Materiality, Lecture, and Game in the Work of Carolee Schneemann
Special Focus: ABC We Print Anything—In The Cards (1976–77)
B. told C., there are many kinds of affections & relations.
A. asked C. about B.
C. told A. about B., and told B. about A.
C. asked A. about D.
A. told D. about C.
B. told C. Now, he felt monogamous, more or less.
C. told B. she was monogamous to him,
except for A.
Carolee Schneemann’s performance of ABC We Print Anything—In The Cards (1976–77)—a collaborative event between Carnegie Museum of Art and Pittsburgh Filmmakers (October 28–29, 1978)—was part of a three-day extravaganza that included two Schneemann performances; several film screenings; and lengthy discussions of her process across film, kinetic theater, and the “lecture” as an art form. Schneemann had been experimenting with activated lectures and with a form that she came to call gesture-video, since 1965.1 The latter featured Schneemann either solo or with other performers using projection light as if it was part of the very materiality of her own body.
Her discovery of this came when she was editing her film Fuses (1965). At some point during the editing process, she projected the film onto a sculptural work she had been building in her loft. The resulting form suggested a kind of split screen, foregrounded with “a wall of irregularly-shaped rectangular white boxes.”2 At this point, Schneemann realized that film was not just “an independent, discrete, self-contained language.”3 Nor was it, however, something that might simply accompany performance. Its ability to split and multiply, shifting as its projection beam met up with varied architectural surfaces, suggested a new direction for her. Film’s materiality—its systems of light and sound projection, image expansion, ability to commingle and transform both architectural and embodied forms—led her to her first experiment with expanded cinema in an early collaborative intermedia group called USCO or Company of Us, whose members included visual artists, poets, photographers, dancers, filmmakers, and engineers.4 In a work called Ghost Rev, presented by USCO at the New Cinema Festival in Astor Place Theater in 1965, which included a film shot by Jud Yalkut and a plethora of electronic and computer-generated effects (strobe lights, slide projections, cathode rays, sound design), Schneemann and the Judson Dance Theater dancer and choreographer Phoebe Neville moved with the intention of breaking film’s “fixed-screen illusions of image, depth, speed, rhythm, direction, duration.”5
The recurring sets of symbols, signs, and language that occurred within the context of USCO’s film environments matched Schneemann’s already-developed theories about the interrelation between the structure of language and the semiotics of film. From there she would push this system of signs further, to include the troubling, sometimes sublime, translations of gendered, sexualized, kinetic bodies. As early as 1962, she wrote in her studio notebook:
The fundamental life of any material I use [body, light, sound, paper, cloth, glass] is concretized in that material’s gesture: gesticulation, gestation—source of compression (measure of tension and expansion), resistance—developing force of visual action.6
Before she included film in her performances, she had already rigorously explored “flesh as material” in Newspaper Event (1963), Lateral Splay (1963), Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963), Meat Joy (1964), and The Queens Dog (1965). Indeed, influenced by Allan Kaprow’s “action collages” and Claes Oldenburg’s immersive environments in Store Days (1962), Schneemann saw equivalence among the body, the senses, event materials, and environment. Once she began working with Judson Dance Theater in 1963, however, the motif of the body as environment became central in many of her works. She described the core of Newspaper Event, which was performed at the Judson Dance Theater in New York, as “an organism interchanging its parts … the primary experience is the body as your own environment.”7 During the same period, she was critical of the untheorized use of the female nude body in Happenings: “The nude was being used in early Happenings as an object (often an ‘active’ object). I was using the nude as myself—the artist—and as a primal, archaic force which could unify energies I discovered as visual information.”8 The construction of such “visual information” moved from the attempt to integrate the body with print—as in Newspaper Event—to locating it in the indexical nature of photography, video, and film. The latter she explored across various body-centered environments: the photographic series Eye Body, the kinetic “body packages” central to Meat Joy, and the body as readymade sculpture and media material in Snows (1967).
