Inhabit of: Incubating Death Beyond the Domestic, Expected Neonatal Death and Moving Image/ Time- Based Media Art
The pregnant body as a form of home, indeed the first home; with the female incubator as host and intrauterine caregiver is a one house fits all approach to constructing meaning via image. In considering my time-based media artwork Can You Hear the Interim (video, mixed media, Archibald, Clare, 2020) in relation to ideas of home, dwelling and inhabitation in the context of expected neonatal death, I aim to broaden the understanding of the body as home. To do so I will consider utilisation of moving image as interdisciplinary practice /life writing, visual representations of pregnancy/birth (homing) beyond the stereotypical horror or sci fi, women’s experiences of ‘home’ beyond the domestic and moving image as a means by which to explore bodily and artistic agency via the lens of ‘home’. As with the making of the media art, this paper is informed by my lived experience of giving birth to a baby that I knew would be born dead or dying due to irresolvable heart issues.
There are no specific words in English for either the woman (or the process of) giving birth to a child that is expected to die. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are few written, and even less visual expressions of this space of inhabitation. The aim of my life writing in the form of my work of experimental nonfiction, The Absolution of Shyness, of which Can You Hear the Interim forms the concluding part, has been to capture the nuance of this experience and to give due consideration to an existential state that goes beyond ideas of domestic, confessional, or cathartic. Any dwelling in the spaces of neonatal death is often contextualised primarily as a grief narrative, or labelled, at worst dismissively, and at best inaccurately, as still birth, miscarriage, abortion, or simply neonatal death. These thresholds of birth and death are also politicised within the binaries of pro-choice or forced-birth advocacy further complicating an experience that is not easy to quantify but nonetheless important to represent.
To expect the death of a baby and manage the spaces of labour through to birth is an experience far beyond the domestic connotations of the womb as home, and the female body as incubator. Neonatal death as a term does not give voice or adequate image to the internal details of this home and how these details are imagined, experienced, and indeed presented by the mother outside of it. Exploring the depth and nuance of these spaces as co-existent sites of trauma and beauty, knowing and unknowing, choice and constraint, has been the motivation for both my life writing and moving image work and subsequent combined theoretical situation as the Writer’s Art.
In thinking through this article I considered the images of cinematic birth that I store in the attic of my memory. The ones that first came to mind were the incubation of evil in Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, 1968), the horror birth scene in Aliens (Cameron, 1986), the narratives of girls and women giving up/having their babies taken from them in I Want to Keep My Baby (Thorpe, 1976) and Ladybird, Ladybird (Loach, 1994)) respectively and the women forced into illegal abortions by legal and societal pressures in Vera Drake (Leigh, 2005). The narratives that we hold via words and image inform our worldview and impact on capacity for empathy and understanding and it is vital then that we provide a home for the many facets of birth, including those which end in death.
In her analysis of the images of pregnancy in Hollywood films in Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down (1 ), Kelly Oliver includes a chapter on Pregnant Horror, exploring the narrative of films such as Rosemary’s Baby, acknowledging that 'pregnant women giving birth are imaged as excessive, out of control and violent' and that this is 'most explicit in the horror genre, where women’s fertility is not only metaphorically threatening and excessive but also a danger that literally comes to life in the demon or alien seed that inhabits or possesses these (usually) unsuspecting, pregnant women' (Oliver, 2012,111). Despite referencing stillbirth, abortion, traumatic pregnancies borne of rape, IVF and reproductive technologies and the generalised idea of the 'other within' (Oliver, 2012, 112) Oliver does not explore, perhaps because she cannot find, examples of the complexities of expected neonatal death. It is an experience seemingly without a cinematic home. To deploy the language of film, it exists perhaps as greyscale, an intersection of intense experience that has a unique, individual mapping of light and shade.
In the way that a home has its own aura or atmosphere, patterns of light or darkness despite shared concrete aspects with other homes, the birthing experience of expected death is one of nuance and seemingly contradictory emotions. These are grey zones of inhabit shrouded with an inbetweenness that is neither full dread nor joy but anticipation and yearning that is a combination of both. Grey areas of existence that can nonetheless be transformed with nuance as colourful intersections of rapid life and death.
If walls could talk and homes can breathe then there should be much to say about these singular experiences of dwelling. Similarly, in Coming to Life, Philosophies of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Mothering (2) the editors state: “We believe that philosophical reflection on pregnancy, childbirth and mothering can illuminate some of the most pervasive structures of human existence, lending new ethical, social, political and metaphysical insights” (Lachance Adams, Lundquist, 2013, 21 ). I would agree but would further suggest that in not also focusing on the phenomenology of the female body that goes through the stages of labour knowing that they will give birth to a baby born dead or dying, an opportunity to broaden and deepen the thinking and knowledge base was missed. The purpose of my practice-based research has been to address this gap.
Failure to directly acknowledge this experience, choosing instead to present imperfect birth outcomes as binarized horror, often enacted as tacit or implicit judgement on the female host is not unique to Hollywood films or filmmakers. In ‘ A Machine For Recreating Life’: An Introduction to Reproduction on Film’ (3) Jesse Olszynko-Gryn recounts the story of Sergei Eisenstein and his visit to a women’s clinic in Zurich in 1929 in order to make an educational film about abortion. Whilst there he held a dying prematurely delivered baby, an experience that profoundly affected him and his ideas about animation, subsequently prompting him to acquire a preserved foetus that he kept in a jar on display at his home.
