Transformative Performance

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Casey Jenkins – response to Australia Council’s public statement and unprecedented decision to ‘rescind’ their support for my IMMACULATE work 

In my work I am documenting and presenting a part of my lived experience as countless artists do. Nothing in the actions that I am documenting is illegal or unethical. In my work I am proudly and unashamedly presenting my mode of attempting to conceive (self insemination) undertaken perfectly legally, perfectly ethically by thousands across the country.

Queer and single parents are heavily stigmatised and feared by some small but powerful sectors of our community. The fact that the simple, common and loving ways that we live our lives and create and nurture our families cause alarm in those sectors does not equate to there being anything in any way unethical or risky in our actions. 

Australia Council have grossly and insultingly mischaracterised my artwork as an “act that could result in bringing a new life into the world”.  As I have repeatedly articulated to Australia Council and as they are well aware I am not trying to conceive as an artwork. I have been trying to conceive for some time and in my artwork IMMACULATE I am simply documenting and presenting the perfectly common, legal and ethical process of self-insemination. None of the budget for my work that Australia Council funded related to medical appointments, vitamin supplements or anything else connected to the process of trying to conceive – the budget allocated money for things like lighting, live-stream subscription and recording equipment. I was simply funded to document and present a part of my lived experience and a process I’ve been undertaking for some time. That the Australia Council chose to imply differently is deeply offensive to me.

The reasons the Australia Council have given in their direct communication with me for rescinding their support differ from those in their public statements so I’ll address the public line they’ve taken first.

In their public statement they say the reason for rescinding the grant was “it was not in keeping with the original peer-assessed grant and created potential legal risk for the Australia Council”. This statement is misleading and inaccurate in several ways.

Firstly, IMMACULATE was fully approved as a variation to an original grant by Australia Council and I went back to them on my own accord to double check they were fully cognizant of the nature of the work before signing off. After my further contact it was escalated higher and checked and approved as a valid variation by managers (plural). Even when Australia Council initially told me (by phone and email two hours before my initial presentation) they were “suspending” my grant they agreed the work was a valid variation of the original and that their concerns were rather of a (vague, unspecified) legal and ethical nature. Nothing I have done, in the content of my work or my actions, has strayed from what was clearly outlined to Australia Council management before they approved my grant variation.

Secondly, there is nothing remotely illegal in any of the actions I am taking as I try to grow my family via self-insemination nor in my documentation and presentation of the process in my artwork. If an artist includes illegal activity in their work there is a clause by which Australia Council can remove their funding. That is NOT what is happening here. Despite having a team of specialist lawyers look into my actions for several weeks they could find no illegal activity and so are taking the extraordinary action of breaking the contract instead. I find the imputation from Australia Council that I have or may partake in an action that has “legal risk” absolutely appalling and distressing.

In their official letter sent directly to me they did not suggest that the work was not in keeping with the original at all, rather, “ethical issues” were central to their reasoning. After a strident letter from me expressing dismay about the nature of their ‘ethical’ judgements, and letters from others in the community, they have interestingly removed ethics from their public statement about their decision and have told the media directly “ethical considerations” did not come into play. This is categorically untrue. As their written statements to me will attest they decided to remove their support for IMMACULATE largely based on their inappropriate ‘ethical’ assessments. These so-called ethical issues included concern for “current and longer-term consequences for the child” though it should be demonstrably apparent to all that there is no child present in my work. I find their ‘ethical’ perspective absolutely appalling, they are bulldozing over 100+ years of women’s liberation, gender equality and reproductive rights to assert that I should not have the freedom and right to document and present my body in whatever manner I choose simply because I have a womb and the potential to become pregnant. Furthermore, they are pathologising the existence of children born through donor conception and attributing
culpability to a perfectly legal and common form of conception which is the primary mode of conception for queer, lesbian and single people. The fact that the premier arts funding body in Australia is making these problematic ethical judgements of the work of artists who they are supposed to represent and support should be of critical concern to artists across the nation. 

My artwork presents content which is at once profound and mundane – that it has aroused discussion and confronted and moved people is an indication that it is an effective artwork. I am troubled by the prospect of a future in which the only art supported in this country is that devoid of these results.