By 1968 Schneemann began to investigate the body through conceptual frames of discussions and lectures as works of art. In contrast to the artists associated with the group Art & Language—Ian Burn, Joseph Kosuth, Mel Ramsden, Lawrence Weiner, and Ian Wilson—who took the event of language as their central medium, Schneemann invested this seeming nonrepresentational approach with the messiness and threat of the oversignified feminist nude:
In terms of the culture there is something right about my body. You could show it, it was acceptable, it was part of the, uh, aesthetic hierarchy. But it had nothing to do with me, what I meant with my body. The dislocation was having a body that filled an acceptable aesthetic convention, but whose import was not being carried into the culture in any way. I felt I had a powerful means—like a doppelg[ä]nger, like a joke, like a devil inhabits this acceptable body, and I was going to shove it down their throats.9
Naked Action Lecture, presented in 1968 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, launched a series of performative lectures that has continued to be an important part of Schneemann’s practice today. During the course of this particular lecture, she “dressed and undressed,” took questions from the audience, and asked for volunteers “to join [her] in demonstrating a principle of collage” (by undressing, covering themselves with paste and jumping off the stage into a mound of shredded papers).”10 The white worker’s overalls she donned were intended to symbolize male privilege: “if you wore them, like a man, you had authority; if you took them off, you were conventionally ‘read’ as a woman who wanted to be fucked.”11 She also showed slides of artworks that were influential on her kinetic work, such as the paintings of Paul Cézanne and Jackson Pollock—examples that seemed, to borrow from Schneemann, “unacceptable for [her] to intone in terms of the kind of body-centered work [she] had created.”12 She explored questions such as: “Can an art historian be a naked woman? Does a woman have intellectual authority? Can she have public authority while naked and speaking?” She passed out oranges. She lectured on principles of collage—process and gestalt patterns. When the lecture was over, everyone was invited upstairs to a screening of her film Fuses.
Naked Action Lecture established the structure of Schneemann’s recurring performative lectures and lecturelike performances: (1) text as one of the central materials, whether read, projected, or “worn”; (2) photographs that acted as documents, alternating between Schneemann’s performance events, studio work, or historical artifacts—made into slides; (3) film, video, or slide projection (with and without images, often using only the projection light); sometimes completed stand-alone films were integrated directly into the lecture or used as a conclusion to the latter part of the lecture; and (4) live bodies—usually her own—performing (clothed and unclothed), working directly with and against filmic projection light. In a sense, Schneemann creates a negative dialectic between visual and experienced information. Implicit in her early lecture work was the question: how can art history and the LIVE naked body—in opposition to the “the nude” as it was represented in conventional art historical texts—coexist on the same stage?
Indeed, Schneemann was well aware of early innovators of the lecture-as-art, such as Joseph Beuys and John Cage. In certain sections of Naked Action Lecture, Schneemann is closer to Beuys in her overt political agenda, i.e., her critique of representations of the female body (especially the nude) in conventional texts of art history and contemporary culture. In contrast, ABC is reminiscent of Cage’s model in “Lecture on Nothing” (1949–50) and “Indeterminacy” (1958–61) in which he “never mentions or defines the topic; his lecture is a series of unconnected stories, anecdotes, but we understand what he ‘means’ very clearly by indeterminacy or silence when we read his essay.”13
During this period, Schneemann’s peers, including Hollis Frampton, Lee Lozano, Robert Morris, Yvonne Rainer, Paul Sharits, Robert Smithson, and Ian Wilson, were also experimenting with the lecture/discussion format across various media. In fact, Schneemann was invited by Annina Nosei Weber to present ABC in the 1977 exhibition Discussions at New York University, which also included the work of David Antin, Robert Ashley, Sarah Charlesworth, Beuys, Kosuth, Anthony McCall, and Wilson among others.
Though ABC is not directly a performative lecture like Naked Action, it is set up, as described above, as an intermedia “reading” that cuts across text, photograph, film, and live performance. Initially conceived as a “book of cards,” which could also be presented as a performance, ABC developed each time Schneemann performed it. By the time she was invited to present it at Pittsburgh Filmmakers (with Carnegie Museum of Art), all the cards—some just text, others reprinted from her own photographs—had been transformed into slides. From the project’s conception, however, she had already developed a color-coded index system for the cards: “pink—quotations from friends, acquaintances; yellow—extracts from dreams and diaries; blue—the remarks of A., B., and C.”14 The letters stood for the tense dynamic of overlapping relationships she had had with the artist Anthony McCall and the publisher Bruce McPherson. Thus, A stood for Anthony, B for Bruce, and C for Carolee. D and E also make occasional appearances, standing in for McCall’s and McPherson’s other romantic partners. In a sense, she creates an emergent score for the piece that is driven by the tension and algorithm of triangulation. The latter is often defined as a manipulative strategy where one person will not communicate directly with another person, instead using a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle. One of Schneemann’s cards reads: “A. told C. to tell B.: don’t tell a chicken how to lay eggs.” However, she consistently injects this classical drama with humor; another card reads: “A told C—that he’d insist on just one thing—B was not to wear his moccasins.”
