Now that Facebook has decided to publish a timeline that includes all of our online goings-on since birth, we wonder what a tangible chronicle of this would look like. Enter the very pregnant performance artist Marni Kotak, who is transforming the Microscope Gallery into a home-birth center where she will turn the birth of her baby into a work of art. Her exhibit “The Birth of Baby X” kicks off her long-term project “Raising Baby X,” which will document her child’s upbringing “from birth through attending college and developing an independent life,” according to her website. Starting Saturday, she’ll be making the gallery home as she waits for the contractions to start (due date is uncertain according to Kotak’s doctor, but some time during the span of the next 5 or 6 weeks). Then, she’ll have her baby right there with the assistance of a midwife and a doula. As the 36-year-old tells us, “I know it will be challenging, but I think if people give birth in the completely inhospitable environment of hospitals, hooked up to IVs and monitors, and strapped with stirrups into a bed, I can give birth in an art gallery.” We dare Mark Zuckerberg to top that! We recently got to ask Kotak some questions about her project.
You’ve reenacted the funeral of your grandfather and the first time you had sex, and you’ve stated that you’re “most concerned with the question of how one can have and convey a real experience.” Can you explain how a performance art experience is different than, say, an onstage performance?
A performance art experience is more real than an onstage performance if it possesses a raw immediacy that cannot be captured, and therefore cannot be acted out, as in a work of theater.
In an onstage play, the performers have scripted lines that they have memorized and they are playing roles. Performance art is essentially closer to real life in that it takes place in fleeting moments that can never be repeated, objectified, or commodified.
In “The Birth of Baby X,” I will be completely engrossed in the act of giving birth before a live audience. I will be focused on delivering my child into the world in the healthiest manner possible, rather than on how I look or what the audience may think. Everything I have learned about the birth process is that the more you surrender your mind and don’t try to control the event, but let your body do what it naturally knows how to do, the better your labor progresses. This, to me, provides for the most authentic performance art situation. And the ultimate creation of this life performance will be a living being!
Who are some of your influences?
My biggest inspirations are the ’70s performance artists like Marina Abramovic, Hannah Wilke, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, and Carolee Schneeman, in which the performances focused on the visceral experience of the body, often testing the limits of human experience.
There is a whole range of artistic practice that can be referred to as performance art. However, I feel that the best performance art takes place when the artist is not trying to perform, but is rather completely immersed in an authentic action.
Most of your art performances deal with real life moments in your life. Why do you think it’s so important to capture these moments — even the mundane ones — as art?
I am driven to hold onto an authentic personal experience in a world that has essentially become consumed by an unreal hyper-reality. When I first graduated from Bard and began performing in New York in the late ’90s, art was ironic and driven by semiotics and critical theory, and, with the rapid emergence of “new media,” the concept that reality was being replaced by a hyper-mediated simulacrum. As a young woman, I had to believe there was more to life than that. Otherwise, what was the point? I would keep saying to myself in the back of my head: “I have to believe that this life has real meaning and value.”
If you weren’t making art, what else would you be doing?
Ideally, I am always making art, as my art is my life and vice versa. So, I am trying to approach every life situation from that standpoint. In that way, it almost doesn’t matter what I am doing, as long as I am staying true to myself and am open to present moment unfolding. Or, in another fantasy, I could be a Russian spy, and my code name would be: Marnitov Cocktail.
Do you think our culture has a fascination with chronicling our every move — i.e., on Facebook, Twitter, etc.? Do you think it is because people want to make life seem relevant and/or meaningful?
I like this question, because I have always had a deep-seated disdain for Facebook. I have an account because it seems to have become an essential communication tool of today, but I use the site solely to stay in touch with friends, who happen to use Facebook, about my upcoming shows and projects. I never log on just to post status updates or such about the details of my life. My life is for me to experience in an authentic way and not for Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the company’s shareholders to make more money from.
But to answer your question more directly, yes, I do feel that people today are desperately seeking a sense of meaning in their lives. Facebook is feeding into that and providing — what I see as an ultimately empty — solution for a hyper-mediated world. What people who spend so much time on Facebook seem to forget is that it is essentially a corporation that is profiting from the nuances of their everyday experiences. Sadly, the more time that people spend on social networking sites and the less time they spend engaging in authentic experiences with friends and family in the real world — and yes, I do still think there is a real world — the more they are denying the significance of their own human experience. This in turn leads to a greater sense of desperation to find meaning in their lives, more wasted hours on Facebook, and so on and so forth. It is a vicious cycle.
Do you think reenacting a moment diminishes its actual value?
I feel that it is never possible to re-enact a moment exactly. Although the intense nostalgia that is part of what drives my work would like it to be otherwise. I am profoundly aware that every precious moment in my life can never be re-lived, and that ultimately I will cease having life experiences. What does live on, however, are emotional residues, memories, of the original events. And so what I have tried to do in my performance re-enactments is to tap into those emotional residues and, in doing so, serve as a kind of conduit for audience members who have likely had similar or related experiences.
Whatever the case, an attempt to re-enact a life event doesn’t diminish its value if it is done through actually going back into what the original experience felt like. The danger is in if one tries to re-create an event by simply re-enacting a scripted set of actions. This would not pay tribute to the original experience, and would yield rather hollow results.
What do you hope people take from your performance at Microscope Gallery?
I hope that people will see that human life itself is the most profound work of art, and that therefore giving birth, the greatest expression of life, is the highest form of art. This child is the greatest work of art that Jason and I could ever make together.
So often I find that people overlook how our lives are full of the most amazing, shocking, challenging, beautiful, and disturbing experiences — far more interesting than anything anyone could put together as a “performance.”
My performance at Microscope will begin as I install the show, setting up my own home-birth center in the space, and will span the entire duration of the exhibition. Part of giving birth is the mental and physical preparation for the event. A lot elements go into a traditional home-birth, and I received a whole list of necessary supplies from my midwife. I will be installing an inflatable birthing pool and a shower in the gallery, along with my deceased grandmother’s bed, the rocking chair that my mother rocked me on when I was a baby, shag carpeting, a surround video projection of ocean waves crashing on the shores of my favorite Cape Cod beach, artwork made by my husband and the child’s father, Jason Robert Bell, and a small kitchen area for food and drinks.
All of these elements are incorporated to make the labor process as smooth and as comfortable as possible. As this will take place in front of an audience, rather than in the privacy of my home, I am doing extra mental preparation at the advice of my doula (who along with my midwife will be present at the birth) to let go of my mind and totally go into my body. She told me that once I really enter active labor the body just takes over and I won’t care at all what is going on around me. My focus will be on having my baby. I know it will be challenging, but I think if people give birth in the completely inhospitable environment of hospitals, hooked up to IVs and monitors and strapped with stirrups into a bed, I can give birth in an art gallery. And in giving birth in front of the audience, I am showing them, as in my previous performances, that real life is the best performance art, and that, if our eyes can be opened to it, all of the meaning that we seek is right there in our everyday lives.
“The Birth of Baby X” opens Saturday, October 8, through Monday, November 7 at Microscope Gallery, 4 Charles Place, Bushwick. The hours are extended to 7 days a week, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and, the gallery says, “we will remain open or reopen if the birth is in process.” Visitors to the show can get on a list be notified of when she goes into labor.