The Queer Birth Project explores childbirth and LGBTQ+ through art
RICH LOPEZ | Staff writer
he Nasher Sculpture Center opened Liss LaFleur’s The Queer Birth Project in May in its Public Gallery. With four pieces — one a soundscape — the exhibition is a visual and interactive experience that is both personal and universal. A parent herself, LaFleur’s exhibition is the beginning of a larger picture.
LaFleur is an associate professor of new media art and a faculty affiliate in women’s and gender studies at the University of North Texas. She is also an interdisciplinary artist who incorporates queer and feminist ideologies into her art. She has exhibited at South By Southwest in Austin, TATE in London and the Czong Institute for Contemporary Art in South Korea.
She’s also a new mother.
Her proposal to the Nasher reflected how the conversation around childbirth and queer parents is fairly new and how representation is crucial to normalizing the idea:
“Representation and inclusion around birth and family building plays a significant role in expanding cultural ideas, ensuring access to healthcare and building community. Yet representations of childbirth in western art and culture have long excluded the lives of lesbian women and non-conforming bodies. From DIY to IVF, scholarly and artistic attention to queer (LGBTQ+) childbirth and same-sex parenting is still relatively new, and there are unique physical, emotional, legal and psychological challenges imposed by mainstream society. The way we talk about birth and parenting can be deeply alienating, and through this work I hope to help educate, inspire, and empower a new generation.”
LaFleur recently discussed the exhibition, which is on display through July 17, as well as her philosophies and approaches to the pieces and how she came to this exploration of the community with Dallas Voice.
Dallas Voice: Let’s just start at the beginning. How did you come to the subject of childbirth in the queer community? Liss LaFleur: I came to the subject as a queer person, living in the south, who was trying to conceive and grow my family — seeking community and support. Safety, bodily autonomy and access to reproductive healthcare are essential, and there are unique physical, emotional, legal and psychological challenges that are imposed by a mainstream heteronormative society.
How did that intersect with your art? As an artist, I also came to this subject through the lens of art history and popular culture. Judy Chicago’s Birth Project is still recognized today as one of the most significant representations of birth in feminist practice. Yet it reproduces universalistic and heteronormative understandings of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. When I started digging into the Birth Project archives, I saw a clear roadmap of re-evaluating, and re-envisioning this work focusing on queer birth specifically.
What was your intention and/or philosophy behind the entire exhibition? This project is a collaboration with the sociologist Katherine Sobering who is also a professor at the University of North Texas and a queer parent as well.
The Queer Birth Project is an interdisciplinary research project that seeks to promote inclusion by sharing the birth experiences of queer (LGBTQ+) people in the United States. The structure of this project is based on a re-envisioning of feminist artist Judy Chicago’s Birth Project (1980-85) and will include a new national survey, a collection of visual artworks for exhibition and a series of publications.
From start to finish, what was the timeline of this exhibition? The work in this exhibition took me about a year to create. As an artist, I am interested in utilizing technology as a radically poetic tool that allows us to reimagine our personal and collective struggles.
Have you finished The Queer Birth Project? The Queer Birth Project is a five-year initiative —starting in 2022 and ending in 2027. Each exhibition will be based around a core theme or proposition from our research. This is the first installation of the Queer Birth Project; it is a proof of concept and an invitation for other people to participate and to share their stories with us for the project.
How would you say this first chapter begins the conversation you want to have? As the first exhibition of The Queer Birth Project, this installation reflects on one of the central themes of our project: queer experiences of the body and identity during and after childbirth. Each piece is informed by responses to questions about bodies and dysphoria in our ongoing digital survey. This exhibition features four interconnected artworks: a suspended fringe mobile, two neon sculptures, and an immersive soundscape.
On a national level, access and support around bodily autonomy and reproductive healthcare remain a growing concern — not just for the queer community but for everyone. Our own governor in Texas is actively working to revoke parental rights of the parents of trans kids. The U.S. is the only wealthy country in the world without a national program for paid parental leave, and BIPOC individuals are still three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes.
The climate in the state of Texas can be openly hostile to queer people, and through this work we hope to expand cultural ideas relating to birth and family building. We also hope to encourage others to participate by taking the digital survey and reaching out to us.
I’d like to go through each physical piece if that’s OK. Do you mind explaining the thought process behind the neon piece “Growing bodies/babies” depicted in Pride colors? “Growing bodies” documents the chronology of my partner’s body through her pregnancy. The outlines, originally recorded using a Sharpie marker on paper in my studio, are illuminated through a series of rainbow-colored neon lines.
