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Birth as Art

Sometimes, just when I think I’ve heard everything, something new comes along and shocks even the pretty unsurprisable me. Such was the case when I came across the newsfeed announcement of Marni Kotak’s The Birth of Baby X, a performance art exhibit that begins today, October 8, and continues until November 7, 2011. Performance Art, in and of itself, is typically controversial what with Marina Abramovic’s (literally) starving art The House With the Ocean View (2002) to Chris Burden’s terrifying Trans-fixed (1974). But, birth as performance art? Really? 


Kotak is pregnant, due anytime from now until the middle of November and her Birth “exhibit” is merely the beginning of a several decade project wherein she brings to fruition the “long-term project ‘Raising Baby X,’ which will document her child's upbringing ‘from birth through attending college and developing an independent life.’” 

It hasn’t been that long since the first Internet birth was streamed (Lynsee, November, 2009). Then there were a couple of Net natural births, and we’re now waiting for birth of chiropractor Dr. Nancy Salgueiro‘s baby any day now. 

But, Kotak’s upcoming performance in the Microscope Gallery in New York City beats all of these modern-day births by a zillion miles. 

Yesterday, on my Navelgazing Midwife Facebook Page, I shared the link to The Village Voice’s article and interview “Marni Kotak, Artist, Will Give Birth at Microscope Gallery, for Real” about and with Marni Kotak and received a fantastic response I had to share with y’all. Here begins the discussion (my comments in parenthesis): 

NgM: I can't WAIT to hear thoughts about this one! I'm half-fascinated and half-disgusted... it's as if women are trying to one-up each other on the graphic-ness/immediacy of public birthing. Just when I think Live Streaming one's birth is the most narcissistic thing to do (which, btw, I would totally have done!), someone comes along with something even more self-involved.

SW: Why is this self-involved?

RK: Eh. Whatever floats her boat. If this makes her happy and this is how she wants to birth, more power to her.

LC: Well, it's official. Birth has officially jumped the shark.

(NgM: “Jumping the shark” is a term that came from television and means that you know, with all your being, the show is all downhill from that point.)

KK: Ironic, that the once common objection to hospital birth was the presence of strangers and now it seems a small population of women have turned that on its head. Taking homebirth out of the realm of private and sacred, but to a public spectacle.

SP: I just don’t get it.

NgM: Seriously?! This is an extremely self-indulgent "artistic" act she's putting on. Artists, by definition, want others to look at and react to (either positively or negatively) their work, which is an extension of themselves. Her art is performance! How is birth a "performance" if not her putting herself in front of an audience to react to what she's doing. We speak about privacy so much, how is she going to be able to "let go" and not see the audience? But, how would a performance artist not be thinking about "performing "anything!? As a writer, I think about "how would this make a good article/blog piece/topic on Facebook" about almost everything in my day, including thoughts of, "Don't you dare write about this!" I can totally relate to her wanting to demo the birth, but I also know it is an extremely inflated sense of Self that drives someone to do something like this. MySelf included.

RK: I get what you’re saying, but I guess for me, it boils down to you should have a choice where and how you want to give birth. And if this nut wants to do it this way, well than more power to her. Not something I would do. I agree though, it’s selfish.

EF: I think it's disgusting to view birth as a piece of performance art that creates a living being (never mind it doesn't actually CREATE said living being, but I probably shouldn't point that out, or else she'll be publicizing the conception of the next one). I feel bad for that baby. My child was not the "outcome" of my "birth experience", she was the entire POINT of going through it! Viewing the fact that you're having a living child as secondary is pretty disturbing.

SR: I find it interesting but wonder how well she is really going to be able to let go and how large of an audience she will actually draw.

NgM: And... what about the baby? What about germs? People coughing crap... the floors around her filthy (under her carpet)... clapping strangers when the baby's born? Who's holding the space for this baby?

RK: Well, I am guessing (hoping) that they are going to have the room super clean. I mean, it’s got to be cleaner or just as clean as someone’s home, yeah? (Minus the added heads watching.)

KS: I couldn’t personally care less where she gives birth. Doesn’t bother me at all. What bothers me is she seems to be losing the amazing miracle of birth in her "art" Her kid will be documented from birth through college, without their say. S/he will have no privacy and have their entire life on public display. That bothers me very much. That is selfish.

