Dissent and the Aesthetics of Control: On Carolee Schneemann’s Snows
I say ‘I use materials’ but I often sense that they use me as vision from which they re-emerge in a visual world which could not speak without them. At the same time in the art world today people often say, “I’m only interested in the useless.” The Fro-Zen, the expanse of slight sensation, the twist to existing conventions: not to be shocked, disturbed, startled, not to exercise the senses thoroughly… to be left as you were found, undisturbed, confirmed in all expectation. Not what is ‘useful’ but what moves me.
—Carolee Schneemann, 19631
I begin with a statement by the artist Carolee Schneemann. Notice the strange formulation she uses to describe her relationship to materials: “they use me as vision.” Consider too the way this formulation resounds in the concluding phrase, “Not what is ‘useful’ but what moves me.” Written in 1963, the note speaks to the shift in her work from painting toward the production of large-scale assemblages, environmental collages, and performances undertaken in the context of happenings and the Judson Dance Theater. Four Fur Cutting Boards (1963), for example, employs materials left behind in the artist’s studio, a former furrier’s workshop. The large painted panels incorporate items that might well appear used up and useless: a dangling hubcap, a couple of ruined umbrellas, scraps of wood, fabric, and fur. For Schneemann however, use was not the measure of value that mattered. The distinct physicality of each found element within her composition solicits a form of looking that involves the body as much as the eye. Objects are echoed in form and color by broad sweeps of pigment keyed to the scale of the artist’s own body. The making of Four Fur Cutting Boards led Schneemann to explore the possibility of including her body itself “as an integral material” in the work.2 In Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963), she takes up props such as mirror shards and live snakes to arrange herself into a series of evocative poses within a visual environment dominated by the large construction. The resulting photographs include her body, bare but for the occasional stripe of paint or smudge of chalk, as one material among others. Eye Body marked a significant turn in the exploration of what Schneemann called “the image values of flesh as material.”3 The phrase suggests less an interest in the abstract body as object, used for example in early happenings, than in the particular qualities of specific bodies. Glass Environment for Sound and Movement, a work she presented in May 1962 at the Living Theatre, was built around movements conceived for individual dancers based on “the particularities and contrasts between types, each seen as vivid, distinctive.”4 The score for Glass Environment underlines Schneemann’s focus on the way bodies convey different characteristics. One dancer was to keep her actions “small, round, compact, unselfconscious” while projecting “innocence and efficiency of temperament,” another was to cultivate “controlled wildness, poignant energy.5 When Schneemann came to lend her own body, sensate and seeing, to Eye Body, the sense of being used “as vision” registered both the resulting reorientation of perspective, situated now within the work, as well as the experience of becoming visible as a body with its own image values and characteristics. This essay charts another important turn in her work a few years later, when instead of using photography as a means to incorporate the body into the work, photographic material itself became a question of use and vision.
In 1967 Schneemann staged a performance entitled Snows in protest of the Vietnam War. Here attention to “the image values of flesh” necessarily took on new, politically fraught, significance. To make a work in which the body figured as material required reckoning in some way with the proliferation of images in the press depicting bodies marked by the violence of war. Political protest at this moment put immense pressure on the most graphic of these images to convey the force of dissent. In what follows I consider Schneemann’s response to that pressure in Snows, particularly as it took up feedback to frame questions about empathy and its limits that earlier works had left unexplored. Schneemann produced Snows as part of the Week of Angry Arts, an artist-organized festival of anti-war dissent that took place in New York City in the winter of 1967.6 The program involved over forty performances and events by some five hundred artists.7 During that week of protest, photographs of Vietnamese villagers disfigured by napalm and shrapnel appeared at unexpected moments: in posters plastered all over the city, as slides interrupting a poetry reading held in a university auditorium, and as blown-up enlargements attached to the flatbed truck that served a caravan traveling neighborhood to neighborhood from the Village up to Harlem, bringing anti-war poetry and performance out into the wintry streets.8 The caravan distributed twelve thousand copies of a pamphlet featuring a child suffering from napalm burns on the cover.9 Inside it cited the primary source of these images. They came from an article by William F. Pepper entitled “The Children of Vietnam” published in the January 1967 issue of the popular New Left magazine Ramparts.10 Pepper’s essay offered a first-hand account of the devastating effects of American aerial bombing on Vietnam’s civilian population. It is remembered today for the impact it had on Martin Luther King Jr.’s decision to publically link the Civil Rights struggle to a critique of the imperialist policies behind America’s involvement in Vietnam. The article contextualizes each photograph within the narrative of the author’s experiences at various medical facilities and relocation camps. In addition to documenting the dire conditions inside hospitals overrun with patients needing urgent care, the essay includes many images of everyday life among displaced Vietnamese citizens. The most graphic images appear as small black and white photographs at the outer margins of the page. During the Week of Angry Arts, these few images of extreme bodily disfiguration were the ones that were most often reproduced, blown up, and projected.
