Speculations on Birth Control was a project developed between 2015 and 2016. In order to better understand this project, we encourage you to read more about our perspectives on radical pedagogies and yarn sessions first.
A Yarn Session is a pedagogical endeavour we developed in the course of our PhD researches as a way to fostering a decentralised dialogue within and around designed objects and systems. To develop this format we looked primarily at Paulo Freire’s proposal for a Pedagogy of the Oppressed and its iteration in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. For this specific work, we were also inspired by the writings of feminist scholar Paul B. Preciado.
In these sessions, we used theatrical improvisation and performance to probe the limitations of speculative design as a pedagogical tool. The idea was to collectively untangle the complex terrain of birth control devices and artefacts, discussing the role of design in the establishment of discriminatory regimes of birth control, and speculating on how might these regimes change in a near future – and for whom.
The first session, Histories of Birth Control, took place at the Re:publica 2015 conference held in Berlin, Germany. In this session, we focused mostly on oral storytelling; we, as facilitators, started by narrating the stories a series of contraceptives past, present, and future, and encouraged participants to tell create their own narratives by, first, asking questions about what they knew, what they experienced, and what expected to see in the future. Unlike other sessions, this did not include any props other than a timeline of contraceptives and abortifacients (both real and fictional) that we had designed, and which we hoped to discuss with participants. We had expected that they would create their own speculations on future contraceptives, and add their ideas to the timeline; however, they were more interested in knowing more about the contraceptives of the past and present. The contraceptive pill was the subject of a long conversation; one of the participants was a pharmacist, and she shared her extensive knowledge with all of us. In the end, this session highlighted how little knowledge those not trained in the biomedical sciences have on the impact of the birth control pill; those present, mostly cis women, were unaware of a number of side effects caused by the contraceptive pill, and the session ended up becoming an impromptu sex ed class.
The second session, Unboxing Contraception, was part of the program of the queer feminist art festival “I’d Rather be a Goddess than a Cyborg”, hosted and promoted by independent feminist collective Coven. The session was conceived so that participants would be encouraged to act and perform as if they were 30 years in the future, participating in a discussion about past contraceptive practices. This temporal displacement was suggested through hints in the initial introduction of the activity, in which we described three speculative contraceptives – a tea made from a plant called silphium, a remote-controlled implant, and a drug capsule – as historical artefacts. Each object was passed around to participants while we described their origins, why they were developed, their uses, their stories. These descriptions were intentionally left with ‘plot holes; that could possibly be exploited by the participants later on. Participants in this session were rather enthusiastic to come up with their own stories; Some of the scenarios they imagined revolved around the development of so-called ‘male’ birth control methods; sterilisation festivals that happened in some parts of the world in the early 21st century and gained popularity later on, around the 2030s; and population control policies implemented by Latin American governments in the early 2020s under the guise of anti-HIV campaigns. Some participants also speculated that the distribution of the remote-controlled microchip implant was frequently used in ethnic conflict areas as means to contain population growth of a given ethnicity. It was deployed to act as a sort of slow genocide, meant to wipe out a population from existence by preventing birth, rather than actively promoting death. The chip became an extremely efficient tool for ethnic cleansing: it was easy to implant – only the prick of a needle was necessary – and easy to control. Some observed that the implant could be disguised as a vaccine, and thus very easily inserted into unknowing subjects. It was mentioned that the databases where the data for the implants was stored, as well as their very system, became a prime target for hackers wanting to blackmail implant users: unless they got paid, they would either deactivate the implant, or release a very harmful and potentially fatal dose of hormones into their victim’s bloodstream. When asked about who would, besides con artists, have an interest in hacking these implants, participants suggested that governmental institutions, guerrilla groups, or anti-natality activist groups could all have an interest in manipulating these contraceptives. Users involved in abusive relationships also became even easier targets for their abusers; there were cases where people had managed to leave an abusive relationship, only to learn that their former partner had control over their fertile cycle.
The third session, Controlling Birth, took place at Goldsmiths University of London. The props used in this session were the same used in the previous one – a small implant, a vial of herbal tea, and two drug capsules, and the timeline. Participants were told the stories of these objects, much like in the previous session; after that, they were asked to imagine a future contraceptive, avoid unidimensional descriptions. We encouraged them to describe the contraceptive in terms of its many different facets: its aesthetics, the kinds of technologies it uses, its social impact, its packaging, or its regulatory policies. We provided a set of question cards, meant to encourage participants to think about these ‘long tails’ of their speculative scenarios.
