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10.17.11

Birth as Performance Art?

A Brooklyn artist gave birth Tuesday at a gallery in a controversial exhibit—while other women have started posting raw videos of their labor online. Jennifer Block on the rise of public deliveries.

Marni Kotak is like most pregnant women who plan a home birth: she hired a midwife and doula, she practiced relaxation techniques, and she inflated a birth tub. But Kotak is a performance artist, and she delivered her baby in a performance birth—at a Brooklyn art gallery in front of a live audience.

Not surprisingly, the exhibit, titled The Birth of Baby X, has lit up the blogosphere this month with bafflement, concern, and rage. Critics say she’s “exploiting” her baby and that she’s “a narcissist.” She’s even been accused of child abuse.

To understand Kotak’s vision, it helps to think of performance art as the opposite of performance. “I feel that the best performances are when you’re not acting, but when you are living in a completely authentic way,” Kotak, 36, told The Daily Beast. “Giving birth is the most direct expression of the creative life force, and, therefore, the highest form of art. By giving birth in public as a work of performance art, I am making the statement that everyday life is art, just as it is.”

This past weekend, another pregnant woman took a similarly public, if less artistic, approach to her birth. Nancy Salgueiro, 32, an Ottawa chiropractor, childbirth educator, and now mother of three, live-streamed her entire labor and home birth online. Thousands of viewers watched her eating a salad and typing Facebook updates in between contractions, during which she would often call to her husband for what looked like a slow dance.

At around 3 a.m. EDT, Salgueiro stepped into her birth tub, closed her eyes, and moaned through a few contractions. Within minutes she was lifting a pink baby out of the water—the baby arrived before the midwives. She took a few minutes to catch her breath and check the baby’s sex (a boy), and was so composed she began educating viewers on why they were waiting to cut the umbilical cord. (Watch the first half of her labor here; she’ll post the second half sometime Monday.) The stream amassed a total of 27,000 views.

Salgueiro and Kotak—along with the tens of thousands who have posted their birth videos on YouTube—may be emblematic of the age of the overshare. After all, women now use Facebook to share sonogram pictures, breast-feeding tips, and even cervical dilation during labor. But they may also be ushering in a new era of women’s empowerment, helping to change the common perception that childbirth is a nightmare.

“I believe women like me who share their birth stories are driven to share a self-affirming experience of giving birth, one that society at large does not allow for,” said Kotak. “There’s fear around birth, fear of women’s bodies. It’s about a woman’s power over her own body, which for some reason has become taboo in our society.”

Salgueiro, meanwhile, simply wanted to correct the stereotype of birth as a high-risk medical emergency. And she wanted people to witness actual labor, a gradual process, rather than fast-forwarding to the birth.

With such public viewing options, it’s hard to imagine a time when zero popular media existed on childbirth. But just a few decades ago, there was a cultural blackout: women returned home from the hospital with drug-induced amnesia, and until the 1970s there were no mainstream books on the subject. “We were DESPERATE for more pictures and videos depicting physiological birth,” Judy Norsigian, cofounder of the advocacy group Our Bodies, Ourselves, wrote via email. Her colleague, Jane Pincus, added: “The only visuals 40 years ago were the stills of a baby being born.”

They published Our Bodies, Ourselves to give women the information that they weren’t getting from their mothers or doctors. “We were dedicated to showing photos and drawings of the WHOLE woman giving birth, not just a part of her,” Pincus wrote. And from 1973 to 1996, the book published images of women laboring upright and nude, surrounded by pillows and other women.

Why those images have gone missing from the latest editions of the feminist health bible is another story (about not wanting to seem against epidurals). But who needs them, really, when you can spend a whole evening watching birth videos online? (Here’s a favorite. Here’s one of several women singing in labor. Here, birth is so normal—and gorgeous—it’s used to advertise a Spanish bed! If you’d rather old-school stills, “The Birth of Amerlyn Grace” is beautiful in black-and-white, shot by Austin photographer Lyndsay Stradtner.)

