Too numerous, too sexual, too fertile – Eurocentric conceptions of body, knowledge, community, and subjectivity have long attributed all sorts of excesses to colonized peoples. Berlin-based artist and researcher Luiza Prado from Brazil dedicated the past few years to researching the violences that coloniality and capitalism have enacted in the Global South – in which technologies of birth control play a crucial role. As the effects of the hierarchization of bodies by White, Western, heteropatriarchal structures are still present today, the artist now explores how solidarity and resistance to colonial power could take shape. Looking into the histories and of herbal birth control and indigenous knowledges, the GIF essay »All Directions at Once« is now an empowering answer and exploration for new realities in the space of excess – where one can find strength and tell its own stories. Visit the website created for the web residencies by Solitude & ZKM on the topic Refiguring the Feminist Future curated by Morehshin Allahyari and read an interview with the artist:
Schlosspost: »All Directions At Once,« the project you work on for the web residencies, is part of the larger work A Topography of Excesses, in which you examine counterhegemonic technologies of birth control. What is your specific approach here and what was the initial thought or trigger for the project?
Luiza Prado: When I first conceived A Topography of Excesses, I had been struggling with the difficulty of doing work that does not merely offer a denunciation of the effects of coloniality, but that is capable of enunciating other ways of being. Emerging from the process of writing a PhD thesis, I had dedicated years to diagnosing and describing the ways in which the management bodies, populations, and the economies that emerge around them constituted the very foundation of colonial power, and how the regulation of technologies of birth control was key to this process.
Thinking about all the ways in which coloniality and capitalism enacts violence over bodies in the Global South is quite emotionally draining; after years of this, I needed to be able to articulate how solidarity and resistance to colonial power take shape, too; how systems of oppression are never met without responses. So I decided to look toward something that had popped up repeatedly in my research, but that I had not been able to explore further in my thesis: folk herbal contraceptives, which I understand as radical, anti-colonial articulations that hint at new realities, new paths; articulations that resist, to this day, the disasters brought about by 500 years of colonialism, and point toward not only other futures, but other realities altogether.
»Thinking about all the ways in which coloniality and capitalism enacts violence over bodies in the Global South is quite emotionally draining; after years of this, I needed to be able to articulate how solidarity and resistance to colonial power take shape, too…«
»All Directions at Once« is an exploration of these new realities, these new timelines that come into being through acts of refusal and solidarity that emerge at the margins of what is recognized as »valid« scientific knowledge, at the margins of sanctioned histories.
Schlosspost: The project, as you say, is looking into the excesses attributed to the bodies, knowledges, and subjectivities of the colonized. Could you elaborate on the notion of excess or »space of excess«?
LP: A Topography of Excesses starts from a meditation on the notion of excess that Eurocentric conceptions of body, knowledge, community, and subjectivity attribute to the colonized. Under such definitions, the social ills affecting our communities are attributed not to the violent and systematic exploitation established by the colonial project and continued by capitalism, but to faults found within ourselves; a function of being too numerous, too sexual, too fertile. This perception of excess goes back to the documentation and classification practices of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which sought to create a database of knowledge about invaded lands and colonized subjects. They fabricated categories of bodies and spaces – those condemned to pursue an infrastructural, economic, and aesthetic ideal, and those who dictate this ideal.
Through this continued construction of the white, Western, cis-male body as the archetype for the human, all other bodies are concurrently constructed as abnormal; taxonomized, documented, classified, and ultimately produced as diverging, inadequate, monstrous entities – illegible, yet hyper-visible. This sediments the perception of colonized bodies as simultaneously excessive, abnormal in their numbers, sexualities, and desires, yet lacking – for even after setting themselves free from colonial shackles, they still carry the burden of eternally striving to mirror the colonizer. This resonates in the present, in the very notion of the modern nation-state and of borders as techniques of hierarchization of bodies: those who are in excess must be kept away, at the confines, lest they – with their inability to conform to a white norm – endanger the social order of the white supremacist nation. This same logic also governs things like biometric recognition technologies, which seek to continue the colonial project of classification and taxonomization of human beings by creating a veneer of supposed objectivity.
»This is a call to reappropriate the notion of excess; to understand it as an intersectional space where we can find strength and forge new paths by accessing the poetic dimensions of commonality, and trace the points where our struggle meet, and where they are distinct and particular.«
So in this project I propose a reframing of history meant to subvert and reject colonial narratives, working toward the space of excess as one where revolutionary politics can emerge through exchange and solidarity amongst marginalized peoples; those marginalized by a colonial, hegemonic historical narrative. This is a call to reappropriate the notion of excess; to understand it as an intersectional space where we can find strength and forge new paths by accessing the poetic dimensions of commonality, and trace the points where our struggle meet, and where they are distinct and particular. A space where we can reject hegemonic history, and tell our own stories instead – an endeavor inspired by the notion of a »world where many worlds fit« offered by the Zapatista liberation movement in Mexico.
Schlosspost: What forms does the colonial domination of birth control take? And what is the response to it?
