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 sites for transformation, hybridization and magic. 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?
Over the past six years artist Charlotte Jarvis has 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. They were documented, expressed and expanded upon through a combination of digital film, audio, installation and live cell cultures derived from Charlotte’s own body. In the third part of Corpus Charlotte is collaborating with Prof Susana Chuva de Sousal Lopes in Leiden and Kersnikova Institute in Ljubljana to place her body at the intersection of gender. The piece is called In Posse and they are attempting to make semen from Charlotte’s (“female”) cells.
In Leiden Charlotte and Susana are using Human induced Pluripotant Stem Cells (HiPSCs) derived from Charlotte’s skin to grow spermatozoa. These cells have XX chromosomes – the ‘female’ genetic marker. The first stage is to attempt to erase one of these X’s through accelerated mutation, scanning and selection. The second stage will be to use CRISPR to add synthetic genes found on the ‘male’ Y chromosome. They will then attempt to grow a healthy colony of these gender mutated HiPSCs and differentiate them into the sperm producing cells found in adult testicles.
The Seminal plasma has been developed in Ljublijana at the Kersnikova Institute. The base of this is plasma is extracted from the blood of multiple womXn (a coven). The plasma collected is then incorporated with the other organic compounds which make up seminal fluid, including proteins, fructose, lactic acid and cellulose. Making the seminal fluid is a collective act – a symbolic rejection of patriarchal hierarchy
The final part of the project is the festival of Thesmophoria. This is where Charlotte and participating women call the female semen into existence. Little is known about the original festival because men were forbidden from participating; and thus it was largely undocumented. Charlotte uses her own female semen as a starting point for reimagining the Thesmophoria with multiple groups of womXn at different sites across the world. The festivals build on the scant extant details and rumours about the Thesmophoria – a feast, the burial of a pig, “ritual obscenity”, serpentine and phallic offerings, etc. – and create new collaborative rites and rituals around the donation of blood and associated laboratory protocols involved in making the project.
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. In Posse is 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.