InterUterine: Exploring the Reprotech Body Through an Interspecies Aesthetic of Care.
|Article Type:||Viewpoint essay|
Human reproductive technology (Portrayals)
Female genitalia (Portrayals)
|Publication:||Name: Hecate Publisher: Hecate Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Hecate Press ISSN: 0311-4198|
|Issue:||Date: May-Nov, 2010 Source Volume: 36 Source Issue: 1-2|
|Topic:||NamedWork: InterUterine (Artwork); InterUterine (Artwork)|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: Australia Geographic Code: 8AUST Australia|
What does it mean to be a woman in a world where men can give birth?
What does it mean to be a man in a world where artificial wombs enable
embryos to grow outside a woman's body? What does it mean to be
human in a world where human organs can be grown in a sheep, where pig
organs can be transplanted into humans, where human, plant, bacterial
and animal DNA, cells, tissues and body parts become exchangeable?
As the definitions of body, gender and species become increasingly ambiguous through contemporary biotechnologies, it is vital that dialogue is undertaken around the consequences and meanings of these actions. Laura Fantone and Rosi Braidotti demonstrate convincingly that biotechnology, biomedicine and bioscience are increasingly reliant upon a visual economy. (1) Consequently, aesthetic investigations become increasingly important. The emergence of artists using biotechnological techniques challenges many of our assumptions regarding both aesthetic and scientific values.
As a white lesbian in this biotech era, I am interested in the cultural and scientific discourses around the reproductive body. We are told that we are in an 'infertility epidemic,' whilst being simultaneously bombarded with glowing images of 'Yummy Mummies.' In a world where children are starving, resources are being massively depleted and species are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate, we are exhorted to 'make babies.'
As a lesbian approaching the end of her reproductive life my feelings about my reproductive body are complex and highly ambiguous. I struggle with an urge to produce my 'own' child, when the need for foster parents is dire and when the resources required to conceive, gestate and parent are enormous. In addition the technologies which would enable an 'own' child are highly invasive and expensive.
In Western medicine, male bodies are normative: women's bodies are only considered as reproductive fragments whereas intersexed bodies are pathologised. Much has been written about the fragmentation of women's bodies particularly through medical imaging technologies. (2) Recent important writings on intersex and the construction of gender through medicine and anatomy include Marianne van den Wijngaard's 1997 Reinventing the Sexes: The Biomedical Construction of Femininity and Masculinity, Alice Dreger's 1998 Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, Suzanne J. Kessler's 1999 Lessons from the Intersexed, and Sharon Preves' 2003 Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self.
As bioscience becomes increasingly technologised, our reproductive bodies are increasingly surveilled, manipulated and commodified. The reproductive cyborg is a daily reality for most Western women: over 100 million are thought to take the pill daily and rapidly increasing numbers access a range of assisted reproductive technologies. Sex and reproduction are no longer interdependent; sex does not necessarily mean reproduction and is no longer necessary for it. I am interested in the ways we talk about the reproductive cyborg--how it is normalised by culture and science, who benefits from it and who loses. I am interested in reintroducing the lived experience of reproductive bodies, in queering the reproductive cyborg.
InterUterine is an artistic project contributing to my research at SymbioticA, University of Western Australia on the aesthetics of care, the transbiological nature of our reproductive bodies, and the environmental and interspecies consequences of human reproduction. The transbiological--'biology that is not only born and bred, or born and made, but made and born'--is Sarah Franklin's figuration of the cyborg, simultaneously actual and metaphorical, a material-semiotic modality of rebellion and subversion of the binary of human/animal. (3) Transbiology describes the ubiquitous, fluid interchange of biological materials between and of species enabled through contemporary biotechnologies and biosciences. This exchange complicates the concept of unified subjectivity upon which humanness is predicted and reliant, disturbing notions of taxonomic hierarchies, nature/artifice, nature/culture and purity.
