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An Interview with Carolee Schneemann

From: Wide Angle
Volume 20, Number 1, January 1998
pp. 20-49 | 10.1353/wan.1998.0009

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Wide Angle 20.1 (1998) 20-49


Carolee Schneemann is a painter, filmmaker, and performance artist who began making films at twenty-six. Her filmic work includes Viet Flakes (1965), Fuses: Part I of Autobiographical Trilogy (1964-67), Plumb Line: Part II of Autobiographical Trilogy (1968-71), and Kitch's Last Meal: Part III of Autobiographical Trilogy (1973-78). In addition to her artworks, she has published several books including More Than Meat Joy: Complete Performance Works and Selected Writings (1979), ABC, We Print Everything - In The Cards (1977) and her feminist theory of art history, Cézanne, She Was A Great Painter (1974). Her forthcoming publications are Body Politics: Notes and Essays of Carolee Schneemann edited by Jay Murphy for MIT press and a selection of her letters edited by Kristine Stiles for John Hopkins University Press.

Fuses is a sexually explicit film shot by both Carolee Schneemann and her lover, Jim Tenney. Schneemann not only employs an experimental production strategy; she also engages the material properties of film by baking it, painting it, and making its tenuous structure visible (such as including splices as visible facets of the film's montage). Her camera does not follow any systematic, narrative ordering. Rather the body interrupts the frame, avoiding diegetic storytelling and following an idiosyncratic pulse of gesture and musicality.

The film explores heterosexual sex from a variety of vantage points, disturbing the formulaic imaging of sex found in Hollywood cinema. In Fuses the sexual act is not driven by a sequence of events or in service of a linear plot. Instead, sex is shown as a continuous and spontaneous activity between two people. Their relationship to one another is determined by the dynamics of physical coupling rather than individual character development or extenuating social circumstance.

The exhibition history of Fuses is quite remarkable and underscores the film's radical nature. In 1969, it won a Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Selection prize and has had regular public screenings since its completion. Yet, it continues to be a controversial work. In Moscow, twenty years after winning at Cannes, it provoked a small riot and was censored for pornographic content.

I interviewed Carolee Schneemann on March 28, 1997 in her loft in New York City.

Kate Haug: To refresh you on my project, I am specifically studying Fuses (1964-67), because I am looking at sexually explicit work made by women around the time of the women's movement. While I was watching Fuses the other day, I was struck by its beauty. It is so pivotal, for many reasons, in the history of experimental filmmaking. But, because it deals with sex, it has been left out of avant-garde film history and not really addressed by feminism. Is sex still the domain of men? Is that why it is so problematic for women?

Carolee Schneemann: Explicit sexual imagery propels the formal structure of Fuses. Initially, it was clear to me that people were so distracted by being able to have a voyeuristic permission to see genital heterosexuality that it would take them -- if they ever came back to see it again -- many showings before the structure was clear: the musicality of it and the way it was edited. Fuses is very formal in how it is shaped; that was crucial to making it have a coherent muscular life. Visualized erotic, active bodies deflect the very structures which shape montage: viewers are distracted by the simultaneity of perceptual layers Fuses offers.

Which is parallel to my own historic position. All my work evolves from my history as a painter: all the objects, installations, film, video, performance -- things that are formed. But the performative works -- which are one aspect of this larger body of work -- are all that the culture can hold onto. That fascination overrides the rest of the work. It is too silly, but it is still kind of a mind/body split. If you are going to represent physicality and carnality, we can not give you intellectual authority.

KH: As an artist, how do you see the work functioning beyond the sign of the body in terms of its formal structure?

CS: Well, it is a risk, but...

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