October • 18 • 2020
Clarissa M. Chevalier
I Bleed All the Time & I'm Fine:
A Conversation with Karina Rosenstein
Karina Rosenstein, Length of Menstruation, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.
As the 2020 U.S. presidential election day looms closer, an exhibition I visited earlier this year seems to only grow in relevance. Karina Rosenstein started working on pieces for the exhibition I Bleed All the Time & I’m Fine in the spring of 2019. I first viewed the exhibition in March of 2020 on the second floor of The Drawing Room, a townhouse-turned-gallery space in Savannah, Georgia. Karina’s ability to redefine menstruation art by utilizing a faux political campaign and richly pigmented graphs have not left my mind since. Recently, I caught up with Karina to learn more about I Bleed All the Time & I’m Fine and the feminist theory that scaffolds this body of work.
To begin, could you give an overview of I Bleed All the Time & I’m Fine, and speak specifically about your faux political campaign, Menstruation for President?
Yes, sure. I classify the work as being in two separate categories: the social practice part, which I implemented from October to November of 2019 in Savannah, Georgia; and the fine art objects, which fit within a traditional gallery space and are more niche in terms of audience reach. This body of work was also my first foray into making social practice art, or social sculpture. I really just became an artist in 2017, upon recognizing in grad school that I was terribly bored with my background in design.
I was thinking specifically about how to make my work accessible to a larger audience. There’s an artist I like named Paul Shortt, who appropriates signage and related mediums in order to make subversive statements about the world. He has an ongoing project called Reserved for Loitering, which uses lawn signs. I remember seeing that and thinking, oh my God, this is an artist using lawn signs to make art. I could also take a medium like the lawn sign, a ready-made, and use them in my own work. How would I do that…and why would I do that? I was in a coffee shop when I came up with a whole idea for Menstruation for President, which started with the idea of the lawn sign. I began thinking, what is built around a lawn sign? A campaign. This fit with my interest in social practice, because if I were to create a campaign where there was canvassing, I could interact with people who don’t go to gallery shows — people of all backgrounds.
Menstruation for President became a project with the goal of bringing my work to a larger audience; to make it about other people and not just me. That was pretty vital to me. I am only one individual with one specific period experience. I didn’t want my own personal experiences to comprise the bulk of the work…I wanted other people’s voices to be a part of it too. So I put together a proposal and applied to Sulfur Studio’s artist residency program and — thank God — I was accepted. Otherwise, I’m not sure how I would have implemented it.
I can see why the residency would be so crucial for this work specifically. A campaign needs a campaign office, right?
Yeah, having the physical location was really legitimizing and empowering. It also convinces the people you’ve got on board with you that your work exists and that it’s worth their time. One of the most memorable moments for Menstruation for President was the training I did for my canvassers before we went out into the world. We read out loud through parts of the menstruation section of Our Bodies, Ourselves. It was my volunteers and I: one Indian man and three American women (one of our volunteers couldn’t make it). We were all reading about what to expect from menstruation during puberty, how it changes over the years, and how you might experience vaginal dryness directly before and after your period. I wanted us to understand the physiological process. We talked about our reasons for wanting to participate in a faux campaign for menstruation, and last, we did some canvassing role play! It was great.
I love picturing you in a room training your canvassers much in the same way that a political organization might have a rallying point where they emphasize the ideologies that they’re aligned with. But instead of left vs. right, you’re reading from Our Bodies, Ourselves. It’s a wonderful thing to imagine, like a menstruation manifesto.
It is this beautiful book that has been continually evolving and contributed to by many women, public health professionals, and activists. It’s been around since the ’70s and came out of second wave feminism. And yet, it was never a part of my life until I started researching for my work. I have found that again and again. There are these wonderful resources for people with uteruses to develop a sense of understanding around their bodies, but so few people know that they exist.
Karina Rosenstein, Menstruation for President, 2019. Detail shot of campaign lawn sign in Savannah, GA. Image courtesy of the artist.
I know that the canvassing team in Savannah was quite small — understandably so, considering that it was your first time running a faux political campaign and you wanted to keep variables controlled. If you had infinite resources, and the opportunity to run the campaign again, what would you change?
There’s so much to change. I think that there are important critiques to be had of Menstruation for President and how it was executed, which is not necessarily a negative. The goal is to do it again, maybe at a larger scale, but I’m not sure about in-person canvassing at this juncture.