In InterUterine I am attempting to explore and complicate the cultural, scientific and ethical discourses of contemporary reproductive experiences. I am interested in the potential that sustained proximity and care can offer in creating an intimate relationship between the carer and cared-for, embodying a post-anthropomorphic understanding. This project necessitates physical attention and care for living organisms, negotiating the ethics of the scientific and artistic usage of other species by humans and their life and death in our care. As women increasingly defer parenting, we are able and forced to consider alternatives, the cultural, scientific and ethical consequences of which are complex and ambivalent. InterUterine offers an alternative: one that Donna Haraway describes as 'parenting, not reproducing. Parenting is about caring for generations, one's own or not; reproducing is about making more of oneself to populate the future.' (4)
InterUterine will comprise nine glass vessels hand blown in the shape of a human uterus. Glass vessels are synonymous with the growth and maintenance of plant and animal life: terrariums, glasshouses and fish tanks. Glass vessels are also essential for bioscience and contemporary reproductive technologies. They are simultaneously evocative of sterility, nurturance, fragility, value and preciousness. InterUterine juxtaposes these concepts of glass vessels with the human uterus: an organic vessel for the growth and maintenance of human life. Each vessel will act as a vivarium for the growth and housing of various plant, fungal and animal species commonly used in reproductive research. This project suggests that the reproductive fragment of medical and gynaecological texts can be a surrogate for other species, providing an opportunity for what anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose calls a 'responsive attentiveness' to the consequences of our technoculture. (5)
InterUterine asks this 'onto-ethical question of care' through an aesthetic of care: embodied encounters that are durational, sensual, relational, proximal, and particular. Julia Kristeva has suggested:
As with the installation Kristeva describes, InterUterine engages the viewer in an affective communication, a sensual encounter, enhanced by the fragility of the glass vessels, the smell and abject quality of the organisms and resonance with our internal organs.
An aesthetic of care, however, demands more from the human participant than passive affect. A desire for and conscious enactment of durational proximity is crucial for a disruptive transbiological engagement. Durational proximity reflects the co-creation of our technoculture and results in an intimate transbiological relationship between the carer and cared-for. InterUterine intrinsically necessitates prolonged physical care and the concomitant recognition and negotiation of the ethics of our use of other species in reproductive research, as well as their death in our care. Consequently, relationality and the concomitant recognition of situatedness is also a critical quality of an aesthetic of care.
This project contributes to works by a number of contemporary artists, with particular reference to Mary Kelly, Hannah Wilke, Kiki Smith, Jennifer Willet, Kira O'Reilly, The Tissue Culture & Art Project and Patricia Piccinini. In conclusion, I will briefly describe key works by these artists which have influenced the development of InterUterine.
Post-Partum Document is a project undertaken by North American artist Mary Kelly between 1973 and 1979. (8) In this work she documented the first six years of her son's life in physical 'documents' including a cast of his hand, a shirt, and faecal stains. It is a record and reflection of the intimate, daily, domestic work that constitutes mothering. Kelly states:
InterUterine engages with Kelly's conceptualisation of the 'reciprocity of the process of socialization' through prolonged nurturance. I hope to extend this idea beyond the infant/mother dyad into an interspecies reciprocity.
Hannah Wilke was a North American photographer, sculptor and performance artist who worked during the 1970s and 80s documenting her own body. (10) Her early works were criticised by some feminists for perpetuating the objectification of the beautiful naked woman. (11) Feminist art critic Lucy Lippard noted that 'her [Wilke's] own confusion of her roles as beautiful woman and artist, as flirt and feminist, has resulted at times in politically ambiguous manifestations that have exposed her to criticism on a personal as well as on an artistic level.' (12) However, Wilke continued to document her body even after being diagnosed with lymphoma in 1987 in the Intra-Venus series (1991-1993). (13) Portrait of the Artist with her Mother, Selma Butter (1978-81) juxtaposes her tattooed body and that of her mother post-mastectomy. (14) Her images are raw and unsentimental. Wilke's intimate documentation of the embodied effects of ill-health and medical intervention denies accusations of narcissism and objectification. InterUterine extends Wilke's engagement with bioscience, acknowledging our dependence on the medical intervention into the bodies of non-human organisms.