KB: I have an MFA from a school and department with a long history of performance art and boundary pushing, and this just leaves me thinking she contradicts herself (and gawd, I detest all the art-speak). She says, "I am driven to hold onto an authentic personal experience in a world that has essentially become consumed by an unreal hyper-reality." Um, so what is making a fake "home" in an art gallery and terming your child's birth a "performance" if not a manufactured hyper-reality? And, the cynical doula in me says that if anything is begging to become an emergent c-section due to _fill-in-the-blank_, it is something like this. What a lot of pressure to have things go a certain way. No thanks.

AS: I think this is really sad. All of it. It seems like she is missing the essence of what giving birth is all about. Maybe not. Seems like she has made an exhibition of many things others of us might consider sacred... I hope she has a beautiful birth.

SN: I like it and I'm not disgusted at all.

CB: I have to agree it is pretty narcissistic, I find that for me to witness someone giving birth is a privileged position and often to me something so intimate that I am uncomfortable being a witness - I don't want to take anything away. It isn't the body nor the exposure but the raw emotions that are shared between partners and between mother and child. I guess when I see it on show like this I worry about boundaries and respect of one's self more than anything, it is a troubling thing.

ML: I think it is interesting that so many women who advocate for choice in birth really advocate for their ideals. This is her birth, her moment. It is not anyone's business how she does it, if she is "sincere" or not, or if she is doing it "right".

KB: I am much less disturbed about this as a “birth choice” than I am about taking a normal human experience and body function and calling it "art." I am all for blurring the boundaries of art and life, but this is just not very interesting to me as an artistic proposition, any more than it would be to say, "Every bite of food I take, every pee I make in the toilet, is a work of art." Oh goody, can I watch that too? We get it, your life = your art = everything is illuminated and so beautiful and special. So, go live it and make it already and be your beautiful existence and go make some yarn bombs while you are at it. But really, I don't need to know about it. On a less jaded note, maybe this performance will make some people awaken to the everyday miracle that is birth.

TD: It seems like taking an awful chance with something that is already subject to so many variables. Why make birth any riskier?

JK: Yes, every woman has a right to choose how and where she gives birth. Doesn't mean that every choice is the right one, though. I find it interesting that the same people who will judge someone for an elective c-section find birth as performance art perfectly acceptable. Have we become so caught up in defending mothers' birth choices that we forget that babies matter, too?

CR: Having gone to an art school and seen performance art (such as a video of a woman non-chalantly sticking crayons into her vagina one by one…), this isn't so much disturbing to me as it is supremely narcissistic as you've said. The whole art environment that I saw, and was a part of, just screams "Look at me! Listen to what I have to say! I am important! What I have to say is important!!" All my art teachers constantly were pushing us to make our art "speak". Akin to "What is this piece telling us?" Ummm nothing. I liked how it looked. So I took the picture/painted it. So what is she saying by having her birth in a gallery, on display by a judging audience? Personally I feel it's telling me there is no respect. It's a "Look at me" performance.

LS: I find the whole scenario bewildering. My big issue is that a public venue like this is going to be subject to lots of bacterial/viral invasions since we are at the start of sick season. There is a huge danger to the baby in that mom isn't going to have a chance to build up an immunity to all of that before birth as she likely would in her own home where fewer people likely visit. Also, how to control for audience noise intrusions and annoyances such as coughs and cell phones?

My inner birth junkie, despite being worried about this venue as a birthplace, thinks this would be a great idea for doulas and CBEs in training to get in a live, somewhat natural, birth.

SN: Babies don't care who is at their births (and I didn't care when I was being born, and still don't). Women who have birth videos on Youtube often get several thousand hits- people like watching birth (even those who think it is sacred and private). No, an art gallery is not a greater public health risk than a hospital. Although it would be greater than the home, that's not where most women give birth.

HM: I love this!! My favorite artist Alex Grey performed an art piece where he and his wife made love in this clear box thing (NgM: I can’t find any reference to the performance piece HM is referring to, sorry!), so I guess this is the next step. I don’t think a lot of us can understand artists’ performance pieces because we’re not them! I think on a spiritual level, I understand her reasoning about holding onto what’s real in life and showing that to the world since people are getting farther and farther away from things like love, birth, and death and more consumed with GIMME GIMME GIMME. Love this.

