Interspecific connections and cyborg eroticism: about the cat, Kitch, and the camera in Carolee Schneemann’s short film, “Fuses”

Olivia Fert

#II. inside animals / animals inside

ii. a bestiarium vocabulum – the cat

spring, 2022

1) Hours of Charlotte of Savoy, Paris ca. 1420-1425. NY, Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.1004, fol. 172r. 2) untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Carolee Schneemann’s short film Fuses (1964-1967) is a silent film in 16mm format, shot over a period of three years between 1964 and 1967, with a duration of 22 minutes at 24 frames per second. The film is composed of short sequences of erotic scenes from a love act, in which the artist herself and her partner at the time, James Tenney, participated. Fuses is the first film in Schneemann’s “autobiographical trilogy” followed by Plumb Line (1968-1971) and Kitch’s Last Meal (1973-1978). It is principally known for its subversive representation of female sexuality.

Carolee Schneemann (b. 1939 in Fox Chase, Pennsylvania – d. 2019 in New York, N.Y.) has been a pioneer in confronting in her own feminist art practice the visual representations of the female body in the media and the underrepresentation of women artists in the United States. After the 1960’s, as the feminist movement in the United States grew, both appreciation and criticism of Caroline Schneemans’ works deepened. As the topic of female sexuality has offered the most natural framework for interpreting Fuses, the special appearances in the film by Kitch, Caroline Schneemann’s cat from 1956 to 1976, have been downplayed. Here, I want to open up for a closer investigation of Kitch’s contribution to Schneemann’s controversial short film.

Most of the scenes in Fuses take place in the interior of a bedroom. Since the film was shot over a long period of time, a few scenes from the outside environment show different seasons. A landscape in the snow, Christmas lights towards the end of the film as well as more spring-like moments outdoors, in a meadow and on the beach. At several moments, close-ups of body parts break through the film, like bodily landscapes, a metaphoric frequently explored in experimental film at the time. The viewer may find it difficult to identify the active bodies. But she can recognize somatic and organic elements mainly by close-up shots of moving skin, sometimes shiny, smooth or wet. Then, suddenly, images of genitals appear, unavoidable.

In this expressive and erotic show, the cat Kitch is filmed, standing at the window. The shot/countershot cuts make Kitch an observer of the scene. Scenes where Kitch is being caressed sometimes appear between the most intimate love scenes, suggesting a close relationship and entanglement between the loving couple and the cat. Kitch, who has his eyes closed, also appears to be feeling enjoyment and is stroked by an unidentifiable hand in some sporadic shots. This is especially articulated in Fuses in two consecutive scenes. The first shows a hand stroking Carolee’s vulva, while in the second, a similar close-up shot shows one caressing Kitch. Beside a humorous configuration, this depicted encounter shows an intimate tactile relationship between the animal and the human.

Excerpts from ”Fuses”, (1964-1967) Carolee Schneemann. Source: Carolee Schneemann Foundation

The interpretations of Kitch’s role in Fuses have been many and varying in kind. Fuses isn’t the first occasion where Schneemann film intimate and tender moments with her cats. In her video work Infinity Kisses (2008), an endless series of kisses between Schneemann and her cats indicate the close relationship between her and her various feline companions, Kitch, Cluny and Vesper, and the importance of them in her artistic practice.

Functioning as an observer in Fuses, Kitch could be understood as a metaphor for a neutral position, addressing issues around the male gaze in feminist film theory (Mulvey 1975). The cat would then be understood to embody a gaze, freed from any cultural determination, as if she edited and authored the film. However, the first person to film the erotic liaison between James Tenney and Carolee Schneemann in 1957 was Stan Brakhage, a close friend and cinematic source of inspiration for Schneemann. In the four min long 16mm silent film Loving, he portrays Tenney as the active and mostly covering Schneemann in a dominant manner. Unhappy with the outcome, she herself portrays an equal relationship with Kitch, who metaphorically represents an impartial point of view.

Against this, Thyrza Nichols Goodeve argues that Kitch would not be an ”objective point of view”, but rather a ”subject position”. She thus suggests a co-production of “co-shaped species” and points out that the perspective that the viewer identifies with is neither just ”human” nor just ”animal” but what in Animal Studies is emphasized as an ”encounter”. This, Nichols Goodeve argues, makes the film ”a twenty-two minute cinematic excursion into the ‘space in-between’ animal and human.”

