value the brain & cut the priviledge
MILK & COOKIES
by Lisa Anne Ross
This short essay examines intersections of identity in the works of two performance artists; the awesome human Jess Dobkin, and me, Lisa Anne Ross. And, a brief story about ass bubbles…
Artist. Mother. Feminist. Some big, small words. Defining words. Each word defining a body politic, where the body itself acts as the primary source of inspiration. And so what happens when they intersect? For feminist artists such as Jess Dobkin and myself who engage in the act of mothering (caregiving, parenting) this is ahem, fertile ground where questions around identity, unmet expectations and latent and not so latent patriarchy abound. And it is in that space of questioning, that marvelous traffic choked intersection that some really great stuff can happen. Great hard. Great myopic. But still great.
As a young artist I was hepped up on feminism. I made giant vagina costumes and explored challenging themes with lots of comedy and sparkles. I ran in radically fun circles and was surrounded by folks who considered it their daily practice to tear down hegemonic constructions of gender, identity, and culture. One of the hegemonic hackers I had the good fortune to run around with at the time was the glorious Jess Dobkin.
THE TWO BOOBS. 2003. Studio 303, Montreal, other venues across the US and Canada
The first time I met Jess was when she was performing in a Clown Hall Cabaret I had organized (tucked into a moldy artist loft in Toronto – likely now a high-end condo). I remember her gliding out from behind a curtain I’d made of old bed-sheets, transforming the concrete floor and highly flammable lighting into something seemingly much classier. She was wearing a cute little tux with kitty heels and a top hat. She smiled coyly, and starting pulling wads of bubble gum out of the hat. She chewed and smiled, and chewed and smiled and then, after pulling us in gently with her sparkling eyes, she began to blow… She blew and blew and blew turning around to reveal a wee slit in the tail of her tuxedo. And through that tiny slit, one could see that a bubble had emerged from between the cheeks her adorable little ass. I was forever in love.
So, ass bubbles aside, Jess Dobkin truly delights her audiences while simultaneously challenging them. I count her, as well as her astounding performance practice, as major influences in my own theatrical practice and pedagogy. In Jess’s artistic practice she fully embraces her feminist self, using her body as the primary foundation from which to investigate very difficult and yet still universal themes. The various themes she addresses emanate from her own identities as a woman, mother, lesbian, and artist to name just a few. Part of the magic of her works lies in her ability to explore difficult themes through this very personal lens. Using giddy imagery and her profound sense of humour as the platform from which to investigate demanding subject matter, makes her work accessible yet still extremely challenging.
Jess Dobkin never shies away from tough topics, but always seems to offer her audiences a gentle ‘hand along’ of sorts. It is testament to her talent that most audiences are quite willing to join her in exploring such challenging themes. Consider this, how many people could get members of their audience to take a big sip of breast milk? Jess earned that trust with her audience during multiple performances of her piece Lacatation Station (2006). Or, do you feel that during a performance there is any way you might be convinced to sharpen an HB pencil via an electric sharpener inserted within an artist’s vagina as Jess did in her work, Fee for Service (2006)? Jess births moments of pure joy, which simultaneously bring us pleasure while asking us to deconstruct the virtual hill of societal norms, which encase us. In her lengthy body of work she has embraced the exploration of her identities including those that we share of artist, feminist & mother.
Photo by David Hawe
For me my relationship and exploration of my feminist identity hasn’t always been so clear. After the heady early years of creating in what I like to call ‘Femi-topia’ I must shamefully admit that I became a ‘latent feminist’. I certainly didn’t shy away from the title but I wasn’t fired up. I was in a cocoon of like-minded individuals that lulled me into thinking the world was awesome. I would occasionally go on a rant at a cousin’s wedding and take down an unsuspecting second uncle after too much homemade wine but for the most part I was rolling on fumes.
But then I had a baby. And my creative triad was complete!
As anyone who has engaged in some form of child-rearing knows, having a baby often puts you squarely in the path of a lawnmower of atrocious, archaic societal norms, pressures and stereotypes. They fly at you from all directions; from yourself, from your partner, from your family, from the TV and from that old lady across the street with the mean face and wagging finger.