Each time the piece was performed in its earliest form, as a set of cards in a box, a new order occurred, both in terms of image and text. In her Q and A with the Pittsburgh audience, Schneemann also explained how, after each performance, she left cards with the audience in order to encourage them to participate, to add to the score. She described it as “a diverse system: you take it away and shuffle it and come away with different directions, ideas, conclusions.” She also compared it to Cage’s visual scores, such as Fontana Mix (1958), which, at some point, was presented in a box or folder—as a kit—with a collection of materials that could be used for a “program of action” that could be sent from one person to the next, changing its compositional course as it fell into different composers’/participants’ hands. She still viewed ABC as having an indeterminate structure, even though it accrued a more fixed order when it was remediated as slides and, later, as two-dimensional wall works. Moreover, there are at least several different orders displayed in the extant wall works at P.P.O.W in New York that attest to its continuing emergent form.
Besides theorizing the materials of a lecture (paper, text, slides, voice), by the fourth performance of ABC in Arnhem, Netherlands, in 1977, Schneemann also had a vision—in a dream—of using a chair in order to activate the work further:
The first night in Arnhem, I dreamt of a seedy, upholstered, grey chair with which I was engaged in a series of physical struggles: leaning, sliding, tumbling, falling, embracing, crawling, balancing on and under it.15
When she arrived at the performance space for the festival, “there on the stage was a seedy, red upholstered chair.” As she put it: “it became [her] partner” for ABC.16 In a sense, she extended the configuration of relations further, this time, from A to B to C and back again to C.17 But, this time C had a double reference: Carolee and Chair. The addition of the chair as a partner in the work emphasized her earlier claims to the equal value, and often exchangeability, of objects and people in her work. Before she even came to perform in an Oldenburg happening, she reflected on his use of objects in Store (1961):
Ambiguous and simultaneously persistent, insistent on their immediate nature. These objects state that we change; stretch and contract our own shape and size in appreciation of them.18
In her Pittsburgh performance of ABC, she struggled with her chair at the beginning, dragging it across the floor with much effort and irritation, and exclaiming: “I hate my prop!” And moments later: “And, my prop hates me!” Throughout the performance, she continues to have an awkward, sometimes aggressive, often precarious kinetic relationship to the chair—using it to direct her positions in relationship to the rotating images of texts, objects, places, and people on the two screens. She stands on the chair, slides over it, lays beneath it—as hundreds of domestic, disparate objects flash before the audience: pots, pans, penises, chairs, cunts, refrigerators, telephones, clocks, snakes, wasps, empty roads, open windows, pigs, eggs, skulls, teeth. In a sense, she is performing a “lecture” on the complex system of signs, reminiscent of Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) in which the play between visual, verbal, and object codes reveals the disjunctive spaces between the real and the symbolic. This is at once a feminist semiotics of the kitchen, the bedroom, and the artist’s studio.
Schneemann’s interest in the art form of the lecture was also deeply tied to notions of play and algorithmic performance, imbedded in the worlds of both Fluxus and Judson Dance Theater. ABC floats between the rule-based event structures of artists like George Brecht, Dick Higgins, and Allison Knowles, and the emergent structures of Trisha Brown’s algorithmic dance movements, demonstrated in her Line Up series (1976–77).19 One card points to instruction: “B. said, put it all on cards. Then you can shuffle.” While another recurring card simply states: “A. went away again.” If instructions were part of Schneemann’s lectures, play was part of her pedagogy. And characters—Anthony, Bruce, Carolee—became typologies: A, B, and C. In her Pittsburgh Q and A, an audience member asked if Schneemann’s use of A, B, and C related to Andy Warhol’s A, B, and C in his Philosophy book, and she answered:
Well, I like your question very much, but the point is that A was Anthony, B was Bruce, and C was Carolee. But, that’s what, in part, allowed me to detach from it. It took a long time to notice that it was a set of facts.20
In her ABC performance, she uses this detachment—emphasizing it by talking in a monotone, automated-like voice to empty out any affect, so that words become more like recursive temporal containers, rather than cathectic symbols of an affective narrative. The appearances of clocks, seasonal changes, film reels, cameras, and other time-based objects in the rotating stocks of imagery further underscores the structure of history and relationships as forces of emergence, rather than drama-based stories. Private moments such as washing the dishes, cooking a meal, or having sex become abstract and universal: “The seasons took shape as they fucked,” one card reads. Aging is a mathematical game, always shifting, always relative. At one point in the sequence we see: “A. said, anyhow when you’re 58, I’ll be 50 and no one will notice the difference.” And at another point: “B. said, anyhow when you’re 63, I’ll be 50 and no one will notice the difference.” And, as the performance progresses, A and B become interchangeable, even expendable:
