Monday, October 10, 2011

Life, Art, and the Limitations of Imitation

You've probably heard about performance artist Marni Kotak's plan to give birth to her first child in an art studio as her next big performance. The responses have ranged from the curious to the mocking. And in at least one case, this performance has been used as evidence in a crusade against homebirth in general, suggesting that this act is just the next logical step in a progression of "attention seeking narcissists."

PhD in Parenting had a recent post about the importance of women being able to witness natural birth and breastfeeding in order to normalize these acts and assuage fear, and I suppose this act isn't really that different from the many, many women who have documented their births and made them available to the public (in documentaries, on YouTube, and via their own blogs).

Still, I can't help but--like Mary Elizabeth Williams in this article--wonder if Kotak isn't being "hopelessly naive and chillingly disconnected." Many of the women who have chosen to document their births for others to see do so with the stated goal of promoting childbirth as natural and removing some of the cultural fears surrounding it. Kotak's self-proclaimed goal is to rally against people spending too much time on social networks and not enough time "engaging in authentic experiences with friends and family in the real world."

By drawing some parallels between social networking and her performance (even if it's to claim the latter negates the former), Kotak brings up some interesting questions about life, art, and the limitations of imitation. 

To some extent, we are all performance artists. As Goffman explained, our day-to-day interactions (ranging from the clothes we wear to the way we talk and who we talk to) are a performance that we use to construct our identities. 

The rise of social media has made that performance more literal. We can carefully select the presentation of ourselves that we want the world to see by choosing our Facebook profile, Tweets, YouTube uploads, etc. This is a much more controlled version of ourselves, as we can always choose to delete the unflattering video, edit the typo from our status, and erase all the profile pictures containing our exes. 

Perhaps, then, Kotak's live birth is somehow more "authentic" than those other birth performances, since she cannot control which parts people see or hear and she cannot edit it later. 

But (and this is an age-old question, I know) where are the lines between life and art?

This is particularly pertinent since Kotak also plans to use baby X in her next exhibit, Raising Baby X, "in which she re-contextualizes the everyday act of raising a child into a work of performance art, reaching out to collectors, private investors and foundations for their support."

While I use my experiences in motherhood to inform the discussions I have on this blog and in my research and vice versa, I like to think that the act of nurturing and raising my child is at least partially removed from my professional identity. Overlapping the two to the point that they are indistinguishable would be be frustrating and make me feel very vulnerable. 

To be fair to Kotak, though, 15 people have signed up to watch her birth so far. I had a med-free hospital birth without complications, and there were probably more than 15 people I'd never met in the room. If that's the norm, how crazy is this act, really?

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