The Art of Marni Kotak’s Birth


Marni Kotak, "Raising Baby X: The First Year" (video still of on-going video project documenting baby Ajax's development, January 2012)

Over the years, performance artists have had sex, masturbated, gotten shot, and performed almost every imaginable act before an audience. But the media maelstrom over Marni Kotak’s performance at Microscope Gallery last October came as a surprise to the curators and Kotak, who gave birth in the Bushwick gallery to a nine-pound-two-ounce boy, Ajax, before friends, family and onlookers.

Kotak had been creating performance art out of her everyday life for over 10 years before embarking on The Birth of Baby X. As her bio reads, Kotak has “publicly performed everything from being born, to attending her grandfather’s funeral, to being forced to wear a dunce cap on a third grade field trip, to losing her virginity in a glittery blue Plymouth Acclaim.”

But the birth in public bit overshadowed her past work, and grabbed the attention of seemingly every mommy blogger, magazine and tabloid. Time called her one of 2011’s top 10 fleeting celebrities. The Week called the birth one of the top 8 parenting controversies of 2011.

Also lost among the buzz was the fact that her performance at Microscope was as much about the anticipation of the event as its penultimate moment. Kotak installed a birthing room inside the gallery, complete with a working shower and kitchen, and came into the gallery each day during the last month of her pregnancy to prepare for the birth of her first child before a carefully selected audience. And now she’s continuing to document her child and motherhood in Raising Baby X: The First Year.

The attention has died down, but I still had questions. As a mother who couldn’t stand having a handful of apprenticing midwives watching my daughter’s birth (and so asked them all to leave), I was very curious to know what the experience was like, and how it affected the birth. (I also wanted to hear what some of the attendees had to say, but Kotak and Microscope opted to shield them from interview requests.)

Here’s what Kotak had to say about her performance and the birth of her son, Ajax, and how she handled all that attention:

Could you tell me your birth story? I’m curious what you were doing before you felt labor come on, how you knew you were in labor, how you coped with the pain, what the experience was like at Microscope, and if it impacted the birth.

The birthing pool and shower that I had installed as part of my exhibit turned out to be really beneficial, as well as the calming imagery and sounds of the ocean, and my stocked kitchenette. It was amazing to give birth in the serene, beautiful, space I had created at Microscope specifically for this event, accompanied by such supportive people.

Perhaps this is the question I should pose instead: Are you wary of sharing too many details about the birth, and if so, why?

I have decided that I prefer to share the details of my ‘birth story’ through my own work as an artist, as it is for me first and foremost both the birth of my child and a work of art, before a media story. I am working on an edition of the birth video as well as my own writings about the experience.

How long did you stay at the gallery after Ajax’s birth [on the morning of October 25, 2011]?

I, and most of the audience members, stayed at the gallery several hours after the birth. Everyone was very helpful, supportive and appreciative, like a real community. I didn’t go home until 7pm when the last of the attendees left.

How do you feel about motherhood at the moment? What’s it like for you? Is it any different than you envisioned?

I am absolutely thrilled to be a mother. It is way more amazing than I could’ve ever imagined.

Are you documenting each day (and night?) with him, as part of Raising Baby X: The First Year? What types of moments are you capturing, and how?

I am spending some time each day documenting my experiences with Ajax, his development, and our bond as mother and child. Raising Baby X is another work that aims to highlight the beauty of human life. I am recording his growth process, including his milestones, such as holding his head up, lifting his head, smiling, rolling over, cooing. I am also taking a lot of footage of myself breastfeeding the baby in which I attempt to convey the beauty and depth of this experience.

Are there photos and videos you take for yourself/your family that you don’t intend to share?

Sure, of course.

Based on earlier interviews, it’s clear you’re not a fan of Facebook, but how do you differentiate between a parent’s mundane status updates about their child on Facebook and you documenting the minutiae of your son’s first year for the public to see? What is different about these two forms of sharing?

This is a good question, and one that raises a lot of issues. I think the fundamental difference has to do with the careful consideration I take with making posts online, which affects the frequency and the corresponding significance I place on them. I am not documenting Ajax 24/7 and posting status updates to Facebook about his activities every 10 minutes. When one is constantly posting minutiae online, after a while nothing seems particularly significant, and everything just kind of washes together. I have only posted a single one-minute video so far. I will post others as I feel the need to share a special moment with the public, as in the Baby New Year video, where I wanted to wish people a happy new year and share our family’s celebratory moment with them.

I believe it is important to think very seriously about how and when we use the Internet and not to just succumb to pressures to be online all of the time in attempts to fill some lonely void inside, and to accumulate more ‘friends.’ The Internet, like television, is driven by advertising. Some corporation is making money every time we log on, use their software tools, or view advertisements.

Furthermore, it is such an oversaturated medium that I have played around with the idea of not using the Internet at all for my work. But as this is the fundamental means by which we communicate in today’s society, and it provides the advantages of quick upload and dissemination, it seems that not doing so would unnecessarily limit the size of my audience. I would prefer if we all communicated via hand-written letters and face-to-face interaction still, but unfortunately this is not the case.

