If a witch, a doctor, a hacker, an activist, an artist, a dominatrix mistress, a female porn director, and a mother walk into a bar, it's not a joke. Those are the various avatars of Poussy Draama, a multi-hyphenate French performance artist who defies neat categorization.
Poussy Draama's art is just as easily misnomered. In the tradition of the Guerrilla Girls, the artist's practice slips between the boundaries of art and outright activism. Last year, she teamed up with the Argentinian artist Fannie Sosa for what would become a controversial viral video called "Baby! Love Your Body!" With artists dressed in playful vagina costumes that recall an alternate reality Sesame Street, the video work doubles as a confrontation to our Victorian attitudes toward children and sexual exploration and an earnest educational program that questioning kids could watch.
Her latest project hacks sexual health on the go. Right now, Poussy Draama is traveling the French countryside as Dr. Caroline Duchesne, whose mission is to "hear the most outlandish or so-called shameful questions," with inquiries about "male contraception, spontaneous abortion at home… prostatic orgasm, natural birth-giving, marginalized sexual orientations, consent," and everything in between. On quite the unconventional road trip, she's outfitted in a mobile gynecology office fashioned out of an old fire truck. With only a background as a natural healer—a witch—the character of Dr. Duchesne challenges notions of professional authority and disrupts traditional sexual education.
Before she took off in her converted van, I caught up with the artist over Skype.
Broadly: Can we first talk about how you decided on the moniker Poussy Draama? I love it.
Poussy Draama: It started with Facebook, in a way. A few years ago I was doing a lot of work about internet identities, avatars, etc. Around that time, my Facebook was closed for… explicit pictures, so I started a new one with a random name, Poussy Draama. At first it was just an avatar, but it eventually became my artist name. I am Poussy Draama, and I've been Poussy Draama for five years now. Now that Poussy Draama became me, I have to find other avatars.
When did you start performing as Dr. Caroline Duchesne, your alter-gynecologist alter-ego?
Pretty recently—in December. It's another Facebook story. Facebook closed my Poussy Draama account, so in order to get my account back I tried to think of the most cliché French name. I thought of Caroline Duchesne, and Facebook accepted it. Now, I'm stuck with this name because Facebook won't let me change it anymore. How did Caroline Duchesne become a doctor? Well, it all started when I got pregnant that same month.
I was fertilized the night my grandmother died. It was a pretty amazing night of communion with her, with my lover, and with some goddesses. I knew, right away, that I was pregnant and that I didn't want to have an abortion at the hospital. [Through my healing practice] I was working with a plant called artemisia for a few years, and I knew the plant would help to abort spontaneously. I discovered this when I was doing research for alternative contraception a few years ago.
Actually, most of the plants that I researched are not contraceptive but abortive. So you use them as "emergency" contraception. The witches and other healers I know, at least, use/have used it for abortions.
OK, I know you didn't get to the point of your story, but now I'm interested in these plants. Are they widely available, or do you grow them yourself?
In France you can buy it at some officines (pharmacies). They sell it as the entire plant, dried. It's very common. It's called Artemisia vulgaris, or mugwort.
I didn't know that!
It's also used in Chinese medicine, in moxibustion. Anyway. When I found out I was pregnant, I wanted to abort, but I also wanted to enjoy my pregnancy without giving a fuck about culpability or whatever. Being pregnant felt both good and bad. Like, I had nausea all the time, but I also felt super cute when I walked down the street, and I was so creative. Suddenly, everything became clear in my life and projects. In that period of time, Doctor Duchesne became my baby, basically. All the creative, primitive energy I didn't want to use to grow a baby—I could feel it, and it was extremely powerful—gave birth to the doctor. I had my spontaneous abortion the night before I performed the doctor for the first time. It was intense.
Where did you perform?
In Marseille, where I was invited for a collective performance night. Other artists were doing shows, and I didn't want to make a (formal) "show." I decided to take the space upstairs, above the show room, on the periphery. I "advertised" myself as the doctor with a video that played downstairs and people could make appointments and come up.
