“Would you like to see the birth?”
Elle Burchill from Microscope Gallery casually offered me a spot on the list of people who would be notified of the birth of Baby X. The night of the opening of the exhibition and performance The Birth of Baby X was pretty cold. Despite the media attention that followed the news that Bushwick performance artist Marni Kotak was planning to give birth in a gallery, the turnout at the opening wasn’t any larger than the usual crowd at a Microscope Gallery opening.
“Yes, please. Put me on the list,” I heard myself saying loud enough to mute the doubts and fears I had.
Microscope is a small gallery, but considered average sized by Bushwick standards. The gallery, established in 2010, focuses on works of video and other less common forms of art. Microscope has been regularly featuring works of some of the cult heroes of indie filmmaking, including Jonas Mekas and Nick Zedd. As one of the artists whose work has been exhibited in the gallery, I can tell from my own experience that Microscope has been very supportive of the local emerging art scene.
Marni Kotak, who claims to be continuing the legacy of the body-challangers and privacy-transgressors in female performance art of the 1970s, has been playing with the concept of the real life experience in performance for years. She lives just down the street from the gallery. At the opening Kotak said that when she learned about her pregnancy it was only natural to give birth as performance. In my opinion, Kotak showed a major courage in being consistent with her artistic intention. One day before the opening, while still installing the birthing station in the gallery with her husband Jason Robert Bell, Kotak calmly told me she could easily walk to the gallery when the labor starts. Elle Burchill, a co-founder of Microscope, pointed out that Kotak wouldn’t just give birth at any impersonal white box gallery.
It was Tuesday, October 25, 10:33am when I unlocked my bicycle in front of Microscope Gallery. After a late blogging night, it was almost 10am when I woke up. I reached my phone, still in bed, to download my emails. An email from Andrea Monti, a co-owner of Microscope, was fairly brief: “It’s happening NOW!” Puzzled, I jumped off my bed not knowing what to do first; I spend a couple of minutes just running back and forth.
I felt really uneasy, and I even entertained the thought of not going. However, besides the desire to see this work of art, I was irrationally drawn to Kotak and her performance. Being a woman in my late twenties, I haven’t had my own children yet, and I wasn’t planning to anytime soon, although I have never doubted that I would like to have children at some point. The thought of birth, and its physiological brutality has been constantly reminding me that humans are nothing more than mammals fully dependable on our instincts; despite trendy clothes, iPads, airplanes, internet and importance of self-realization in life. Birth was making me realize that my body was physically equipped and ready for children, and I was basically only controlling my consciousness, trying not to allow it think of the possibility of having children.
Kotak was now showing off her full female body in the late stages of pregnancy. She was tall, strong and ready to manifes the power of femininity and motherhood.
The second of the two doulas was guarding the entrance to Microscope Gallery, making sure that Kotak in labor would not be disturbed by any unwanted presence. The crowds, paparazzi and television crews could seriously harm the smooth course of the performance that was nothing but a real life, raw birth after all.
The doula smiled at me and let me in.
The dimly lit, heated gallery felt like a human womb. Throughout the time before the actual performance, Marni Kotak had been emphasizing the importance of natural birth over and over. With 30 to 40% of the births being executed by cesarian section, it is almost impossible to give a natural birth in an American hospital, and a home birth isn’t a self-evident alternative; in several US states assisted home birth is illegal.
The air in the gallery was sticky, and it smelled like indeterminate bodily fluids. Kotak was sitting in the birthing pool full of hot water, colored by the blood she had lost. She was exhausted but beautiful more than ever. The pain made her face look gentler. On her chest she was holding a tiny human.
The baby’s eyes were wide open. It didn’t cry, it was only silently looking up at his mother. The baby was beautiful, rounded, it’s face was smooth and I couldn’t identify the color of the baby’s eyes. The baby has black hair and long fingers with long fingernails. Everything on its body looked like adorable miniature of the most perfectly shaped human body parts.
“Hi Katarina,” said Marni Kotak when she noticed my presence. Her voice sounded positive, but I could recognize the pain she was going through at the same time.
The midwife and doula were busy working around her, preparing her to push out the placenta. Jason Robert Bell, Kotak’s husband was videotaping everything on a small recorder. With his never ending optimism he gave me a warm welcome and asked if I could hold the recorder so that he could be at the midwife’s side.
The tears were rolling down the cheeks of Elle Burchill. She was holding a big camera recorder capturing everything. “The baby was born minutes ago. Everything happened so fast,” she told me.
Andrea Monti was pale like never before. I think in an attempt to avoid the direct confrontation with this raw experience, he was trying to be helpful facilitating the communication between the doula guarding the door, the people inside and the audience on the way.
I learned that the baby was a boy. “His name is Ajax,” said Bell. “It was a Greek mythological hero. From the Iliad. He was really strong, and won all the fights.” Jason Robert Bell smiled.
The heat in the room and the smell of the blood, were making me think that I could easily faint but I knew I wouldn’t. My body vibrated with thrill; it almost hurt. I was deeply moved with an emotional storm in my head. The moment felt almost sacred and magical.
The midwife asked Jason to cut the umbilical cord. What happened afterwards was way faster than my brain could possibly comprehended. Kotak was asked to stand up in the birthing pool, and in what appeared to be enormous pain she was pushing out a placenta, which looked like a huge piece of living flesh.
Later on, Kotak was resting in her old-fashioned bed that used to belong to her grandmother, surrounded by the ocean-blue wallpaper with pictures of her pregnancy.
Robert Jason Bell, holding the baby for the first time, said they wanted an X in the baby’s name. “It’s Baby X after all,” he said. If it was a girl, her name would have been Xara.
Kotak silently ate a yogurt and then a banana, while the midwife was ordering something fat and nutritious for the mother. “How would you feel about Chinese?” asked Bell.
Ajax also had his first meal. Lying on his mother’s chest, he raised his little head, trying to find the breast. After he was fed, he silently fell asleep in his father’s arms. Unlike the hospital-born babies I’ve seen, he barely cried.
When walking home in the afternoon, I passed by a young Puerto-Rican mother, who was holding a child in her arms. I thought to myself: “Wow. So you did this, too?”
That night I wrote a short email to my mom that included the line, “Thank you for giving birth to me and my brother. I admire you.”
Marni Kotak’s The Birth of Baby X was a month-long exhibition from October 8 to November 7, 2011 that culminated into a live birth on October 25, 2011 until November 7 at Microscope Gallery (4 Charles Place, Bushwick, Brooklyn).