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Fetal Art

How to Draw a Crowd: Or, Fetal Art Comes to Turlock

For Jordan

I teach American Literature and Culture at a small state university in California’s Central Valley. Turlock is a small community, whose most recent claim to fame was an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the community with the most churches per capita in the world. The stark absence of mosques, temples, and synagogues suggests the kind of community, and assumptions about what counts as a valid “faith,” in this part of the world. Turlock represents the wide, often stunningly diverse array of options within Christianity, so much so that it is often difficult to see a horizon outside of Christianity as an option as well. As is the case with most college communities, the campus community is only slightly less conservative than that surrounding it.

On March 12-13, 2001, smack in the middle of Women’s History Month and three short weeks before Passover, the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR) brought its “display,” The Genocide Awareness Project (or GAP, as its organizers and I will refer to it), to our campus. I emphasize “display,” because this is the self-description of what could otherwise be known as an “installation,” a “political demonstration,” or even, “performance art.” The self-constructed naïveté of the project is worth considering in its own right, as is the status of the “Center for Bio-Ethical Reform” as the sponsoring entity of anything other than anti-choice litigation and terrorism, and I will turn to those topics shortly. Suffice for the moment to note the project’s self-positioning as a simple and passive record of historical atrocity juxtaposed to its aggressive marketing and self-promotion as that passive record. In doing do, GAP provides us with a telling demonstration of the possibility of politics in the age of PhotoshopT, as the aesthetics of fetal art form part of a larger conversation about the dehistoricized image, and the image assumed to be depoliticized.

GAP is self-positioned as an aesthetic and political project that cuts across race/class/gender political vectors; in support of this positioning, I might cite the visibly mixed gender and racial composition of the participants, or the extensive web site on “African American Genocide,” linked to CBR, that is abortion practice in action in the US, pace its producer. I might cite as well my own experience in the mid-70s as a child of devoutly Catholic parents; the shock troops, if not the ideologues, of the early RTL movement were almost exclusively women and children.

Designed specifically for University applications, and marketed aggressively to campus and church groups, the GAP display is a set of 24, 4’x6′, mounted panels. A campus organization purchases the entire display, which may then be trotted out for annual or more frequent events. CBR also markets a “mini-GAP,” which allows the campus organization to purchase as many or as few of the panels as they want, or can afford, at $360 a pop (2 bills for the unmounted version). Special editions are available for Canadian schools, and there are smaller posters, hand-held signs, and E-Messages also available for purchase. This is also the group behind the use of trucks as rolling billboards for anti-choice advertisement, incidentally.

For their event, the organization on our campus purchased a “mini-Gap” package of thirteen panels, and arranged them, rather cannily, in a triangle. The display was protected by a ten foot barrier guarded by hip-high metal restraints, the same ones used at rock shows to protect the artists from the moshpit mob. Two-by-four foot caution yellow signs-“WARNING: GENOCIDE PHOTOS AHEAD”-further define a fifty-foot perimeter. Due to the unrest the display has provoked at other campuses, an armed, uniformed police presence quietly observes the proceedings. The entire apparatus of the display thus serves as both a visible protection of free speech, and poses the participants as somehow resistant, themselves as victimized as the historical atrocities they represent; the display actively calls attention to itself as representing an embattled minority protesting on behalf of a disenfranchised and voiceless subaltern victimized by the remorseless crush of modernity and the State apparatus that supports it. I do not think the cooptation of the tactics and strategic vision of the left-especially of movement and identity politics of the late-twentieth century-is coincidental: they know their target audience, a nominally liberal, nominally educated, nominally middle class student body with a good deal of free time, disposable income, and an historical tendency-perhaps inherent in the institution-to politic via sympathetic appeal: “Is this not wrong? What are you doing about it?”

