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Carolee Schneemann’s Traces of Collision

‘Being an artist is a primary way of combining and making contact with things in the world,’ Carolee Schneemann asserted in a 1971 article she had written about the Serbian film director Dušan Makavejev for the Beau Geste Press publication Dreck (1972). At the time, the US artist had been invited by the publishers of Beau Geste – Martha Hellion and Felipe Ehrenberg – to stay with the press in Langford Court South in Cullompton to develop the project Parts of a Body House Book (1972). The publication fused a miscellany of textual poetics, data, correspondence, sketches and performance scores along with the pawprints of her cat, Kitch, and an insert of tissue paper blotted with menstrual blood.

In 1972, my mother, Amanda Wade, was a PhD student at the University of Exeter’s American Arts Documentation Centre concurrently with David Mayor who, as a founding member of Beau Geste Press, was focusing his academic interests on creative systems of dissemination. Given the proximity of Schneemann to the city, opportunities to engage students at the university with performances and screenings were seized. An ongoing conversation emerged between my mother and her peers about Schneemann’s practice: how the artist’s body swung, flew and thudded against the walls of public spaces, leaving traces of its collisions. As a child, I was an incidental observer to these discussions and performances. I wanted to know why the marks made by Schneemann’s body impacted on and beyond the sites she occupied, and how the work remained live through the questions it prompted.

Performed as a live work nine times over three years, Up to and Including Her Limits saw Schneemann suspended in a tree surgeon’s harness and illuminated by a Super 8 projector, her continuously moving body leaving marks on the surrounding space for the duration of the performance. The work included language as well as gesture: documentation from the 1976 iteration at Studio Galerie in Berlin shows that the artist wrote a series of statements on lapses of synchronization among the interconnected lines. The piece has been preserved as an installation comprising six documentary videos screened on stacked monitors as markers for the body. Even though Schneemann’s physical presence is now absent, the practices that informed Up to and Including Her Limits remain active: connecting with – and demanding malleability from – objects in the world and, by employing unfixed interdisciplinary media, enabling the creation of a truly transformative work of art.

‘Carolee Schneemann Body Politics’ is on view at the Barbican Gallery, London, from 8 September 2022 – 8 January 2023