Kiki Smith is a North American feminist sculptor working with 'the body as a receptacle for knowledge, belief, and storytelling.' (15) Her early works are deeply rooted in the anatomical tradition: 'objects and drawings based on organs, cellular forms, and the human nervous system.' (16) Recent works complicate the patriarchal eroticisation and objectification of women and nature, exploring religious and fairytales and exposing abject and mysterious interiors. (17) Works by Smith of particular relevance to InterUterine are the 1985-86 sculptural series of organs in bronze and glass including the stomach and uterus, the cast glass Womb (1996/2000), and her interspecies fairytales such as the 2002 bronze Born in which a deer gives birth to a woman, and Rapture (2002). (18) InterUterine, like Smith's work, plays on the border of life and death: 'In making work that's about the body, I'm playing with the indestructibility of life, where life is this ferocious force that keeps propelling us. At the same time ... you can just pierce it and it dies.' (19)
Paula Hayes is a New York based horticultural artist who creates landscapes, terraria and plant necklaces. (20) Hayes considers her works to be objects of excess: 'you can't ever totally posses [sic] the piece. In a lot of ways, it possesses you.' (21) Her works enact a conscious aesthetic of care as she insists that the owner of each piece sign a contract which obliges the owner "to maintain the life of the artwork described by seeing to it that the container contains a living landscape. This is to be executed by careful and appropriate maintenance of the living artwork by a dedicated caretaker ... The owner is responsible for the artwork in as much as the artwork does not exist without the responsibility and commitment to its undertaking.' (22) As I do with InterUterine, Hayes believes that 'It's the caring for it that is complex, because of how devoted you have to be to it ... You can't just buy it. You have understand the value of taking care of it.' (23)
Jennifer Willett is a contemporary Canadian bioartist who works in the laboratory. She is particularly interested in 'innovative productive and performative imaginings of biotechnology as a technology of the body-a complex ecology--that implicates each of us intellectually and biologically in the continued propagation of the life sciences.' (24) Her current work InsideOut: Laboratory Ecologies is an ongoing intervention into the aesthetics and isolation of bioscience laboratories, comprising a series of performances in a bioscience laboratory where the scientist's and the specimen's bodies are synonymous. She also sets up a mobile laboratory, bringing it into 'public display and into direct contact with natural environments.' (25) Like Willett, InterUterine is interested in disrupting the closed laboratory ecology, 'revealing the 'bodies in biotechnology' to viewers and participants as interconnected orders of life on this planet.' (26)
Kira O'Reilly is a UK performance artist whose early work performed medical treatments of the hysteric body, tributes to women who were subject to medicalisation and institutionalisation. Since undertaking an art residency at SymbioticA in Perth in 2003, O'Reilly has become interested in the non-human species subject to contemporary medicalisation and institutionalisation; in particular pigs, which are important human disease models:
O'Reilly's recent work Falling Asleep with Pig, a 3 day 'action/installed performance' during which she occupies a specially constructed sleeping space with Deliah, a Vietnamese Potbellied Pig, is one of her 'engagements with fleshy [biomedical] semantics.' (28) She describes this performance as enacting a one-on-one encounter that
As Falling Asleep with Pig enacts an aesthetic of care, so does InterUterine: sensual investigations of prolonged engagement with the organisms of biomedicine, interventions into the 'dehumanisation' of these animals.
Patricia Piccinini is an Australian new media artist who questions our responsibility for the future genetically engineered organisms of biotechnology, the human/animal DNA chimeras. (30) In works such as We are Family, exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2003, Nature's Little Helpers (2005) and The Long Awaited (2008) she envisions alternative and creative parenting options and complicates ethical assumptions. Her 'speculative fabulations' are technically sophisticated and hyperreal. (31) Piccinini investigates the allure of technology and our responsibility for the consequences of technological development on the other species with which we coexist. She asserts that 'it is very seductive to think that we could find a simple technological solution to complex ecological problems such as extinction' (32) ... 'the danger here is to confuse creation with control. Just because we can create and manipulate things does not necessarily mean that we can control our creations. Anyone who dabbles in creation would do well to remember that as soon as something exists we begin to lose our grip on it.' (33) InterUterine attempts to extend Piccinini's hopes for evoking empathy with our technoscientific progeny through a prolonged engagement with living organisms currently used in biomedicine and genetic research.
