Carolee Schneemann at Spectacle

by India Halsted

Cinematic films and performance documentation have often been separated categorically. Yet, Carolee Schneemann’s films push against these distinctions, whether by painting with her camera or mirroring back moments in time. Spectacle Theater’s recent retrospective of select films and performances by Schneemann reframes her oeuvre. The series includes Meat Joy (1964), Body Collage (1967), Souvenir of Lebanon (1983), Fresh Blood – A Dream Morphology (1983), Catscan (1988), Ask the Goddess (1991), Interior Scroll – The Cave (1995), Vulva’s School (1995), and Americana I Ching Apple Pie (2007). All of the films, with the exception of Souvenir of Lebanon, document or recreate her performances. 

Documentations of staged performances recall the specificity of a moment in time and immortalize them through cinematic mediation. The quality of sound and the complication of angles often vary between films. As Schneemann began making films to document her painterly performances [1], her films press against formal conventions towards more experimental means of documentation. While a translation to film loses elements of the original “happening”, they also bring new life to Schneemann’s choreographic, formal and conceptual intentions. While there are always live elements unable to be captured in film, Schneemann’s edited compilations form new works from these distinct moments in time.

Body Collage

Meat Joy, perhaps her most famous work, presents curated clips of footage of the performance at Judson Dance Theater. She samples Motown songs and collages them with voiceovers in French and English (sometimes overlapping one another). In one distinctly memorable and repeated line, Schneemann recites, “I want a space, a place between desire and experience.” While her voice rises over the documentation, Schneemann performs amongst the rest of the group, becoming one of many bodies. Meat Joy begins with still photos and long takes of the audience settling in. Then, entering into the middle of the action, four female performers lie on their backs wearing furry underwear, their legs kicking into each other like swimmers in an old-Hollywood musical. This cropped view from above, not visible to most live audience members sitting around the performers, suggests the necessity of the camera’s perspective to visualize Schneemann’s choreographic intentions. After these four performers are lifted by their male partners, the couples merge at the center of the stage and mosh, press, and grind against each other before falling in a heap, limbs intertwined. One performer gasps and breathes heavily with an arching back as if having an orgasm, underscoring Schneemann’s interest in visualizing female pleasure. In cropped views, another fully clothed performer circles them. She is seen in the film documentation through her hand movements, as she drops raw chicken, sausages, and fish onto the performers from a tray. 

With bits of animal flesh between them, the couples roll around excitedly, bodies pressing and thrusting against each other. One performer clutches a chicken to his chest, and the camera remains on him for a moment. The film cuts to a performer’s body being pulled around like a mop, and another performer thrusting a fish between her thighs. The documentation suddenly cuts to a later point in the performance. The performers’ hair is now neatly covered in plastic shower caps and the raw meat has disappeared. Instead, they splash around in black, blue, and orange paint and subsequently roll around in a heap of paper fragments. Meat Joy becomes a liberatory celebration of her bodily desires, a subversive representation at the time. Schneemann’s collage of musical samples, voiceover, and select views forms a distinct reimagining of the original performance.  

In Body Collage, Schneemann again uses her body as the canvas. She stands alone in her studio, performing to her cinematographer Gideon Bachmann [2]. Exposing her own naked body, Schneemann stares back at the lens, confronting its gaze and the historic objectification of female bodies like hers in films. Schneemann speaks in directives as she rubs herself with glue and then pastes rolls of thin paper upon her body. Sometimes the strips of paper are long rolls, and she bandages, as if mummifying, her body. She bends her legs and arches her back at times, mocking the poses of a playmate or pinup. While the camera mostly observes head-on in wide-angle shots, Bachmann moves and adjusts based on her commands, obediently mirroring her image back.

Vulva’s School

Unlike the other films in the Spectacle series, which are invested in Schneemann’s position and presence as a performer, her body is absent in Souvenir of Lebanon. The piece is neither a documentation nor recreation of a performance and marks a jump in the Spectacle series from her earlier cinematic works without including some of her most critically-acclaimed works. 

