Reproduction Otherwise

Reproduction Otherwise

7 October - 27 November 2022

Birth is a prerequisite for human survival, and - like death - a given. Around that fact, the reproduction of life, mankind has formed numerous social, religious, cultural, economic, political, medical and technological systems over the centuries. These systems are deeply rooted and sometimes seem immutable, but do not necessarily have to be that way.

For example, French writer and philosopher Paul B. Preciado argues in an essay for Art Forum that power today is no longer contested in the field of the production of things, but in that of the reproduction of life. 'It is there, in the field of reproduction - sexual, social, cultural - that we confront the most crucial dimension of contemporary power. It is the relationship of power to life that is mutating most drastically', writes Preciado. And where power is at stake, it’s especially dominant systems that are critically scrutinised. In this, designers and artists can play an important role, according to Preciado, because ‘we must apply the principle of cultural recombination to our strategies of producing and reproducing life, so as to transform our technologies of power and (politically) mutate’.

Reproduction Otherwise, on view at MU from 7 October to 27 November, zooms in on recent creative scenarios and artistic perspectives on the radically changing practices around and visions of human reproduction. Through the work of seven designers/artists - some working intimately with scientists, others working from a queer perspective, or a combination of both - this complex, mutating system around 'making life' is questioned. How and why do we humans want and can make humans in the future? And what role do biology, cultural and social patterns, as well as technology, economics and power play in this?

This exhibition emphatically does not leave it 'as of old' to the powers that be - politics and religion, medicine and science - to address all these issues, but gives designers and artists the space to 'culturally recombine', as Preciado calls it and engage us all. Because reproduction is not just about women, men and children; about sex and love, about generations, nuclear families or 'labor'. Reproduction is also about alternative forms of living together, the deeply human desire for a story about where we come from and where we are going. It is about the individual and collective choice for or against reproduction, and the possibilities or restrictions imposed on it by society. It is about choices that, partly due to the development of medical science and technology, seem increasingly diverse but are not accessible to everyone, because they are mostly considered within prevailing ways of thinking and power structures. And it deals with all the possible complex consequences that reproduction entails: ethical, legal, medical and human. 

The conversation about reproduction therefore concerns us all: because it is about life and about how we want to see the future of human (co-)life. Not because we see ourselves as God, but because we are human beings.

Participating artists
Ani LiuCharlotte Jarvis, Future Baby Production (Ewen Chardronnet & Shu Lea Cheang), Kuang-Yi KuLauren Lee McCarthy, Puck VerkadeVictorine van Alphen

How much control should we be able to exert over an unborn child –
or over the body that carries an unborn child?

Unborn - Puck Verkade

A large nest, in which you can sit, offers a view of Dutch artist Puck Verkade's playfully absurd short film Unborn (2021). In the film, we follow a pigeon, embodied by Verkade herself, who is busy building her nest. As she gathers sticks and branches, she thinks about her future. Is she building a nest because she wants to, or because that is what pigeons are supposed to do? Her doubts and confusion drag her into an absurd parallel world where she is pursued by an angry crow. Unborn is a seemingly cheerful but also poignant allegory that denounces the current climate in which politicians continue to block or even roll back abortion rights. Verkade's egg reminds us of the importance of bodily autonomy, while openly reflecting on complex feelings of doubt, guilt, shame and vulnerability.

Surrogate - Lauren Lee McCarthy

Surrogate - Lauren Lee McCarthy

But what happens when the natural process of birth collides with our industrialized drive for control and social engineering? And how much control should we be able to exert over an unborn child - or over the body that carries an unborn child? What does family mean when rapidly developing reproductive technologies - including in vitro fertilization, egg and sperm donation, embryo freezing, DNA testing and gene editing - transform our relationships?