Schneemann herself is supposed to have claimed that her “muse-cats who have inspired and guided [her] work […] have enlarged and shifted [her] scale of perceptions”. One might want to suggest that Schneemann’s cats are to be regarded as a medium, an extension of her senses – perhaps working much like the camera, feeling and filming? Schneemann presents us with a monstrous sensuality and eroticism through her interchanging usage of cameras, objects, bodies, humans and cats as mediums. Fuses recode and reconnect modern dualisms, relations of domination and subordination and suggests a new ontology for what we understand as natural sexuality. Perhaps we could talk about a cyborg-erotic aesthetics here, in Donna Haraway’s sense.

When Donna Haraway published ”A Cyborg Manifesto” in The Socialist Review 1985, she used the concept of the cyborg in a rather broad way, where technology is not to be understood only as technical tools or processes but as encompassing cultural practices of everyday behaviors like writing, lovemaking and performing genders. Donna Haraway’s understanding of feminism, characterized by a postmodern socialist and scientific view, lets the cyborg embody a hybrid of machine and living organism, intended to exercise criticism of the modern concept of nature. The cyborg is not to bring a new category, but new possibilities to the table, without fixing an identity. Technology in the high-tech age mixes with the biological. Science fiction would for example be a genre that allows us to imagine these mixtures, like ”monsters”, even more extreme. The emancipating potential in the use of the cyborg  metaphor lies in the utopian that is worth thinking about. Schneemann might not use the world of science fiction to blur cultural categories but uses her own aesthetic in the same manner.

The hand-held camera in Fuses allows access to the intimate, to the hidden, makes accessible what could not be shown. The development or improvement of media techniques in the 60s, such as the portability of the camera with 16mm and 8mm formats, is a significant technical contribution that allows media to be used more widely and under new conditions that were previously unthinkable. For this purpose, the camera is placed in bed, manipulated, exchanged and hung to be able to film. It is completely immersed in the sexual act, as part of the performative act. It gives the camera an important role as actively shaping the sexual act. “It’s a participant in the experience, functioning both as a stimulus and receiver of stimulae.” One might want to say here that this poses an eroticism of the human/machine.

Excerpts from ”Fuses”, (1964-1967) Carolee Schneemann. Source: Carolee Schneemann Foundation

The role of the camera does not only determine the means of interaction between the different actors but also the aesthetics that Schneemann proposes to the viewers. Close-ups reinforce the closeness to the viewer, which can give him/her the feeling of being part of the sexual act. In Fuses, the reality of the sexual act competes with the distinct formal aesthetic aspect that the artist has achieved. In fact, Carolee Schneemann brings a particular touch from her artistic language as a painter; she modifies the celluloid of the film tape itself. The transformation of the celluloid enhances the sensual qualities of the images. This technique was common in experimental animation in the 1920s among the Dadaists and Surrealists.

David E. James, theorist of independent film from north America argues that these cinematic effects merge with the erotic in Fuses; “Emerging as the totalizing, polymorphous, introverted energy and self-absorbed hyper-sensuality of the sexual activity of the profilmic, the erotic power of Fuses overflows into the filmic, is reproduced there as a filmic function“ and that “filmmaking itself becomes the site of sexual action between filmmaker and film.“ But the mode of filming in Fuses is not limited to the artist’s self-engagement. The medium acts as an extension of the human body. It could be considered as a ”feminine” counter-model to what Stan Brakhage was doing at the time but what interested Schneemann was rather to present a diversity and equality of perspectives. Here, the private and intimate merges with the public – art makes visible what is not supposed to be visible and introduces a counter-model of society.

Excerpts from ”Fuses”, (1964-1967) Carolee Schneemann. Source: Carolee Schneemann Foundation

Although Fuses displays typical roles of women and men, such as James Tenney driving a car, representing a modern male, and Schneemann walking on a beach, fluidity emerges from the erotic and sensuous field, a space where cultural codes are ignored and renegotiated. Scott Macdonald, professor in Art History at Hamilton College, who has made numerous interviews with filmmakers, including Schneemann, has already noted that the body here constitute the connection between the species – perhaps also between genders – taking place in the domain of the senses, arguably in the aesthetical domain where the camera works.

Haraway wrote, “Communication sciences and biology are constructions of natural-technical objects of knowledge in which the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred; mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms.“ Schneemann is not the sole creator of this sexual act, but the tools, the camera, the film, and Kitch as mediums also shape the act and its representations. She questions us about our erotic relationships with others, be they men, women, machines, objects, media, or animals, through an aesthetic of the in-between. It testifies to the fact that there is a tactile, sensual and erotic way of being connected, intertwined.


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