The panels themselves consist of two or three captioned images, which together follow a typical logic, read left to right, of “just as historical genocidal act A, and historical genocidal act B, so is present practice of abortion.” Specific historical references include Cambodia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, but these are numerically and ideologically outweighed by references to the Holocaust in Europe and to lynchings of African Americans and massacres of Native Americans in the US. Non-genocidal acts, while nonetheless acts of mass-destruction, include references to the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and the attack on the World Trade Center Towers. These comparison images generally consist of newsfile photos now in the public domain, and are reproduced in black and white, which provides a stark contrast to the vivid, high-saturation color of the images of abortion. Many of these latter images include a coin-a dime or a quarter-which functions mechanically to offer size comparison within the image as well as to date the photograph. Routine examination of these panels suggests a high level of artful, self-conscious construction in these images, perhaps most symptomatically evident in the use of the coin, where limbs are carefully draped across the coin to suggest a liferaft, perhaps, or to protect George Washington’s sensitive eyes from the blood and gore.

The other, semic, function of the coin is to link the image to the national, and to the economic. One vivid example features a quarter with the limbs arranged as though they were protruding out of it, or perhaps fused to it in a condensation of money-minting and citizen-production. CBR in general has some practices that may fairly be described as hinky. A massive organizing and fund-raising entity, CBR is also an information resource clearinghouse. And among the data they are willing to share with others are the names, telephone numbers, home addresses, and photographs of pro-choice anti-GAP demonstrators. A highly litigious group, CBR routinely videotapes their events in the case of any altercation, and proceeds forthwith to litigation. They are also well-known as preemptive litigators, willing to sue first and ask questions later. Litigation thus serves a number of goals: it raises capital, it sets legal precedents for behavior in other venues (Planned Parenthood offices, for example), and it terrorizes anyone with a thought of resistance.

Joyce Arthur has examined CBR in some detail in her analysis of the events at the University of British Columbia in 1998-99, and makes a rather strong, if well-known, argument for the movement itself as being, inherently, anti-woman, for refusing to allow that women are responsible for their own actions, and their own bodies. Which throws a wrench into the argument that abortion is murder, let alone genocide (if women are not considered active agents of the act, the act cannot be construed as murder.unless she is also the victim; the categories in the RTL argument constantly shift and collide). The GAP project is, thus, “just cynical public relations. Based on faulty logic, a misogynist view of women, and profound disrespect for real victims of genocide. nothing less than an attack against human intellect, dignity, and ethics” (Arthur 15). Above all, it bears emphasizing that women, as agents or subjects, are excised from the GAP in an evacuation as efficient as a D & C.

In The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, Lauren Berlant developed the notion of “infantile citizenship” to describe the increasing saturation of the subject of the intimate public sphere-the individual on whose behalf government and society “works”-with images of increasing fragility, innocence and historical irrelevance: children, especially, but ultimately the fetus, whose questionable legal status paradoxically demands the most concerted, committed, and necessary political action. As Berlant argues, “In the reactionary culture of imperiled privilege, the nation’s value is figured not on behalf of an actually existing and laboring adult, but of a future American, both incipient and pre-historical: especially invested with this hope are the American fetus and the American child.. The last living American not bruised by history” (6). The fetal image forms part of a repertoire of violence whose circulation drains the historical and political significance out of the image even as it metonymically displaces the whole repertoire onto that image.

The peculiarity of these images, Berlant observes, is their simultaneous inert innocence (outside of history) and their active demand on the political imaginary. “This national icon is still innocent of knowledge, agency, and accountability and thus has ethical claims on the adult political agents who write laws, make culture, administer resources, control things” (6). The fetal icon, even as it is represented as “incipient and pre-historical,” is nonetheless imagined as exerting a force on those of us unlucky enough to be living in history. It denotes a liminal space that is simultaneously future and past, had not been yet must be.

One of a wide range of images in the Berlantian archive of infantile citizenship, the special designation of the fetus marks it as iconic, and not symbolic, auto-referential and immediately knowable, rather than allo-referential and ultimately mediated (constructed). And it is part of the Berlantian project to reinfuse the icon with both history and construction, to reposition the fetal national icon as part of a particular, strategically developed, historically constructed image-repertoire (see also 83-144). The fetal icon is not an icon at all for Berlant, but a deeply invested symptom (hence, an index) : “The fetal/infantile person is a stand-in for a complicated and contradictory set of anxieties and desire about national identity. what gets consolidated now as the future modal citizen provides the alibi or an inspiration for the moralized political rhetorics of the present and for reactionary legislative and juridical practice” (6). The infantile citizen, thus, is not so much the fetal image, as it is the producers, consumers and distributors of that image, who dance all-too-unknowingly through the repertoire.

