In the art world, not much is taboo. The artistic community may not always err on the liberal or progressive side, but very little is off-limits rhetorical discussion. Because of this liberated sphere of influence, radical social justice commentary is widely popular. Often, so-called "feminist" art is a prime example of work that exploits shock value to raise awareness. Take Kiki Smith and Judy Chicago for example, contemporary artists whose unpalatable and shocking works highlight the contributions of women that had too often and for too long been ignored, overlooked, or ridiculed.
New York-native Kiran Gandhi, known for being M.I.A. and Thievery Corporation's touring drummer, is not unfamiliar with her forebears. This April, Gandhi ran the London Marathon while "free-bleeding." Months later, around the same time Donald Trump made remarks to Megyn Kelly about her "whatever," Gandhi's story of menstruating through a marathon resurfaced as a metonym for radicalized modern feminism. Running 26.2 miles sans-tampon was considered, at most, revolting, and at least, like running a marathon. Gandhi, however, acquired a close following, including anti-Trump enthusiast Rosie O'Donnell who called her "a radical feminist woman empowering people by going 'fuck you.'"
Last week, Gandhi sat down with The Creators Project to discuss the impact of shock culture in art as it pertains to a modern feminist agenda.
"Shock culture is used by artists as a very effective tactic to put into the public ether and the societal ether something of the future. Something that is radical and boundary-pushing. It makes people unpack and question norms..." Gandhi says. "See, when did we decide to think about 'This life is okay and this one's not,' and since when did we decide a period is disgusting but a bloody nose is not? We've just decided these things arbitrarily."
Gandhi's decision to run a marathon free-bleeding was not originally conceived as performance art, or intended to be an attention-grabbing story. Her decision to run without a tampon was a last-ditch effort when she unexpectedly got her period the morning of the marathon, and she knew that running with a tampon in would be uncomfortable.
"I said, 'If I wear all this stuff, it will be to follow a norm of society. It will be because I was supposed to pretend [my period] doesn't exist, and make sure other people are comfortable.' Or, I do what's best for me in this moment. When I was making that decision, that's when I unpacked the oppression of it all: we are constantly prioritizing the comfort of others over the comfort of ourselves. And the most amazing part was, my body just kicked it. I didn't stop running one time."
Gandhi's story however didn't reach mainstream news until the last few weeks, although the marathon was in April. The story gained traction right around the time Donald Trump's comments started a firestorm of commentary around the accepted ways the mainstream treats the female body. Gandhi thus presented the counter-argument to Trump's sexist comments.
"A lot of times when people need to talk about something that's really taboo and uncomfortable, they need to 'other' it from themselves, they don't want to talk about their own period, they need a safe place to comment and engage," Gandhi explains. "So I got to be that excuse for people. Now people can say 'Hey I'm not on the far left like this crazy free-bleeding marathon chick, but I'm not on the far right where I would insult a woman about her period like Donald Trump did.' Now, there's a spectrum, and that's how you open a discussion about a taboo. You bookend the conversation. And that's the epic notion of shock culture."
The free-bleed movement is relatively new. Back in March, the movement gained notoriety following poet Rupi Kaur's Instagram post being taken down because it showed a woman with menstrual blood on her clothes. Menstrual art in general is also gaining in prevalence, with artists such as Jen Lewis, who paints with menstrual blood, Hannah Altman's glitter-bombed beauty standards, and Petra Collins, with her installation of stained underwear. It's a cult following achieving critical mass.
"The thing that's amazing about art is that it lives 40, 60, 80 years ahead of where society is. And because it's fantasy and because it lives in this safe, ethereal space of non-reality, it's so effective in its desire to change how we think—because if you love it, you latch on to it. And if you hate it, luckily you can just say 'Oh I don't like it. It's just fantasy.' It has this safety to it. I think that was the value of the marathon run in it's shockingness," Gandhi concludes.
Kiran Gandhi's work is certainly not stopping here. This fall, her first solo album, Madame Gandhi, will drop. You can keep up with her on her website here.