Tuesday night, I ventured to the beloved St. Mark’s Bookshop to see pioneering feminist artist Carolee Schneemann read from her recent book of letters, Correspondence Course: An Epistolary History of Carolee Schneemann and Her Circle. Schneemann entered the crowded section of folding chairs and standing and sitting bodies slowly and eerily, wearing her infamous devil mask.
Prefacing the talk, Schneemann warned the audience of how “brutal” the world of academic publishing is, driving the point home that this text was truly a labor of love. Describing Correspondence Course as “a book about different types of practical and aesthetic survival,” Schneemann piqued the audience’s intrigue, despite her attesting that “all the sex and fucking is not in this book … the sexy stuff is in my diaries.”
Schneemann’s reading from Correspondence Course didn’t flow with much rhyme or reason. She marked her preferred pieces with bright green tabs, methodically leafing through to be sure she didn’t leave any of the good stuff out. Emphasizing that the book was Kristine Stiles’s, her co-editor’s, vision, Schneemann appeared fatigued by the years of interactions represented on the pages before her.
Her first selection was an excerpt of her “mystical, odd, inspiring, exasperating” correspondence with sculptor and artist Joseph Cornell. The brief snippets highlighted the poetic nature of these conversations, with Cornell writing beautiful phrases like, “ … it is a spiritual idea that lights your path.” Schneemann’s words, while poetic, really uphold her claim that this work is about “practical and aesthetic survival.” “Suddenly the psychological weight fills your gut,” she writes to Cornell, her prose pregnant with anxiety. These short glimpses into Schneemann’s own thought processes did not give us a full picture, but left us wanting more.
The audience was privileged to hear one great arc: a story about Schneemann’s correspondence with Fluxus artist and composer Dick Higgins. Higgins, in 1981, suggested that in Schneemann’s middle age she should perhaps have a “beautiful young woman” enact her performances as a surrogate. Higgins contested this suggestion was not about Schneemann’s aging body, but rather, a way to retain her “masterly objectivity.” Schneemann, seeing through this backhanded compliment wrote a letter back the following day about the ways that middle age had given her a new vantage point. She contemplated the position of aging artists, asking, “How could a forty plus woman with wrinkled knees dare to perform?” and, “Did these older people still fuck a lot?” Higgins replied bluntly, “I’m older than you and still a horny bastard, that’s not the point.” Schneemann encourages us to follow this “soap opera” in the book.
As Schneemann neared the end of her correspondence performance, she read an impassioned response to feminist historian and art critic Amelia Jones, describing her own process to claw through “the surface of my culture.” Elaborating later that she spends, “a lot of time with contradictory cultural information,” it is clear that Schneemann has battled with institutional power on many levels. She reads an e-mail from a group fighting against false information released regarding a nuclear leak in Nebraska. This example nestled in with her own struggles as an artist — she emphasized her lack of insurance, investments and lack of stability distorted by a “fantasy of success” — illustrates Schneemann’s personal, political, and artistic struggles with power.
An audience member commented on Schneemann’s “incredible capacity for forgiveness,” which Schneemann denied. She claimed, “You’ve never driven with me,” imitating her own road rage: “You stupid cunt, can you move your car? That’s no signal, asshole!” Another participant asks her to read some of her letters about cats. Instead of recalling the letters, Schneemann references multiple discussions she’s had about them in the past: their intimacies, affections and the ways that they cannot replace human companionship. She asks us if we’ve seen the YouTube video “Klepto Cat.”
And that, my friends, is how Carolee Schneemann taught me about a cat who steals things.
Correspondence Course: An Epistolary History of Carolee Schneemann and Her Circle, which is edited by Kristine Stiles, is available on Amazon and other book retailers.
Photo on top by the author