The artist fighting internet trolls with her menstrual blood

After courting controversy with 2013’s ‘Casting off My Womb’ project, Casey Jenkins is back – and now the attention is on her online abusers

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Casey Jenkins
‘Programmed to Reproduce’, 2016Courtesy the artist / Festival of Live Art Melbourne

You probably remember Casey Jenkins’ last project. Sparking a viral firestorm back in 2013, “Casting off My Womb” saw the artist spend 28 days – or one full menstrual cycle – perched on a block, knitting from a ball of yarn that was lodged in her vagina. The result? A room strewn with blood-stained strands of wool, and a toxic amount of online abuse and ridicule. According to Jenkins, what was originally meant to be a “meditative, slow and rhythmic” rumination over societal pressures, quickly got lost in a storm of brash sensationalism – with the artist coming under fire for her “disgusting”, “brainless” and “grotty” mind and body.

Three years later, though, she’s ready to return. Batting off the hurtful comments, Jenkins is fighting back with a defiant, three-step endurance performance. Titled “Programmed to Reproduce”, it features more vagina-spun yarn, some hacked knitting machines, and an interactive ‘mental endurance’ exercise where the artist will come face to face with her harshest abusers. “The prevailing advice around internet abuse is ‘don’t read the comments’,” she reveals in the show’s initial press release. “I agree that this is probably the best coping strategy we’ve got, but I also find it really troubling that in order to survive and be healthy and autonomous in the world we need to blinker ourselves from it.” We caught up with Jenkins to find out more.

You attracted a lot of hurtful comments for your ‘Casting off Your Womb’ project. Why do you think people had such a strong reaction to it?

Casey Jenkins: I think there were a myriad of factors. Context was one: a TV station posted their ‘Vaginal Knitting’ report to YouTube where people expect to get a quick laugh from dogs wearing lederhosen, not engage with artwork that requires critical thought, so they were confused. Body parts and functions associated with women such as menstruation are also still incredibly taboo and focal points for misogyny. But fundamentally, I think there is a massive resistance to someone who is perceived as a woman displaying their body and expressing themselves in ways that don’t fit a very rigid set of patriarchal ideals, in ways that appeal to and are of service to men. I see countless other women and genderqueer people who have stepped or stumbled into the spotlight for various reasons receive almost exactly the same vitriolic comments that were directed at me, particularly if they’re voicing their opinions.

“I’ve had plenty of other comments that most would classify as ‘bad’ – saying I should hang myself or be committed, (that) I am vile, gross and crazy”

How bad did the trolling get? And how did it affect you?

Casey Jenkins: Bad is subjective. For me, the only initially hurtful comments came from certain individuals or sectors – people who posted in feminist forums, for example, or members of my family, or people who tracked down my personal email. One of the producers from SBS2 TV station, who recorded and posted the Vaginal Knitting video that went viral, posted on his Twitter that he ‘couldn’t unsee’ my work. That specific sentiment had been expressed by hundreds of other people, but when he posted it I felt vulnerable and exploited. I felt like they were standing around in the newsroom, editing the clip that would earn their station revenue, laughing at me. I’ve had plenty of other comments that most would classify as ‘bad’ – saying I should hang myself or be committed, (that) I am vile, gross and crazy. To a point, I felt disconnected from such comments – they were so outlandish. But the cumulative effect left me bruised. I feel wary if anyone mentions they’re familiar with my art now – my instinctive assumption is that they will be derisive.

Why do you think it’s so important to confront your trolls?

Casey Jenkins: I feel like the dominant culture is inequitable, dysfunctional and often incredibly callous and cruel. I can’t expect to be applauded by that culture for expressing my views. I can either adapt what I express to be more palatable, shut up, or figure out a way to live through the wrath. I don’t want to be disingenuous, so exploring ways to ride the negativity is what I’m choosing to do. The comments didn’t just affect me, either. They were ostensibly about me, but actually they were a warning to anyone who is perceived as being a woman to toe the line and behave a certain way – or else. I don’t intend to sit back and let people use me to oppress others. 

How is ‘Programmed to Reproduce’ different to ‘Casting off My Womb’?

Casey Jenkins: My performance, Programmed to Reproduce, which will open at the Festival of Live Art in Melbourne this month, has had some twists and turns in its development. The piece has always been about addressing the internet response to ‘Casting off My Womb’, which I saw as quite distinct to the response it received when I performed it in the gallery. The original performance, where I knitted for 28 days from wool inserted daily in my vagina, was meditative, slow and rhythmic, and was received similarly, while the internet response was brash and crude. It seemed appropriate, then, to go from gentle, idiosyncratic hand-knitting to more predictable, standardised machine-knitting to reflect the difference between real-time and cyber responses, and hacking knitting machines to digitally reproduce the comments has always been a central part of this work.

And you’re still including your menstrual blood?

Casey Jenkins: I wanted to incorporate menstrual blood-soaked yarn in each comment, initially as a way of sticking my finger up at commenters. Then I became pregnant and my blood-soaked yarn a rare commodity. My work adjusted as I had to think more carefully about which comments would be blood-worthy. At three months I had a miscarriage, and I suddenly felt great resistance to using any blood that would have nourished my future child on negative trolls. As I have spent hours and weeks and months compiling the comments for this performance, though, I’ve come to regard the commenters almost like a brood of unruly children. They are just school-yard bullies after all, as trapped in their behaviour as the bullied. I now feel that by using yarn soaked in my blood to recreate their comments I’m transforming their cold insults into soft and nourishing objects. You’ve got to feel pretty insecure to have the urge to attack any seemingly defenceless thing you don’t understand and in a way I feel that my menstrual knitted comments are an offering of warmth to them. I highly doubt they’ll see it that way, though! Sometimes kids just don’t know what’s good for them.

Do you worry it will attract more of the same harsh reactions? 

Casey Jenkins: In this performance I will spend several hours over several days recanting some of the thousands of web comments directed at me as a kind of exercise in mental endurance. By facing rather than hiding from the comments, I hope to explore ways of becoming impervious to them because this work is, again, about the extent to which we can maintain a calm sense of self under immense societal pressure. Just compiling the comments has been draining, but I hope to work through the negative emotions and reach a place, not where I obtusely reject any feedback, but where I’m invulnerable to excessively harsh criticism. So if all goes well people can react as harshly as they like and I’ll roll with it.

The internet is opening up an interesting new world – both positive and negative. Do you have any concerns for the future?

Casey Jenkins: It is! The onset of the internet is like a massive climactic change. We all have to adapt. There is the potential that the new world will provide much more equitable access to resources, but we have to be careful that some of our most vulnerable species don’t get trampled in the change and that the same old boring creatures don’t wind up on top of the food chain again. We’ve really got to be brave and watch out for each other.

Casey Jenkins’ latest show, “Programmed to Reproduce”, is showing at Melbourne’s Live Art Festival until March 11

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