In Love with the Alien
Stefanie Hessler in conversation with 2022 Fellow Mary Maggic
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In a permanently polluted world, Mary Maggic creates do-it-yourself protocols addressing the intersections of environmental and gender justice. Combining citizen science research, speculative design practice, and influences from bio-art while humorously appropriating commercialized media formats such as the cooking show or the promotional video, Mary Maggic exposes the absurdity and danger of (eco)heteronormativity, and invites us all on joyous, collaborative journeys of dissent.
With their Molecular Queering Agency—a collective ritual choreography and animated video—Mary Maggic explores our bodies as alien, mutable, and affected by industrialization as much as being deeply responsive to the environment. Their critique is twofold: Anthropogenic toxicity in the form of endocrine disruption caused by birth control, pesticides, electronics, and personal care products is affecting human and nonhuman bodies in nonconsensual ways. At the same time, the policing of non-normative bodies causes damage to gender nonconforming bodies and disabled bodies and ignores the fact that we are always already queer in numerous ways.
In the video Housewives Making Drugs, we follow two upbeat transfemme presenters, Maria and Maria, as they guide a fictional television studio audience through the process of synthesizing estrogen in a makeshift kitchen laboratory. We watch the two Marias percolate urine through silica gel and cigarette filters in a repurposed glass bottle, while discussing the patriarchy, institutional access to hormones, and speculating on the role open-source biohacking can play for greater body sovereignty.
With their latest project, Genital( * )Panic, Mary Maggic proposes a queer-feminist population study focusing solely on participants’ gender identity and omitting their gender assigned at birth. By collecting anonymous digital 3D genital scans the project aims to disrupt traditional, patriarchal models of performing data science, suggesting the beginning of a new genital aesthetics.
In Mary Maggic’s universe, purity is replaced by a wider and more democratized understanding of the xenoforces at play in our bodies and the environment, molecular colonization is countered by molecular collaboration, and the future is not about reproduction but about embracing the queer multiverse of possibilities.
In the conversation below, Mary Maggic and I speak about the intersections of gender and the environment, biohacking and other DIY technologies, Javanese mysticism, toxicity, and hydrofeminism. From our polluted world, we ask: where do we go from here?
– Stefanie Hessler
I’ve been very interested in your work, as it sits at the intersection of gender, sexuality, and ecology—different compounds of power that I’ve been working on curatorially. I would like to begin by asking about your background. I know that you studied both biology and art, and I would like to hear more about this choice and how it manifests in your work today?
I studied biology and art as a combined degree at Carnegie Mellon. The class that most impacted me was a course called Post Natural Studio. It was run by Richard Pell, who has a small museum in Pittsburgh called the Center for PostNatural History. The center is dedicated to all the organisms that have been—intentionally or not—manipulated by humans. This class exposed me to the world of bio art. I was naturally drawn to the tactical media work by Critical Art Ensemble, subRosa, and Adam Zaretsky. When I graduated, I decided to interview these people. I wanted to understand their ethos of doing bio art, but in a more DIY and democratizing way, which is why I also spoke to a lot of biohackers, synthetic biologists, feminist theorists, and writers.
That’s how I met Paula Pin, who you have worked with, and the Hackteria network I’m still a member of. I love their decentralized, self-organized, and collaborative ethos. I like the perspective of biohacking and biotech as not being inherently progressive and solutionistic, which is the dominant narrative for the citizen science movement in the US. At the same time, I could see that a lot of the DIY and democratizing science narratives were being appropriated by the biotech startup world. In this way, they are benefiting white men with a science background who just want to get some outside funding.
The monopoly of science still largely lies with powerful institutions and with white Western educated men. The general public is mostly distant from, perhaps even made to fear, terminology like molecules or chemistry. These terms evoke a certain image for most people, especially those of us who are not experts in the field. I’m interested in the villainification occurring at the molecular level because it is not readily visible to the eye. In your work, you take back these skills and demystify science. You seem to say, “Everything is chemistry, and we shouldn’t be scared of it because it is what composes us.” Do-it-yourself culture can also be a mode of resistance against all sorts of interventions that are happening to our bodies anyway. You said in a different context that toxicity is never consensual. I would love to hear more from you about the notions of consent and resistance.
