"My work is always somehow contrasting brutality and pleasure," Carolee Schneemann tells me as we look at Devour, one of her installations at Galerie Lelong in New York. We are in a room with five screens, one giant one in the back wall, and four smaller televisions on the floor in front of it. The images flickering on all the screens are a combination of normal life juxtaposed with violence and destruction: a baby nursing, people eating at a fair, buildings exploding, people being shot. You know, just another day in America.
Carolee began her career as a painter in the 1950s, but it was her films and performances in the 1960s and 1970s that brought her into the spotlight and made her one of the seminal feminist artists of our time, even if commercial success largely eluded her. In one of her best-known works, Interior Scroll, Carolee stood on a table taking "action poses" like a nude figure model does, before extracting a scroll from her vagina and proceeding to read text from it, which mixed critical theory along with the artist's own thoughts on being female and the body. It's an incredibly powerful performance that deals head-on with the notion that the only place for women in the art world is as naked, silent muses.
Now 77 years old, Carolee is still working and engaging with the environment and events around her, like the Vietnam War and the terrorist attacks of September 11. After looking at her most recent work, we sat down to discuss being in a female body, narcissism, and how to deal with the fear of the unknown. After we were done we talked about cats, who have had a recurring role in her work throughout the years, and I found out her littlest kitten loves coffee. It was an evening that left me elated and made me feel the true power of art.
Laia Garcia: Your work has always been a conversation with current events — a response to things happening in the art world, and in the world at large. Usually we think of the artist as working alone in a room, waiting for a muse ... it's all very intangible.
Carolee Schneemann: Well, I'm alone in a room looking at a nightmare that's part of my culture, and I'm alone in a room with something beautiful and static in my life that could be my lover, my home, my cat, my garden, and within those contradictions is where my work centers itself.
LG: You're also a teacher. How has that experience changed the way you view your work, or the way that you view the art world, if at all?
CS: I've had to teach to support myself because for many years nobody cared about my work enough to make a commitment to it, to collect it, or to help it along. Now that's changing, but teaching has always been really enriching, and deepening, and there's a lot to say about it in terms of psychodynamics. For example, being a teacher and having one of my students brutally raped changes the group focus in a class that's on material and activation. I'm bringing the unconscious forces that are around us forward, to be able to change them and share them. That's been something that I felt was invaluable.
LG: If you had found the level of success and recognition that you have now earlier in your career, would that have changed your path?
CS: It would've been so helpful, because for all I've done, I always feel I'm way behind what I might have done. Still, I've been very, very lucky. My dad would send me only to typing school, not college. That was such a blow, but then I got a scholarship to Bard — room, board, tuition, everything. Then, when I needed to live in the country, I had cousins who left me an old house. So I've been really lucky along the way, with all these cultural and personal disasters that sometimes found their way into the work.
LG: If you were starting now, as a young artist, what are the things that you would be responding to in your work?
CS: It would be what I'm doing now. I'm very disturbed by the commercialization and the objectification of all things female and feminine: the rigors, the struggle, the analysis of phobias and taboos against the feminine. That's very separated from popular culture now. It's really a split. Do you see that too?
LG: I'm friends with a couple of young female artists, and they're focused on exploring what I would call the hyper-feminine. I grew up rejecting what society expects you to be as a woman and anything that I perceived as too feminine, but through their work I began to recognize that that was an effect of living in a sexist society, and I began to embrace more stereotypically feminine things in my life. In that sense I think the appreciation for the feminine in art has improved, but you cannot separate the work from the culture. So if a female artist gets naked as a statement against sexism or misogyny or whatever, you cannot necessarily separate the two. Her nudity does not exist in a vacuum.
I was thinking about this a lot while looking at your work, but I think the difference is that there were so many things that weren't available at the time. Like porn wasn't as readily available.
CS: They only had female sexuality in porn and in science in the '60s when I made Fuses. I was working against a very enclosed system, and it had no feminist relevance except as taboo and exclusion. So the popularity of porn really relaxes some aspects of what feminine desire, or thought, or gender issues can accept. But it's very chaotic. It lacks clarity, and for the most part the culture is so seductive in terms of glamour, so there's all these underlying stress aspects, and of course they're being exploded by our current political situation.
LG: You've written so much about your own work, which is something that not a lot of artists do. Why do you think it's important for you to publicly express your feelings about your work, as opposed to letting other people figure it out?