After a brief discussion, we decided on one scenario which we would explore further, collectively. We then asked participants to divide themselves into three groups, which would perform as one of three characters: the designer /developer (A); the warden/gatekeeper (B); the subject/patient (C). We had previously prepared one card for each of these characters, where we listed a series of interests that may have directed the character’s actions, ranging from “financial gain” and “religious beliefs”, to “psychological trauma” or “cultural values”. Participants chose which categories they thought were appropriate for their characters, and discussed their specificities; after that, we engaged in a performance of the scenario we had chosen. Some of the issues that emerged were the social and public pressure for having or not having children, and how technology might enable (and intensify) these pressures; and what would the idea of ‘gig economy’ and the start-up culture mean for the future of contraception; and the impact of the free market on the options available to those living in the UK.
The GIF Theatre session was held at the Academy of Art and Design, University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northeastern Switzerland, in the city of Basel. This session experimented with theatrical improvisation techniques, exploring movement and performance as expressions of designerly practices. Unlike previous ones, this focused mostly on abortion; participants were encouraged to discuss and explore its social, cultural, and legal spheres, and to articulate their questions and narratives through the performance of tableaux, documented in 1-second videos. In this case the performance of movements was more important than acting proper – a structure similar to Image Theatre, one of the theatrical techniques devised by Augusto Boal in Theatre of the Oppressed. In Image Theatre, participants explore the possibilities of a given situation by devising and posing in still images; it is a useful technique for groups who have little to no experience with theatre, as it does not require any acting skills. In GIF Theatre we decided to create our own version of Image Theatre, focused not on the still image, but on fleeting movement and its potential significance – hence the session’s name. We introduced participants to the four characters that they would be able to play in GIF Theatre: the Lawmaker, the Activist, the Doctor, and the Patient. We had prepared a number of prompt cards and law cards that would create the initial situation for each scene, and describe the limitations of the actions of each character. These cards were inspired on a number of both sanctioned and unsanctioned laws that govern practices of contraception and abortion in Brazil.
We staged three scenes in total, each one preceded by intense debates in which we explored various stories and endings. The most prominent feature of this session was, perhaps, the sense of displacement triggered in the participants by the mechanics of the performance, and the laws that governed it. The Lawmaker refused to act in any way that would restrict or otherwise harm the bodily agency of the other participants; furthermore, even though the participants devised stories where conflict was present, it was typically resolved by the end of the scene. The Doctor was a character that had been specifically devised to be ambiguous: their interests and loyalties could lie with any one of the other actors, or with external ones. The Doctors played by the participants, however, were remarkably open to discussing abortion with their Patients and to offering suitable treatment – even if this meant breaking the law. Granted, there was some hesitancy to act, due to the legal constraints to which the characters were subjected; a significant part of the discussions that preceded and followed each scene consisted of attempts to find holes in the rules that could potentially be exploited in order to offer the Patient what appropriate healthcare.
The last session, Technoecologies of Birth Control, was held at Claus Collaboratorium (CLB), an art gallery and cultural hub in Berlin. This session started with dividing the participants into three groups of two. We had previously set up three objects on a table: a stick of cinnamon, a nondescript glass jar containing a small amount of white powder, and a package of Vitamin C supplements. Each artefact was coupled with a very short description, which mentioned that the object was used as an abortifacient. Few details were given, other than that; the idea was to give participants space to fabulate the scenarios around these objects. The groups were then encouraged to choose one object to with with; we then situated these things in the world, unravelling possible connections that they might have to places, spaces, cultures and historical moments. After we had done this, we introduced an element of surprise to the scenarios that the participants had begun to outline – what we have called a ‘plot twist’. In order to do so, each group rolled dice; the numbers that came out of this corresponded to a series of conditions we had previously prepared (these ‘plot twists’ were loosely inspired by the mechanics of the role-playing game Fiasco). This technique was designed to encourage participants to get out of their own comfort zones, and to explore aspects of their scenarios that they might not have looked into otherwise.
In response to this, the cinnamon group immediately situated the spice as an actor in the context of the colonial spice trade, imagining the story of an Indian ashram that offered ‘natural’ abortions using cinnamon; their story followed the use of cinnamon as an abortifacient from its place of origin, to the factories of Britain during the Industrial Revolution; to the present, in a scenario where yoga ashrams would offer cinnamon abortions as exclusive, secret treatments. The group working with the white powder imagined two contexts for the object: one where abortion would not be stygmatized nor marginalized, accepted as a regular necessity of reproductive healthcare; and a context – more similar to those we know – where abortion would be shrouded in secrecy and guilt. They expressed these two, very different scenarios in auditory terms: the first scenario was described with the icon for sound, and the second with the icon for mute. Throughout this session, we discussed how certain bodies become hyper-visible as an artefact of the social perception of fertility, and how others become invisible because of their rejection of prescribed sexual behaviors.