In Posse

Work In Progress: A mission to make ‘female’ sperm from my own stem cells

Throughout history semen has been revered as a magical substance – a totem of literal and symbolic potency. Patriarchal societies have described semen variously as life force, substance of the soul, a drop of the brain, divine, equal to ten drops of blood and that which sows the seeds of virtue in the female soul. In Posse aims to rewrite this cultural narrative; to use art and science to disrupt the hierarchy.

Collaboration with Dr. Susana Chuva de Sousal Lopes and Kapelica Gallery / Kersnikova Institute

At the very moment we enter the world our bodies are defined by gender.

It is the first piece of information we ask about a baby – Is it a boy or a girl? Historically, the upmost importance has been placed on this perceived dichotomy. It is the basis of traditional notions of family, politics, culture and medicine, underpinning the patriarchal and normative societies that have for the most part dominated human history.

Yet in the 21st century, advances in science and technology necessitate a reimagining of our physical boundaries. Our bodies have become liminal spaces – sites for transformation, hybridization and magic. Our parts no longer belong to us. We are co-created and reimagined. Stem cell technology, personalized medicine, transplantation and augmentation ask what is a human body? Can we define it? Should we try? In Technologies of Gender Teresa de Lauretis describes another perspective existing in the “social spaces carved in the interstices of institutions and in the chinks and cracks of the power-knowledge apparati”. Lauretis talks about the need to find a “view from elsewhere” – a different context for dialogue which exists in between paradigms. I believe this can be found at the intersection between art, science and ethics.

Over the past six years I have been working on a series of pieces collectively titled Corpus, which aim to find alternative spaces of discourse for the human body. The first two parts, Ergo Sum and Et In Arcadia Ego, used stem cell research, genetic engineering and oncological technologies to place the body in between states – disrupting the site, mutating the contents, and confronting im/mortality. These pieces used my own cells to decontextualise existing scientific processes in order to reveal their social and emotional meaning. In the third part of Corpus I am collaborating with Prof Susana Chuva de Sousal Lopes in Leiden and Kapelica Gallery / Kersnikova Institute in Ljubljana to place my body at the intersection of gender. The piece is called In Posse and we will be attempting to make semen from my (“female”) cells.

In Posse is being developed in three parts – firstly, we are on a journey to grow spermatozoa (sperm cells) from my body. At the same time, we are developing a female form of seminal plasma (the fluid part of semen). Finally, we are planning a re-enactment the ancient Greek festival of Thesmophoria (a creative contextualization of the project).

In Leiden we are using Human induced Pluripotant Stem Cells (HiPSCs) derived from my blood and skin to grow spermatozoa. These cells have XX chromosomes – the genetic marker of what we describe as physically ‘female’. The first stage is to attempt to erase one of these X’s. We are doing this through accelerated mutation, scanning and selection. The second stage will be to use CRISPR to add specific genes found on the Y chromosome (XY being the genetic marker for ‘male’) that initiate male gamete (sex cell) production. We will then attempt to grow a healthy colony of these gender mutated HiPSCs. The final stages will involve encouraging this colony to differentiate into the sperm producing cells found in adult testicles. Prof. Lopes has received the prestigious 1.5 million euro VICI grant to make this part of the project.

The Seminal plasma is being developed in Ljublijana at the Biotehna lab, which is part of Kapelica Gallery and the Kersnikova Institute. The base of this fluid will be plasma extracted from the blood of multiple women including myself. The plasma collected will then be incorporated with thirteen other organic compounds which make up seminal fluid. These include proteins, fructose, lactic acid and cellulose. Making the seminal fluid will be a collective act – a symbolic rejection of the hierarchy.

The project will be exhibited throughout its journey as a series of cultural artifacts and rituals belonging to a contemporary reimagining and reenactment of the ancient Greek festival of Thesmophoria – a fertility ceremony in honor of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

Little is known about the original festival because men were forbidden from seeing or knowing about the rites; the festival was women-only and thus largely undocumented. I will be using my female semen as a starting point for reimagining Thesmophoria: for populating a history without patriarchy and a future in which the gender/genital power balance is redressed. The festival will take the form of a documented ritual, installation and durational performance in the gallery space. It will build on the scant extant details and rumors about Thesmophoria – the burial of a pig, the use of pine branches, “ritual obscenity”, serpentine and phallic offerings, etc. – and create new collaborative rites and rituals.

In Posse is a Latin term with a literal meaning of ‘before we are born’. It refers to something which is possible, which has potential, but is yet to be called into existence. We are striving for a form of technological, biological and creative activism. In Posse seeks to use science and art to undermine traditional notions of patriarchal power and to examine the meaning of gender now and in the future.