How Casey Jenkins defies taboos of femininity through balls of yarn, tomatoes, flowers and girls-only fight clubs
You may know Casey Jenkins under a different alias. If you’ve been keeping an eye on the internet lately, you’ve probably seen talk of the ‘vaginal knitting woman’. With everyone from The Huffington Post (showcasing the predictably shocked reactions of the Twitter masses) to The Mirror (holy shit, guys, it’s a VAGINA) reporting on the story, Casey Jenkins is making a high-profile name for herself as a feminist performance artist – or she would be, if people could get past the ‘vagina; knitting’ title.
We spoke to Casey about her performance piece, Casting Off My Womb, to delve into the thought process behind her art and to learn more about the artist behind the vagina.
Firstly, can we get a bit of background about you and your work? Your knitting project is pretty high profile these days, but where did you start out in the art world?
I’m sure many people will nod their heads in a sage and knowing way when I say that I have never been to art school. Actually that’s not true, I dabbled in it for a few months then dropped out. I have what I like to think of as a healthy phobia of institutions. A pretty intense but healthy phobia. So I sort of sidled into the art world, if I’m in it at all. Activism and other projects I’ve done have had a creative edge that have caught the attention of galleries and curators here and there who have invited me to exhibit but I display work in many different contexts, not just galleries, in parks, on the streets, at music gigs and festivals.
How did you come up with the idea for Casting Off My Womb? Are you a knitter? Your website mentions patriarchal ‘women’s work’ responses to the act of knitting. Was this something you’ve experienced and wanted to tackle, or did the knitting idea come later?
I feel like this piece is a natural progression for me. I’ve done many other projects which consciously subvert low expectations of making techniques associated with women to encourage viewers to look at an issue or a subject from another angle (Knit Your Revolt, Cunt Fling Ups, Crocheted Explosives anti-logging protest, Dye-Pretty Swine Flu Mask Beautification), as well as projects addressing society’s discomfort with, and laden expectations of, genitalia associated with women (again the Cunt Fling-Up street craft, my blog Cunt Is Not A Dirty Word and podcast Cunts in Space!). I’ve also done a lot of actions that are primarily about gender activism but, on a personal level, about overcoming feelings of shame and fear associated with transgressing social mores (street art, La Barbe Australia). This piece really brings those three things together – addressing the habitual undervaluing of ‘women’s work’ and activities and the taboos surrounding genitalia associated with women, while casting off shame and the desire to conform with community expectations that I don’t intellectually agree with.
I was chatting with a friend at a local crafting group about her work knitting human body parts and my work making Cunt Fling-Ups (we don’t much go in for the doily crafts where I’m from) and she laughed that a mate had told her she should store her wool in her vagina. It immediately struck me as a powerful idea and I said she should work it up as a performance, she said that it was something she wouldn’t be able to do in public but gave me her blessing to run with it, and I have.
I have to ask, if you’re cool with answering, because I can’t imagine it – what did it feel like?
It felt, both physically and mentally, calming.
What happens to the finished scarf?
I wouldn’t refer to it as a scarf (though I know a lot of people have as that is no doubt the most common reference point people have for a knitted work) – it’s not made to be worn so scarf doesn’t really describe it well. I call it a passage or a length of knitted wool. I haven’t decided what I’ll do with it. It was primarily about the process of making it for me. I have had a couple of people offer to buy it but it still feels like such a personal thing I can’t imagine anyone else possessing it, really. Incidentally I haven’t actually cast it off – the needle is still sitting in the final row of loops.
And what do you think of the widespread reactions this project sparked off? Did you expect such a fuss to be made? A few articles I read seemed particularly shocked that you’d be carrying on while you were menstruating. As a side note, do you think the added shock about that proves a point about the world and its ‘ew, periods!’ attitude?
The performance wasn’t designed to be filmed, originally. It’s an extremely slow, monotonous work. I imagined that people would visit the gallery at one point and then perhaps come back a week or so later, if it captured their interest, and see how the work had progressed. Even when SBS2 came and documented the work in their 2:51sec clip, I imagined it being shown on television and then put on their website but I didn’t know that they had a YouTube account and that sharing it around would be a possibility, so I didn’t anticipate the scale of the response.
That being said, I know full well what the public’s perceptions of and attitudes towards the vulva and menstruation are and how women who behave [supposedly] shamelessly are viewed so the nature of the reaction hasn’t surprised me, just the scale. Once the work went out into the wider world in this bite-sized format there was also the added taboo of performance art to contend with. Initially I thought that the work would only be seen by people who had some familiarity with performance art, but out in the general public I think that confounds people as much as anything else.
Were there any reactions that particularly surprised you — in a good way or a bad way?
I haven’t been particularly surprised by any of the individual negative responses, most of them have dozens of clones, I haven’t seen anything unique or that I’ve found personally insightful. I have been surprised by the scale of the response. That I’ve found fascinating. And the compulsion that people have to share and publicise something while at once saying they wish it didn’t exist.
I’ve found people’s fascination with the intricate details of the process (both supporters and detractors) amusing and sometimes endearing. It actually reminds me a little of trying to explain to hets what lesbian sex is about – there’re a lot of furrowed brows and “which bits go where?” questions asked in tones of wonder. I wouldn’t have thought the reality would be that difficult to conjure up.
There’s a lot of massively celebrated art out there by famous old men that shows naked women on display. Is there anything you’d like to say to the people who still seem so shocked by women being open about vaginas?
A thing that pleases me about this project is that it couldn’t have been done by a cis-man. Most artworks depicting bodies like mine have not been done by people who have bodies like mine, as a result they’ve largely concerned with ascetics rather than the lived experience of existing in such a body and I rarely have felt entirely connected to them. When the majority of artworks depicting the human form showcase a body type in a way that primarily speaks to the portion of the population who do not have that body type, there’s a problem.
And finally, can you tell us a bit about previous projects you’ve worked on — what else should we check out? Who else should we check out? Do you have any favourite artists working at the moment you’d recommend?
Other artists I dig? Kazuo Ishiguro, the writer – (I re-read The Unconsoled every two years), Marguerite Duras (though, of course, she’s not working ‘at the moment’). I adore Yayoi Kusama’s work, loved Francis Alÿs’ When Faith Moves Mountains and Pussy Riot fill me with glee.
A previous project?
Femme Fight Club is one of my favourite ‘performance’ acts and it’s refreshing after all of this hoo-ha ‘cause it’s completely internet-unfriendly. It’s a no-spectator women only fight group that I set up in 2010. I organise the events and anyone who self-identifies as female can participate. The only rule is that if you attend you must participate – there are no spectators allowed (though we have allowed a female photographer on occasion, but images are vetted before being shared and we’ve drawn the line at filming). We biff each-other with destructible materials such as bread-sticks and balloons. We’ve also used flowers, wine, beer, jelly, water, wet newspapers, tomatoes and fake hair.
The idea is that we are breaking stereotypes about female passivity, not bones. It’s a forum where we can explore attitudes such as aggression and toughness that are frowned upon when expressed by women, in a safe and free environment. Women are so often expected to be on display and I love that in Femme Fight Club we are only on display to ourselves – we are both the audience and the performers and the only witnesses to the act.
Featured image and knitting photos from Casey Jenkins. Inset image of the Femme Fight Club from Craft Cartel