CS: I'm not sure. I write all the time, and I'm always trying to be clearer about what's around me and clearer about what my own situation seems to be. But I'm just so happy if you read it. I think I've been forced into that position because the core and motive of my work has been ignored or badly misaligned for so long.
LG: It's also such a large scope of work that's really incredible. You're almost like six artists, you've had like six careers ...
CS: Maybe that made it difficult. Maybe that's why critics didn't do such a great analysis of it.
LG: Your performance piece Interior Scroll is one of your best-known works. I was wondering if the fact that you performed it more than once changed it in any way, or is that change part of the process?
CS: Well, I tended not to repeat things because I need to feel uncertain and kind of anxious when I perform. Like I'm plunging into a realm that I can imagine and inhabit, but I don't want to systematize it. I don't want to professionalize it. I need to keep investigating and throwing myself off the edge.
LG: I wanted to talk about narcissism because that's something that is lobbed as an insult to female artists, and it's something you've often had to deal with in your work.
CS: Using your own life was considered narcissism, but as a female artist you were also excluded from having authority over entering the directorial realm, where male artists never used themselves or used themselves at great risk. I remember when Jim Dine did a remarkable performance work using his own personal diaries and the male people in the audience were enraged with him because it seemed trivializing to use male cultural aesthetics to make things about your feelings. Stan Brakhage used his lived experience, and that was a rare terrain for a male artist, but that also existed in his aesthetics with the exclusion and marginalization of women artists. Even when I was at Bard, my best teacher said, "Don't set your heart on art, you're only a girl." I was like, "OK, I'll remember that."
Once I was walking with the poet Charles Olson in Gloucester. Charles was a tremendous aesthetic influence on me and on my partner James Tenney, and he asked me what I was working on. I thought that was gracious of him, and I said, "Well, I'm in essence a painter, but I'm working on introducing movement and text into my work." And he was six foot four, so he looked down at me, and he said, "Well, don't forget in Greek culture when the cunts started to speak, Greek theater was destroyed." I said, "OK, I'll remember." So I was accumulating all these horrible prohibitions, these invocations of exclusion, and that was the double knowledge that I had to work with.
LG: It's so interesting because art is seen as something that's supposed to be welcoming of the weird and the new, and yet when it comes to some things such as female artists, or a new kind of art, or a new kind of expression, the art world is often like, "No, we don't want that."
CS: We don't want blood and guts, and tears and rage, and outrage and incite. There's a great formal expectation within the art world in its different moments and movements. That's shifting radically now, but it's also made a lot of chaos. Nobody knows what's good anymore. It's everything everywhere.
LG: Do there need to be arbiters so that people know what's good and what's bad?
CS: Well, there will always be arbiters, but I don't know anymore. I'm as uncertain as anybody else. There's a tremendous participation of women in creative work, and not all of it is OK at all, and then there's always some visionary, wonderful artists working, and I can feel saluted by that work and inspired by it. But it's tough going. It's like being in the woods with things growling everywhere and clawing around.
LG: Do you ever feel fear before you embark on a new medium? How do you convince yourself to keep going?
CS: Yes, sometimes I'd be terrified. I was working on something very explicitly feminist, Ask the Goddess, and I had a very clear whole vision of the elements and how they would become coherent, and I got very, very frightened that it was so explicit about the body. I had been attacked in Paris during Meat Joy by a crazy man. From all my research on male violence and suppressive sexuality, I knew that any woman doing explicit body work could be in danger.
LG: Which is the important thing, knowing that there are dangers or risks to the work that you are doing while still continuing on the path you're meant to be on.
CS: Seeing the violence even to intellectual structures is interesting. I saw people I loved, special friends of mine, set The Second Sex on fire. They burned it. I was working in a little pottery shop for 49 cents an hour, and that was a hard book to get, and then to have it burned up, it was interesting.
LG: I think that's what's happening now in the current political climate. This is the last chance for all those men who were in power before to hang on for the last remnants of life as they knew it before it's, like, done.
CS: [It's] a huge offense to male power. Yeah, and so they're quite frightening, and they're potentially so violent, there's no nuance, there's no negotiation. Seems like they're just getting out their rifles. [Their] armor's off, arm yourself.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Laia Garcia is the deputy editor at Lenny.