Page from William Pepper’s “The Children of Vietnam.” The caption reads: “The ‘pacification’ program undertaken by the government of Premier Ky involves the relocation of large numbers of refuges from their ancestral homes to “New Life Hamlets.” The ‘hamlet’ pictured here was built on top of a huge garbage mound.”
While a number of poets and other performers participated in disseminating the most disturbing of Pepper’s photographs far and wide, other participants in the Week of Angry Arts were less confident about the use of graphic media images to galvanize support for the anti-war cause. A full-day event entitled, “An Act of Respect for the Vietnamese People,” for example, implicitly questioned the impulse to let shocking photographs speak for themselves. Musicians played Vietnamese music. Susan Sontag read Buddhist texts. There were presentations about Vietnamese rivers, villages, food, and families. “Information not emotion was to be the medium,” concluded one reporter after interviewing the event’s organizers.11 Seen in this context, Schneemann’s Snows registers much of the same ambivalence about the use of emotionally charged images, while simultaneously suggesting equal uncertainty about the efficacy of information overload as a countervailing strategy.12 This doubt emerges even in the work’s title: Snows suggests numbness, blindness, the fear that photographic overexposure depoliticizes violence making it feel as unstoppable or as inevitable as nature. At the same time, it evokes the idea of noise or static, the buzz of an interrupted signal or information lost to entropy.
Given this doubt and ambivalence Schneemann might have chosen to make a work that left both journalistic images and information aside altogether. This was the tactic pursued by Yvonne Rainer, with whom Schneemann had collaborated in the early days of the Judson Dance Theater. Rainer’s contribution to the Week of Angry Arts, Convalescent Dance, was a solo version of a work that would by 1968 be known as Trio A.13 The dance unfolds as a single ongoing movement that continues without pause, departing from the choreographic convention of phrasing movement into units each with a beginning, middle, and end. Carrie Lambert-Beatty compares it to “asentencewithnospacesbetweenwords.”14 In Rainer’s own words: “What is seen is a control that seems geared to the actual time it takes the actual weight of the body to go through prescribed motions.” But “the demands made on the body’s (actual) energy resources” only “appear to be commensurate with the task.”15 For the Week of Angry Arts, Rainer performed Convalescent Dance as a solo while in a shaky state of recovery from a serious illness. Evidence of the gulf Rainer’s work opens up between what is seen and the demands made on the dancer’s body surfaces in critic Clive Barnes’s description of the work as “a dance of tap and gesture yet with a sense of style and feeling so that Miss Rainer, in white pants and sweater, made the whole world seem wistfully delightful.”# His review registers none of the vulnerability or frailty of a body performing while still in the throes of recovery. Lambert-Beatty argues that the work approaches the limit of what one can know of another body by way of kinesthetic empathy, a conclusion that Barnes’s review only further confirms.17
In March of 1968 Rainer included a statement in a program note that accompanied another performance of Trio A (as part of a longer performance entitled The Mind is a Muscle) situating the work again in relation to the Vietnam War.18 Expressing her horror at the broadcast of an execution of a Vietnamese prisoner on television, she describes herself as disturbed by “the sight of death,” but even more so by “the fact that the TV can be shut off afterwards.” Reckoning with this experience Rainer concludes, “My body remains the enduring reality.”19 Turning the television off returned Rainer to her body as a reliable, but resolutely private reality. Here Rainer defines her embrace of an aesthetic of extreme visual control over and against the spectacularized suffering of others. But in seeking grounds for securing reality, her statement suggests a compensatory reaction toward feelings of helplessness brought on by war’s distant violence. In Snows, Schneemann’s use of feedback sidesteps the certainties that Rainer’s work embraces. As a result, control figures very differently in her work, as something more like a problem than a solution.