I think knowledge production is a form of resistance. When I first began the project Open Source Estrogen, it was really about demystifying science. I started by asking: How can we visualize something that was previously invisible to us? Once we know about the scandalous levels of estrogen in our water supply, what is the next step? How do we act in this permanently polluted world? But I think there’s another form of resistance that is more about the space of breeding new subjectivities. This is a really interesting process because I want to create a space that’s nondidactic. I shouldn’t be telling you what your new subjectivity should be. That is a form of resistance because we’re always told how our bodies should be. We are told what is normative for us and for the environment. How our species should be reproducing is being fed to us since we’re born. I want to create a space of radical unknowingness. We don’t know what can come out of this permanently polluted world, but from this space we can start to imagine what we want. With my workshops and participatory performances, for instance in the Molecular Queering Agency, a collective choreography that is part science and part witchcraft, I try to get us to this point of neutrality where we’re not wrapped up in panic about molecules mutating us. Of course we should not just accept it either because it’s coming from the industrial capitalist engine, which is a force outside of our control. But the narrative of apocalypse, of catastrophe, of doom, of hopelessness that’s being produced in the media is serving this same industrial capitalist engine. This is something we can fight against. We can come to a neutral point where we’re not scared. From there we can come up with more creative solutions and strategies of resistance.
At the moment I’m exploring body work because a lot of trauma is stored in our bodies, in the same way that microplastics are stored in our bodies. I’m not necessarily asking people to release all this trauma because that’s a lifelong process. But I ask: How do you sit with the uncomfortableness? How do you take in all of these microplastics and other harmful molecules as new information rather than reacting with fear and panic? A lot of that also goes to body and gender politics, the way that bodies are categorized and how these categories can be very oppressive.
I’m curious about the notion of neutrality that you mention as a utopian ideal or goal. I would actually push back a bit against neutrality precisely because trauma and experiences of all sorts are always registered in the body and stay with it. This ideal of a “tabula rasa,” or a cut in history and time for a new beginning, has been used as a colonial trope. The arrival of something else replaces that which was there before, eliminating it from continuing, from having a language, from having a body, and with that from having a future altogether. I think what’s so powerful about acknowledging trauma as an effect of racism, sexism, and so on in our bodies is that we can react to it. We can find language to speak about it, to deal with it, and not forget about it in the way that the advocates of progress with a capital P would like it. In acknowledging history we make other histories possible. So rather than moving away from the registers of experiences and moving towards a space of neutrality, I think we should look at how we can construct other ways of being from within this mess we’re in—ways of being that are not normative, prescriptive, or didactic in any way. I think this is what you do so powerfully in your work. You search for alternatives that offer a wider spectrum, a variety of different options, that are not tethered to ideas of good and bad in a normative sense.
When I did research for the Sex Ecologies project we are currently exhibiting at Kunsthall Trondheim, I read, among other things, about white ibises who due to endocrine disruptors are no longer breeding and may go extinct. The press used a lot of environmentalist language around these birds which was very transphobic and fearful of any gender nonconformity. This is a really complex issue. Of course, these kinds of pollutions are bad for ibises. But more than that, how does environmentalism contribute to and reinforce gender normative ideas of sex being intrinsically linked to reproduction, not so much in terms that are limited to birds, but for our own species? I would love to hear more from you about the idea of what’s good and what’s bad and what should be pursued and what shouldn’t, which is the core of normativity.
That’s such a good point. I think acknowledging histories is really important. Part one of my work is about excavating histories. I see molecules as a black box that has to be opened and deconstructed in the same way that gender is a black box and has to be opened and deconstructed. In my workshops, the first part asks, how did we arrive at the black box to begin with? And then, how can we open it? After we’ve opened it, what do we do? That’s where neutrality comes in. But I think it’s super important to recognize how we got here. For instance, how did gender get codified by molecules? We ourselves brought these molecules into existence in their socio-ideological meaning.
There’s a really great article called “Polluted Politics” by environmental justice scholar Giovanna Di Chiro, where she addresses environmentalists’ use of homophobic and transphobic arguments to convince politicians to increase environmental regulation. Of course we should care about declining populations and the harm that our and other species are going through—the difficulties in shifting with toxicities. But if we are showing our compassion for these species in a way that’s uncompassionate to other bodies, then there’s something seriously wrong there. I see this as part of the fear and panic fed through narratives of apocalypse by the media. It’s a very tense space. To what extent do you just accept that this is your reality? That there are all these toxic molecules around us and there’s a limit to how much we can help the birds, the frogs, and the fish. And to what extent do you push back and say, “No, this is not right, these companies should really stop production of these microplastics.”
