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NYC artist plans birth as performance art

The bedroom is brightly decorated with ocean blue walls, family pictures and photo-imprinted pillows and blankets of the mother-to-be. An inflatable birthing pool and air mattress for the midwife and doula lie near the bed. A soundtrack of the ocean plays nonstop.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The bedroom is brightly decorated with ocean blue walls, family pictures and photo-imprinted pillows and blankets of the mother-to-be. An inflatable birthing pool and air mattress for the midwife and doula lie near the bed. A soundtrack of the ocean plays nonstop.

Marni Kotak has created a cozy environment for the birth of her first child. But the bedroom is not in her home. It is in a Brooklyn art gallery.

The 36-year-old Kotak is a performance artist who has created a home-birth center at the Microscope Gallery where she plans to deliver her baby as a work of art sometime in the next few weeks.

The gallery has extended the days it is open to all seven days a week so Kotak — as part of the project — can develop a rapport with members of the public who come to see "The Birth of Baby X."

She and her painter-husband, Jason Robert Bell, don't know the baby's gender and have not picked out a name.

About 20 people a day stop by to talk to Kotak or see the free exhibit, which opened Oct. 8. Visitors can leave contact information if they want to return for the birth.

Kotak said her audience "won't be total strangers." She said those who spend time talking to her about motherhood, birth and art and learning about the project will be notified when she goes into labor. If she's home at the time, she will go to the gallery.

"I'm developing an authentic relationship with these people," she said. "For me, it's like building a community of people who are really interested in this."

About 15 people, mostly those on the list plus the birthing team, are expected to witness the birth — the most the room can comfortably hold.

She doesn't plan to talk to her audience. "However, I never know how a performance will progress and sometimes unexpected things happen," she said.

Kotak's husband will document everything. No other cameras or video will be allowed. Should there be an emergency, a hospital is less than half a mile away.

Kotak, whose childhood was spent in Norwood, Mass., said all her performances focus on everyday life experiences. She has been re-enacting events from her life for more than 10 years, including her own birth, losing her virginity in "a sunny blue Plymouth" and her grandfather's funeral.

Jill McDermid, a curator and co-director of the performance art Grace Exhibition Space in Brooklyn, called Kotak's work "daring, challenging and honest." She said people shouldn't be shocked.

"The audience is very limited. Marni views them as people she can trust, who are interested in her work and in her," McDermid said.

In combining the birth of her child with artistic expression, Kotak said she wants to show "this amazing life performance that ... is essentially hidden from public view" and that addresses social taboos regarding the human body.

Besides giving birth before an audience, she expects she will shower behind a clear plastic curtain during her labor and she plans to breastfeed her baby.

"She's in the tradition of using your life as your authentic material and shaping and forming it" — a tradition that goes back to 1959 when filmmaker Stan Brakhage recorded the birth of his first child as a work of art, said feminist artist Carolee Schneemann, whose own works deal with taboo themes of sexuality.

"She's vulnerable, she's exposed," she said of Kotak. "It's the most basic visceral experience that also has the most taboos."

The entire gallery is given over to the installation, and Kotak spends as much time there as she can. She carved out space for a tiny kitchenette and the portable shower with curtain pockets filled with photos from her three baby showers.

And when she's not there, sitting on the bed or rocker, visitors have plenty of things to see in the small studio-sized space: A photo wallpaper border of Kotak pregnant in a bikini on the beach; videos featuring some of her other performance art; a video projection over the bed of Kotak and her husband on a beach; and a video from their Caribbean honeymoon shot through camera-equipped spyglasses.

The intimate space holds a double bed, originally Kotak's grandmother's, then hers and later used to conceive Baby X. A wall display holds her pregnancy test and silver baby spoon and an altar displays the framed image of her ultrasound. Two 10-foot high trophies tower near the bed — one for Kotak for giving birth, the other for Baby X for being born.

Amy-Clare McCarthy, 23, hopes to attend the birth. She missed the artist on a recent visit to the gallery but was impressed by the exhibit. All the components "build up to that final event," she said.

"I think it's really interesting to frame the birth as a performance piece," said McCarthy, of Brisbane, Australia, who is doing a museum internship at MoMA PS. 1 in Queens. "I'm interested in the blurring of art, of what makes art and what's life and how they're converging in the gallery space."

Henry Glucroft, co-owner of Little Skips Café next door to the gallery in Bushwick, said he found the exhibit "interesting, crazy and intriguing."

"I think the art project pushes people to question society's approach of giving birth, what our preconceptions are," said Glucroft. He declined to say whether he planned to attend the birth.

Kotak said she and her husband will share the details of the birth to their child "over time as an organic process."

"The overall message that we will communicate to the child is that he or she was born in an art gallery because, as artists, that is our sacred space, and in doing this we are telling the world and our child that his or her life is a precious work of art."