Blood Work: Magdalena Olszanowski – Marlaina Read

I first encountered Magda’s work in 1996, when, as young women, we experimented with self-imaging practices and maintained popular websites – before the internet boom in which social networking and blogging platforms emerged. We both went on to develop our artistic and academic practices in the context of the institutionalized art world, but have continued to share and collaborate. Her ongoing series of work that started in 2005 depicts menstruation. It draws on ideas of transgression, the abject, and boundaries, and it displays a playfulness often missing from discourse around the female body.

Olszanowski’s work was initially a response to the Cartesian history of prioritizing the disembodied self and the established scientific discourse based on intellectual detachment, rationality, and objectivity – leaving the state of corporeality and the body as irrational, uncontrolled, and menstruating. In this misogynist discourse, much extended by Freud, corporeality belongs to the feminine, producing the woman as dangerous and fleshy. Like much feminist work, such as Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, Magda’s work welcomes the dangerous and fleshy self. We shared a lengthy conversation across many time zones focused on her history with menstruation, her work, and the importance of leading an embodied practice.

Marlaina Read: Do you remember your early experience with menstruation?

Magdalena Olszanowski: My period came when I was 10, and it would last 2-5 weeks at a time. That eventually settled but I have always had heavy periods. I don’t remember any anger or frustration about that. Having my period meant having a body. I have always felt the need to display my menstrual blood, from leaving bloody tissues in the toilet, or from throwing my tampons at a gym teacher because I had seen a video of L7 doing that at one of their shows. It was my “fuck you” to a world that shamed and dismissed women. This interview is making me realize how visible my menstruation has always been!

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MR: For me, menstruation felt like my body was not neutral anymore. It felt like I was transgressing a vast internal space where I needed to navigate what it meant to be a woman in the world.

MO: I never imagined the period as transgressive. What do you mean by that?

MR: Transgressing in the sense of encompass. My body was, as Julia Kristeva notes, crossing boundaries and now needed to be contained. It seemed that if it wasn’t contained it would explode.

MO: Is that not wonderful? Extending and taking up space? Especially when women are told to be clean, quiet, and safe and to take up as little space as possible. Menstruation is shedding the excesses of the body, so it is exploding in a way.

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MR: Menstrual blood is gendered and comes with stigma, tabooin some cultures women who menstruate are excluded from view. In our own culture we dont speak about it, tampons and pads soak blood directly from our body and are disposed of privately.

MO: That always seemed powerful to me. Menstruating women are so dangerous they need to be excluded from the ‘rationality of the world,’ such as religious places or making decisions. I found a productive force in that.

I was in a show at the Gladstone Hotel in 2007 and I made a painting of my vagina that had a dangling chorus of used dried tampons attached at the top. I would pull them out and ask men to touch them. They would ask what they were and I would insist they touch it. When I would reveal they were my tampons they would feel deceived. They complained it was not hygienic.

MR: There is your play with boundaries. Your refusal to engage people and not give them a chance to ‘opt out.’

MO: You’re right. I think the work/the performance is very much about that. How did we get to thinking the body is repulsive?

MR: Perhaps the leaking body terrifies us fundamentally, that there are things come out of our bodies – flesh, fluid, smells, and textures. Male artists have used piss and semen

MO: I hope my work is different from the responses to the idea of ‘the excessive body’ that needs to be contained, from artists like Vito Acconci and his masturbation performances. I’m asking things like why is a dried up bloodied tampon seen as abject?

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MR: In Kristevas essay Powers of Horror she situates the abject as that which disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules.What do you think of that?

MO: I want my work to disturb identity and order, but I do not want that to always be immediately apparent. The images where I am menstruating alongside my roommate depict joviality in women’s friendships in ways not often shown (and that is presumably why that image was initially removed from my Instagram account). The pleasurable is political.

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I’ve written about the ways in which the censorship on social networks creates new artistic forms, which I term ‘sentio-aesthetics,’ and how vital it is that when we discuss censorship we foreground the ways in which artists are able to circumvent censorship. However, art that works as if boundaries don’t even exist and takes those risks also inspires me.