I also pulled my team together from those I knew in my immediate network at the Savannah College of Art and Design. So, I devised Menstruation for President with the understanding that it would be composed of students that likely were not from Georgia and were probably not going to stay in Savannah. As a result, we had very little business trying to create any kind of lasting change. I didn’t want to fall into that trap of the college project that a student runs for a year and then leaves. If the campaign were implemented elsewhere, it would be wonderful to get canvassers who were local — who knew their neighbors, understood their communities, and would know where and how best to talk to people in their localized areas. That would be fantastic. Obviously, a diverse group of canvassers that is more representative of the community they’re talking with would also be important.
Can you speak more about the actual process of knocking on doors and speaking to people about menstruation?
My thoughts were that when we talked to someone, we shouldn’t be like the normal canvasser, who, as soon as someone opens their door, just talks and talks without giving the other person a chance to reject them. You know, that’s kind of the mindset of a political canvasser. And I know because I was one. The year before, I had spent a summer canvassing for Lisa Ring, the Democratic nominee in Georgia running against Buddy Carter for Congress.
Karina Rosenstein, Menstruation for President, 2019. Detail shot of canvasser and actor Sam John. Social: @samjohnact. Image courtesy of the artist.
That was why I understand what canvasing looks like at a local level.
With Menstruation for President, I wanted to ask people very broad questions that would prompt answers of any kind regarding menstruation.
First, we would introduce ourselves and say, “Hi, we’re artists participating in a faux political campaign with a real mission, and it’s called Menstruation for President. Our goal is to make menstruation more visible and reduce the stigma around it so that we can advocate for political goals…” or something along those lines. Then we’d ask something like, “What do you think of menstruation?” or “Do you know what menstruation is?” All really broad questions. I wasn’t expecting elaborate responses. It was more that I wanted to implant in their brains this idea that menstruation is worth talking about and that it could be a political issue. Usually people would laugh when we explained what we’re doing, which was reassuring because it is a funny thing, you know, to launch a presidential campaign for menstruation. But what happened next would depend on the person. Some were totally uninterested, some closed the door in our faces, and some were open to conversation.
The concept of a faux political campaign is endlessly fascinating, but now let’s focus on the fine art objects you made for I Bleed All the Time & I’m Fine. For me, some of the most eye-opening works were the graphs that plotted details about your menstrual cycle. These changed my relationship with my body. After seeing them, I started tracking my own period, which has been an incredibly empowering experience. Was this act of recording your cycles something you knew about before you started working on this exhibition or was it something you discovered along the way?
That’s a good question. I’m really blown away that my work inspired you to start recording your own. I started tracking my period a few years ago using a period tracker app on my phone, and that was the extent of my tracking.
Karina Rosenstein, Menstrual Cycle Length, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.
I heard about the app through my partner, who has many women, non-binary, and AFAB friends. I immediately got it and I found it was so interesting to suddenly know the length of my cycles.
I was learning about my body, and there was power in that.
Taking inspiration from body literacy, which I had read about in Erika Irusta’s book Yo Menstruo: Un Manifiesto, I began tracking every one of my menstrual pad changes for my graph project in March of 2019. The goal was to develop a better understanding of my cycle and use that understanding to participate more fully in discussions with my healthcare providers, for example. It took me a few months before deciding to turn the data into infographics. I wrestled with a bunch of different options for conveying the information.
Then I found W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Visualizations, which use visual language to accessibly convey the socio-economics of African Americans at the turn of the 20th century. And I thought, ok great. Here’s a justification for me turning my menstruation records into graphs. I also love graphs. So, I ended up laser cutting the blocks that I used and falling into this process of relief printing. I just loved the look at the wood grain, the red ink, and materiality of that absorbent cotton paper that seemed to visually convey knowledge about periods — like a pad absorbing menstrual blood.
Hearing the steps behind the work is so enlightening. I think the phrase “menstrual masquerade” is really helpful when considering your work. Could you explain this?
That’s a phrase coined by David Linton, a scholar who has been a part of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research for a long time. I came across it in his essay “The Menstrual Masquerade,” in the book Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity. The menstrual masquerade is the cultural phenomenon in which people who menstruate do everything possible to make it impossible for the outside world to know that we menstruate. We hide our menstrual products on the way to the bathroom; we never talk about it in public; we use hushed tones when we do discuss it. For me, highschool was really the epitome of my menstrual masquerade years. And then, thankfully, I grew into feminism. The choices I make are intentional now; they’re not constrained normatively.
I think in contemporary art history and intersectional feminism, we tend to quickly disregard topics that are associated with less inclusive waves of feminism. My question to you is why, even after all these years, are we still making menstruation art, and why does it still matter?