My partner, a butch queer person, never planned to carry our children. However, after three years of my own infertility, she decided to try and it worked.
That’s quite an intimate perspective. This piece is personal to me, and while it documents our own transition into parenthood, is also recalls the flexibility and multiple ways that queer families are constantly being formed. I wanted to utilize the windows and suspend each chronologically exactly as I collected them.
There’s some irony in the second neon piece about space. In some ways, the exhibition is quite minimal yet it fills the room. In turn, the space a body takes up while pregnant can be unimaginable to many. Can you talk about that idea of space and putting it in neon? “It is strange to take up so much space” is a handwritten excerpt collected from one survey response to the question, “How do you feel about the size and changing shape of your body during pregnancy?” The full response was “I feel like a science experiment — it is strange to take up so much space.” Their answer prompts us to think about both the physical and physiological changes that occur with pregnancy.
Neon-electrified, gas-filled glass tubes is an extremely physical medium with no feminist history. As a second-generation glass artist, I am also part of a growing movement to use neon to address intersectional feminist issues.
Is that the only intention behind the statement? As queer parents, we move through spaces that are not designed for us; we develop new relationships to family, and we fight for a sense of freedom and inclusion.
I really loved this phrase as a proposition, questioning space, both inside and outside of the body.
To be sure, people interacted with the “Birth fringe (yellow)” piece during the Dallas Arts District Pride Block Party. Was that intentional? If so, how have people reacted to it in that sense that lined up with your philosophy behind it? Yes. Historically, I have installed fringe with video and made it immersive but not interactive. Whenever you make something interactive, you can’t control how people engage with it, but everyone has been respectful so far. I felt that it was important for this work to be more playful, to make the viewer want to approach it, to make all ages want to engage in the work, to be inside of it and spend time with it in a new way.
It is playfully uncomfortable. It’s a complicated thing for a lot of people to think through because of our deep conditioning around ideas of heteronormativity. But seeing others through the fringe also makes you reflect on your proximity and relationship with them/with others. My favorite interaction so far has been seeing two young people laying down on the ground together, gazing up at the highest fringe, listening to the audio.
Fringe in its own way can be queer I guess. We love it in fashion and in drag, but how do you use it here for your message? In my practice, fringe stands in as a queered, non-curtain/non-screen, soft architecture that I utilize as both a philosophy and a time-based practice. Fringe transforms, it takes up physical space, sparks joy, feels intimate and asks people to slow down. It also references the act of “living on the fringes” of society.
For the Nasher exhibition, “Birth Fringe (yellow)” is in the shape of an oversized hanging baby mobile.
This shape invites the viewer to take the perspective of an infant awash in new experiences. For many adults, language around queer birth is also in its infancy. By making the viewer feel childlike, the installation encourages them to learn and adopt new language for talking about birth and family.
Building on Judy Chicago’s Birth Project, the fringe also symbolizes a deconstruction of threads used in her large-scale needleworks.
Have cis male parents discussed the exhibition with you? Yes. We believe that birth can be a shared experience, so even if you did not physically carry a child, we enjoy talking about birth and family building with others. Everyone on this planet was born and has a proximity to birth. Many of the cis male parents we have talked to have become parents through surrogacy or open adoption.
What were your thoughts about the exhibition quite literally on display for everyone even outside the building? When I was planning this exhibition with curators Leigh Arnold (Nasher) and Ree Willaford (Galleri Urbane), we talked extensively about the juxtaposition of interior/ exterior space. I loved the idea of creating dimensional layers that were accessible and that changed perspective, whether standing outside of the museum at midnight or inside of the fringe at 3 in the afternoon.
The main difference between the outside (display) of the work and inside of the gallery is the audio. The digitally mediated audio, “But they can’t steal my joy,” allows the experiences of queer people to take up physical, public and institutional space. Unlike the original Birth Project, which collected intimate narratives of childbirth but did not publicly share the stories, this piece honors individual words, celebrates them in sound and fills the gallery with them. And while viewers can turn away from visual artworks to avoid their messages, the libretto serves as a sound bath, immersing the listener in inclusive language with which to understand queer birth and families.
For more information and to listen to audio by the artist, search “Liss LaFleur” at NasherSculptureCenter.org.