Labor and Delivery: Carmen Winant Interviewed by Jen Schwarting

Repurposing photographs of childbirth.

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Carmen Winant, My Birth, 2018. Found images and blue tape. Installation view from Being: New Photography 2018 at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Kurt Heumille.

My birth was a non-event. “You just fell out,” my mother always maintained. My labor, on the other hand, was a cataclysm. Sixteen hours in, eight centimeters dilated, the pain of delivering my daughter was so overwhelming that I dissolved, between contractions, into fits of laughter. At nine centimeters I felt an invisible hand thrusting my body back and forth repeatedly, reducing it to a soft effigy. By ten I was possessed completely. 

I spent months preparing for the day of my daughter’s delivery. I attended weekly birthing classes. I read every pregnancy book. I had a midwife and a doula. And yet, not a single set of instructional diagrams or photographic images came close to approximating the psychological space of birth—a territory so subliminal that I understood in the end why attempts at articulation were futile. I didn’t expect anyone would have been able to describe my particular Beetlejuice-like scenario—wide-eyed and flailing in disbelief. But I wish that birthing class had addressed the mental spirals and metaphysical shifts more than the breathing techniques.

What do we see when we see an image of a woman giving birth? Birthing positions, partner support, expressions of awe and pain. Yet so much of the story lies outside the frame. Standing in front of Carmen Winant’s My Birth (2018) in the Being: New Photography 2018 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, I recognized for the first time an artwork, and an artist, determined to complete the picture. For My Birth, Winant collected more than two thousand documentary images of women in the process of labor. Displayed floor-to-ceiling, Winant installed the prints to mesmerizing effect; on the day I visited, the space in front of it was filled with captivated viewers. They stood pointing, gasping, groaning; everyone seemed to be talking. I was stunned by Winant’s epic output, but equally the loquacious crowd—I couldn’t remember a time when a show of found photography ignited such engaged discourse and fervor. 

—Jen Schwarting

Jen Schwarting When I visited the New Photography exhibition at MoMA, I approached the corridor where My Birth is installed, heeding this great hum of activity. I turned to find dozens of viewers poring over the explicit images of childbirth, turning to one another in bewilderment and fascination. Did you anticipate the social capacity of this piece? 

Carmen Winant Truthfully, I didn’t know what to anticipate; I was more focused on the sheer task of it all. I don’t live in New York anymore, but on the one occasion that I passed through the show, I witnessed people of every stripe, clustered around and looking close. I also watched those who put their heads down to pass through. I tried to eavesdrop on conversations in languages that I could not understand.  All these viewers have come to make the work, troubling it in a way that feels both tender and tense.

JS I had the same experience, and I’m glad you mentioned the tension. I noticed museum guards standing at each end of My Birth, but nowhere else in the exhibition. It made me conscious of the formal aspects of your installation; the photographs are unframed, casually taped to the wall, exposed in the crowded space. In addition to the fragility of the piece, does the political nature make it vulnerable?

CW It just wouldn’t work any other way, behind glass or glued down. The work needs to project a feeling of immediacy, precariousness, and vulnerability. In my years of working this way, I have not had one incident—no one has ever moved to harm the work.

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Studio material. Photo: Carmen Winant.

JS What were your conceptual parameters for collecting images? Did you include every image of birth that you found? 

CW I started seeking out images for this installation about eight months before installing it. Initially, my plan was to exclusively collect images of women in the third, “transitional” stage of labor: the moment in which one body separates into two. But I struggled to find as many images as I needed, so I widened my criteria to include images of labor and childbirth at large. The project ended up being more nuanced as a result, shifting its focus to the continuum rather than the event.

JS I was curious about your criteria and the specific aspects of labor that were shown. Because they appear so personal, I had to remind myself that the images were originally shot and edited for publication in birth manuals. Nearly all show a vaginal birth, although in reality, one-third of U.S. births end in C-section. In addition, I read that you found very few depictions of women of color in your research. Is part of your project about where the representation of birth falls short?

CW It was difficult to find images of non-white women and non-hetero couples. I worked diligently to seek them out, and often came up short. In the end, I decided I needed to make this invisibility as visible as I could, discussing it in the wall text that appears at MoMA, and every time I speak about the work. 

The C-section images are not as abundant as pictures of vaginal birth, but certainly more so than those aforementioned. Here I was split. On one hand, it was critical for me to represent, as well as I could, the range of birth experiences that women have. On the other, the egregiously high C-section rate in this country points to the problem in question: that women have been cut off from information about, and power around, their bodies. This is the kind of visual information this installation works to promulgate.

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Page from Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth (2003). Photo: Carmen Winant.

JS The exhibition is officially titled Being: New Photography 2018, and the first line of the wall text reads, “How can photography capture what it means to be human?” Your piece is the physical center of the show, and it made me wonder about your practice in relationship to the other artists. Do you see yourself as working in a particular vein?

CW The work in the exhibition shape-shifts between photography, installation, and collage. I began my creative life as a photography student, and was vested in the medium and history for many years. At some point during that time, I stopped making my own pictures—I was frustrated with what they couldn’t do—but I never let go of seeing the world through pictures.  Now I consider myself a photographer who doesn’t make my own photographs, but rather re-authors them. Invariably, I feel an affinity for image-makers. 

JS I happened to see My Birth minutes after I came downstairs from the Adrian Piper retrospective. Your work seems informed by the legacy of feminist artists who use found images and documentary footage in a research-based practice. Can you speak to this influence?

CW I want artwork—at least the work I make, and the work I love—to feel as if it has exhausted every end. I want to see the labor on the surface of the work, as the work. I want the artist to present as a self-made expert, and I want to sense that process of self-making in the thing they do. Piper is a hero for this reason, and others. For her, research and political agitation are a unified effort.

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Carmen Winant, Looking Forward To Being Attacked, 2018. Foam, concrete patch, found images. Installation view from In Practice: Another Echo, SculptureCenter, New York, 2018. Photo: Luke O’Halloran.

JS Piper’s practice is incredibly rigorous, but also full of wit, and biting, and reinforced, like a lot of feminist art, by an underlying comedic thread. You recently had another large piece up at SculptureCenter with the irreverent title, Looking Forward To Being Attacked (2018), featuring textbook images of self-defense. I laughed when I read the title. How does humor factor into your work?

CW It’s something that I am always thinking about, and often failing at. The subject matter of my work is “serious” in the sense that it is about the ways in which women circulate through the world, living in their bodies and performing their gender. And yet, there is something so funny about the number of home birth images I found of women pushing their babies out with their dogs looking on, or the titles of the self-defense books—from which Looking Forward To Being Attacked comes. Where I can, these contradictions are to be made evident, not disguised.JS Finally, I wanted to ask about your teaching. I think it is so important for students to have politically engaged, feminist professors. What subjects do you teach? 

CW I’ve taught full-time for almost six years. It is, in some ways, the real work. I teach a range of courses, many of them writing and critical studies classes. I am in the classroom (as we all are) who I am in life: a feminist. I am not aiming to conform, but rather to promote a thinking, curious mind that is ever more sensitive to the world in which it lives and moves.

Carmen Winant’s My Birth is on view at the Museum of Modern Art as part of its Being: New Photography 2018 exhibition until August 19.

Jen Schwarting is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and professor. She teaches drawing and painting at Pace University.

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