At the very moment we enter the world our bodies are defined by gender.
It is the first piece of information we ask about a baby – Is it a boy or a girl? Historically, the upmost importance has been placed on this perceived dichotomy. It is the basis of traditional notions of family, politics, culture and medicine, underpinning the patriarchal and normative societies that have for the most part dominated human history.
Yet in the 21st century, advances in science and technology necessitate a reimagining of our physical boundaries. Our bodies have become liminal spaces – sites for transformation, hybridization and magic. Our parts no longer belong to us. We are co-created and reimagined. Stem cell technology, personalized medicine, transplantation and augmentation ask what is a human body? Can we define it? Should we try? In Technologies of Gender Teresa de Lauretis describes another perspective existing in the “social spaces carved in the interstices of institutions and in the chinks and cracks of the power-knowledge apparati”. Lauretis talks about the need to find a “view from elsewhere” – a different context for dialogue which exists in between paradigms. Artist Charlotte Jarvis believes this can be found at the intersection between art, science and ethics.
Over the past six years I have been working on a series of pieces collectively titled Corpus, which aim to find alternative spaces of discourse for the human body. The first two parts, Ergo Sum and Et In Arcadia Ego, used stem cell research, genetic engineering and oncological technologies to place the body in between states – disrupting the site, mutating the contents, and confronting im/mortality. These pieces used my own cells to decontextualise existing scientific processes in order to reveal their social and emotional meaning. In the third part of Corpus I am collaborating with Prof Susana Chuva de Sousal Lopes in Leiden and Kapelica Gallery / Kersnikova Institute in Ljubljana to place my body at the intersection of gender. The piece is called In Posse and we are attempting to make semen from my (“female”) cells.
Throughout history, semen has been revered as a magical substance – a totem of literal and symbolic potency. Patriarchal societies have described semen variously as life force, substance of the soul, a drop of the brain, divine, equal to ten drops of blood and that which sows the seeds of virtue in the female soul. In Posse aims to rewrite this cultural narrative; to use art and science to disrupt the hierarchy.
In Posse is being developed in three parts – firstly, we are on a journey to grow spermatozoa (sperm cells) from my body. At the same time, we have developed a female form of seminal plasma (the fluid part of semen). Finally, we are re-enacting the ancient Greek festival of Thesmophoria (a creative contextualization of the project).
In Leiden Susana and I are using Human induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (HiPSCs) derived from my blood and skin to grow spermatozoa. These cells have XX chromosomes – the genetic marker of what we describe as physically ‘female’. The first stage is to attempt to erase one of these X’s. We are doing this through accelerated mutation, scanning and selection. The second stage is to use CRISPR to add specific genes found on the Y chromosome (XY being the genetic marker for ‘male’) that initiate male gamete (sex cell) production. We will then attempt to grow a healthy colony of these gender mutated HiPSCs. The final stages will involve encouraging this colony to differentiate into the sperm producing cells found in adult testicles. Prof. Lopes has received the prestigious 1.5 million euro VICI grant to make this part of the project – funding a team of five scientists over five years. We have just completed the first year of this research.
The Seminal plasma has been developed in Ljubljana at the Biotehna lab, which is part of Kapelica Gallery and the Kersnikova Institute. The base of this is plasma is extracted from the blood of (so far) over 300 women, trans and non-binary people from 10 different countries. The plasma collected is then incorporated with thirteen other organic compounds which make up seminal fluid. These include proteins, fructose, lactic acid and cellulose. Making the seminal fluid is a continuing collective act – a symbolic rejection of patriarchal hierarchy.
The final part of the project is the festival of Thesmophoria, being developed with MU Hybrid Arthouse in Eindhoven. This is where myself and participating women call the female semen into existence. Little is known about the original festival because men were forbidden from participating; and thus it was largely undocumented. We use my own female semen as a starting point for reimagining the Thesmophoria with multiple groups of womXn at different sites across the world. The festivals build on the scant extant details and rumors about the Thesmophoria – a feast, the burial of a pig, “ritual obscenity”, serpentine and phallic offerings, etc. – and create new collaborative rites and rituals around the donation of blood and associated laboratory protocols involved in making the project. Participants get to decide for themselves how much or little they wish to document and share with the public. Thus far, festivals have taken place in Slovenia, the Netherlands and the UK. A large-scale festival is scheduled for May 2021 in Greece.
The project is exhibited as a multimedia digital installation involving multiple films which move between screens and projection installed within and across a feasting table, an altar and various ritual objects. The female seminal plasma – at whatever point in its journey it has reached – forms a focal point for this installation and there is also a surround-sound audio-scape documenting one of the Thesmophoria rituals which plays on loop. Where possible, we enact a Thesmophoria with local women wherever the project is exhibited.
It is my plan to enact and film a grand-scale Thesmophoria in Greece itself – taking the festival back to its historical roots. Our aim was to do this in May 2020 – which would have been just two months before the birth of my first child. However COVID-19 made this impossible. Our new plan is to enact the Greek festival in April 2021, and to use the experience of pregnancy, birth and now motherhood to illuminate and recontextualise the project.
In Posse, and all my work over the past decade, is broadly about enacting a transformation through collaborative practice. I have been seeking some kind of scientific transubstantiation; attempting to shift the context within which we view scientific advancement to reveal broad existential questions, and to challenge pre-existing assumptions about human bodies. What has been a great surprise to me over the past year is how effectively pregnancy and birth does these things already.
It is a dark testament to the distortive lens of pervasive patriarchal power structures that the pregnant female body is so ubiquitously used as a symbol of dichotomous gender roles, of heteronormativity and traditional, stereotypical definitions of sex. I have been shocked by the embodied experience of pregnancy and specifically by what a queering experience it has been.
My experience of pregnancy and motherhood has been a palpable demonstration of the body’s mutability. It has required me to inhabit the positions of being both binary and singular at the same time. I have possessed new and different body parts, multiple hearts, extra ovaries and a new brain. I have been forced to accommodate and love a parasite so that the boundary between myself and her is completely opaque. My brain has been hijacked by this new being – some as yet dormant part of my mind took over and usurped my logical brain when we became two, so that at least for a couple of weeks I felt possessed – a body repurposed to serve another.
If we talked about mutating bodies, hybridised beings, of additional body parts and of blurring the physical and genetic boundaries between individuals in the context of new science and technology it would be seen as truly radical. Equally, if we developed methodologies for one individual to control the mental mechanisms of another, we would consider it profoundly dystopian – we would want to examine the existential implications of this kind of hypnosis. The fact that we have throughout our history traditionally failed to philosophise, analyse to learn from pregnancy and birth in this way is just another reason why we really need to fuck the patriarchy.
In Posse is a Latin term with a literal meaning of ‘before we are born’. It refers to something which is possible, which has potential, but is yet to be called into existence. We are striving for a form of technological, biological and creative activism. In Posse seeks to use science and art to undermine traditional notions of patriarchal power and to examine the meaning of gender now and in the future.
All images copyright and courtesy of Charlotte Jarvis
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