With Souvenir of Lebanon, Schneeman now plays in video collage, cutting together news footage of civilians (whose voices we can’t hear), scenes of architectural destruction, touristic images, and abstractly-painted film rolls. The pixelated footage of architectural destruction pans slowly, mirroring Schneemann’s documentation of touristic souvenirs with a shaky, hand-held, home-movie camera [3]

In this piece, Schneemann responds to the 1982-83 bombing of Palestinian and Lebanese villages [4]. However, her relationship to the subject matter and footage is unclear. Schneemann clarifies, “The live color footage was received unexpectedly from an anonymous news photographer. It is intercut with black and white disaster stills I re-shot from daily newspapers, edited in juxtaposition with color slides of bucolic Lebanon given to me on the day the Lebanese tourist bureau in New York City closed.” [5] The film is screened at Spectacle on the large screen without an animated mop sculpture, according to an Artforum review, a vital component of her intentionally multi-media work – War Mop, 1983 [6]. Schneemann’s mop strikes the screen, a gesture, by which “perhaps unconsciously, she begins to equate her long-practiced expressionist stroke with violence” [6]. Although Schneemann acknowledges her distance from these events, the lack of textual context or historical framing to Souvenir of Lebanon in Spectacle’s screening leaves viewers wondering if the work misrepresents these historical events. 

Fresh Blood – A Dream Morphology

In Fresh Blood – A Dream Morphology, Schneemann returns to representing the experiences of her body. She begins by crawling alone on the stage in front of projection slides of photographs and drawings. The projections include drawings of trees, blood vessels, and triangles, and photos of archaeology and cats. As her echoing voiceover poetically describes dreaming of an umbrella, she moves around the stage like a cat. She wears red pajamas with her top unbuttoned, her breasts exposed. The camera angle takes the perspective of the seated audience. The posterior projection turns her body into a brush, painting shadows on the cycling images. She crouches with a transparent umbrella prop, letting the light seep through, as its shadow expands and shrinks in shadow on the screen. The shadow of the umbrella (with strawberries printed on its clear surface) recalls a tampon or tree while also acting as a lecturer’s pointer. The umbrella echoes the discussion of triangles, which she relates to the vulva, as she discusses her own menstrual cycles. In the tradition of feminist post-structuralism, Schneemann’s formal investigations suggest a larger effort to visualize and recover the vagina as a site of pleasure. 

Unlike the purely documentary approach of Fresh Blood, Catscan presents a cinematic group performance similar to Meat Joy. The footage captures the performance from multiple angles and cuts its original ninety minutes into curated moments. The performers are clad in eighties-era costumes—metallic spandex and colorful animal prints—as if extras in a Jane Fonda workout video. The troupe begins walking around the space like stagehands, acting as if they will clean up the mess of objects strewn about from the start. Instead, they haphazardly drop and throw the boxes, grocery carts, ladders, wagons, and house tools, subverting these objects’ use values. Then they begin to crawl about, and one performer even wiggles his torso around a ladder’s steps, dragging it slowly as if in a daze.

Another performer carries a tray with eggs and maneuvers them as he dodges the sea of objects and crawling bodies. However, the eggs fall and crack, splashing around the stage, recalling Meat Joy. Through these repeated acts of destruction, cleaning up becomes transformed into a subversive ritual. The footage cuts forward. Schneemann emerges from the wings, distinct from the troupe, and unravels herself from a red wire. The performance is filmed from the audience’s position, looking upon a stage activated for a duration of time. Yet, the documentation lulls and isolates moments of notable action, proposing a distinct form—the performance-art highlight reel.

Similarly, in Ask the Goddess, a twenty-minute performance becomes a seven-minute greatest-hits-style video. Schneemann stands alone again in front of a projector with a slideshow of goddess imagery appearing at random behind her. She mocks the lecture format, taking prompts from audience members about sex, desires, and dreams. She then uses the projected slides, often containing art historical imagery, to interpret a response to each prompt from the perspective of the goddess. 

At one point she lets out a meow, wears a cat mask, and crawls around the stage. When she receives a question about premature ejaculation, a slide featuring a sculpture of Christ’s limp body, splayed across his mother’s lap, appears behind her. She takes an ax to a down pillow, which hangs to the side of the stage alongside other household objects like a watering can (similar to those scattered across the stage in Catscan). The pillows’ feathery entrails sprinkle around her like snow. 