The Tissue Culture & Art Project (tc&a) are permanent artists in residence at SymbioticA, Perth, who work with the 'semi-living,' cells grown in vitro for biomedical purposes. (34) The mass culture of animal cells has become fundamental to biomedicine, and cellular and molecular biology, facilitating the study of the physiology and biochemistry of cells, the effects of drugs and toxins on cells, cell mutagenesis and carcinogenesis, and the manufacture and testing of biological pharmaceuticals. (35) tc&a are interested in the complex ontology and ethical implications of these cell cultures as 'semi-living' organisms, in Haraway's 'onto-ethical question of care' for the progeny of technoscience. (36) Semi-living sculptures such as Noark (2007), Victimless Leather: A Prototype of Stitch-less Jacket grown in a Technoscientific 'Body', Disembodied Cuisine (2003) and Semi-Living Worry Dolls (2000) explore our relationship with the uncanny dispersed bodies of cell and tissue culture through caring, feeding and killing rituals, similar to those proposed in InterUterine.
InterUterine is an artistic research project examining the technologisation of the reproductive body, our capacity for alternatives for care and reproduction, and ambiguities of reproduction in a biotechnological era. Patricia Piccinini suggests that 'the idea, experience and possibilities of empathy are important.' (37) InterUterine investigates the potential that sustained proximity and care can offer in exploring an empathic relationship between the carer and cared-for, embodying a transbiological understanding of contemporary reproductive experiences. An aesthetic of care is explored through the prolonged engagement with living organisms commonly used in reproductive research housed in nine hand-blown glass vessels. This paper locates InterUterine within an artistic lineage of feminist, performance and biological art that explores the embodied and ethical implications of contemporary biomedicine. InterUterine is shown to negotiate the ethics of the scientific and artistic usage of other species and their life and death in our care.
(1) Suggested by, among others, L. Fantone, 'Cute Robots/Ugly Human Parts (a Post-Human Aesthetics of Care)', in O. Catts (ed.), Biofeel: The Aesthetics of Care?, Perth: SymbioticA Press, 2002, 18-28.
(2) Importantly R. Petchesky, 'Fetal Images: The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction,' in E. Stanworth (ed.), Reproductive Technologies: Gender, Motherhood and Medicine, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1987; D. Petherbridge and L. Jordanova, The Quick and the Dead: Artists and Anatomy, London: South Bank Centre, 1997; B. M. Stafford, Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992; and I. Zechmeister, 'Foetal Images: The Power of Visual Technology in Antenatal Care and the Implications for Women's Reproductive Freedom', Health Care Analysis, vol. 9, 2001, 387-400.
(3) S. Franklin, 'The Cyborg Embryo: Our Path to Transbiology,' Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 23, no. 7/8, 2006, 167-187.
(4) D. Haraway, 'Patricia Piccinini: Speculative Fabulations for Technoculture's Generations: Taking Care of Unexpected Country', (tender) creatures, 2007,
(5) Cited in Haraway, 'Speculative Fabulations.'
(6) Haraway, 'Speculative Fabulations.'
(7) Cited in S. O'Sullivan, 'The Aesthetics of Affect: Thinking Art Beyond Representation,' Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, vol. 6, no. 3, 2001, 125-135.
(8) M. Kelly, Post-Partum Document, Melbourne: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. Much has been written about Kelly's project and images can be found at www.postmastersart.com/archive/MK/MK_PPD_window.html
(9) Kelly, Post-Partum Document, p.1.
(10) Documentation of Wilke's work can be found at www.hannahwilke.com/ index.html
(11) J. A. Isaak, 'In Praise of Primary Narcissism: The Last Laughs of Jo Spence and Hannah Wilke', in S. Smith and J. Watson (eds.), Interfaces: Women, Autobiography, Image, Performance, Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 2002, 49-68.
