Where The Frame Breaks: Carolee Schneemann's Revolution

Where The Frame Breaks: Carolee Schneemann's Revolution

Carolee Schneemann was and always will be one of the most revolutionary artists we have. From the violence of war to the urgency of sexual expression, she understood life in different dimensions and colours to the rest of us. In keeping with Barbican’s Body Politics exhibition and Carolee Schneemann Film Series in the cinema, Rachel Pronger reflects on the artist’s legacy.

When a performance artist dies, where does their work go? Carolee Schneemann worked across photography, film, painting and sculpture, but today she remains best known for her performance work. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Schneemann took part in a series of performances centred on her naked body which pushed the boundaries of feminist art making. Her most famous acts – pulling a roll of paper out of her vagina in Interior Scroll, dancing with raw chicken in Meat Joy – retain their visceral shock factor today.

Embodiment was key to Schneemann’s practice. Her performances were documented via film and photography, but while these images are arresting, there’s a limit to how far we can access their raw thrill second hand. A new retrospective at the Barbican – the first since Schneemann’s death in 2019 – seeks to address this question by placing Schneemann’s performances within the wider context of her practice. Body Politics follows the artist from her early career as an abstract painter in the 1950s to the multi-media installations of the 2000s. The range is dazzling, but Schneemann’s work as a filmmaker, highlighted through an accompanying film series, is the biggest revelation. With the artist herself gone, it is this moving image work which fills the gap, preserving Schneemann’s radical voice and allowing the ghostly imprint of her body to live on.

As a child growing up in rural 1940s Pennsylvania, Schneemann was interested in the artistic possibilities of the moving image. “My childhood drawings are curious, because they’re very primitive but they’re in sequences,” said Schneemann in 2018. “It’s as though I were anticipating filmic time. And I had never seen a film when I was four years old.” She would go on to study painting – she saw herself first and foremost as painter throughout her life – but after struggling to find a place for herself in this male-dominated field, Schneemann began exploring other mediums. In 1961, she moved to New York where she continued to broaden her practice, experimenting with performance, sculpture and photography. She also appeared in the films of her friend, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, but once again chafed against the narrow expectations of her male peers – Brakhage refused to film her painting, insisting instead that she appear wearing an apron and chopping onions.

In 1963, Schneemann took control of the camera. Her first film, Carl Ruggles’ Christmas Breakfast, is a short 8mm piece which records the 80-year old composer Ruggles in conversation with Schneemann’s partner, the musician James Tenney, over breakfast. While clearly the work of an artist finding her way, Christmas Breakfast already exhibits many of the hallmarks – hand-tinted film stock, repetitious editing, an interest in domestic ritual– which Schneemann would return to throughout her moving image work.

In Schneemann’s next film she would push those ideas to their limits. Fuses depicts Schneemann and Tenney at their farmhouse home in rural upstate New York. Shot across a three-year period from 1964 to 1967, the film is an impressionistic portrait of the couple’s life together in which quiet details of domestic life – a plant-covered window, a flashing Christmas tree – are juxtaposed with repetitive images of explicit sex and nudity. From the start, Schneemann establishes an almost painfully intimate atmosphere, opening with a series of disorientating closeups of body parts: an eye, a mouth, a vulva – rendered strange by extreme proximity. The film continues in a hypnotic rhythm, as peaceful images of the mundane are continually interrupted by images of blowjobs, erect penises and cunnilingus. During the editing process, Schneemann further drew out the mesmeric otherness of her images by subjecting the 16mm print to a number of interventions – painting on it, baking it in the oven, even hanging it out the window in the hope that it would be struck by lightning. The resulting film feels like it is constantly on the verge of breaking apart, an unstable mass of flashing colours, tangled bedsheets and writhing bodies.