Existential questions like these get unraveled by American multi-media artist Lauren Lee McCarthy in a direct and personal way in the ongoing project Surrogate (2021). At MU it will take the form of a performance, film and installation. In Surrogate, McCarthy casts herself as a surrogate mother in several interviews with potential parents, allowing the parents to control and monitor all aspects of her daily life during pregnancy via an app. She also has a probing conversation with her grandmother, revealing how our ideas about parenthood and birth have changed dramatically in just a few generations. Surrogate shows how complex things can become when previously intuitive processes like procreation are subjected to the far-reaching possibilities offered by new technology.

Grandmom Mom - Kuang-Yi Ku, Photo: Tsung-Han Tsai

Grandmom Mom - Kuang-Yi Ku, Photo: Tsung-Han Tsai

Taiwanese bio-artist, social designer and former dentist Kuang-Yi Ku offers a quite different perspective on surrogacy. In countries where surrogacy is legal, there have recently been cases where infertile daughters or daughters-in-law found their mothers willing to become surrogates. The radically speculative project Grandmom Mom (2021) goes one step further. At the International Geriatric Pregnancy Centre IGPS, future parents can have their eggs and sperm fertilised in vitro for subsequent placement in the womb of the couple's retired mother-in-law/mother. By stretching the biological aspects around age and pregnancy, and questioning the ethical and social implications of reproductive technologies, the project digs deep into the complex and conflicting emotions of parent-child relationships and family structures, and emphatically connects both forms of 'labor' by women.

…the end of pregnancies as we know them so far, but also the possible end of the privileged relationship between mother and child…

UNBORN0X9 - Future Baby Production

UNBORN0X9 (2018-now), was created by Shu Lea Cheang and Ewen Chardronnet and the collective Future Baby Production. It asks questions about the development of foetuses in artificial wombs outside the body, which in medical terms is called ectogenesis. UNBORN0X9 explores the role of midwifery practices in increasingly technological human reproduction. It also speculates on new forms of bonding and parenthood when artificial wombs take a leading role in the cyborg future. 

Ectogenesis poses several ethical challenges, such as the end of pregnancies as we know them so far, but also the possible end of the privileged relationship between mother and child and the evolution of mores in a society where sexuality and reproduction are separate. It questions the concepts of motherhood, fatherhood, couple and family. And it poses the risk of a new form of commodification of the human body. As an installation, UNBORN0X9 sketches an aesthetic science-fiction imagination around midwifery. Ultrasonic soundscapes, audiovisual images, a reading table full of literature and walls with quotes and complex schemes, brought together in a clinical space, create "a sense of expectation" that will be fulfilled midway through the exhibition period by the introduction of the ectogenetic sphere created by Future Baby Production as part of the European Art4Med programme.

In Posse - Charlotte Jarvis, Photo: Hanneke Wetzer

To many, ectogenesis and artificial wombs are already science fiction. English bio-artist Charlotte Jarvis, working intimately with leading scientists, takes it a step further: to cell level. In recent years, she has focused on projects that combine DNA, stem cells and reproductive technology with activist and feminist imagination. In Posse (2018 - ongoing) uses CRISPR-Cas9: technology to create viable sperm from Jarvis' female cells. Jarvis has been working on this for several years with Susana Chuva de Sousa Lopes, professor of human gametogenesis and embryology at Leiden University Medical Centre who even won a prestigious Vici Grant from NWO for the scientific branch of it. Next to hard science, however, the project also brings a contemporary form of the Thesmophoria to life, a mysterious women-only fertility festival from ancient Greece. To this end, Jarvis creates new, communal rites and rituals around blood donation, bloodplasma and its laboratory protocols. Putting all elements together in a visual and written essay, In Posse subverts traditional ideas of patriarchal power and explores the meaning of gender and sex, now and in the future. 

Jarvis and Chuva de Sousa Lopez aim to achieve something similar with two new projects that partly stem from and are related to In Posse. The first is called Organ of Radical Care: Una Matriz Colaborativa (2021), to which Argentine chemist and poet Patricia Saragüeta is also contributing. This project uses new science to grow a womb in the lab that can accommodate a fertilised egg. However, it is composed of menstrual blood from multiple women, transgender men and non-binary individuals. The aim is to even incorporate 'male' cells as well by transforming 'male' fibroblasts into endometrial cells. If they succeed in this, it will be a world first. In the exhibition, the project eventually manifests itself in the form of a glass sculpture with a collective endometrial cell wall, poetry and an audiovisual installation.