A. no longer lived where he had with C.
C. gave his extra set of keys to B.
A. was annoyed C. gave his extra keys to B.
Finally, in ABC Schneemann is interested in what Dick Higgins called “infinite play”—a structured but open experience in which “everything that happens is of potential consequence, and thus to be considered.”21 Informed by Duchamp, it was an approach that operationalized the viewer—committed to involving the spectator as participant, as the one without whom the work would not exist. Schneemann underscores this method in her 1977 description of ABC: “The three media forms re-enforce each other, and bring the spectators to organize the inter-relations for themselves.”22 At this point, she had not yet conceived of the “chair” performance, but rather had composed a “videotape of instantaneous gestures” in which she performed each gesture for eight seconds, followed by twenty seconds of black leader. This gesture-video condensed the “emotive qualities of the cards and slides—immediacy and discontinuity.”23 In ABC, photography acts as a form of classification, commenting back on the more open-ended gesture-videos, grounded in the materiality of the affective body. The algorithmic nature of the texts—especially the statements generated by A, B, and C—affects how the viewer orders or translates the phenomenological, sensory perceptions of the gesture-videos. This gamelike structure, offers, as Schneemann promises in one of her proposals for the program: “an installation of indefinite duration”24 and, ultimately, the dream of controlling both the subject and referent of one’s own desires.
Carolee Schneeman’s ABC—We Print Anything—In The Cards is part of the film and video collection at Carnegie Museum of Art.
- From a promotional proposal/artist statement, made by Carolee Schneemann in preparation for her European exhibitions of ABC, We Print Anything—In The Cards (1976–77). Carolee Schneemann (1977). ↵
- Carolee Schneemann, “Ghost Rev” (November 17–18, 1965; New Cinema Festival 1, Cinematheque, Astor Place Theater, New York), in More Than Meat Joy: Performance Works and Selected Writings, ed. Bruce Rice McPherson (Kingston, NY: DOCUMENTEXT/McPherson & Company, 1997), 97. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- USCO, also known as Company of Us or as W.E. USCO, was an intermedia group (often compared to Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable), whose most active members included the poet Gerd Stern, the painter Steve Durkee, electronics innovator Michael Callahan, photographer and weaver Judi Stern, and sculptor and photographer Barbara Durkee. They were based in the Hudson Valley, but performed in various cities across the United States, including New York and San Francisco. See Michel Oren, “USCO: ‘Getting Out of Your Mind to Use Your Head,” Art Journal 69, no. 4 (Winter 2010): 76–95. ↵
- Schneemann, “Ghost Rev,” 99. ↵
- Schneemann, “From the Notebooks: 1958–1963,” in More Than Meat Joy, 9. ↵
- Schneemann, “Newspaper Event,” in More Than Meat Joy, 33. ↵
- Schneemann, “Eye Body,” in More Than Meat Joy, 52. ↵
- Carolee Schneemann, “Conversation with Amy Greenfield, moderated by Bruce McPherson and Robert Haller (February, 11, 1978, New York),” Field of Vision, no. 4 (1978): 6. ↵
- Schneemann, “Naked Action Lecture,” in More Than Meat Joy, 180. ↵
- Carolee Schneemann in conversation with the author, New Paltz, New York, June 26, 2017. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Paul Sharits, I Was a Flawed Modernist: Collected Writings by Paul Sharits, Collected Stories about Paul Sharits, ed. Sarah Markgraf (New York: Film-Makers’ Coop, 2017), 10. ↵
- Schneemann, “ABC—We Print Anything—In the Cards,” in More Than Meat Joy, 246. ↵
- Ibid., 248. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- In the Pittsburgh Q and A, an audience member asked Schneemann: “In relation to your use of A, B, and C … I am wondering, because in the sixties, Warhol utilized his conversations from telephones talking basically about A, B, and C [everyone laughs].” Video recording of Schneemann’s performance at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, October 28, 1978, Department of Film and Video Archives, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA; my transcription. Indeed, Schneemann was aware of Warhol’s book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (New York: Grove Press, 1975). Thus, I refer to it playfully here in reference to her title. ↵
- Schneemann, “About Claes Oldenburg’s Store” (March 1961), in More Than Meat Joy, 16. ↵
- See Susan Rosenberg, Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2016), 183–201. ↵
- Video recording of Schneemann’s performance at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, October 28, 1978, Department of Film and Video Archives, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA; my transcription. ↵
- Owen F. Smith, “Dick Higgins, Fluxus, and Infinite Play: An ‘Amodernist’ Worldview,” in From Diversion to Subversion: Games, Play, and Twentieth Century Art, ed. David Getsy (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), 128. ↵
- Promotional proposal/artist statement for ABC—We Print Anything—In the Cards, 1977. Courtesy of P.P.O.W Gallery, New York. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Ibid. ↵