KB: How does giving birth in front of an audience make it more real than if she were in her Brooklyn apartment or a hospital or a yurt in a redwood forest? The event is equally real, no matter where you are, and if she needs witnesses to make it real, then she is supremely out of touch with her own lived experience. And if an artist makes a performance piece that nobody can understand except them, then why are they performing it in front of an audience? Sorry, but I have heard so much artsy-fartsy b.s. that I just don't buy that this woman can say, "I am alive. I walk around. I do stuff. That is my art." If that is the case, then go about your business instead of announcing to the world that "I am an artist. I exist; therefore, everything I do is art." Then that makes 7.152838724 billion "artists" on the planet. I also think it is presumptuous in the extreme to assume that other people are alienated from daily experience. If they can't know what's going on in your head, how can you know what's going on in theirs? Maybe lots of people get that special feeling of connectedness with the universe every time they have a cup of coffee or do their hot yoga or sit next to a super stinky drunk dude on the bus. And the quest to document EVERYTHING is another form of grasping and the gimme-gimme-gimme mentality - gimme attnention, gimme permanence, gimme Kodak (in this case Kotak) Magic Moments that I can treasure forever.

NgM: When I took a Humanities class in college, there was the on-going discussion of "What is art?" I loved when I read that art is when you see/hear/smell/taste/feel something that makes you think about the experience again, even if for only a second more. Therefore, here we are, spending much more than one second on just the topic of her art... not even the art expression itself, just the idea of her idea of art! Any artist would not only be proud, but also very, very thankful that so many were focusing on her work.

MS: I think it's kind of weird, and here's why: when my babies were born (in a hospital) the only people there were my husband, a nurse and a midwife. For me, the act of having a child was an extension of the act of creating a child and something that was very intimate. Even having the nurse and midwife was, in some ways, a little uncomfortable. I wouldn't want to share that with a bunch of strangers who treated it like a spectator sport or a time filler before their dinner reservation. I don't want to offend anyone whose beliefs are different than mine, but I think treating birth as performance art makes it somehow tawdry. It seems, as you pointed out Navelgazing Midwife, very narcissistic.

RB: There used to be a time when being an artist actually took skill and talent. As a child, I watched my mother struggle to make a name for herself in an occupation where people with real artistic talented were ignored for being boring and old fashioned. The grants went to people who were filling boxes with used condoms or their own feces and calling it art. I watched my mom work countless hours on a painting on our back porch while she also raised 3 small children and maintained her home. She sacrificed so much to become the successful artist she is. I have no respect for "performance art;" it's what talentless people do! It's like in the tattoo industry when people claim they specialize in "traditional" tattooing when all that really means is that's all they can do! I don't care where she has her baby! She can have it on the NYC subway platform for all I care, just don't call it art! Of course, the people who love this sort of crap like to tell people if they don't get it they just aren't intellectual enough. Pffttt! I'd rather be a simpleton then! If you want to see some real artwork that took time and talent you can look at my mother's work painted from life – Joy Thomas Portraits. (NgM: Thomas’ work is amazing! So, so beautiful.)

RK: Just going back through this thread and it made me laugh when I was reading that this is a normal body function that should be kept private and the only thing I could think of was pooping in public and how weird that would be. Although, maybe she will since lots of people do in birth?

NgM: RK: That's actually one of my post-discussion thoughts: Is she building a toilet in there, too? Many women love spending time in the bathroom on the toilet. Is that crossing the line?

KB: Just to put in a good word for performance art -- at its best, performance art can be transformative and transcendent, just as much as a Vermeer painting or Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate (in Chicago's Millennium Park. Take a look at some of Marina Abramovic's work, which is often very much about the body (naked) and transgressing personal space and intimacy. And yet, somehow her work is more rigorous. I think it is a question of her erasure of distance between her and the spectators, making them not spectators, but participants. I guess an equivalent would be if Marni Kotak WERE to have her baby on the subway platform, not in a gallery with a midwife and a doula, but really, truly to drop the baby in a place where the psychic stakes are high for all involved. What she is doing is keeping a layer of distance between herself and the audience, both by her choice of setting and by having them there only as observers. They have no investment - they are merely voyeurs, observing a spectacle. This has less possibility to transform them than if they were called on to help deliver the baby. Not saying this is necessarily a good or safe idea, but merely pointing out the difference between the very gutsy Marina A.'s work and ethic, and my perception of Marni Kotak's "work" as schtick.

NgM: Thank you so much, KB! What a great view into performance art from someone who knows a lot more than I do. 

So, what are your thoughts about this artist’s expression of birth? 

The “museum’s hours are extended to 7 days a week, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and, the gallery says, ‘we will remain open or reopen if the birth is in process.’ Visitors to the show can get on a list be notified of when she goes into labor. Go to Runnin' Scared for all our latest news coverage.”


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