Rachel Churner/
Carolee Schneemann 

T.V., a Happening

I noticed the performance on Carolee Schneemann’s CV with fascination, awe, and a bit of skepticism: “T.V., a Happening commissioned by NBC Television’s Tonight Show” in 1965, so early in her career, was surely a major event. Schneemann kept extensive preparatory notes and drawings and yet I could find no documentation of it in our archives. The 1965 “Tonight Show” mention, with its carefully phrased emphasis on commission rather than production, had fallen off lists in some exhibition catalogues and books, only to be added back on by the artist, time and again. And so, I added it to my very long list of “items to research.” After all, Schneemann’s history of ground-breaking performances is sizeable and her stories about those events legendary. And there is so much to uncover: What happened to the video footage of “Interior Scroll” from 1975? Who photographed the London performance of “Meat Joy?” Who reported the dramatic screening of “Fuses” at Cannes, in which moviegoers shredded their seats in outrage? How to trace the influences and anti-influences, how to parse an artist’s story from the stories of others who were there, and how to determine if one version should take priority? Incompleteness and indeterminacy are concepts that Schneemann was far more comfortable with than I am. Things were reworked, reperformed, rehung, re-edited; dates were changed, then changed again.

When I looked in the archives for information about “T.V., a Happening,” I came up short. But then I found this piece in the Miami Herald. Dick Schaap—the double-letters clearly were important to him—published a piece in January 1966 titled “Carolee and The Happening That Hasn’t Happened As Yet.” In it he describes how a “Tonight Show” representative called Schneemann and asked her to stage a happening on NBC. She made drawings, notes, a draft of the performance: “We set it up like guerrilla warfare, so that Johnny couldn’t really disrupt it.” But after several revisions, the “Tonight Show” cancelled it altogether. The fact that we don’t have a record of the plans for the kinetic theater (Schneemann’s term for her performances) doesn’t negate the event; the discovery of her description of it—to a rather condescending newspaper columnist, no less—gives us an idea of just how significant the opportunity would have been.

Looking through the drawings from 1964 and 1965 that remain with the foundation, I came across one that seemed to serve as a key for Schneemann’s preoccupations in those years and that would, I think, have informed any happening she created for television. It isn’t specific to the commission; I’ve yet to find that material. But it offers a list of actions that become a type of concrete poetry, a way of entering the artist’s working process, with or without Johnny Carson. Actions that, though unrealized, remained formative.

—Rachel Churner, Director of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation

The Miami Herald, January 22, 1966, page 7A.

Detail of page 7A: Dick Schaap, “Carolee And The Happening That Hasn’t As Yet,” Miami Herald, January 22, 1966.

Carolee Schneemann, untitled drawing, 1964. (c) Carolee Schneemann Foundation.

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