We all perform our own forms of activism. Anyone who comes to my workshops or performances is creating micro resistances together. We’re not all environmentalists or activists, but we all try to do our share. I think a lot about the tension between active queering and passive queering. We’re all being passively queered; it is uncontrollable. There’s literally no way to avoid exposure to all of these molecules. And some people are trying to have access to actively queering their bodies with birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy.
There’s something very normative to the Green Movement, especially in Western European and North American environmentalism, and the way it prescribes certain modes of relating with nature while at the same time ignoring colonialism and capitalism and the ways in which those have contributed to creating precarious realities all over the planet. There’s a huge tension between, on the one hand, big companies obviously needing to be held accountable, and, on the other hand, a lot of green responsibility now being outsourced to citizens, for example, with flight shaming. Of course it’s good not to travel by plane. But is that really going to make the necessary difference on its own? I think of your work as reclaiming that space of tensions and entangled contextuality by creating alternative forms of knowledge, sharing that knowledge openly, showing what is possible in the first place, and how everyone can indeed have access to DIY technologies, even when we’re denied access to other “mainstream” forms of technology, including medication.
This brings me to another question, which is about the planetary and including nonhumans in our thinking, be they living or non-living. One of the things I often feel is problematic within environmental discourse is the idea of what literary critic Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurism,” of a future “for the children” as quite literally the next generation of people born mostly through heteronormative reproduction in relatively affluent white Western contexts. How do we create a sense of shared urgency without the doomsday scenarios in the media that you were describing, and without thinking only about a future for the children—human children and children of certain humans?
I really like when Lee Edelman asks: “Do queer bodies have no place in the future?” It’s a very valid question. It asks who these categories are actually serving. I’m thinking a lot about if it’s even possible to have categories without the violent process of othering. When we’re asked to create new subjectivities and to build new worlds, we need to ask if these new worlds include categories that have the potential to cause more othering. I’m doing a project at the moment called Genital( * )Panic. It’s a speculative project trying to perform science in a queer feminist way based on the question: If you were to make a queer feminist population study, what would it look like? We’re going to collect 3D-scanned genitals in an anonymous, crowdsourced database, and we’re only going to ask for the person’s gender identity instead of the gender assigned at birth. I haven’t been able to find any population studies which purposefully do not collect the gender assigned at birth. But population studies define our reality. So why aren’t we asking ourselves these questions? I’m hoping that this database gets large enough so we can perform the next step, which is to create new categories and redefine genital aesthetics for this toxic era we’re living in. Categories have a lot of power. When we’re extracting molecules from urine and actually see them, there is a lot of power in that too. I am interested in how we navigate this power. If that power was suddenly in your hands, what would you do? Not just as an individual, but as a collective, you know?
The collective space is so important to avoiding the linear dominant narratives that we grapple with today. I read your article “All Washed Over by Hormones of Loving Grace” from 2021 where you describe physiologist and neurologist Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard’s work and the way that hormones were sexed, or assigned to binary sexes, in the first place. Why does something that simply exists have to become categorized like that? We are now in a position where we need to find ways to undo these tetherings, as you spoke about with the example of the black box. Once we have looked inside the black box and reshuffled or recoded categories, how do we ensure that the new categories are not static, so that once new codes are created, they can shift?
I would love to hear more about your experience of working with communities in Yogyakarta. I know that fermentation and do-it-yourself practices are important to arts communities in Indonesia, but I haven’t come across communities working specifically with transfeminist biohacking.
I first visited Yogyakarta in 2014 with the Hackteria network. I went with only the intention to film and collect interviews. But it was impossible not to participate. I started to hack with the network and to engage in collective knowledge sharing. It was non-hierarchical “public amateurism,” to use artist Claire Pentecost’s term.