The preserved foetus as home furnishing whilst perhaps inspiring artistic thought takes no account of the woman’s stature, feelings or agency in this aspect of ‘home’. In the same paper Olszynko-Gryn discusses a range of responses to Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving film of his daughter’s home birth (Brakhage, 1959) including those of female filmmakers Carole Schneeman and Maya Deren. Whilst recognising that it was an important film in encouraging the presence of fathers at birth and presenting some realities of the birthing process, my own response, which is implicit in my making of Can You Hear the Interim, is that to me it is more about the male gaze and reproductive ego than the actual physical and emotional embodied spaces that his then wife is moving through. Even when she holds the camera, it is seen to be directed at him. Brakhage appears to sexualise rather than appreciate the sensual nature of birth and this, for me, demonstrates a lack of serious attention to voicing the bodily agency and experiences of labouring women as more than primitive beings. Olszynko- Gryn recounts how Brakhage (who had to arrange a home birth to facilitate filming) was worried that the baby would be adversely affected by his wife having had German measles when pregnant and “thought this meant a much higher chance of giving birth to a monster!”.
This exemplifies a still apparently current belief that the pregnancy which will end in death or ideas of imperfection cannot be beautiful, and that the stages of labour leading to it cannot be a comingling of both joy and dread at meeting a baby, however long it has to live. The female body as contested site also has some bearing here with legalese leading to medical terms that make it fundamentally difficult to frame a complex, human experience as anything other than a loaded negative such as abortion/end of life termination or as baby loss as simplistic grief narrative. Making Can You Hear the Interim was my way of finding a female centred home to hold a complex, disparate range of emotional and physical feelings and experiences whilst offering a space in which others could dwell and contemplate the rooms of real and imagined labour in which women are both active and passive.
Paradoxically, due to the pandemic I ended up making Can You Hear the Interim at home, alone. In doing so I unintentionally mirrored the pre-labour process of nesting, constructing a small space in which to prepare to create, to film, make sounds and perform. In the UK it is rare that a woman would give birth alone with intentionality due to socio-legal factors. There is always then a sense of spectatorship, even at home as in Window Water Baby Moving(Brakhage,1959). When creating from experience women are often dismissed either by expectation or reaction as simply performing their pain or their domestic interiority. In placing my body within the nest as both actor and observer that could be any woman, I refute this notion. I reject the home of confessionalism for my art and reposition the personal as public.
In this nesting I also echoed the nesting of Gaston Bachelard as discussed in The Poetics of Space (4). Most parents prepare for empty nest syndrome at some point, some in a more necessarily accelerated fashion than others. In his introduction Richard Kearney states that for Bachelard the “poetics of space equally entails a poetics of time” (Bachelard, 2014, xxii ) and this is true of the spaces of expected neonatal death. Going through the spaces of labour knowing that you will give birth to almost immediate death gives shape to a new sense of applicable tenses of concurrency and gives true meaning to the word liminal. In writing of such experiences words can thwart and distort in a way that images are less prone to do. In my making of Can You Hear the Interim I considered Bachelard’s assertion that “ the poetic image places us at the origin of the speaking being” (Bachelard, 2014, 8) and inadvertently opened the doors to many new rooms of practice.
Can You Hear the Interim is a consecutive time-based media installation that exists as a practice based response to the question of whether it is possible to give space and voice to the extreme existential experience of giving birth to a baby that it is known will die shortly afterwards, and crucially if this can be done without recourse to words. Additionally, my aim was to position the work beyond any defining narrative of grief, choice, loss, or catharsis.
I intended it to be a generative, artistic act ensuing from my own lived experience expressing the nuanced spaces of co-existent trauma and beauty from an embodied female perspective. In structuring the three sequentially linked sections of Can You Hear the Interim based on the three stages of birthing labour, I evolved my practice as a hybrid writer to interrogate the ways in which lived experience can be communicated as an embodied space of empathy, contemplation, and affect. In exploring and consequently creating real and imagined spaces between life and death using both digital and material means, I considered through experimentation the ways in which we can give life to other forms of communication by transforming practice and the accepted narrative form. Using moving image was a way of rehoming the spaces inhabited by a woman preparing to give birth to a child expected to die.
About The Author
Clare Archibald is a Scottish writer who uses sound, image and materials in her work. Recently awarded a Postgraduate MSc with Distinction in Filmmaking and Media Arts from the University of Glasgow, she plans to further her research with an interdisciplinary practice based PhD. Additionally she is recording a site responsive album, Birl of Unmap, with Scottish composers Kinbrae in relation to the Fife Earth Project, an abandoned Charles Jencks land art site and former mine. She has a pamphlet of words and images planned for Gorse editions and has work forthcoming in anthologies from Manchester University Press and Leuven University Press. Widely published, Clare has read and exhibited her work at literary and arts festivals, in galleries, car parks and woods. She runs Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness.
Oliver, Kelly, Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down, Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Films (2012,New York, Columbia University Press)
Adams LaChance, Sarah and Lundquist, R Caroline, Coming To Life, Philosophies of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Mothering (2013, New York, Fordham University Press)
Olszynko-Gryn J, Ellis P. 'A machine for recreating life': an introduction to reproduction on film. British Journal for the History of Science. 2017 Sep;50(3):383-409. DOI: 10.1017/s0007087417000632. Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space, (2014, New York, Penguin Books)
Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)
Can You Hear the Interim (Clare Archibald, 2020)
I Want To Keep My Baby (Jeremy Thorpe, 1976)
Ladybird, Ladybird (Ken Loach, 1994)
Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004)
Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage, 1959)