Canadian artist Dayna McLeod is staging a show in her vaginal canal. How? Well, it’s complicated.
Her project, Uterine Concert Hall, is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: she’s running a cable from a separate DJ booth into her vagina just feet away, projecting music into her uterus for no one and everyone to hear. Audience members, if you can call them that, are invited to listen to the DJ’s music via headphones connected to the booth or, more intimately, use a stethoscope to “eavesdrop” on the show happening inside McLeod’s body.
As photos from her most recent Uterine Concert show, people do indeed line up in front of a table to place a diaphragm atop McLeod’s womb and listen to the faint sounds of ovarian partying. (You can review a completely cheeky rundown of the show’s tech specs here.) “These listeners had a much more up close and personal experience with me over the headphone listeners,” McLeod explained in an email exchange with The Huffington Post.
In 2013, when Casey Jenkins launched an unconventional “craftivism” project, she was promptly given a catchy nickname: “the vaginal knitting artist.” She was, as any description of her “Casting Off My Womb” project notes, knitting from a skein of wool tucked inside her vagina. So the nickname did make sense.
If we were to bestow a similar name upon McLeod, it would likely be “the uterine music” artist, or something similarly succinct. But, like Jenkins’ knitting, McLeod’s art is packed with a lot more substance than a handy cognomen can convey. Like Jenkins, McLeod has a rather specific reason she’s hosting art projects inside herself. “I decided to make my body into a concert hall because of essentialist expectations that women make babies,” McLeod explained to HuffPost.
That’s the quick answer, at least. McLeod will eagerly extrapolate on the technologies used to control women’s bodies, and how these technologies reinforce dated expectations of the traditionally child-carrying gender. Below is a transcript of our conversation with McLeod, which took place a few days after her more recent Uterine Concert Hall performance at Montreal’s Darling Foundry.
First off, how did the concert go last week?
The first show at Uterine Concert Hall went really, really well. My artist friends Nikki Forrest and Jackie Gallant each performed a 25- to 40-minute DJ set for my uterus as an audience. So from the perspective of my uterus, the show was AWESOME. I actually experienced a completely relaxed and euphoric body high after the show was over.
Can you give a brief breakdown of the “set” and what the experience was like for an audience member?
Outside-my-body showgoers eavesdropped by one of two ways: through headphones that connected them with the DJ set at full dance party volume BEFORE it went into my body, or by stethoscope once the sound was literally inside of me. The stethoscope listeners had a much different experience than the headphone listeners, obviously.
The main difference was the quality and volume of the sounds that they were able to hear. A two-headed stethoscope allowed me to “find the spot” of the sound with the stethoscope bell on the outside of my body near my pubic bone, while another person listened simultaneously. One listener described it as sounding like the source was far away- like driving on a highway and hearing a concert echo in the distance. These listeners had a much more up close and personal experience with me over the headphone listeners, some of whom could not help but dance, depending on the DJ’s soundtrack.
Why did you want to host a “concert” in your uterus to begin with? What ideas or experiences prompted the project?
I decided to make my body into a concert hall because of essentialist expectations that women make babies. We are constantly inundated with baby-making expectations even as we age, and one of the things that I thought would end now that I’m in my 40s, is being asked that question, “Do you want to have a baby?” Sure, the question has changed to “Do you have children?” But instead of it ending there, it has changed to, “Didn’t you ever want to have children?”
Something else that inspired this project besides thinking about how we expect women to look, behave, act, and feel, are the technologies that are used to control women’s bodies, and how these technologies reinforce these expectations. I saw an ad for a speaker that a pregnant woman would insert into her vagina in order to get closer to her fetus. Let me repeat: Closer. To. Her. Fetus.
The company who makes this speaker is competing against “baby bump” speakers that are attached to the outside of a woman’s pregnant belly. But what the actual hell is up with these speakers? That there is a range of products like this, that by all medical accounts are based on junk science, is alarming. The fact that these companies are literally inserting themselves into women’s bodies sends a message to new mothers that they need technology to not only be a good mother, but to be a great mother. That new mothers need this technology to make a walking-out-of-the-womb-knowing-all-of-the-words-to-”Don’t Stop Believin’”-because-it’s-Grandpa’s-favorite-song baby.
In other words, a genius baby. This is not fair to expectant mothers as they have enough on their plates, like MAKING A PERSON WITH THEIR OWN BODY.
