Late in 1976, at the end of Carolee Schneemann’s partnership to Anthony McCall, McCall gathered all his belongings in Schneemann’s house and convinced her new lover Bruce McPherson to share a U-Haul with him. Anthony would use the truck to move out, and Bruce would use it to move in. On moving day, Schneemann took many photos of the two men shuffling each other’s things from house to truck and truck to house, images that she would later turn into a silk-screen print, The Men Cooperate (1979). It placed the two stories in a tidy line, an end and a beginning, meeting but not touching via the tailgate of a moving van.
But the notion of sharing a single truck hinted at another less linear shape to what had transpired over the previous year. The two relationships had not formed an orderly line but a weird involute loop. There had been a circuit of shifting relations amongst the three, a compression of choices made and then unmade, advice and excuses traded amongst friends over the phone, all bent back upon one another.
Over the course of 1976, Schneemann had begun to document the complexity of the commingling relationships, writing down snippets of conversations involving the protagonists as well as advice from friends. In part to try and make sense of the experience, Schneemann organized the growing pile of paper inside her desk into a work of art. As she formalized the work, she began to take photos and add excerpts from her journal, including reminiscences and dreams, eventually transferring all the material onto 156 color-coded notecards, each with a corresponding photo card: pink for advice from friends, blue for pieces of conversations, yellow for notes from her journal. Though numbered, the cards were intended to be shuffled and recomposed, offering a dynamic experience of mutable connections that evoked both the literary and the filmic. In 1977 the cards were printed as the editioned artist’s book ABC—We Print Anything—In The Cards, which also became the title of three performances Schneemann gave of the material, twice in Holland and once in New York, where she read from the shuffled cards while projecting the accompanying images.
The title, ABC–We Print Anything–In the Cards, was adapted from a t-shirt that Schneemann came across in a printer’s shop-window bearing the slogan “ABC–We Print Anything.” It became the recursive project’s banner too: “A” now stood for Anthony, “B” for Bruce, and “C” for Carolee, and the provocation of “printing anything” now referred to documenting the intimate details of their relations. It was “in the cards” in the sense that the drama and banalities of lived experience were bared in the note cards, but that part of the title also captured something of the Tarot that ran in the opposite direction: dreams, desires, and advice—in short, all the potentialities of the real relationships—were suspended in the cards, which had yet to be dealt.
Schneemann’s decision to edit and organize the events and potentialities of her real life into a work of art bound the development of each to the other. The effort to make a work of art that was true to the looping, shifting relationships of 1976 became, for Schneemann, an experiment in how to adapt to and live with their interconnected changes and contradictions.
In one card, Schneemann quoted Gerry, a friend who diagrammed it like this:
The point is to get the basic spirit of the life out into the work. The point of the work is to renew the basic spirit of the life. (1)
In its focus on communication, feedback, and adaptation, ABC counter-intuitively shares its lineage with Schneemann’s earlier technological investigations into systems of feedback and adaptive change, works that art historian Kenneth White has placed within the larger framework of cybernetic art of the 60s and 70s. Among the first of these works was Snows(1967), a multimedia performance born of Schneemann’s outrage against the Vietnam War and facilitated by the burgeoning Experiments in Art and Technology group. Among other elements, Snows included light-machines controlled by microphones that had been surreptitiously placed beneath audience members’ seats. In the early 70s, Schneemann also built several “meat systems” that incorporated electronic switching and relay systems to mediate audience participation. In 1970, she developed Electronic Activation Room for Harald Szeemann’s exhibition Happening and Fluxus in Cologne. The activation room was a system for refracting projections of earlier work via a complex array of mirrors controlled by servo-motors that adjusted themselves through positional feedback using a computer system designed by John Lifton.
Though ABC lacks some of the most obvious technical mechanisms for adaptive response, the form and content of the cards nevertheless allow Schneemann subtle ways to render her relationships as dynamic feedback loops through which art, life, and ideas circulate, transformed by and transforming their senders and receivers.
As the quote from Gerry suggests, ABC is rooted in a kind of autopoesis that establishes a feedback loop between Schneemann’s art and life where the content of the relationships supply the terms of its own formalization into art. In one such card, Bruce, himself a writer and publisher with whom Schneemann would later collaborate on a book-length survey of her art, advocated for what would ultimately become the final form: put it all on cards. Then you can shuffle. (42)
The work’s self-referential and self-generative structure was recursively modeled on the real relationship amongst A., B., and C.; a tangle that was continually addressing and reshaping itself. The reflexivity of the relationship, its tendency to both reference itself and interconnect its participants, is a leitmotif throughout the cards, often appearing explicitly in conversations about sharing and jealousy:
They realized they were part of an historical process and had to learn to share all they previously expected to have for themselves. (105)
A. to C. : Everyone is borrowing everyone else’s equipment; there is only one system and everyone has a bit of it. (100)
Lucas said: You have to take care of that wonderful body for the rest of us. She may be in love with you, but she belongs to the people. (90)
B. told C., there are many kinds of affections & relations. A. asked C. about B. C. told A. about B., and told B. about A. C. asked A. about D. A. told D. about C. B. told C. Now he felt monogamous, more or less C. told B. she was monogamous to him, except for A. (6)
C. told A. jealousy was the most unbearable emotion. C. told B. she would do anything to avoid feeling jealousy. B. told C. jealousy was the swiftest, most distorting emotion. A. told C. jealousy made him unrecognizable to himself. (55)
Here, even jealousy is represented as shared. It circulates amongst the three in the X of a chiasmic circuit, with Anthony and Carolee switching positions on the outside, and Bruce and Carolee on the inside: C-A / C-B / B-C/ A-C.
