Birth as Performance Art

I would be lying if I said I was able to think of much else at the moment other than my first two months of motherhood. I am constantly surprised at news that everybody knows unless they’re living under a rock – The Hobbit film is done? And out? Nelson Mandela is still alive? And I would be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking about writing this blog post while feeding my baby, and because there’s only so much writing I can do with one hand, that I decided to use it to do a quick Google search on “Birth as Performance Art.”

The first dozen or so links were for articles about the Brooklyn based artist Marni Kotak who gave birth to her son at a New York City art gallery. Mostly they focused on how radical her choice of location and context was. Apparently she is now turning the raising of her son into a work of art.

Whatever. I’d be interested to hear more about the actual experience. As far as I’m concerned, the interesting thing about giving birth is that it sure as hell feels like performance art, whether intended or not, and it sure as hell doesn’t require an audience to feel so. It’s like cathartic theatre that serves the performer (or performers, there are some acrobatics, subtle interpretations of time, and stylistic quips required of the baby for sure).

I was determined to do very little visualization of what I expected giving birth to be like. This was my way of being open to whatever might happen. For someone who is a bit of a control freak, pregnancy marked the zen-est experience of my life. I like to think that a long episode of uncontrollable vomiting in the first few months had something to do with putting me in my place. After that I just surrendered to whatever my body and the body growing in my body was up to.

When I started to feel my first contractions, I did exactly what my lazy pregnant self would do. Took the couch out onto the back deck and lounged in the sun, had a bath, tried to sleep sitting up, until at about 1am this seemed impossible so I got out of bed and said to myself with the hesitance of someone getting up early to get to work and who would really quite like to sleep in, “alright, let’s do dis.”

On went the short red robe with a dragon embroidered on the back that was my grandfather’s. Out went the wake up call to various sleeping family members and friends throughout the house. And onwards went the experimenting with various positions and sounds while everyone else moved around at a steady and silent pace.

Once I made it out of the bedroom, our living room had been converted into nothing less than a faux Greco roman theatre set. White sheets covering all the furniture. Candles in lanterns. A fire. Oh and a blow up swimming pool and Dolly Parton soundtrack. The stage was set and I subconsciously felt a bit like some kind of combination of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard and Grace Jones and Nina Simone. And also a gladiator. Fear-inducing and oozing with almighty power that is way beyond socially comfortable.

I thought that I might feel self-conscious about being butt naked and totally primal in front of a small and tending audience. But once the show started, I was just a heaving roaring woman with huge breasts and belly in a short red robe with a dragon embroidered on the back and there was no two ways about it.

I embellished in making sound. High, low, loud, loud. I don’t think I made one single breath that wasn’t audible. My legs were exhausted so I tried various ways to support my body. The couch. The dresser. The door. My husband. The bed. I kept moving. Forwards and backwards, side to side, up and down. They don’t call it labour for nothing.

When things really reached the next level, I would start the sounds and then they would just take off on their own. This was the part where I’m pretty sure I blew the microphones on the home video camera. There was no screaming. There was no crying. No swearing. But there were demented gurgling roars.

It was slowly slowly fading from dark to light. I hadn’t made eye contact with another human being for a good 6 hours. I spent the last few with my eyes looking only in the direction of the sea out the window, where the sun was slowly rising and a ferry slowly crossing between the north and south islands. But I only actually SAW the view in my deep subconscious.

At some point I thought I heard my friend say “I’m going to read you a poem now.” She read aloud something about a bat. I was happy for the added touch of avant garde. I only found out later that she had actually drawn a card from a pack of Medicine Cards she had brought. The bat symbolised birth and rebirth. Bats hang upside down like babies getting ready to launch themselves out of the womb. It couldn’t have been better if it was planned.

With one of my final pushes I yelled out “come ooooon baby!” which brought some comic relief to the whole scene. And once she did come shooting on out and on to my chest, the audience that had gathered in a circle around the pool all burst into spontaneous tears of joy. I looked all around at them in a bewildered state that I could never ever pull off convincingly as an actor. Laughing, crying, in total shock as if I’d only just fully realised what I had actually been doing.

My midwife wrote in her records of the birth that immediately afterwards I announced “well, that was easier than I thought!” Clearly I was blathering and drunk on hormones.  I was just so relieved. I had improvised my way through birth, let my body lead the way and rode that magical uninterrupted wave of synchronicity right on through to the beginning of the rest of my life.


Letter from Kenya (eight)

In the small mud-floored kitchen, around the kitchen fire bordered by 3 large stones (to put the pots on), the middle son is home with his 8 year-old for a visit. The three adults discuss life, the city, work – or lack-thereof. The 2 grandsons that live on the homestead are seated there as well, with their cousin, quietly listening to the adult conversation. One of the boys sings, but it is barely heard; the others dig their feet into the ground and fidget. But I can only imagine this based on the conversation in a language that I don’t understand that comes billowing out of the barely open door and the small square window. The conversation is accompanied by the suffocating smoke from the kitchen fire, fighting for a place to escape from the confines of the small space.

