Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
I have the flu, so naturally I took advantage of my house-bound haze to do a little obeast animation. I like the roughness and awkwardness (plus potty humor) framed by the professional titles. That’s my idea of funny.
Just before my seventh birthday I began to lose motor control of my eyes and couldn’t bend or turn my neck. I had headaches, the kind where the inside of my head sounded exactly the noise you hear during a sonogram. A rhythmic liquid pounding drowned out everything else for days and then weeks on end.
Growing up in a rugged farming family in rural Maine, there was generally a ‘rub some dirt on it’ attitude toward illness, but when it was clear that no amount of dirt was going to resolve this situation I was taken to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, the same hospital where my brothers and I had been born. It was clear right away even to my little kid brain that the doctors thought something really bad was happening and that they had no idea what it was or what to do about it.
I was admitted, injected with blue dye and x-rayed. Blood was drawn and my mom promised me a Cabbage Patch doll if I was brave. I was driven to Portland and then Boston to be scanned with increasing levels of detail and expertise. Nothing was explained to me at the time, but I know now that they were looking for a brain tumor and couldn’t find one. All of the symptoms were consistent and worsening daily: I started to have trouble seeing at all; sounds and sunlight were excruciating; speaking became difficult. But none of the glowing images of my brain showed a cause.
One morning a tray of pancakes was delivered to my bedside in the Lewiston hospital, but placed out of reach on a nearby table. A bearded man named Dr. Belding came in with a small team of nurses and opened a heavy text book at the foot of my bed. I was instructed to lie on my left side, facing away from the window. With my future Cabbage Patch in mind, I did as I was told despite catching a glimpse of Dr. Belding handling a enormous needle. He told me to pull my knees up to my chest, but I couldn’t physically do it. At his prompt, a couple nurses pulled me into a fetal position and I cried out. The extra pressure on my brain and spine hurt in a way that I don’t have words for even now. It hurt. It was scary.
I cried and tried to get away from the nurses holding my legs. My mom started yelling. From behind me Dr. Belding yelled back and she was pushed out of the room. More nurses came running in and he said. “Hold her down. Hold her still.” Four or five adult nurses piled onto me and did just that.
Under their combined weight I gasped “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
Without missing a beat, the nurse nearest my head snapped “If you couldn’t breathe, you couldn’t talk.”
Her logic technically made sense, and for one moment it shocked me still. In the next moment Dr. Belding guided his needle into my spine, and it was as if a cedar fence post was being twisted through my back and threaded out my belly button. In the next moment the pressurized spinal fluid caused a popping sound as it broke the equipment and spurted into the bed, floor, and wall.
The recently surfaced video of the NYPD’s fatal assault of Eric Garner has caused me to remember this childhood experience anew, mostly because I have shouted those same words to an authority figure and also had my physical and emotional distress ignored. It is inaccurate (and not my intention) to say that our experiences are alike; I did not die and my abuse did not occur as a culmination of a long and awful history of cultural mistreatment based on race. However the presence of class discrimination in both instances is worth noting. Throughout this medical mess my low-income, farming family was talked down to, disregarded, and outrightly harassed by the medical and administrative staff associated with my care. At one point DHHS threatened to take me away from my single mother after she cancelled an appointment for my fourth spinal tap so I could have a break and go to a birthday party like a normal kid.
The fear of not being able to breathe, of being restrained and harmed by authority figures has been with me for nearly thirty years now. My heart is broken for Eric Garner because I still feel a little of the fear he felt during that fatal choke hold back in July.
In October, before I was aware of Garner’s death, I began a series of pepper spray paintings, which I call my pepper spray affirmations. I originally thought of them as attempts to achieve well-being and trust in the face of abuses of power and the accompanying worries. They increasingly are looking like illustrations of PTSD to me– that feeling of conflicting, simultaneous flight and fight responses to everyday life.
I will just leave them here for now and see where this process takes me. Updates to follow.
Nature is amazing, no?
While all adult bull obeasts experience musth, none do it as stunningly as Southern Obeasts. Their breathtaking annual displays made them prized trophies for poachers and recreational sportsmen in the 19th and 20th century. Happily, as populations start to rebound (especially in remote regions of the Appalachians), MOCS field researchers are observing these remarkable transformations more regularly. Scientists speculate that the bright coloring and swollen features brought on by musth act as both an attractant to potential mates and as camouflage, hiding any unsightly bruises or injuries received during competitive rows with other bulls (which are especially vicious with Southerns), thus preserving a bull’s appearance of virility.
First time visiting this blog? Wondering what an obeast is? Allow me to explain what the heck you’re looking at here.
This is what happens when you shoot in panorama mode while riding in a car. What started as a way to pass the time on a trip to NCs Outer Banks resulted in some interesting images. In about half of the images have gotten enjambed and spliced in cool obvious ways; the rest of the batch have more subtle visual stutters. Favs: there’s one where the camera grabbed the shadow of a street sign but not the sign itself; in another the camera apparently seized on a boat’s off-board motor and dragged it across the shot.
A satisfying experiment.
