Hommage à Carolee Schneemann

Vendredi 3 mai 2019, 15h-17h30
Judson Memorial Church, New York

Texte de Jean-Jacques Lebel lu à la tribune par Kristine Stiles : 

Dear Carolee, 

We first met in 1961 at the March Gallery which was in the basement of the Judson Church the very place where your memorial is taking place today. We were both included in the same show there which was organized by Sam Goodman, Stanley Fischer and Boris Lurie. The first conversation we had was about Michael McClure’s poetry which we both loved. That same winter we took part in the sameStore Dayshappenings which Claes Oldenburg staged on Avenue B. Also,  in 1962, you designed the program Ledflet of our poetry reading at the Living Theatre. You later moved to Europe and, as I was putting together the first International Festival of Free Expressionat the privately funded American students and artists center on boulevard Raspail in Paris (not to be confused with the US government sponsored center on the rue du Dragon) you came to me with the proposal of a sort of collective horizontal transe frenzy involving humans, fish and different meats, more or less accidental nudity and body art coloring. That would turn out to become famous as Meat Joy, which you premiered then and there in 1964 at our Paris festival. We were later invited to travel all together to London to present a cross-section of the Festival’s main events of which Meat Joywas part two evenings were planned at the Dennison hall but the second one was prohibited by the police because of insulting coverage in the right wing press which denounced what it called “too much nudity and sex trying to pass as avant-garde art”. Same old story. In fact the Meat Joypremiere went very well. The room was packed and the audience sat in a circle around the protagonists as the action took place on the floor. I remember you giving soft instructions to the artist Daniel Pommereulle and Annina Nosei  (then a student, not yet an art dealer) to make do with the overly dramatic contorsions of Rita Renoir who was a famous strip teaser from the Crazy Horse saloon whose ambitioned to become a mainstream theatre actor by way of the so-called avant-garde (that was supposed to be us, I guess) and you set out to explain that in our of collective work there were no such things as stars or second fiddles since all participants had equal status. Rita couldn’t quite grasp the difference between a sexy strip tease number in a night club and an experimental painterly group grope such as Meat Joy. Never mind, with all its contradictory components Meat Joyin particular and the fortnight long festival were big hits and we enjoyed ourselves immensely in helping each other out in making things happen. 

The flimsy undergarments you had instructed the participants in your happening to wear had a strange tendency to tear or fall off in the heat of the action and that, of course, enhanced the audience’s attention span. Nowadays nudity is quite common-place in the performing but, back in the sixties, that was not yet the case. I remember how excited the magnificent British born surrealist poet Joyce Mansour was as she moved closer and closer to see what was going on.  Being short-sighted and wearing thick glasses, she got so close, that, eventually, she became part of it. In a sense, that kind of sums up the entire purpose of our efforts. Meat Joywas a major component of the so-called world-wide underground movement which we experienced first hand in the sixties on either sides of the Atlantic and Pacific. More than half a century later it makes sense to recall the general socio-cultural context in which it came about and spread like wild fire, especially today as we are witnessing a horrifying global regression towards the most obnoxious forms of racism, nationalism, social and sexual oppression, and fundamentalisms of all sorts, of which the pussy-grabbing moron shooting off his mouth in the oval office and at N.R.A. rallies, is bit a symptom, not the cause, it could be useful to recall how intensely positive the context we operated in was in contrast to what is it is today. 

In the U.S. the civil rights and black power movements energized everyone, so did the Berkeley free speech movement, the budding feminist movement, and gay liberation all converging into a massive anti-war rainbow coalition. In Chicago, during the mass demonstrations, in 1968, the likes of William Burroughs, Allan Ginsberg, Jean Genet, Joan Baez, Normal Mailer, Dick Gregory, Ed Sanders and Abby Hoffmann mingled closely with the protesting youth by heeding William Burroughs advice to “Put your ass where your mouth is”. Come to think of it, that was the nearest thing to a global political, sexual and artistic battle cry for the sixties the world over. Meanwhile, in France, a giant general strike shook the very basis of capitalism : factories, radio and its stations, universities, schools, train stations, airports, subways, theatres, were occupied by more than ten million people who stopped working to try and retake control of their own lives. The General strike turned the entire society into a gigantic dada flavored wild dance. Performed spontaneously by millions but choreographed by no one in particular. Certainly not by professional politicians, unions bureaucrats or oligarchs. It is an open secret that if anything at all influenced the mass uprising which lead to the General Strike in May 68. It would be the age old dream dreamt by many generations of John Browns, of Rimbauds, of Bakounines, of Louise Michels, of Emersons, of Emma Goldmans right up to Dada, the situationnists, and, yes, to the sixties underground movement. In other words, it is not impossible and even quite plausible that on an individual, private, intimate level. A free jazz concert by Ornette Coleman, a performance of “Paradise Now” by the Living Theatre, a tune played by the Rolling Stones, a happening by Kaprow, by Fahlström or by you, Carolee, could have triggered a psycho-physical sensory awakening of a life changing magnitude. 

The art market quick sands and the enforced prostitutional behavioral codes have all but swallowed up whatever artistic dissent has managed to evade detection, but, nevertheless, here and there,  are signs of life within the global quagmire. I’ll take one example concerning the wider context of the sixties, outside the limited realm of museums galleries and universities you directly related to the creative process. 

In 1966, I took part in a million march anti Vietnam war protest in the Belgian city of Liège to which converged a large variety of radicals from not only the neighboring countries (France, Germany, Switzerland) but from all over Europe. The first five kilometers of the demonstration were boringly academic to a fault : thousands of banners with the usual automated political slogans, row after row after row of red flags, portraits of Marx, Che Guevara, and even, to my horror, Stalin, all kinds of Vietnamese and other flags, later on black’s flags appeared and, at the very end of the enormous procession, suddenly a conclusive philosophical statement of the highest order appeared out of the blue: a handful of females and males, paraded distinct fully apart from the mainstream, holding up a simple broomstick to which they had thumb tacked a sheet of free-flowing translucent cellophane. I went up and hugged them. So happy I was to discover their hilarious portable version of Duchamp’s Large Glasswhich, in a discreet but undeniable way, underscored the organic link of the sixties mass uprising with the Dadaist precedent. That’s what art does, it opens minds.

I experienced a similar revelatory emotion when you premiered Meat Joyin 1964. In my view that work of yours stands and will continue to stand alongside Strange Fruitsung by Billie Holiday, Waldenfilmed by Jonas Mekas, a masterful drip canvas by Pollock or combine painting by Rauschenberg, an abstract expressionist visual storm by Joan Mitchell, or a Kaprow happening, as the very quintessence of what the best art that came out of America during the fifties and sixties was all about. 

We loved you then, we love you now and will love you for the foreseeable future, Dear Carolee, because you touched our hearts in a special way. 

As ever, 

Jean-Jacques Lebel.