I steal understandings of bits of words and, of course, proper names like the capital city where the son now lives, with his wife and son in the second largest urban slum on the continent, barely making ends-meet. I stand just a few meters from the wood building, looking up through the rainclouds of the Long Rains season through the pitch-black to a few constellations, barely visible. I look back at the square-shaped room with an orange burning light shining through not only the cracked door and window, but also the open slats that let the rain in this morning while we watched the water heating for our baths.

The conversation is familiar, one that I have had with my own parents in their kitchen during one of my countless visits home. There is a relay back and forth of question-answer, then intermittently the son explains further or the mother continues on a monologue asking and comparing, hoping to glean a bit more about her son’s life that is not so unfamiliar to her, she is from a city near by, not the capital, but she is no stranger to the hustle and bustle, but perhaps she has forgotten all of that. Perhaps the forty-some years that she has spent in the high rolling hills tending to their farm and dairy cows, perhaps this less-busy life has allowed her to forget the hand-to-mouth that she, presumably, once lived.

The oldest of the grandsons pops out and I quickly change my gaze back to the sky again, attempting to make myself invisible. Though the night is so dark with no moonlight and no artificial light for miles, at least to the closest town, being invisible isn’t so difficult. Then I remember the conversation I had with the shopkeeper today when we made the hike to town for supplies that cannot be reaped from their land, power had been out in the town for the last 2 days – no mobile charging, no television, only the police station, with their noisy generator, could be seen with their lights on at night. The grandson dumps some water and with a clang grabs something from under the chicken coop and glides back into the warm kitchen shutting the door just a few centimeters more behind him.

Nicole Rademacher was in Kenya from February until May of 2012 doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).


Letter from Kenya (seven)









‘So he is your husband?’ I ask. She nods yes.

‘How many years have you been married?’ I carefully choose my words; her English is quite limited (please note that my Swahili still only consists of pleasantries and my Kikuyu only happens by accident), and if I have learned nothing else from teaching English and living abroad for so long, I have definitely learned how to grade my language and construct sentences so that communication happens and less ???s occur.

’10 years’, she responds.

*Anne is a slight woman, and, to be honest, when I met her the day prior I thought she was an older grandson in the family. I had failed to notice that she was wearing a long skirt below her billowing boy-sweater. Given the short hair, and the fact that in this small village at a very high altitude everyone wears winter caps, a skirt can often be the only way of telling the sex of children … and very slight women.

Ten years seemed like a lot to me. I’ve realized that Kenyans can be very deceiving with their age (I mentioned this in my first post from Kenya). She also told me that she is 28, her oldest of two children is 9, and that she is from a small town very far away so she never sees her family. Ten years still seems like a long time to me.

The milk is at a rolling boil, and she adds the tea and stirs.

‘Yes, 10 years,’ she repeats and laughs. She seems to be a generally happy person, and around me almost everything that I do or say deserves a laugh. Sometimes even her own response deserves a laugh.

She pulls the pot off the fire using only bits of cardboard as oven mitts to protect her not-so-delicate fingers. She sets the pot on the mud floor and places a new pot on the fire and fills it with fresh water that she had fetched from the well in the morning. The family is lucky to have the well on their homestead. I’ve seen many women and girls carrying large 10 gallon jugs (at least I think it is 10 gallons) of water using a strap that is placed around their forehead, thus carrying the jug on their backs. Despite what, in my Western eyes, may be considered poor conditions, the family seems to do quite well for themselves.

She grabs a teapot and strainer from the free-standing cupboard with mismatched doors and pours the chai, in a not-so-careful manner, from the pot through the strainer into the teapot. As she calls telling the others to come because the afternoon chai is ready, she tosses the dirty silverware and some small dishes from lunch into the soon-to-be dishwater warming on the fire.

*Name changed for privacy

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

Letter from Kenya (five)

First she peels them, and then she grates them. She is *Faith the “house help”. Kenyans don’t like skins, she explains. Actually, she tells me, Kenyans don’t eat chopped carrots. She says that in her own family, as well, she would have to grate the carrots in order to cook them – even though carrots are grown here, she defends. She’s young, maybe 25, but has rarely been outside the kitchen. I am surprised that she is working in this particular home because she is from a different tribe than the family. Perhaps the mother is from the same tribe, but I can’t discern. A girl is from where her father is from until she gets married, at that time her husband’s homeland becomes hers. Names are changed easily, going back only three generations. Oral history carries more weight.