(12) L. Lippard, 'The Pleasures and Pains of Rebirth: European and American Women's Body Art,' in The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Essays on Feminist Art, New York: Press Press, 1995; originally printed in Art in America 64, no. 3, May- June 1976, 73-81.
(13) H. Tierney, 'Review: Hannah Wilke: The Intra-Venus Photographs,' Performing Arts Journal, vol. 18, no. 1, 1996, 44-49.
(14) 'Photographic Work,' Hannah Wilke
(15) K. Smith, 'Biography,' Kiki Smith: Stories, Art:21--Art in the Twenty- First Century, PBS, 2003,
(16) K. Smith, 'Biography,' Kiki Smith: Stories, Art:21--Art in the Twenty- First Century, PBS, 2003,
(17) For excellent commentaries and collections of Smiths works refer to H. Posner (ed.), Kiki Smith Boston, New York, Toronto & London: Bulfinch Press, 1998 and H. Posner, Kiki Smith; New York: Monacelli Press, 2005.
(18) Images of Born can be viewed at 'Acquisitions,' Albright-Knox Art Gallery,
(19) C. McCormick, 'Kiki Smith', Journal of Contemporary Art, vol. 4, no. 1, 1991, 81-95.
(21) designglut, 'The Living Work of Paula Hayes,' designglut: interviews, 2009,
(22) P. Hayes, Agreement for a Living Artwork paulahayes.com,
(23) designglut, 'The Living Work of Paula Hayes.'
(24) J. Willett, 'Incubator,' Jennifer Willett,
(25) J. Willett, 'InsideOut: Laboratory Ecologies,' Jennifer Willet,
(26) J. Willett, 'InsideOut: Laboratory Ecologies.'
(27) K. O'Reilly, 'Residency,' Kira O'Reilly, 2007,
(28) O'Reilly first performed this work at Interspecies London 2009, The Arts Catalyst,
(29) K. O'Reilly, 'falling asleep with a pig notes (i),' Kira O'Reilly, 18 December 2008,
(31) Haraway, 'Speculative Fabulations.'
(32) Patricia Piccinini, 'Nature's Little Helpers', 2005,
(33) Patricia Piccinini, 'In Another Life', 2005,
(35) 'Introduction to Cell Culture,' GIBCO[R] Cell Culture Basics, Invitrogen Life Science, 2010,
(36) O. Catts and I. Zurr, 'Growing Semi-Living Sculptures,' Leonardo, vol. 35, no. 4, 2002, 365-370,
(37) Piccinini, 'In Another Life.'
onto-ethical question of care for the intra- and inter-acting generations is not asked often enough in technoculture, especially not about its own progenitors and offspring. The question is not found in the false opposition of nature and technology. Rather what matters is who and what lives and dies, where, when and how? What is the heritage for which technocultural beings are both accountable and indebted? (6)
in installation it is the body in its entirety which is asked to participate through its sensations, through vision obviously, but also hearing, touch, on occasions smell. As if these artists, in the place of an 'object' sought to place us in a space at the limits of the sacred, and asked us not to contemplate images but to communicate with beings. (7)
in the post-partum document, I am trying to show the reciprocity of the process of socialization in the first few years of life. It is not only the infant whose future personality that is formed at this crucial moment, but also the mother whose 'feminine psychology' is sealed by the sexual division of labour in childcare. (9)
questions and thoughts I have about the body/my body/other bodies and life within the context of contemporary science, biotechnologies ... move between materiality and metaphor; investigating productions of knowledges, meaning and engagement within a terrain of fleshy semantics, and a poetic corporeality, resonating with Donna Haraway's ideas of a sacramental consciousness. (27)
allows for an audience engagement that is singular, individual and potentially intimate. The [sic] is an incredible tenderness that I would like to bring to this work that can be more facilitated by the situation being framed and constructed as private and particular. Bodies touching, breathing, simply being in this altogether out of the ordinary event. (29)
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