contextualizing MOCS

Since recently getting some very nice press and therefore wider attention, my MOCS project has been getting a wide range of very strong reactions, especially amongst some fat activists. I am pleased to see that the majority of the reactions are positive, and am intrigued by the alarm and concern it raises for other people. I think some of the concern stems from people only seeing the project’s website (www.obeasts.org) and therefore not having the full art context of the project. I do think that MOCS reads differently if you encounter it in person at a gallery first, rather than just the project’s site. Obeasts.org is the online presence of my fictitious MOCS organization and therefore provides no “real world” context for the information being presented; I can see how it could look like a cruel spoof on its own.

From what I’ve read there is concern about my intentions as an artist and the reasons why the project is the way it is. Am I being mean-spirited? Am I doing the work of fat haters for them? When I see this kind of buzz online (blogs, facebook, etc) I don’t try to correct those writing them. There are many ways to see this work, and none of them are “right” per se. Further, for some people appreciating the project is an emotional journey that starts with hating it. That’s totally fine by me, as is the fact that many people are just going to never ever like the work. I knew that going it. So while I’m not going to directly engage with folks about their concerns (or praise for that matter), I would like to reiterate some links to writings I’ve done about the work that analytically contextualize it so that IF people go seeking more information about what I’m up to they can readily find it.

And finally, here is the full preface to my thesis in which I outline the genesis and intention of this work:

Being fat is nothing like what the media or cultural stereotypes portray— a steady, impulsive gorging fueled by ignorant self-loathing and melancholy laziness. I have been some version of fat most of my life. Growing up on a farm handling cows and pigs, size and strength were an advantage. However, in my post-farm adult years my physical dimensions (coupled with a proportionate personality) have at times marked me for ridicule and stigma, especially in the yellow glow of recent media-fueled panic concerning the obesity epidemic.

My recent work stems from exasperation with the identity I felt was being culturally ascribed to me as a fat woman. The wearing dissonance caused by my self-perceptions existing at odds with the cultural treatment and portrayal of fat people frustrated me to the point where I could no longer simply navigate within the system of fat discrimination; I needed to examine it with the tools available to me as an artist. At a genesis moment for the project, I remember thinking, “Ok, fine. I’ll be fat just the way the world thinks I am. I’ll live the stereotype.”

To embrace the culturally endorsed version of fat personhood I decided first to sew myself muumuus to wear as symbols of my sardonic acquiescence. All of my “disgusting” bulges would be modestly concealed within four loosely draped yards (that’s twelve feet) of the tackiest fabric I could find. I’d never sewn anything other than a pillow cover before, but with the help of a friend I deciphered a pattern and began to slowly stitch my muumuus into being.

The slow pace of my novice stitchery provided me with long stretches of time to think and let my imagination run. I thought about how new food labeling legislation was trying to save us fatties from ourselves, and about how the headless shots of fat people on the evening news were dehumanizing and darkly hilarious. I began to think of myself (and all overweight people) as a kind of wild animal—a creature that lived outside human culture but was of concern to humans. Thus the North American Obeast was born.

The Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies (MOCS) project is part catharsis, part confession, part accusation, and part shaggy dog joke. I have been asked repeatedly who I am satirizing with this work, and the answer is all of us. I am taking the mickey out of those who treat obesity as a source of fear and anxiety, those who tap into fear and anxiety in order to sell ads and fads, those who don’t think critically about what the media tells them, those who diet obsessively but long for dessert, those who fail to recognize fat people as a stigmatized group, those who do not understand the complexity of weight gain and fatness,  those who think making an entire group of people feel uncomfortable with themselves is going to solve anything, those who buy into unrealistic standards of beauty, those who judge books by covers, and those who are too ashamed and self-critical to demand to be treated as fully human.

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