She tells me about her older brother, gentle, intelligent, went to university. He died at a young age, but was a very finicky eater – never eating carrots, greens, or onions. Once Faith was old enough to cook, she learned how to burn the onions so that he could easily identify them and pick them out.  Until he left for university, she recounts, they never ate greens in the house and only grated carrots and black onions.

*Name changed for privacy.

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).


Letter from Kenya (four)

*Esther washes all the clothes on Saturdays. “I don’t have help come in, so Saturday is the only day that I can wash everything.” Almost immediately she retracks the “everything” and explains that the heavy clothes are washed on Saturdays, but the other clothes, the “light clothing”, is washed during the week – “a bit every day”.

Assuming that she does not have a washing machine (I have yet to see a machine in even the middle-class homes), I try to calculate in my mind how long it must take her to wash the clothes and bedding for a family of three, by hand.

Everything is scrubbed with brushes, and many of the women who come in as housekeepers scrub too hard and ruin the clothes; this is why she prefers to wash everything herself. Esther has a 23 year-old daughter and shows me a photo of her on her smart phone. She tells me that she is finishing her studies, but she requires her to wash her own clothes. The loads are getting lighter, but I am still having a hard time calculating the hours it must take.

When I arrive at her house for the first time, it is a Sunday evening – after church. We enter the metal main door of the building and make our way up the dimly lit concrete stairs. Turning left at the first landing, I am greeted with, at least, one woman per doorway scrubbing and dunking, scrubbing and dunking, scrubbing and dunking. Clothes are hung on thin rope strung between walkways. A lulling chatter fills the hallway, accompanying the scrub-dunk rhythm kept by the same busy ladies.

The socialization built into the lives of Nairobians keeps me bewildered. I have been conditioned to segregate, categorize, and compartmentalize, making time for everything through strategic decision.

*Name changed for privacy.


Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Nairobi, Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

official website • Nicole’ blogfollow her project on Facebook

Letter from Kenya (two)

*Wanjiru doesn’t like to cook, but she has been cooking her whole life, she tells me bluntly as she picks through the red mung bean (a bean that I will become very accustomed to during my time here as it appears at many meals). I am surprised that she doesn’t like cooking, only because cooking to me is a joy; it’s a hobby of mine. I ask about her hobbies. She doesn’t have any. After finishing sorting the usable from the not-usable, she proceeds to the kitchen to wash and strain them.

While her English is perfect, the dialect here takes some getting used to for me. When asked her favorite meat, Wanjiru promptly responds “leaver“. I give her a confused look and wonder if she told me in Swahili, certain food is commonly known in its Swahili name rather than in English.

She proceeds to spell it, L-I-V-

– Ahhhh, I say before she can finish, Liver! I repeat, as if correcting her. Am I correcting her?

I’m immediately ashamed for having said it in that fashion, but try to disguise it by asking her, Beef or pork?

With a scornful look she says, Beef! Not pork, and she gives me a disdainful grimace while shaking her head.

After washing and straining she lets the beans soak overnight, but says that she will have to get up at 6 am in order to cook them – she doesn’t normally cook on Sundays, it’s sabbath. Curiously I ask her about her plan for Sunday.

Usually, I go to church from 10:30 am to 1pm, she explains.

It’s not that Wanjiru isn’t forthcoming with information, but she simply doesn’t tell me much unless I explicitly ask her. So, I pry further: Do you come home after church?

No, she tells me that afterwards she either goes and visits with her mother or visits a friend, who owns a salon in Kibera.

That’s enough, she says almost already exhausted, That’s enough.

*Name changed for privacy.

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Nairobi, Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

official website • Nicole’ blog • follow her project on Facebook

Coming Home & The View Back

I flew back toward Home recently, on an airplane at about 850km/h, at about 8km off the ground.  I’ve found myself in the air a fair bit recently, with that ritualised placelessness made most obvious when flying internationally.  An idea I pondered when first flying from Copenhagen to Wellington in 2007 (after a six month stay) was whether I truly felt that I was going ‘back’ home, or ‘toward’ somewhere ‘next’.  I hoped excitedly it was the latter, but I don’t think it worked like that.  Then I left again.  Now, after two years away from New Zealand, I begin to believe and feel more authentically that I come ‘back’ to Melbourne now, sort of.

So as I sat there hurtling through the sky above the Tasman Sea, I watched Through the Wormhole, a TV-documentary series, cooly narrated by Morgan Freeman.

The episodes I watched covered two subjects that I realised were relevant to my thoughts about Home, and Abroad.  The first revisited the creation of our Home, otherwise known as the Big Bang theory; the second took a stab at the question of life outside Planet Earth, the ultra-Abroad.


Coming Home, 250 metres per second.

Home(s) with 11 Dimensions.

The first question raised, scientifically, wondered how stable the current theory of the Big Bang could really be, because it seems very difficult to explain or justify that there simply was Nothing prior to it.  It also raised the likelihood of the Multiverse, where ours might not be the only Home.

“Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.”

-King Lear, Act 1.1

“From nothing comes life”

-Apostle Paul, apparently.

One alternative theory to the Big Bang makes an analogy to an analogue watch, which ticks (the second-hand makes a discreet movement), then pauses, before repeating a discrete movement. In this model, the Big Bang (which in itself, as a massive, unbelievably uniform distribution of energy is not really disputed) occurs at the pause, which mathematically represents a nothingness.  Hence our current Universe is the ticking of a second-hand, to eventually arrive (i can’t remember how far we are through, but maybe passed-half, explaining the Universe’s alleged slowing speed of expansion) at nothingness again, and then Bang Bigly again.  Not too fancy, and sort of understandable.

The second alternative gets a bit trippy, and is only fathomable, maybe, to the three dudes that came up with it. M-Theory which is thoroughly not understandable, incorporates the super-string theory, with its 10-dimensionality, and adds time, to make an 11-dimensional fuckoff theory of how the Universe works.  The authors of this theory propose that membranes exist, called P-branes (mmhm), which are multidimensional objects (it can have 0 to 9 dimensions), which something something something (if I copy in Wikipedia it wont make sense anyway).  If String Theory’s account of the Universe is analogous to a body of water (continuous, fluid, and very messy, but accountable on a micro-level), M-Theory (I think) speculated that the Big Bang was more like a ripple, caused by two of these multi-dimensional P-branes colliding, sending a massive, but dissipating force out from the point of contact (explaining in its own way the slowing speed of the Universe’s expansion).  The animated diagram showed two shaky blobby masses (two Universes I guess) slowly colliding, and bouncing back. They also said these P-branes could be as little as 10cm away from us (meaning the 4-dimensional realm we can fathom), at which point I stopped trying to get it, but went, “hmmmmmm.”

And so I wondered who the other-dimensional being was that might be 10cm away from my lacklustre 4-dimensional cognitive ability, and whether he already knew about me, and could fathom me, and maybe, could ‘see’ me, and my Home.  I was glad we were both at Home (dimensionally speaking), and were wondering about the Other.

At which point, I realised how close theoretical physics is to various spiritual experiences.  It is not hard at all to imagine enlightenment, transcendence, and angels as useful analogies of such multi-dimensional being.  I have considerably little experience in either field of study/practice, so can’t really go deeper into the thought, so will keep it as a (public) thought.

The View Back

The second episode covered the usual base of the search for extra-terrestrial life forms, namely the work of the SETI Institute [Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence] .  Rather than zealous alien hunters, the SETI Institute’s Mission is “to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe” which seems pretty useful and profound.  It also resonated with my thoughts about Place and being-an-Other.

It’s become scientifically well-known that the existence of living organisms as we know them on Earth is the result of a microscopically, unbelievably unlikely chemical coincidence, which is so unlikely that it makes for a pro-God arguing point.  The phenomenally low probability that there is life at all (on Earth in our case) has a few scientists thinking the scary thought that, shit, maybe we are alone. Beautifully, these scientists reassure us that our yearning for knowledge and the study of Life and our Home is only made more precious by this position.

The ways we are looking for life is really what hooked me, particularly when the reverse notion was tabled: if someone was looking for us, would they see us?  Our first radio-waves (with any considerable strength) were sent out around the sixties, at the usual pace of 186,000 m/s.  Unfortunately, these messages have covered only a microscopic distance in astrological terms (about 50cm of 10km) to the nearest Solar System, and only 50cm to the equivalent of Mars in terms of reaching the edge of the known Universe.  That’s a bit disheartening, but when we start photographing space, we are fortunately more effective.

I don’t understand how precisely, but developing from the Doppler Effect (where the appearant frequency of (light/electromagnetic) waves are effected by relative movement and gravity) we are able to map distant solar systems, and even now, their planets, and even their size, gravitational field, and chemical composition of their atmospheres.  Apparently, the most effective way to search for signs of intelligent life is to look for something un-natural, a disturbance in the known laws of physics and chemistry.  Scientists are well aware that they may not be looking for humanoid life (especially when you start thinking about the small fraction of time that our ‘bodies’ have been around on Earth, and the haste with which they are changing with technological extensions/appendages), so what they are actually looking for is a trace.  It might be on the scale of a Solar System, or it might be an atmospheric anomaly.  Then they really flipped me out, by declaring that the best trace of our intelligent life is global warming.  Our strongest astrological beacon is the horrendous trampling of our ecological equilibrium.

It’s a funny one really, right now I don’t know where to go with it.

It does seem to somehow tap sharply at a part of me, a part that wonders about the nature of our dwelling here, on our Home.  I guess I’m just naturally curious what that inter-dimensional dude might be thinking, whether he’s on the next P-brane, or in the same Universe, wandering what the atmospheric anomaly might mean, if anything.