Rainer’s use of the term control to describe her ambitions in Convalescent Dance/Trio A is straightforwardly literal. Her choreography conceals the control that the dancer exercises over his or her movements. As a result, the dance produces a disjunction between what the audience perceives (a body whose movements are geared to the demands of a task) and what the dancer experiences in the process of creating that image. The relay between the exertion of control and the appearance of the body must be carefully monitored and adjusted by the dancer as the dance unfolds. Though Rainer does not make the connection herself, it would be possible to frame her use of the term control within the discourse of cybernetics, where it registers a more specific meaning, one that I will argue, Schneemann’s work picks up and exploits.20 Control in that context refers to the negative feedback mechanisms that regulate change over time.21 When Schneemann takes up questions of control, she makes explicit the dynamics that Rainer occludes, shifting the emphasis from (hidden) control over one’s own body, to forms of control exercised in the exchange between partners, or between the performers and the audience. Her work helps to draw out a connection between the aesthetics of control and an aesthetic associated with its opposite, chance procedures, or the abdication of control. Schneemann rejects both aesthetic strategies because of the way each sidesteps questions of kinetic responsiveness central to her own approach to the body as the object and simultaneous locus of perception. In Snows, the spectacularization of war puts her commitment to kinetic empathy to the test. As a result the work draws out the political significance of her approach to the materiality of her various media.
By 1967 Schneemann’s frustration with the ascendance of an aesthetics of coolness and reserve, already evident in her note of 1963, had bloomed into a full-fledged condemnation of what she called, in a letter written shortly after the Week of Angry Arts, “an art world/a culture” that had become completely “mechanical in its emotions and insane with cold lusts to be gotten at, to feel and so armored nothing could strike empathy.”22 While participating in the Judson Dance Theater between 1962 and 1964, Schneemann began to articulate her aims in terms of “extend[ing] insight and response,” or what she described as “the basic responsive range of empathetic-kinesthetic vitality.”23 She clarified her own approach in contrast to what she called “the Fro-Zen” sensibility that pervaded her milieu in the early 1960s. This phrase speaks to the influence of John Cage in her circle. In particular it takes aim at the compositional strategies pursued by participants in the workshops offered by Robert Dunn. Dunn’s classes, held in Merce Cunningham’s studio beginning in 1960, were structured around assignments designed to encourage dancers to create compositions through chance procedures using Cage’s graphic scores as an important model, with Zen Buddhism as a key influence on their aleatory structures.24 For Schneemann, coming to dance and performance by way of painting, chance methods often disappointed, failing, in her view, to assume what she valued most: “evidence of the senses,” as she put it in January of 1962, reflecting on the issue in another set of notes. Working with chance methods “so corralled, netted” aesthetic production that she felt it became “a closing in.” Polemically she insisted, “Visual-kinesthetic sources are not abstract theoretical conceptions for my process.”25
By what means then, if not by chance, did Schneemann arrive at the structure of Snows? Or to ask another related question, how did Snows mobilize “evidence of the senses” and to what ends? Answering these questions will require taking stock of the work’s many moving parts, which included six performers (three women and three men), five technicians, a pair of swivel mounted projectors, a revolving light sculpture, a snow machine, and significantly, the audience itself, whose restless movements were registered as live feedback by theater seats set up to trigger the stage lights.26 Snows was the first work to receive material and technical support from the newly formed Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.).27 With the assistance of E.A.T.’s engineers, Schneemann incorporated the complex array of contact microphones, electronic switching systems, and mechanical moving parts that allowed her to transform the theater into a feedback instrument responsive to the audience’s movements.28 In a report published in E.A.T.’s newsletter, Schneemann describes a vivid scene of a station wagon “jammed with plastic boxes, cable, wire, power amplifiers, transceivers, photoresistors, tone controls, preamps, mikes, contact mikes, speaker matrix, huge speakers, motors, [and] string”; a catalogue that provides some sense of the technological effort this endeavor required.29 Snows also made use of