Carolee Schneemann

Carolee Schneemann is one of the major figures of contemporary performance art. She has also been a consistent chronicler and celebrant of her life and performance in images and objects. This spring, her achievement is marked by a show of photographic works at the gallery P.P.O.W. in New Yorks Chelsea neighborhood; and by the publication by the gallery of a deluxe, boxed edition of her 1963 suite of photographs, Eye Body. ArtInfos Robert Ayers visited the show and discussed it with Schneemann.

Carolee, its fascinating seeing this show bringing together pieces from the whole of your career. Lets begin by talking about this new edition of Eye Body36 Transformative Actions. Even though the series has never been editioned until now, individual photographs of your naked, paint-smeared body, as part of the Eye Body installation, have appeared in books and catalogs, and theyve become remarkably influential images.

Well, thats fortunate, because there was a great lag time. Back in 1963, I thought that I had done something important by this work, integrating the body into my collage materials. But when I showed the photographic sequence as 8 x 10s to different curators, they all, to a man, said, "If you want to paint, paint. This is narcissistic exhibitionism." The difficulty with this work has been that my use of the body has deflected the cultural imagination from the body of work. My sense of Eye Body was that I was incorporating the artists self as image and image-maker. But in the cultural imagination, the body has dominated the image. I had wanted an integration.

But surely you must have been aware of your works provocative nature?

I dont think that I ever really was. Im always surprised when the work is censored or found shocking. What I do has always seemed to me to be the next obvious step. So, since the female body had always been usurped by traditions of art history and then by Pop art, where the female body was synthetic and bloodless and objectified, I wanted to see what would happen with this energy of sensualitythe juicethat I felt.

So, how did you go about making these images?

The images began with a drawing sequence. I was completely uncertain what would happen. All of these collage actions evolved almost in an instant. They werent posed. There was one action for each frame of a 35mm film.

You did them all in one session?

Yes. One evening. It was magical. Two and a half hours of improvisatory collage. With a very sympathetic friend, the Icelandic-Parisian painter, Erró, taking the photographs. He was quite inspiring in terms of my doing this, partly because he didnt have any of the normal misogyny that male painters had at that time, even among my friends. They would say, "Yeah, go ahead and do it, but dont expect it to mean anything." Whereas Erró was European, and married to a painter, and he said, "Lets try this," with no equivocation.

So, are you saying that among your American artist acquaintances, you werent taken seriously?

I was taken seriously, but it was as though I should never imagine that I could really enter their realm. The jokes at the time about monkeys who played the violin, implicated women with paint brushes This was a heavy, serious, macho realm. I felt I was on the outside of the wall of male aesthetics. Could I possibly penetrate it, or even destabilize it? In 1963 remember, there was no lived female sexuality that didnt belong to either pornography or science. Everything else was a secret: You couldnt even say "orgasm" except behind a veil. And there was no neutral generative pronouneverything was Man and His Images, everything was masculinized and that was part of this wall, so I never expected to get through it.

But, by 1975, when you made Interior Scroll, where you slowly withdrew the script of your statement from your vagina, hadnt things changed by then?

No, they hadnt really changed much except that there was an entire feminist discussion underway.

But these photographs of Interior Scroll have subsequently become some of the most famous images of what is now thought of as feminist performance.

It started very innocently with a little drawing I made from a dream. I saw this extraction action in a dream, but I never wanted to do this action. I was hoping that I wouldnt ever do it. But there was a conference of women artists, Women Here and Now, out on Long Island, and they said, You have to participate. I didnt know what to do, but that little voice in my head insisted, You remember that drawing? Dont you think you should enact that image? It wont be alive unless you try it. So I started doing origami, folding up all these bits of paper, trying to find a way so that they could come out in a smooth extended line, without smearing the text or breaking up the paper. It became an engineering question.

Yes, people often forget how a memorable performance image can present all sorts of practical problems. But then, although this show is full of striking images, for me theyre all rather overshadowed by this piece Terminal Velocity, based on those terrible photographs of people jumping from the World Trade Center Towers. How does it relate to the earlier work?

Its in memoriam. I had this blind feeling that I had to be as close as possible to these images, to memorialize them, starting in October 2001. Part of the consecration was that in the intimacy of my own studio, with my scanner, I could just get closer and closer to these figures. When I first showed this photo-grid in 2001, people went crazy. They tore down the gallery signage, they wrote obscenities in the guest book. Interesting: that presenting this degree of vulnerability was seen as exploitative and shameful.

But I think that that is something thats been a constant in your work, your ability to make people feel uncomfortable, or to feel emotions that theyve not wanted to feel, or at least to acknowledge.

Yes, it could be pleasure, or grief. Im not sure how to explain it. The work has to sizzle. I dont want to do work that doesnt have some bite to it.