When rescinding their support Australia Council wrote to me that, “the ethical issues that will inevitably surround this project, possibly for years to come, are not something the Council can take responsibility for.” By taking the extraordinary unprecedented measure of breaking our contract and making my art, my body and my lived experience (my rather common, perfectly legal, considered and loving experience) as a queer solo parent of one and hopeful parent of more, the site of their political action they are absolutely creating ethical issues which will surround my documentary artwork project, as they said, possibly for years to come. And whether they like it or not, this is something that Australia Council will absolutely need to take responsibility for.

There are grave ethical concerns here yes, but the concerns are not with my actions, they are with the highly discriminatory actions of a government entity like Australia Council towards me, my practice and my life and their widespread and damaging implications.

Bodies That Stain

By Dr Lara Stevens

Performance art works made by Casey Jenkins are rarely allowed to speak for themselves. This is because they centre on a female body, Jenkins’s body. Given that the focus on such a body is nothing new to feminist live art practice, which took off amidst the Western counter-cultural and social justice movements of the 1960s, it is curious that the female body still has the potential to provoke widespread public attention and ire today. Even in 2020, women’s bodies continue to be dangerous and contentious sites – sites that the public, politicians, the law and institutions often seek to control.

Jenkins’s performance IMMACULATE asks us to confront what is often kept private – common acts of reproduction and queer family structures that exist and thrive outside of heteronormative patriarchal configurations. The knee-jerk responses to the performance reveal how deeply Western culture still clings to traditional ideas of the family and its sanctioned approach to women’s reproductive labours. IMMACULATE reveals to us that women are still fighting for agency over their bodies and over what counts as artistic practice.

The twenty-first century has seen an expansion in ‘participatory art’ – art which invites spectators to take part, to insert themselves into the work. Jenkins does not shy away from controversy but their works are not constructed as participatory artworks. They are not set up as platforms for public opinion about the body on display. Yet Jenkins’s performances have ended up producing some of the most engaged publics in the history of Australian performance art. In the age of global online social media and 24-hour news cycles, public responses can shout louder than the works themselves, often by people who haven’t actually viewed them. 

In the past, Jenkins’s performances have drawn vitriolic reactions from online spectators as well as enthusiastic responses from those who defend and champion them. Sometimes these attacks are so prolific and vicious that they threaten to overshadow the work. I push back against the impulse to foreground the hyperbolic public reactions to the performance. Instead, I want to firstly consider IMMACULATE on its own terms, which is to say, away from the public noise that not only surrounds it, but has already begun to shape it. 

IMMACULATE is a performance that documents attempts at conceiving a human child. It subverts normative expectations of procreation, however, because the performance does not document copulation. Jenkins is a single mother of one who wants to expand their family through self-insemination. They have a pre-agreed arrangement with a donor who provides them with semen at the required time. The staging of the process of self-insemination on camera – streamed live to audiences via Jenkins’s website and made accessible to the viewing public afterwards as a video – is a performance of the intimate banality of the common practice of DIY artificial insemination in the home. 

Every stage of the performance moves at the pace of Jenkins’s bodily rhythms. At age 41, Jenkins’s periods are irregular and thus the timing of their ovulation varies from month to month. Once Jenkins knows ovulation has begun, they send out a notification on social media of the date and time they will perform the live-stream performance. In the second performance, ‘cycle 2’, we witness them transferring the semen from the condom into a needle-less syringe, lying on the couch with legs in the air. They then insert the liquid inside their vagina and wait with their body inverted for the 20 minutes advised by the doctor. This gives the semen the best chance to travel efficiently through the cervix, uterus and fallopian tubes and to ideally come into contact with the egg(s) in Jenkins’s ovaries.

The real drama of IMMACULATE therefore happens ‘back stage’, as it were. Unlike Woody Allen’s film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972) in which the audience are shown anthropomorphised sperm inside the penis preparing themselves for ejaculation and jostling for their chance to penetrate the ovum, Jenkins’s performance of lying on a couch invites its audience to imagine the busy action at the centre of their quiet act – the potential moment of conception occurring inside her body. Jenkins knowingly points to this tantalising back stage performance prior to insemination when she wryly adds to camera: ‘if you stick around, you might just witness the moment of conception’. We might have ‘been there’ but we didn’t witness anything with our eyes. The performance hinges on the ambiguities of what is seen and unseen, what secular western societies can tolerate as visible to the public and what is ordinarily concealed in the private sphere. 