MR: Some women who use menstruation or blood in their work abstract it, and further to that, remove it from their bodies, so the work is more about the act of menstruation and all that culturally embodies, rather than their own menstruating bodies.

MO: I think the need to use menstrual blood and the menstruating body and its fleshiness and excess is key to re-thinking menstruation, because menstruation is signified as something shameful, to be hidden and censored. So if we make work dealing with menstruation yet remove the very stuff that makes it from our bodies then are we not just further suppressing it? For example, consider the image of Rupi Kaur’s menstruation series that was removed from Instagram in which she is laying down on her side, faced away from the camera with a period stain on her pants and on her sheets.

MR: In Kaurs Instagram post she states (and no. the blood. is not real.)”.

MO: But she also writes “you deleted a photo of a woman who is fully covered and menstruating.” The way she writes that ‘no blood’ thing reads as dismissive. To be clear, I don’t think real blood needs to be used to convey a message about the cultural values about menstruation; however, when you write this sort of didactic piece about how “I bleed for humanity to propagate and my womb is sacred” and you stage these everyday situations that are supposed to represent reality, the message becomes convoluted.

MR: Can we talk physicality and spatial elements in your work? There are correspondences between the liminal and cyclical nature of menstruation and the temporality of the photograph, such as the image in which you take up space, sitting with legs astride, your vulva filling the frame; two menstruating women are pushed to the edges of the photographic image.

MO: I don’t necessarily want to present some sort of authentic experience of a menstruating body, which would mean staging situations. I do want menstruation to take up space and time, instead of being quickly flushed or washed away. If, like Kaur, you are opting for a narrative with everyday depictions, like a hot water bottle on your abdomen or putting your pad in a trash can daintily, then yes I expect you to be using the very object you are arguing is kept hidden in society. Also, the narrative about ‘menstruation is the reason we can give birth’ and the tight link between menstruation and child bearing is essentialist and erroneous, as many women and trans people cannot give birth and do not menstruate, or don’t want children.

Let’s switch gears! I’m also interested in artists who use menstruation as a medium, like the work of Casey Jenkins, the Australian performance artist. It’s not didactic. The vaginal knitting started because of the excess menstrual blood – it was unable to be contained and dripped on the yarn, right?

MR: What I like is how she knits a full menstrual cyclea physical manifestation of an abstract idea.

MO: The work is so embodied.

MR: In one of your works you hold a test tube filled with blood?

MO: I kept the test tubes for over a month. I wanted to capture the blood and see what would happen to it over time and what temporal potential it had. Because it was oxidizing it started to smell terrible, so for the sake of my roommate I threw it out. These projects allow me to try to expand the space of menstruation. I wonder how abstraction as a formal style would work for menstruation. I’ve been considering that as I have started to think of menstrual blood as a medium.

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MR: There are women who collect and paint with their blood. Ingrid Berthon-Moine takes portraits of women wearing their menstrual blood as lipstick (Red Is The Colour, 2009).

MO: Her work is very much about contested and gendered sites of the body. It is playful too which I like. In the past few weeks I have been really intrigued by joviality and playfulness. I think it can serve as a strong political feminist tool, which is something I never considered before.

MR: I see that in your work especially when you are with your friend or in nature hanging out.

MO: Yes, ‘hanging out’ without it being a pedantic statement. And what draws me to work like Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll or Meat Joy or Annie Sprinkle’s work is how unapologetic they are.

I am thinking about Theresa Margolles’s work, which is so embodied, there’s no removing yourself from that experience – it is risky but not sensationalized. Talk about ‘hygiene’ for that piece in the Venice Biennale, where the floor is mopped with water and the actual blood of femicide victims. The work’s staging is conceptual but it’s so raw. I prefer the rawness of the conceptual in this way, than the narrative that uses objects to fulfill the aesthetic.

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MR: I think her work at once is restrained and yet horrifying. Perhaps it is how she draws these connections. She shows women’s domestic unwaged labour – the washing of the floor, and the washing is done with other dead women’s blood.

MO: I think that is so compelling – isn’t that what art is partly about? Drawing connections in ways that make us re-orient our perceptions and our bodies?

