Interviews

Reading Menstrual Rags Like Rorschach Tests

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Xandra Ibarra, “She’s On the Rag//Rorschach Test” (2015), menstrual blood, white acid free paper, 6 x 7 3/8 in. (all images courtesy the artist)

From popular culture to religious beliefs, menstruation has always been viewed as quite the taboo subject. In my early teens, I read Stephen King’s Carrie and was nearly convinced that my menstruation would afford me the power of telekinesis. No luck. But it did provide me with an ongoing fascination for artists exploring the use of the body, bodily fluids — in particular blood — as a medium for their artistic practices and political expression.

Bay Area-based artist Xandra Ibarra, otherwise known as La Chica Boom, has been questioning the establishment and queering the art world with her provocative and highly dynamic performance work since the early 2000s. Her recent work “She’s on the Rag” (2013–2015) incorporates one of the most popular tools of Western psychological testing: the Rorschach test. Originally conceived by the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach, the test was used as a means to investigate the emotional states of patients. For her piece, La Chica Boom creates inkblots out of her menstruation blood and, upon sending them to her buyers, asks them to respond to the imagery. Based on these consultations, she deciphers the designs’ potential meanings.

According to her artist statement, La Chica Boom seeks to “amplify gendered and racialized iconography and make such problematic constructions via spectacle more transparent to the spectator” — what she calls “spictacles,” or “camp spectacles of degeneracy and power.” In her performances series, Spictacles, she uses tropes such as the Virgin Mary and the dominatrix to question our conceptions of gender. In works like “Cucaracha Smiles” (2014), she challenges whiteness, patriarchy, and heteronormativity by undergoing “smile lipt surgery” with the aid of double-sided carpet tape that forces a smile. In her work and this interview, Ibarra provokes her viewers to think outside of the binary constructs that are so deeply embedded in Western thought.

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The online store “She’s on the Rag” on Etsy

Dorothy Santos: For “She’s on the Rag,” you’ve created one print each month since 2013. Could you explain your creative process around the work? What considerations did you have to take into account in order to make the works in such a well-timed manner?

La Chica Boom: I began my period one day while working at an artist residency. I didn’t have a tampon or pad to prevent the bleeding so I folded a paper towel and put it in my underwear while I went to the store to pick up tampons. When I came back, I removed and opened up the folded paper towel and realized it made a beautiful symmetrical print. Next time I had my period, I folded a watercolor paper in half and then moved in a “twerking” fashion over the paper. I became, as my friend Jakeya said, the Jackson Pollok of menses. I dripped on the paper by improvising with various movements and made abstract menses expressionist art. Actually, no. Not really. I simply folded the watercolor paper and created prints. I continued to make one print per cycle during my heaviest day. I didn’t know why I was collecting or making these prints. I am a hoarder of weird things so I just stored them. After a year or so I began to see them as Rorschach ink blots and as an opportunity for staging a performance where I could “read” or pathologize the general public. But where the fuck would I do such a thing? I have been irritated with my local audience, so I wanted to expand the project’s reach. I decided to use the online market place Etsy. I found yet another way to expand my gustatory aesthetics and to manipulate not only the political economy of sexuality but the online market economy. It only took me 2.5 years to figure it out. Jeez.

DS: Many rituals, across cultures, happen when a girl starts to menstruate. Recently, a news story was published regarding Nepalese girls banished from their homes due to their menstruation. A young girl is working to put an end to this form of body shaming and what appears to have been a traditional practice within her community. What is your response to these types of practices and histories? Could you speak to findings, experiences, and/or research that compelled and pushed your work?

LCB: I think it would be super white/Western lady of me to think that this art project would create counter-discourses about menses in Nepal. However, the fear and societal hypocrisies in relationship to menses are real and everywhere. But they differ based on their social, historical, and political contexts. I don’t intend to propose this as a serious art project that changes the lives of girls/women in the world, instead I am working within my artistic, arch-using humor to dissect erotic economies of consumption, produce audience discomfort, and assert perversity.

Also, I was not influenced by research or experience. I was moved by aesthetic innovation.

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The online store “She’s on the Rag” on Etsy (click to enlarge)

DS: In the description of the work, you state, “…the artist offers a psychodynamic consultation that aims to ‘read,’ in English or Spanish, every buyer via a live video (Skype) consultation. The consultations claim to detect ‘psychological disorders like light-weight racism.’” Despite the comical nature of the act of detecting certain social ills through consultations, what other social and/or cultural constructs have unexpectedly come out of the work?

LCB: I’ve been having this conversation with many people. Can menses embody racialized meaning? Is menses considered blood OR is it some kind of outlier? Is it a body part? If you sell your discarded uterine lining, is it indirect prostitution? Is it illegal to mail it using the US Postal Service? Is it illegal to sell on Etsy? Am I selling body parts on Etsy?

DS: You’ve sold a couple of prints and will be conducting consultations. What aspects of the psychoanalytic method are you trying to subvert or question directly in the performance part of the work?

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Shipping one of the Rorschach Tests

LCB: I sold two prints but both buyers have not responded to their prompts. The buyer is prompted to write me an email with the first three associations they conjure while looking at the work. I think the buyers did not expect to receive REAL menses in the mail, so they may have been turned off. All consultations will be excessive, campy, absurd, and explore the psychic interiority of all the identitarian things we love to hate, womanhood and raciality.

DS: “She’s on the Rag” is a bit different than many of your other works. As a performance artist, what made you decide to use Etsy and provide consultations?

LCB: I understand my body as a market place. My work forces viewers to contend with the realities of race, gender, and sexuality as they map onto my body. In this work, I continue to work with abject status and force those who purchase — or “audience members” — to confront my body (my discarded uterine lining) via an online market place like Etsy. While all that sounds really serious, like most of my work, “She’s on the Rag” is humorous and manipulates the political economy of sexuality. I chose Etsy as my online market place because it generally caters to small, women-led grassroots businesses and how much more grassroots can you get than selling your own fucking menses.

DS: While the project incorporates menses as both a medium and subject matter, there are far more complex issues at work. What was it about using your blood to re-interpret the Western practice of psychological testing and assessment?

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The artist’s profile on the website “She’s on the Rag” (click to enlarge)

LCB: I am always already in the process of selling myself because of my fucked condition as a racialized and gendered “other.” As a result I am never seen. However, I am sighted as a commodity or as excess. This project allows me to use my blood/my body parts without being sighted. Instead I share discarded parts of my body (uterine lining) with you. I am asking you to see me without me. I am asking that you acknowledge that fucked subjects bleed. I am still sharing my body with you but prohibiting you from seeing me — instead I parody Western practices of psychological assessment to pathologize and “read” you via video consultations.

DS: Last thing, what was significance of the full blood moon in September 2015, which was when the project launched?

LCB: The full blood moon comes around every 20 years. What a great opportunity to launch such a project when the moon functions as my PR representative for free! You can’t get better public relations than the full blood moon!

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