Fuses’ reception was explosive. Schneemann initially struggled to find anyone to process the print – eventually a lab agreed, but only if the film was accompanied by a letter from a psychiatrist. Although received warmly by some artistic peers, critics were largely negative and Schneemann faced accusations of self-indulgence and narcissism. Fuses’ combination of the explicit and the emotional had an enraging effect on some viewers. When the film premiered at Cannes in 1968, Schneemann described seeing a group of men attack their chairs with razor blades in protest, while at a screening at the University of Michigan a fight broke out after a man declared that the film had failed to “give him a hard on.” Reactions from women could be just as strong – at one screening in Chicago, Schneemann was confronted by a group of lesbian activists angered by the way in which the film privileged heterosexual desire. 

In 2022, what is most striking about Fuses is not so much sex – nowadays we’re never more than a click of a mouse away from hardcore imagery – but rather its tenderness. Schneemann’s pleasure frequently takes centre stage in the film, and the connection between the two lovers is palpable. There is a warmth and wit to the editing, particularly in the way Schneemann incorporates her cat Kitch, creating the impression that he is looking on, nonplussed, as the couple collide. By making Fuses, Schneemann hoped to reclaim the female body from the objectification of the male gaze. “I was filming my erotic life because, while I knew what this life felt like, I wanted to see what it would look like,” she would later say, “when I talked about female sexuality, people only offered me pornography.” Unlike most pornography, Fuses places female subjectivity at the centre of the frame, and by doing so presents a sex-positive female-centric vision of sexual desire which still feels refreshing.

Fuses is the first of three films from this period which directly reflect on Schneemann’s life, and would go on to be referred to as The Autobiographical Trilogy. In the harrowing Plumbline, made between 1968 and 1971, Schneemann reflects on the end of a relationship and subsequent mental breakdown. Made from scrap footage, with the screen often divided into multiple images which mirror one another in Rorschach-style patterns, Plumbline’s disjointed construction echoes the disintegration of Schneemann’s mental state. Diaristic fragments offer glimpses of a couple, who walk through streets or around an empty house. These collaged images are accompanied by a montage of troubling sounds  – a woman’s voice repeating “no,” the scream of a siren, animalistic wails – which build to a crescendo until, eventually, the film collapses in on itself, catching fire before our eyes. Just as Fuses so unsparingly documented tthe experience of being inside a relationship so Plumbline offers a flipside to that intimacy, candidly capturing the excruciating pain of extreme heartbreak.

The trilogy’s third film is gentler in approach, but still packs an emotional punch. In Kitch’s Last Meal, Schneemann returns to her home in upstate New York, documenting her day-to-day life there alongside her new partner, the artist Anthony McCalland, and the now elderly Kitch. The film captures the continuous textures and mundane tasks which constitute the shared life of the two artists.  Calm images of daily life – folding laundry, gardening, cooking meals – suggest peaceful coexistence, but recurring images of speeding trains serve as a reminder of the relentless passage of time, even within this cosy creative bubble. Death hangs in the background, just outside the frame, until eventually it breaks through. Throughout the film, intertitles remind us of Kitch’s advancing age and the film ends, inevitably, with his death; in the final frames we see a devastated Schneemann cradling the cat’s stiff body, staring down the lens with tears in her eyes.

Courtesy of Lynn Sachs and Curtain Cinema

Like all of Schneemann’s best work, Kitch’s Last Meal draws a direct line from the personal to the political. The arresting focal point of the film is a monologue, delivered by Schneemann, in which she discusses the way in which her work has been received by male artists.

I met a happy man/ a structuralist filmmaker…/he said we are fond of you/ you are charming/ but don’t ask us/ to look at your films/ we cannot/ there are certain films/ we cannot look at/ the personal clutter/the persistence of feelings/ the hand-touch sensibility/ the diaristic indulgence/ the painterly mess/ the dense gestalt/ the primitive techniques

After listing these perceived shortcomings, Schneemann goes on to describe how the filmmaker lectures her on technique before proudly proclaiming that he lives with “a sculpturess”. “Does that make me a filmmaker-ess?” Schneemann asks pointedly. 