The group was very mindful of Europeans coming to Indonesia to create hack projects. We discussed how not to make it so colonial. In the past there have been many examples where project initiators were like, “Let’s just send a bunch of machines. Oh yeah, they need a 3D printer. They need a laser cutter.” You’re assuming what they need, but Indonesians already have incredible technologies of their own. They do DIY for survival. It’s their livelihood. During the whole three-week long event we focused on topics that were actually important to Indonesians. They wanted to know more about bioremediation of the soil after the volcano has erupted because it obliterates everything. They wanted to know more about how they can conserve the biodiversity of their forests because of all the deforestation happening in the region. They wanted to know more about the river and how they can monitor its health. So we focused on these three topics. It wasn’t us Europeans coming with our ideas. It was a really cool cross-contaminating space.
I went back to Indonesia a couple of times after that to connect with friends. In 2019, I visited on a ten-month long Fulbright residency. My project proposal, River Gynecology, was about investigating the river and the sources of pollution and contamination. The proposal turned more into a cultural project of looking into Javanese mysticism and how it shapes the ways in which people relate to the river. I was collaborating with Lifepatch, an Indonesian citizen initiative in art, science, and technology, who were already investigating the river for many years since 2012. From my interviews with people who live along the river, I got the sense that the river was kind of othered from them. It wasn’t something that was alive or having agency. Many people I talked to said the river is not really a river. It’s a highway for spirits to cross from one spiritual kingdom to another. One spiritual kingdom is the mountain in the north—the Merapi volcano that erupts every ten years—and the other is the South Sea. There’s a story about the Queen of the South Sea, who travels every year to the north to visit the God in the mountain—the volcano. Since she has to cross the river every year, people are always praying to her that she doesn’t cause a flood while traveling, because she has all these powers. During the rainy season water levels rise extremely high and the river can get really dangerous. Communities who live nearby always live with the threat of flooding.
This visit was a bit of a wake-up call for me, because I was coming in thinking I’m going to use all of my biohacking knowledge. I didn’t end up using any of it because I was just trying to learn about these people’s cosmologies and how to work within that framework. If I were to offer any biohacking knowledge, it would have to be through the filter of Javanese mysticism. During my ten months there, I was really only scratching the surface. It was just me observing this very surreal landscape of a completely plasticized river. Due to poor waste management the river is very polluted and the water is running directly into the ocean. People growing up along the river say, “Well, it is normal to us to see all the plastic in the river. We have this lifestyle of throwing trash away into the river. We have this lifestyle of fishing from the river, even though there’s waste everywhere. Why should we change that and why should we feel shameful of that?”
This contextual fluidity is really important. When you come with your own knowledge and enter another space that has its own specific knowledge, you have to be open to deprogram what you previously knew. In the Western world, we hear lots of stories of companies dumping toxic waste in disenfranchised communities and Indigenous lands. In this particular site, of course you can blame the government for not providing enough infrastructure and you can blame hotels and hospitals that are directing their waste into the river. But for the people it’s also totally normal to throw trash into the river.
It goes back to your point about the moralizing attitude of what’s good and bad. Who are we to say, “No, our way is better and you have to follow our way.” It also goes back to my question “How can we make change in a nondidactic way?” Of course, the goal is to not put trash into the river, but how do you get there in a noncolonial and moralizing way?
I know one of your references is gender and environmental studies scholar Astrida Neimanis and her writing on hydrofeminism. She just contributed a text to the book for the Sex Ecologies exhibition titled “Toxic Love.” In the essay she writes about her own relationship with the Windermere Basin in Ontario, Canada. It’s a highly industrialized area that had become a dumping place for sewage. There have been reforestation efforts and people living nearby now use it as a natural reserve. But there are still highways close by, lots of pollution, plastics, toxic waste from factories, and so on. Neimanis writes about condoms and menstrual applicators and all of the stuff thrown into the basin and how, regardless of all of the trash that’s there, she still feels love and longing for this place—a toxic kind of love. She considers her own position as a white settler person living in Canada and her relationship to places that have been designated by settlers and colonial powers as dumping grounds. She asks how one can nonetheless also feel affect and love for these places. Her text raises the question of how we can defy the idea of “pure nature”—not by resigning from trying to make things better, but by acknowledging that we are living in a nonpure place, and always have been.
I’m currently working on an essay about the erotic ocean and our own erotic longing towards the ocean, or how the erotic might offer ways of relating differently to the ocean as well as other forms of “nature.” I’d love to hear more about your own relation to love, desire, and affect.