In a hot flash I went from feeling like an independent, savvy, urban, artist gal with no need for a driver’s license, to an exhausted milkmaid in need of new bra. I had become financially dependent; I felt torn between my paid labour as an artist, and the unpaid labour of mothering. First world problems perhaps, but still… I wanted to ace motherhood, making all kinds of organic shit for my baby by hand, yet at the same time I didn’t want to be subsumed, losing what was truly a hard earned artistic career. So there it happened, under twilight in my baby’s nursery – swamped by expectations – my inner feminist was reignited. Milk & cookies were back on with a tasty side of whiskey.
With my feminism all fired back up, I did what any self-respecting, narcissistic theatre artist would do; I made a solo show about motherhood. I would work out my problems, and face my demons in front of a paying audience! The first person that I called for help in creating that show was of course, Jess Dobkin. She helped me to scratch out the first skeleton of the performance over a few stolen hours in a cold Toronto rehearsal hall while my partner drove my newborn and toddler around to (equally cold) Toronto parks. Jess helped me begin to lay down the groundwork for my comedic tirade, which explored my personal experiences through the artist/mother/feminist triad, and its subsequent avalanche of body politics.
At a recent reading of Mieko Ouchi’s new work Burning Mom, the playwright mentioned that she felt that her work has been so well received because it all springs from such a personal place. The raw intensity of the personal helps to build accessible, emotional and relevant universal performances. I would wager some milk & cookies that the success of Jess Dobkin’s body of work can be attributed to the personal to public path. Her work springs forth from her physical body and is catalyzed by her various identities. She embraces the notion that the body, the personal, the private are a ground zero from which the artist (slash) mother (slash) feminist can wave a powerful, glorious, rainbow coloured flag.
MIRROR BALL. 2008-2009. The Power Plant Power Ball, Toronto, Canada; The Performance Mix Festival, New York City; and other venues
Dobkin repeatedly generates unique performance art, which she uses to takedown culture’s outdated, fake, orange tanned, pants-tucked-into-white-socks-patriarchy. She wrestles each tough topic – with her Ear Piece (2007) to the wall – for audiences using humour and intelligence. Jess shares just what it’s like Being Green (2009) her performances with one elegant fowl swoop of her Mirror Ball(ed) hand (2008 – 2009), impaling dominant culture ever so gently with her unicorn horn (Everything I’ve Got, 2010. seen below).
Photo by David Hawe
Chester Subway Station, Toronto (2015-2016)
A small and mighty collective of artists leased a vacant Gateway Newsstand kiosk at Chester Subway Station for one year to create an alternative newsstand and artists space for site-specific exhibitions, screenings, performances, community arts projects and more. We also sold reading material and snacks for your ride. -Jess Dobkin
The Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta; Toronto, Canada
A continuing performance and photographic project assembling groups of friends and strangers to pose together for studio portraits. (FYI Jess, We at the GAG would LOVE to pose for you!!)
A performance art festival hub created for kids that offers artists talks by participating festival artists, performance-based actions and activities, inspiring conversation, unconventional snacks and a mediatheque of thought-provoking performance art documentation. Children and adults are welcome to attend.
Photo by Sandrine Schaefer
Photos by Henry Chan
Experimentica Festival, Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, UK; HATCH @ Harbourfront Centre, Toronto; The Rhubarb Festival, Toronto; The Edgy Women Festival, Montreal
A raw and intimate examination of creativity and mortality in which Jess offers up the entirety of her collection of artistic ideas. With urgency, vulnerability and humour that marks much of her work, she focuses attention on her own artistic practice and confronts her own temporality.
Developed with the support of Harbourfront Centre’s HATCH residency programme, the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts.
Photo Credit (images from Everything I’ve Got): Elizabeth Delage
Live performance at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Canada; video screening at 7a*11d Festival, Toronto, Canada; and other venues
A novel interpretation of the traditional circus clown car.
The artist invites audiences to taste samples of pasteurized human breast milk donated by six lactating new mothers, inviting a dialogue about this challenging and most intimate of motherhood rites.
Presented by Fado and co-presented by the Ontario College of Art & Design
Performance still image courtesy of Montreal photographer by Valerie Sangin