The GAP project strategically positions the fetus as the last in a string of victims of atrocity: the massacre at Wounded Knee, lynchings of African Americans, the Nazi Final Solution, Pol Pot’s killing fields, ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, even the aerial attacks on the WTC last September (a dubious act of “genocide”). One panel, “The Changing Face of Choice,” offers three captioned images: “Religious Choice” represents Jews murdered in the concentration camps, superimposed over the black and white photograph are full-color graphics of the Nazi flag and the Star of David (with “Jude” centered–an odd choice, since in the overall schema, full color indicates “unaccounted historical present,” while black and white indicates “in the documented past”); “Racial Choice,” another black and white image, depicts a single lynched individual (the face is distorted, and unlike other images in the series, there is no crowd surrounding the body); finally, “Reproductive Choice” figures, according to the inset legend, “First Trimester (9 weeks) Aborted Fetus.” This image is, like the other images of abortive practice, in glossy, highly-saturated, living color. A quarter (dated 1998) is clearly visible in the right middle ground. The immediate association, historical distortions aside for the moment, is the aggressive coupling of the very notion of “choice” with barbarity, atrocity, para-legalized “genocide.” The juxtaposition works also to decouple the notion of choice from that of consumer driven individualism (with which it is traditionally joined in twentieth century political economic logic) and to rejoin it to a social, nationally-identified group: Germans in the 1930s and 40s, Americans from 1620 to 1998, and lastly, Americans in the roughly conceived present. The choice is not a woman’s to make, this logic suggests, but ours as a national polity.

Yet what of the producer of that image, both the photographer who constructed the mise-en-scène and the woman from whose body the raw material of the composition was taken? I suggest there is an ethical distinction that must be made, and must be made on two levels: that of auto-inflicted violence as opposed to allo-inflicted violence, and that of the agency of the producer of this art, as distinguished from the agency of both the producer and recipient of the violence (however that violence is figured).

In Jack Womack’s Elvissey, a speculative fiction novel set in a post-apocalyptic New York, the main characters attend an exhibit of the latest art-craze, fetal art. Intensified radiation and toxins in the air, earth, and water of the novel, have combined to debilitate the ability of women to carry a viable fetus to term. Isabel, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, provides background essentials: “Mutative nature’s inescapables-chemical rain rich with acid and deviant ray, unseeables in food and drink, our radium-blue heaven-certified that trad gestation inevitably delivered into our world fresh deformities, sometimes quick, most often dead” (20). As the fetus is subjected to a wildly variable array of radiation, toxin, and chemical abortifacients-which are immediately toxic to the fetus but, like alcohol and nicotine, present long-term but not immediately life-threatening dangers to the body of the mother-viable “in-body” births are rare, if even possible. The general recourse, for those who can afford it, is to laboratory gestation. Despite the fact that the fetal mortality rate is so astonishingly high, abortions (whether figured as allo-violent or auto-violent), are illegal. As a form of protest, these fictional fetal artists achieve in-body pregnancy, and selectively introduce toxins to distort the fetus, “deliberately exposing themselves to select media during pregnancy to most appropriately flesh their concepts, which could live only after they’d died” (20). The aesthetic result is a silent scream at male myopia, official hypocrisy, rank stupidity. As one artist puts it, she “Cursed the man who’d planted and flown. Cursed the government that demanded [she] birth the dead. Cursed the world that, through its poisons, guaranteed [her] baby’s death so long as it was bound inside [her]” (216). The fashionable elites (who can afford and obtain both laboratory gestation and abortions if need be, and can thus be said to have some form of agency, control, and choice) have embraced the fetal-art aesthetic as the latest, hippest, avant-garde.

