Blood Lines: Researching Menstrual Histories during a pandemic

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Bee Hughes, Dys-men-o-rrho-ea, 2019, performance documentation, digital photograph, with thanks to Milos Simpraga.

In 2019, we were delighted to announce that in 2020 the St Andrews Centre for Contemporary Art would be co-hosting its first artist residency, as part of the project Blood Lines: Exploring the History of Menstruation at the University of St Andrews. Supported by a university Gender, Diversity and Inclusion (GDI) Award, the artist Dr Bee Hughes (Liverpool John Moores University) has been working with Dr Camilla Røstvik and Dr Catherine Spencer to explore various aspects of menstrual history in St Andrews at a time when Scotland is leading the world on menstrual policies via its Period Poverty initiative. Although due to Covid-19 the residency has not been able to take place in person, over 2020 and into 2021 Blood Lines has continued virtually, and we have together reflected on the ways in which art practice and visual culture can contribute to wider debates and policy work. Halted by two university strikes and a global pandemic, our project has changed, but it has also never felt more important to keep the focus on wider health activism and the arts, particularly as funding and attention for both slip away in the context of the continuing crisis and the looming recession. In the UK as a whole, Period Poverty has surged during the pandemic. In this post, we reflect on activity so far and ask: what can art tell us about the ‘Scottish period debate’? What can it show us that policymakers and activists cannot?

Menstrual activism in Scotland

In the last two years, Scotland has become a vibrant centre for menstrual activism, policy and debate. In Holyrood, a new law is being written with the aim of enshrining menstrual dignity and product access as a right for all – the first of its kind in the world. Products have been freely available (at least in theory) for over a year in schools, public buildings and universities. Activists contributed to the ‘Let’s call periods, periods’ campaign, a national effort to change the reliance on euphemism to franker and clearer language that includes trans and non-binary menstruators. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit back in March, Scottish menstrual activists and policy makers moved online, while the right to products was entered into law in 2020, there is nothing to suggest that the response to the debate will decrease any time soon [1].

Menstruation in art history

The menstrual cycle has long been a topic of interest for artists working across mediums and continents. In her exploration of the pioneers of this work, art historian Ruth Green-Cole surveys how artists working on menstrual topics in the 1960s and 70s focused on making the taboo of menstrual blood visible. Working with numerous methods, including painting with blood; performance art stretched over a weekend of free bleeding (Catherine Elwes); forensic collection and grid organising of pads on canvas (Judy Clark); photolithography (Judy Chicago); oil painting; and more. Artworks from these decades resist the notion that all menstrual blood and menstrual experiences should be hidden. Green-Cole writes about the emergence of menstrual art prior to and during the Women’s Liberation Movement, citing artists using very different methods, traditions and styles, such as Japanese video artist and performance artist Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting (1965) in which she fixed a paintbrush to her underwear and painted with red paint, and Cuban-American performance artist Ana Mendieta’s ongoing interest and experimentation with blood as a medium. This work suggests that the body is not a monolith, but a personal and political space which changes during the course of a menstrual cycle, reproductive cycle, and a lifecycle. Green-Cole argues that ‘artworks that deal with menstruation in many different ways are important because they work against negative stereotypes and actively re-value gendered blood; showing it in a positive, defiant or ambiguous light’.[2]

These works form an important legacy for artists working today, who have approached menstruation in many different ways. For instance, Lexi Johnson and Rebecca Sasom’s Sloughing project brings menstrual bleeding into the white gallery space, inviting people to menstruate directly onto plywood boards, in order to counter the Trump Administration’s attempt to remove reproductive rights. Also in response to Trump, Sarah Levy’s menstrual blood painting of the Presidential candidate from 2015, Bloody Trump (Whatever), captures politics and bodily themes in a hyper-realistic depiction of both the man and menstruation. Meanwhile, artist Zinteta turns stretch marks and menstrual stains into rainbow-coloured works of art, in a clear continuation of the radical politics of the body acceptance movement and with strong links to queer representation and the rainbow flag. Very slowly, the art world is also beginning to take notice. A Norwegian exhibition from 2020 includes radical menstrual artworks from Scandinavia, and even suggests that Edvard Munch was interested in the creative and symbolic potential of menstrual blood. But in general, it is still artists who organise most of the menstrual exhibitions that have occurred in the last five years, making our artist-in-residency project a rather unusual collaboration between a historic, rather conservative academic institution and a menstrual artist.

Blood Lines at St Andrews

The original aspiration for the Blood Lines project was that Bee would be able to spend time in St Andrews conducting research into the history of menstruation and menstrual activism in the town, and then produce an artwork responding to this legacy. In particular, the hope was to be able to reflect on historic activism by student groups campaigning for access to free products (including the St Andrews Feminist Society, LGBTQ+ Society and various sports groups), and with the St Andrews food bank tasked with rolling out the Period Poverty policy in the town. Bee managed one visit before the pandemic hit. We explored the University’s art and photographic collection of the feminist socialist documentary Franki Raffles, the institution’s natural history materials at the Pettigrew Bell Museum, and met with the Feminist Society and students from the queer and activist communities in town. We had our first meeting with organisers from the food bank, learning about how the Scottish period product policy was being implemented locally, and talked to the Estates team to understand how menstrual product waste presents unique and complex challenges to cleaners. Bee gave a talk to the School of Art History about their work, and collaborated with Museum and Gallery Studies students, who were keen to learn about the ways in which performance art is different and difficult to collect and conserve. Bee also researched University of St Andrews students taking their traditional Wednesday-afternoon walk along the pier in bright red gowns.

Bee Hughes, Blood Lines: Sampler, 2021, hand stitched tampons and hand embroidery, cotton on synthetic gown.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, research and discussion took a more conceptual turn, due to restrictions on travel and in-person meetings. In shifting to online research and the University’s digital collections, we started to think about the institution’s iconic red gown as a symbol which could both stand for menstrual histories, and the way in which they often tend to hide in plain sight. We began to think about the alternative rituals and identifications that the gown might be used for, and as such it provided both a vivid metaphor and a material support for thinking through these questions of visibility and invisibility, together with the construction of alternative histories, and has become the site for Bee’s intervention. Blood Lines has in this respect taken a very different path from the project we initially envisaged, but we hope that the more symbolic ideas that the project has come to address will nonetheless speak to this significant moment of change in the public debate around menstruation.

Bee Hughes, Camilla Røstvik and Catherine Spencer, February 2021

Notes

[1] Even before the pandemic, the Trussell Trust noted the high demand at food banks for menstrual products.

[2] Green-Cole, ‘Bloody Women Artists’, p. 2.

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