Put another way, how A., B., and C. related to each other and to the things they shared and withheld reflected, to paraphrase Card 1, the spirit of life they brought to the work. The variability and dynamism of their looping interpersonal system was embodied in the variable and interconnected set of cards. In this sense, to say it’s all in the cards might even be something of an understatement: shuffling them, there are 7.471063 x 10 275 different ways to arrange all 156 cards.
As in the case of Card 55, a number of the cards track how something like a thought or word wends its way through a given interpersonal subsystem, becoming transformed in the process. Bruce and Carolee in particular experimented with the kinds of knowledge that could develop from this combinatorial, dialogic process of feedback:
“Love is only interesting when its real,” C. “Interest is only real when love is,” B. (149)
B. said: depth of reality, not “newness” is the value. C. said: the depth of the value made reality new. (16)
“All we can best hope to do is give one another the courage to change our existing expectations,” C. “It’s enough to give one another the courage to exist with changing expectations,” B. (71)
By simply re-arranging the words “change” and “existing” from verb-adjective to adjective-verb, Bruce transforms Carolee’s statement into its own riposte.
As a corollary to this kind of generative repetition, various images recur multiple times in the card set, each connected to different text cards, thus transforming their associations. There’s an open frame, a figurine of an ancient female goddess, Carolee and Bruce together in bed, Bruce naked in bed, Carolee naked in bed, Carolee hugging a female friend, a wasp on a windowsill, a reproduction of three skulls in a catacomb, a reproduction of religious icons.
Many of the collected dialogues between Bruce and Carolee form feedback loops wherein a comment from one is taken up by the other, re-ordered and returned to the original speaker as a response. Even though the re-ordering is a simple syntactical transformation, it nonetheless expresses a legitimate difference of opinions. In Card 71, Carolee suggests that one should compel others to have the courage to change their existing expectations; Bruce, again by switching the grammatical roles of the central terms (change, exist), posits something close to the opposite, that it is enough to give people the courage to continue to exist in the face of others’ changes. As is typical of ABC, the form and the content here create another recursive meta-feedback loop: the topic of conversation is how change should be dealt with, while the language game at work generates change and contradiction. An unattributed quote on Card 73 puts it like this: “contradictions should be appreciated for letting change emerge.”
Though change brought about the interpersonal chaos of 1976, it was also clear that a new, emotionally functional arrangement could only be brought about through more change. The material Schneemann gathered in the cards refuses to give a coherent narrative of what has or will happen, instead, like the cards themselves, eddying around change as both a source of disorder and a means of understanding. With a few exceptions, almost all of the cards thematize change as a function of communication; of messages, advice, dreams, and confessions relayed amongst various parties and to the reader. The few actions documented in ABC plot intimate extremes—fucking, leaving, a bout of acute nausea—while the rest focus on the exchange and effects of information.
In desperation they wrote a special delivery letter to the Goddess. They put in a long distance call on Sunday night. The letter was returned “not at this address”. The phone was always engaged. (123)
As Gerry implies in his diagram detailing the reciprocity of art and life, the cards are not simply documents of messages sent and received, they are also vessels. This is especially true of the pink cards, the ones dedicated to advice from friends.
Caroline said: Try champagne, candles and super dope. (29)
Suzanne said: Be a little flippant; but steady on the self-esteem. (22)
Bill said: Keep ahold of your anger and get strength from it. (58)
These cards offer an array of things to try, not exactly actions but instructions for hypothetical action. The specific situation or person a piece of advice is meant to address is often unclear, and so within the system of shuffled cards, advice appears as an abstract signal always followed by another card, another possible outcome, in the manner of the redundant images mentioned earlier. Sometimes super dope (29) leads to sex (65), sometimes to a febrile dream wherein Anthony runs his car into two middle-aged women (61). In the language of the cybernetician Heinz von Foerster, the relationship system is represented as “non-trivial,” one that given consistent input will produce inconsistent outputs. Unlike the physical sciences, which seek to establish reproducibility through exhaustive explanation, cybernetics acknowledges that the world is filled with things and systems that are too complex to be understood through the minutiae of their parts, but which we continue to live with, construct, and use without relying on theories for how or why they work. Instead of explanations, cybernetics focuses instead on a sensitivity to changes in our environment and flexibility in adapting to them. The classic example of this is a thermostat, a technology that performs a complex function yet relies on a relatively simple mechanism—a strip of metal that responds to heat—to recognize temperature changes and adjust accordingly.
Victor said: The world has never made any sense up to now. Why should it suddenly start making sense for you? (108)
The cards omit many details about the relationships that we would expect in a conventional narrative. There is very little information provided about how or why a conversation begins or ends, or what its context or ramifications are. After going through all the cards we have the feeling that we know about the relationships through the dreams, advice, and reflections that preceded and followed their central drama. Yet the paucity of narrative action in the cards means that the core of what transpired amongst A., B., and C. remains relatively dark. Rather than trying to represent the relationships, Schneemann organizes them through questions of communication, change, and adaptation, acknowledging their complexity and suspending them in it, á la cybernetics. There is no final clarity, no neat line to draw from start to finish, only a commitment to ongoing transformation.
The end of the road is just another turning. (53)
No matter how we shuffle the cards we always return, in one way or another, to the question Carolee raises with Bruce, which is also the basic question of cybernetics—what exactly does it take to continue to exist in the face of complexity? The answer is not in either response but in the process of exchange, not in any single card but in the cards, as a shifting whole.
– A.E. Benenson