Two weeks ago, artist Mary Walling Blackburn’s self-described pro-choice children’s book Sister Apple Sister Pig (available online via e-flux) was denounced by conservative pundit Glenn Beck on his program. “I have not seen something this evil since Nazi propaganda,” Beck declared, and proceeded to read portions of the book on-air. The story narrates the experiences of Lee, a three-year-old child whose gender remains unspecified, as they search for their aborted “ghost sister” in everyday objects.
Walling Blackburn splits her time between New York and Dallas, where she teaches art at Southern Methodist University. Her past projects have examined radical pedagogy, feminist practice and intimacies both personal and historical. This Wednesday, Apr. 8, Walling Blackburn will speak with curator Maria Lind and artist Doug Ashford as part of e-flux’s “Time to Talk about Art” series. Her installation Study Towards the Reconstruction of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Lost Ivory Dildo, remains on view in the SculptureCenter exhibition “In Practice: Under Foundations” through Apr. 25.
A.i.A. spoke on the phone last week with Walling Blackburn about Sister Apple Sister Pig and the repercussions of her Glenn Beck appearance.
WENDY VOGEL How did Sister Apple Sister Pig come about?
MARY WALLING BLACKBURN I became interested in socially motivated photo-illustrated children’s books from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I wanted to explore why this genre appeared to wither and the limits of the child as subject and material. My research started with Cornell Capa’s unpublished photo-illustrated book Mario, created in what we assume is the early ‘60s. Beatriz Balanta, who was part of an e-flux panel with me called “Child as Material,” has taken up the reins of that investigation. She was able to see that Capa’s children’s book came at the heels of a Life magazine assignment regarding the slaughter of missionaries in South America. I’m still searching for some kind of comprehensive scholarly document that details the history of this genre.
Another book that I didn’t include in my e-flux research, but is part of the genre, is Penelope and the Earth, published by Joyful World Press in 1975. It’s a synthesis of drawings and photographs that details activism in regard to Western land devastation that would be considered ecoterrorism at this point. Basically the children go in and break apart the machinery that is devastating their valley. The book is also very specific in that the child is the protagonist and is in control of the decisions being made. At the end of this book they have a big celebration in honor of Mother Earth’s liberation.
VOGEL Did you want to advocate a specific political position in Sister Apple, Sister Pig?
WALLING BLACKBURN I rejected a supplicant position. I intended to produce an artist’s book that bucked the highly ordered alignments of anti-choice or pro-choice. I wanted to create a clearing where the argument is not constituted on the terms set out by the anti-choice movement. Their terms are “life” vs. “death.” What if pro-choice supporters stopped constructing their arguments around what we could also refer to as Organized Magic (aka Christianity) vs. Science? What if we allow for animism and trauma? Enter emotional complexity.
VOGEL Would you consider this book an activist project?
WALLING BLACKBURN I don’t know if I parse things so often in that way, but Hi Ana / Hi Hannah (2009), a project [I did] in Marfa, does not register as art project. It is an activist gesture where I am asking the Chinati visitor to imagine an expanded roster. What if Judd had included the work of Ana Mendieta and Hannah Wilke (beside the pieces made by their male lovers), or better yet, what if Dia had offered large-scale funding to Mendieta or Wilke? My fantasy would have been to extend this gesture during the recent Carl Andre Dia:Beacon show, to hire a rotation of Carl Andre impersonators to show up at Dia and each day, a different guy, the spitting image of Andre, is softly singing, maybe snuffling through, Marvin Gaye’s “Anna’s Song.” “Hey Anna here’s your song, yeah/ The one that I promise baby, promise you all along.“
My aim in most projects is that they have to independently function on both levels. It has to formally survive and it also has to attempt to rupture some certain givens. With the conversations that I’ve had to have now, it is curious that I am accused of social violence. As Katie Anania details in the introduction of Sister Apple Sister Pig, there is a violence of representation in the materials that are produced by the anti-choice movement. The tactics and imagery deployed by the right are intending to operate on a scale that is about revulsion, and I don’t think actually that that was the scale that I was operating within. It’s a pretty quiet book.
VOGEL What kinds of reactions did you anticipate?
WALLING BLACKBURN I had not banked on this kind of reaction from the right. I did not imagine that they would notice a PDF tucked into the recesses of e-flux journal. Even though some emails are vitriolic and online comments can be threatening, some of the other responses I received described the book as possessing a sort of tenderness. I was really grateful for this. One person wrote, “I love the way you wrote this book. It hits a very special/sad part of my grown up life and this book made me cry and breathe in such a beautiful way. Thank you.” For some, it navigates their own bodily history.
VOGEL It seems to open up a space for discussion about how to address the topic of choice with children.
WALLING BLACKBURN This book actually is not made for children at all. The footnotes in the introduction say that this is an impossible book. There’s a way that Maurice Blanchot, in The Writing of the Disaster, finely traverses the relationship between the impossibility of writing and reading in relationship to trauma, and there’s no way that I could pretend that I’m not informed by that.
What I’m interested in is the moment when the adult attempts to imagine him or herself reading this book to the child, which creates a kind of lacuna that they are within. It speaks also to the insufficiency of experience, the insufficiency of language, and that’s something I wanted to produce. The aesthetic production actually is not even in the book, it’s this moment produced between the reader and text that becomes an impossible moment. That’s the form. Everything is leading toward that part of the form.