Marni Kotak, "The Birth of Baby X" (installation shot of gallery post birth, November 2011) Click to enlarge

Is there any performance artist or piece that inspired your work in general, or the Baby X project specifically?

I think the work comes out of various inspirations. Carolee Schneemann’s early performances dealing with the female body and sexuality have been very influential, as well as the physically challenging works of Marina Abramovic and Chris Burden. Then, of course, there is Marcel Duchamp and the Fluxus movement where art and everyday life are intertwined. For Raising Baby X, Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document is an obvious inspiration.

You’ve said (or Microscope stated) that you continue to present your life experiences as works of art in which you strive “to avoid the spectacle often involved in performance art to reach what is real.” The decision to give birth in a gallery was bold, and you are presenting your child’s everyday life as something notable to behold. How are your Baby X pieces not spectacle?

What I am doing is simply presenting my everyday life as art–all aspects of it, from the most sublime, like giving birth, to the most mundane, like a family dinner. I believe that human life is the most profound work of art, just as it is. When I say that I am trying to get away from the ‘spectacle often involved in performance art to reach what is real,’ I am referring to ‘spectacle’ in the sense of that discussed by cultural theorists, such Jean Baudrillard, where a hyperreality (the spectacle) as played out in our hyper-mediated world, comes to replace the real thing. My performances which involve real life experiences are not spectacle in that sense. The fact that life contains many moments which are ‘spectacular’ is another story. And it is my premise that fact is always stranger, more intense and beautiful, than fiction.

Did you expect the media attention you received for making your birth a performance piece?

Not at all. I have been doing intense performances pieces for over ten years, and have never received this much attention before. For example, I re-enacted losing my virginity at Fountain Miami last year, and no one wrote about it. I had hoped that people would see the significance of the performance of giving birth, but never imagined the kind of attention that I received. Even though it was challenging to deal with the media’s overwhelming response, I am glad that my project moved so many people and generated so much discussion on important issues.

Was there any critic, or criticism, that you found especially harsh?

The worst criticism was being accused of child abuse. It freaked me out, but then I thought about the comment and some of the other negative reactions and realized that they made no sense. I was working with a midwife and doula and taking all of the necessary safety precautions. The idea that I was exploiting my child because I wanted to give birth to him and present his life in an art context is ludicrous. It is my right to give birth in whatever context I see as best for myself and my child, and I, being an artist, wanted to give birth to him in a sacred space that I had created specifically for that event. Furthermore, who is to say that hospitals are not exploiting children by encouraging mothers to undergo unnecessary, costly procedures that are often not best for the health of the child?

What has your family’s reaction been like? Were any relatives present at his birth, or have any come to help out, and if so, are you also capturing them as part of your year-long project?

My family’s reaction has been, for the most part, very supportive. My husband, Jason Robert Bell, has been behind me the whole way, and without him, I don’t know how I would’ve been able to do this. My sister, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandfather, and many other family members have also been very enthusiastic about the project. My grandfather, Ray La Pointe, who also creates artworks, even requested that I make him a ‘Baby X’ T-shirt for Christmas, which I did. My sister came to the gallery the day of the birth.

Yes, I am also documenting my family members’ experiences with the baby, as their love and care for him contributes greatly to his growth and development. Ajax is surrounded by so many loving people which makes me very happy.

How many people were present at Ajax’s birth? Of those, how many were strangers, and have you kept in touch with any of them, or developed a relationship with any of them?

There were about 20 people present the day of the birth. Yes, I have been keeping in touch with most of them, as I feel that we all share a deep bond now.

At any point have you had second thoughts about making your birth public, or committing to document his first year? Or is it the opposite—are you thankful that you chose to turn your child’s birth and first year into art?

Of course there have been moments where I have questioned my plans for the birth and also Raising Baby X. As an artist, I always need to make sure that I am doing the kind of work that I want to do and that I believe in. Otherwise, what’s the point? It is hard to be an artist in a world that doesn’t have an overwhelming appreciation for art, so if I am going to do it, I am going to put my whole self into it. I have always come back to the fact that I want to do this because it is my most sincere belief that human life is the most amazing work of art. Every day of life is a precious gift and I cherish every fleeting moment that I spend with Ajax, Jason, and the other significant people in my life. And although I can capture some experiences on video, and try to make them immortal through art, I know ultimately that they can never be relived. And it is that passion that drives this project, and the rest of my artwork.

Elle [Burchill, one of Microscope’s co-founders and curators] said it seemed as though Ajax felt comfortable in the gallery–as if he were familiar with it. Do you find that as well? Does he seem at ease at Microscope?

Yes, Ajax did feel very comfortable in the gallery. I think as I had installed it as a sacred space for me to give birth in, I felt very comfortable there. Perhaps those vibes passed on to him when he was in my womb, and after the birth, when spending time together there. You know how babies are so sensitive to our moods! Also, his birth was so peaceful, being born in water, in such a beautiful, serene space, surrounded by such caring, supportive people. It was our space together, like a second home, and I do admit to feeling a bit sad when the show was over and we had to take it down. But I look forward to the right opportunity to remount the installation elsewhere in the future, and share this experience with more people.

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