Can you walk me through what it's like to "see the doctor"?
It's a conversation. When it starts I always ask the "patient" why they came to see me. Besides my own curiosity, it forces them to articulate something. The conversation usually lasts around one hour. It's really a mix between artistic action and women's/LGBTQ health.
A lot of your performances revolve around the ethos of openly talking about sex and sexual health. "Baby! Love your body!" frankly talked about vaginas, sexual exploration, and consent for young kids. Is this project an extension of that?
My whole life is a project. I'm super committed to what I do, and what I do is working for equality and respect. Being an artist before being an activist made my mind free. People encounter my work and often ask: Is it art or activism? I'm in between boxes.
But, to answer your question, I think many problems in the world come from education--how we treat kids and how we are (not) in contact with them. Western, public, "official" education is totally devoted to keeping capitalism and patriarchy alive. That means sexism, racism, classism, etc., is totally internalized by children. When we speak about sexualities, we can't keep kids out of the conversation. Adults, too, still have questions. People are craving sexual knowledge. So the cool thing with the doctor, as opposed to video performance or public art shows, is that it's a face-to-face moment.
And now you're traveling as Doctor Duchesne in your mobile office, which is an old fire truck?
Yes. The official name of the mobile office is the TransUterus Agency, but I call it Wombie. Last week I had my youngest "patient," an 11-year-old girl, when I had my mobile office at the Toulouse Hacker Space Festival in Toulouse, France. It's a four-day festival for all types of hackers, not just the computer ones, and I was actually there for a longer residency, working on my van. It was sort of the launch for the whole project.
This young girl was hanging around for a few days and one night she came and asked me what my set-up was all about. I told her, "Well, we talk about sexualities here." At that point she was afraid of hearing things she didn't want to, but I assured her she'd be able to lead the conversation. She left and then the day after she came back and told me, "I'm ready." It was so cute. She had her first period two months ago and wanted to talk about. So the conversation we had was pretty basic--I explained the menstrual cycles and some tips for period pain. I showed her the position of the womb in the pelvis and stuff like that using these amazing anatomy images that I have. That was it, but it was so cool because she was 11 years old!
With kids you can talk about the body, but they don't have this "sexual life" with other people yet (at least she didn't). They're not yet lost in other's sexual desire and consent, which are actually quite simple things but society keeps them in a blurry darkness, for teens and most adults, so they seem very, very complicated. When you talk to a younger person, focusing on their anatomy/wellness/personal knowledge, it's very empowering and helps make things clear later when they have to deal with their partners' bodies.
Here in the United States, we're still debating about how to talk to kids about sex in schools. A whopping 37 states require that abstinence-only education is included in sex education classes, and only 17 states require that information about contraception is provided to students. Only this year has California enforced a law that bans abstinence only education that the state has had since 2003. Is sex ed as widely contested in France?
Sex ed in France is fucked up, like a lot of things in public school. It's possibly not as extreme as in the US, but it's pretty "standard." It's totally unaware of homosexuality, bisexuality, gender, and porn, for example. I don't think kids expect anything from school about sexualities knowledge, but they really want to talk with adults who are not their parents.
There's a Norwegian television show, Newton, that's funded by the state. I just heard about it. Recently they aired an episode aimed at younger kids, under 13, who are questioning their sexuality. Have you seen it? Do you think this indicative of attitudes toward children and sexuality relaxing?
I saw that. I didn't find it either good or bad, but I think we have to applaud the project. I'm waiting to see other episodes.
It seems like a positive sign that things like that are starting to exist, though. We still don't have anything like that in the US, as far as I know.
Yes, but you know what—they are not starting to exist but re-starting. Twenty years ago in Europe there were way more educational shows talking about the body and/or sexuality. The fear of pedophilia in France is very real. In general, the tone of what was on TV changed after some horrible pedophilia cases were super [covered in the media]. But TV is old. I think if we want to educate, we have to go further than videos or books, and above all we have to talk. Ultimately, the van is a place for knowledge sharing.