In some ways, the birth-sharing trend evokes an earlier era, just a century or two ago, when a woman gave birth surrounded by other women from the community. “Women used to be exposed to birth all the time,” said Salgueiro. “As a young woman you would have seen your aunts, sisters, neighbors giving birth. It was part of life. Now, unless we’re going onto YouTube looking for the good birth videos, then all we’ve seen is women screaming in bed, strapped to machines.”

Yet while Salgueiro may be inviting the global village to her birth, “It’s a completely impersonal village,” said childbirth educator Erica Lyon, who used to run Manhattan’s renowned RealBirth centers. “The traditional idea of the village being at your bedside—there was an emotional safety in that these people personally knew you. To take that concept to the global level is beautiful on the one hand, and on the other hand it increases your vulnerability … At some point you’re in the grocery store, and somebody is like, ‘Hey, I saw your vagina on the Internet.’ And that is a new world right there.”

Lyon could also be speaking to the home-birth movement’s vulnerability. What if Salgueiro had had a complication? “Birth is birth,” said Salgueiro. “Sometimes we have to transfer to the hospital. That’s just part of the process. I’m not making a statement that every birth can happen naturally. I just want to show that this is what normal looks like.”

Many birth sharers hope to change the common perception that labor is a nightmare.

Kotak, for her part, has set media restrictions on her audience: cellphones off, no cameras, no texting updates about her labor—and no, she won’t be posting a birth video on YouTube. Kotak has transformed the Bushwick gallery space into a cozy bedroom, with carpet, her grandmother’s bed, her mother’s rocking chair, an altar to the baby, and her husband’s paintings. And contrary to reports, her birth will not be a tourist attraction.

“All of the people that are going to be invited to the birth are people who have come out to the gallery and spent some time talking to me about the piece, who are genuinely interested in the project,” said Kotak. She estimates an audience of about 15, along with her husband, midwife, and doula, plus a second doula to guard the door and “set the tone.” She reserves the right the tell people to leave at any time.

Childbirth professionals’ reactions to Kotak’s plans have been mixed. “I’ve certainly known lots of artists who’ve used their art to help them cope with labor,” said Lyon. “If art is what she lives and breathes, then she’s bringing something really geared toward her spirit and her heart to the labor, which could help.”

Others are less sure. “Here’s praying the goddesses give her a lovely eight-hour labor with no barfing, no diarrhea, and no [hospital] transfer,” emailed sociologist and childbirth scholar Barbara Katz Rothman, which seems to be the more common sentiment.

And yet the breath-holding is also what Kotak’s piece addresses. If you are pregnant, you are being watched. Strangers take a keen interest in whether the tea you’re drinking is caffeinated, to say nothing of where you’re giving birth. Even women who plan home births without an audience are accused of narcissism and child abuse.

It bears mentioning that Kotak did not conceive with a gallery birth in mind. In fact, she initially wanted to give birth at Manhattan’s St. Luke’s–Roosevelt hospital’s birth center, which advertises natural, midwife-assisted birth. “I didn’t really know anything about all the issues around childbirth until I was pregnant and I started to think about how I wanted to have the baby. I was horrified when I found out the C-section rate is one third of all women,” she said.

At St. Luke’s, the rooms were nice, but they were all empty. She couldn’t understand this—the regular wards never have enough beds. “Then I found out that the [birth center] has all these restrictions: if you’re more than 6 days past your due date, if your labor lasts longer than 12 hours, all these rules. So actually very few births happen there.”

“The more I find out, the more I’m just so angry about it,” said Kotak, echoing the sentiments of many midwifery and home-birth advocates. “I realize that’s part of what my work is addressing. Women are so vulnerable. They’re really easily swayed by these medical institutions that don’t necessarily have their or their child’s best interest at heart.”

At the gallery Kotak won’t have to perform to any hospital standard (though she says she won’t hesitate to transfer care if she or her midwife feels it’s necessary). And the beauty of performance art is that no matter what happens—even if labor lasts days rather than hours, even if she pukes, even if she kicks out every last visitor—it will be real, authentic life. Which is what she set out to deliver.