One is tempted to infer from its commodification and appropriation by the elite that fetal art has lost its edge. Yet in the novel (as so few things do in life), the practice retains both a distance and a fairly consistent aesthetic philosophy. As fetal artist Tanya argues, “Violence against another is doggerel, not poetry, however developed its structure, no matter the comforts of its theory. But there inheres to the aesthetic of violence against oneself an unassailable truth, that the greatest art bestows upon its onlookers, and its artist, the sublimity of pain” (166). Tanya continues in a more reflective mode later in the book, “You can’t prettify violence and waste solely for aesthetic’s sake, something more is needed. So what we do is take the rage the violence arouses and make of its leavings something bright, and strange enough to be familiar” (216). A productive, in lieu of reproductive, creation.

While situated within the context of the social production of violence-and the producers of this art represent this violence as auto-inflicted, not allo-inflicted-Womack’s text also gives us an insight into the complex appropriation of images of pain, atrocity, and terror. Given the deliberately shocking and graphic nature of the violence depicted in the GAP show, one might expect a highly charged reception. It didn’t get one.

Indeed, the local paper focused its coverage on the surprisingly passive response, in an article entitled: “Abortion raises few eyebrows at CSUS” (Turlock Journal, A1). Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs David Keymer attributed the lack of response to the twin facts that “this is a conservative area,” and “this is an apolitical campus” (Journal A2), but he may just as well have said that “this is not a new idea here.” The campus paper took a slightly different tack, emphasizing the “graphic” nature of this graphic art and its mixed reaction from students and other members of the campus community (Nagel, “Graphic,” 1, 3). While the Journal ran a splashy full-color photo of a supporter who had come some 150 miles to support the Project, a smiling, good looking young man in a raffish leather hat (front page, above the fold), the Signal ran a black and white shot (internal) of a campus employee viewing the display itself. Press releases in local and campus newspapers repeatedly used a rhetoric of distance: we take no position; we support the principles of free speech and assembly, but the university never takes sides in a political debate, etc.

Joshua Bass (no longer a student), president of campus club Students For Life (no longer an entity on campus), argued that “We’re completely open to people who disagree with us. We also respect people’s right to take another path or avert their eyes. This is a presentation, not a demonstration” (“Graphic” 3). Bass’s organization, which claimed merely ten members when it started in the fall of 2000, had grown immediately either in size or purchasing power to be able to afford the $2600 tab for the posters themselves (“Graphic” 1, 3), as well as to supply or to leverage all the falderal-including a magnified security presence-associated with its presentation, a hefty tab. Perhaps not surprisingly, the event was “co-sponsored” by the very group that sold the posters to the campus club in the first place: the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, representatives from which were on hand to help explain the situation, the presentation, to address issues raised by viewers, and to helpfully provide anti-abortion literature to anyone with a free fist. Like vampires then, the CBR claims that it is invited in if it is ever questioned. It may walk softly, but it takes this invitation seriously, using its expansive and well-funded pulpit as a litigious bully club. I mix metaphors here deliberately.

I thus was not surprised when, of all the people to whom I spoke who were involved with the event, the majority were not from the campus community (some few claimed to be “involved with the campus” but turned out merely to live and/or attend church in the surrounding area). Indeed, representatives from several churches and church-based groups like Survivors, made up the proselytizing population. As a sponsoring entity, “Students For Life” was noticeably underrepresented.

While most coverage focused on what one student attendee charmingly called “the message,” (“Graphic” 3), what most intrigued me was the form of the installation itself. And, a bit surprisingly, the volunteer supporters were equally willing to discuss that as well. In fact, as I spent several minutes sketching out the design and layout, I was approached by one volunteer, who inquired as to what I was doing. Suspecting a squelch, I replied that I was taking notes on the design and layout of the installation, which response was greeted warmly, leading to a good twenty-minute discussion of semiotic technique and photographic composition. These folks, then, it must be underscored, are highly aware of the technical nature and sophistication of their project, and they don’t hide behind code phrases for innocent verisimilitude like, “This is just what really happens.” In fact, they are quite proud of the high production values, and the amount of effort it obviously took to compose (and, in some cases, digitally reconstruct) these images. Indeed, about the only thing they aren’t willing to discuss, or don’t know much about, is “who took these gruesome photographs?”