materials that were considerably more humble and readily available—tinfoil, flour (as fake snow), crumpled paper, foam rubber, and white grease paint. Live action throughout Snows was punctuated by the projection of different 16mm and 8mm films. The production incorporated found footage newsreels and footage that Schneemann shot herself, including a diary film made in the weeks leading up to the production. Some of these films were screened more or less conventionally on a large round disc that served as a kind of projection surface. Other moving images were sent skimming across the performers, walls, and ceiling of the theater by projectionists operating the swivel mounted projectors. For the majority of the hour and a half long performance, Snows suspended direct reference to Vietnam, but news images of the war formed what the artist called “the heart and core” of the performance.30 They appeared only as the performance was coming to an end in a film entitled Viet-Flakes that crossed the divide between found footage and film diary. Schneemann made the film by shooting a collection of photographs clipped from stories about the Vietnam War that she had been collecting from various European and underground newspapers over the course of several years.31 Schneemann explained, “I didn’t want to insert film as subordinate image concentrations.”32 She thought of the films instead as playing a role parallel to the bodies involved in the work:
Each film spilled out of its fixed frame, projected onto surfaces throughout the theater: pulsing, centralized to have as much physical stretch and shift as the performers themselves. It was as if film could be projected back into/onto film, a collision and absorption of images like the collisions of our bodies.33
Pamela M. Lee identifies in Snows what she calls forms of “bodily confusion” that result in “a loss of control of the body by the image at large.” Said another way, where Rainer explores the exercise of control over the body as image, Schneemann explores the body as it loses control, a state brought on in some way by its contact with images. In Lee’s reading of the work, this loss paradoxically leads to the transcendence of “visions of atrocity and dread.”34 There is much in Schneemann’s work to warrant such a statement. At one climactic moment about halfway through the performance, three women stand, or more precisely, are placed in front of the disc-shaped screen. Footage from Schneemann’s diary film is projected onto their torsos. Snowy scenes spill across impassive bodies. As the images spread and stretch like a second skin over fleshy surfaces, they threaten to obliterate the distinct features of each figure on stage. At the same time, artificial snow begins to fall from above, heaping up on shoulders and eyelashes as the performers slowly sink down and eventually become part of a landscape of scattered foam and crumpled foil. Lee’s reading focuses on “the image at large” so the specificity of the images that overtake the body here falls out of her analysis. Nevertheless her account prompts the question: why is it the diary film, and not, as one might expect, “images of atrocity and dread” that overtake the body at this point in the performance?
The answer requires returning to the beginning of Snows, and reading the work not as a whole, but as process that unfolds over time. Snows begins with the screening of a twenty-year-old newsreel depicting what the artist described in an interview with Gene Youngblood published in 1970 as “one catastrophe after another.”35 After the newsreel, technicians operating the swivel-mounted projectors flood the theater with scenes of snow-laden landscapes and winter sports. These images slip and spread across the walls and ceiling of the theater activating the entire space as an environment permeated by images. Schneemann identified this found footage as film shot in Bavaria during the Second World War, describing it to Youngblood in terms that could also be used to describe her own diary film shot during a blizzard in New York in early 1967. She emphasizes what it doesn’t picture, “the hell breaking loose” elsewhere in the world as it was filmed.36 Schneemann’s statement hints at the possibility of an alternative to the dynamics of transcendence described by Lee. The footage that overtakes the performers on stage pictures atrocity only in its absence, as a blind spot, something invisible, lurking in the play of everyday life. But at the same time, it recasts the significance of the earlier footage of happy skiers and winter sport in a way that is bound up as much by what each makes visible, as by what in each remains unseen. Importantly, collisions between images (and between performers) are of as much significance in Snows as relationships between body and image. By analogizing one mode of collision to the other, Schneemann links her exploration of the ontology of the photographic image to questions of empathy and political action.