This interplay between seen and unseen, public and private has been central to feminist performance art more broadly in its staging of women’s devalued, derided, taboo or hidden labours and/or experiences in public. From the 1960s, it was the extraordinariness of seeing the ordinariness of women’s experience in public art institutions that shocked and excited the art world. In Menstruation Bathroom (1972), Judy Chicago made an installation of a white sterile bathroom strewn with bloodied tampons and pads, in Interior Scroll (1975), Carolee Schneeman pulled a scroll out of her vagina from which she read a text that defended her artistic integrity. In Public Cervix Announcement (1988), Annie Sprinkle slumped in a chair with her pelvis thrust forward and invited spectators to look at her cervix with the aid of a speculum and torch. These performances gave further meaning to the second-wave feminist insistence that ‘the personal is political’. In line with this tradition, Jenkins takes a procedure that is fully legal in Australia, that commonly occurs in the privacy of the home, and makes it public to global online audiences.

These historic feminist live art performances were often deliberately outrageous using shock tactics to draw attention to the violence of the artists’ experiences as women and women artists. By comparison with these well-known feminist performances, Jenkins’s use of the body is radically banal. The aesthetic of IMMACULATE captures the boredom and loneliness of the experience of waiting. In the poem ‘Waiting’, feminist artist Faith Wilding brilliantly captures the frustration of women’s enforced passivity as they spend their lives in the limbo of waiting for others to validate them or to permit them to act. She captures the experience of girls and women waiting for their period, waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for the boy to ask her out, waiting for the man to propose, waiting to be recognised for their talents, waiting for the child to wake up, for the water to boil, for the vote, for the milk to come in, or, in Jenkins’s case, and the case of so many aspiring or expectant mothers, waiting for the baby. This waiting is indicative of women’s ‘proper’ social place as passive object to the active male subject but has also been the result of the exclusion or undervaluing of women’s labours in patriarchal capitalist economies.

IMMACULATE captures that experience of waiting and the boredom it elicits as a deliberate demand upon spectators to slow down, reflect, observe the body – one’s own and the artist’s – and move at a different pace, at the pace of the body. Since the first two (of a planned four) performances took place in the midst of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the strict Melbourne lockdown, that feeling of slowness, of passivity, of feeling trapped in the waiting place, in a holding pattern while the world turns, was amplified and intensified for all genders, and for women in particular. It was women who were found to be disproportionately the ones who sacrificed their work to educate children while schools were closed, cared for children while childcare centres closed, nursed the sick, cared for the elderly who had to be pulled out of nursing homes where the virus was spreading and taking lives.

IMMACULATE invites us to look at something that most people don’t ordinarily have the opportunity to see. It gives visibility to a practice which has been occurring among lesbians and single women in Australia since at least the 1970s, and which is increasingly common in the last decade. In titling the work IMMACULATE, Jenkins seems, perhaps ironically, to be asking us to see the ordinarily messy business of reproduction, the aleatory act of conception, and even the caregiving that follows a successful conception and birth, as pristine, flawless and tidy. As such, the title evokes the long history of expectations upon girls and women to be pure, virginal and faultless, to toe the line of patriarchal societies while also challenging anyone who thinks that Jenkins’s family is anything less than ideal. 

But the title also etymologically problematises the very act of viewing, its prejudices and blind spots. The central area of the human eye on the retina is called the macula, from the Latin for ‘spot’ or ‘stain’. It is here that we focus the eye’s vision, also the site through which we visually consume art. Even today it is the male gaze that dominates the art world and its foci. As Jenkins lies on the couch waiting in the performance, a neon sign positioned above the couch begins strobing the word ‘IMMACULATE’. Simultaneously the performer tilts their head back over the edge of the couch to meet the spectatorial gaze, looking back as us gazing at their semi-nude body. The female artist asserting a dual control over the frame and their body.

