Carolee Schneemann Interview

Carolee Schneemann has always been ahead of her time, pushing the boundaries of painting, film and performance.

Her groundbreaking work with the body paved the way for feminist art and has served as an inspiration to generations of artists from Paul McCarthy to Tracey Emin. Carolee Schneeman has defied definition or categorization and lives by her dictum “my work is where I live”. Carolee Schneemann is Carolee Schneemann.

On a recent Friday evening an eclectic crowd gathered in the basement of the Eli Ridgway Gallery in downtown San Francisco to celebrate the recently launched Millennium Film Journal No. 54: Focus on Carolee Schneemann. Guest edited by curator and writer Kenneth White to coincide with a redesign, this is the first time an issue has been devoted to a single artist.

There was a palpable air of excitement as we watched the films and listened to Carolee talk (a spritely 70 year old as formidable and active now as she has ever been). An excerpt from “Kitch’s Last Meal” (1973-76), an intimate, diaristic work seemed fresh, relevant and funny (Carolee informed us that Kitch died on Gertrude Stein’s birthday, February 6, 1976). Two other recent works, Devour (2003-2004), a dual-channel video and Precarious (2009), a documentation of a multi-channel DVD projection gave us an insight into her current explorations and concerns (see interview).

Time stood still as we were transported back to the 60’s and then forward to the recent past and then back to the present; the energy of the San Francisco, New York and London art scenes echoed around the crowded gallery space. In attendance were well known local poets, artists and gallerists alongside students, academics and visitors from as far afield as Norway. We were all ignited by Carolee’s presence, a historic feminist icon in our midst.

Earlier that afternoon I managed to catch up with Carolee at her hotel during a break from her grueling schedule of teaching and panel talks.

Anne Colvin: How does it feel to be back in San Francisco?

Carolee Schneemann: It’s odd I don’t recognize anything, I’ve taught here and lived here.  I have been traveling so much that everything compresses into everything else; one street looks like Portland another like something in Seattle another like something in Germany. It feels like a suspension of belief, I can’t find everything I used to know here but it’s good I’m having a great time, doing everything I have to do.

AC: When did you actually live here?

CS: I think it was ’89, I was teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute and it was the year of the big earthquake which I watched out my window thinking these people were very strange, it seemed they were making big fires on the edge of their bay, as I could see across. Then I lived here when I was installing exhibits for Bob Riley at The Museum of Conceptual Art, that was great and yes different times.

AC: I was looking over your website, which is very extensive by the way and it seems that you haven’t actually done much in terms of performances in San Francisco which I found surprising.

CS: I’ve done a lot of exhibits in San Francisco. The museum exhibits I prefer to a performance any day.

AC: Really, even in the early days?

CS: Oh sure, I never thought of myself as a performer, I’m a painter.  I am always trying to redress the imbalance of the excitement or the drama or the novelty of performance which has overwhelmed my real body of work.

AC: I understand. So you are in town on the occasion of Millennium Film Journal’s “Focus on Carolee Schneeman” and I was really struck by the cover, a wonderful picture of you reading and your cat staring into the camera, is that Kitch?

CS: Yes, and she despised that photographer.

AC: She was giving him the evil eye!

CS: That’s right, evil eye – “you come one inch closer buddy and I have claws”. She didn’t like him in our space, it was funny.

AC: It’s a lovely photograph.

CS: It is, thank you. The editors from Millennium picked that.

AC: I imagine you have something of a history with Millennium Film.

CS: Oh yes, a long one in New York from very early on, they were brave. They have been a mainstay for the experimental independence and now we don’t know if they are going to survive. They are in arrears, the ceiling is falling in, the bathroom needs re-doing.

AC: Sadly the way of non-profits these days, it’s tough. I know that this evening you are going to screen part of “Kitch’s Last Meal” (1973-76), what else you will be showing?

CA: A fifteen minute section, the actual piece is five hours long. I’m also going to show a recent work, Devour (2003-2004) a video in which I was receiving a lot of disaster footage from different parts of the troubled world and I wanted to make a view of conflict, contradiction of violence and domestic normalities. So I worked intensively on that because I had so many images as you can imagine to compress and extract. Then I’ll show a documentation of my most recent installation, Precarious (2009) which is a multi-channel projection moving through a mirrored system. I should just say that’s a work about dancing in captivity so it’s animals and bird prisoners, a bear on a chain and a few of my own images.

AC: Animals, particularly cats seem to feature quite a lot in your work.

CS: The cat always symbolizes harmony, domestic organization and stability.

AC: That’s nice, I like that. As you know I’m doing this piece for LUX which evolved from The London Filmmakers Co-operative so if you don’t mind can we step back in time to London and was it the late 60’s or early 70’s that you were there?

CS: Yes, well I was in and out. I had a wonderful, amazing flat at the corner of Belsize Park and Belsize Park Gardens with a little hydrangea in the front. I had smuggled my cat Kitch into London and convinced these landlords to rent me this flat and that this cat was very special. I lived there for quite a while.

AC: I believe you also lived with Anthony McCall?

CS: Yes, I moved to his place in South London.

AC: Did you collaborate with him?