Conversely, a photography installation by renowned artist Daniel Joseph Martinez the previous October did raise quite a few eyebrows, and not so much the exhibit itself as the promotional material for it. Martinez uses his own body as a medium upon which he conducts experiments in pain, violation, and violence, “attempts to clone mental disorders,” experiments which then engage the viewer in a dialogue with entire histories of representations of violence, or following Nietzsche (as does Martinez), “philosophizing with a hammer.” In a 4×6″ postcard, Martinez’s work, “Self Portrait #7” was featured (in miniature), with the artist’s name and the title of the exhibit; on the reverse, gallery information for the exhibition itself (along with a map to the school). “#7” depicts a man standing, eyes closed, hands (perhaps tied) behind his back, head tilted sideways slightly from the impact of a .44 slug that has passed through it across the image right to left. A tattooed arm holding a pistol enters the frame from the right, and the bullet is pictured exiting the man’s head to the left, along with detritus from the exit wound. A creation of the artist with special effects experts Bari Dreiband-Burman and Tom Burman (all in-camera and mise-en-scene effects, btw; this is not computer-enhanced, there is no “post” here), the image contains quite deliberate and obvious references to two canonically famous photographs-Harold Edgerton’s stop-motion stroboscopy, where a bullet is shown passing through an apple, and Eddie Adams’s iconic shot of a street execution in Vietnam. The piece thus is a none-too-subtle comment on the history of the graphic image in photography, the fragility of the human body, the representational saturation of the dark-skinned and tattooed male as perpetrator of violence and the historical situation of that body as a recipient of it.

This photograph, along with a brief gloss and commentary by curator Sophia Isajiw, was sent to about 500 “friends of the gallery”: media types, alumni, and other university community members. The response was overwhelmingly and nearly instantaneously negative, exemplified by a series of outraged letters in and coverage by local newspapers, the general tenor of which was that the gallery had short-circuited the public’s right to choose, in effect, NOT to see a particular image (how would you know you wouldn’t want to see it?). Most public commentary positioned itself in terms strikingly resonant with Berlant’s notion of infantile citizenship: I don’t want my children (and me) to be subjected to these images; the artist, the gallery, and the university have infringed upon my basic right to protective selection on behalf of my innocent, unprotected, children. This inverted logic of choice-a cousin of “don’t ask, don’t tell”-helps promote a kind of ghetto-ization of art, where the image must be restrained and contained within the protective field of the gallery (or covered up by $40K curtains in the Hall of Justice), and not suffered to wander about in public, where it might actually cause a stir, or shake somebody up.

Coincidentally, these were the precise words ASI President Patricia Alvarez used to justify the campus decision to allow the March GAP “display” to occur: “Every once in a while,” she claimed, “the campus needs to be shook up a little.” The curious thing about this statement is that it was printed in a story one week BEFORE the display occurred; in fact, before the utterer of the statement had actually seen the installation. The ASI had been petitioned by several groups to block the exhibit, in part on grounds that it had caused heated confrontations and near-riotous altercations on other campuses (notably at Kansas University and the University of British Columbia). Plus, the GAP wasn’t confined to a gallery, but centered on campus in the middle of a high-density traffic pattern (indeed, moved from a less-trafficked area to a more populous area after the first day). In a form of distancing, the ASI released a statement that read:
A controversial anti-abortion display, sponsored by the club Students for Life, will be on campus March 12 and 13. . The travelling [sic] display includes very graphic pictures of abortion and has sparked controversy and confrontations at other campuses.The display is being sponsored by an organization which is chartered on our campus, which entitles them to host the exhibit. (“ASI” 2).

The overt intent of distancing the University from charges of promotion of a particular political view actually works the other way. The descriptions of the “display” are deliberately left vague, and excise the names of the organization responsible for producing the images (The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform), who was nevertheless listed as a co-sponsor.