Well, this will be a first! Next week I’ll be visiting the University of Alberta via FaceTime to do a short talk about the obeast project. Art History professor Natalie Loveless is using the MOCS project (and Stefanie Snider’s incredible article about it) in her Gender, Sexuality and Visual Culture class. During our preliminary chat yesterday Natalie said that her students are excited about the line up of artist visitors she has planned for the class, which include Annie Sprinkle, Heather Cassils, Jess Dobkin and others. How cool is that, to have the artists you’re studying actually pop in for a visit? I would have loved that in school! And with the magic of technology it’s easy, no big deal at all. (Note to self: do this in future classes)
I’ve also visited/spoken at Temple University and East Carolina University and really enjoyed these interactions with young, curious and sometimes contrary minds. Preparing for talks always makes me revisit talks and interviews I’ve done before– with varying levels of articulateness if I’m being honest. There are a few questions that always come up, so as an exercise for myself I’m going to post some ruminations here. I need to work on my soundbites, so I’m going to try to be plucky and concise. We’ll see how that goes.
FAQ #1: Where the heck did this project come from?
This project started as a daydream I had while trying to learn to sew muu muus. I was amusing myself during this long process by letting my brain ping around between current events, nature documentaries (which I’m obsessed with), dumb jokes, etc. At some point I imagined a version of ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ (and Jane Goodall’s overall conservation efforts) that was ‘Fatties in the Mist’ and it kind of cracked me up. I envisioned concerned scientists rushing around trying to save this beloved, majestic, misunderstood creature from poachers and certain extinction. It was a skewed version of all the concern and fretting happening about obesity on the news and I found it very entertaining as a distraction from the tedium of sewing. I’d started making the muu muus because I’d felt compelled to do it as a fat person at odds with the media’s portrayal of fat; I didn’t have a specific plan for them afterward. So when I finished and tried to move forward with other projects, I found I missed my daydream, and I wondered: What if that daydream was real? Could I make this the art? It all kind of tumbled out from there.
FAQ #2: In what order did you make the museum’s collection?
Well, the muu muus came first because they were the tool that got me thinking about the project in the first place. From there I headed out into the wilderness with my camera and took photos of muu muu-clad me in nature using my camera’s timer and running into position. I was interested in creating a history for my creatures to establish the narrative’s plausibility, so I photoshopped obeasts into photos of hunting scenes from the Library of Congress. I followed these with scientific charts and obeast taxonomy. The taxidermied obeast diorama came a year later in 2011.
FAQ #3: Has this project been controversial?
Yes, MOCS has been controversial from the start for reasons that have sometimes surprised me. For one thing, there is a consistent assumption that a man has made this work. This happened the very first time I displayed the work in the Free Street Gallery in Portland, Maine in July 2010. A freelance writer for the Huffington post saw the exhibit and was absolutely furious. Because I never associate my name with the exhibit spaces themselves, she got in touch via some generic MOCS literature displayed as part of the show and demanded to know why I would do that to that poor woman. I diffused the situation over coffee and we had a nice conversation about the work, though the woman could not articulate why she assumed the artist was male. Since then, the male artist assumption has been a frequent thing. I have a couple theories as to why this happens: for one, I think that the world of science is still socially coded as masculine. After all, science has traditionally been a boy’s club, with few women able to gain access to the influential upper echelons of scientific research until the mid 20th century.
I also think there is something about the way this work unabashedly examines the obeast that evokes the entitled ‘male gaze’. Since surely no woman would ever (seemingly) debase herself the way I have as the obeast, it must be a man doing this to her. Interestingly, a common reaction when people find out that I am behind the work is to feel sad for me that I despise myself so much. At a recent opening in Atlanta, I spoke with a woman who said that no self respecting woman would willingly depict herself as fat unless she was externalizing her shame. For her fat was such an obvious (and deeply internalized) negative feature that she couldn’t imagine thinking of it as anything but. I suggested that she was projecting her own judgments/worries about fat onto the piece, since there’s not actually anything in the work that suggests self-loathing and that this is exactly the sort of bias I was addressing in the work. To her credit, a light bulb when on for her, and at least for a moment she tapped into the meta-narrative of the work. It was a sweet moment.
Of course, there is also the controversy that comes from the work’s suggestion that fat might not be evil. For this sort of critic, the issues of the world seem to be neatly categorized as good or evil with no gray area in between. Therefore, when this work suggests that fat might not be evil what I must be saying is that fat is great and everyone should be fat like me. Frankly, I’m not interested in either of these positions. I want to look at the way facts and truths are formed through legitimizing institutions like science and the media and are then consumed uncritically by the public at large and manifested as stigmas.
(so much for concise and plucky)
FAQ #4: Is this supposed to be funny? Why does MOCS use humor?
MOCS is intended to be funny in an uncomfortable sort of way. The humor comes from being confronted with an arty hoax– a narrative that is simultaneously plausible and completely absurd. It’s the art equivalent of a deadpan joke delivery. The discomfort comes from the work’s obvious connection to issues both timely and deeply personal, which is why the humor buffer is so important. I want to make emotional space for people to think about what I’m driving at without feeling attacked or shamed. I’m pointing out a flaw in a system we are all personally implicated in; the least I can do it break it to them/us gently.
FAQ #5: What’s next?
I use art making as a way to understand and process the world. I’m not done working through these ideas of identity and truth formation, so MOCS still has work to do. Although I have various side projects and experiments I’m working on, the obeast project remains my primary studio focus. I’m currently drawing the obeast skeletal system for a large screen print series of the different obeast anatomical systems.
The Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies has come home to Raleigh via Flanders Gallery! The show opened last night with overwhelming attendance, both in terms of numbers and enthusiasm. I’m a contented artist today, I’ll tell you. Should you find yourself in the Raleigh area, the show is up March 1-30.