Judson Now Writer-in-Residence Danielle Goldman on Two Evenings with Carolee Schneemann
November 19, 2012
“PUTTING THE BODY WHERE THE BRUSH HAD BEEN”
In 1961, a tornado tore through Sidney, Illinois while Carolee Schneemann was studying painting as a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chapmpaign-Urbana. She and the composer Jim Tenney lived in a fragile shack in the woods, where the devastation was immediately felt.
We knew this was a disaster, and we had no idea what to do, but my cat Kitch studied this tree in the sink in the smashed window and immediately saw it as a doorway: a magical entrance-exit. She walked along the branch of the tree from the sink outside to the field, and I said, That’s what I want to do. I want to have that inside-outside dynamic. So smooth and connective. So the first performative work was to invite people… to be within the altered landscape, to be in the mud, to be in the water, crawl under the trees and over the trees. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but I was intensifying the process of painting by putting the body where the brush had been.[i]
Schneemann received an early education as a painter, but she began to explore the body as a way of “intensifying the process of painting” during the late fifties, when she was a young woman in her early twenties. She moved to New York City in 1961 and continued these physical explorations within the Judson Dance Theater, performing at the church and working with many experimental dancers. As noted in a recent interview with Time Out New York, Schneemann viewed dancers as colors: “Lucinda Childs was yellow and golden, and Deborah Hay was sort of rosy and red tones, and Ruth Emerson was my blue.”[ii] Beyond considerations of color, Schneeman also used performance as a way to explore energy, momentum, and the extension of lines. For Schneemann, performance was akin to a dynamic, three-dimensional collage. Choreography offered a way of plunging into space and exploring one’s relation with a broader world.
“Two Evenings with Carolee Schneemann: Films and Performances,” presented as part of PLATFORM 2012: Judson Now, began with a performance of Lateral Splay, a scored group improvisation originally performed at the 13thConcert of Dance at Judson Church in 1963. Schneemann then introduced several recently edited archival films.[iii] She began with Water Light/Water Needle (1966), originally performed in St. Mark’s Church and later performed and filmed at the Havemeyer Estate in Mah Wah, New Jersey. Listening to Schneemann speak, it was clear that she took great pleasure in editing the archival footage, splicing together images of people hanging from ropes in a green New Jersey forest and tromping through water in the nude. Many choreographers experience video as something foreign; but Schneemann seemed to be an artist in control of her archive, as well as an artist working with familiar media.
Schneemann’s political commitments during the early sixties and seventies were also made clear in the performances she presented. Scholars and critics have considered the various ways in which Schneemann challenged masculine traditions within the visual arts, and resisted restrictive understandings of sexuality. The historian Sally Banes described Schneeman’s Meat Joy (1964) – a sensuous group performance in which untrained performers vigorously interacted with one another as well as with raw chickens, sausage, and fish – as “the apotheosis of libidinal plenitude in performance.”[iv] Schneemann concluded the evening at Danspace Project with a screening of Meat Joy, so that everyone would have a chance to “feel good.”
Schneemann’s protests of the Vietnam War haven’t received the same publicity or critical attention as her works addressing gender and sexuality. But as demonstrated in a screening of Body Collage (1967), they were no less clear. In this piece, Schneemann covered herself with wallpaper paste and molasses, and rolled around in strips of paper to produce an image eerily resembling a napalm victim. Schneemann also showed Snows (1967), a document of a performance that she created in 1967 as part of New York’s Angry Arts Festival to express her “anger, outrage, fury and sorrow over the atrocities of the Vietnam War.”[v] The performance took place in New York’s Martinique Theatre, which Schneemann transformed into a gorgeous yet strangely post-apocalyptic winter landscape. Throughout the performance, Schneemann projected Viet Flakes, a film containing images of atrocities committed during the Vietnam War. According to Schneemann, she culled these images from underground and foreign presses in order, she explained, to let audience members consider images that differed from those offered by the mainstream media:
I animated the Vietnam film, shot it from stills with various lenses so that it seems as if it’s really moving. The images in that film were central to the development of Snows. My Snows movie begins with a very beautiful 1947 newsreel, a snowstorm, a fall of confetti during a parade, and ends with a car exploding and bursting into flames, then the Pope blessing people. One little horrific element after another: volcanic eruptions, ships going down… For my film Viet Flakes I shot a still of a Nationalist soldier shooting a Communist worker. It’s in three sections: he raises his gun, he leans forward, and the victim is lying there with a dark spot under his head. Then I got two newsreels of winter sports in Zurich during World War II while all hell was breaking loose everywhere else in the world. Then I made a little 8mm. film that played on our bodies, showed a New York blizzard and a car driving through the city. The projectors were either carried by hand or mounted on revolving stools.[vi]
As audience members watched the original performance, their movements controlled the speed at which the film played. It was an early experiment with interactivity. As Schneemann explained, she wanted viewers to linger over images that made them uncomfortable. She created a performance that asked audiences to see what was hidden from the public or difficult to watch.
Of course, in 2012, we have not moved beyond political violence or natural disasters, as Hurricane Sandy has made painfully clear. As today’s visual arts institutions such as the M0MA, the New Museum, and the Whitney rush to curate dance, I wonder how, if at all, our sense of choreography might shift. I also wonder how one might use dance in new ways to walk outside one’s familiar terrain, as Schneemann so daringly did – and allow others to experience the tumbling world around them.
[i] Gia Kourlas, “Carolee Schneemann talks about Judson Dance Theater,” Time Out New York, September 17, 2012. http://www.timeout.com/newyork/dance/carolee-schneemann-talks-about-judson-dance-theater
[iii] Schneemann has converted many of these films to video with the help of Electronic Arts Intermix, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to the preservation of video and digitial media art. Several of these works are available online. See http://www.eai.org/
[iv] Sally Banes, Greenwich Village 1963, 216.
[vi] Gene Youngblood, “Intermedia Theatre,” first published in Expanded Cinema, P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York 1970. http://www.screeningthepast.com/2011/11/intermedia-theatre/