In an even more bizarre bit of pre-promotion, AVP Keymer emailed a memo to the “campus community,” effectively faculty, staff and student organizations, which repeated verbatim the press copy of the newspapers. Clearly this is copy prepared in advance, either by University lawyers or, more likely, by the CBR itself, as a kind of boiler-plate statement of non-liability and free-speech affirmation. The deliberate expunging of details, however, taken with the explicit promise of “graphic material,” works like the R-rating on a Hollywood movie (especially the ones accompanied by warnings of “Explicit Violence” as additional titillation). And just as the questionable use of “#7” on the open cover of the Martinez mailer used the implicit promise of violence as a come-on for the show, so the entire University apparatus used the promise of violence as a come-on for an event the nature of which the University expressly forbids itself to promote.

Nevertheless, what ultimately gets left out of the picture, and out of the picture of the production of the picture, is often what’s most important. We might quibble with CBR’s definition of “genocide” (I don’t quibble: they’re wrong), but that’s not ultimately my point. Violence-and how it is defined, articulated, and strategized-is. As is what it means to imagine violence, both to oneself and to others. The capacity to imagine-to abstract-transcends the body, and hence carries the responsibility of reimagining the body (the body politic, the body of the mother); the only body not imagined in this scenario as representable. The “body of the mother” is, in fact, only present as an idealized audience, viewer, or target. Pace RTL types, she is cozened, bamboozled, by liberal ideology and the predatory practices of ruthless abortionists, utterly unable, in her weakened and fragile condition, to be imagined to think, or to act, for herself. The articulated “enemy” is two-fold: the abortion practitioner and the federal government that sponsors the practice. The “body of the mother” is thus both ghost-written and white-washed away.

Metonymically, then, the project asks us to see ourselves, the body politic, as practitioners of violence, as collusive with a particular form of violence being done “in our name.” We are thus present as unspoken witnesses to and addressees of a particular representation of violence, at the same time that we are removed, insulated, from the violence of history itself. As are the sponsors of the project itself, which they deliberately strive to make appear to spring ex-nihilo, like the armies of Cadmus from the blood-soaked ground, as a “natural” response of the very earth itself to this unimaginable carnage. The point, ultimately, is that the “carnage,” the violence, is not only imaginable, it is practicable, a part of the lexicon of real-politik, and this sense of the proximity of violence, what revolutionary theorists used to call its immanence, spills out into the project itself, as a part of the affect-producing mechanism of the installation. Where Martinez’s work deliberately invokes this relationship as political art, and uses his own body as the perpetrator and recipient of violence, the GAP appropriates the bodies of others as artful politics, evacuating the agents and victims of violence from history, and perpetrating violence upon us.

Works Cited

“Abortion raises few eyebrows at CSUS,” Turlock Journal 97.63 (S. Smith, 14 March 01): A1.
Arthur, Joyce. “No Virginia, Abortion is NOT Genocide,” Humanist (July/Aug 2000). Reprinted (4/25/02).

“ASI announces exhibit,” The Signal 59.2 (Kevin Nagel, 7 March 01): 2.

Berlant, Lauren. The Queen of American Goes to Washington City: Essays On Sex and Citizenship. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.
Center for Bio-Ethical Responsibility.
Gorney, Cynthia, Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars (1998).

“Graphic Abortion Display Greets Students,” The Signal 59.3 (Kevin Nagel, 14 March 01): 1, 3.

Martinez, Daniel Joseph. “Beauty Stains: Generosity, that was my first mistake. If he didn’t want them sheered, he wouldn’t have made them sheep.” Experimental Photography Exhibition. University Art Gallery, CSU Stanislaus. Curated: Sophia Isajiw. October 2000.

Womack, Jack. Elvissey. New York: Grove Press, 1997 (1993).

Parts of this discussion were presented at a panel entitled “Political Violence” at the 2002 CASA conference. I thank the organizers of that gig-Katherine Kinney and Renny Christopher-for graciously allowing me the opportunity to present it, and to Renny, Jay Mechling, and Andrew Howe for their generous feedback, and Sophia Isajiw for providing documentary support for-and having the moxie to put on-Martinez’s stunning show.

Scott C. Davis teaches at California State University, Stanislaus

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