That’s really interesting. I love the hydrofeminism text. When I was in Indonesia it informed my work so much, specifically how not to approach toxicity with panic, shame, and judgment. The notion of purity is connected to the human fantasy that there is a separation between nature and culture, and that nature is a pure and vast space. It’s because of this purity that nature needs to be preserved, but because of this same purity it can also be extracted and exploited. I think that these very fantastical notions are responsible for the devastation of the planet. Here we are, moralizing and trying to clean up. But what is this purity that we’re trying to return to? Does it even exist? It’s interesting to look at human desires and human fantasies through the dominant fictions that we write. This includes what we hear in the media as much as what we read in science textbooks about normative bodies, environments, and ways of reproducing. I consider all of these as fictions. We can see our desires and fantasies reflected in these fictions. What does it mean for us to hold the power of creating fictions? I think that’s what a lot of my work is pointing to. I ask: What if that power of “fictioning” was in our hands? How do we use this power?
You are really opening up a space for new fictions to emerge, rather than offering solutions, which would traditionally be a design practice. I think art is a place of not prescribing didactic answers, but of looking at what kinds of fictions we can facilitate—not even create, but maybe just produce the space for them to occur.
I feel that fictions are what we urgently need also to counter doomsday scenarios. There’s so much disempowerment in saying “You’re already fucked.” It means that you have no power and you cannot do anything about it unless governments and corporations change things, which obviously they should, but are they going to? There are micro spaces in which we can still create something. We can maybe not solve things at a larger scale immediately, but we can still make attempts. We can create spaces with an attitude of despite of, or, even though. I think this micro resistance in collective practices, practices that create new forms of knowledge as well as access to knowledge, and that break down barriers of access and categorizations—all of these exclusionary mechanisms—are really important tactics.
I wonder if we are able to make space for a variety of fictions to coexist together? Donna Haraway talks about that in the book Staying with the Trouble (2016). If we’re going to promote a more democratized way of creating fictions, then that means we also need to respect all the different fictions that could emerge and how they can co-exist together.
It also requires putting different forms of knowledge, such as the Indonesian cosmologies you mentioned, on equal footing with what we call science in the Western world, which is just another mode of meaning making. I think many people are scared of this openness and complexity. The rise of populist movements is really about an insistence on clarity that tries to eradicate complexity and nuance. From a strategic point of view, in activism for instance, that sometimes needs to happen. But I think at a larger scale, an overall fear of uncertainty is extremely dangerous. I think a lot about how we can create joyful spaces where uncertainty, which always exists, is not perceived as a threat, but as simply that which is—a place from which we can ask, where do we go from here?
Being able to be open to other possibilities and other ways of thinking is really important. I like to stay in this space of radical unknowingness.
Stefanie Hessler is a curator, writer, and editor. Her work focuses on ecologies (particularly ocean ecologies) and technology from intersectional feminist and queer perspectives. She is the director of Kunsthall Trondheim in Norway since 2019, and currently project co-leader (with Katja Aglert) for the research-based transdisciplinary exhibition “Sex Ecologies” in collaboration with The Seed Box environmental humanities collaboratory, and editor of the accompanying compendium on queer ecologies, sexuality, and care in more-than-human worlds (The MIT Press, 2021). Between 2020–22 Hessler is visiting research scholar at the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media at Westminster University in London, UK. She was Chief Curator of the 17th MOMENTA Biennale, titled “Sensing Nature” in Montreal, Canada (2021).
Photo by Brittany Nelson
Mary Maggic works at the intersection of hormones, body and gender politics, and environmental toxicity, using “biohacking” as a xeno-feminist practice of care that carries the potential to demystify invisible systems of molecular biopower. Their practice spans amateur science, public workshopology, participatory performance, documentary, and speculative fiction. In 2017, their project “Open Source Estrogen” was awarded Honorary Mention at Prix Ars Electronica Hybrid Arts, and in 2019 Maggic completed a 10-month Fulbright residency in Yogyakarta, Indonesia exploring the connection between Javanese mysticism and the plastic pollution crisis. Maggic is a current member of the online network Hackteria: Open Source Biological Art, the laboratory theater collective Aliens in Green, the Asian artist collective Mai Ling Vienna, as well as a contributor to the radical syllabus project Pirate Care and to the online Cyberfeminism Index.
Photo by Anna Breit