Monday, October 24, 2011

Bad Art: Marni Kotak's "The Birth of Baby X"

Majoring in fine art and having to form an opinion about it, I long ago concluded that anything presented as "art" is appropriately categorized as such. Found objects such as Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (literally a urinal) or the rock and driftwood sculptures on view at Mokseogwon on Jeju Island: art. Chris Burden crucified on a Volkswagen, Marina Abramovic starring silently across a table at total strangers for over 700 hours: art. The scribblings and clumsy drawings of millions of children hanging on countless refrigerators: art.

Not to say all (or even most) art is good art. Just that it is art.   

So now that I have that out of the way, I can write about some crappy art. Specifically, artist Marni Kotak's latest performance piece: The Birth of Baby X. For this piece, the artist has transformed Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn into a sort of home-birth space to give birth to her baby in view of the public. 

Women turning aspects of their births into public affairs is nothing new. Numerous women have allowed video footage of the birthing process to be used in documentaries and educational films, viewed by high school students in biology classes and couples in birth classes around the world. The "Feminist Breeder" Gina Crosley-Corcoran turned her birth into a live blogging event with updates, photos, sound clips, and more. Chiropractor Nancy Salgueiro recently invited the public to view the live stream of her giving birth. For anyone interested in the progression of the natural childbirth movement, a performance such as Marni Kotak's is hardly ground-breaking. On the contrary, it was inevitable.   

While Kotak cites established performance artists such as Vito Acconci and Carolee Schneemann as her inspirations, her work is not nearly as creative or provocative.  In an interview with The Village Voice, Kotak says, 
I am driven to hold onto an authentic personal experience in a world that has essentially become consumed by an unreal hyper-reality.
But the performances of Acconci, Schneemann, Burden, and Abramovic aren't public displays of their real, day-to-day lives. They are creatively tailored. Certainly both the artist and the participating audience have an "authentic personal experience", but so does an actor playing Hamlet on stage, or a theater goer moved to tears by his performance. From what I can tell, there is as little creativity as possible in Kotak's performance. Instead, in her attempts to make the piece as "authentic" as she can, she has turned it into little more than a live documentary. 

The Birth of Baby X seems to be more an extension of the natural childbirth movement than the performance art of her claimed inspirations. In The Village Voice interview she also states:  
In "The Birth of Baby X," I will be completely engrossed in the act of giving birth before a live audience. I will be focused on delivering my child into the world in the healthiest manner possible, rather than on how I look or what the audience may think. Everything I have learned about the birth process is that the more you surrender your mind and don't try to control the event, but let your body do what it naturally knows how to do, the better your labor progresses. 
Here Kotak seems to be taken in by some of the unscientific claims and rhetoric of the natural childbirth movement. There is no evidence that surrendering your mind results in a better labor process. Letting your body do what it naturally does will not prevent abnormalities in the size or position of the baby or in the pelvis or structures that support it. It will not help if the cord is wrapped around the baby's neck or if the placenta does not have enough oxygen stored to supply the baby during labor. It won't prevent infections that pose a danger to the child. Women surrendering to their bodies isn't what has drastically reduced the number of women and babies who die in childbirth. Indeed, the places in the world where access to modern medicine is limited, women and babies continue to be at great risk.   

The more I read about Kotak's motivations, the more it seems to be a self-aggrandizing political stunt rather than a challenging or transcendent work of art. In an article published in Hyperallergic, we see more typical pro-natural childbirth rhetoric: 
Childbirth is treated like an illness,” Kotak said. Hospitals are often a sterile place to have a child, with multiple rules and regulations forbidding visitors. “You get the sense that people are afraid of birth and female sexuality.” In other cultures outside of the United States, having a baby is more integrated into the culture and having supportive friends and family around is the norm.
The natural childbirth movement began in reaction to conventional practices in medicine that often were sexist and which typically did make the process of childbirth more stressful and isolating for women. However, it isn't the 1960's anymore. Today, a growing number of obstetricians are women, certified nurse midwives working in hospitals are on the rise, partners play an active role, and breastfeeding is encouraged. Not to mention the countless books written to educate women on childbirth and the ample Internet resources available at the click of a mouse. 

In popular television shows and movies, hospital birth is most typically presented as painful, but endurable, safe, and resulting in a sweaty-but-smiling woman holding a healthy newborn in her arms moments afterward. Such was the case in one of the latest episodes of the television drama Parenthood when the character Kristina Braverman gives birth to her daughter Nora. Unable to get a hold of her husband, a nurse takes charge and is the one to pressure her brother-in-law to stay in the room with her to provide a supporting role. Meanwhile, the rest of the extended family soon gathers outside to congratulate her and welcome the new child into the world. I don't really know how the experience of childbirth could be painted in a more positive light without glossing over the very real physical pain, exhaustion, and perfectly realistic fears parents have about complications that routinely occur in a minority of cases. 

Kotak claims that "... the ultimate creation of this life performance will be a living being!" No. The ultimate creation of this life performance will be a bump to the artist's career and ego, and further dissemination of some more foolish sentiments of the natural childbirth movement. The living being will be the result of a biological function that most human women are capable of for most of their adult lives. 

The most authentic experience is not a performance of any kind. When real life is presented to an audience as art, both the viewers and performers end up having an experience that is mitigated by the self awareness and analysis invited by it also being a performance. The performance aspect does not elevate the experience. Rather, it cheapens and objectifies it. 

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