Much of the live action that takes place on stage during Snows could be described as a form of playful collision, although at times it requires a deliberateness that renders it more like a task than a game. Early on, performers pair off, slowly circling one another just out of arms’ reach. Each concentrates intently on the weight and shifting position of the other. At a certain point, one lunges and pulls the other down. The other reacts, not by resisting, but by giving in to the attack. After collapsing together, both performers rise to repeat the entire series of actions again in quick succession with other partners. The action depends on the capacity of each performer to react kinesthetically to the micro-movements of the other. Unlike the precise control over the appearance of the body exercised by Rainer in her contribution to the Week of Angry Arts, Convalescence Dance, these movements are not choreographed. They allow the audience to see what one body’s hyper-attention to another’s movements looks like. At the start then, Snows offers a performance of exactly the kind of kinesthetic empathy that Rainer’s work shuts down.
In the next sequence of Snows games of capture and collapse give way to more intimate, yet strangely disengaged modes of take-over and arrest. Here a flashing strobe light becomes a way of “capturing” action and freezing a process of ongoing inscription. Working again in pairs, the performers cover one another’s faces in white grease paint. Alternating between playing the role of artist and model, each molds the other’s face under the pulsing light of the strobe.37 The strobe interrupts the continuity of movement, but in doing so heightens the arresting effects of the artificial expressions these exchanges produce. In the score for Snows, Schneemann describes the exchanges between performers as “transformations” that induce “corresponding but unpredictable emotions.”38 As one performer “molds” the face of the other, the model takes on an expression that is artificially imposed, but nevertheless causes emotions to swell up unexpectedly. Here changes in appearance induce, rather than convey feeling. But as Schneemann is careful to note, these feelings are unpredictable; they may or may not be commensurate with the visual appearance of the expressions that are their source. Kinesthetic forms of empathy are replaced by a relay of reactions that have become dramatically arbitrary. Performers continue to attend carefully to each other’s bodies, but now their actions and reactions are displayed as made artifacts, artificial, however acutely felt.
White grease paint increases the body’s receptivity to light, while the strobe produces photographic flash effects. Together the use of these materials (light sensitive emulsion and flashing light) generates a live action meditation on what photographic modes of inscription do to our capacity to perceive and respond to the “image values of flesh as material.” Snows imagines a form of looking that would no longer be simply receptive; but that would involve mutual visibility, however open to manipulation. It pictures an active relay between receptivity and response, but one that is also fraught, forced, and above all uncertain. Here Schneemann seems to resist the instrumentalization of control that underwrites cybernetic models of feedback. Withholding direct reference to Vietnam, this ambivalence toward the logic of feedback calls up anxieties about empathic reception provoked by media coverage of the war. Schneemann plays on fears that news images of bodily violence might generate too much emotion, unwanted feelings, or perhaps worse, not much reaction at all. In this way she probes the potential (and limits) of what she calls “sensory receptivity.” In Snows, the dramatization of manipulation and reception complicates other moments in the work that would seem to embrace the potential of over-stimulation and visual bombardment to recondition desensitized viewers. Schneemann’s flirtation with sensory overload is less critically mimetic of the effects of media overload than it is productively ambivalent; her work is uncertain the audience will be able to “open up, be moved and touched,” but at the same time, it remains unwilling to give up on the possibility altogether.39 In this sense Snows is less about the (involuntary) loss of control that Lee describes, than control as an idea or fantasy to be worked through.
In the first instance, this working-through takes the form of an interrogation of media. While evoking photographic modes of inscription, the flashing light of the strobe, illuminates empathic possibilities photography would seem to foreclose: an ongoing reversible relation between seeing and being seen, forms of reciprocity and mutual influence which enact a temporal reorientation away from fixity and pastness toward ephemerality and futurity.40 Said another way, Schneemann conjures an idea of photography as the negative image of feedback. The effects of intermittent movement generated by the strobe act as a foil for photography understood as process of freezing a moment in time. Similarly, the process of continuous reinscription, where the production of one artificial expression comes to replace another, negatively invokes the idea of photographic inscription as fixed in its pastness.