CS: On everything from those years ’71, ’72, ’73. We made a film together which was stolen by some representative who was actually working for the CIA with the MI5. That film disappeared along with an early performance in The Kitchen because Anthony was filming with a journalist friend and the three most wanted men of the IRA. So the producer helper who was going to print everything disappeared with it all. Also a lot of photographs of his performance events were taken by me and he photographed all the material of Interior Scroll (1975) that we have. We did performative actions together.

AC: You were also involved with the London Filmmakers Co-operative from early on and Benjamin Cook, the director mentioned to me that you persuaded a rich boyfriend at the time to buy their first 16mm printer.

CS: It wasn’t a boyfriend, it was a friend – a friend of many artists. I’ve never had a rich boyfriend!

AC: That’s quite a legacy though, that printer. So you used the coop as a resource, they showed your work?

CS: Well you were part of a very intensive, poor devoted community who helped each other with everything. They helped me when I was going to destroy Plumb Line (1968-71) by having a party and setting all the footage on fire because I just couldn’t get money to finish it and I was weary of it. They came up with the idea of projecting it on the cement walls – in those days it was in an old dairy in Camden – to see what it would look like. I said if we are doing that why don’t we put a sheet over the wall, project it and set the sheet on fire. We re-photographed it and that’s the structure of Plumbline now, burning when you see it.

AC: Did you know – this might have been a little bit later – Malcolm Le Grice and Peter Gidal who incidentally were my husband’s tutors when he was at St. Martins College of Art in the early 80’s?

CS: Yes, Malcolm was terrific, a close friend.

AC:  Around about that time you did a performance which peaked my interest, Ices Trip (1973) on a train from London to Edinburgh. As I am from Edinburgh I used to take the train a lot when I lived in London so I was trying to imagine how it might have played out.

CS: That was organized by Harvey Matusow who organized a great number of special events for artists. He was partner in those years of the composer Annea Lockwood. That was a train event and you can find all the details in the book ‘More Than Meat Joy’. Artists cooked blue food and we gave it and sold it and I did a striptease to the time factoring of a set of Heidegger proposals, dressing and undressing on the tables – sometimes with ordinary people having their tea and coffee. It was fun.

AC: That’s fantastic! I must say some of your collaborations sound amazing, for example in 1958 you worked on environments and performances for films by Stan Brakhage, did you perform within an expanded cinema framework?    

CS: No, I would never perform in relationship to someone else’s work. Those were Brakhage films and I would have appeared in them, not performances they were documenting aspects of our ordinary life.

AC: I see and then there was Allan Kaprow’s Push and Pull (1965) part of The Festival of the Avant-garde.

CS: I directed Kaprow’s installation work in which the audience was asked to go out and bring back soft materials to reconfigure the environment. My audience went nuts and brought back trashcans and tin cans, signage that they tore off bars and restaurants and the police came. They also shattered mirrors and walls.

AC: You have a great memory which goes quite far back and is still very vivid. The work really comes alive when you talk about it.

CS: It is, it’s true.

AC: There was also a collaboration with Stan van der Beek, Washes, by Claes Oldenburg and filmed as Birth of a Flag by Vanderbeek (1965).

CS: That’s a beautiful work out in the countryside, a beautiful set of participations and collaborations directed by Claes and filmed by Stan Van Der Beek.

AC: Let’s go back even further, before Marina Abramovic there was Carolee Schneemann and before Carolee Schneemann who was there, Maya Deren?

CS: She was an immense influence but she was also a cautionary tale in that she was impoverished, she was neglected. She had this amazing research and work from Haiti and didn’t have enough money to print it. Brakhage who was hanging out, a kind of acolyte convinced her to show us the original footage once. She was in a desperate state needing every kind of support, deserving it, not getting it and then having kids like myself and Brakhage hanging out and expecting to be fed, given cigarettes and access to her sources of inspiration. But she was wonderful and really inspiring.

AC: Good to have a role model like that, there are so few women experimental filmmakers, even now.

CS: The other women who were very young and contemporaries at the time were Alison Knowles who was intensively making prints and objects in connection with her partner Dick Higgins, Chikku Kobutu who would perform for me in Snows (1967) – she did the very early Vagina painting – and Yoko, but that was it. All the important women painters were constellated behind the men.

AC: That wasn’t you though, you were Carolee Schneemann.

CS: I was just a kid, hanging around. I was a spy in the art world trying to see what was going on. I don’t come into any cultural regard until the mid-seventies through feminism. I’ve done very important work and some of it’s celebrated but it’s all an anomaly in terms of the male structures of aesthetic importance.

AC: Would you say then that there has been a renewed interest in some of your early works from the 90’s on, for example of Up to and Including her Limits? Thinking about it that must have had a huge influence on Matthew Barney, has that been acknowledged?

CS: It has been acknowledged by historians. Meat Joy (1964) was a huge influence, everything became meat for a while and of course it was influenced by essays written by the poet Michael McClure who was here in San Francisco. Well I am really a very fortunate artist to have work that still maintains an active regard.

AC: Yes, it seems like you have never gone away, you have been constantly refining and developing new work. On that note I look forward to this evening!

Anne Colvin is an artist based in San Francisco. Recent shows include “Long Play: Bruce Conner and The Singles Collection” at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; a project presented by White Columns at the NY Art Book Fair; a residency at Berkeley Art Museum and inclusion in “No Soul For Sale”, edited by Maurizio Cattelan and Cecilia Alemani.

The Fall 2011 issue of Millenium Film Journal, Focus on Carolee Schneemann can be purchased here



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