When viewed together, The Autobiographical Trilogy demonstrates just how radical Schneemann’s film works were. The explicit nature of Fuses, and the attention paid to Schneemann’s performance work, has often overshadowed the wide range of themes that emerge in her films. But as the feminist critique at the heart of Kitch’s Last Meal demonstrate, the personal and political are often deeply intertwined in our lives. They might look from the outside like “diaristic indulgence” and “painterly mess,” but Schneemann’s films represent radical reclamation of the medium of film through female subjectivity. By placing her personal experiences of love, sex and domestic life at the heart of her work, Schneemann argues that women’s everyday lives are inherently political, valuable and worthy subjects for art.

Another key aspect of Schneemann’s work that is often missed is her engagement with geo politics and interest in human violence and suffering. Her 1968 short Viet-Flakes was one of the first US films to engage with the horror of the Vietnam war. Based upon an “atrocity collection” of news photographs that Schneemann began collecting in the early 1960s, the film is a chilling makeshift animation composed of closeups of images of suffering – screaming women and children, mutilated dead bodies – accompanied by a discordant soundtrack mashing up snippets of pop, classical and folk music to create a nightmarish soup. The result is a scream of rage and horror. 

Throughout her career, Schneemann would continually return to shocking images of suffering, creating  multi-media work based around the war in Syria and the collapse of the Twin Towers. These reportage pieces may feel like outliers but they serve as a kind of dark twin to Schneemann’s work on gender and sexuality. Just as in Schneemann’s naked performance art and erotic films, the artist makes us look directly at taboos, so in her war pieces she seems compelled to capture the unseeable, to force us to acknowledge the unseeable. Both strands of Schneemann’s work are explicit and shocking, and both open her up to criticisms of self-indulgence or exhibitionism. The power of Schneemann’s films, though, lies in their brutal honesty.

Schneemann’s uncompromising approach to her work, and her stubborn refusal to bow to political fashion or engage with art world power games, meant she spent much of her career on the margins. From the 1990s onwards, however, Schneemann’s legacy has slowly begun to be reassessed by new generations of artists and critics who have started to acknowledge her enormous influence on contemporary feminist art and film. In the final decade of her life, Schneemann became the subject of several documentaries made by female filmmakers who wanted to pay tribute to a rule breaker. 

© Marielle Nitoslawska; courtesy the artist;Possible Movements; Picture Palace Pictures

Marielle Nitoslawska’s 2011 Breaking the Frame, offers an appropriately expressionistic portrait. Featuring extensive interviews with the artist herself, extraordinary archive photos and extended extracts from her moving image work, the film offers a comprehensive introduction to Schneemann’s biography and career. The fragmentary scrapbook structure and sense of extreme subjectivity – the voiceover consists entirely of first person reflections from Schneemann and Nitoslawska – captures the spirit of the artist’s work. Crucially, Breaking the Frame also puts forward a compelling argument for Schneemann’s influence on her peers and subsequent generations of artists. As Schneemann herself puts it: “Any female artist working with the body has to pass through my work.”

Lynne Sachs’s 2018 short Carolee, Barbara and Gunvor, which was completed shortly before Schneemann’s death, also argues for the artist’s historical importance. By placing Schneemann side-by-side with two other rule-breaking female filmmakers of the same generation – Barbara Hammer and Gunvor Nelson – Sachs rejects the idea of Schneemann as a marginalised figure, instead repositioning her as part of a boundary-pushing feminist vanguard.

By shooting Schneemann within her home – the same upstate New York farmhouse in which she shot Fuses so many years ago – Sachs also nods towards the artist’s rich history. She might be in her 70s now, softly spoken and a little frail, but as she sits smiling and surrounded by her beloved cats, the spark of rebellious energy that made Schneemann such an explosive filmmaker is still in evidence. “Friends lent me their cameras with a kind of obvious discomfort,” she tells Sachs, “as if I would bleed on this precious machinery.” In a way, she did bleed on the machinery. And thank god she did.

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