Operative metaphors of feedback and control find concrete form in key elements of Schneemann’s kinetic stage set. As I have already noted, working with E.A.T. engineers, Schneemann developed an innovative way to fold the embodied reactions of the audience back into the performance in real time. A number of random seats in the theater were wired up with contact microphones that fed into electronic switching systems controlling the projectors and the lights. This system was activated when the performers, still working in pairs, began to manipulate each other’s limbs into a series of unreadable gestures. During this section of the performance, members of the audience shifting in their seats unsuspectingly triggered the circuit wired to the stage lights. Changes in the lighting served as a cue for the performers on stage to switch roles or move on to a new sequence of scripted action. The embodied response of members of the audience to actions on stage thus triggered a rolling wave of feedback that directly impacted the execution of the performance in real time.41 Here the freezing light of the strobe softened into a series of flashes that animated rather than froze movement.
In cybernetic discourse feedback is understood as a means for constraining contingency and refining processes of control, but in these exchanges it summons more the idea of feedback as noise.42 There is no way to know, for example, how the emotions or kinesthetic reactions induced by one act of manipulation or transformation feed into the next. Feedback in Snows provokes a desire for control that it can only fail to deliver. What it does deliver is interference, signals that interrupt and redirect the actions taking place on stage. In Snows, anxieties around empathy are transposed onto fears about control.
John Berger’s critique of Vietnam War photojournalism in his essay “Photographs of Agony” offers a set of terms that help to clarify what is at stake for Schneemann in this transposition.43 He asks why media outlets that openly support policies responsible for the Vietnam War were able to circulate shocking images of its human costs seemingly without impunity. Photographs that capture moments of grief, wounding, and death, he reasons, confront the viewer with instants that are incompatible with the time of everyday life. His argument sidesteps direct questions of empathy. In his view, the camera can only redouble the violence of an event that isolates one moment from all others. When a viewer confronting this violent discontinuity experiences it as her own individual moral inadequacy (which he suggests happens somewhat automatically or inevitably), the image is immediately depoliticized. Anxiety about one’s own lack of control over what is pictured triggers shame or the compensatory feeling that everyone and no one is to blame. This response has the effect, Berger argues, of naturalizing state violence, of making it possible to mistake the suffering on view for evidence of some sort of generalizable “human condition.” Berger’s claims help clarify why, I think, ultimately Schneemann rejects this ontological account of photography. His argument helps us to see that control and its opposite – total loss or lack of control – are fantasies that must be managed if political struggle with the actual conditions of power are to take place. But questions of control and automation persist in the background of Berger’s analysis as well. The photographs he critiques generate their effects as if a natural function of the way the medium is understood to be a technology for violently isolating or capturing a moment in time.
Snows ends with a sequence that shifts emphasis away from photography understood as a means of freezing a singular moment in time toward an understanding of it as the process by which images are developed and reprinted. The action centers on the task of dragging a body and “hanging” it from a looped rope, followed by the painstaking process of wrapping it in large sheets of aluminum foil. The foil functions like a bandage, a protective surface that also increases the sensitivity of flesh to its brightly lit environment. If earlier the strobe emphasized the photographic cut in time, here, the foil’s silvery substance calls to mind the emulsions that make it possible to develop and print photographic images again and again. Dragged body, hanged body, bandaged body—each action isolates gestures glimpsed again in Viet-Flakes at the conclusion of the performance. The film acts like an agent retroactively “developing” the significance of the live actions that have taken place on stage. At the same time, interactions between performers on stage draw out and develop fleeting “collisions” between images that take place within the film.
