your politics of the body? How do you treat bodies in the performances?

CS: One of the aspects for me as a painter is that you’re not thinking about the body, you’re thinking about space, you’re considering your motion. With my performative works you’re always looking to connection, of what’s around you, so it’s almost as if I’m putting them in the position of a landscape painter. You’re not a live dancer concerned with your position, with your posture, with where you’ve placed your feet or arms, it’s about an energy, about an action that will vitalize a space.

VH: Your work had been linked to Body Art or to Artaud and the sense of catharsis on stage. I could perhaps point to Georges Bataille with his sudden consumption of energy liberated through sex, art and death. Are these references or sources accurate?

CS: No, because they come out of a highly developed, masculine set of physicalized theories. I am actually influenced by the really sensuous, sensual theoreticians: Focillon, D’Arcy, Thomson, the biologists, the physiologists. Because once I enter the semiotic realm it’s a very disagreeable place for the female body as I live it. I’m not there, I’m struggling between phallocentric determinance and overtheorization.

VH: The flesh.

CS: The flesh, the blood, the guts, the flower, the leaf, the branch, the water… What can escape the theorization and still have demanding formal properties.

VH: Let’s speak about Meat Joy. What are the sources of the work and why was it first performed in Paris?

CS: Well, because Paris inspired it. I had never been to Europe and I had this fantasy of Paris as being a place that would evade the sensuous suppressions of my own culture. I had an idea that it was very eroticized, that the erotic life of the body was part of the culture in France despite the Catholic traditions. Jean-Jacques Lebel was presenting the first Festival of Free Expression and Erró, my wonderful collaborator and photographer, said “oh, you have to go!,” and I said “I don’t have any money, I can’t go, I don’t speak French.” So they raised a little money and got me a plane ticket on Icelandic Airlines. I arrive in Paris, I don’t speak French… I just remember being all alone in the airport weeping, like “how do I get out of here? Where do I go?” It all worked out of course, but it was one of those very important lessons in performative life where nothing works. It’s completely fucked up. They don’t meet you, the train isn’t on time, you don’t know where to sleep, you have no money…, hmm, yea, welcome.

VH: It was already a very intense moment arriving in Paris.

CS: I think it was more intense when I got to the hotel and got a bed. And of course immediately the life of Paris is affecting me, outside my window are the fish sellers and they start calling in the morning about the fish, “voilà! Poisson frais!” and it’s such an incredible music, so that’s going to be my music for this performance. Cheap, cheap fish, cheap sausages, cheap chickens, and since I had been a chicken farmer I was happy with this extended flesh material.

VH: One can briefly describe Meat Joy as a group of men and women performing choreographed actions to fragmented music and street vendor calls, covered in paint with scraps of paper, with different objects culminating with raw sausages, chicken and fish. The work is much more complex though and involves different elements and temporalities in different acts in which the meat somewhat plays only a small part. Each performer has a role with an attributed dress code… Could you explain the dramaturgy and how you worked on the rhythm that is so crucial to the work?

CS: Well, I think the initial structure has to do with practice and training in how we are touching, handling and moving, so that we become a very highly sensitized group together. Without being explicitly sexualized it’s a very sensuous set of rehearsals. We never touch actual fish, chicken or sausage until the final or actual performance, so it’s a shock. But it’s a shock that we’re prepared for in the sense of being interrelated and experiencing these extended materials as part of our bodies. When you get hit with a chicken you have to stay with it until you pass it on, you have to physicalize that connection. So all the rehearsals are with movement, touching, crawling, lifting, carrying and going through the normal taboos of how you smell, what you can touch, what you can handle, how you shift your weight. So a lot of the exercises start with knocking each other over, so who’s going to take the weight, how do you fall? Does a small woman feel threatened by a big man? She’s in the position where she has to knock him over. So we begin to practice and rely on a very accurate musculature, sensitivity, so nobody gets hurt. So there are then lots of kinds of risks we can take in falling, where you can make big noises and an impact and it’s part of something rhythmic within the sequence. So every sequence in Meat Joy involves these improvisations within given materials.

VH: The performers start as actors with a set, the table, some props, following a script which seems to borrow a lot from theatre. What is your relation to theatre?