What kind of preparations went into the concert? Did you rehearse a lot?
After receiving the speaker and stethoscope, I tested different sound qualities and volumes, noting that loud sounds in high frequencies were the most audible via stethoscope. I also noticed that bass produced a pretty intense feeling for me physically. Initial tests were also about stamina and ensuring that the speaker wouldn’t overheat, as not having any medical training, I was completely out of my element in terms of the effects this would have on my body. I certainly don’t want to fry a hole through my flesh by doing this project!
Can you name some of the songs you chose to play and why?
Before the show, I had no idea what kind of sounds Nikki and Jackie would play — their playlists were theirs alone. I know how their different approaches affected me physically, and how the outside-my-body audience reacted.
Nikki played music and soundscapes that I actually felt with lots of bass, low frequencies, and volume shifts, including some of her own creations like “Granular Camera.” The result for me was feeling those sounds as a throbbing sensation. For the outside audience, it was at times difficult for them to hear through the stethoscope, and for me to “find” the sound with the stethoscope.
Jackie played higher-frequency tunes, the most successful being Die Antwoord’s “I Fink U Freeky” which stethoscope listeners could actually hear the lyrics of, which was pretty cool. Jackie ended her set with Montreal singer-songwriter Jordi Rosen’s “The Angels Have Called,” which we could also hear the lyrics to, and ended the evening beautifully.
Your project reminds me a bit of Casey Jenkins’ “Casting Off My Womb” project, in which she knitted using a skein of wool located in her vagina. The performance attracted some harsh (read: incredulously misogynist) comments. Have you experienced any negative feedback in response to your Uterine Concert Hall? Or has it been mostly positive?
So far, so good! IRL attendees were very positive about the first show at Uterine Concert Hall and amazed that they could hear anything at all through the stethoscope and my body. I set up a Twitter account and launched the website before this first show, and when the misogynist comments come (and sadly, they will come), I imagine that they will come online. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I were wrong?
There’s been a long line of women performance artists who’ve challenged the ways men/society/patriarchal forces have sought to control the female body. What has been your experience ― as an artist and a woman ― with this kind of behavior?
Misogyny, homophobia, and patriarchal structures of power are the starting point for much of my performance and video work. I usually encounter something that pisses me off, twist it around with a touch of humor, and perform it for an audience. Examples of this are projects like “Cougar For a Year,” in which I dressed in animal print 24/7 for an entire year to challenge the stereotype of the cougar, a sexually aggressive woman who is over 40.
“Teabagging and Other Beauty Secrets” is a critique of extreme beauty treatments that takes the form of a Dateline NBC lifestyle news piece, and misinforms as much as it informs by sanitizing and desexualizing a sexual practice usually performed by gay men, male strippers, and, homophobically enough, as part of hazing or humiliation rituals among straight men. “Pleasure Zone” is a video that mixes the language, codes and conduct of professional sports with pornography in the form of a made-up game, with the players wearing fake female body parts.
What do you hope Uterine Concert Hall audience members walk away thinking?
I hope that visitors to Uterine Concert Hall are talking with each other in the line while they wait. I hope that the anticipation of listening to sounds through my body generates wonder that will not evaporate once they put on that stethoscope and don’t experience Dolby surround sound. I hope that whether they heard sound clearly, as echoes, or so faint that they questioned whether they heard anything at all, that they will leave thinking and talking about what we expect from bodies that are marked as female. What is it that we want the female body to do, and why do we think that we have the right to ask that question of anyone in the first place?
Finally, what’s next for Uterine Concert Hall?
More DJ shows, gallery events, album listening parties and karaoke. I want to do more one-on-one performances too, and take song requests where the outside audience is smaller so that people can listen to an entire song of their choice. I am looking to get my hands on an ultrasound machine for live video projection, so if you have one, please get in touch.
Editor’s Note: After readers noted the difference between the vaginal canal and the uterus, McLeod wrote a statement for Exclaim, clarifying exactly where the Uterine Concert Hall is taking place. She noted that the speaker cable “DOES NOT go into my uterus, DOES NOT pass through my cervix, but stays in my vaginal canal as stage FOR the uterus as hall. To be honest, I can’t imagine navigating to the uterus through the cervix without the assistance of at least a mirror if not a healthcare professional.”