The third and final part of Charlotte Jarvis' contribution to Reproduction Otherwise is called In Loco Parentis (2022). It consists of a giga-map that brings together the research of Jarvis, Chuva de Sousa Lopez and Saragüeta. To create this map, they asked potential stem cell donors, ethicists and legislators for their views on creating an artificial embryo from pluripotent stem cells from multiple people. It is complex research surrounded by numerous ethical and legal issues. Most countries have strict regulations around embryo research, if it is allowed at all. Nevertheless, shifts are slowly happening in several places, and the Netherlands is one of them. The scientific institute of the Christian Democratic CDA, for instance, recently advocated allowing the cultivation of embryos after years of opposition to it. The question is where we set the boundaries: how are embryos formed, on what basis, by whom and what may they be used for? But also whose embryonic state do they belong to, and when does an embryo form into a person?

The Surrogacy (Bodies are not Factories) - Ani Liu

'Labor' has a double meaning in English: it stands for both working and giving birth. But while working is usually highly valued, having children is still undervalued. Chinese-American artist Ani Liu was researching cyborgs and human-machine hybrids at MIT in Boston in 2019 when she became pregnant with her first child. Despite her knowledge of gender studies and how technology keeps stretching the boundaries of our biology, during her pregnancy she became aware of the impact that having and caring for a child has on her, as a woman and as an artist. Since then, Liu's work has focused on how the body and politics, gender and society relate to each other, focusing on reproduction, care, work and motherhood. In recent years, she therefore created a series of works under the title Ecologies of Care, two of which can be seen in Reproduction Otherwise. The Surrogacy (Bodies are not Factories) (2021) is a 3D-printed model of a pig's womb that somewhat resembles a large pearl necklace on a luminous pedestal. Researching new reproductive technologies Liu discovered an experimental technique called interspecies pregnancy: in this, one species of animal carries the foetus of another species. The white substance in the bulging forms of The Surrogacy, on closer inspection inseminated foetuses from pigs and humans, raises a host of ethical questions: can we use animal wombs, like organs from, say, pigs, for human purposes? And do we want to go in this direction at all? 

Liu's second installation, titled Untitled (Feeding Through Space and Time) (2021), makes tangible the symbiotic relationship between her body's reflexes and the rhythm of the breast pump. Through a tangle of plastic tube, commonly used in the food industry, flows over 22 litres of specially manufactured artificial breast milk: as much as Liu produced monthly with her body to feed her second child when she was at work herself. 

So what would it be like to create and meet your hybrid, self-generated digital cyborg baby?

IVF-X, Victorine van Alphen

The human grip on reproduction of life, initiated in the second half of the 20th century with the rise of the pill, the first in vitro fertilisation, the legalisation of abortion and the medicalisation of sperm donors and surrogate motherhood, is still in full swing. But we also live in a more hybrid reality. So what would it be like to create and meet your hybrid, self-generated digital cyborg baby? That question resulted in the simultaneously creepy but also imaginative installation IVF-X (2019) by Dutch philosopher and media artist Victorine van Alphen. In collaboration with VR Academy, she delved into 21st-century motherhood based on the question: Why/How do future (wo)men need/want/create babies?

IVF-X positions itself somewhere between a philosophical fertility clinic and a personalised performance in which post-human parenthood takes shape. The procedure can be completed by either one person or two people together and takes about 20 to 25 minutes. By going through four stages, in a combination of analogue, sensual, theatrical and institutional rituals, you eventually meet your cyborg baby created based on (joint) choices. IVF-X refers to a futuristic version of real in vitro fertilisation clinics for artificial insemination: using VFX, virtual effects, the installation explores possibilities of going beyond the human form. What are our most intimate reproductive desires and dilemmas, how do we go beyond biological limitations and how do we relate to these new forms of being?