In Viet-Flakes, Schneemann’s camera tracks closely over the surface of still photographs. Scenes of war in Vietnam come in and out of focus: families in flight, soldiers with guns drawn, faces contorted by pain and loss. These scenes are blurred and distorted by a magnifying lens that Schneemann held hovering between camera and photograph as she filmed.44 Distinct forms dissolve into phosphorescent fields of white or spread like dark stains across the screen. Figure and ground bleed together. The camera scans the bodies closely and then pulls back, establishing the spatial contours of the situations only belatedly. Abrupt cuts from one part of an image to another make it difficult to discern the moment when one scene gives way to another. At times, certain details come quickly into focus—a mouth hollowed out by grief, a limb scarred by napalm. Schneemann’s use of the magnifying lens notwithstanding, the camera’s movement here is not a forensic operation. What it provides is a visual trace of the embodied act of looking itself.
In one instance, for example, Schneemann rephotographs a blurred face. The camera scans over a cheek, shadowed brow, and dark mass of hair. Then Schneemann flips the still image so that it is quickly inverted on screen. This shot is followed by a sequence focusing on a photograph of another figure whose face down position makes him hard to see at first. The thin line of light defining the back of his head comes into view once it is seen in relation to the rope bound around his ankles. Schneemann’s camera follows the length of rope in the photograph. Scanning, it reveals a large white star against an unresolved dark surface, but pulls away before the back of the armored vehicle with two the U.S. soldiers perched on top can be fully registered.45 Later the camera fixes again on a length of rope wrapped around a tree. A series of quick cuts reveal a pair of hands and torso, and then two sack-like forms, which turn out to be the ankles of the first inverted figure, now legible as a man strung up in a tree. Once he comes into view, Schneemann’s camera reverses his position again, making him appear upright in the frame. The link between these two images of dragging and hanging is associative; it hinges on the relationship of body, rope, and ground.
The photograph of the dragged man was taken for the wire service United Press International and awarded World Press Photo of the Year at the end of 1966. The image of the hanged man was taken for the Paris Match, but reproduced widely enough that in May of 1966 Time Magazine ran a story about its role in fueling growing anti-war sentiments. Time’s editors complained about the proliferation of indignant captions that had failed to tell the story behind the interrogation reported by the photographer.46 Viet-Flakes does not analyze the image to attempt to discern whether the truth of one caption or another can be determined by something that appears in the frame. Through camera movement Schneemann animates these images with her own distress and desire to transform or turn away from the violent acts they picture. The links she finds between them are not simply visual, based on the shared motif of the rope. For much of the first half 1966, Schneemann had been working with rope as part of a group performance entitled Water Light/Water Needle. It involved performers moving hand over hand along a series of ropes rigged at different heights. The action centered around the performers’ improvised navigation of encounters with each other while suspended in air by the network of cables. This maneuvering often required one performer to mirror the movements of another to avoid being suddenly thrown off balance. Every motion demanded intense concentration on the body’s hanging weight and equilibrium in relationship to the shifting tension along the rigging.47 When Schneemann inverts the image of a man strung up by his ankles for interrogation in Viet-Flakes, her movement registers a desire to reverse the impact of the stress caused by his inversion during the interrogation. Given her recent experience working with ropes in ways that involved maneuvering while hanging upside, this movement may also register an embodied memory-response to the hanging position of the body pictured in this photograph. The camera movement does not attempt to deny the incommensurability between her experience and his; if anything it brings it into view. What Snows refuses is the temptation to ascribe the response that incommensurability provokes to the ontology of photography itself.
Snows begins by exploring photography in terms of the dynamics of capture and freezing, qualities thrown into relief by metaphors of feedback that the work also mobilizes. In the second half of the work, Schneemann moves away from this way of understanding photography. Here she focuses on qualities bound up with processes of development and reproduction that are more than simply chemical or mechanical. These processes in Snows require the involvement of those who look, as well the relationship of reversibility that inheres in their visibility.48 In earlier works Schneemann’s concern had been with the appearance of “image values of flesh.” In Snows, flesh is made over as always already photographic, oriented toward the camera as much as toward the eye. Snows does not, however, privilege photographic exposure. It values the unseen, the yet to be seen, and even the possibility of loss that inheres in what may never become visible against the marshaling of full exposure, total (obscene) visibility undertaken in the name of dissent.