In another snippet, Schneemann pours red paint on herself from a kitschy, decoy swan like a ritualistic libation. As someone from the audience asks about the goddess’ wildest sexual fantasy, a picture of her cat flashes on the screen, and everyone laughs. As the bright lights obscure her features, Schneemann says, in a hypnotic voice, “There are no more questions. This is the end.” Schneemann molds the painterly gestures of her interactive lecture into a cinematic collage.

Interior Scroll – The Cave

In Interior Scroll – The Cave, Schneemann cuts between a closeup of her pulling a scroll of text—read aloud in voiceover—from her vagina to a wide-angle view of her, among other naked women, in a cave-like environment. The way the footage is cut together, splicing close-ups with coverage-like angles, renders the performance cinematic, in contrast to her other lecture performances. The stage and audience have disappeared, and the audience feels among, almost as if one of, the performers. 

The film reimagines the original 1975 performance during which Schneemann pulled a scroll from her vagina for an audience of fellow women artists at a gallery exhibition in East Hampton [7]. In restaging the performance in a cave, Schneemann alludes to the origin-point of art, the Lascaux caves, and to a long tradition of likening the vagina or uterus to the cave [8]. Schneemann and other performers birth a hidden knowledge from the scroll, extracting an umbilical cord. She inscribes this shared creative knowledge, activating it as a site of artistic creation and desire. 

The voiceover recalls Schneemann’s conversation with a man who snubs her work, labeling her a dancer rather than a filmmaker. She, and other voices, narrate that he rejects her films for “the personal clutter, the persistence of feelings, the hand-touch sensibility, the diaristic indulgence, the painterly mess” [9]. Yet it is precisely these elements—like her use of hand-held cameras, diaristic voiceover, painterly sensibility, and personal subjects—that make her work so memorable. In resisting contemporary, cinematic expectations and conventions, Schneemann’s performances transform fleeting moments in time by compiling scenes, narration, paintings, collages, lectures, and movements into a distinct series of works. 

In Vulva’s School, and Americana I Ching Apple Pie, Schneemann documents performances in front of a projector, stylistically similar to Fresh Blood and Ask the Goddess. Both films are shot in wide-angle as if from the perspective of an audience member.  While the audience is not visible in Vulva’s School, the bright lights of the gallery in Americana I Ching Apple Pie capture the audience’s reactions and movements and invite their participation. At one point, a member of the audience comes up to the front to help Schneemann chop apples with a saw. The well-lit shots of the audience’s intermittent laughter and shifting positions suggest a distinct interaction unlike her other performances. 

Similar to works like Ask the Goddess, in Americana I Ching Apple Pie she satirizes art historical lectures and cooking videos. She begins by likening apples to breasts, similar to her post-structuralist formal comparison between vaginas and triangles in Fresh Blood. She sets out her ingredients and tosses them in a large bowl haphazardly. She mocks traditional cooking tutorials by using a hammer to chop apples, tying an apron on her head, and adding water from a gardening can. She even throws egg shells into the mixture. As she packs it all in a pan at the end, she runs behind the projector screen, into a backroom of the space, to put the pie in the oven and speed up time, as they do on TV, so she can emerge seconds later with the premade dish. 

The uncertain space between the making and completion of the pie strays from the lecture setup towards the backroom. She includes these moments “off stage,” letting her audience feel the elongation of time as they anticipate eating a slice of pie. Their restlessness becomes part of the filmed performance. As she returns with the premade pie, the audience lines up and receives slivers. Culminating Americana I Ching Apple Pie with this participatory ritual and moment of connection, Schneemann underscores the greatest distinction between performance and film—a human exchange created in a unique space and time.  Although a theatrical screening of Schneemann’s work positions her as a filmmaker, Schneemann constructs films that subvert the very expectations of the form. She prioritizes her performances over technique, favoring head-on angles, grainy footage, hand-held cameras, and long takes. The audience helps create Schneemann’s work directly—posing questions in Ask the Goddess, or indirectly—detected in the subtlest of stirrings or laughs. But, in watching the films at Spectacle, there is another layer of distance from the original performances. The acknowledgment and suggestion of what exists outside the frame, what is lost in this mediation, is what makes Schneemann’s films so compelling.

India Halsted is a filmmaker and writer based in Brooklyn.

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