MR: I see this in your work too, how the decision of being safe or remaining ‘untouched’ is denied to the audience.

MO: The people that get the most upset about being denied the choice are those who probably always have the most choice in anything.

MR: I have held back so many times from putting my body in work due to being overweight. My body will always be representational of “fat positivity” and this is something I am not interested in. I feel like my body isn’t neutral. I read your body as ‘neutral’.

MO: I do recognize I can engage with my body in particular privileged ways. I’m always trying to destabilize that though, which I also recognize comes from having the access to even be able to do so. What do you think? It is as if certain bodies are only allowed to express specific ideas depending on their bodies. When you mention, “this is something I am not interested in,” that is so fucking important to dismantle. A friend of mine who uses a wheelchair told me her work is always read first as ‘disability activism,’ which is a part of her work but not always. Like it can’t be anything else to the public.

MR: A woman starts as gendered and other.

MO: And whatever it is that you do, or how you act, is diminished, and never seen as serious unless you re-produce masculinity or you are an adjunct to it. Which is why Kristeva it so exciting, with her concept of women’s time. It’s a tricky place because I don’t want to perpetuate cis-normativity but I do want to foreground women and women’s experience and our bodies, and the way we are ‘a priori’ inscribed.

MR: You have the images where you have the batteries inside you. I am trying to work out if these things are going inside you or coming out, harking back to the idea of the vagina dentata.

MO: They’re doing both. It’s a response to Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde. At the time I was not having sex and obsessed with having children. All I had was my batteries. That became my sexuality, and so I started thinking about the plusses of non-normative ways of conception, and the arousal I had felt in those explorations.

MR: There is the one image where you are lying on top of your friend that has this slightly pornographic feel.

MO: Yes. I was definitely trying to play with the trope of the sexualized close up of two girls. I find menstrual blood arousing and I’m not against some of these images evoking arousal. I’m not trying to position them against but maybe in conversation with the idea of arousal? I want to explore the menstruation of other women.

MR: Last one: What do you think about the history of pathologizing women’s bodies, the medicalization / hysterical woman trope, is this something you think about?

MO: Yes. Freud has had such an insidious chokehold on the ways in which we read women’s subjectivity.

I am compelled by work that does not give the viewer a chance to opt-out, that disturbs space and boundaries. I stage encounters that implicate people. The thing is, most people are fascinated by the abject and what they read as ‘hysterical’. They want to get close but not too close, and the experience be as seemingly unmediated as possible but distanced. It’s a complete contradiction! When I ask people why they are uncomfortable by menstruation in my work they often cite hygiene as the main reason. How can images be unhygienic? What is happening in those moments? Kristeva tells us: “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order.” Well, fuck their world order. I would love to smear my menstrual blood all over all those that have shamed me and other women – a collective smear with the blood clots and all.

Marlaina Read is an Australian artist working in photography, site-specific installation, film, and performance. She is invested in the idea of making liminal spaces habitable through immersive, collaborative, and meditative works. Her photographic practice explores navigation and memory in landscape, and her most recent practice incorporating video and installation has being concerned with work, labour, habitation, and ritual sites in remote places. She recently completed her MFA at the University of New South Wales and has exhibited in Australia, Finland, Iceland, Toronto, USA, Berlin, and London. She has been an artist in residence at NES, Iceland, Artscape Gibraltar Point, Toronto and most recently at Mustarinda, Finland in 2014. She is the editor and publisher of Invisible City Magazine.
www.marlainaread.com
www.invisiblecity.org

Magdalena Olszanowski is a Polish-Canadian artist and PhD student in Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. She is a senior research assistant at her supervisor Kim Sawchuk’s Mobile Media Lab. Her primary research areas are feminist body art, censorship, self-imaging, mobile media, technology, and electronic music. Her most recent piece, “Feminist Self-Imaging and Instagram: Tactics of Circumventing Sensorship” is featured in Visual Communication Quarterly. Her dissertation is focused on the feminist online media histories of the 1990s, which features, among others, Marlaina Read. She is also currently working on microfemininewarfare, a documentary featuring women electronic music artists. Her love affair with menstruation started at a young age and she has exhibited and performed related work internationally.
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http://raisecain.net