After that moment of reading the book, the adult has to do the work, to say, “How am I supposed to have this conversation? Where am I supposed to have this conversation?”
VOGEL Is there a lot of speculation about the circumstances that led you to write this book?
WALLING BLACKBURN A mainstream news source asked me about the relationship of this book to my personal experience because it’s dedicated to “my ghost sister.” I relayed that my fundamentalist Christian biological father and his then-wife sat me down when I was four and told me that my mother was going to burn in a lake of fire because of her prior abortion. The speculation, on some Christian Internet sites, is that my mother is the person who introduced the subject of abortion to my child self. Conversely, it is the Christians that reveal and my mother, an atheist, who must produce a less traumatic narrative to my child self. So the book isn’t a biography. What’s portrayed in the book is a family unit with a non-gendered child named Lee—not a split family consisting of two Christians, an atheist and a little girl.
VOGEL Did you look into a history of artists dealing with the topic of abortion before you started this project?
WALLING BLACKBURN No, I did not consult a visual history of representation of the politics of women’s reproductive rights before I started this project.
But after Glenn Beck became so inflamed, that instigated my thinking through who has dealt with the topic and in what way. It appears to me at this point that we’re collectively in support of women having power over their bodies, but it also appears that people are distancing themselves from what the aesthetics of that might mean and what the visual realization of that might mean. I am very sympathetic to that. I was looking at this ‘zine from 1991, RE/Search #13: Angry Women, which features the artists Suzi Kerr and Dianne Malley (Kerr & Malley) [who made work about the hypocritical politics of the pro-life movement]. If you look at who’s surrounding them in the context of that book—Kathy Acker, Lydia Lunch, Avital Ronell, Linda Montano, Carolee Schneemann, Diamanda Galas—there’s no formal relationship to their work.
What’s interesting is the way that Kerr & Malley are at the crosshairs of where ACT UP and pro-choice activism meet. At that time period you have a lot of lesbians doing a lot of work for HIV-related activism that is specifically for gay men, and also protecting the rights of women who may be in active heterosexual relationships. You see an incredible investment in bodies that could not be your own and subject to vulnerabilities that may not befall your own body, and I think that’s very beautiful. But then I move from the beauty of their gesture and dedication toward how it physically manifests. When I look at the images of their work—as I move closer, I move away. I’m interested in why I move away. Am I part of a larger choreography of people within the radical and liberal art realm moving to the side of any visual aesthetics produced around abortion? Yes, I seem to be.
VOGEL What has been the fallout since your book was read on Glenn Beck’s show?
WALLING BLACKBURN The hate mail that I’ve received contains carefully worded descriptions of bodily damage that ensure that there can be no legal repercussions. Sometimes it takes the form of poems or a manipulated graphic, sometimes it takes the form of just a screed. What’s important to note is that the whole situation in Texas is escalating.
VOGEL In terms of restricting women’s rights to reproductive care?
WALLING BLACKBURN Yes, exactly. As restrictions of women’s rights to reproductive care escalate in Texas, this reaction seems to be part of that. I don’t think it can be separated from that.
VOGEL Your Sala Diaz project this winter in San Antonio, “â?? Anti-Fertility Garden”, which gathered together substances to limit fertility in men, didn’t receive that much press attention while it was on view. Over the past few weeks, have people been looking back to that work?
WALLING BLACKBURN Absolutely. There’s a history of radical politics that I have attempted—I say attempted, humbly—that I have always felt to be under the radar. Retroactively they’re being discovered and accumulated by the Christian right. Initially the only reports on the “â?? Anti-Fertility Garden” were, in New York, an Artforum Critic’s Pick, and within Texas, Risa Puleo’s article on Glasstire. Those texts were hardly noticed in the mainstream. Now the right is suddenly noticing the Blueprint for the â?? Anti-Fertility Garden, but in comparison to Sister Apple Sister Pig, the “â?? Anti-Fertility Garden” is extremely different in temperament and intent. The book is not actually a confrontation or a dialogue with the Christian right; however, the “â?? Anti-Fertility Garden” was absolutely intended to be.
There are a lot of misreadings of the garden as well. The Christian right doesn’t appear to understand that I am offering a nonviolent means of reproductive control. If they want a world without abortion, they need to embrace male infertility! Herbs and hot tubs for men alone.
VOGEL Even though on its face the work at Sala Diaz is so direct, it’s also equally symbolic or gestural. The substances you’re gathering together are all-natural and are speculative methods of male birth control.
WALLING BLACKBURN This makes me think about Artaud. Breton says that he celebrates Artaud “for his passionate, heroic negation of everything that causes us to be dead while we’re alive.” And so even though Artaud is questionable in terms of his representation of the female in certain instances, there is a way that he is willing to wildly rupture things on a symbolic level that I think is a touchstone for me. We can have both likeable and unlikeable cohorts, cohorts who are knitting together a different universe of meaning around the same project. While Breton talks about being dead while alive, symbolically that’s really central to the “â?? Anti-Fertility Garden.” On a very literal level, why make living women dead? But also, perhaps in keeping with the spirit of Artaud, I believe that a surface madness can circumvent institutional logic. That’s my response to last night’s hate mail from Anchorage, Alaska: “your [sic] either insane or evil.”