LP: The contraceptive pill is a very good example of how this can take place. Although it is often associated with the sexual revolution that the white, Western middle class enjoyed in the 1960s, the pill has a much darker history in the Global South. Throughout the 1950s, the American doctors responsible for the pill ran clinical tests in prisons, slums, and mental hospitals in Puerto Rico (notice the choice of disciplinary enclosures) with no informed consent or regard for the dignity and health of Puerto Ricans. Later, the pill became part of the strategy implemented by the CIA to secure the sphere of influence of the United States over Latin America during the Cold War. It was used to contain population growth on the continent, which the CIA considered conducive to the thriving of communism, particularly in the wake of the Cuban Revolution; concurrently to the commercialization and distribution of the pill as this new anti-communist technology, the agency cemented American influence by nurturing and offering material support to the implantation of a series of military, extreme right-wing dictatorships all over the continent and the assassinations of leftist dissidents, in what we know now as Operation Condor.
The history of the contraceptive pill is in no way an exception, either. Patricia Peck Gossel (1999) writes that Norplant, the first contraceptive implant ever commercialized, was the subject of an editorial piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer that urged readers to consider it »a tool in the fight against black poverty,« and Elise Young (1994, p. 170) describes how between 1930 and 1957 women in Palestine were used as test subjects in the initial stages of development of the intrauterine device by Israeli scientists.
Knowledge about herbal contraception interests me precisely because, in all these instances, what is happening is that external colonizing forces are attempting to develop knowledge with the intention to control the technical means of managing reproduction of marginalized communities. These are outside efforts; knowledges developed on the terms of the colonizer; on the other hand, knowledge of these herbal medicines comes into being as a response to the specific needs and conditions of each group and community.
Schlosspost: What is the situation and societal acceptance of birth control like in Brazil?
LP: Abortion is, to this day, illegal in Brazil, shrouded by intense stigmatization. Even contraception, though legal, has recently been placed in jeopardy by increasingly strict laws which aim to limit access to medications like the morning after pill, or devices like IUDs.
In theory, the Brazilian public health system offers eight types of fertility control technologies to everyone, free of charge: copper IUD, combined contraceptive pill, mini-pill, Depo-Provera injections, diaphragm, condoms, emergency pill, and sterilization. In practice, however, there are a number of reasons why access to these might be restricted. For instance, people might live far from hospitals or health centers, and waits for doctors appointments may sometimes take weeks or months. Additionally, the public health system is severely underfunded, which often leads hospitals and health centers to simply not be able to offer most of these options.
These material and logistical challenges are compounded further by the social perception of birth control. Depending on the situation, one might be stigmatized by their community (and sometimes also by health professionals) for seeking fertility management. If married, a cis woman who uses birth control might be considered selfish for not wanting children (even when she already is a mother). Concurrently, an unmarried cis woman using birth control might be perceived as a »slut,« and »easy.«
Abortion, on the other hand, is only allowed in three instances: in cases of rape, when the parent’s life is at risk, and if the fetus has a condition called anencephaly, which causes it to die within hours of birth. Yet, abortion is so profoundly stigmatized in Brazil that even in these extreme cases it might be difficult to get an abortion, with obstacles placed by institutions, health professionals, and society at large. And again, I must stress: even these conditions that are, in theory, protected by law, are under attack right now. At the same time that feminist groups are leading an unprecedented movement for the legalization of abortion, there are bills being discussed in Congress that would legally define life as the meeting of an egg and a sperm, completely outlawing abortion (in addition to other things, like stem cell research).
Schlosspost: The topic is of course globally discussed, as well as highly controversial, and has become a major theme in feminist politics. What feminist theories and models do you combine in your artistic research?
LP: My work is informed by feminist artists and theorists working primarily around topics and ideas of decolonization. The works of Argentine philosopher Maria Lugones and Nigerian feminist scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí greatly influence my understanding of colonialism as a driving force for the imposition of a patriarchal, hetero- and cis-sexist gender system. Mexican-American poet and scholar Gloria Anzaldúa is responsible for my interest in art and poetry as ways of doing research and scholarship, and for directing my attention toward indigenous and folk knowledges. And Spanish philosopher Paul B. Preciado is a great influence to understanding how the misuse and abuse of technologies initially meant to enforce gender and sexual hierarchies can offer radical paths toward other notions of the body.
Schlosspost: In your concept text, you also name radical care together with the feminist refiguration of the future. What is the concept of radical care about?
LP: Fertility management has always been a fundamental aspect of healthcare, in all societies. So of course, people have developed all sorts of ways to manage fertility throughout history, long before pharmaceutical companies, global circulation of capital and goods, or the push for a universalizing model of scientific knowledge came along.
