Carolee Schneemann, Utterly Precarious

Slought Foundation

Through May 31, 2012

By Jacob Feige

On a cloudy Thursday evening, herrings dangled from strings in the storefront window of the Slought Foundation’s West Philadelphia space as a single cat looked on, indifferent to her supposed favorite meal. Inside the space, several more cats sat quietly as herrings swayed above them in an improvised enclosure (abutting hockey goals), their hopeful owners watching from nearby stools. Part of performance art pioneer Carolee Schneemann’s series of actions at the Slought Foundation, the College of Physicians, and elsewhere, the mood of humans in attendance was comparatively energetic as they sipped wine and took in a selection of Schneeman’s films from the 1960s, listening attentively as the artist donned cat ears and briefly spoke about her work.


“A dentist has a practice; I have a process,” Scheemann said of her working methods at a recent lecture in Pittsburgh. Of the artists documenting performance in the 1960s with film—Allan Kaprow, Red Grooms, and many others—her films are distinguished by their visceral informality. It is process, becoming, touching, and commingling that her films manage to convey, transcending mere documentation. More than seeing a performance captured in film, one feels directly involved, even enveloped. Five of her films from the 1960s, transferred to digital video, are on view at the Slought Foundation through the end of May.


The most powerful of these, Fuses and Meat Joy, continue to challenge norms and taboos of sexuality and power relationships, nearly fifty years after they were made. The former is a vivid portrayal of straight sex, unlike any other. Film stained with vivid color flickers as cloudy, woozy footage of sex ebbs and flows variously towards clarity and (mostly) towards confusion. Unlike virtually any depiction of such acts, the experience, as a participator, is most prominent in this work. Though explicit, Schneemann and her former lover James Tenney lose their boundaries of selfhood in the film, becoming a single erotic entity, coherent with the abstraction of the film itself.


The female body in particular is central to Schneemann’s work, part of a world of tactile, social experience that necessarily occurs between two or more people rather than within the individual. Even so, Schneemann’s work, sometimes considered Feminist, does not fit neatly into that category, and her relationship to it has been contentious. Her films regard bodily experiences from a woman’s perspective, but they don’t exclude men, or more importantly, masculinity. In Meat Joy, scantily clothed men and women crawl around on an open floor, smearing, throwing, and even biting dead chickens and fish. The participants’ actions, at times resembling the slithering courtship of slugs, other times closer to a fraternity initiation rite, are classic sixties explorations of the body, societal boundaries temporarily taken away. Still, power games lurk under the surface. Male participants throw women over their shoulders and parade around the space; removing boundaries sometimes amplifies existing power structures, rather than eliminating them. Even so, the dominant mood is cheerful and orgiastic, if at times uncomfortable.


Meat Joy, with its display of uninhibited eroticism and transgression, ultimately leaves me feeling cooped up in my own body, farther from the experience of the performers for having seen it. Films can produce a disconnection between audience and performer, something that Schneemann has sought to eliminate in much of her work. Still, these films convey an intensity that simply wouldn’t be possible if a large audience participated. Viewers of her films must be content to quietly watch as the films themselves espouse touch and participation. And in this case, quietly watching—though so different from the spirit behind her work—is the next best thing.


Audio recordings of Schneemann’s projects in conjunction with Utterly Precarious are available on the Slought Foundation website.


Jacob Feige is an artist and teacher. His work has recently been shown at Chambers FA, Beijing, Movement, UK, and Jolie Laide, Philadelphia.