Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Performance art: The Lactation Station

Breast feed with Jess Dobkin

HER CUPS RUNNETH OVER. Performance artist Jess Dobkin offers audiences a unique taste test -- human breast milk. Credit: David Hawe

When I first saw Jess Dobkin, she was chewing a huge wad of gum and blowing bubbles out of her ass. I thought, “Where has this woman been all my life?”

Then I met Dobkin at the 2004 Hysteria Festival, during one of her interactive installations — The Confessional. Inside her booth, I was asked to confess my sins (which I won’t repeat here for the sake of the children, although, yes, drugs were involved). As penance, she handed me a pair of google-eyed glasses and told me to have a good look in the mirror. She then made her own confession: She’s Jewish.

The experience, like all of Dobkin’s work, was both funny and unsettling. To confess anything to a stranger, even jokingly, is an intimate act. The piece also drew attention to the performative and shame-focussed aspects of religion, as well as the invisibility of Jewish culture in Christian-dominated North America.

Playing with taboos is one of Dobkin’s main artistic obsessions. After same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada, she created An Ontario Bride Seeks American Wives, where, she says, she “travelled to the US to marry countless people, pets and lamp posts.” She’s also been known to place herself as a full-service washroom attendant in women’s public washrooms.

Now she wants us to drink breast milk. As part of Fado Performance Inc’s Five Holes: Matters Of Taste, Dobkin will ask visitors to the Professional Gallery in the Ontario College Of Art And Design (OCAD) to sample and discuss pasteurized milk from five different women.

“My performances are about a dialogue with the audience, whether in a theatre, a washroom or a shopping mall,” says Dobkin. “I’m compelled by the quality of that engagement, and that for me is where the work is realized. I’m always seeking some kind of exchange, and the possibility of transformation.”

The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar is no different. In contrast to your typical judgment-based taste test, Dobkin’s bar is an opportunity for friendly comparison of taste and texture. Attendees can discuss the milk (and their feelings about trying it) with Dobkin, who will also give an artist talk at the end of the evening.

“A substance that nourishes us in our infancy becomes a curiosity in adulthood,” says Dobkin. “Though many drink it exclusively for the first months of life, the memory of that taste [is] forgotten. I’m also interested in why this nourishing substance is a site of such social discomfort.”

So what does breast milk taste like?

“Each woman’s milk tastes unique, and different at different times. Factors include the woman’s diet and body chemistry. Also, the composition of her milk changes according to the needs of her baby over time. Many say breast milk tastes quite sweet. But to know, you’ll have to taste it for yourself.”

It’s legal for women to go topless in Ontario, but many people still consider the sight of a nursing mother offensive. Only last year, there were complaints at Dufferin Grove Park when a woman breast fed her baby in front of a teenage boy.

Dobkin, who’s also known for her hilarious breast puppet shows, explains what’s so scary about boobs. “Women’s breasts are powerful, as a site of sexual pleasure and in their ability to produce nourishing milk. That power is deeply threatening, so it [needs to be] diminished. I think it is that simple.”

Breasts aside, Dobkin highlights her current struggle to be seen at all.

“It’s been interesting to exist in the world as a single lesbian mother, where people still assume mothers to be married and heterosexual, even though there are so many of us who don’t fit that category. Being a mother has been an identity shift, and also a shift in how I’m often misperceived in public space.”

As part of Lactation Station, Dobkin interviewed the breast milk donors. She was relieved to find others to talk with about motherhood, including its portrayal as easy and blissful.

“My daughter and I had difficulty with breast feeding. I experienced a lot of social and internalized pressure to breast feed, and felt a terrible sense of failure when it became clear we weren’t able to. I was alarmed by the pressures, not just around breast feeding, to live up to an unattainable standard of the perfect mother.”