Moreover, the title IMMACULATE evokes the Catholic belief in the Virgin Mary as conceived in the womb of her mother free from original sin, untainted by the rebellious actions of Eve in Eden. Jenkins provocatively aligns themself with Mary Immaculate who conceives Jesus without the flesh of the father – the potential mother of the next Messiah with an absent father. Jenkins makes a point of noting that there is no father and no partner involved in the potential conception in IMMACULATE, and the artist is explicitly unapologetic about that. This Catholic allusion is itself a bold gesture given past censorship of artworks that experiment with religious iconography such as Andres Serrano’s Immersion (Piss Christ) (1987), a photograph of a plastic Christ on a crucifix, submerged in a glass filled with the artist’s urine or Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) in which the artist created a portrait of the Virgin Mary that was partially constructed using elephant dung stuck to the canvas. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the work has attracted international public attention and outrage. It has been attacked and condemned on Jenkins’s Facebook page by members of the public. Conservative commentators including Dr Bella D’Abrera from the Institute of Public Affairs have damned the piece as ‘nonsense’ and a ‘crazy project’. The Australia Council, which awarded a prestigious grant to Jenkins to make the performance, made the decision to rescind the funding on the grounds that it presented ‘unacceptable, potentially long-term and incalculable risk’. The indignation and panic that the work has generated thus far and its coverage in the media stand in stark contrast to its quiet, minimalist and understated aesthetic.

The role of public funding of the arts was famously interrogated in America in the early 1990s by the United States National Endowment for the Arts when four high-profile artists had their funding vetoed. For these artists, who became known as the ‘NEA Four’, the veto was based on their artistic representation of same-sex relationships or, in the case of Karen Finley, autobiographical depictions of the violence and abuse she had experienced as a girl and a woman. It is notable that at the same time as Jenkins’s performance is making headlines in Australia’s major newspapers, they are also filled with reports of threats to the autonomy of women’s bodies and reproductive freedoms. In the US, President Donald Trump makes a judicial appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and many protest, fearing her potential to overturn the historic Roe v Wade case that federally mandated the legality of women’s right to abortion throughout all the states. In Australia, it coincides with the federal government’s announcement of the COVID-19 recovery budget which has been heavily criticised for ignoring the needs of women.

IMMACULATE and the public outcry it has generated reminds us that women are still fighting for agency over their reproductive choices and the visibility, safety and recognition of their lives, bodies and talents in the public sphere. As Jenkins’s performance continues with each ovulation, it invites a deep and slow reflection on the present-day barriers, stigmas and taboos surrounding the female body, reproductive rights and the female artist.

IMMACULATE cycle 3

Many thanks to The Gwärtler Foundation and Vitalstatistix for their support.

Password: LIBERTY

Contains adult themes, nudity, bodily fluids, strobe lighting and reference to disturbing patriarchal institutions.

I experienced some connectivity issues – the stream freezes at approximately 15:50 and will be replaced by a recording from another source for exhibition.

IMMACULATE cycle 1

Password: RESPECT

Contains adult themes.

IMMACULATE cycle 2

Password: AUTONOMY

Contains adult themes, nudity, bodily fluids and strobe lighting.

Transformative performance re-conceptualising conception through a queer lens.
Jenkins will perform monthly live self-inseminations to elevate the experience of queer reproduction and disrupt heteronormative parenting narratives. An invitation, both meditative and unsettling, to witness a moment of creation and grow new understandings of procreation free from sanctimony.

The concept of conception is enigmatic. Understood as a sacred moment it is simultaneously perceived as highly sexual and mystically asexual, though always with the premise of heteronormativity. There is no space in the doctrine for queer reproduction – viewed as an aberration. In IMMACULATE I will create a sanctury for reflection on non-hetero reproduction – presenting the controls put on a queer body which resists being controlled, even by onesself, and the hope, fear and strength inherent in the process. By inviting audiences to witness an intimate moment of queer creation, solitary and unembellished,  I am inviting them to insert their judgements on the validity of my experience. My hope is that, as hypocritical and bigoted judgements do not thrive in open air, they’ll wither outside the safe shield of taboo and allow attitudinal transformations to take root.  My womb is vacant. The presentation is elemental. From these clear grounds hope may grow.