In a small gallery in a town in northern Australia, an artist sat, pantsless, knitting with wool inserted into her vagina. For 28 days—to mark one full menstrual cycle—Casey Jenkins knitted as part of her 2013 performance piece, Casting Off My Womb. "I was reflecting on society's expectations of people with bodies like mine and how they impacted or aligned with my own desires and ambitions," Jenkins explained. "I essentially wanted to quiet down the noise of community expectations and decide for myself what I will do with my body."
But the reaction to her vaginal knitting performance was anything but quiet. A local news report that included video of Jenkins slowly pulling wool out of her vagina and knitting with it inevitably found its way to YouTube. Like a carpet labeled HIGHLY FLAMMABLE, soaked in gasoline, and thrown over a small pyramid of kindling, the video became easy fuel to the flames of Internet male rage. Continued media pickup just kept throwing more logs onto the fire, until the video of her "quiet" art project racked up nearly seven million views.
As Jenkins scrolled through the barrage of comments, she began to view the response as even more fascinating than it was overwhelming. "There were thousands and thousands of comments, which were largely negative but also highly repetitive," she said. She assumes most people never even watched the full video of her artwork, let alone saw the performance in person. "They seemed to be reacting to headlines and parroting common social attitudes rather than formulating original thoughts."
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The robotic nature of the comments intrigued Jenkins, who began screencapping and categorizing the tens of thousands of comments about her work. The file folders on her computer teeming with the most responses included labels like "WTF?!," "Gross/Disgusting," "Crazy," "Assorted Physical Criticism," and "Assorted Threats of Violence."
Jenkins spent several months inserting rolls of wool into her vagina while menstruating to dye it, the same way you would a tampon.
Inspired by the repetitive motifs of misogyny, violence, and disgust, Jenkins decided to work with old digital knitting machines—emulating the mechanical nature of the trolls—to knit some of the more common comments onto a scarf-like scroll. She also began using wool soaked in menstrual blood as her threading.
Jenkins spent several months inserting rolls of wool into her vagina while menstruating to dye it, the same way you would a tampon. But she doesn't want this performance to be all about her. "I'm also planning to invite members of the public to submit gendered abuse that has been directed at them to be machine-knitted into art," she said, though she anticipates most women will have similar stories to tell and comments that will likely fit neatly into Jenkins' folders.
"The people perpetuating the bigotry seem just as constrained and restricted as the little gender expectation boxes they hammer on about," she explained.
The harmful impact of online bullying has been widely reported. Research has even shown that trolling can affect otherwise objective readers' responses to a story, which can then give way to redundant trolling and harassment. Other studies have demonstrated how easy it is to predict trolls, illustrating how pervasively imitative and restrictive online harassment can be.While Jenkins understands the commentary on her art as part of a larger issue of gendered violence and the patriarchal policing of women's bodies, it's still difficult for her not to be hurt when scouring through thousands of angry comments. "That in turn intrigues me, because it speaks to the core concept of Casting Off My Womb, which was an exploration of how successfully an autonomous sense of self can stand up to public pressure and expectations."
Jenkins is hopeful that her current and future vaginal knitting projects will help trolls reflect on the unimaginative and rote nature of gendered harassment. "It may make them feel powerful to parrot pervasive popular beliefs, but actually they're just sheltering themselves and giving up any chance of individuality by doing so."
A couple of Jenkins' prototype machine-knitted menstrual wool works are currently on display at the George Paton gallery in Melbourne. Jenkins' main performance, Programmed to Reproduce, will take place in March of next year, during Melbourne's Festival of Live Art (FOLA).
Jenkins hoped her original artwork would help her to reclaim and recognize the autonomy she has over her own body. But what happened next helped to illustrate to her just how subservient we all are to patriarchal constructs–trolls included. When asked about the ideation behind her current art, Jenkins said, "We're all bound and tethered to the patriarchal machine by fear of shame or hunger for social approval and compelled to behave and speak in very limited ways."