»Knowledge about the uses of the plant was transmitted orally within these communities. That, to me, embodies the notion of radical care. It is a practice of sustaining the community through looking out for each other, and developing, sharing, and teaching knowledge that is vital for its well-being.«
However, when colonial domination comes into the picture, the transmission of oral knowledge about herbal birth control becomes a key strategy of resistance, a way to exercise a degree of control over one’s body in a situation of profound dehumanization and exploitation. In »All Directions At Once« I look, for instance, into the history of ayoowiri, a plant that grows abundantly in the tropical areas of the Americas. During European occupation of the continent, an infusion of this plant was often used as a contraceptive and, in stronger doses, as an abortifacient by enslaved indigenous and African peoples. Knowledge about these uses of the plant was transmitted orally within these communities. That, to me, embodies the notion of radical care. It is a practice of sustaining the community through looking out for each other, and developing, sharing, and teaching knowledge that is vital for its well-being. Nowadays few communities still use, or know, about the plant – which to me is particularly fascinating, because this small tree is very common in Brazil, and often used for urban decoration. I remember seeing it growing all over Rio de Janeiro, my hometown. So to me, all these plants – ayyowiri, but also others like cinnamon, papaya, wild carrot, rue, artemisia – become part of an alternative history; one in which other futures are conceived through this practice of radical care.
Schlosspost: In what way does your project narrate a different female future?
LP: My approach, as I said, is inspired by the Zapatista ideal of creating a »mundo donde quepan muchos mundos,« a world where many worlds fit – that is, that there are many ways of addressing problems and issues that are, in their nature, plural, and more than that, that also reflect plural worldviews. I strive to find out in dialogue ways to challenge consensual realities, and nurture a tolerance for the ambiguous and contradictory. Gloria Anzaldúa calls this mode of thinking a form of »border consciousness,« one that navigates through worlds in their difference and fosters the emergence of a pluriversal mode of learning, and of engaging with futures. In Anzaldúa’s own words, educators (and I would argue artists) working within this model cambian el punto de referencia, or change perspective, and in so doing offer new ways of »reorganizing reality« and building provisional, new worlds. Its is through this practice that we can envision things otherwise, and do so in a slower, localized, micropolitical, and more importantly collective way.
Schlosspost: With the Internet, birth control is now carried out via apps or women order pills online. How do you evaluate these developments in the digitization of society?
LP: Birth control apps are an interesting thing – they are very useful in many ways, but I also find them very concerning in terms of surveillance and biometrics. The excellent folks at Coding Rights, a digital activism group, have a very interesting article where they analyze how these apps have found ways to monetize what is essentially the labor and body biometrics of their users.
Now, another aspect of this digitization is influencing the way we deal with birth control can be observed in the work of activist group Women on Web. They describe themselves as a »digital community of women who have had abortions and individuals and organizations that support abortion rights.« The group has found a very clever and ingenious way of working around restrictive abortion laws: since they are based in the Netherlands, and have doctors with European licenses working on their staff, the group offers what they call »telemedicine« to all who get in touch with them seeking an abortion. Basically, their staff offers online consultations, where they will ask questions about the person’s health, how far along are they, if they’ve had tests to ascertain the pregnancy, and so on. Based on this information, they will give appropriate advice to the person seeking the abortion and, in case the pregnancy is 12 weeks or less, they will offer to send medication through the mail. This allows people in places where abortion is not accessible to get the treatment they need; it’s literally a service that saves lives.
Schlosspost: Why is a GIF essay the right format to show the project on the web?
LP: This is a format I had been wanting to explore for a long time. The cyclical nature of the GIF, and the possibilities of stacking, superimposition, and movement are something I had been thinking about in terms of an essay; I wanted to explore nonlinear ways of developing an argument that allowed me to sediment layers of images and text whose connection may be not immediately recognizable, and to challenge those who are engaging with this content to forge their own interpretations of these superimpositions.
»In order to get through the content on the essay, one cannot move their mouse; if they do, a new set of images appears, and that specific order and set is lost forever. So this is a question of choice…In being present for that moment, I understand that the person accessing this becomes a fundamental actor in unravelling this narrative. They are both giving it space to come into being, and giving context and meaning to its emergence.«
Exhibiting a project like this on the web – instead of a gallery or museum – encouraged me to think of how it must, too, consider the person who is accessing the website as a fundamental actor in the knowledge-making process that an essay entails. This is not only about my understanding of the underlying logic of my argument, though of course in coding the website I have a degree of control over that. But I want this to be about a dialogue that does not necessarily center around how I think of this project, how I understand the threads that run through it; it is about how others choose to engage with it, too. Thinking of this, the performance of whoever is accessing the website to engage with the content plays a fundamental role in how knowledge is constructed, in how the essay unravels. Each time one accesses the website, a set of images and animated text starts to appear in the window. There are three categories of objects that might pop up: two of animated texts, one longer and one shorter, and one of images. In order to get through the content on the essay, one cannot move their mouse; if they do, a new set of images appears, and that specific order and set is lost forever. So this is a question of choice. In choosing to stop and engage with the content, the person accessing the website is making it possible for a unique combination, a unique narrative to emerge – one that will likely never happen again, not in that order, not in that specific context. In being present for that moment, I understand that the person accessing this becomes a fundamental actor in unravelling this narrative. They are both giving it space to come into being, and giving context and meaning to its emergence.
Interview by Clara Herrmann