These are great questions. I think that we’re never going to be done with a topic until the issues surrounding it have been resolved. In the case of menstruation, we’re not going to be done until there’s no more stigma. We’re not going to be done until period poverty stops existing. We’re not going to be done until there is body literacy for everyone that has a period. You know, there’s so much to women’s health — or more broadly, to health for people who have a uterus and a vagina — that is so inaccessible…that no one ever bothered teaching us. I was just listening to an NPR Short Wave podcast the other day on Perimenopause, and in the podcast, the host kept saying things like, “Oh, God, why didn’t anyone teach us this?” That statement is one that I kept exclaiming during all the research I was doing, and it’s one that I hear from people when I talk about my work. So until I stop hearing that phrase, menstruation art is still relevant.
I think you’re absolutely right. Building off of my previous question, how do we navigate the tendency to disregard art and ideas associated with less inclusive waves of feminism?
I’m not sure I can fully answer that here, but I think whether we disregard something depends on the scholar or artist that originated the art or idea in question, and how harmful they were. Critique allows us to continue to value or learn from work that’s problematic by today’s standards, though there may be limits to that. Contemporary intersectional feminists cannot disregard, say, Judy Chicago. While some of her published ideas around feminine power and the vagina can and should be critiqued as being trans-exclusionary or narrowly essentializing womanhood, without her work, would we have gotten to the point we are at now, where menstrual feminism is more inclusive? Plus, her conceptions of womanhood may resonate with some people. I feel deeply that I need to respect (within reason) the people that came before me, even if I disagree with them or if I’m trying to broaden the paths that they’ve forged.
I noticed that many of the works you draw inspiration from, such as Judy Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom (1972), use the artist’s own menstrual blood. In your work, you use red ink rather than blood. I’m curious about the decision behind not using your own menstrual blood. Could you speak to this?
It just didn’t appeal to me — I just didn’t want to use my own blood. As someone who was simultaneously trying to understand & appreciate the history of menstruation art, and as an artist with very specific taste (although it’s broadening), it just wasn’t how I wanted personally to express whatever I have to express about periods.
Karina Rosenstein, Date and Time of Menstrual Pad Changes, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.
I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but I feel like deciding not to use blood was a clever way for you to align with a more contemporary understanding of feminism. It helps to separate your work from the more literal, less inclusive ideas of earlier waves.
I also feel that as menstrual art progresses, it can be less literal. My work tends to be pretty abstract. I also didn’t want to have to figure out how to use menstrual blood as an object and then worry about it being a biohazard and how it would age. I was also very careful about how transparent I was being. I felt like that was a boundary I didn’t want to cross. There is so much about the work that was revealing. I needed to put limits on it because otherwise I couldn’t have stayed sane, or maintained my own comfort levels and sense of emotional safety.
Building off of that, your ability to imbue numbers and graphs with deeply personal information about your cycle is incredibly powerful. It sets up an important moment of realization; while the work might not read as personal immediately, the viewer gets this second when it suddenly clicks that this isn’t just a series of numbers and graphs. Whereas if your work included, say, a literal tampon, it would be instantly readable that this is the artist’s tampon. For instance, when I first viewed Date and Time of Menstrual Pad Changes (2020) it took my brain a minute to register what I was looking at because we don’t often associate embossed numbers with menstruation. Is there a final statement you would like to conclude with?
I wanted I Bleed All the Time & I’m Fine to be a body of work that was not wholly focused on the critical. Rather, I wanted it to be a creative, productive force in the world. Hopefully, others will see it as generative.
Karina Rosenstein, No (In Spanish) II, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist.
Read Karina Rosenstein’s artist statement below:
Because I want this world to be one free from oppression, and because my personal freedom is tied up in that of others, I am determined to shine a light on injustice where I find it. Using my own experiences as an anchor, I hope to engage with social justice issues radically, powerfully, and accessibly, though not in a manner that is exploitative of other people’s suffering.
By making social issues more known, and portraying them in personal, sympathetic ways through art and design, I aim to change viewers’ perceptions of societal norms. In having their perceptions changed, even minutely, I am hoping that viewers, that is, political actors, will make choices in all aspects of their lives that better impact their fellow human beings.
Sometimes I take a necessary break from making overtly political work and focus instead on bringing levity into the world (with a touch of politics).
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Clarissa Chevalier is an incoming art history Ph.D. student at the University of California San Diego. Chevalier received an MA in art history from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2020 and a BA in cinema studies and art history from Columbia College Chicago in 2018. Chevalier’s areas of interest include critical theory, modern, and contemporary art, with particular emphasis on environmental art created in reaction to climate change. Her current research examines the intersections of phenomenology, ecological art, and environmental ethics.