The act of bandaging bodies up with tinfoil evokes an image added to Viet-Flakes only days before the first performance, an image that throws the possibility of this loss into relief.49 It comes from William Pepper’s photo-essay, and depicts a woman on the floor of a hospital nursing a child. Her hand has been badly burned and is wrapped in a ragged bandage, which she holds up in the air. Schneemann has reprinted both the image of the hanged man and the dragged body in various versions of the published score, but the image of this woman has never appeared again in the documentation of Snows.50 During the Week of Angry Arts, images from “The Children of Vietnam” moved through the city to maximize their visibility. In Viet-Flakes the first image of Pepper’s essay comes into view fleetingly. We catch a brief glimpse of a woman’s face before the frame goes out of focus again, cutting quickly to a series of shots that encompass more of her full, but blurred figure. The movement of the camera reveals the young child she is nursing and the badly injured and bandaged hand she holds in the air above his head. The juxtaposition of these two elements provides the emotional charge of the original photograph. Schneemann’s camera scans over these details, focusing on the look that greets the photographer’s lens. In Pepper’s photograph this woman’s self-possessed gaze confronts anyone who might prefer to scrutinize her bandaged hand or bared breast without having to acknowledge first her capacity to look back. Viet-Flakes makes this fraught process of looking into something to see, but in doing so it also acknowledges the urge to look away, to give oneself over to the fantasy of control itself.
Schneemann produced Viet-Flakes in collaboration with her partner at the time, the composer James Tenney, who created a tape collage for the soundtrack. I have focused on the production of visual resonance and noise in Snows, but Tenney’s contribution is also crucial. Destabilizing shifts in scale and location are intensified in Viet-Flakes by his cut up tape collage. Cascading strains from Bach and discordant notes from a Vietnamese folk song interrupt instantly recognizable pop radio hits like “96 Tears” or “We Can Work it Out” by the Beatles. The relentless shifting between fragments of songs recalls the act of scanning or tuning in to a radio. The familiar pop songs especially seem to linger on; the urge to complete their broken refrains is almost irresistible. They continue to play behind or alongside other keening notes and melodies. Something about this radio effect cuts against the intensely private scanning of the image by Schneemann’s camera. It evokes the vague sense generated by broadcast media, not only of other signals in the air, but also of other people tuning in elsewhere. The body wrapped in foil now reads as kind of an antenna, an imperfect and makeshift remedy for poor reception, but also crucially, for forms of everyday atomization. At the heart of Snows we discover a discontent that keeps the dial spinning or the eye moving, scanning full of desire for something no song or photograph could ever deliver – the process of moving, acting, and struggling with and alongside others while remaining uncertain about one’s own control (or lack of control) over what may result.
Schneemann describes Snows in terms of the relationships of reversibility that structure the work. Summing up the piece, she writes, “We set each other on fire, we extinguish the fire, we create each other’s face and body, we abandon each other, we take responsibility for each other, we reveal each other, we choose, we respond, we build we are destroyed.”51 What better account of how to move and be moved, of how to exercise the senses, once control has been set aside a governing logic. And if this “we” necessarily remains an uncertainty, what better way to discover what it would mean to keep moving, to keep dissenting together nonetheless. The “we” Schneemann names is not an entity, a public, given in advance. It takes shape provisionally, through enacting forms of mutual exposure and risk. Snows models a way to understand how photographic images might play a role in such a process, understood as an address (rather than violent cut). Risk inheres in the possibility of loss, of the failure to register, of noise. As a process of thinking and working through structures of reversibility, Snows also incorporates the possibility that in our responses to this address, we too may fall short of the mark. Even so, the work insists, it is this risk and not its containment that makes something becomes possible that had not been possible before.
Erica Levin is a doctoral candidate in Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is completing a dissertation that examines the emergence of what Stan VanDerBeek identified as “a new social media consciousness” in a number of experimental approaches to film, television, and performance in the late 1960s.