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From Danger to Ascendancy: Notes Toward Carolee Schneemann

From: Wide Angle
Volume 20, Number 1, January 1998
pp. 50-57 | 10.1353/wan.1998.0006

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Wide Angle 20.1 (1998) 50-57

Recently, spending several uninterrupted days in bed with the flu, I became increasingly absorbed by thoughts that, through their randomness and disconnected quality, seemed more revelatory and meaningful than those of my life of action.

In 1967, when I was just being born, Carolee Schneemann completed Fuses, a film about the erotic exchange between the artist and her long-time lover, the composer James Tenney. In its referential, indeterminate space, Fuses is akin to my sickbed. Says the filmmaker a quarter century later, "I wanted to see if the experience of what I saw would have any correspondence to what I felt--the intimacy of lovemaking."

There is no cameraman; instead, a cat perched on the windowsill is virtually recording the "action." Fuses shows the touch of the artist on multiple places, including on the material of the film itself: puncturing, scratching, coloring by hand. Fuses is the supra-dream, the hyper-real, the totally ethereal that is too full of clarity not to exist concretely. It is the act of language of one's own evolution, the space of one's own architecture, and the boundlessness of one's own climax.

The more times I share the euphoria of Fuses, the more animate the film becomes: lunging, heaving, crossing over surface and through mass, breathing, genitalia-ing, cat eye-ing. Because Fuses exists in folds, concealing, revealing, and repeating itself, it is easy to lose my footing in remembering it. Like my sickbed, it is more the sense of the film that is with me, rather than a sequence of cause and effect. I wonder if the scene of the ass -- camera facing ass, ass connected to cock, cock, pussy, intercoursing, Carolee on other side of ass, not hers, hers -- is actually spaced throughout the twenty-two minutes of the film. Or, is it in fantasy that the muscles of the red-dipped ass clench, relax, cast shadow, and satiate so neverendingly?

Beautiful woman with long black hair: I catch your eyes, you do not see me, you shift, slip backwards, and delve ever more freely into your creation. Now, the man with the ass pleasures you through his mouth and tongue. You reach the furthest point in your dream. I experience the nirvana of your orgasm in this radical cunni-linguistics. Kitch the cat looks around.

I first saw Fuses in the late nineteen-eighties, enjoying the film but feeling that its context and impact were of the past. Though Fuses was an important work to see in terms of being familiar with different histories -- experimental film, sexuality and the body in art, and feminist practice -- it didn't apply directly to me as a young woman artist twenty years later. At the time, I was reading a lot of feminist film theory, the vast majority of which did not take explicit sexual images by women into serious consideration, thereby relegating such films to the border zone.

Yet Fuses changed with time, becoming increasingly relevant to my life upon each screening. My intensified visceral response led me to believe that my ability to more fully experience the film was intricately linked to sexual freedom. Life experience had taught me that indeed, after decades, a sixties experimental film by a woman reveling in her own erotic joy could be subversive, not to mention intoxicating. I also learned that what I had taken for granted in my early twenties -- such as assuming that restrictive roles for women were misfortunes of the past -- were actually pressing concerns to this day and that it was because of the ongoing struggle by women older than myself that I could have made these assumptions in the first place. As an artist inspired by questions of the articulation of sexuality and the body, I finally accepted my indebtedness to Carolee Schneemann.

In 1968, soon after the release of Fuses, New York Radical Women organized the first major protest of the Women's Liberation Movement at the Miss America pageant. Demonstrators disposed of "feminine products," including dish towels, steno pads, girdles, and bras, in a "Freedom Trash Can." Co-organizer Robin Morgan writes of the historic event, "This...


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