CS: Oh, the happenings and Fluxus people we don’t like theatre, we hate it. We don’t want it. But we’re influenced by Artaud, Artaud is my great inspiration. Because of him I am free to use everything, but we are against the tradition of perfection, repetition, predictability, so whatever the relations to theatre are they are going to be disrupted. And that’s a principle. But you see the other thing that happens in theatre is it wants to become happenings. After a certain amount of time people from theatre wanted to do what we were doing.

VH: Is there a narrative to the work?

CS: Yes. It starts with the text, learning French, so it’s all these fragments. “Mona Lisa tu es belle,” it’s funny, it’s ironic, as part of popular culture while also displacing the context of popular culture. It’s the same with popular music, it’s in fragments, but you never get to follow the complete context but it’s part of your sound environment in the popular culture realm. It’s supposed to be a kind of ecstatic ritual. I described it as an ecstatic ritual to disrupt my suppressive culture… something like that. We were really kids, we didn’t know what was going to happen, we didn’t have a clue.

VH: So it was mainly a sort of improvisation in that sense…

CS: It’s an experiment and young crazy people encouraging each other. And Lebel made this situation; he found this space, he found a little budget.

VH: As the audience enters the recorded tape of Notes as Prologue begins, a collage of your voice reading the written notes formative to the performance, noises and other text extracts. Why did you want to verbally introduce the work before it starts as an action?

CS: Yes, I wanted to reveal aspects of the work so that the linearity was put into a dimensional dynamic. So the text was formative to my thinking and it has a poetics in its formulation. So it’s not really literalizing, it’s putting some aspect of the dream and the hallucination and the language that attracts into a form.

VH: What you described in a text as “an attempt to view paths between conscious and unconscious organization of image.”

CS: Yea! That enables me to go forward and forget because I’m working now with corpses from Syria so I’m in a different mind space.

VH: You said also that Meat Joy “has the character of an erotic rite, excessive indulgence, celebration of flesh as material, it’s propulsion towards the ecstatic.” Could you tell me more about the ritualistic character of the work?

CS: Well, it all comes out of my personal life. I wanted to find a formulation that had a really erotic energy, it wasn’t an intellectual task but it was a creative position that I wanted to experiment with, because it didn’t have a context, which was fine for me just as an experiment. You know, what encouraged my experiment was the Avant-garde in New York, including Cage, reading Artaud and the work of Beauvoir, and of course the sexual politics, so I was gathering these influences that enlarged my painterly frame of reference which was pretty much focused on Cézanne for years.

VH: You used painted performers, props, but also music, recorded sounds from the streets of Paris, a superimposed voice, a ticking clock, lighting was very important as well. You used a large and complex range of materials. The work is almost baroque in that respect, why did you feel the need to have all these materials?

CS: Yea, it’s like a mosaic. I guess also musically. I was hugely influenced by Bach. Whenever I go to work I have to listen to Bach, the Cantatas, the Passion, the Concerti, that’s an element of rhythm and structure. I’m also very influenced by my partner James Tenney who’s in the next little room practicing Charles Ives or Webern. The structures of fragmentation and editing as a process in time, those are aspects of my work and part of its complexity, it’s a mosaic.

VH: A very important and evident part of the work is the audience. How did you use this as a component of the work?

CS: I need them as close as possible. There’s, as you know, a very vibrant energy exchange. If they’re too close they’re interfering with the group, if they’re too far away they’re not giving us their presence. I was amazed in Paris, the response was incredible, I’d never had that kind of audience. They were so intense and so present, but also then there was the problem of the one man coming out of the audience and trying to strangle me, so that was overreacting (laughs).

VH: The work is now an iconic piece, currently shown in MoMA’s collection. A few years after it was created what is your relationship to it, how do you position it in your career?

CS: Well it’s amazing the world is interested in it. You know, I have this whole huge body of media work and all the images with my body have displaced my primary work. I mean, everyone is doing Interior Scroll endlessly, I don’t have anyone who is imitating my work on Vietnam, on the destruction of Palestinian culture, on 9/11. No one is supporting my work on investigation on the abysmal situation of Gaza, and now I’m concerned with these corpses from Syria and in the meanwhile my culture is either celebrating, saluting, or commercializing the body work. So in a way it cheats my motive but it sustains this aspect of what I made, so it’s complicated, and I don’t have anything to do with it. I’m happy to talk about it with you or to show it but I can’t formalize a position because I’m not in control. What I’m always hoping is that the more recent work and the more complex technological projection systems will have more of a presence.