What does it mean to become a mother in the 21st Century?

Alexandra Busila  |  Ed YoungMi Lamine  |  18 July 2020

©  Helen Benigson, still image from movie “Jude” (2020).  Courtesy of the artist

Helen Benigson’s most recent works “Hangry” (2016), “Pump” (2017), and “Jude” (2020) are the culmination of five years of embodied artistic research in the context of her doctoral project which “reconfigures maternality as inextricably linked to an overwhelming online experience”.

The research can be accessed at fattened.net and it is the first time a website-based thesis has been submitted to the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Luckily for us, she seems to refuse the false binary of putting critical work on one side and creative work on the other. It is an absolute treat to explore the website and learn directly from the artist about auto-ethnography and the other reflexive research methods she used. I can’t wait to find out more about that in our talk on the 22nd of July.

© Helen Benigson still from “Jude” (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Procreate Project

Paola Lucente, director and curator of Procreate Project, will also join us for the event to share the stories of displaced artists who are also mothers and who found hope during the lockdown period with the help of her organisation. Their projects and innovative models have demonstrated to benefit the mental health and artists’ well-being in the long term by making the production of new work possible, with or without the presence of children, offering representation and sustaining their artistic identity and confidence. They also commission compelling work representing mothers’ existence and actuality – themes that are too often undervalued and overlooked in the art world. Helen Benigson was recently awarded the Mother Art Prize run by the Procreate Project.

© Helen Benigson still from the video “Jude” (2020). Courtesy of the artist.

Discovering Helen Benigson’s works and the Procreate Project has been for me a pleasant shock therapy and a reminder that the maternal is more than ever a vital site of critical interrogation. As we are reassured by the free-flowing scrollable prose Helen Benigson wrote: “There is still work to be done, in our skins and in our screens.” But also, I don’t think there has ever been a more appropriate time than now to ask ourselves the question she poses: “How do we live online, while at the same time producing, protesting, articulating, annunciating, creating, (m)othering, working, earning and transforming?” Her written project helps us face the maternal technological labouring body and “how intimate digital data is appropriated and reproduced for other forms of mined value such as advertising, statistics, or research”. I also find the parallel between maternal labour and digital labour quite thought-provoking. When you think about it, both are invisible, both are done freely and for the pleasure of connection and massive value is culled from both. 

© Helen Benigson. video from the graduate show. Courtesy of the artist.

I felt even more unsettled to realise that if (m)otherhood as radical performance offers a unique, under-theorised source of power, then the Internet might just work against that political potential by “flattening out, silencing or excluding (m)others and transforming them in “fun specimens of digital data assemblage”. In the interrupted temporality of caring for an infant, (m)others often find community in the digital plenitude but are also constantly distracted by “searching, scrolling, checking, and saving on multiple screens.” Yet I want to believe that the “pregnant and lactating bodies can still refuse to obey the predisposed systems and structures that dominate online platforms. They can still be messy, unruly, unpredictable, leaky, permeable, liminal and, therefore, risky” to the social and the moral order. That is why art concerning the maternal holds infinite potential to disrupt the social norms governed by capitalist patriarchal culture. 

Discover Helen Benigson’s “Jude” (2020), a work that refuses sentimentality and allows for the articulation of maternal ambivalence. Its ambiguity could help us think about (m)otherhood outside of the failure/achievement binary and without separating it from sexuality. I feel that holds true for most of Benigson’s works. They manage to reunite the maternal body and the erotic body and in that, they give me the same brand-new feeling I had while reading Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts” when she writes about the pregnant body as radiating in public a kind of “smug autoeroticism”.

Benigson, H., 2020. Scroll — FATTENED / FLATTENED TONGUE TIES: Performing Maternality Online And Offline. [online] FATTENED / FLATTENED TONGUE TIES: Performing Maternality Online and Offline. Available at: <https://www.fattened.net/scroll> [Accessed 12 July 2020].
Nelon, M., 2016. The Argonauts. La Vergne: Melville House UK, p.90.

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