Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
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.
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.
Today A Guide to the North American Obeast (a two book set) officially headed to the printer, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s been a long but interesting process. One of the things writing these books (re)taught me is that truth is as strange as fiction. For book one (“Obeast: The Natural & Unnatural History”), I wrote a collection of scholarly articles about different aspects of obeast biology, history, conservation, etc. In researching topics, I repeatedly found that humans have done some very odd things to animals (and themselves) in the name of fashion: melting bear fat for hair pomade, extracting civet anal gland juice for perfume, keeping exotic animals as (sickly) novelty pets in castles, and on and on. It made for ready inspiration, I’ll tell you! Other interesting facts I learned and incorporated into book one: manatees mate with females on top (there are youtube videos); black bears attack mostly female humans, while brown bears attack mostly men; global warming is causing bears to wake up too early from hibernation and starve to death.
I’m told I’ll have copies in-hand in about three weeks, which means of course that it’s time for launch parties! Here in NC, this will coincide well with a show I’m opening at Flanders Gallery in downtown Raleigh. I don’t have dates yet, but certainly some kind of shindig is called for there (in addition to the opening reception on March 2). The book set will be available for purchase online through Publication Studio. When I have a link I will share it, promise!
The ICA in Portland, Maine is part of the very cool Publication Studio (PS) network, which spans around the US, Canada, and soon Europe. You can learn more about PS here, but the main thing to love about them is that they publish books about art– more specifically, books about my art. Huzzah!
I’m currently writing/finishing a two-volume book set about the obeast project. My goal is to get both books to the printer’s before the end of October, which means that they could be available as soon as early December–though early 2013 seems likely. The first book will be a complete overview of the North American Obeast from within the narrative of the project. It will describe obeast biology, history, conservation, MOCS, PETNAO (People for the Ethical Treatment of North American Obeasts– a radical activist spin off group of MOCS), and so on. This first book will be an extension of the project itself and, in addition to the text I write, will include two articles written by clever, creative colleagues: Methodist University Religion Professor JR Hustwit is writing about obeasts’ role in religious iconography; Bern Dibner Library archivist/anthropologist Lindsay Anderberg is contributing a snazzy piece about obeast communication. Additionally, my talented friend Michelle Lyon “discovered” (made) an antique children’s obeast doll, which is being added to the MOCS archives and included in the book. And the astounding Derek Toomes is creating old circus paraphanalia about obeasts in menageries.
The second book will locate the obeast project in a cultural, scholarly context through a collection of articles by smarties writing from the places where their current interests intersect with the obeast project. Given that my project incorporates many academic fields, genres, and ideas (including science, cultural identity, satire/hoax/comedy, nature conservation, fat activism, cultural anxiety, feminism, etc), the contributors to this second book represent this range in their backgrounds and topics. Here’s the roster:
- Chuck Dyke (Philosophy Professor @ Temple University): Chuck teaches a course on “Meaning in the Arts,” in which the class navigates toward an understanding of the roles and modes of contemporary art. For the past couple of years he has included the obeast project in these class discussions; his paper explores both the methodology and results of the work in his class.
- Marilyn Wann (Fat Activist & Author): I call Marilyn “Queen of the Fatties” because she has blazed important trails in the field of Fat Studies and continues to inspire and encourage the fat community with her many projects. Her book Fat?So! is one of the first fat-positive books I ever read, and is filled with wit and intelligence.
- Stefanie Snider (Art Historian + Fat & Queer Activist): I first read Stefanie’s work in the amazing Fat Studies Reader, edited by Esther Rothblum and Sandra Solovay. In 2011, Stefanie and I started corresponding for her article “Fatness and Visual Culture: A Brief Look at Some Contemporary Projects,” which appeared in the very first Fat Studies Journal in January of this year. Stefanie is a smarty with some cool insights on my project; I can’t wait to see what she does for this.
- Jenny Hagel (NYC Comedian & TV Writer): Jenny is hurts-your-face hilarious. She performed with the Second City theater in Chicago and toured with The Second City National Touring Company, winning awards and accolades as she went. Jenny is one of Go Magazine’s 100 Women We Love, and currently performing at the Upright Citizen Brigade Theater and PIT Theater in NYC. Even her day job is interesting: she writes for LOGO TV, MTV, and VH1. Last I heard, Jenny was going to write about the role of comedy and satire in activism. Can’t wait!
- Carl Dyke (Associate History Professor, Methodist University): Carl uses his background in history and sociology to think about (and coerce his students to think about) the dynamics of human motivation, credibility, power, identity, and so on. Carl puts the “C” in Critical Thinking (otherwise it’d just be Ritical Thinking and that wouldn’t make any sense). Sorry other contributors, but Carl Dyke is my favorite. I like him so much that I married him. (Really)
- Jennifer Denbow (Assistant Political Science Professor, University of New England): I was introduced to Jennifer/Jenny via her humdinger of a dissertation on reproductive autonomy at Berkley a few years ago. She is interested in the intersection of social policy, feminism/human rights, and science (although I suspect I’m oversimplifying). This work is especially poignant given all the current controversy about regulating birth control and abortion. I am really excited to read her article for the book.
- Rebecca Duclos (Curator, Writer, Art Historian) Rebecca is the person who lured/enticed me to attend graduate school at Maine College of Art. She is intelligent, well spoken, generous, and possibly the busiest person I know. She has just accepted a new position as the Graduate Dean at the School of the Art Instititute of Chicago, and is relocating from Montreal to the windy city as I type. Rebecca is also the best diver I’ve ever seen in person (as in swimming pool, not sky or scuba). You should see her back flip.
Stay tuned for more news and pics as I go!
For the past year I’ve been waiting for the time and capital to make Obeast t-shirts and the occasion is finally here! I’m starting with three new designs in a combination of five colors. (These color combinations were chosen by MOCS fans on facebook.) If interest and demand is great enough, I’ll expand the options.
Etsy is a fast, easy way to buy fabulous handmade things. You do not need an Etsy account to shop there–so checkout has never been simpler.
I hope you’ll buy a shirt for yourself and a loved one. All proceeds go toward saving the endangered North American Obeast.